Ephemeral: Chapter 21
Clara delivered the fateful news as gently as she could. But no amount of gentleness can compensate for a cannonball through the heart. For a full minute, no one at the table spoke.
Then reality hit with a mind-jarring blow.
Clara wanted to duck and cover as everyone started talking at once, asking the same questions and making the same demands Clara had the day before.
“So this whole internship is basically pointless?” Darian asked, his brow deeply furrowed. “And we're all gonna die here?”
“I don't understand!” Tristan said, jamming his glasses up his nose. “There must be some miscalculation!”
“Does the university know about this!?” Raven asked, getting to her feet.
Aliyah also stood. “Take me back! Take me back to Agilis! There's got to be some ship that can get us back – or maybe get us to another planet so we can get to Earth from there!”
Clara shook her head. “I'm so sorry, guys. Without a direct wormhole to Earth, we could leave Elpis 7 this moment and die of old age before reaching home. We can't even send a message back. And by the end of our internship, we'll all exceed the age of Passing.”
The men stared at Clara, dumbstruck. The women slowly sank back to their seats as all their hopes for their summer – for their very futures – sank with them.
“But, but … that's not fair!” Aliyah choked out as tears filled her eyes.
The interns sat in grieved silence while the festive music played incongruously in the background.
Clara sighed deeply. There are two types of suffering in life: the suffering we bear ourselves and the suffering we watch others bear. Sometimes it's impossible to tell which is worse. Clara had started to process her own suffering the day before, but her companions' pain was now fresh and stabbing. She knew not how to comfort them.
“So … we're really stuck here? We can't go back?” Tristan asked, his glasses growing misty. “Not ev –” his voice broke on the last word. He took off his spectacles and put his head in his hands.
Clara reached out and touched Tristan's shoulder, her own eyes moist. “I'm sorry, Tris.”
“Well, I can't accept this!” Aliyah declared, pounding the table with her fist. “I won't accept this! When I signed up for this internship, I did NOT sign my life away. This is a colonial problem; the colony can figure out how to fix it!”
“Some things can't be be fixed,” Darian pronounced as he rose. He ran a hand through his unruly hair, adjusted his boutineer, and loosened his tie. Then he started walking toward the crowd.
“Where are you going?” Clara asked.
“Apparently, nowhere. But the brewer's line is as good a place as any to start coping with one's destiny.”
“So you're just going to eat, drink, and be merry, then?!” Raven glared at him.
“For tomorrow we die,” Darian finished the quote with a shrug. “Catch y'all later.” He left without so much as a backward glance.
Raven stood to her feet. She looked pale.
“Raven, I'm sorry. Can I ..?”
Raven held up a hand to silence Clara. “I … I need a minute.” She moved from the table. “I gotta … think ...” She walked away, oblivious to the merry-making about her.
“I still want to go back to Agilis!” Aliyah persisted. “Someone in the city has to know something about wormholes. Maybe they can see if there are any earth-bound ones opening near one of the other colonies. Or maybe we could get off this planet and at least age normally while we wait for another wormhole to open up. It's worth a shot, at least!”
Clara smiled sadly as Aliyah grasped at straws. “Perhaps ...”
Tristan made a noise which sounded like something between a laugh and a sob. He looked at Aliyah through cloudy glasses. “The statistical likelihood of jumping to another planet and happening to find another Earth-bound wormhole is about one in eight trillion. It's science, Aliyah. You can't escape it. We're stuck here. We'll die here. Hope is a delusion.”
Aliyah glared at him and leaned forward across the table. “Last I checked, Tristan, you were an environmentalist – not an astronomer. One chance in eight trillion is still a chance. And I, for one, am not too scared to take it.”
Tristan shook his head wearily. “Do what you want, Aliyah. It's your life.”
“Thank you! I'd prefer to not end it here from premature old age! It's suicide to stay!”
“Guys ...” Clara said in warning as Thomas Alden approached the table.
