For The Love of Gaia by Felioness

love of gaia

For the Love of Gaia
By
Felioness

Disclaimer #1: This is a futuristic Uber-Xena work of romantic fiction. The characters of Xena, Gabrielle, Ephiny, Iolaus, Solari and, oh yes, Argo, belong to MCA/Universal, and are used without intent for commercial profits. Author’s copyright does not extend to said characters. The author retains all rights automatically attached to the creation of this work and to the independently created characters. In other words, they’re all MINE!

Disclaimer #2: This story depicts a love/sexual relationship between two consenting adult women. Nothing too graphic, just a PG-13 rating. I’m in this one for the plot ; – ). If you are under 18 years of age or if this type of story is illegal in the state or country in which you live, please do not read it.

Disclaimer #3: Violence warning. This story contains references to abusive behavior necessary for plot development. I’ve tried to keep graphic descriptions to a minimum, but if this sort of thing disturbs you, please stop now.

Disclaimer #4: Apologies and acknowledgment to Gene Roddenberry for the unauthorized loan of food replicators and holo suites. I found them to be rather useful home appliances. To get yours today, call Ronco at 1-888-555-1212.

This story is Book 2 in The Colonization Trilogy. Trying to read this before Book 1, The Amphipolis Expedition, will be like watching The Empire Strikes Back without watching Star Was first. You’ll still understand the main story, but the nuances will be lost.

Special thanks to Barbara Maclay for her dramatic renderings of Commander Xandra Lawless and Dr. Brie O’Conner. To see them for yourself, just click the links or visit Barbara’s Home Page here. Be sure to check out her other delightful Xena artwork.

Also many thanks to my beta readers who tactfully smoothed out all the rough edges.

Dedicated to D.C. (Damn Cat), twenty year companion of my friend Diane.

May you hunt with the Gods.

Chapter 1

April 3, 2251

“Make a wish Sandy, then blow out the candles.”

The child shut her azure eyes tightly and concentrated before taking a breath and blowing furiously at the candles. Having extinguished all four candles in one breath, the little girl raised her smiling face to her mother and asked excitedly, “Can we eat the cake now Mama?”

Brie smiled indulgently at her daughter and said “Yep, and you get to cut the first piece!”

Sandy giggled with pleasure as Brie put the cake knife in her tiny hand and wrapped her own hand around the child’s to guide the knife through the cake. Together they took the first piece and offered it to the tall, dark haired woman seated across the table from them.

Smiling at her family, Xandra took the cake and watched contentedly as the two cut and served the rest of the cake to their many guests. Even after four years, watching her soulmate and their daughter filled Xandra with a sense of wonder. Losing her birth family to the diseases and natural disasters of Earth, she had never expected to find the happiness that she now shared with Brie and Sandy. Briefly she wished that at least her brother Louis had survived to share this joy with her.

Shaking sad thoughts from her mind, she glanced around the terrace of her newly built home and saw the familiar faces of their extended family —— their ‘‘family of choice’. Art Hill and his lifemate Karyn Rose sat together on a low bench, eating their cake and listening intently to something Karyn’s daughter, Amber was telling them. Xandra was amused at the serious expression on the young girl’s face. She had watched Amber grow from a sweet, if demanding, child, into a not-so-sweet, but still demanding pre-teen. She suspected that Amber was wheedling her parents into excusing her from babysitting her younger brother so that she could spend the evening with her friends.

She’ll probably get her way too, Art just can’t say no to that girl. She knew that Art loved his lifemate’s daughter as if she were his own. He was such a soft touch that he spoiled the girl trying to make up for her difficult beginnings. Xandra had explained to him that this might not really be in Amber’s best interests, but he just couldn’t bring himself to be harsh with her. She would probably turn out alright anyway, since Amber’s mother, Karyn, could be counted on to keep her out of trouble. Karyn often said that she could tell exactly what Amber was thinking —— because she’d had the same thoughts growing up and they had led her into bad situations. She was determined that Amber would not have to make the same mistakes.

Amber’s face lit up with a grateful smile and she scampered away, obviously released from her obligations. Karyn was grinning and shaking her head at her partner’s indulgence. Art looked up and caught Xandra’s eyes. Shrugging, he mouthed “What’s a father to do?”

Xandra laughed aloud at his comment and thought that he was probably right. The young on Gaia should be allowed their freedom, since that was why they had all left Earth and followed Xandra to the stars. The failing environment and the loss of personal freedoms had driven Xandra to liquidate her vast personal assets and personally lead their exodus across the galaxy.

The children and youth of the colony were all good kids. Most still remembered the hardships of Earth and how hard they had all worked to leave. Many of them had never really been allowed a childhood before coming to Gaia. The rest were too young to get into any real trouble.

In her haste to leave the party, Amber slammed into Stephanie on the terrace steps, almost knocking them both down. Penny, Stephanie’s lifemate, managed to catch them both before they could tumble down onto the landing.

Xandra was touched at the tender way Penny checked her lover for injury, glaring at the girl who dashed off muttering “Sorry.”

What an unlikely couple. She never thought she’d see anyone break down the defenses of the arctic accountant. Yet, the two seemed to be exceedingly happy together and Penny’s personality had begun to soften over the last four years. You could have knocked Xandra over with a feather the day Penny came to her and asked if she would stand up for her when she and Stephanie joined.

The only one of the original core group still single was Sara Laurence. It didn’t appear to bother Sara one bit —— she liked her freedom. Xandra didn’t know all the details, but she was convinced that Sara had been abused severely as a child. Sara and Brie were on the same medical team and had spent many hours working together in the med lab. Brie never shared their confidential conversations, but her occasional comments and Sara’s somewhat odd behavior had led Xandra to her own conclusions. She had seen many men and women try to charm the tiny brunette with no success. Sara was never rude in her rebuffs, she simply didn’t respond.

Xandra’s eyes settled once more on Brie and Sandy. Leaning back in her chair, she allowed herself to watch mother and daughter laughing, trading bites of their cake. Her mind drifted back to the day Sandy was born and she was warmed by the memories.

Each female member of the expedition had agreed to bear at least three children for the good of the colony. Brie had become pregnant easily and had had almost none of the unpleasant side effects typically experienced by expectant mothers. The only outward indication of her condition early on was the increase in her already voracious appetite. She sailed through the first tri-mester without any morning nausea or dizziness. Xandra had been very protective of Brie at the time, alternating between happiness at their good fortune and fear that fate would once again rob her of that happiness. Brie had been very understanding. Although she had been taking care of herself for many years before she met Xandra, she allowed the other woman to pamper her gracefully.

Later in her pregnancy, she began to chaff at the limits Xandra tried to impose on her. Brie’s moodiness kept Xandra worried that her lover was losing interest in her and in response she became even more restrictive. The two of them had gone in vicious circles until one day they exploded into a shouting match. Thinking back on it , Xandra was still surprised at the way Brie stood up to her. They had thrown accusations at each other for several minutes before Xandra had barked that Brie might as well leave now as later.

Brie had paused and gazed sadly at Xandra. A tear escaped the corner of the young woman’s eye as she asked in a quiet voice “Why are you so sure I’ll leave?”

Xandra had lowered her eyes and muttered “Because I never get to keep anything good and I’d rather you left on your own than be taken from me like everyone else.”

Brie had gathered Xandra in her arms and held her as closely as she could with their daughter growing large between them. “I’ll never leave you my love, not even in death.” They had both been startled by the reassurance, as if it had been said between them before. It didn’t bother them for long though, as their desire bloomed, a natural result of their passionate argument.

In the years that followed, they had often experienced these moments of deja vu. They had only vague memories of their unusual experience when Brie had used her empathic talent to heal Xandra, but they began to associate these moments with the sense of unfamiliar familiarity they had shared during that incident.

The day Sandy had been born was the happiest —— and the most frightening of Xandra’s life. No matter how Sara and even Brie herself had tried to convince her that everything was happening as it should, Xandra was consumed with worry for her partner and their child. Every time a labor pain hit Brie, Xandra wanted to take back their decision to have a child. She felt responsible for the pain Brie was experiencing and swore that obligations to the colony be damned, Brie was never going through this again. If she had to, Xandra would fulfill both of their obligations.

She had alternated between pacing about the room and grasping her lovers hand as she panted through each contraction. Finally, Brie had snapped at her to “keep still, I’m getting tired just watching you.” Xandra had settled in a chair next to the pregnant woman and stared at her in bewilderment. Brie’s eyes were beginning to glaze and she was not making sense any more. Xandra shot a worried look at Sara and the nurse rolled her eyes, explaining that Brie was fully dilated and in transition. She would be irritable and disoriented, but it wouldn’t last long. Soon it would be time to push and she would be coherent again for the actual birth.

Moments later, Sara had Brie in an upright position at the edge of the delivery table as the baby’s head began to crown. Xandra sat behind her to support her straining body. Sara had to raise her voice sharply to bring Brie back to the task at had. “PUSH Brie —— NOW —— PUSH!”

Brie immediately obeyed the authoritative tone in the nurse’s voice and pushed as the baby’s head popped through. “Again Brie —— Push again!”

The strain of pushing so hard was clearing the confusion and exhaustion from Brie’s mind. She pushed again, bearing down with her whole body. Xandra was stunned by the sight of her child’s shoulders emerging from her soulmate’s body. She vaguely heard the nurse command Brie to push one more time and she watched as her daughter was born into a new world.

She held Brie tightly and whispered “It’s a girl.”

With the superior technology the expedition had purchased for genetic manipulation, it was possible for the genes of the two women to produce both male and female offspring. They had tried many times during Brie’s pregnancy to determine the gender of the child with ultrasound scans, but their contrary daughter refused to turn over so they could get a look. There were other tests they could have administered, but they all caused the mother some pain or risk so they decided to be surprised instead.

They both watched as Sara lifted their daughter and lay her on Brie’s belly. Brie lifted her hand and ran a finger over the baby’s cheek and said “Welcome home Sandra Lawless-O’Conner.”

Xandra snapped back to the present as she heard, rather than saw her daughter approach her.

“Mama-too, Mama-too, can I have my presents now?” Xandra smiled at the child’s name for her. It was a game they loved to play. Xandra responded with the expected “Okay Sandra-too, I guess you’ve been patient long enough.”

Xandra looked down into her soulmate’s laughing eyes as they both followed Sandy to the pile of brightly wrapped gifts on one side of the terrace. The look they shared was one of profound love, happiness and more than a little desire. Their peaceful, if challenging, lives had taken some of the urgency from their lovemaking, but the depths of love they felt for each other had only increased with time.

Their friends began to gather around to watch the child open her gifts. The old-fashioned birthday party had been a community effort. Penny had been saving up the ingredients for the birthday cake for weeks and Karyn had made the candles. Xandra had surprised them all by baking the cake herself, none of them had ever gotten used to the idea that their tough commander was also a gourmet cook. Art often teased Brie that she had only bonded with Xandra for her cooking, everyone knew of Brie’s legendary appetite.

Brie and Sara had spent many evenings making and decorating paper to wrap the gifts. Art had built a doll house for the little girl and a treehouse for the tomboy inside her. Many others in the colony had come with gifts of clothing, games and toys from their native lands. All the gifts had been hand made —— except one. After Sandy had worked her way through the entire pile of delightful treats, she looked sadly at her mothers and said “You didn’t get me a present?”

Xandra and Brie smiled at each other as Xandra rose from her seat. “Well, let me see…now where did I put your present?”

Sandy brightened instantly at the teasing tone in her mother’s voice. She watched as Xandra crossed the terrace and went into the house. After a few moments she returned with her hands concealed behind her back. As she approached her daughter, the ‘‘gift’ mewed loudly, ruining the surprise.

Sandy squealed with delight. “You got me a kitty! Let me see, let me see!”

Xandra knew the game was up and she brought her hands forward, cradling the tiny bundle as she knelt so that Sandy could see her prize. Sandy gazed in awe at the small black and white kitten. Reaching out, she gently stroked the soft baby fur and the kitten looked up at her. “He’s got a white mustache Mama-too. It must be a boy kitty.”

Xandra chuckled at the child’s reasoning, glad that the cat was a male. “Yes, its a boy. Would you like to hold him?”

“Yes please.” Sandy was speaking very quietly now. She was used to being gentle and quiet with animals. She had spent many hours with Xandra caring for the colony’s animals and had been napping with Xandra’s giant tabby almost since she was born. “Is he one of Argo’s babies Mama-too? How come he isn’t striped like Argo?”

“He looks like his mother Sandy. All of their kittens look a little different.”

“I look like you, don’t I?”

“Yeah, you do baby, but you ask a lot of questions, just like your other mother.”

As Sandy cradled and talked to her kitten, Brie asked “What are you going to name him Sweetie?’

Sandy looked thoughtful for several moments and replied “Ares.”

Xandra looked momentarily startled, then asked “Why? Where did you hear about Ares?”

“In Mama’s stories, he’s the dark handsome one who lives forever. I never want my kitty to go away.”

Brie looked at Xandra and shrugged. “I’ve been transcribing Bullfinch’s Mythology and I guess I’ve been using some of them as bedtime stories.”

“Ares? For bedtime stories?”

“Well, she’s your daughter. She likes stories with action in them.”

Thinking about Sandy’s last remark, Xandra realized that the child had been upset by the occasional death among the colony’s animals. She’d never been sure that Sandy even understood; she hadn’t really wanted her too. She sadly acknowledged that someday, Sandy would experience the feelings of loss that Xandra so wanted to protect her from. Sandy loved too well and truly not to feel loss, and unfortunately, cats didn’t live forever. She just prayed that the cat would live to a ripe old age and that he was the worst thing Sandy ever lost.

Sandy snuggled the kitten to her shoulder and wandered off to show him to the other children. Xandra watched as she let them look and touch the kitten gently. They had not been sure that Sandy was old enough for a kitten, but apparently they had been worried over nothing. Sandy had inherited Brie’s empathic talent and was unconsciously using that talent to bond with the tiny cat. Little Ares seemed very content in her arms.

Xandra sat in a big woven vine chair and pulled Brie into her lap. “I love you Brie O’Conner.”

As Xandra buried her face in her soulmate’s red-gold hair, she heard Brie’s answer “I love you too Xandra Lawless.”

Breathing in the scent of her lover’s hair, she suddenly remembered her other surprise. Almost shivering, Xandra hugged the secret to herself for just a little longer. Later tonight she would share her happy news with Brie as they talked about their day before sleeping. For now, she just relaxed and cuddled her soulmate as they watched their daughter and her friends.

Chapter 2

Most of the party guests had already left. Karyn and Art had stayed behind to help clean up and had just said their good-nights. As Xandra and Brie watched them walk down the hill to towards their own home, Brie turned to Xandra smiling.

“It was a nice party, wasn’t it? Everyone was so generous…I think they love her almost as much as we do.”

As they drifted away from the door, Brie stopped to pick up a few stray pieces of wrapping paper that the kitten had batted under a table. As she rose, she found herself wrapped in her lover’s arms. Their lips met in a sensual kiss and Brie’s heart trip-hammered. She never would get used to the feelings her lover evoked in her. Sometimes she would become aroused by just watching her move. She had to admit that the presence of a child in their lives had made it more difficult for them to find time to be alone together, but Sandy had been worth every minute of it. Still, Brie was always glad when they were able to put the child to bed and finally give way to the ever-present desire between them.

As Xandra dropped soft kisses along Brie’s jawline, their bodies molded together. Gently nipping at her lover’s ear, the older woman asked “Are you happy?”

Brie lifted her hands to tangle them in Xandra’s silken hair and responded “Deliriously.”

Their lips met in a heated kiss that seemed to go on forever. Brie felt her knees begin to buckle and wrapped her arms around her lover’s waist to steady herself. “God, you feel good.”

Xandra smiled wickedly and responded “Not half as good as you feel. Mmm…” She began to nip and kiss at Brie’s throat. “And you taste wonderful too.”

Lifting Brie into her arms, she crossed the room to the terrace and settled in a chair with her lover snuggled in her lap. They both tipped their heads back and gazed at the night sky. It was a clear night and the stars shimmered above them.

Brie bit her bottom lip and tipped her head to the side as she studied the stars. Pointing up to her right she asked “That one looks like a winged horse, don’t you think?”

Xandra smiled and followed her lovers gaze. “Well, maybe. I think it looks more like a leopard..ya know, with all the extra stars for spots?”

Brie rested her head on her soulmate’s shoulder and sighed contentedly. Although they never agreed, they both enjoyed this game. On Earth, neither of them had seen stars. The atmosphere had been so polluted that there was actually very little difference in day and night. The sky, when one was unfortunate enough to be outside, had appeared to be a constant shade of muddy gray. Day and night were an artificial effect of the bio-domes and life-compounds meant to mimic the rotation of the Earth on its axis.

Brie closed her eyes and breathed in the scent of fresh air mixed with jasmine and woman. She felt safe and loved in Xandra’s arms and, as the excitement of the day caught up to her, she relaxed into a light sleep.

“Wake up, sleepy-head. I have a surprise for you.”

The drowsy woman raised half-lidded eyes to her lover’s face. “Surprise?”

Xandra nodded as she watched Brie struggle back to full awareness. In a quiet voice she answered “Yeah.”

Curiosity peaked, Brie raised her head and gazed into her lover’s breathtaking blue eyes. She caught the seriousness in the dark woman’s expression and asked gently, “Tell me…?”

“Well, you know I’ve been trying the insemination thing since the genetics committee paired me with Stephanie and it just hasn’t worked. I finally asked them if there was anything I could do to improve my chances of getting pregnant and they explained that my body fat ratio was too low. I just wasn’t ovulating. They said that often happens to women athletes and soldiers. Soo…”

“So that’s why you’ve cut back on your workouts. And you’ve been eating more lately. I wondered about that.”

“Thought I was going soft on you, eh?” Xandra chuckled. “Will you still love me when I’m big and fat?”

Xandra watched as confusion, understanding and finally joy crossed her soulmate’s face. When Brie raised questioning eyes to her own, Xandra answered “Yeah, it worked —— I’m pregnant.”

Brie almost jumped off her lovers lap and danced around the terrace in her excitement. Xandra watched her in amusement and relief. She had hoped her lover would be as happy as she was, but this reaction surpassed all expectations.

Finally calming down, Brie leaned over and gently kissed her soulmate. Lifting Xandra’s face so that she could see her eyes, she smiled. “This is the best surprise of all. We’re going to have a baby. And yes I’ll love you when you’re big and fat…as if you could ever be fat. You’re the type that will give birth on her lunch break and be back to work on time.”

Settling back into Xandra’s lap, Brie snuggled close and brushed her lips along Xandra’s smooth throat. “Just how pregnant are you?”

“Two months. But I’ve only been sure a few days.”

Brie looked up with hurt in her eyes and started to speak, but Xandra cut her off. “I know, I know, I should have told you sooner, but I had to have some time to get used to the idea. You’re the first one to know except the committee. They wanted to tell Stephanie right away, but I asked them to give me a few days. I wanted you to know first.”

Xandra felt relieved when Brie’s face relaxed and filled with understanding. “Okay…I think I can understand that. Are you okay with it? I mean…is this what you want?”

“Yeah, it is. I didn’t think so at first. It’s going to interfere with my routine and my responsibilities to the colony. I’m not going to like the process, but I think I’ll be happy with the results. Sandy is the second wonderful thing that’s ever happened in my life. And this time I don’t have to watch you go through all that pain…that was really hard.”

“Humph, and you think it won’t be hard for me to watch you?”

“Yeah, but you’re a doctor, you won’t feel so helpless.”

“That’s true. You know…I could help if you got into trouble. I’ve worked with troubled pregnancies empathically before and…”

Xandra cut her off immediately. “Absolutely not! You remember what happened the last time you tried to connect with me empathically! Don’t even consider it.”

“Actually, I don’t remember exactly…do you?” Brie’s emerald eyes met Xandra’s questioningly.

“Well…not really. I remember a few images and phrases, but nothing I can piece together into anything rational.”

