Ephemeral: Chapter 20
The beauty of the sea of rolling green hills and lush, yellow fields was lost on Clara as she stared at the blinking dot moving along the glowing green navigational screen. She wished she could move it along faster and could feel herself sweating under her armpits. In contrast, her companions seemed unconcerned about their military following. Darian had fallen asleep, Raven watched the countryside pass in silence, Aliyah scrolled through data on her handheld screen, and Tristan periodically wished aloud he'd brought a book.
Not fifty feet behind them, Captain Ballitor followed in his hovercraft with a dozen armed guards. Clara could not imagine why he'd been sent. How could anyone in Agilis know of the Eldership's plans? She had not appeared before the Eldership until after Aaric had destroyed her communicator. Unless I'm wearing another bug I'm unaware of …
At long last, Clara spotted the Almitas clock tower in the distance. Both hovercraft slowed as they approached the buildings near the town square and started descending in a grassy clearing about a hundred yards from the square's entrance. “Before I forget,” Clara said as the boat started lowering, “everyone brace yourselves; this craft shuts off about two feet from the ground. It's jarring if you're not holding onto something.”
“Someone better warn Darian,” Aliyah said, gripping the bench beneath her.
The man in question leaned on his right arm, eyes closed and mouth hanging open.
Clara opened her mouth to rouse him when …
“I-I'm awake!” Darian sputtered, rubbing his eyes with the back of his fist.
“Look! He lives!” Raven said, bemused.
The smells of roasting meat and fresh baked bread wafted on the breeze. The sounds of nearby drums, stringed instruments, and a woodwind or two promised a lively celebration. But Clara sat stiffly on the hard bench as the soldiers exited their hovercraft.
Captain Ballitor marched up to the interns. “Ms. Milton?”
Clara's insides clenched. “S-sir?” She felt like a criminal already.
“You know an Elder Thomas Alden, do you not?”
Clara's heart seemed to throb in her throat. “Yes, sir.”
“If you would be so kind as to direct me to him ...”
Clara swallowed hard. “Is there any trouble, sir?”
“I need to deliver a message. Lead the way, please.” It was a command.
“Yes, sir.” Clara stepped out from the hovercraft and led her companions, the commander, and the armed company down the wide path between two rows of buildings into the spacious town square. Clara rounded the corner and was pleasantly surprised by the square's transformation. Green and yellow bunting flapped merrily overhead. The market booths had been moved to the square's perimeter to allow space for dozens of long tables bedecked with multicolored flowers and fruits. Several young men, women, and children were twirling in time to the music in some kind of Almitian folk dance. But at the sight of the Silexian guards, the musicians forgot their notes. The laughter died. The movement ceased. All stood in silence as they watched the company approach.
Clara's cheeks burned. She hoped she was not bringing another curse to this generous people as she led Commander Ballitor through the crowd toward the red canopies in front of the town hall. At one of two long wooden tables sat the entire Almitian Eldership – sans Mother Alden.
Commander Ballitor's helmeted guards marched in time carrying their blue-flashing staffs against their shoulders. They halted when their leader raised his hand. “Elder Thomas Alden?” he spoke to the Eldership.
“I am Thomas Alden.” The man in question rose from his seat and stepped forward from the group, his gray eyes stern. “And you are Silexian soldiers in Almitian territory. What can I do for you?”
The corner of Commander Ballitor's mouth twitched. “I have escorted our interstellar visitors to your tribe. And I have a message regarding Ms. Magdalena Alden.”
Clara saw Thomas' steely gray eyes flash at the mention of his mother. “Yes?”
“I'm here to inform you that her case is of special interest to the Grand Assembly, and her trial has been moved to the one hundred and fiftieth degree.”
“That's only thirty degrees before Elpis-setting!” the Facilitator rose from her seat. “This is most unusual! We need more time to prepare Mother Alden's defense!”
“If she's innocent, she won't need much of a defense,” the commander sneered.
Dark storm clouds gathered in Thomas' eyes. Clara edged away from Captain Ballitor.
The commander continued, “You should consider yourselves honored that His Eminence is prioritizing her trial.”
The Facilitator narrowed her eyes. “It's an honor we could well forego.”
Captain Ballitor shrugged. “She's your citizen. And she's allowed as many witnesses to speak for her as you please. Just don't be late. There will be no appeal once sentence is pronounced.”
With that, the commander signaled his soldiers and marched out of the market square. As soon as their hovercraft rose above the buildings and jettisoned back toward Agilis, the crowd breathed a communal sigh of relief. The band struck up a chorus, and the Almitians continued with their merry-making.
Clara glanced at Thomas. He acknowledged her presence with a nod before turning back to the other Elders. This is bad! Clara thought. I haven't yet told my friends the truth about this place, and we don't have much time to help Mother Alden!
Raven cocked her head. “Clara, what was that all about?”
“Who got arrested, again?” Aliyah asked.
Clara ran a hand through her hair – now shoulder-length. “Mother Alden – my mentor.”
“What did she get arrested for?” Tristan asked.
“I don't see how it matters,” Darian said as he straightened his loose neck tie. “It's got nothing to do with us. If it's one thing I've learned on this planet, it's never get too involved with the locals.”