He looked at Aliyah and Tristan's tear-stained faces, then at Clara.
She nodded. “They know.”
His eyes surveyed the distressed interns. “My sincerest condolences for your loss,” he said, though neither Aliyah nor Tristan responded. He turned to Clara. “I know this is difficult, but the Eldership would like to speak to you and your friend, Raven. Where is she?”
“She walked in that direction,” Clara pointed. “But she's as upset as the others.”
“I can imagine.” Thomas Alden pushed a few buttons on his digital armband. “I'm messaging my daughter. She can look after your companions while we meet with the Eldership. She can even set up Mother Alden's home for guests if needed.”
Clara looked at her teammates – each grieving in their own worlds. “You are very kind, but I believe they'd like to return to Agilis as soon as possible.”
“Unfortunately, that may not be possible until next Elpis-rising.”
“Why not?!” Aliyah snapped, now tuning into the discussion. “I've got to get back!”
Thomas overlooked the comment. “Clara, a word.”
“Why can't we go back?!” Aliyah demanded.
Clara rose to her feet. “Aliyah, let me sort things out, okay? You can help yourself to the feast ...”
“You really think I'm hungry?!” Aliyah nearly shouted. “I want to leave! Now!”
“I know,” Clara said. “We'll do our best.”
Thomas led Clara away from the canopy, “I know your companions are upset, Clara, and I'm sorry. But we have more urgent concerns. Commander Ballitor's ultimatum has cut our time short. If Mother Alden is tried this Elpis-setting and found guilty of treason, she will be executed by next Elpis-setting. We have only a matter of degrees to come up with a defense for her in court and to devise a plan to remove Captain Karnak's Fire Stone.”
Clara shifted her weight from one foot to the other. “Can't we focus on Mother Alden's defense now and worry about the stone later?”
Thomas Alden shook his head. “Kelly has received intelligence the Agilis army is massing on the western side of Silex territory – the side that borders Almitas. If called upon, they will be able to strike within less than five degrees. We'll have no time to evacuate. If Mother Alden is found guilty, it could implicate the entire tribe in some supposed conspiracy against His Eminence. It only takes a small spark to set a forest ablaze; we can't take that risk. Our only hope is to remove the source of His Eminence's hold over the Grand Assembly. We can prove Mother Alden meant no malice to a rational jury. But as long as he's immortal, His Eminence will act like a god regardless of the law.”
“I see,” Clara said. “What do you want me to do?”
“We need to speak to your friend to devise a strategy for retrieving the Fire Stone – and quickly.”
Clara looked in the direction Raven had taken and pursed her lips together.
Thomas pressed further. “I know it isn't fair and your friend is grieving, but Mother Alden's life is in danger. Possibly all the lives in this tribe are. So if you could please keep that perspective, I'll risk the appearance of insensitivity.”
“Alright,” Clara said at length.
“Good. We'll meet you inside town hall.” He turned and left Clara to find Raven.
Her friend hadn't gone far. In fact, she was striding back in Clara's direction, her dark eyes staring fixedly at the ground. Clara was about to hail her when Raven pivoted and started walking in the opposite direction.
She's pacing, Clara thought. Raven always paced when there was a problem she couldn't immediately work out. Such problems were rare as Raven prided herself on her strategizing abilities – abilities sorely needed by the Almitians at the moment. But Clara wondered if Raven's sorrow might sabotage her critical thinking. “Raven!” she called as she caught up to her friend.
Raven stopped pacing, but did not look at Clara.
Sensing Raven's disapproval, Clara stopped short. “Raven, I know this is really bad timing and you're light years from being okay, but the Eldership needs to speak with you.”
Raven didn't move – her back still to Clara. “How long have you known?” she asked, her voice sounding small and far away.
“I only found out last night,” Clara said. “Right before Mother Alden was arrested. I ...” her voice faltered, “I know it's a lot to take in. But we'll have time later to ...”