“I can’t recall much more than that either and that’s very unusual. I’ve always been able to remember what happens when I connect. It’s important to know what you fixed so you can monitor the patient’s progress. Sometimes I think that we were both healed by that connection, not a physical healing, more of a spiritual one.”

“Maybe, but I’d rather not go there again if we can avoid it. I felt…really out of control, no —— more like under someone else’s control. It was me, but not me. I know that sounds strange, but…”

Brie interrupted her lover. “No, it sounds exactly like what happened to me. I just don’t understand it and nothing in my training prepared me for that kind of experience.”

“Well, this isn’t a troubled pregnancy. You’re probably right, I’ll give birth on my lunch break. Although after seeing you go through it, I doubt I’ll be back to work on time.”

“Yeah, no sense in borrowing trouble. You’ll be fine, you’re one of the healthiest people I know.” Brie tried to smother a yawn, her eyelids drooping in spite of her efforts.

“You need to get some sleep, love.”

“Can’t hide anything from you, can I?” Brie paused and brushed her fingertips over Xandra’s still firm, flat abdomen. “And you need to get plenty of rest too Little Mama.”

Brie slid from her soulmate’s lap, took both of her hands and tugged gently. With a wicked smile she purred “Let’s go to bed.”

Xandra rose and, wrapping a strong arm around Brie’s slender waist, led her into their sleeping chamber, extinguishing solar globes as they went.

Chapter 3

“I’m just saying that although we currently have plenty of resources and few people, we have to set standards now. Otherwise, in another few hundred years, our descendants will be faced with the environmental destruction of this world too!” Brie paused to catch her breath, her heart beating rapidly with the passion in her speech.

“Look, I know its going to be difficult, but we have to do this. We are better educated than any of our people will be for several generations to come. No matter how we try, the children born on Gaia cannot attain the level of expertise assembled here at this table. And more importantly, anyone born on Gaia will not share our memories of a failing Earth. Only we really understand how awful it was and how important environmental protection is.”

The entire council was mesmerized by the fiery entreaty of the young doctor. They were forced to admit, if only to themselves, that she was right. But what she was asking —— no, demanding —— would be a monumental task. This discussion had been going on for weeks. Placed on every meeting agenda by the relentless young woman, discussed and tabled each time. This time it would seem that she would not be put off again.

Not that the idea wasn’t supported by the council and the colony. They just didn’t know where to begin. Because they had all been used to working with next to nothing, they had no concept of how to limit seemingly limitless resources. Xandra and Brie had spent hours trying to come up with an outline to make the task manageable. It had been difficult, but they believed that they finally had a viable plan of action. It would depend greatly on the full support of each council member.

Brie caught Xandra’s eyes as she spoke again. “I’ve always thought that if we’re not part of the solution, we’re part of the problem. I’m an idea person. Oh, I can follow instructions well enough and do my job, but I’m not a planner —— Councilperson Lawless is. I think she proved that beyond a shadow of a doubt by getting us all here in one piece so that we could sit and have the same debate for weeks. And while we were debating, she has been planning. I think you should hear what she has to say.” Brie turned, theatrically waving her arm toward her soulmate before taking her seat.

Xandra rose and allowed her gaze to move around the room, pausing to make eye contact with each council member. “When each of you signed on for this expedition, you agreed to abide by certain principles. Now I imagine, you find yourselves confronted with what you believe to be endless resources. How much easier it would be to put off this task for a future generation. But the doctor is right. Future generations will not understand the true meaning of environmental impact.

“In this room we have the very best of several fields of endeavor. Additionally, the colony’s general population boasts the finest minds Earth had to offer. I challenge you to use these resources to the fullest. You’ve all participated in environmental impact studies back on Earth. I’m merely suggesting that you approach our situation in the same manner.”

“We’ll have to handle this on a case by case basis until we have more experience under our belts. I’m not saying that we ignore the resources around us and let the colony fall back into the dark ages. Without our guidance, even a primitive society could do irreparable harm to an eco-system. Remember that some of the earliest agrarian societies cleared the land with a slash and burn technique —— not exactly environmentally sound.”

“I’ve drafted an outline of procedures that I recommend for each case we examine and have downloaded a copy to each of you. Please review it with an open mind and make suggestions. Remember, I’m a planner and problem solver, not a scientist. I’m counting on you to tell me what will and won’t work. I would appreciate it if you would forward your comments to me as soon as possible and be prepared to discuss a final version at our next meeting —— I suspect it will be a long one. Now I suggest that we finish today’s agenda and adjourn to think about solutions.”

Xandra cast another searching look around the room to gauge the response of her audience. Satisfied with their inspired expressions, she sat, effectively turning control of the meeting back to the facilitator Sara Laurence.

“Well, I suppose we’d better wrap it up and get busy with our assignment.” There was wry humor in Sara’s voice as she spoke to the group. “The last, and I might add, also over-discussed, item on the agenda is the disposition of the Sleepers. This problem has also been on our agenda much too long. In light of the more pressing issues in front of the council, I recommend that we table this issue until such time as basic environmental precautions have been enacted.”

Sara’s suggestion was met with relief by the entire council. One sticky problem at a time was enough. Besides, the Sleepers weren’t going anywhere anytime soon. The discussion was quickly tabled and the meeting adjourned.

Smiling, Karyn Rose approached her friend Brie. “Well, you finally nagged them into listening. Giving them the outline to review was a stroke of brilliance. As scientists, they’ll all rise to the challenge and be immersed in the process before they realize what happened.”

“The nagging was me, but planning and getting them to buy in —— that was Xandra.” Pride in her lover’s accomplishment shone clearly in Brie’s face. “She’s so charismatic. When she gets that tone in her voice, no one can resist her.” Especially me.

“We’re lucky to have you both to keep us focused. They all know what we have to do, they just can’t figure out how to start. You’ve done that for them.” Karyn paused and glanced over her shoulder. Art had completed his conversation with Xandra and Stephanie and was prepared to go. “Gotta run, Art promised Amber she could help him in the lab this afternoon. That means I get to spend a few hours alone with the baby.”

Brie stood deep in thought as she waited for Xandra to speak with each of the council members. Already her mind was working on their next problem, what were they going to do about the Sleepers?

Xandra finally worked her way to Brie and laid a hand on her arm. The young woman raised shining emerald eyes to her partner and smiled. “You were wonderful, as usual.”

“Thanks.” Xandra returned the smile. “Ready to go?”

“Yeah. What are you doing after lunch?”

“Thought I’d go work with the birds for a few hours. Think Sandy’ll want to come along?”

“Of course she will, she’d do anything to spend time with you and besides, she loves your birds.”

“What do you have planned?”

“Well, Sara is coming over and we’re going to work on Albert Camus’ The Myth of Sisyphus and Other Essays.”

Xandra rolled her eyes. “More of that high-brow stuff. Do you really understand it?”

Brie laughed. “Actually, you don’t really understand Camus, you ponder it.”

“Well, I hope you’re not using that for bedtime stories. Although it’s probably guaranteed to put anyone to sleep.”

“No, I told you, your daughter prefers action stories. We’re still working on Greek Mythology. After that I think I’ll teach her about great leaders. Maybe start with tales about Alexander the Great, Cleopatra and Julius Caesar.” Brie tipped her head up to look at Xandra in time to glimpse an odd expression cross her face. For a moment Brie shivered at the cold-emptiness in her partner’s eyes.

“Alexander the Great and Cleopatra are fine, but don’t bother with Caesar. His politics were something I hope to never see on this world.” Xandra’s voice was low and dangerous.

“Okay.” Brie paused, not quite understanding Xandra’s reaction. “But you know what they say, those who don’t understand history are doomed to repeat it.”

Xandra shook off the strange feeling. “You’re right. Forget I said anything. I don’t know where that came from anyway. I just got this cold feeling when you said his name.”

“Another deja vu moment?”

“No…yes…maybe, I don’t know. Lets just forget it, okay?”

Brie’s stomach chose that moment to remind her that she was late for lunch. “Okay. Let’s go eat.” Xandra smiled at her lover as they linked hands and wandered over to the communal kitchens for their midday meal.

The chamber had opened on it’s own, an apparent system malfunction. The chamber’s occupant was very ill, the failing cryo system taking its devastating toll on his body. He was only vaguely aware of his surroundings, his mind occupied with various evil hallucinations. Alarms were sounding all around him, but there was no one to answer their call. He was the only person awake on this damnable ship, there was no one to help him. All odds said that he would die there, alone and unattended, but his own determination envisioned a different ending to this scenario. This wasn’t a disaster, it was a gift. By the grace of a computer malfunction, he was free.

Now he had only to hold on and survive.

Chapter 4

It was a glorious spring afternoon. The scent of sun warmed grass in the pasture and the stirring of a light breeze made perfect conditions for working with the birds. Xandra had learned her falconry skills back on earth under artificial conditions. One of her teachers had been involved in the preservation of North American predatory birds. Xandra had always been fascinated with natural history and when she learned that her teacher provided a home for several of these magnificent hunters of old, she begged until he allowed her to visit his home.

Instantly falling in love with the proud relics of the last century, Xandra spent many hours helping and learning from her mentor. Now she used those skills to try and adapt the several species of hawks, falcons, owls and eagles that they had included in their endangered cargo to their new home. Actually, it was more basic than that. These birds had all been bred and born in captivity and she was required to teach them to hunt for themselves.

More than seventy years before their expedition had left Earth, most of these species had been eradicated due to pollution and habitat destruction. The few remaining specimen of these grand birds had been consigned to sanctuaries like that of her teacher for their own survival. The birds they had brought with them to Gaia were born of many generations of captivity. They still had the instinct to hunt, but not the skills…and no other birds to learn from.

Having never actually released a captive predatory bird, Xandra had to rely on basic falconry skills, her mentor’s notes and the research library she had brought with her. She was transcribing these manuals in her spare time. Sometimes in the evenings when it was quiet, she and Brie sat across the table from each other as each worked on their transcriptions. She was much slower than Brie, but then she didn’t have as much material to worry about.

Today, she would not be working any of the birds. She usually worked with a partner when training and Sandy was her partner today. She was much too small to handle the huge birds, although she loved to watch when Xandra did. No, today she would bring them all out to weather in the afternoon sun while she cleaned the mews.

“Stay here Sandy, I’ll be out with Hercules in just a minute.”

Slipping the gauntlet over her left hand, she unlatched the door of the first enclosure and stepped inside, opening the door only enough to allow her own entrance.

Closing the door behind her and latching it from inside, she allowed her eyes to adjust to the darkness before moving into the small space. The wood and lattice enclosure measured a minimal eight feet by eight feet, but the ceiling was over ten feet high. Most of space inside was taken up by a series of perches, placed at different heights and offset from each other. A low screech of recognition greeted her as her vision returned to normal and she saw the young male Red Tail Hawk hopping from one foot to the other at the back of the enclosure.

Making low noises in her throat, she tried to calm the testy bird. “Calm down now Hercules, you’re going to like this, I promise.”

Relaxing all of the tension from her body, she moved slowly toward the bird, knowing that he would sense any anxiety on her part. Murmuring comfortingly, she placed one of the jesses between her teeth as she used her ungloved hand to slip the first jess through the grommet in the bird’s leggings. Within seconds, she had the other jess in place.

She smiled at how easy this had become and remembered learning this skill from her teacher. Then it had seemed to take forever, often reducing her to a full sweat before she could successfully accomplish the task.

Placing her gloved fist behind and above the bird’s taloned feet, she pressed forward, encouraging the hawk to step up and back onto her fist. With her free hand, she slipped the ends of the jesses under her thumb and smoothly brought him up and over the perch and toward the door.

Stepping into the sun, she paused again, this time to allow the hawk to adjust to the sunlight. Sandy sat quietly on a large rock a few feet from the mews. She was familiar with this routine, having accompanied her mother on many occasions. It was one of her favorite places. A thoughtful child, she appreciated learning all about these birds and had learned much from Xandra already.

Xandra hummed softly as she took the hawk to his perch in a partially shaded area she used in the afternoons. As she walked, she knotted Hercules’ jesses around a metal ring so that she would be able to attach him by a short leash to his perch. This would allow him to move in and out of the sun at will, while keeping him from escaping prematurely.

As she lowered the hawk to the weathering perch, he spread his wings to maintain his balance. She marveled for the thousandth time at the beauty of this creature. Hercules was very healthy, his feathers shone with the natural oils that protected him from rain and wetness. His wingspread was approximately four feet and his magnificent tail had taken on the red color of a second-year Red Tail Hawk.

Hercules was quickly learning to hunt for himself. He’d already mastered the lure and had moved onto hunting from the fist in the enormous aviary Xandra had built for that purpose. Soon she would release him, but would provide a rehab box for him to initially use as a nest. Every few days she would leave food there for him. Not enough to really take the edge off his hunger and reduce his need to hunt, but enough to see that he survived while he made the final transition to freedom.

Moving back to the mews to remove the other resident birds, she thought back on her initial failures and her more recent successes with these endangered animals. She had taken each loss personally. Each had made her more determined than ever to learn from her mistakes and come up with successful rehab and release programs for each of these species. Fortunately for her, the wildlife sponsors of the expedition had provided her with several pairs of breeders for each species. Their proven reproductive abilities in a captive setting made them perfect for the colonial expedition.

Zoologists’ evaluation of the surrounding forests and meadows indicated an environment perfect for the survival of her birds. The area was teeming with small, native rodents and the introduction of aerial hunters would assist in controlling their numbers.

Lost in thought, she moved each of the birds to its own perch in the weathering area. By the time she was finished, Sandy had already begun to sweep the first enclosure with a short-handled broom Xandra had made so that she could feel like she was really helping. Xandra had to admit that the child was actually making some progress on the floor of the mews.

Taking a bucket of clear water and citrus oil in one hand and a brush in the other, Xandra joined her daughter and began scrubbing the wooden walls of the enclosure. They worked in companionably silence for several minutes. Xandra’s shoulders rippled as she attacked the splattered walls with long hard strokes of the brush. Smiling to herself, she wondered how long Sandy could keep quiet.

As they moved on to the next enclosure, Sandy was close to bursting with the need to speak. She raised pleading eyes to her mother and Xandra smiled indulgently. “You can talk now baby, the birds can’t hear us much from here.”

Sandy began telling Xandra about her day at school, chattering incessantly. Xandra devoured each word with pleasure. She loved hearing her small daughter talk. She delighted in watching her grow and learn to think for herself. Xandra was grateful every day that Sandy had no fears —— no nightmares. She slept the sleep of the innocent and lived the days of her childhood under the watchful eye of her parents and the rest of the colony.

Xandra worked up a light sweat, careful not to over do it. She was mindful of the new life growing inside her. Soon she would have to suspend her martial arts training, but she would continue with Tai Chi to retain her mobility and balance of mind.

The mildness of the day, the simplicity of her task and the musical quality of her daughter’s voice lulled her into a peaceful state of mind. Now she knew what it was to be truly happy.

Fading in and out of consciousness, the man was racked with tremors as his body struggled to adjust to the abrupt change in temperature. All of his muscles were rigid with cold and his heart was straining to pump heated blood into his arteries. Only one thought ran through his mind. Over the last few hours, it had become a mantra, pulling him back from the clutches of death. His cracked lips moved, chanting the same words over and over. The words echoed back to him in the silence of his mind —— Revenge…Retribution, Revenge…Retribution.

Chapter 5

Brie sat at her desk and reached for her journal. She and Sara had just spent the last few hours working on their transcriptions. She smiled, remembering how ambitious they had been when planning the list of literary works they would bring from Earth to their new home. They had wanted to be sure that nothing of value would be lost to the colony and its future generations.

It was a race against time. Their literary library was currently housed in a computer database. They needed to transcribe everything before their computer technology failed. After four years of diligent work they were up to the ‘Cs’. At this rate, it would take another 45 years or so to finish the monumental task they had taken on. Of course, there weren’t that many authors names beginning with Q, X or Z, but there was really quite a lot of work left to do. Brie chewed on the end of her pen as she considered whom they might enlist to help with the task. Surely there was someone who wouldn’t mind helping out.

Brie decided that she would ask Xandra about it. No one knew the colonists like Xandra did. Before accepting any applicant for the colonial expedition, Xandra had interviewed each one. With her photographic memory, she could recall each name, face and many details of their lives. Xandra would know which of the colonists shared her love of literature enough to help her complete her task.

Sighing, she glanced out the window. It would be a few hours yet before dark and she knew that her lifemate and their daughter would stay with their beloved birds until the last light of day faded from the sky. This time to herself was rare and she decided to use it wisely. Opening her journal she began to write.

April 4, 2251

Sandy’s birthday party was a smashing success. All the guests seemed to have a good time and Sandy received many lovely gifts. But I think I got the best gift of all when Xandra told me she was pregnant! I know she has been feeling inadequate. It has been six months since she was selected for pregnancy. The genetics committee was so excited about the potential of a child born with Xandra and Stephanie’s genes that the pressure seemed even greater.

Xandra has always been good at everything she tries to do. To think herself a failure in this important area must have caused her a lot of pain. I tried to be supportive, but nothing I could say helped. I got pregnant so easily; it seemed a shame for it to be so hard for her. And of all the reasons……you’d think someone on that committee could have told her what the problem was earlier. The thought had crossed my mind, but no one told me she wasn’t ovulating. If I’d known that was the problem, I could have helped her change that months ago.

Well, the important thing now is to be there for her and help her. Sandy has been such a delight for us; another baby can only bring more joy. I wonder if it will be a boy or a girl? Will it look more like Xandra or Stephanie? Not that any of that matters, a new life in a new world, what could be more important. I know Xandra is pleased. For her to be willing to get ‘big and fat’ as she put it, she must really want this baby.

This morning’s council meeting was a huge success. Karyn was right, it had been a stroke of brilliance to give them a plan to fine-tune. Of course, Xandra had known what she was doing. She is such a good judge of people and what motivates them. We’d have never gotten this far without her guidance.

I am concerned about some of the other issues before the council. We need to do something about the Sleepers as soon as possible. Those cryo chambers are good, but they have been known to fail. I can’t help remembering what happened to Amber’s chamber during the journey from Earth. What if one of the chambers failed again? Most likely the person would die, but what if they survived long enough to wake some of the others. It would be a disaster to have them awake and in possession of the Artemis. With all the firepower aboard that ship, we wouldn’t stand a chance against them. We download and review the ship’s logs every cycle, but a lot can happen in four days. We could be setting ourselves up for real trouble.

The genetics committee seems to be getting out of hand. Last cycle they proposed to the council that we selectively breed for psychic talents. At first, it seemed like a good idea. But I’ve had time to think it over and now the concept worries me. Admittedly, some of the talents that have appeared in the human population over the last hundred years or so have turned out to be very valuable. My own empathic talent has saved many lives when traditional medical techniques offered no solutions. But the percentage of naturally occurring psychic talent in Earth’s general population was very small, perhaps for good reasons. Selectively breeding for empaths, telepaths and telekinetics makes some sense –– in limited numbers! I don’t think even the committee can find a good reason to breed for pre-cog’s. That talent is seen as more of a curse than a gift, and rightly so. Who really wants to know their own future, the time and reason for their own death? This kind of knowledge has caused many pre-cogs to commit suicide or die prematurely due to carelessness.

I guess both of these problems will have to wait until we can deal with the environmental control issues. I get so impatient with how slowly things seem to move. Xandra assures me that it is the nature of the beast, anything done by a committee takes much longer than if the same task were given to an individual. The up side is that we get the benefit of nine different perspectives before making any decisions that could effect the colony for generations to come.

Despite the challenges we face every day, I am very happy. I am doing the work that is most important to me. Where else could I use both my medical and archivist skills? Where else could I have a child with the woman I love……or any other woman for that matter? Where else could I have my own home, with my own family? I thank whatever Gods there might be every day for these gifts. When my family died of the plague, I never thought I’d be happy again. Xandra, Gaia, Sandy and our many friends have made my dreams come true.

