Ephemeral: Chapter 19
All too soon, Clara's “long” commute to Agilis ended, and she still had little idea how to convince her teammates to return with her to Almitas. After parking her hovercraft, Clara jammed her hands into her pockets and walked into the Sapphire Hotel with a worried mind and anxious heart. She felt like a doctor getting ready to deliver terminal news. No amount of pleasantness would erase the awful prognosis; she and her teammates would shrivel into old men and women in a matter of days and would likely never see their home planet again – nor the people they loved on it.
Clara dragged her feet toward the hotel entrance knowing each step drew her closer and closer to the inevitable revelation. Since she still wasn't sure what to say, she decided to skip the elevator and buy some time taking the stairs. With each successive flight, she felt like a small child climbing the high dive, doubting all the while she could swim. She considered taking the plunge and blurting out everything just to get it over with: Hey guys! We're all going to die of old age in a few weeks. But before we entirely deteriorate, could we help the Almitians get His Eminence off their back? They're trying to avoid a war.
Clara shook her head and sighed. Perhaps the best course was to try to forget the truth for a while. Hopefully she could sell the Almitian midday feast idea and convince her team to alter their weekend plans. But it's hard to convince others to get on board when you don't care for the ship's destination. Even if the Almitian plan succeeded – if His Eminence disbanded the army, and all the clans reaffirmed their original charters and united in peace – she and her friends would still be stuck on Elpis 7, doomed to die of old age after an accelerated life.
It's such a paradox, she mused as she stood on the landing to catch her breath. She pushed open the door to her floor but paused when she saw Darian at the other end of the corridor arguing with a woman. His shirt collar was open and his chin had a healthy field of stubble. He carried his suit jacket over his shoulder and had one hand on his hip. Clara couldn't tell who the woman was because her back was to Clara and her abundant black hair hid most of her features. But Clara definitely saw Darian's perplexed face and heard him exclaim, “It's not mine! It's not physically possible!”
“You owe me, Darian!” The woman was crying now, her face in her hands. “I'll sue for what you owe!”
“You can't be serious!” Darian held up his hands, sheer shock written on his features. “I swear, you've got the wrong man! And I'll be gone before we ever reach a court date!”
“We'll just see about that, jerk!” The woman slapped Darian's left cheek, then turned toward the elevators.
Clara gasped; it was Eden! And her elegant figure had grown noticeably more curvy since the day before. Clara heard her black heels strike the tile like an angry jackhammer. Darian watched her disappear, raked his hand through his hair, then strode toward the hotel suite and slammed the door behind him.
Clara's stomach sank. That didn't go well. She quietly made her way down the hall and hesitated at the suite door. Should she give Darian some space and wait before entering? But if I wait forever, the others might leave before I can get them to Almitas.
Clara turned the cool metal doorknob and let herself in to find Darian already mixing himself a drink.
“Hey, Clara!” Raven said from the table. “You made it back! And not a degree past mid-morning! Care for a bagel? Or a stroodle?” She pointed to the silver platter heaped with pastries.
“No, thanks.” Clara attempted a grin. She had no appetite.
“What about some tea?”
“Or bourbon?” Darian offered as he placed a single, oversized ice cube into his glass.
“Tea would be nice. Thanks, Raven.”
“No problem. I was about to make myself a cup, anyway. I already finished my morning workout in the gym, so I say I've earned an extra spoonful of sugar.”
“Good for you,” Darian muttered as he took his drink to brood on the couch.
Raven looked like she was about to ask why he was so grumpy when Clara asked, “Where's Aliyah and Tristan?”
“I think Tristan's still sleeping. Must have been up late reading about the local flora and fauna. And Aliyah was fixing her hair, last I checked.” She lowered her voice. “Found another couple gray strands this morning, but I think she'll recover.”
Clara smiled briefly.
As if on cue, both interns in question appeared at the door – one still in his bathrobe with thick red stubble on his chin and the other in a mustard-colored blouse and sienna Capri pants.
“Tea?” Raven offered the newcomers.
“Sure,” Tristan said as he plopped himself down at the table and started piling food onto his plate.
Aliyah shook her head. “Thanks, but I want to get a latte at that cute cafe we passed last night. I will, however, help myself to these yummy treats. Oh, hey Clara! When did you get in?”
“Just now,” Clara answered.
“Raven told us your hovercraft wouldn't start. So what did you do all evening?”