“Time!” Raven whirled around. Her brown eyes flashed defiantly. “What time do we have, Clara?! Time to shrivel of old age on a foreign planet? This colony has cheated us out of our futures! What more do we owe these people?!”
Clara stepped backwards; she hardly recognized her ever-cool-and-collected friend. “Nothing, I suppose. But if war breaks out, our already-abbreviated lives could get even shorter. If I have to die here, I'd rather end my life in peace.”
“Some peace!” Raven scoffed. “Sounds more like slow torture!”
“Okay,” Clara conceded. “I see your point. But if you can't help the Almitians for their own sakes, could you help them for mine?”
“Yours?” Raven blinked in surprise. “Why should you of all people care about local politics?”
“Well, most of these people have been kind to me. Why shouldn't I help if I'm able? I have nothing to lose.”
“That's only because you've already lost it, Clara! Don't you get it?! We're never going home! We're going to stagnate here! This whole endeavor is utterly meaningless!”
“Our lives aren't over yet!” Clara countered with a passion which surprised them both.
Raven stared at her, mouth ajar.
Clara softened her tone. “We're here now. And we have the chance to do something significant. If we capture Captain Karnak's power source, we can make the colonists' lives better. Isn't that why you're studying politics – to make people's lives better?”
Raven's face darkened. “Not these people! They're so backward – allowing the elderly to linger. Their very existance is an insult and would mortify anyone in the Vitae Conglomerate! If we really want to make these people's lives better, we should reinstitute the Rite of Passing.”
Clara's eyes widened. “But the elderly are still people!”
“Are they?” Raven challenged. “My father basically turned into a vegetable in his latter days. He was a burden to himself and to everyone else. Why help a colony which won't even help itself?”
Clara was getting frustrated. They needed to get back to the town hall. “Raven, I know you don't agree with the Almitians' political choices. But they made them according to the Interstellar Charter. And now Captain Karnak's threatening their rights. Can't you at least support their ability to govern themselves – even if you disagree with how they do it?”
Raven swallowed hard, still frowning.
“For me?” Clara pleaded.
Raven sighed. “Fine.” The tension in her body slowly melted into acceptance. “What do they want?”
Clara felt relieved. “Information regarding how to access Captain Karnak's offices. We need to retrieve his Fire Stone.”
“Why is this stone so significant?” Raven asked as she started walking toward the town hall astride Clara.
“Because its radiation reverses the effects of aging,” Clara said. “It puts Captain Karnak in perpetual authority as he outlives all legally-elected officials. That's not how the Silex clan charter set things up.”
Raven knit her eyebrows in thought. “So all we have to do is get the stone and realign the balance of power?”
“And prevent a war,” Clara added.
Raven sighed and shook her head. “Alright, Clara. If I must die, I'd rather not die in war. I'll humor you.” Though the way she said it clearly indicated humor was the farthest thing from her mind.
Thomas Alden met the two women on the town hall steps and held one of the heavy-wood doors open for them. Resigned, Raven walked straight inside, but Clara paused at the top of the stairs to gaze at the Almitians below dancing, drinking, and enjoying themselves. Oh the bliss of ignorance. Her heart felt heavy. She knew if things did not go well with the mission, all the music and laughter would disappear – possibly for good. The prospect made her shiver despite the warm Elpis light against her back.
Then she spied Aaric at the edge of the crowd, talking to a woman. Her heart beat a little faster. Wait. Why does he look angry? The woman turned away from Aaric, visibly chastened. It's Mary Rutger! Clara wondered if they'd been discussing the snarlek incident when Thomas Alden interrupted.
“If you're looking for your teammates, don't worry. Alisa used your hovercraft to take them to Mother Alden's to rest. All except for your tall friend.” He gestured toward a table where Darian was enjoying a stein of something frothy. “He said he was happy where he was.”
Clara smiled faintly. “Thank you.”