Brie smiled as she leaned back in her seat to wait for the ink to dry on the page before closing her journal. I am truly happy, she thought.

Fading in and out of consciousness, the man knew his time was growing short. He had to get help or else his dreams of vengeance would die with him. Struggling for control of his now unresponsive body, he managed to push himself into a sitting position. Teetering on the edge of the cryo chamber bed, he stumbled to his feet as the room spun uncontrollably. His vision was blurred, but he managed to make out another sleep chamber just a few feet away. Unable to walk, he slid to the floor and crawled toward the second chamber, activating the controls before collapsing in a heap on the floor, unconscious once more.

The young woman awoke slowly, not sure of where she was. The sound of alarms greeted her as she tried to sit up. Breathing deeply, she took her time and allowed her body to acclimate before trying to move again. Blinking moisture back into her eyes, she tried to determine where she was. Memory returned almost the same time as her vision cleared and she spied the man lying on the floor at her feet.

A feral smile crossed her face as she recognized him. “Well, Daddy, I guess you need me this time. But why should I help you, you son of a bitch?”

Studying her father, Arianna DuMonte immediately recognized the signs of cryo sleep disease. His skin was a blue-white tone and had lost all elasticity. His breathing was labored and erratic. Reluctantly touching her fingers to his paper thin skin, she felt his throat and found a faint heartbeat. He was weakening and she knew that without treatment her father would die. While the thought brought her unexpected joy, another part of her knew that she couldn’t let that happen. Her medical training was so intertwined with her empathic need to help others that she was unable to judge their worthiness to live. She was bound by her oath and her principles to help even this man who had made her life a living hell.

Taking a few deep breaths, she slid off the cryo chamber bed and stumbled to the replicator. Selecting a revitalizing drink, she sank into a chair behind the computer console and assessed the situation. It seemed that her father’s chamber had failed almost twelve hours ago. She was going to have to get some nourishment and fluids into him soon, or nothing else would do any good. He was so far gone that she immediately rejected the idea of making empathic contact with him, secretly glad that she didn’t have to touch him in this way.

Arianna hated her father. She had only joined him in this mission because she hated Xandra Lawless almost as much. If Xandra had not broken her promise to the little girl that Arianna had been those many years ago, Aaron DuMonte would not have been able to abuse her over and over. It was Xandra’s fault that her father had been dismissed from military service. It was Xandra’s fault that Arianna’s mother had killed herself from the shame and it was Xandra’s fault that Arianna had become the victim of her father’s cruelty for nearly ten years. Xandra had promised to come back for her and she never came.

Now, with the battle for the planet lost, Arianna would help him again. This time not out of hate, but out of fear for what would become of her if she didn’t. The idea of spending the next hundred years or more as a popsicle was definitely not appealing. She knew that the colonists held them all responsible for the attack on the planet. They had not known what to do with the survivors of her father’s crew and so had put off dealing with them by placing them all in cryo- sleep. Once they realized that the chambers had begun to fail, they would have to come up with an alternative and that too frightened Arianna. She was beginning to regret ever getting involved with her father again.

Sighing in her frustration, she rose more steadily this time and set about the task at hand. He might die anyway, but she would do everything medically possible to see that he lived. She’d worry about the future later, that is if she had one to look forward to.

Chapter 6

Aaron DuMonte was an evil man. He knew it and relished it with every breath, every beat of his malevolent heart. He enjoyed being cruel and never once worried about the repercussions of his behavior. Believing that he had been born to a purpose, he felt vindicated in his actions, no matter who they hurt. His family had abandoned him as a child and he had been raised by the government. It had been only natural to join the military at an early age.

He was extremely intelligent and dangerously charismatic. Unparalleled in strategic planning, he had been elevated in rank time and time again over the years, furthering his career at every opportunity. That was how he ended up marrying Arianna’s mother. She was the daughter of a very influential general, a member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

Carla Willard DuMonte had been a lovely, delicate young woman. Just the kind he delighted in dominating. She had thought to leave him early in their marriage after discovering what he was really like, but her history of mental instability helped Aaron convince her father that she had once again become unbalanced. Her tales of his cruelty fell on deaf ears. She got no help from her family and Aaron threatened to keep their daughter, Arianna, if Carla insisted on divorce.

She loved her daughter more than anything in life and so Carla had stayed. Aaron punished her repeatedly over the following years for her perceived disloyalty. Each time she thought she could stand no more, she persevered for her tiny daughter. When Carla had reached the point where she no longer cared if she lived to see another day, Aaron began to threaten her with cruelty to Arianna if she left and so she stayed.

When Xandra had exposed Aaron’s illegal activities, Carla had thought she would finally be free, but her family again abandoned her. They were afraid that they would be guilty by association if they helped her in any way. Finally Carla could take no more. One evening three weeks after Aaron’s court marshal, Carla kissed Arianna good night. She begged her daughter to never forget how much she loved her, then she calmly ascended the stairs to the roof of their penthouse apartment and walked off the edge, falling twenty stories to her death.

As Carla ended her incarceration, Arianna’s began. Aaron was as deviant as a father as he was in everything else. The evening after Carla’s funeral, Aaron had gone to his eight-year old daughter and informed her that since her mother had left them, she would have to take her place in all things. That night, as terror consumed Arianna, she was cruelly victimized by her father. And it was only the beginning.

Arianna spent several months waiting for her friend Xandra to come and rescue her. Xandra had become her favorite playmate during the years that she had worked with Arianna’s father. Once, when she had suspected that Aaron was beating his wife, Xandra had promised Arianna that if she was ever in trouble and needed help, Xandra would come for her. But now she waited and waited, enduring her father’s every cruel whim –– and Xandra never came.

After a few years of the constant abuse, Arianna’s hopes of rescue were abandoned, replaced with hatred for the woman who had broken her promise. She kept silent about her father’s behavior since she knew it could get worse. After all, look what had happened to Mama. Arianna hated Aaron, but she wanted to live. She was never so happy as the day she tested positive as an empath and was accepted into medical school. Her intelligence and empathic skills had rescued her when nothing else could.

Now she was once again confined with the man who had driven her mother to suicide and ruined Arianna’s chances of a normal partnership with another human being. After all the years of Aaron’s abuse, Arianna could hardly stand to be touched. She avoided contact whenever possible, only touching others when treating their illnesses and injuries.

She wanted desperately to escape before he regained consciousness, but there was nowhere to go. It was the ship and her father or the planet and Xandra. After the attack on the colony, she had no illusions of sympathy or assistance from the colonists.

Overwhelmed by the hopelessness of her situation, Arianna leaned against the wall for support. Tears slipped from the corners of her violet eyes and slid down pale cheeks. Her knees weakened at the thought of being alone with Aaron again. At least on the Avenger, with a full crew, they had never really been alone. No longer able to stand, she slid down the wall and, cradling her head in her hands, she began to sob in earnest.

Ascending the long path into consciousness, he slowly became aware of the sounds and smells around him. Aaron had never spent much time in medical facilities, but was able to recognize the sounds of the monitoring equipment attached to his emaciated body. Opening his dark eyes, he experienced a sharp pain in his head in response to the bright lights of the med lab. He narrowed his eyes and breathed deeply, smiling in satisfaction. He had survived. Judging by the professional way he had been treated, he had a good idea who had awakened to help him. The question he was considering now was why.

Why? Arianna was the only doctor among his crewmembers and she would have loved to see him dead. Well, he’d soon have an answer to that. Trying to move was impossible. He must be weaker that he thought. Then he noticed that he was secured to the table with restraining straps. Smiling grimly, he realized that his daughter did not trust him. “Wise little girl, you managed to learn a few things in spite of yourself.”

“DuMonte.” The flat tone in Arianna’s voice revealed nothing.

Aaron’s voice cracked as he attempted to answer her. “What kind of greeting is that for your dear old dad?”

“Dear?……absolutely not. Old?……perhaps, that remains to be seen. Dad?……only to my great misfortune. Actually, you’re lucky that I took an oath to preserve life. As it is, I was strongly reconsidering the wisdom of that oath……in your case.”

“Arianna my dear, surely you don’t mean that……?”

“Every word and more. Now let’s drop pretenses and get down to business. You’re awake and alive. I’m awake and alive. We’ve been asleep four years. The colony is prospering and expanding. They appear to monitor activity on this ship every four days. Your chamber failed 72 hours ago. That information will automatically be downloaded to the planet in another 24-hours along with data confirming that my chamber thaw was activated as well. They know who’s in each chamber; there’s a roster in the records, so they’ll know that it’s you and me. I’ve tried to alter the records, but I’m locked out of their computer system……we have read-only access. When they find out that we’re awake, they’ll come after us. Since your cryo chamber failed, they may reconsider keeping us in cryo-sleep……they may decide that we aren’t worth the risk and just get rid of us permanently. That’s the only reason I helped you. Something about the devil you know being better than the devil you don’t know. What are we going to do?”

“Arianna my dear, if you’ll just release these straps……”

“No way. You tell me what to do and I’ll do it. You aren’t going anywhere.” Arianna set her jaw firmly and stared into his cold dark eyes. This time she wasn’t the first to look away. That in itself was a small victory.

Aaron considered their situation for a moment before responding. It appeared that his daughter had finally come into her own. Maybe he could sway her to his way of thinking. It was worth thinking about, but some other time. They had to have a plan……and soon.

“Have it your way Arianna, but surely you can trust me enough to loosen the restraints. I am very weak and they are rather uncomfortable.”

“Too bad, you’ve made me much more than uncomfortable in the past. I have no sympathy. The only reason you’re alive is I need your expertise. If you refuse to cooperate, I’ll just space you.” She smiled evilly. “Actually, that could be a lot of fun. Just give me a reason you fucking bastard and I’ll do it in a heartbeat.” The tone of her voice turned flat. “You see, you’re tied down because I’m an intelligent, cautious woman, not because I’m afraid of you. There’s nothing left that you can do to hurt me. It’s already been done.

Now……you can help me figure out what to do or you die. I can just see your face as you try to breathe in the vacuum of space. Your eyes will pop first, and then your veins will burst from the pressure, splattering your vile blood across space. Finally, and you’ll still be alive to feel it, your internal organs will implode one by one. It should be an excruciatingly painful way to die.”

Aaron considered the young woman carefully before responding. “You couldn’t do it.”

“Oh, I think you underestimate me Daddy dearest. Remember, I may be Carla’s daughter, but I’m your daughter too. Never forget that. Now, what’ll it be?” Arianna’s face was expressionless as she waited for his answer.

“Alright, we need to get as much information as we can about the colony and especially Xandra.”

“Already done. There’s not too much on the colony. Apparently they’ve only uploaded basic records to this computer. Mostly marriage, birth and death records.”

“That won’t be much help. Anything specific about Xandra?”

“She has married and they have a daughter, that’s all I know.”

A slow smile spread across his face, turning to guttural laughter. “That’s all we need. Now I know how to get to her. I have to be able to move……get my strength back. If you want to win, get these straps off me and help me get up.”

When Arianna hesitated Aaron barked “Don’t be stupid girl…I’m not going to hurt you, soon I’ll have Xandra and she’ll be more fun that you ever were.” Aaron paused a moment to regain his composure. In a placating tone he continued. ” Now help me up, we’ve got work to do.”

Chapter 7

The docking bay doors opened slowly, revealing the activated fighter hovering in the bay. As soon as the clearance would allow, the fighter shot out of the belly of the giant starship and towards the nearest of three moons. Moving erratically, the fighter played hop-scotch in the shadows of the moons, camouflaging its position, waiting for the inhabited hemisphere of the planet to rotate away from their location. When it was sure that the early warning systems on the planet were out of range, the fighter deployed atmosphere wings and descended toward the planet’s surface.

Sandy and the other children gathered beside the communal kitchens, chattering excitedly. Today they were going on a field trip, rather a literal name for their outings in the wilds of Gaia. Many of the children remembered school field trips on Earth. They went to museums, libraries and historical buildings, but they never went outside to explore the wonders of nature. Sadly, the only wonder of nature remaining on Earth when they left was the survival of mankind. By now, 50 years later, even mankind could be extinct.

Twenty-five children from the same family cooperative made up the group. Eight adults would accompany them today as teachers and chaperones. Two or three of the adults were discretely armed with projectile weaponry. Although they were reasonably sure of the safety of the group, there were some unpredictable predators on the planet that might instinctively choose one of the children as a target. Best to be prepared for all eventualities.

Neither of Sandy’s parents were able to get away to participate in today’s picnic. Sandy was a little disappointed, but she was used to her mothers’ important work. Anyway, her friend Amber and her mother were going along and she was looking forward to playing in the lake with them. Karyn had been teaching her to swim and she wanted a chance to get better at it before showing off her new skill to her mothers.

It was a beautiful spring morning, warmer than usual for this time of year. As they set out on the path to the lake, Sandy looked up over the tall trees to her left. The sky was a clear blue with a few puffy white clouds lazily floating past, driven by the gentle breeze. The grass and trees were full of new growth that had burst forth over the last few cycles in a brilliant, shining green. Wildflowers bloomed in brilliant colors, scattered wildly across the meadows. The grass sparkled with early morning dew and the air was moist and clean.

When the group reached the lake, the children stripped and ran into the cold, clear water, squealing their shock and delight. Splashing and chasing each other, the children reminded Karyn of a pod of young dolphins playing tag.

She smiled as she stripped off her own clothing and entered the lake more slowly, trying to adjust to the frigid water at her own pace. The only adults to stay on the shore were the three guards. Even though they were supposed to watch over the children, they became lax in the warmth of the day and began to watch the antics of the children in the water rather than the clearing’s perimeter.

No one noticed the watchers from the shadows. Four years of living in a secure environment had made the colonists complacent. Until today, nothing on the planet had presented a danger that they couldn’t handle. That was about to change.

After a few hours of play in the cold waters of the lake, the parents called the children to shore to eat their lunch. Wrapping each child in a large, fluffy towel made from their own cotton plants, the adults guided them to the blankets spread on the grass and began to serve them bread, cheese and fruit. The icy, clear water of the lake was served as their beverage.

When they had eaten, the younger children settled in for a nap, while some of the adults took the older children on a nature walk. As one of the colony’s best horticulturists, Karyn was the leader of the nature walk along with Gina DiLuca, a zoologist. Together with nine of the children, they headed off into the forest, away from the settlement.

As they moved further into the forest on a well trodden path, the watchers monitored their progress, waiting for them to be well away before striking their target in the group left behind. As they waited for the perfect time, the younger children settled in for a nap, curled tightly in a group like a litter of puppies. The adults arranged themselves on the perimeter of the circle and seated themselves cross-legged to wait. Before long, most of the adults had been lulled into sleep by the quiet warmth of the afternoon.

The two dark figures were about to act when they noticed movement in the circle. One of the children was detaching themself from the group and heading toward the forest. As the child came closer, one of the figures laughed long and low.

“That’s the one…it has to be, it looks so much like her. And so considerate too, coming to us.”

As the little girl entered the forest, she felt a hand on her shoulder. “Rats,” she thought, “Caught again. I want to go with Amber.” Turning to face her captor, she was surprised to see a tall, dark, bearded man with eyes the color of the shiny black marbles she’d gotten for her birthday. Realizing that she didn’t know this man, she opened her mouth to ask his name. Thinking the child would scream and give away their presence, the man stuffed a rag in her open mouth and lifted her under his arm. As he began to move away, the child realized something was wrong and began to struggle. The second shadow followed the first, head lowered in thought.

Today was a regular work day. Each cycle, the colonists worked two full days, performed community service one day and enjoyed the forth day for recreation or family cooperative obligations. Brie spent her work days in the med lab. Most of her patients were the pregnant women of the colony who were monitored daily for progress and to detect any problems as soon as they appeared. Her community service days were split between council meetings and transcribing Earth’s literature.

Xandra’s community service also included half days in council meetings, but the remainder of her community service days were spent rehabilitating the birds of prey. She really spent far more time with the birds than that. Half a day in four was simply not enough to accomplish her goals. Her work days were spent in the administrative offices of the colony.

Having been the colony’s main benefactor and the expedition’s commander made her the best suited among them to see to the day-to-day running of the colonial structure. Her staff consisted of Penny Baker, once Quartermaster turned controller, and a representative from each of the sciences and art guilds. These groups had taken to calling themselves guilds, after the tradesmen of old on Earth. They felt that was a fitting description of their function in the new society.

Xandra was engrossed, studying the information on her computer screen. She had been receiving responses from the other council members through the network since early this morning. Not surprisingly, they had all embraced the task and had produced an amazing quantity of information and opinion. At the moment, she was trying to put the feedback in some semblance of order as a basis for a second draft of the document to be discussed at the next council meeting.

Stephanie burst into her office without knocking, breathing heavily from exertion.

Xandra looked up, her mind still occupied with her task. Noting the serious look on Stephanie’s face and her labored breathing, Xandra snapped back from her concentration.

“What’s wrong?”

“We just reviewed this cycle’s downloads from the Artemis. One of the cryo-chambers failed just after the last download.”

Xandra frowned uneasily. “Poor bastard probably died of cryo-sleep disease. What a way to go.”

“That’s what I thought too at first. Twelve hours after the failure, another chamber’s thaw mechanism was triggered.”

“Damn. That’s what I was afraid of.”

“There’s more…” Xandra’s head snapped up, her eyes locking with those of her second. “Sometime last night a fighter was launched from the Artemis and entered Gaia’s atmosphere. I downloaded all logs to the current hour and it hasn’t returned to the starcruiser yet. Whoever they are, they’re still landside.”

Just then Xandra heard a commotion in the hallway outside her office. As the noise came closer, she recognized Brie’s voice raised in fear and anger.

“Dammit, I don’t care who she’s with, I have to see her NOW!

Xandra nodded to Stephanie, who turned and opened the door. Brie shot into the room and into Xandra’s arms like a heat seeking missile. Tears streamed down her face as she sought Xandra’s eyes. Panic filled the older woman as she waited to hear what her lover had to tell her.

“She’s gone…lost. No one saw her leave the clearing. They looked and looked and they can’t find her. Oh God, Xandra, Sandy’s missing.”

In the next few hours, Xandra was forced to deal with both problems. She secretly feared that they were actually one in the same, but as of yet she had no proof. Search parties were organized to search for their daughter. Brie was incensed that Xandra did not personally lead the search and Xandra didn’t tell her why. She didn’t want to terrify her lifemate unless she had to.

Stephanie continued to monitor the Artemis’ logs and Xandra mentally prepared herself for the worst scenario. Just a few hours after sunset, Stephanie confirmed that the fighter had returned to the starcruiser. Minutes later the message that Xandra had most feared arrived.

Aaron DuMonte was awake. He and his accomplice had kidnapped Xandra’s daughter and were willing to trade for Xandra herself. Of course, she’d better hurry, DuMonte might get bored and have to amuse himself with Sandy.

Xandra called off the search and sent for Brie. She had to explain this herself and say good-bye to her love, maybe for the last time. For once in her life, she feared she wouldn’t live through this one. Perhaps she had never before feared death because, until now, she hadn’t anything to live for.

Brie found Xandra in their home, preparing for her ordeal. Not even bothering to arm herself, she merely changed into comfortable clothing and concealed several microscopic hypo-sprays in the hems of her garments.

“Xandra, what is going on? They said you called off the search, did you find Sandy?”

“Well, not exactly, but I know where she is. I’m going to get her.”

Crossing her arms over her chest she demanded “Dammit Xandra, stop being so mysterious, where is she?”

Xandra paused in her preparations and sighed wearily. “Aaron DuMonte is awake. I just got a message that he has Sandy and will trade her for me. Stephanie will pilot me to the Artemis and bring Sandy back here to you.”

Brie’s emerald eyes widened in fear. “Oh, God…oh, God. Xandra, he’ll kill you.”

Refusing to meet her lovers gaze she responded noncommittally. “Maybe. Maybe not. It doesn’t matter, I have to go. You know that.”