Oh, boy … Clara felt slightly sick.
Just then, Thomas Alden walked up to the group and bowed from the waist. “Welcome to Almitas! My name is Thomas Alden, son of Joseph and Magdalena Alden. We are honored to have you.”
Raven smiled. “We are honored to be here. Clara has told us much about your clan.”
“Oh?” Thomas asked.
Clara feigned a smile. “I haven't told them everything about Almitas,” Clara said significantly. “Our trip was so ...” she glanced at Raven's scan-stone communicator. “... so protected that I didn't get a chance.”
Thomas nodded ever so slightly and gestured to a young woman standing with a basket with five bunches of flowers tied with yellow and green ribbon. “This midday meal is a festival, and you are our honored guests. These flowers will let the vendors know that your food and drink are on the house, compliments of the Almitian Eldership.”
“Drink?” Darian's ears perked up.
“As much as you like. And just to make sure that no one loses anything valuable in all the frivolity,” Thomas said as he procured a six-inch metal box from his pocket. “I'll take your Agilis communicators for safekeeping.”
“Our communicators?” Tristan said, covering his with a hand. “What for?”
“Only to make room for your boutineer, young man.” Thomas opened the box and held it out to the tentative environmentalist. “You may have them again as soon as the festivities are over. I don't want your scan-stones to get mislaid or damaged. Ms. Clara unfortunately lost hers, you see.”
“You didn't mention that,” Raven said, turning to Clara. “What happened?”
“It got … um … dropped,” Clara said. “I'm still trying to figure out how to tell Eden. She won't be happy about it.”
“She's not happy about most things at the moment,” Darian said as he unclasped his communicator and tossed it into the box.
“Anyway,” Clara said to the others, “we don't really need them right now since we can talk in person. Anyone want help with their flowers?”
One by one, each intern dropped their scan-stones into the box. Thomas closed it as the Facilitator approached the group; Clara's teammates unconsciously took a step backwards. She was only in her fifties, but no one besides Clara had seen a woman with so much gray hair before. The Facilitator smiled. “Now that you're all decorated, would you care to join me onstage? I'd like to introduce you to the rest of the clan and make some announcements to the crowd.”
“And after that we can eat, drink, and be merry?” Darian asked.
The Facilitator grinned. “Of course, young man.”
Raven shot Darian a corrective glance, but he didn't notice as he followed the Elder up the wooden steps onto the stage where the musicians had just finished playing a reel. After getting the band to sound a long blast to get everyone's attention, the Facilitator walked toward a round, metal amplifier on a silver pole and spoke. “My fellow Almitians! Thank you all for joining us for what promises to be a festive midday meal, thanks to the diligent preparation of our town council, civic volunteers, and excellent vendors.”
The crowd whooped and hollered.
She waited for the noise to die down, then continued, “Please remember that all contributions to this event go to support our various community care-giving teams and volunteer health aides. So don't be afraid to be generous.”
More applause and laughter.
“We also want to welcome our honored guests – the interstellar academic interns from Earth!”
The crowd clapped enthusiastically.
Clara and her teammates grinned awkwardly.
“I trust you will show them all every Almitian courtesy,” continued the Facilitator. “And you'll have plenty of time to meet them as they will be spending the remainder of their lives here with us on Elpis 7!”
Clara's jaw dropped. What?! She just out and said it?! She could not believe her ears!
Raven, Aliyah, Tristan, and Darian turned to Clara with varying degrees of shock and confusion on their faces.
Clara bit her lip and looked down at her feet; she couldn't bring herself to face her friends. She didn't hear the rest of the speech, but soon felt herself getting nudged toward the amplifier by one of the musicians. The crowd stared at her in expectation.
Oh, no! The speech! Clara's gut tightened. She walked toward the amplifier. “Um ...”
Everyone winced as a harsh squeak went through the sound system.
“Sorry,” Clara said. She had never been good at this sort of thing. Speech-making was usually Raven's department. “Thank you all very much,” she said.
“Hear, hear!” shouted the woman from the Eldership.
That seemed to satisfy the crowd. They clapped politely and watched as the Facilitator walked back to the amplifier.
“So with many thanks to our community and to our Maker, let the feasting begin!”
“Amen!” shouted a rotund man from the front row. He rushed toward one of the food vendors as the musicians took up their instruments.
“Welcome again,” said the Facilitator as she walked down the row of interns, shaking each one's hand with both of her own. “Enjoy the celebration! And Miss Milton,” she said confidentially when she held Clara's hand, “we may need you and your Raven friend in the town hall soon. We'll send someone for you.”
Clara nodded mechanically as she and the others followed the Facilitator down the steps off the wooden stage. Her heart hammered against her rib cage as her teammates formed a semicircle around her.
“Clara,” Raven said once the Facilitator had gone. “What on earth is going on?!”
“What did she mean by saying we were going to spend the remainder of our lives here?” Aliyah asked. “We're leaving in few weeks, aren't we?”
Clara felt like a kayaker watching a tidal wave approach. There was no escaping the truth any longer. She gestured toward the second wooden table under the red canopy. “Let's go over there. You'll want to sit down.”
So what do you think?
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