Clara froze; now was not the best time to go into Mother Alden's arrest or her escape from the snarleks. Thankfully, her shirt hid most of the evidence from that encounter. “Well ...” she trailed off.
“Yes?” Raven asked.
Clara's hesitation drew even Darian's attention from his bourbon.
“I … I actually have an announcement!” Clara said. Now seemed as good a time as any to issue the invitation. “I'm sorry I couldn't say anything about it last night, but the Almitians are throwing us a midday feast in our honor! All the Eldership and leading citizens are supposed to be there; it's supposed to be a big party.”
The interns stood silently, considering the information.
“That's nice,” Raven finally said. “You must have made a good impression on them.”
Clara nearly laughed at this supposition but managed a modest smile.
“It's very generous,” Aliyah agreed after swallowing a bite of fruity danish. She looked at her new wristband. “But how long is this midday feast going to take? I wanted to go out on the town today.”
“The feast itself should only last about an hour, so if we leave in twelve degrees, we could be back by early afternoon. Still plenty of time to go shopping.”
Aliyah looked longingly out the photopetrium wall to the city below and chewed thoughtfully. “I suppose one should never turn down an honor, even if it wasn't sought. I still have time to get my latte before we go.”
Darian clinked the ice against his glass. “It might be nice to get out of the city for a bit. A field trip to the fields, as it were.” He drained his glass and stood. “I'll meet you all at the hover-bikes.”
“No breakfast?” Raven asked.
“Not hungry,” Darian mumbled.
“I think we'll need to take my craft,” Clara said. “The hover-bikes won't work off road.”
“Whatever. Wake me up when it's time to go.” Darian left his glass on the counter and headed for his suite.
“What's his deal this morning?” Raven asked with an elevated eyebrow.
“Maybe things with Ms. Eden didn't go quite as planned,” Aliyah smirked.
You could say that again … Clara kept mum.
Raven shrugged. “I'll go to Almitas if everyone else is. What about you, Tris? Care to join us for a foray into rural territory?”
“I dunno,” Tristan said as he slid his glasses up his nose. “I feel like I'm on the verge of some sort of break through. Maybe I should stay here.”
“What kind of break through?” Raven asked as she lifted the singing kettle off the burner.
“I'm not sure yet,” Tristan said. “Something's off here. Things seem to be moving impossibly fast. But I need to do more research.”
“Tristan,” Clara said, trying to seem nonchalant. “Can't your research wait a little while? It's technically our day off.”
“She has a point,” Aliyah concurred. “You've been cooped up for too long. You need a break – and that's coming from me!”
Tristan looked doubtful. “I suppose …”
“Great! It's all settled!” Clara said cheerfully, though beneath the surface she felt horrible. She didn't like deceiving her teammates and grabbed a bagel to hide her twitching mouth.
“Okay,” Tristan relented. “I can spare a little time. They're just going to feed us, right? I don't have to prepare a speech or anything?”
Clara looked up. “I can be our spokesperson, if needed.”
“Very well, then.” Tristan reached toward the platter to fill his plate again.
At the appointed time, Clara stood beside her hovercraft. It was charged and ready, and she could hardly believe her good fortune. Her teammates were actually coming! Step one of the plan was working! All she had to do now was ask for their communicators and eventually break the news once Agilis was far behind them. She was not looking forward to this, but knew there would be no peace until she did the deed. The sooner she revealed the truth, the sooner they could come to terms with it. Clara had yet to fully do this herself, but the initial anguish of her situation had dwindled to a dull disappointment after a long night's sleep. Plus, the immediate need to prevent a war provided a welcome distraction from heartache.
As per usual, Raven arrived early. She looked doubtfully at the dinghy-like hovercraft. “It's not exactly a private jet, but if we get cozy on the benches, we should all fit.”
“It's not the ride, it's the destination that counts,” Clara said.
“Really?” Raven put a hand on her hip and grinned. “Most people say it's all about the journey.” She stepped into the craft and sat on one of the hard benches. “And this journey will have no backrests, I see.”
“Neither does your hover-bike,” Clara countered.
“Touche,” Raven conceded.
Aliyah and Tristan walked up together. “Are we really riding in that thing?” Aliyah wrinkled her nose. “I'm not sure I'd trust it to float on water, much less air.”
“Are you sure it will hold all of us?” Tristan asked as he craned his neck to see inside.
Clara pointed to some writing on the navigational screen. “It says it has a seventy-one stone limit. I'm sure we'll be fine.”