“Yeah, I guess I do.” Brie stepped toward her lover and clung to her, fear for both Xandra and her daughter overwhelming her. “Send her back to me. Come back to me. We need you” she whispered brokenly.

Xandra kissed Brie and held her tightly. “I promise I’ll send her back safe. I’ll do everything in my power to come back too, but if I don’t…”

Brie put her fingers to Xandra’s lips to halt her words.”Shh…don’t say it…because you’re going to come back. You have to —— you are the other half of my soul. I love you.”

Xandra traced Brie’s lips lightly with her finger. “I love you too.”

Arm in arm the two women left the house and crossed the settlement to the airfield. Stephanie was waiting to pilot the shuttle. She was back in uniform and heavily armed. “Ready to go Commander?”

With a wry smile Xandra responded “Some things never change, do they Steph?”

Xandra pulled Brie into her arms once more and kissed her deeply. She would take the memory of this moment with her into her private hell, holding it close to her heart in the darkness ahead. She had no illusions, she knew exactly what DuMonte wanted from her. Her greatest regret was for the child growing under her heart. He might never have a chance for life if DuMonte succeeded in destroying her.

She knew that Brie shared her concerns when she felt the delicate fingers of her lover’s hand brush gently over her belly as they kissed. They had no more words, it was time to go.

Brie held back her tears as she watched Stephanie and Xandra disappear into the shuttle. Only when the engines had been activated and the shuttle was beginning it’s take off did she notice the dampness on her cheeks. She watched the shuttle until it ascended beyond her sight and then stood staring into the empty expanse of Gaia’s night sky. She never knew how long she stood there or how she got to the infirmary. Later, she vaguely remembered Sara leading her back to the settlement sometime before daylight.

Chapter 8

Aaron paced impatiently, wanting instant gratification. Having to wait even the few hours required for a shuttle to travel from the planet’s surface to the starcruiser was honing a sharp edge on his anger. Pausing, he gazed thoughtfully at the child huddled in the corner of the room. She was so much like her mother, she could have been Xandra at the same age. This thought made him want to see the fear in this child’s eyes.

Approaching her with the intention of amusing himself while he waited, he was surprised to find his path blocked by his daughter.

“Don’t go there” she growled.

He raised an eyebrow as he attempted to stare her down. She didn’t budge, refusing to lower her gaze. Expecting to see fear in her eyes, he was surprised to find hatred and disgust instead. He wondered when that had happened.

“I’m not letting you do this. I was too small to stop you the last time, but that’s changed. You’re not in top condition right now Daddy. This time I’ll win…maybe I’ll even have to kill you. I’d do it too. I wanted to every time you hurt me. Come on…give me a reason.” Arianna’s body was tensed and battle ready, her gaze steady. She held a saw edged assault knife in her right hand, its sharp point pressing into Aaron’s belly.

Aaron backed away from Arianna and the child, continuing to watch his unpredictable daughter as he retreated. Arianna’s eyes never left his face as she neatly balanced the knife in one hand and reached for Sandy with her free hand.

“Come on, you can wait for your mother with me.” She lead the child toward the door, backing out of the room slowly. Once in the corridor, she time locked the room, allowing them ten minutes to reach a safe haven. As she sped down the corridor toward the lift with the child in tow, she heard her father banging on the door with his fists, screaming at her. “You bitch, you locked me in! If I lose Xandra, I’ll make you pay. You’ll take her place!”

His last words echoed in Arianna’s mind. It was the same thing he said to her after her mother’s funeral. Usually, thinking about that time reduced her to shivering tears. This time she saw red. Overwhelmed by her burning anger, she almost went back for him. This time she would surely kill him. Forcing down the compulsive thoughts, she pushed Sandy into the lift in front of her and pressed the controls. She wanted to be well away when her father got out of his room.

Brie came out of her trance-like state several hours after sunrise. She was lying on a bed in her own infirmary while Sara worked quietly at the terminal across the room. Brie blinked back tears as she wondered where her lifemate and daughter were, wondering if they were alright. She pushed herself into a sitting position and swung her legs over the side of the bed. Pausing to get control of her emotions, she slipped her feet into her shoes and prepared to rise.

“Where do you think you’re going?” Sara asked her patient.

“Sara, I don’t have much time. We need to have a special meeting of the council.”

“Brie, you’re not thinking clearly. You’ve been out of it for hours and…”

“I am thinking clearly…and I haven’t been out of it, I’ve been figuring out how we can protect ourselves if they get control of the Artemis and come after us. We have to be ready.”

Sara stared at the doctor in amazement. “Xandra and Sandy are in that bastard’s control and you’re in a trance planning the colony’s defense?”

Brie’s shoulders sagged with the weight of their situation. “Well, I can’t do anything about Xandra and Sandy, except worry myself crazy. I had to do something to keep from going out of my mind.” Sitting straighter, she spoke again. “Now stop arguing and call the council together. I’ll speak to them in twenty minutes.”

Brie stood and headed toward the shower, shedding her clothing as she went.

Sara stared after the young woman, not sure what to do. Shaking her head, she opened a com channel and informed each council member of the special meeting. She told them that attendance was mandatory.

Xandra and Stephanie sat in silence as the shuttle ascended through Gaia’s atmosphere. Stephanie darted occasional glances at Xandra when she thought her commander wasn’t looking.

Aware of the looks she was getting, she turned toward Stephanie and asked, “So what’s on your mind Hunter?”

Stephanie shook her head and smiled. “Never could fool you. I was just wondering if this is the only way. Maybe I could…”

“I have to do this myself. No one can help me. If we don’t do just as he says, he’ll hurt Sandy. Maybe he already has.” Xandra’s eyes were clouded with worry. “I have to stop him once and for all. The colony will never be safe as long as he’s alive.”

“You’re going to kill him?” Stephanie asked, matter-of-factly. Killing and dying had been an every day occurrence for Earth military personnel. This all felt very familiar to both of them. Old habits came back full force, but this time there was something new. This time they were fighting for their own and it felt very right.

“If I can…or die trying.” Xandra paused and gazed out the forward view port. They were approaching the starcruiser and would be in the docking bay in minutes. Xandra looked thoughtfully at her friend and comrade-in-arms. “Steph? …if I don’t come back, take care of Brie and Sandy for me, okay?”

Stephanie was surprised at the mixture of fear and sadness she saw on her commander’s face. Meeting Xandra’s eyes, she answered solemnly. “I will. They’ll never want for anything, I promise.”

Holding her gaze for a few moments longer, Xandra nodded and turned away.

Stephanie guided the shuttle into the docking bay and brought the massive ship to rest on a lighted landing pad. Both women rose from their seats at the same time. Stephanie absently ran her hands over her weapons, subconsciously checking that she had everything. It had been a long time since she had packed this much hardware.

Turning to face Stephanie, Xandra clasped hands with the other woman.”It’s been a pleasure serving with you Hunter.”

Reaching out to squeeze Xandra’s shoulder with her other hand, Stephanie answered. “The pleasure was all mine Commander.”

Xandra spent the next few moments breathing deeply, schooling her features into a hard mask of indifference. Stephanie’s face was devoid of emotion as well as she activated the hatch and stepped back allowing Xandra to exit the shuttle in front of her.

Aaron stood in the docking bay with Arianna and Xandra’s brat. Together they watched as the shuttle settled on to the landing pad, waiting for the engines to die and the hatch to open. In those brief moments Aaron was almost mindless with anticipation. This was the moment he’d waited for all these years. Now he would have his revenge on the bitch responsible for ruining his career and his life. He had lots of little games planned for the two of them and couldn’t wait to get started.

Arianna was still not convinced that Xandra would come for the child. After all, hadn’t she abandoned Arianna to Aaron’s cruelty all those years ago. Why should this be any different?

Sandy was simply confused and frightened. She didn’t understand what was happening, but her empathic senses told her that this woman both hated and feared the man. She couldn’t feel much from the man. Staring into his heart with her inner eye, she saw nothing…it was a complete void.

Showered and dressed in her old blue uniform, Brie entered the council chamber. Her expression was grim as she strode into the center of the room and began to speak.

“After four years of peaceful prosperity under a civilian government, we are once again faced with a situation that threatens the entire colony. We must begin preparations and planning for possible attack and invasion immediately. I, for one, would feel more secure using the best people for the job. I’m a civilian leader…but now is the time for military leaders to be in control. It takes us weeks to make a simple decision. Right now we don’t have that kind of time. I propose that we suspend the council’s control of the colony and hand the reins back to the military, just until the current crisis has passed. Our survival could depend on it.”

Brie’s determined eyes slowly scanned the room, gauging the reaction of each council member. Since this was an emergency meeting, it was considered an extension of their last meeting and Sara was still presiding. “Any discussion?” she asked.

The entire council simply stared at the young Doctor in total agreement with her assessment of the situation.

Sara called for a vote and it was unanimous, a military government would prevail until the crisis had passed. Until Stephanie returned, Art Hill would be in command. He immediately fell back into old patterns as he assembled his staff and snapped off instructions. Within hours, the colony’s children and pregnant mothers had been evacuated to a safe zone, deep in the hills beyond the forest.

Operations personnel were assigned to monitor all activity on the Artemis through their remote access interface. All colonists with military training were issued assault weapons and body armor, equipment that only Penny Baker seemed to know that they had.

Civilian personnel moved critical supplies into storage caches strategically located in the forest and hills surrounding the settlement. If they were forced to go to ground, at least they would have access to food, ammunition and medical supplies. Brie supervised the transport of medical equipment to the safe zone, depending on Sara to set up their main infirmary at the other end. Brie intended to stay with their ‘‘army’ to provide medical support.

Everything in place, they watched and waited.

Sandy immediately saw her mother as she stepped onto the shuttle’s ramp. “Mama, Mama” she cried, struggling to escape Arianna’s arms.

Xandra almost panicked when she saw DuMonte raise his weapon in her daughter’s direction. “Stay there baby, Mama will get you out of here soon. First, I have to talk to these people.”

Sandy heard the fear in Xandra’s voice and paused in confusion. Her Mama was afraid of something! She’d never seen that before and it only increased her own fear. Never one to follow instructions, Xandra hoped that Sandy wouldn’t ignore her this time. Thankfully, the child did as she was told.

“Well, Xandra, what a pleasure to see you again my dear.” Aaron smirked and continued. “I believe I have something you want. I see you’ve come prepared to bargain,”

“No bargains DuMonte. Stick to the original terms, me for her.” Xandra’s voice was low and dangerous as she descended the shuttle ramp. “If that’s not good enough, let me know and I’ll just pull the pin on this percussion grenade and blow us all to hell. Because if Sandy doesn’t get out of here alive —— no one will. Do I make myself clear?” She raised her left fist and displayed the large oval grenade. Her middle finger was neatly tucked inside the pin ring. A flick of her finger and they’d all be space debris.

Aaron considered his next words carefully. He’d hoped to have them both…and maybe the pretty blonde soldier as well. Damn…he’d have to stick with the bargain. “Okay, start walking toward me and she’ll send the kid to your friend.”

Stephanie stepped onto the ramp, weapon trained on DuMonte. Xandra began to walk slowly toward DuMonte, watching to make sure that Sandy was being released simultaneously. When Arianna first let go of the child, she started to run toward her mother. Arianna caught her before she got away. She knew that Aaron might shoot the child if she got in the way. Leaning down, she whispered “You go to the woman on the ship…if you run to your mama, he will hurt you both.”

Sandy understood, but didn’t like it. She wanted her mama NOW! The bad feelings she was having were making her more frightened than she already was. She caught images of the bad man doing things to hurt her mama. Not realizing it, she was picking thoughts right out of Aaron’s mind. Sandy straightened her spine and looked into her mother’s bright blue eyes. Xandra nodded to her to move toward Stephanie. Sandy swallowed her fear and walked toward her mother’s friend.

As they crossed in the middle of the room, Xandra looked down at her beloved daughter. “I love you baby.”

Sandy sniffed and gazed at her mother with longing. “I love you too mama.”

“How very touching…now let’s get on with it.” Aaron barked, becoming more impatient by the minute.

Each took their final steps and the exchange was completed. Stephanie took Sandy’s hand intending to lead the child into the shuttle. She stopped in her tracks at the sound of an assault rifle powering up.

“Not so fast Blondie.” Aaron had the rifle pointed directly at Sandy. Next he spoke to Xandra. “Now slowly remove your finger from the pin and hand that grenade to her.” He indicated Arianna with a nod of his head.

Xandra slowly detached the grenade from her hand and casually tossed to Arianna, giving the young woman a scare as she almost dropped it. Xandra growled “That’s all I have DuMonte, let them go now.”

Aaron nodded to Stephanie. “Get out of here before I change my mind.”

As Stephanie led Sandy into the shuttle and closed the door behind them, she wondered if this would be the last time she saw her commander. She wanted to believe that Xandra would come home, but the odds weren’t in her favor.

As the shuttle fired it’s engines and lifted off the pad, Aaron turned to face Xandra, smiling in anticipation. “I have big plans for us this evening my dear and you’re going to cooperate fully if you want your little family to live another day. I have the ships disrupters trained on the colony. One wrong move from you and my dear daughter will blow them all into oblivion.”

Turning to Arianna, almost as an afterthought, he told her “I don’t want to be disturbed for any reason. If something happens, earn your keep and deal with it.”

With that he dragged Xandra from the docking bay onto the lift and made their way to a room he’d set up for his purposes. He opened the door and Xandra’s skin crawled as she surveyed the room’s contents. This was going to be worse than she thought, but she’d done it for Sandy and Brie. Now she had to survive for them…and she had to find a way to put a stop to this mad-man once and for all.

Arianna closed the docking bay doors. Relieved that the child was safely away from her father, exhaustion set in. She wearily set off toward the room she had shared with Sandy while waiting for Xandra to arrive. She had slept very little since Aaron had awakened. Now she could rest easy, for a while anyway. Her demented father would be occupied for some time tormenting his new prize. Arianna shuddered inwardly, torn between anger at the older woman and sympathy for her situation.

Struggling against her naturally compassionate nature, she told herself that Xandra deserved her fate. It was only right that she feel what Arianna had felt. The fear, helplessness and despair that had characterized her childhood was brought about by Xandra’s exposure of her father and her failure to rescue Arianna as she had promised. Reaching her destination, she collapsed onto the sleeping pallet and drifted into an uneasy sleep.

Xandra stepped into Aaron’s modern chamber of horrors, eyes searching for anything that could help her escape and turn on him. Xandra sensed movement as DuMonte stepped quietly up behind her and administered a hypo-spray to her arm. Xandra didn’t react immediately. She’d expected him to drug her, he knew she was stronger than he was and wouldn’t take any chances.

“What’s the matter Aaron? Afraid to face me on your own?” It was a gamble…Xandra was trying to make him angry, hoping he would get careless while she could still use it to her advantage. “Gotta drug me up so you can have your fun?” She snapped her fingers and continued, her voice dripping with sarcasm. “Oh, that’s right, you usually torture little girls who can’t fight back. I don’t think you can handle the likes of me…but then you never could, could you?”

“Shut up bitch.” DuMonte snapped and back-handed Xandra. Her head didn’t even move and her face remained expressionless. Frustrated by her lack of response, he shoved her toward the wall and growled. “We’ll see who’s laughing at the end of this day.”

Grabbing her wrists one at a time, Aaron secured them in plasteel shackles attached to the wall over her head. Adjusting the length of the chains so that she had to stretch on her toes, he fastened the end to a hook in the wall a few feet to her left.

Aaron stepped back to admire his prize, one arm across his chest supporting the elbow of his other arm as he slowly stroked his beard and smiled. “I think I rather like you this way Xandra.” Suddenly frowning he paused. “Something’s missing. Hmmm…no, actually something has to go.”

As he stepped forward, Xandra struggled to keep her eyes open. Aaron grabbed the neck of her old chamois shirt and jerked down, shredding the shirt beyond repair and exposing Xandra’s full breasts. Staring into her eyes, he grabbed both breasts and squeezed cruelly.

Xandra didn’t respond, knowing that to do so would excite him further. She began a series of mind control exercises designed to help her leave her body behind. Her mind was schooled from so many years of training that in spite of the drug, she could retreat far away from what was about to happen. Somehow she sensed that he wouldn’t enjoy hurting her as much if she remained impassive.

As her level of concentration deepened, she was only faintly aware of DuMonte’s actions, but she could still hear his insane laughter interspersed with graphic descriptions of what he planned for her. After a time, she was not even aware of that…only a vague sense of peace as she allowed her mind to soar over the bright hills and valleys of Gaia on the wings of her beloved hawks.

Chapter 9

Stephanie made sure that Sandy was safely strapped into the co-pilot’s seat before taking her own seat at the helm and firing up the shuttle. Her grim expression was the only outward sign that she was consumed with worry for her commander. She conducted the pre-flight check sequence in silence and, handling the controls with a practiced ease attained with years of experience, guided the shuttle smoothly out of the shuttle bay.

Sandy sat quietly, gazing out at the stars. She tried to ‘feel’ her Mama, but there was nothing there. She was sure that this was because of the distance between them — it just had to be. The only other reason for her not to be able to sense Xandra was if she were dead and her Mama had to be okay.

Sometime about halfway through the flight, Stephanie realized that she had a traumatized child on her hands and should probably talk to her. The pilot wasn’t very good with children and had no idea of what to say to this stoic child. Observing Sandy surreptitiously, she was momentarily stunned by the expression on the child’s face. God, she looks just like Xandra when she’s planning something. “You okay kid?”

“Hmm?” Sandy responded, slowly pulling her gaze from the vastness of space to meet Stephanie eyes. “Ah…yeah, I guess so.”

Relieved that she didn’t have to deal with a hysterical child, Stephanie turned her attention to setting the correct trajectory for entering Gaia’s atmosphere. Maybe it’s better to wait until we get landside and let people who know what they’re doing handle this.

Several long minutes passed in silence before Sandy spoke again. “Stephanie?” She paused and waited for the pilot to return her gaze. “Will my Mama be all right?”

Shit…what do I tell her? One look at the child’s face made the decision for her. As Sandy stared steadily into her eyes, she realized that lying to the daughter would be no easier than lying to the mother. Taking a deep breath, the pilot answered as honestly as she could. “I don’t know kid, but if anyone can find a way to escape and save the colony, it’s your Mom.”

Sandy nodded and settled quietly in her seat; satisfied that she had gotten a truthful answer, even if it wasn’t the one she really wanted.

Pain.

Every inch of her body was enveloped in pain. Some places burned, some were bruised, some cut…it all seemed to run together, making it impossible for her to determine where one injury ended and another began. She tried to open her eyes, but they were swollen shut. Taking a deep breath, she was rewarded with sharp pains in her torso, indicating that she had several broken ribs. The raw feeling of torn flesh between her thighs let her know she had been brutally raped.

Whatever had happened, it was over for now and she didn’t remember a thing. The meditation technique had worked. She knew she was lying naked on a cold hard surface, but something soft cradled her head. Although she couldn’t see, she heard soft sobbing coming from above her. “Who?…Where?” she managed to croak from her abused throat.

“Oh God, Xandra. I’m so sorry, I didn’t know.” Arianna laid a gentle hand on her face and brushed the hair from her eyes. “I didn’t know you were pregnant. I’d never have let him do this if I’d known.”

“Am I…am I going to lose the baby?”

“I don’t think so. Not if we can get you out of here before he wakes up again. Can you move?”

“Move?” Xandra would have laughed if she could. “I can’t even open my eyes.”

“I can help you if you’ll let me. I tried while you were asleep, but you resisted.”

“I was in a deep trance. I put myself under so I wouldn’t feel what he was doing. I think it worked too well…must have pissed him off a lot. How are you going to help?”

“I’m an empath Xandra. I can heal the worst of it…maybe get you able to walk. But I don’t know what we’ll do then.”

“I’m gonna have to kill him Ari,” she whispered. “There’s no other way. Can you get me strong enough for that?”

“I don’t know Xandra…he’s still weak from the cryo sickness, but you’re pretty trashed yourself. I’ll do the best I can. Just relax and let me in.”

“Ari?” Xandra breathed softly. “Please save my baby.”

“I’ll try, I promise.”

Arianna breathed steadily, preparing herself for the painful task ahead of her. She knew she would feel Xandra’s pain intimately. She’d had this experience herself many times in her youth, but he’d never done so much damage to her all at once. Clearing her mind, she laid her hands gently on Xandra’s body and allowed her mind to monitor both lives in her care. Xandra’s heartbeat was slow, but steady. The baby’s was very weak and that scared her. She wasn’t sure if she could save them both, but she had to try. There was no one to monitor her, so if one of them died, Arianna might die with them. All their survival hinged on her ability to set this to rights.

Arianna went deep, finding all the internal injuries first and healing each one as she went. She managed to stabilize the infant’s heart rate and heal most of the damaged tissues of Xandra’s uterus and vagina. Moving on, she mended three broken ribs and a dislocated shoulder. Checking for head injuries, she was grateful to find that there was no permanent damage there. She reduced the swelling around Xandra’s eyes and the bruised throat that made it so difficult for her to speak. She tended each of the cuts and burns on her abused flesh and closed the whip marks on her back, buttocks and thighs.

When she had done all she could, she carefully withdrew. Leaning back against the wall, she sobbed with the pain she’d encountered in her friend’s broken body. Tears coursed down her cheeks as she realized that Xandra was her friend. When she’d been in her mind, she realized that Xandra hadn’t abandoned her. She had tried to get to Arianna all those years ago, but Aaron had hidden her over and over, threatening to kill Arianna if Xandra kept trying to find her. That was why they had kept moving during those years…to keep Xandra off their trail. Now she knew that Xandra had felt her greatest failure in life had been her inability to save Arianna. The young woman’s resolve hardened into a tangible thing. She would save Xandra and return her to her family — no matter the cost. She had been very wrong about Xandra and she hoped they both lived to forgive each other.

Slipping from beneath Xandra’s head, Arianna crept across the room and sealed the door with a medical privacy code that even top ranking military personnel couldn’t override. Hoping that they would awaken before her father, she once again cradled Xandra’s head in her lap and fell into an exhausted sleep.

Brie sat staring into space as she gently brushed the hair from her sleeping child’s face. She was a jumble of emotions — relief that Sandy had been returned to her virtually unharmed, consuming fear for her soulmate and white-hot anger toward the man who had caused all this. With a sigh, she turned her attention to her daughter. After a few moments of watching her sleep, she silently rose from her chair and left the med lab in search of the colony’s acting commander.

She had wanted to talk to Stephanie when the shuttle had first landed, but she’d had her hands full comforting her daughter whose composure had finally broken the moment she’d seen Brie. Before she could settle the child and see that she got something to eat, Stephanie had been swept away by the command staff filling her in on what had been done and what still needed to be accomplished. There had been a few emotional moments with Sandy as she explained to the child that they would once again be separated as Sandy was sent to the safe zone with the other children and Brie remained in the main settlement to supervise her med lab. Sandy finally agreed, but begged to be allowed just one more night before being separated from her mother once again. Brie had relented almost as much for herself as for Sandy. She needed her daughter close by so that she could reach out and reassure herself that Sandy was safe.

Brie found Stephanie in Xandra’s office, pouring over the schematics of the Artemis, searching for a way to remotely disarm the disrupters their sensors had detected aimed directly at the settlement. The past few hours had been thankfully filled with the organizational details of preparing the colony for siege. Hill had gotten a good start on things before Stephanie took over, but there had still been many decisions to make and tasks to assign. She had been surprised, but pleased to find that the military personnel among them had forgotten little in their four years under a civilian government. The crew of the Artemis still operated like a finely honed machine.

Pausing to rub her tired eyes, Stephanie noticed Brie watching her from the open doorway of the office. Stephanie thought she had never seen such a defeated expression on the intrepid doctor’s face. Sighing, she started to speak, but just couldn’t find the words. Brie mercifully raised her hand, palm out and said “It’s okay…there was nothing you could do. And you brought my baby back to me. I just…I need to know, does she have a chance?”

“Brie, I just don’t know. But I’ll tell you the same thing I told Sandy…if anyone can survive this, it’s Xandra.”

Brie lowered her head as the tears threatened to spill from her eyes. “Thanks Steph…thanks for telling me the truth.”

As the colony’s second-in-command watched, Brie slowly turned and walked into the night, fear and sadness clearly evident in her stooped shoulders and bowed head.

Chapter 10

Pleasurable images flooded his mind, as he slowly became aware of where he was and what he was doing here. A few hours sleep had energized him and he was ready to indulge his psychotic desires once again. Breathing deeply, he decided that he’d never had this much fun with any of the others — not even Carla or Arianna. Xandra was the finest prize he’d ever owned.

Rolling over and sitting up, a goading voice echoed in his mind. Too bad she’s withholding it from you Aaron. She’s holding back the best of her pain…the suffering you want to see in her eyes. She should be begging you for release…begging for death. But when you look in her eyes, she’s not there.

Standing and pacing the room, he muttered to himself with intense dissatisfaction. How? How can I make you feel the exquisite torture? What can I do to make you stay? Where is your mind going as I’m peeling the flesh from your bones? Probably in the arms of that irritating little blonde.

“That’s it!” Abruptly he stopped his pacing and turned purposefully toward the door. “That’s it! I know how to make her stay! I’ll threaten her irritating little blonde bitch! She’d never do anything to hurt her precious family…her precious whore! She’ll have to stay and feel it this time.”

Heading down the corridor, the man walked with a bounce in his step like that of a child anticipating a day in an amusement park.

Xandra awakened to instant awareness. A quick inventory of her injuries revealed that she was in much better shape than she had a right to be. She lay still as she examined the problems facing them. Her analytical mind easily wrapped itself around the situation and played out each possible scenario.

Her immediate goal was to disable DuMonte, contain him and call for help from the planet below. Realizing it might not be possible to achieve her task and keep the man alive to face a planetary tribunal, she accepted the fact that she just might have to terminate him. A slow smile spread across her face at the prospect. No matter how civilized she pretended to be, Xandra was a magnificent beast at the core of her soul. She would enjoy wrapping her powerful hands around his throat and squeezing the life from his miserable body. This was the man who’d taken Sandy, threatened to harm her. This was the man who’d cruelly abused little Arianna, who turned her into the pale imitation of a woman in whose lap she lay as she slept.

Shifting her weight onto her side, she used her arms to push herself into a sitting position. Taking a few deep breaths, she rose slowly to her feet, stretching. The soft pops of her spine re-aligning itself echoed in the silence of the room.

How to do it? That’s the question. Xandra knew that DuMonte was weakened by the after-effects of cryo sleep sickness, but then, she wasn’t in top form herself. Still, with a little clever deception, she was sure that she could disable him. She continued to plan as her body moved through a series of Tai Chi exercises intended to sharpen the mind and open the body’s channels to the proper flow of energy. As she moved from one form to the next, an idea was born and grew to logical maturity.

The slight sounds of Xandra’s movements and measured breathing awakened her companion. As the younger women moved gingerly and moaned in discomfort from the awkward position she’d slept in, Xandra brought her exercises to a conclusion and stood quietly waiting for Arianna’s eyes to open.

“Xandra?” Arianna called sleepily.

“Yeah, it’s me kid. Come on…wake up. I need your help and I’d be willing to bet we don’t have much time.”

Arianna looked up with sleep heavy eyes and blinked as she saw her childhood hero displayed in all her naked glory. Her brain instantaneously registered the perfection of Xandra’s strong body before her mind switched into professional mode and began to visually examine the extent of the damage and progress of the healing that had taken place.

“You look better than you did when he brought you in here, but you could use another treatment.”

“Sorry, no time for that now. I’ll just have to get by the way I am now. Actually, I feel pretty good considering. Thanks, I’d never have made it without your help.” Xandra’s level gaze took in the configuration of the room. It appeared to be standard crew quarters stripped of any furnishings. Only the built in replicator and computer console adorned the room’s barren plasteel walls. Well, it’s not much, but we can make it work.

Stalking across the room to the replicator, she requested two high energy drinks and returned to settle cross-legged on the floor of the otherwise barren room next to the young doctor. “Drink this and I’ll tell you what we’re going to do…” She offered one cup to Arianna and sipped her own before continuing.

The man grinned evilly as he wound his way toward his destination. The whine of the ship’s main power source the only sound besides his malignant chuckling. He was only a few turns from his destination when the sound changed and died as the lighting in the corridor faded into blackness. Halting mid-step, he wondered what was causing the power loss. A few seconds later, low light illuminated the corridor as emergency power kicked in. Glancing carefully around him, the man slowly resumed his journey, doubt nibbling at the edges of his previously confident attitude.

Approaching his prisoner’s ‘cell,’ he paused, fingers moving quickly over the security console to the left of the door. When the door did not immediately respond to his commands, he slammed his fist against the impenetrable plasteel and cursed loudly in a fit of rage. “Shit, nothing works right on this over-modified piece of junk.” His anger eventually gave way to logic. Ah…you idiot! Of course it doesn’t work on emergency power. You have to open it manually.

Releasing the control panel cover, he exposed the manual controls and hit the door release. The door slid about six inches before grinding to a halt. Frustration combined with anticipation as he grasped the edge of the door and struggled to push it further. In his weakened condition, he was only able to move it a few more inches before pausing for air. Leaning against the small opening, he searched the room for his prey.

There she was, just as he left her. Lying naked on the cold, hard floor. Her dark hair spread in tangles around her head and shoulders, face turned away from the door. Smiling with delight, he gathered his strength and forced the door open enough to slip sideways into the darkened room. Just as his body cleared the narrow opening, a heavy fist flew toward his face, landing squarely against his jaw.

Stumbling to his knees, he reached for his side arm while visually searching the room for his assailant. Movement directly in front of him caught his attention as the prone figure rose facing him and he saw Ari’s face instead of Xandra’s. Taking aim, he fired his disrupter just as a bare foot exploded from the darkness to strike his wrist, spoiling his aim. The next blow, when it landed, nearly snapped his neck, slamming his body, head first, into the plasteel wall to his left. He slid limply down the wall into a broken heap, looking up into icy blue eyes before the darkness closed in around him.

Xandra paused, watching for signs that DuMonte would fight on — wanting an excuse to wring the life from his worthless body. Panting in her efforts to control the violence threatening to conquer her thin civilized veneer, she slowly gained control of her emotions and knelt beside her tormentor, checking for life signs. She quickly scanned him with Ari’s medical analyzer. Looks like he’s down for the count.

“Computer…activate main power, authorization code 87624 alpha Lawless 1.” Although her voice was weak, the computer was able to confirm her voice pattern and the whine of the Artemis’ main power coming online filled the room. As normal lighting was restored, Xandra’s eyes were drawn to her companion lying lifelessly across the room. The smell of burnt flesh filled her lungs and her heart sank as she realized the source.

Xandra moved quickly to Arianna’s side, long fingers pressing against her throat in search of a pulse. Finding a very weak throb, she noted that the blood pumping from Ari’s side was spurting in time with that pulse. DuMonte’s shot had missed her heart, deflected by Xandra’s blow, but he’d done critical damage nonetheless.

This kind of injury was beyond the commander’s limited first aid training, she had to get help. Not bothering to secure DuMonte, Xandra lifted the broken young woman in her arms, cradling her as gently as possible. With main power restored, she had only to enter the correct code and the door slid to a fully open position. Xandra wasted no time as she strode purposefully through the corridor on the most direct path to the ship’s med lab.

As she entered the med lab, she was instantly aware of the sweet memories this room held for her. The wife and mother wanted to savor those pleasant images and rest safely in their comfort. The practical soldier knew where her duty lay and brushed aside temptation. She deposited her companion in one of the stasis beds and activated the controls with shaking fingers. The last two days had nearly depleted her considerable strength.

Crossing the room, she sank into a seat at the computer console and activated the communications system. “Gaia, this is Lawless. I need a medical team and a security team up here immediately.”

The crisp, professional tones of her second-in-command barely hid the relief and concern in her voice. “Right away Commander. Are you all right? Is the ship secured?”

Xandra sighed deeply, knowing that the answers to both of these questions would terrify her soulmate and distress her friend. “No and no, Hunter. But try not to scare Brie to death, okay? I’m not gonna die or anything. Just get up here as fast as you can.”

“On my way. Hunter out.”

Leaning back in her seat, Xandra considered the current situation. She was feeling weaker by the minute and although she was reasonably certain that DuMonte was in no condition to challenge her again, she couldn’t afford to take any chances. Rising to her full height, she straightened her shoulders and left the med lab. Despite her iron resolve, her strength was waning. Better get it over with before I collapse.

Retracing her steps, she made her way back to DuMonte. He appeared no better than when she left him, still unconscious, breathing labored. Xandra knelt, intending to pull him over her shoulder and carry him from the room. As she knelt, she felt a warm, wet, stickiness between her thighs. Looking down, what she saw nearly stopped her heart. Blood, thick and red, flowed slowly from her vagina, down the creamy whiteness of her thighs. Sharp pains tore through her belly as tears spilled from her pale blue eyes. After a few moments, the pains passed and she was able to catch her breath. Don’t have much time left. Hooking her hands under DuMonte’s arms, she began dragging the dead weight of his body out of the room and down the corridor.

Xandra was completely exhausted from the strain of moving DuMonte’s body and fighting against what she had finally identified as labor pains. Knowing that she had to get herself into a stasis chamber as soon as possible, she had completed her task with all possible speed and returned to the med lab. The last of her reserves were fading as she sank on to the stasis bed. Curling her body into a fetal position against the pain in her belly, she activated the stasis unit and tried to focus her mind on her soulmate as she slipped into unconsciousness.

Chapter 11

Stephanie worked as quickly as possible to prepare the first team headed to the Artemis. The colony only had two of their shuttles landside, the Argo and the Aphrodite. The Argo was larger and accommodated more personnel, but what the Aphrodite lacked in size, she made up for in speed. Since the need for a medical team had been the commander’s first directive, Stephanie decided to send most of the medical personnel on the Aphrodite.

Six of the eight shuttle seats would be occupied by medics and the other two would be military personnel. Their orders were to secure the bridge and access to the ship’s weapons system. Right now, with the disrupters targeting the colony, the settlement was still in grave danger.

The Argo would leave the surface soon after with a full security team and the remaining medics. Stephanie would pilot the Argo herself. She wished she had gotten a more complete report from Xandra, but suspected that it had been all her commander could manage to contact the colony at all. Something was wrong — very wrong. Stephanie’s internal sensors had been on red-alert since her brief conversation with Xandra.

Her feeble attempts to conceal her concerns from the settlement’s chief medical officer had failed miserably. Brie knew immediately that her soulmate was in trouble. Her reaction however, completely surprised everyone. Turning Sandy over to Karyn Rose with a few quiet words and a reassuring hug, she threw herself into preparations for the flight, making sure that the medical team was prepared for any situation they might find upon their arrival. They gathered supplies and instruments that they had stripped from the Artemis’ med lab before settling on the planet.

The Aphrodite was ready to move out less than an hour after receiving Xandra’s message. The Argo would follow as soon as they were ready. Stephanie paused in her preparations to watch as the Aphrodite lifted from the surface and sped upward at a steep trajectory to clear the planet’s gravitational pull.

Take care little doctor…I’ll be right behind you.

Brie sat in silence as the shuttle sped across the starlit expanse bringing her ever closer to her beloved. The sick feeling in her belly was more a result of worry than the extreme maneuvers indicative of the pilot’s haste. Stephanie had been quick to tell her that, although Xandra wasn’t in good shape, she had said she wasn’t fatally wounded. What Stephanie didn’t know was that Xandra was pregnant. They hadn’t had time to share that happy news with the baby’s other parent before the crisis had begun. When Sandy had turned up missing, all thoughts of a new child had flown from their minds — until Xandra left to give herself up to DuMonte.

Even if Xandra came out of this okay, there was still an unborn child to worry about. Who knows what kind of trauma she had been subjected to? Xandra was the strongest person Brie knew, but strength only went so far in protecting the fragility of new life. She could only hope for the best.

About twenty minutes before reaching their destination, the co-pilot received an in-coming message from the Argo. They too were enroute and had just entered sensor range of the Artemis. Sensors were showing 33 life forms in cryo sleep and 3 normal readings. That meant that two of the space pirates were awake and potential security risks. Hunter instructed her people to split up on arrival. One of them would accompany the medical team to the lab and the other would secure the ship’s bridge and shut down the weapons systems.

Brie’s patience was wearing thin by the time the Aphrodite entered the shuttle bay and settled gently on an open pad. She was out of her seat barking orders to her staff even before the shuttle doors were opened. Pushing her way to the front of the ship, Brie tried to take the lead. The co-pilot gently blocked her way as the pilot opened the door. Slowly, the young man slid the door open and exited the shuttle. He held his weapon ready, while the co-pilot followed close behind, scanning for life signs as they moved down the ramp.

After what seemed like an eternity, Brie and her team were on their way toward the med lab. Bracing herself for the worst, she entered her old domain and found her eyes drawn to the stasis units. There lay two women, both dark-haired, naked and hurt. Although her face was obscured by the tangled mass of her hair, Xandra’s form was unmistakably the larger of the two.

Brie was torn between her fear for her soulmate and her need to function as a doctor. Her professional side took control, but just barely. Stepping to the computer console, she quickly scanned the readings from the two stasis units. The stranger’s indicated a disrupter wound to the chest, damage to the right lung and heavy bleeding prior to stasis. Xandra’s……well, it was difficult to determine what to treat first. The computer indicated a number of injuries to vital body systems in various stages of healing. Narrowing the search, Brie saw what had finally caused her lovers collapse. She was hemorrhaging internally, her damaged uterus trying to abort the fetus within.

“Well,” Brie raised her eyes to her team “let’s get moving people. Both patients are in critical condition.”

Brie turned to the other doctor on the team. “Michael, you handle the pirate and I’ll……”

Michael Winslow stopped his colleague with gentle fingers on her lips. “No Brie, I think it would be best if I took care of Xandra. You remember that old adage about doctors treating their own family members?”

“But Michael, this is different and I’m perfectly capable of……” Brie’s voice was rising along with her panic. Then she paused and in a brief moment of clarity she realized that Dr. Winslow was right.

“No Brie, you know you’re not. Now go do your job and let me do mine.”

Taking a deep breath and closing her eyes, Brie responded “Right.”

Brie turned to the second stasis unit and proceeded to release their patient, directing the medics as she worked.

“Okay, get her prepped for surgery. Set up room 1 stat. Pressurized IV 6% Ringers and type match the blood. We’ll need to replicate at least three pints. She’s lost a lot and she’s probably going to lose more during the surgery.”

Brie continued to monitor the sensor read outs on her patient as she stripped out of her flight suit and stepped into the sonic shower for the 60 seconds required for sterilization. Exiting the shower from the rear, she stepped directly into the surgical suite she’d designated. The room was an organized chaos as the medical team prepared for surgery. As one of the medics stepped forward to assist Brie into scrubs, mask and gloves, she lowered her head and mouthed a silent prayer for her lover and their child.

The young doctor looked up to see three pairs of eyes watching her, waiting for her to take command of the situation. She returned their questioning looks with one of grim determination and took her place next to the surgical table. “Okay people, let’s do it.”

Stephanie was nearly at the end of her reserves when she finally entered the med lab. In the last three hours, her people had scoured every last inch of the ship, but hadn’t found that third life form. She knew from a brief conversation with Dr. Winslow that one of the pirates was critically wounded and in surgery, but the second pirate had succeeded in eluding her.

Well, at least the weapons are off line, and I’ve got check-points set up throughout the ship. That bastard is not gonna get away from me.

Stephanie stepped into the silent medical suite and was greeted by the sight of the young doctor seated quietly next to one of the treatment beds. Xandra’s pale, still form seemed smaller than usual, dwarfed by tubes, wires and machines. Brie held her hand and gazed intently at the monitors above the bed.