“How much does a stone weigh?” Raven asked, crossing her arms.
“I believe that's about fourteen pounds,” Tristan supplied. He pushed his glasses up his nose. “That's roughly ... one thousand pounds of capacity.”
“See!” Clara pointed to Tristan. “Totally fine.”
The other interns still looked skeptical. Clara glanced behind her. “Any sign of Darian? We should be going soon.”
“I left him shaving in the bathroom,” Tristan said, frowning. “Seems like hair grows a lot faster here … another data point for my ...”
“Here he comes!” Clara said as the intern in question approached the vehicle.
The man had shaved, sure enough. But his new button-down shirt was only partially tucked in and he'd forgotten his belt. Without so much as one sarcastic comment, he stepped over the edge of the hovercraft and sat on the bench across from Raven.
“Okay, then,” Clara said, stealing a glance over her shoulder for any soldiers. “Let's move out!”
Tristan and Aliyah sat next to Raven. Clara stepped in and leaned forward to start the hovercraft. It rumbled to life and began rising from the ground. Clara looked over her shoulder, then back at the screen. So far, so good.
“Clara,” Raven asked when they were about fifteen feet in the air. “Is everything alright?”
Clara started at the question. “How do you mean?” she asked innocently.
“You seem … nervous.”
“Oh, that!” Clara gave a forced laugh. She glanced at the scan-stone pinned to Raven's black blouse and grasped for an innocuous explanation. “I've … I've never had a feast in my honor before. I should probably prepare a thank you speech just in case. You know how much I love public speaking.”
Raven narrowed her brown eyes as she studied her friend.
Clara's throat felt dry. She knows I'm lying – she can always tell! “Please trust me, Raven,” she said quietly. “Everything will be fine.”
“Alright.” Raven leaned her arm on the hovercraft's side and looked out toward the descending columned buildings.
Clara hoped Raven wouldn't interpret her lack of transparency as a lack of trust. She wanted to tell her everything! But she'll understand by and by.
The hovercraft had nearly reached flying height when someone shouted below. “Hey you, there! Where are you going?!”
Clara looked down and nearly had a heart attack. Flanked by a dozen guards stood Commander Ballitor, his blue electric staff in hand.
“Stop the ascent,” Raven hissed. Then she leaned over the hovercraft's side. “Good Elpis-rising, Commander! We've all been invited to a midday feast in Almitas. Isn't that kind of them?”
Commander Ballitor knit his eyebrows over his nose. “It's not an Almitian holiday. What's the occasion?'
“We are,” said Aliyah, smiling in her ignorance. “It's a welcome feast. But we'll be back in Agilis once it's over, right Clara?”
Clara could not speak – her heart was threatening to ping out from her rib cage. She nodded silently.
“Wait there,” the commander ordered. He rapidly tapped a message on his wristband and seemed to be waiting for a response.
Clara held her breath until the commander looked up again. “Very well. You may attend the feast. We'll provide you an escort to the Almitian border.”
“Is that necessary?” Tristan asked. “We wouldn't want to take you from your duties.”
“While you are here, you are my duty. We'll take you to the border.” Ballitor nodded to his second-in-command who punched some buttons on his own wristband.
Oh, no! Clara hunched over her navigation controls. She had not anticipated an entourage. But there was nothing for it. In less than a degree, the soldiers had boarded their sleek, military-grade hovercraft.
“You may proceed, now,” Commander Ballitor ordered through his hand-held amplifier.
Clara thought she detected amusement on the soldiers' faces as her flying boat rose slowly to the correct plane of travel. Then both craft headed west toward Almitas.
Aliyah turned around on the bench to see the soldiers following about fifty feet behind, then turned back to the group. “You'd think we're old enough not to need chaperons,” she said indignantly. “But if they're going to escort us anyway, couldn't they have taken us in one of their hovercraft?”
“That would have been nice,” Tristan said as he shifted uncomfortably on the hard seat. “But I don't mind the extra protection. This is still a wild planet.”
You have no idea, Tristan. Clara kept her gaze straight ahead.
“But Clara's made this same trip several times without a guard! So why all this bother?”
Clara took a deep breath. She knew anything she said would be transmitted via her friends' communicators. With the soldiers so near, she dared not ask for their removal. “If the commander thinks it's best, then it probably is.” She tried to smile. “Perhaps we should just sit back and enjoy the scenery.”
“I would if I had a back to lean against,” Aliyah mumbled.
So what do you think?
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