Clearing her throat to announce her presence, Stephanie approached the pair. One look at the doctor’s face let her know that she was very worried.

“Hey Doc. How is she?”

“Better than I expected, but still not good.” Brie sighed and lowered her eyes. “We’ve done everything we could, but…… We’ll know better in a few hours.” She paused and raised her eyes to her friend. “Is the ship secure now?”

“How’d you know?” Stephanie arched one brow in surprise.

Brie smiled, wondering if the pilot had copied this gesture from her commander unconsciously or by design. “Well, when your young Lieutenant jumped in front of me at every turn, waving his disrupter all over the place, I kinda got the idea. You know, maybe you should continue training that bunch. I think they might have lost their edge.”

Sinking into the seat across from Brie, Stephanie rubbed her eyes and pinched the bridge of her nose. Exhausted, she was still able to see both the humor and the wisdom in Brie’s words. Smiling, she met Brie’s steady gaze and chuckled. “You know, you just might be right. Tell me something. How do you do it?”

“How do I do what?”

“How do you manage to keep your sense of humor with all that’s happened?”

“I have to……its either laugh or cry and if I start crying, I don’t think I can stop.”

The two sat in companionable silence, Xandra’s labored breathing the only sound in the room. Stephanie watched the doctor and the doctor watched the monitors.

After several minutes had passed, Stephanie remembered that Brie had asked a question. Until now, she hadn’t wanted to burden the doctor with their security problems, but with the medical crisis under control; she felt that she owed Brie a response.

Rising from her seat, she began to pace. “We think DuMonte is still somewhere on the ship. On the way in sensor readings indicated three life forms……and now. Well, none of the ships are missing and there’s no other way off the ship.” She lifted her hands in defeat.

Tears flooded Brie’s eyes and threatened to spill over as she spoke. “Stephanie……that third life form……Xandra’s pregnant.”

Stunned, the woman stopped and stared at the doctor in disbelief. “Pregnant? Wha……when did you find out?”

“The night of Sandy’s party.” Brie raised her hand as Stephanie tried to speak. “I know, I know……we were going to tell you the next day, but there was the council meeting and then Sandy was kidnapped and then……” Brie gazed helplessly into Stephanie’s eyes, silently praying for understanding.

Sinking back into the seat she had just vacated, Stephanie lowered her head in her hands and asked in a muffled voice “And the baby?”

“Stable for the moment. It’s going to be touch-and-go for a few days but I’m sure they can both survive this. Xandra will just have to take it easy for the rest of the pregnancy……no stress, lots of bed rest.”

Stephanie snorted in amusement. “Xandra? No stress? Bed rest? I don’t think so.”

“She won’t have a choice Stephanie. She really wants this baby too.” Brie paused to gaze at her soulmate before continuing softly. “It’s a boy you know. The X/Y chromosome cross worked. The geneticists have perfected the technique.”

Leaning forward to rest her elbows on her knees, Stephanie grinned and shook her head. “Well I’ll be damned. I’m gonna be a daddy.”

Chapter 12

Late Summer

The golden afternoon sunlight bathed her body in contentment as she lay in the hammock she’d strung near the house last spring. A gentle breeze offered some relief from the oppressive heat of the day as the shade from the tree canopy crept ever closer, promising even cooler temperatures. The smell of wildflowers permeated the air and the musical sounds of birds floated from above her.

Being on medical leave had its advantages, but most of the time, Xandra was bored out of her mind. No lifting, bending or reaching. After her near miscarriage, she wasn’t even permitted to work with the animals. The worst part was that everyone else was busy putting the settlement back in order and getting on with daily life. At least she was still allowed to participate in council meetings, even if they did have longer and more frequent breaks in deference to her condition.

This morning had been spent writing her report to the council on her encounter with DuMonte. It was a task that she had been avoiding for months, knowing that it would reveal a part of her that she’d just as soon not admit to. Although she’d written her account in a succinct, factual manner, inside, she felt the looming darkness in her soul.

Closing her eyes, she was transported once more to the deserted corridors of the Artemis where she’d made her choices in silence. Hurt and frightened by the possibility of losing her unborn child, she had dragged DuMonte toward the only holding cell on the starship. Designed for cryo-genic travel, the Artemis was not equipped for long-term detention. About halfway to the cell, her strength nearly depleted, Xandra paused to catch her breath close to airlock #4. Panting from her exertion, she dropped DuMonte and leaned against the wall for support.

Pain rippled through her belly and more blood flowed crimson down her trembling thighs. She knew then that she’d never reach her destination. Closing her eyes, she slid down the wall to the floor as tears overwhelmed her. She hugged her knees to her chest and rested her head against her arms, sobbing with pain and frustration. Xandra knew she needed to get into stasis soon or she’d lose the baby for sure. She couldn’t do that with the possibility that DuMonte might recover enough to fire the ships weapons or come after her and Arianna.

Staring blankly ahead of her, she slowly focused on the control panel of the airlock. That’s it! I can just lock him in there and disable the interior hatch controls.

Taking a deep breath, she got to her feet and hooked her hands under his arms once again. Dragging his dead weight the short distance to the airlock was exhausting. She hung onto him with one hand as she keyed the control panel opening the airlock door. The weakened woman heaved DuMonte’s body across the threshold and shoved with her feet to get the rest of his tall frame into the small space.

She closed the door and entered the commands to disable the controls on the inside of the airlock. Leaning against the door, she looked into the tiny chamber in time to see DuMonte open his eyes. At first he appeared dazed and disoriented, then recognizing where he was, she saw fear and panic blossom in his eyes. He hauled himself up to the window facing her. Frantically, he mouthed words at her, but the thickness of the ships outer hull prevented her from hearing him.

In her dazed state, it took a few moments for her to realize that he thought she was going to open the outer hatch. He thinks I’m gonna space him. I gotta hear this.

She activated the com link to the chamber and was immediately engulfed in his hysterical entreaties. “Please Xandra……Please! I’m begging you. Don’t do this. I promise, I’ll never hurt you or your family again.”

As he continued to plead for his miserable life, Xandra began to consider the satisfaction she’d feel watching his body implode in the vacuum of space. It wouldn’t be as much fun as beating him to death, but it was beginning to look pretty good. A depraved smile spread slowly across her face as she stared into his eyes and disengaged the com link.

DuMonte’s expression changed from hysteria to sheer terror as Xandra’s eyes turned to glacial ice. The darkness in her soul overwhelmed her and the decision was made. She keyed in the sequence that would change the environment in the chamber to match the vacuum of space. The process was a slow one, designed to accommodate space walkers on their way to repair external damage to the ship. But without the proper space gear……

Xandra watched intently as oxygen was drawn from the room. DuMonte was gasping as the air was sucked from his lungs as well. Grabbing at his throat and gasping, he continued to plead with his eyes –– lying eyes. Smiling, she enjoyed his agony as she remembered the fear in Sandy’s eyes and the despair in Ari’s soul. This was justice. She was judge, jury and executioner and it felt very right.

De-pressurization of the chamber almost complete, DuMonte’s eyes began to bulge. His mouth was frozen in a silent scream. The indicator lights on the chamber changed from red to green and the outer hatch opened. As she watched, the man’s body floated gently into space just as his eyes burst, shreds of optical tissue caught in the weightlessness of the airlock chamber. The skin on his exposed face and arms stretched taught before being literally ripped from his bones. By this time, he was surely dead, but still she was enraptured with the sight of his body slowly pulled apart in the vacuum until only pieces of him were left to drift aimlessly in space.

Only when there was nothing left was she able to tear her eyes from the scene and close the outer hatch. At that moment, nothing could have convinced her that she hadn’t made the right decision. DuMonte was a psychopath and there was nothing anyone could do to change that. The colony would never be safe if she had allowed him to live.

Now she wasn’t so sure. Sandy was safe, her own condition had stabilized and her baby was growing every day. Maybe she shouldn’t have condemned him to such a horrible death, but she just couldn’t find it in herself to feel remorse. Her report had been brief, revealing none of the intense emotion she had experienced. She doubted that the others would understand the demons driving her at that moment. The laws of the colony could have her facing murder charges for her actions and she knew it.

Wondering what the council would decide, she drifted into an uneasy sleep.

Brie stepped into the med lab, glad of the environmental controls that kept the building cool even in the afternoon of a Gaia summer day. She just spent the last several hours in council observing the review of Xandra’s incident report. She’d chosen to waive her voting rights since her interest was so personal, but had hoped that the rest of the council would see the situation the way she did.

A brief look at her patient reinforced her opinion. Four months now and the young woman had not regained consciousness. Her physical injuries had long been healed and there was no good reason for her to remain in a coma. Brie was convinced that her psychological scars kept her trapped in the depths of her own mind. The doctor was getting desperate. She knew some of what Arianna had been through from conversations with Xandra and she wasn’t sure if there was incentive enough for the young woman to return to them.

Making her decision, she turned to her assistant. “Sara, I need you to monitor me. I’m going to see if I can bring her out of it.”

Sara turned a disapproving gaze on the young doctor, but kept her opinions to herself. Attempting to revive a coma patient empathically was dangerous. The fact that Arianna was also an empath only increased the risk since she could pull Brie in just as easily as Brie could pull her out. It all depended on who was stronger and more determined. The medic knew that Brie had been contemplating this course of action for several days. As time passed and the likelihood of Arianna awakening on her own became more remote, Sara was afraid it would come to this. Now that Brie had made up her mind, Sara knew there was nothing she could say to discourage her. She could only assist her friend and pray that she survived.

Brie settled on the pallet next to Arianna’s bed. Reclining, she waited for Sara to attach the probes to her temples, heart and pulse points. Sara finished her task by tucking a pillow beneath Brie’s head and squeezing her hand reassuringly. As she took her seat at the console, Brie rolled to her side and laid one hand against the petite woman’s head while resting the other against her heart. Closing her eyes, she began the breathing and meditation techniques that would allow her to go deeply enough to touch this woman’s tortured mind.

It felt like falling into a pit of fire. She couldn’t find the bottom of Arianna’s well of pain. Hot colors spun in her wake as she sought the young woman’s hiding place. Each twist and turn brought another wave of fear, pain and despair. She was burning from the intensity of it. Insidious, it invaded her mind, blurring the boundaries between doctor and patient.

Brie fought against the awesome power of stark emotions enhanced by Arianna’s natural empathic talent. She had to focus, wrest control from the terrified child hiding somewhere in this morass of torment.

Tentatively, Brie called out to that little girl. “Ari?……Where are you Sweetheart?” Pausing, she waited for a response that didn’t come. Trying again she stretched her thought a little further. “Ari? I’m here to help you Baby, but I need to find you first. Please talk to me. I’m going to take you out of here to someplace safe. Take my hand Ari and I promise I’ll protect you.”

“Mommy? Is that you Mommy? Where are you? I’m scared Mommy, please help me?”

“I’m right here Ari.” Brie responded instantly, trying to locate the source of the tiny voice. If Arianna wanted to believe Brie was her mother, it didn’t matter as long as she trusted her. “Come to me Baby. We’ll leave here together.”

“Mommy, why did you leave me? When you left he hurt me. He kept hurting me Mommy and you didn’t come back for me.”

Now what do you say Brie? Thinking quickly she answered as if she was speaking with her own daughter. “I’m so sorry Ari. I didn’t want to leave you, but I didn’t have any choice. I didn’t know he would hurt you like that……you were just a little girl. Come to me Sweetheart, let me hold you and kiss the pain away.”

Apparently, Brie’s loving words reached the frightened child. In the distant flaming dreamscape, a small silhouette appeared and moved tentatively toward Brie. Reaching out to embrace the tiny form, Brie waited silently as a gamin face perched on a thin body approached her. Staring into the doctors emerald eyes, Arianna still saw her mother. Her eyes overflowed and tears coursed down her cheeks as she leapt across the last few feet separating the two. Gathering the child in her arms, Brie spoke reassuringly as she gently touched her terrified mind. That inner place where all the bad memories lived.

In a flood of suffering, Brie experienced each moment of Ari’s miserable childhood. Her mind reeled with the pain and humiliation this young woman had been made to endure time and again. Feelings of abandonment and betrayal — worthlessness and absolute despair. The intense desire for oblivion — release from her internal prison.

In those brief moments, they were one, empath to empath. The soothing tones of Brie’s psyche infinitely stronger than Arianna’s battered soul. Wrapping the child in loving arms, she shared the pain and thereby weakened its hold on Ari’s mind. Gently rocking her, Brie whispered words of love as the child relinquished control to the doctor.

Slowly the dreamscape changed. The fire and swirling colors faded into a forest at the edge of a mountain lake. The sunset painted pinks and purples across the twilight sky. The slight breeze cooled their skin and both fell into an exhausted, but natural sleep.

Chapter 13

Stephanie walked slowly toward the house on the hill, her strength sapped by the slightest physical exertion in the afternoon stillness and heat. Supposedly off duty today, she’d put in the extra hours that helped make up for Xandra’s medical leave of absence. Between the pilot and several other senior officers, Xandra’s place in the colonial government was secured until she gave birth and was able to return to work in her full capacity.

Approaching the peak of the slope, Stephanie stepped into the shade of the tall trees with a sigh of relief. Living in climate controlled, artificial environments all her life left her unprepared for the summer heat of Gaia. Pausing for a moment to catch her breath and wipe the sweat from her brow, she caught sight of her commander lying peacefully in her hammock. The large, fat tabby snuggled against her body had managed to find space next to Xandra’s swelling belly and was sleeping peacefully with his front paws draped over the baby’s nesting place.

Stephanie smiled and called softly to Xandra as she continued to approach. The commander had been quite testy lately and had made it clear that she didn’t like anyone “sneaking up on her.” Stephanie suspected this new sensitivity was a combination of her recent traumatic experience with DuMonte and her advancing pregnancy. She was secretly sorry for Brie, having to put up with Xandra’s moodiness all the time. As she recalled, Brie had been one of the happiest, least emotionally volatile pregnant women she’d ever known. It didn’t seem fair that the even-tempered doctor had to deal with Xandra’s downright bitchiness, but Brie seemed to take it all in stride.

Xandra’s eyes fluttered as she reluctantly awakened to the sound of her second’s voice. Stretching her tall, now ungainly frame, she dislodged her sleeping companion who found himself unceremoniously dumped from the hammock onto the soft grass below. Meowing indignantly, he stretched himself and sauntered lazily onto the porch in search of food and water.

“Sorry Argo, I’m getting too big to sleep with.” Xandra yawned wide and sat up, her gaze turning on the intruder who ruined their catnaps. “What brings you to visit in this ghastly heat?”

Stephanie relaxed a bit, trying to gauge Xandra’s mood. “Well, I wanted to see how you were feeling after the council session this morning. I know you were uncomfortable about having to execute DuMonte……but I wanted you to know that I’d have done the same thing in your position.”

Xandra sighed and leaned back as she answered. “Thanks, but you’ll never really know what it felt like. I haven’t even told Brie……I’m afraid to.”

“You enjoyed it didn’t you?” Stephanie paused, raising her hand against Xandra’s defensiveness. “It’s okay……I would have enjoyed it too. I wished I had killed the bastard in the shuttle bay, but there was no way I could get to him without endangering you and Sandy.”

“It’s not the same Steph……that would have been in battle, I killed him in cold-blood……and it gave me such pleasure, I can’t even begin to describe it.” Xandra’s voice dropped to its lowest register as she continued. “I had a choice……he’d never have gotten out of the airlock. I chose to space him. I wanted to watch his face as he realized what was happening. I enjoyed watching him being torn apart. I felt……pleasure. It’s a side of me that I’ve never given into before, never really allowed myself to indulge. This time I just couldn’t stop myself. He’d hurt so many people I love, I just wanted to hurt him back.”

“Xan……I don’t know what to say. I’ve never hated anyone that much, but I think if I did, I’d have enjoyed it too. I do know one thing……if he’d succeeded in killing you, he’d have killed our son and I think that justifies anything you did to him.”

Xandra lowered her gaze uncomfortably. “Steph……I owe you an apology for that. I should have told you I was pregnant. But you know I had to go after Sandy no matter what the cost. You can’t know what he would have done to her……I knew, and I couldn’t let it happen.”

“It’s okay, I understand. I was mad at first that you’d put our child in danger, but then I looked at Sandy and I understood. I knew you’d manage to get away from him, I never doubted that. In a way, I’m glad I didn’t know you were pregnant until it was all over. I’d have been chewing nails waiting. As it was, I had my hands full with the settlement and Brie. She was a whirlwind Xandra; planning, getting the council to revert to military government, setting up the caves for the pregnant mothers and the children. I figured she’d fall apart with you up there, but she surprised us all. She never lost hope……except maybe for a little while the night I brought Sandy home. But she pulled herself together and worked even harder. She’s a very special lady.”

“I know……I wish I knew what gods I pleased to deserve her.” Xandra smiled, the tension visibly leaving her body as she spoke of her soulmate. ” She’s been so good to me and I’ve been such a bitch. I’m not doing well with this pregnancy thing. My hormones are going wild and they’ve definitely taken control. I can stay away from most people, but she lives here and she’s so patient with me.”

“Yeah, well……my turn is coming up soon. I’ve managed to put them off until you are on your feet again, but then I have to do my civic duty and join the ‘‘swelling’ ranks of the pregnant.” Stephanie grinned painfully at her play on words. “I hope I handle it like Brie, but I have the nastiest feeling that I’m going to follow in your footsteps instead. I just hope Penny can handle it. She’s so very controlled……you know, a place for everything and everything in it’s place. If I start acting like a hormone-driven pregnant woman, she just might run for the hills.”

Xandra chuckled at the thought of her quarter-master dealing with an over-emotional expectant mother. “Tell you what, if you start feeling too bitchy, I’ll come over and you can yell at me instead.”

The two women continued to chat easily as the day waned, each feeling more at ease than they had in weeks. Now more friends than commander and pilot, their shared experiences and the pending birth of their child provided a strong foundation for a relationship neither of them had enjoyed before. The face of Gaia was changing and her new inhabitants could not help but change with her.

Brie floated up from the deep well of unconsciousness, dampness on her pale cheeks reminding her of the pain she’d shared with her patient. Shifting uncomfortably under the weight on her chest, she realized that Arianna still lay snuggled against her breast, quietly sobbing. She raised her hand to stroke the young woman’s impossibly soft hair with great care. For the Love of Gaia, I hope she survives. I’ve never felt so much pain in anyone……much less an empath. I don’t think I could have lived through what she has. I wish DuMonte were still alive so I could kill him myself.

Surprised by the strength of her own hatred, Brie swallowed back her anger, afraid that the woman-child in her arms would sense her overwhelming emotion. Empaths, by nature, were averse to killing even the tiniest living thing. The doctor now realized that this must be an inbred quality designed to prevent them from using their mental powers for harm rather than good. She now knew in her heart that she could have ripped DuMonte apart from the inside without a second thought, and this was a very frightening possibility. I wonder if the geneticists know about that. With all this talk about breeding for psychic ability, they’d better be made aware of it fast.

She opened her eyes to find Sara watching the monitors intently. The medic’s expression was intense and tears wet her smooth cheeks as they flowed freely from her dark expressive eyes.

“Sara……” Brie whispered quietly so as not to wake Arianna.

Sara turned to face her friend, her voice heavy with concern. “Brie, are you alright? I almost lost you both, I was so afraid.”

“Yeah, I think so. I just want to go home and sleep. Can you stay with her? I think she’ll come around soon and I don’t want her left alone.” Brie eased her body from underneath the young woman, sliding a pillow under her head as she slipped away.

Sara rushed to her side, helping her to her feet. “Of course, I can stay as long as she needs me. I’ll just plan to sleep here tonight.”

“Thanks Sara, somehow I think you are exactly what she needs.” Brie stared intently into the dark woman’s eyes, her words laced with hidden meaning. “I think you know what I mean.”

“Yeah……I do.” Sara smiled sadly. “I’ll be here for her when she wakes……and as long as she needs me after that. No one else knows what I went through. You are the only one I trusted enough to tell. You’ve helped me heal my past and now it’s my turn to help someone else.”

Brie nodded knowingly and turned toward the door, exhaustion evident in every movement. Silently she slipped into the cool of the evening and headed for home, confident that her patient was in good hands. Who knows, she wondered as she labored up the hill homeward, maybe they can heal each other? Lord knows they both deserve it.

Sara watched her mentor as she trudged the path from the infirmary to her house on the hill, love and admiration filling her heart for this brilliant, caring woman who had helped her with her own inner demons. Turning back to the tortured young woman curled tightly against her pillow, Sara sighed. I hope I’m up to this. She’s hurt every bit as much as I was and it’s worse for an empath. Well, I can only try……

Xandra slept uneasily without her partner’s warm body snuggled next to her. She was utterly exhausted from the ungodly heat of the day and the awkward weight of her swollen body. She ached from head to toe and her ankles were swelled so badly that she could no longer find any shoes that would fit her. The expression “barefoot and pregnant” had taken on a whole new meaning. She knew she was next to impossible to live with the last few weeks, but she was grateful that Brie put up with her. Fleetingly she wondered what was keeping her soulmate as her eyes slid shut once again.

Brie slipped quietly into their bedroom in an effort not to wake her sleeping soulmate. Xandra’s soft snores caused her to smile. Xandra only snored when she slept on her back, something she had been forced to do now that her body was rounded with child. She hated everything about being pregnant and let everyone around her know it. Sleeping on her back was just one of the many indignities forced on her by her condition.

Brie was glad that it wouldn’t last much longer. She was just about at the end of her patience, but Xandra didn’t know that. Her partner was so wrapped up in her own discomfort that she hadn’t noticed the dark circles under Brie’s eyes. The doctor was also pulling extra hours to fill in with the gap left by Xandra’s absence. That combined with extra work at home, caring for Sandy almost single-handedly and her own foolish decision to get pregnant again herself left Brie craving sleep with a vengeance.

Undressing in the dark, she was acutely aware of the changes taking place in her body. Her breasts were beginning to swell and she felt a slight roundness to her belly. Xandra had been so wrapped up in herself that she had yet to notice the changes in her partner’s body. Brie hoped she could keep it her own secret until after Xandra gave birth. Her decision to take on Xandra’s further reproductive responsibilities would be appreciated later, but now it would only irritate her soulmate.

Reluctantly she pulled a light sleep shirt over her head. She would have preferred to sleep nude in the heat of summer, but she was trying to hide her condition from Xandra. As she stretched out on her side of the bed, Xandra rolled toward her and pulled Brie into the circle of her arms. Brie felt the baby move restlessly and Xandra murmured sleepily in her ear. “I love you.”

Brie smiled as she thought of the two tiny beings growing under her own heart. Twins……partly hers and partly Xandra’s. Brushing her lips softly against Xandra’s cheek, she whispered back. “I love you too.”

Smiling contentedly, both expectant mothers snuggled sleepily, each comforted by the presence of the other.

Chapter 14

Late Fall

Sara found herself presiding over the tribunal council session. With Xandra and Brie abstaining from participation except as witnesses for the accused, she had been selected by default and, although she too planned to abstain, she would vote in case of a tie. She had become close with the young empath facing charges over the last few months and found that she could no longer remain impartial.

Today’s tribunal was the first in a series of planned proceedings to determine the fate of the sleepers. After the latest debacle with DuMonte, the colonists realized that they could no longer depend on cryo technology to defer their decisions. Even Brie’s ecological issues had been set aside, although temporarily, so that the council could focus on the fate of the pirates.

Sara cleared her throat as she rose from her seat, the room suddenly silent awaiting her words. “Citizens, we are here today to hear the case of Arianna DuMonte, accused of space piracy and kidnapping. We have all read the charges against the accused. Who will speak in her defense?”

Xandra rose awkwardly from her seat and stepped forward. Turning to face the council chamber, she spoke. “I will speak in her defense, as will others after me.”

Sara smiled as she stepped around the table offering Xandra a seat. “I think we can dispense with formalities in light of your condition, Councilperson. Besides, you have always been just as effective seated as you are on your feet.”

Only weeks from her due date, Xandra gratefully eased her heavy frame into the offered chair and murmured her thanks. Gathering her thoughts, she raised her eyes to gaze at the council-members seated across from her, making eye contact with each one before proceeding.

“I have known Arianna since she was a small child. I served for a number of years under the command of her father, Aaron DuMonte and during that time, I became close with Arianna. I’d always suspected that DuMonte regularly abused his wife Carla, but he was a clever man and never allowed any outward signs of his actions. Carla was quiet and had been under psychiatric treatment since adolescence. At the time, psychic talents were rare and often went misdiagnosed as mental illness. Carla was probably an empath, like her daughter, but was never tested. First her parents, then her husband had her treated for mental instability instead.

While serving with DuMonte, I discovered that he was involved in illegal operations for his own private gain. He had repeatedly used agency resources for his own purposes and the government suffered great losses as a result. Feeling it my sworn duty to expose his activities, I went to our superiors and divulged what I knew. We then proceeded to set a trap for him. Caught in the web of his overwhelming greed, he took the bait and confirmed all suspicions. He was court-marshaled, convicted and sentenced to exile outside the bio-domes.”

Xandra paused as Brie came forward to offer her a drink of water. Swallowing almost the entire glass in one gulp, she handed the glass back to Brie with a smile “Thanks.”

Clearing her throat she began again. “After his conviction, DuMonte prepared to take his family into exile with him. I heard he was headed for an outlaw compound in the Rockies. Despite her requests for assistance from her family, Carla got no help and without some powerful intervention, she and her daughter would be forced to leave the safety of the bio-domes with her husband. Apparently unable to face living with DuMonte away from the relative safety of polite society, Carla committed suicide the night before they were to leave the city.

I knew then that Arianna was in danger and I worked as quickly as possible, but he left before I could intercede with the authorities for custody of Arianna. They granted me custody, but it came too late to keep him from taking her away.”

Arianna sat spellbound by the story she had never heard before. Her eyes were locked onto Xandra’s crystal blue gaze as her breath caught in her throat. She sat anxiously waiting to hear the rest of Xandra’s explanation.

Staring back into Arianna’s sad violet eyes, Xandra continued. “I followed them halfway around the world. Every time I almost caught up with him, DuMonte would slither away to a new retreat, taking the child with him. Once I almost had them in Marrakech, but he held a knife to her throat as she slept and told me to get out or he’d kill her on the spot. I knew he would do it so I was forced to let them go again.

I knew he was probably hurting her, but I had no idea how badly. She was just a child and I had no conception that he was as warped and evil as he really was. The last time I faced him in Hong Kong, he told me that if I kept chasing them, he’d kill her. He was tired of running and knew that threatening to murder her was the only way to stop me. I tried to justify my compliance by telling myself that I was saving her life. That may have been part of it, but after three years of chasing them around the world, I was just plain tired.

It was about that time that I got the news that my brother, Louis, was dying of the AIDS virus. I wanted to go home and care for him, be with him during his last few months of life. After he died, I immersed myself in the Amphipolis project and thoughts of Arianna rarely broke my concentration.”

Pausing as she neared the end of her testimony, she drew a breath and stared directly into Arianna’s eyes as she spoke. “She was abused beyond all imagination. She never knew that I followed just two steps behind, never quite able to touch her, to bring her home. She thought I abandoned her, that I broke my promise to rescue her. That would make any child learn to hate. She hated me, that’s why she joined the pirates. Ari only wanted revenge on me, not all of you. In her mind, she had every right to hate me. In my mind I hated me too for giving up, for growing tired of the hunt, for going home to heal my wounds while she still suffered. Without her help, DuMonte would have tortured Sandy and probably killed me. She has already been punished enough and she’s earned redemption by her recent actions.”

As Xandra rose from her seat facing the council and stepped back to take her place next to Brie, Arianna’s gaze never left her face. Tears sparkled in her eyes as, for the first time in her adult life, she realized that she had been loved. She deeply regretted harming Xandra and her family and would placidly face any penalty the council imposed on her.

The next witness for Arianna’s defense surprised everyone. From a doorway in the back of the room, Sandra Lawless-O’Conner stepped forward to face the council. For a child of four years, she walked with confidence often not found in those ten times her age. She was every bit her mothers’ daughter and both women watched proudly as the little girl hopped up into the seat Xandra had just vacated, her feet not even touching the floor.

“I like Ari.” The child began, swinging her legs as she spoke. “She saved me from the bad man. She was real scared, I could feel it, but she took care of me anyway. He wanted to hurt me and I was really scared too, but she locked him in a room and hid me until Mama could get there and save me. Please don’t hurt her, I want her to come and live with us.”

With that, the little girl hopped down from her seat and took Karyn Rose’s outstretched hand. Indulgent smiles and one tear-filled violet gaze followed the precocious child as Karyn led her from the room. Her testimony, although brief, had a powerful effect on the council. Sandy’s simple words and her honest evaluation of Arianna’s emotions spoke volumes to those faced with deciding her fate.

Although Sandy’s testimony had been short, Xandra had addressed the council for nearly two hours and Sara thought it a good time to take a break. Art Hill came forward to escort Arianna to a private room to refresh herself and try to eat something before once again facing the council. The session was adjourned for lunch and Xandra wearily rose from her chair, hands rubbing her sore back as she and Brie walked slowly toward the settlement’s common kitchen to eat. Xandra’s appetite had outmatched even Brie’s legendary love for food in the last few weeks and after the stress of the morning session she was starving. Brie, on the other hand, couldn’t eat a thing, knowing she was to testify next.

Two hours later Brie nervously faced the council. She was a bit intimidated by the prospect of giving testimony for one of her patients. Revealing the kind of information she was about to relate to the council would, in most cases, be a violation of patient-doctor confidentiality. However, in order to help her case as much as possible, Arianna had agreed to allow Brie to divulge personal information she had obtained in the process of empathically treating her. Just how much she said was left up to Brie.

“I was responsible for treating Dr. DuMonte first on the Artemis, then here on Gaia. When I first examined her, her primary injury was a near-fatal disrupter wound to the lower chest, involving her right lung. Upon closer examination I noted the presence of a tremendous amount of scar tissue on various parts of her body. Dr. DuMonte’s back, buttocks and thighs are covered with a thick layer of severely damaged flesh. The location and the nature of the scar tissue are indicative of physical abuse over long periods of time. Although healed now, it is obvious that Dr. DuMonte endured many years of painful torture. Additionally, I found evidence of severe burns in various locations of the body, some too unbelievable to mention. Finally, after a complete physical evaluation, it was discovered that Dr. DuMonte has been rendered incapable of bearing children.”

Brie paused in her evaluation as her audience squirmed uncomfortably in their seats, faced with irrefutable evidence of Arianna’s miserable childhood.

Swallowing hard, she continued with what, for her, was the hardest part of her evaluation. “When Dr. DuMonte failed to respond to usual treatments, I empathically entered her mind in an attempt to bring her out of a four month coma. These methods are usually dangerous and only used as a last effort to save a patient. Psychological melding is not part of physical empathic healing and can cause irreparable damage to both patient and doctor if something goes wrong.”

Brie’s voice faded to a near whisper, her eyes glazed in painful remembrance. “The things I saw in her mind were beyond anything I’ve encountered in all my years of training and practice. I cannot even repeat most of it here. I have submitted my logs for the council’s review, but even the nature of my reports cannot convey the level of pain I found in the deepest recesses of this woman’s mind. As an empath herself, the things Dr. DuMonte was subjected to would have killed a weaker person. The fact that she matured into a productive member of society is nothing short of miraculous.”

She paused, rubbing her aching temples as she recalled her experience in Arianna’s mind. “I discovered something about myself during this process. Something that scares me and at the same time illustrates what a good-hearted woman the doctor is. I found a hatred in me that I didn’t know was possible. I wanted to hurt the man who had damaged this precious child. And all at once I knew I could do it from within. I never before contemplated the powers of an empath with a desire for revenge, but I can tell you now that it would be a horrible way to go. For a few brief moments I wanted to cause Aaron DuMonte to writhe and burn in a hell of my making. If he’d been alive, I don’t know if I could have stopped myself.

Arianna treated DuMonte for cryo-sickness just days before Sandy was kidnapped. Knowing what I know now, I don’t know how she resisted killing him herself. I don’t think I could have been so charitable. She is obviously a profoundly compassionate healer and, with additional psychological treatment, she could be a tremendous asset to the colony. Her inability to bear children will not prevent her from contributing to the gene pool and her empathic talents would be very valuable both as a working member of the population and in adding dimension to the genetic diversity of future generations.”

Xandra was stunned by her soulmate’s confession of hatred towards DuMonte. She didn’t know that Brie was capable of wanting to hurt anyone, but she suddenly found her own hate-driven actions more understandable, if not acceptable. Gently she took Brie’s hand as the doctor settled in her seat and dropped her gaze, silently waiting for the accused to take her place before the council.

Dark circles showed beneath pain-filled eyes, set above sunken cheeks as Arianna faced the council. The last few months had been hell as she continued to work with Brie and Sara as both counselors and friends. Her fear of what the council would do to her overshadowed her recovery, affecting both her appetite and her ability to sleep.

“I freely admit to both charges against me. I am ashamed to admit that I did these things. My actions nearly caused the deaths of Xandra and her daughter and yet they both come here to speak for me. Dr. O’Conner healed me in spite of my actions against her partner and daughter. Most important, today I finally know that Xandra didn’t abandon me……that she tried to help me. That means more to me than anything else. For the first time in my life I have friends and that feels very good.

Whether you terminate my life or allow me to become a member of the settlement, I want you to know that I will accept my fate with a whole heart for the first time since my mother died. But I ask you to consider the words of my friends and allow me to have a chance at a normal life. If you do, I promise that you will never regret it.”

Arianna’s passionate words echoed in the silent council chamber. After several long moments, Sara rose and announced the end of the proceedings. “This council session is adjourned. The council will retire to consider testimony and render judgment.”

Chapter 15

The council debated long into the night. Coming to a decision regarding Arianna had taken little discussion and even less time, but there were other, related issues that needed to be dealt with and one topic lead them effortless to the next. Sara was tired and growing bored as they considered how to handle the remainder of the sleepers.

Rubbing her burning eyes, she tried to pay attention to what Karyn Rose was saying. “I know you don’t want to face it, but some of them won’t want to be part of our community. Worse than that, there are some of them that we won’t want here either. We can’t give them a ship and let them go their merry way. They know our coordinates and one of them is bound to come back to take what we’ve worked so hard for. None of us wants to execute them. So what are the alternatives?”

Xandra had been listening to the entire discussion with a pensive expression. All they’ve been able to agree on is what not to do. Shifting in her seat, she wondered what it would be like to be comfortable, even for just a few moments. It felt like she had been pregnant forever. As the weeks passed, she was increasingly aware of the pain in her lower back. Her legs ached constantly and her breasts felt heavy and sore. Stop feeling sorry for yourself and get these people focused so you can go home and lay down.

Just as Xandra was about to intervene, Brie rose from her seat and addressed the council. “I have an idea, and while it might not be the best solution, I think it’s one we can all live with.”

She paused for effect, waiting until she was sure she had their undivided attention. “We could transport them to another continent on Gaia. Maybe provide some basic supplies and equipment……nothing we couldn’t make do without. Let them set up their own settlement or kill each other off, it would be up to them.

Now before you dismiss the idea as too lenient or dangerous to future generations, take a minute to consider ‘‘penal colonies’ in Earth history. Australia, for example, began as a penal colony. Over time, it became one of the great nations of Earth. Exile is not a new idea. Societies have been exiling their criminals since the beginning of time. It is a rather benevolent way of dealing with wrong-doers, while protecting the general population. Remember, this isn’t like exiling someone to live……or die……outside the bio-domes. If they work hard and cooperate, they can survive……even prosper.

We can chose a location as far from here as possible, but one that will enable them to make a future for themselves without undue hardship. Without modern technology they won’t be able to return and cause trouble. As long as our ships and communications equipment remain intact, we can even monitor their progress and intervene with another solution if this one fails.”

Brie’s suggestion instantly became the subject of another round of intense discussion. This time though, the council members were working out the details of what they could do.

Unable to endure the uncomfortable chair any longer, Xandra rose and moved silently toward the door. Brie watched her soulmate leave, glad that she had finally decided to go home and get some rest. The doctor’s trained eyes studied the position of the child Xandra was carrying and she could have sworn that her partner’s burden was sitting lower than it had been the day before. She’s closer than we thought. It shouldn’t be too long now. I just hope it isn’t too hard on her. After all she’s been through, the possibilities for complications are endless.

Brie edged her way to the door, following her soulmate into the cold night air. As tired as the doctor was, she knew Xandra must be completely exhausted. Smiling to herself, she picked up her pace in an effort to catch her long-legged partner. Even as large as Xandra had become over the past few weeks, Brie had trouble keeping up with her when she was in a hurry.

“Hey there,” she called to her lover. “Wait for me.”

Xandra paused and turned to watch Brie hurry toward her. Wrapping her arm around her partner, she leaned down to brush her lips against Brie’s inviting mouth. Smiling, the two women turned toward home and the promise of a warm bed and a good night’s sleep.

Arianna, on the other hand, found sleep impossible. Tonight, she was alone for the first time since awakening from the coma. Sara had stayed with her the entire time she was in the infirmary. When she was well enough to move to regular quarters, there had been a bit of a dilemma over where to house her. Sara had solved that easily by inviting her to stay in the medic’s quarters. Although not overly large, Sara’s home was spacious enough to allow the two women to live comfortably together. Hard as it was to admit, even to herself, she found quiet pleasure in the sensitive woman’s company.

Missing Sara’s comforting presence, she allowed her mind to wander. No matter how she tried, her thoughts repeatedly returned to the revelations of the day. Closing her eyes, she played Xandra’s words over in her mind. She’d meant what she had said to the council……it didn’t matter what they did to her. The gift she’d been given today could never be taken away from her. Knowing that Xandra had worked so hard to free her from her father went a long way toward healing her battered soul.

Sandy’s testimony had been a big surprise too. In the simple words of a child, she had been made to look more the hero than the villain. She had been stunned to learn that the young girl was not only an empath, but that she had been powerful enough to sense emotions and understand them at such a tender age. Thinking back on it, she realized that she had not developed those abilities until adolescence.

Brie’s testimony, however, had been the strangest of all. Clinical at the onset, the doctor had moved from just reporting the facts, to using those facts to illustrate all the reasons Arianna should be allowed to join the colony. She had even revealed a dark side to her own soul that had stunned Ari. For the first time, Arianna considered the real reasons she hadn’t wanted to attempt empathic healing with her father. She realized that, once in his mind, the temptation to destroy him slowly and painfully would have been too much to resist.

A million random thoughts spun around in her mind as exhaustion slowly won out over worry. When Sara returned, hours later, the young empath was softly snoring.

Bright sunlight flooded the council chamber as a crisp autumn breeze wafted through the open doorway. Most of the council members were already seated when Art led Arianna to her place at the front of the room and took his own seat. Many people had crowded into the large room to hear the council’s decision. Sara smiled reassuringly at her new friend before rising to face the gathered citizens.

“After hearing from some of our most respected citizens and many hours of deliberation, we have made our decision. We have no precedent for judging another human being, and agreed that we didn’t want to emulate the patrician methods practiced on Earth. The informal way we have chosen to communicate our findings in no way diminishes their importance.”

Turning her gaze on the young doctor, Sara continued speaking. “Arianna DuMonte, we have heard your story and wonder if any of us would have done as well in your position. You have endured great hardship and survived a horrifying childhood to grow into the fine young woman who sits among us today. A woman, who in spite of her fears, was willing to sacrifice her life to save Xandra and Sandy. Arianna, we invite you to join us, to become a part of our life on Gaia. We would all benefit from the addition of your skills to our settlement and wisdom to our future.”

Eyes shining with unshed tears, Arianna could only nod her acceptance as she whispered her thanks. Overwhelmed by a myriad of emotions, she lowered her head, only vaguely aware that Sara was explaining how the council would handle the rest of the pirates. For Arianna, there was only happiness and relief, profound gratitude and a sense of belonging. She promised herself in that moment that she would work hard — to become a valuable member of this community and a valued friend to these people who had accepted and welcomed her.

Chapter 16

Xandra forced herself to fully awaken and struggled to raise her body from their bed. Brie had awakened earlier to put in a few hours at the infirmary before joining her partner later in the day. Despite her overwhelming exhaustion and the nagging pains in her lower back, she was determined to get up and get dressed. This morning her favorite hawk was to be released and she needed to be there to say good-bye……to watch as he spread his wings and rose from her fist one last time.

Very few things caused Xandra to feel strong emotion. Her love for Brie and Sandy could bring tears of wonder to her eyes, but something about watching another wild thing gain it’s freedom spoke to her soul. It was almost as if she were being set free with them. Of course, everything about her life on Gaia was freedom itself. Perhaps this joy she felt was in her ability to share this wonderful feeling with the creatures in her care.

As she dressed silently, she recalled the events of the last few days. She’d spent quite a bit of time with Arianna and had been able to let go of much of her guilt. Their quiet talks seemed to help the other woman as well. Xandra was delighted by the way her fellow colonists were welcoming Ari to their group. People were warm and friendly, helping the young doctor to forget that she had once been counted among their enemies.

Xandra caught her breath as a wave of pain rippled across her back and around her belly. Brief, but powerful, it left her nearly doubled over. Regaining her control, she straightened and rubbed her aching back. She’d had these cramps several times in the last week. After the first one, she had hoped that she was in labor and that it would soon be over, but each time she was disappointed.

Her mind still occupied with Arianna, she slowly made her way toward the mews. She had been delighted to see Ari smile and hoped laughter too would soon be in her grasp. The satisfied expression of the young doctor engrossed in her work reminded Xandra of herself at the same age. But she was most surprised by the relationship developing between Arianna and Sara. Oh, there was nothing obvious, but the soul-full gazes and the soft lingering touches did not escape Xandra’s acute powers of observation.

Sighing with frustration as she struggled up the small incline to the aviary, Xandra wondered if this baby would ever come. Maybe today’s hiking excursion would hasten her delivery. She could only hope.

Entering the clearing that housed the raptor compound, Xandra was once again stunned by the beauty of her surroundings. It seemed that the longer she lived on this gloriously untouched planet, the greater her need to experience its wild beauty. The brightly focused sunlight of a late autumn morning cast deep shadows across the clearing, causing the dappled rays to alternately illuminate the brightly colored leaves of the trees surrounding them. The brilliant carpet of fallen leaves below reflected the reds, golds and oranges above. Xandra listened intently as the rustle of wind in the trees played counterpoint to the crunching of leaves beneath her feet.

Art had arrived a bit earlier and had made all the necessary preparations for the day’s excursion. Since her injury, Art had taken over most of her work with the birds and with her patient instruction, was now a reasonably proficient falconer. Although he was fully capable of releasing the hawk without her supervision, Xandra wanted to be present to release this one.

“Morning Xandra, how are you feeling?” Art asked as his concerned gaze swept over her disproportionate figure.

“I feel like a whale on land and I’m moving with about as much grace.” She ran her hands over the aching spot in her lower back as she spoke. “Got everything ready?” she asked. The stocky man nodded as she continued. “You’ll have to get him out of the mews, I’m afraid I can’t fit through the door.” She smiled ruefully as she glanced down at her protruding belly.

On the workbench at the center of the clearing lay her glove, the hood and the special jesses she had fashioned recently in her many free hours. These jesses were different from the ones they normally used. Because this hawk would be released when they reached their destination, his ankle straps had been removed the night before. The new jesses were made of a very soft leather and would, with a series of twists, encircle the hawks legs in place of the straps. She would remove these jesses just before release, leaving the hawk unencumbered on his last flight to freedom.

The hood was necessary to blind him, keeping him calm during the long walk to the release location. Normally, she could have controlled him without the use of a hood, but her pregnancy had left her somewhat imbalanced. He was very strong and she didn’t want to take a chance on him baiting from her fist in his excitement and knocking her down.

As the two worked to complete their preparations, they discussed the provisions Art had made to ensure that the hawk would not starve as he learned to make his own way. They would not normally have released the animal this late in the year, with winter threatening, but they hoped he would find and mate with the female red tail they had released earlier in the summer.

Brie jogged breathlessly into the clearing just as they were about to leave. “Thank goodness I got here in time. I wanted to go with you but I thought I’d never get away. It seems that half of the

women in the settlement are going into labor this morning.”

Everyone but me, Xandra thought with a weary sigh. “Let’s go then.”

Art nodded and grabbed the newly made jesses as he turned to enter the mews that housed the red tail hawk Xandra had aptly named Hercules. After a few minutes, he emerged with the magnificent creature resting comfortably on his fist. Xandra stepped in closely behind him and raised her gloved hand to press gently against the back of the hawks legs, encouraging him to step up and back onto her own fist.

Hercules keened a low greeting to the woman who had raised him. Smiling, she answered with low, soothing sounds from the back of her throat. Raising her free hand over his head, she lowered the hood to rest over his eyes and, grabbing the free end of the drawstring between her teeth, she tugged gently, tightening the device securely, but comfortably over his head.

Brie fell into step with Xandra as they began their short hike to the release area. Xandra walked slowly, the weight of the hawk on her fist straining the recently unused muscles in her left arm. She was determined that regardless of the discomfort, she would carry her friend to his new home in the wilds of Gaia.

Enjoying the quiet of the forest, the three walked in companionable silence. The few short miles to their destination went more slowly than usual as Brie and Art kept pace with Xandra’s long but carefully placed steps. In her overburdened state, the usually powerful woman struggled up and down the slight inclines of the wooded path. The ache in her lower back had grown worse over the last few hours until she was now in almost constant pain. Her companions attributed her silence to the pending loss of her beloved Hercules, when in fact, she would revel in this triumph.

Arriving in another clearing deep in the forest, Xandra scanned the area with her sharp gaze. The faint sounds of abundant wildlife all around them insured that this would be a good place for her friend to begin his life as a free creature. In this same spot several months ago, they had released Demeter, the female red tail Xandra hoped would eventually mate with Hercules. These two had been her finest rehabilitation efforts to date. They had been monitoring Demeter’s movements through an electronic implant over the last few months and knew that she still frequented this area as part of her hunting grounds.

She paused to catch her breath as Brie looked on, concern evident in her emerald eyes. Gathering her remaining strength, Xandra straightened and deftly removed the hood and jesses from the sleek raptor. Speaking softly to the hawk as she worked, Xandra bade a fond farewell to her friend. Handing the falconry equipment to Art, who neatly tucked everything into a pouch at his waist, she mentally prepared for the final release.

Raising her arm high above her head, Xandra keened sharply to Hercules and lifted her fist in a sharp movement as the hawk spread his magnificent wings and rose effortlessly into the air. As they watched, Hercules flapped his powerful wings a few times, then riding the thermal air currents, began to soar high above them. Xandra’s eyes clouded with emotion as she watched this remarkable creature glide effortlessly beyond her range of sight.

Farewell my friend she thought as the stared into the empty sky, I will miss you.

Sliding the glove from her hand, she moved to tuck it in its place at her waist, then stopped, remembering that, presently, she had no waist. Handing the glove to Art with a wry grin, she said, “Here, you carry this. I don’t seem to have a place to put it at the moment.”

As they turned to leave the clearing, Xandra’s expression was an odd mixture of joy, sadness and the utter exhaustion that threatened to overwhelm her. Leaning heavily on her soulmate as they walked, her pace was even slower than before. The pain in her back had migrated and was now tightening the muscles in her belly with each new spasm. Still she was able to control her expression so that Brie believed that she was simply tired from the strenuous hike.

Only a short distance from the settlement, Xandra’s control slipped when a particularly brutal pain struck and she gasped loudly. A warm wetness flowed down her legs, soaking both her tunic and the ground below her. Brie, now aware that Xandra’s labor had begun, supported her lover as the pain subsided.

“Umm……Xandra? I think your water just broke. Can you make it to the infirmary or should I get someone to help us carry you?”

Laughing harshly in her discomfort, Xandra responded. “I’d better be able to make it. I don’t think anyone can lift me as big as I’ve gotten.”

Chapter 17

Brie was getting worried. Now nearly midnight, Xandra had been laboring since sometime that morning. She was completely exhausted, had no reserves left to draw upon and still the child did not come. Her water had broken over twelve hours ago and with each passing hour, it was certain that the delivery would be a rough one.

The doctor sat quietly by Xandra’s side, holding her limp hand, waiting for the next wave of agony to engulf her soulmate. The contractions were only seconds apart now, leaving Xandra little time to rest in between and yet she was still not fully dilated. Something was very wrong.

Unable to determine the source of the problem through traditional methods, Brie was preparing to assist her partner empathically. Regardless of Xandra’s expressed reluctance to accept Brie’s help in this form, it had become necessary. At this point, Brie was not sure that she could save Xandra, let alone the baby. She had few choices left. The practice of delivering a child by Caesarian section had been abandoned in the early 21st century, except in extreme cases, since medical researchers discovered that any surgical procedure encouraged the growth of malignant cancer cells. However, at this point, Brie was considering even that as an alternative to losing Xandra completely.

Sara and Arianna had been with her almost constantly since she and Xandra had first stumbled into the infirmary. Most of the other women who had gone into labor that morning had delivered hours ago, only Xandra remained. The medical teams were exhausted and there had been some muttering among them about making sure that so many women weren’t inseminated so close together again. There simply weren’t enough beds in the infirmary and enough hands on the medical teams to handle the onslaught.

Xandra’s eyes fluttered as the next contraction took hold and tore through her without mercy. Jaw clenched against the pain, she grasped Brie’s hand so hard the doctor thought her partner would snap the delicate bones in her fingers. Panting hard, Xandra tried to resist the urge to push, knowing she would rip herself apart unless the birth canal was dilated adequately. The seconds passed slowly as Brie watched her soulmate’s face contorted in pain.

Unable to watch helplessly any longer, Brie held on until the contraction eased. She wiped Xandra’s face gently with a cool cloth and kissed her tenderly. “Hang on Love, I’m gonna help you.” She spoke soothingly to the exhausted woman. “Just let me get set up for Ari to monitor me.”

“No, ” Xandra murmured hoarsely. ” I don’t want you to risk it. It’s too dangerous.”

“It’ll be fine, at least now we have another empath to do the monitoring and that makes it much safer. Now let me go get ready before you have another contraction, okay?”

“I guess I don’t really have a choice do I?” Xandra muttered in disgust. “You’re gonna do it even if I say no, aren’t you.”

“Yeah, I am……and you’re not in any position to argue with me either,” she responded angrily. “I’m not gonna let your stubbornness keep me from saving your life.” Fear of losing Xandra fueled her determination as she tugged her hand free from her partner’s grasp and turned to Arianna, allowing the young woman to attach the electronic sensors to her pressure points.

Ari’s hands fairly shook with nervousness as she made the final adjustments to the monitoring equipment. Brie laid a soothing hand on her arm and smiled gently as she attempted to calm the younger doctor. Arianna raised frightened eyes to meet Brie’s gaze and stammered, “I haven’t done this in a long time, and only in medical school……never for real.”

“Don’t worry,” the older woman replied reassuringly. “You’ll do fine. Just keep your eyes on the monitor and feel my body’s reactions. If my heart rate drops too low, you know what to do. Otherwise, you’re just along for the ride.”

“I know,” Arianna answered, tears glittering in her fear-darkened eyes. “But I’m so scared of losing her when I’ve just found her again. And you, I could lose you too.” The young woman’s shoulders began to shake as she tried unsuccessfully to control her tears.

Brie looked questioningly at the other empath. “Come on Ari, get hold of yourself, I need you. I could do this without you, I’ve done it before, but I’d feel safer with an empath watching the monitor.”

Arianna sniffed dramatically and squared her shoulders. “I can do this. I would do anything to help her –– and you. You’re my family.” Lowering her voice to nearly a whisper, she continued. “I love you.”

A tortured scream tore from Xandra’s throat as another brutal contraction seized her in its relentless grip. Sara rushed to the laboring woman’s side as she spoke frantically to the two doctors. “Would you two save the sensitive chat ‘‘til later? I think she’s hemorrhaging again and she can’t afford to lose any more blood.”

“Alright, I’m ready.” Brie announced, looking at Arianna for confirmation.

Ari’s face lost all evidence of emotion as her cool features settled into a professional mask. “I’m ready too. Go ahead Doctor.”

Breathing deeply, Brie laid gentle hands against Xandra’s distended belly. She could feel the erratic twitching of muscles beneath her touch. Closing her eyes, her mind gently probed her patient’s before plunging through Xandra’s natural mental barrier and stretching her psyche to reach deeply inside.

The first thing she felt was the steady heartbeat of the infant within. Thank all the Gods there are he’s okay. Spending a few precious moments soothing the child with loving thoughts, Brie met her son for the first time. The colors in his mind were bright and clear, his soul a beautiful shade of forest green. He welcomed her touch with delight and urged her to stay and play with him. She was honestly tempted but needed to pull away from him in order to help his mother. Their tentative bond allowed her to explain it all with a feeling of urgency and the tiny mind released hers instantly.

She felt regret as the exquisite feeling of pure love was abruptly withdrawn from her. I have to save them both……this is a very special child. He will teach us to love and forgive. Urgently, she probed Xandra’s uterus and cervix for the source of the problem. Again and again, she examined every muscle and nerve ending until she located the problem. The nerves that signaled the cervix to dilate in response to the uterine contractions were severely damaged and firing only intermittently. Without these signals, Xandra’s cervix would remain stubbornly closed against the powerful contractions racking her weakened body.

This I can fix! the young doctor thought with relief. I just need to…… The thought faded as her mind spun abruptly out of control and she fell through time into a dreamscape much like the one she’s shared with Xandra once before.

Confused, Brie looked around her to see the familiar form of her lover, dressed in leathers and armor. She was seated on a boulder, her eyes fastened on the boy seated on the ground at her feet. The woman raised her eyes to Brie as the doctor approached. Smiling, the dark woman spoke aloud. “Solon, she’s come.”

The boy turned and smiled at her. “I know Mother, I felt her too. She’s very worried about us.”

“I know son, but it was the only way we could get her here and she has to know. She has to remember because you are too young and will forget as you grow up. And me? I’ll forget because that’s just who I am, the eternal skeptic. It’s only here, in this place that I recognize who we are.”

“Xandra?……Xena?”

“Yes, Gabrielle, its me. We’ve been waiting for you. What took you so long?” Xena responded with an indulgent smile.

“Solon? Is it really you?” Brie-Gabrielle felt the memories flood her consciousness. With lightening speed she remembered meeting the child for the first time in an ancient centaur village. How brave he was then, risking his young life to battle the warlord threatening the only home he had known. With a stab of pain, she remembered watching as Xena held his lifeless body in her arms as she sobbed her grief. How could she ever have forgotten the anger in Xena’s voice as she blamed Gabrielle for his death. And what followed……what followed was the worst nightmare she’d ever experienced. Worse even than the ill-fated pregnancy that produced the demon child who had killed Solon.

In an instant, Brie saw who she had been in that life and how much they had lost by their inability to trust. She also realized that this was the first time since that first lifetime that all three would be together again as a family. This was their chance to heal the past.

“Why Solon? Why did you need to risk your lives to make me aware?” Brie asked urgently.

“Because one of us has to remember or it will happen all over again.” The boy paused, struggling for the right words to explain their karmic obligation. “It wouldn’t be just like the past……I mean, Hope won’t be here or anything. She’s truly gone. Her time passed with Dahok’s power. But something just as bad could happen unless we remember to stay close and love each other.”

Considering his words, Brie slowly nodded with dawning understanding. “Okay, so it’s my job to remember. Just how do I do that? The last time we were in this place I couldn’t remember a thing when I woke up.”

Xena smiled gently and reached for her hand. “Touch me Gabrielle. Touch my mind and remember everything.”

Shyly, Brie extended her hand. The instant the two touched, she was engulfed with memories of a lifetime together –– many lifetimes. In each one the two women were partners. Sometimes merely as friends and other time as lovers, they were always soulmates. Nothing could keep them apart, even the loss of a beloved child.

In what seemed like minutes, she had collected enough emotion to short circuit the mind of someone untrained in the psychic arts. She understood that she alone could carry these memories into the future. In the dreamscape, they were all equally powerful, but in the real world, she was the only one capable of guarding the future from the past. This was their second chance and she was determined not to lose it.

Pulling away, she swallowed hard, struggling for control, she smiled grimly. “Okay, I think I’ve got it. Now you’d better get born or you’ll kill your mother before we’ve even begun.”

Instantly, Brie was pulled away from the dreamscape, the image of Xena and the boy fading into obscurity. She found herself once more attending the damaged nerves of her partner’s cervix. Emulating the electrical signals that she knew would cause her partner to finally dilate, she stayed with it through several contractions until the infant’s shoulders cleared the birth canal.

Assured that her partner was out of immediate danger, she withdrew from her mind and fell forward against Xandra’s shoulder. Breathing deeply and slowly, she felt the last contraction sweep over her partners body and heard the sharp cries of the infant as he burst forth from his mother’s body.

Just before she lost consciousness, Brie whispered, “Welcome home Solon.”

Chapter 18

Xandra rested comfortably in a recliner-like chair as the tiny infant in her arms locked his fingers around a hand full of hair and tugged on her long dark locks. Wincing as he tried to force his fist into his mouth, she gently loosened his grasp and flipped her hair back over her shoulders, conveniently out of his reach.

He gurgled happily, as Stephanie looked on, mesmerized. “He’s laughing Xandra,” the stunned pilot exclaimed.

Xandra’s rich laughter rumbled through her chest, delighting the infant in her arms. “Nah, its just gas. They don’t start laughing for a few months. But he does look real cute, doesn’t he.”

“Yeah,” she sighed. “He’s just perfect. I never thought I’d feel so……so attached to him. I guess it really is instinctual, huh?” Stephanie gazed adoringly at the grinning baby as she spoke.

Xandra laughed again, shaking her head as she answered. “Yeah, it must be. A tough old soldier like me turning soft over a little thing like him? It has to be instinct.” Pausing for a moment, Xandra lifted her eyes to meet Stephanie’s darker gaze. “Thanks, by the way.”

“For what?” the muscular blonde asked.

“For agreeing to name him Bret. You could have insisted on a family name or something. It was really important to me that one of his names be part of Brie’s.”

“Bret Hunter-Lawless. It fits him.”

Stephanie smiled as she watched her son rooting against Xandra’s breast, a sure sign his ravenous appetite was awakening. Rising from her seat, she reached out to stroke the downy soft hair on his head. “Well, I guess I’d better get back to work. Someone has to keep things going while you lay around up here being waited on hand and foot. Enjoy it while it lasts, Xandra. With Brie pregnant again, you’ll be the one working over time and waiting on her before long.”

Both women laughed in delight as Brie’s rounded figure appeared in the doorway, scowling at their visitor. “You just wait Stephanie Hunter, your time’s coming. I hear you’re scheduled in the next group.” Her gaze softened as she turned to her soulmate. “And you need to feed Bret and then get some rest. You lost a lot of blood and you need to rebuild your strength.”

Ushering the blonde woman from the room, Brie returned to settle her growing bulk next to her partner, smiling indulgently as she watched the impatient infant greedily suckling Xandra’s breast. Leaning her head on Xandra’s shoulder, Brie smiled and closed her eyes. She did remember……everything. And with that knowledge, came the assurance that everything would turn out right –– this time.

FINIS

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