Thomas Alden nodded. Clara entered the cedar-scented hall and approached the glossy wooden table where the entire Eldership sat solemnly. The old man with the cane raised a crooked finger at Raven. “Is this the expert?”
“It is,” said Mr. Alden as he ushered Raven and Clara to two empty seats at the table.
“Young lady, what is your name?” the Facilitator asked Raven when she'd seated herself.
Raven sat tall in her chair and responded with a clear voice, “I am number 1, 239,847,387, Vitae Conglomerate University Grad student …”
“I only need your name, Miss,” the Facilitator interrupted.
“Oh.” Raven glanced at Clara. “Raven Ulric, Ma'am.”
The Facilitator folded her bony hands on the table and leaned forward. “Miss Ulric, have you been informed of our situation?”
Raven nodded. “I understand His Eminence has been unfairly influencing the Agilis Grand Assembly and violating the Silex clan charter ...”
“Among other things,” grumbled the old man with the cane.
Raven continued, “You want to deprive His Eminence of his influence by removing the stone he wears around his neck?”
“By any means necessary?” Raven asked.
“No, no!” said the Facilitator “This is not to be an assassination.”
“Pity.” The man tapped his his cane on the ground. “He deserves it.”
“Mr. Charles, please!”
Thomas Alden frowned. “Injustice does not beget justice. That’s how this mess with the Fire Stone started, you recall.”
“Hear, hear!” declared the woman from earlier. “We're trying to get Mother Alden off treason charges; we don't want to commit treason ourselves.”
Raven tucked her ankles under her chair. “Forgive me, but won't the Silex tribe consider this mission itself treason?”
“Not treason against their original charter,” Kelly said from his end of the table. “We don’t want to rule Agilis. We don't necessarily want His Eminence out of the picture. We merely want to restore the original order of things – an order which Captain Karnak fully supported before he got addicted to power. The fact is, the Fire Stone's dangerous. Its radiation may reverse aging, but it also causes insanity. Surely you've noticed the red gleam in the man's eyes?”
Raven nodded slowly.
“So in a real way this mission not only helps Mother Alden, but Captain Karnak as well,” Thomas said.
“Our plan is simple.” Young Proditor stood and pushed some buttons on his wristband to operate the hologram in the table's center. “Step one: we put the good captain under sedation.” A simple graphic of an aqua-marine stick man wearing a red pendant drank from a cup and lay on the ground with zees floating overhead. “Step two: we remove the Fire Stone.” The hologram shifted, and the red pendant flew from the sleeping figure into a square box. “Step three: we meet with the Grand Assembly.” The picture showed a rectangular jury box with eleven figures. “And step four: we prove Mother Alden's innocence according to the founding clan documents. Governor Solidus has been pushing to reaffirm the original charter for several revolutions. He's friendly toward Almitas. Once we convince the Assembly they need not defer to His Eminence, we make our case to release Mother Alden.”
“What happens to the Fire Stone afterward?” Raven asked.
“We make arrangements to destroy it, of course,” said Proditor, tapping a button to turn off the hologram.
“How?” Clara asked. “Isn't the Fire Stone extremely strong?”
“True, but it's not stronger than the Omnia stone,” Kelly said.
“What's the Omnia stone?” Raven asked.
“It's the Silva clan's heirloom dug out of one of their mines. An ax of sorts. And good luck getting them to loan it to us,” huffed the old man with the cane.
“The Silva tribe has no love for His Eminence,” said the Facilitator. “I'm sure they won't object to helping destroy the symbol of his power.”
“Like I said,” Proditor interjected, “we can make arrangements for the Fire Stone's destruction once we've procured it first. And that's where you come in.”
Raven sat a little straighter. “What do you want me to do?” she asked.
“Are you familiar with Captain Karnak’s Elpis-setting schedule, Miss Ulric?” Kelly asked.
Raven looked up at the ceiling criss-crossed with large wooden beams. “A porter usually delivers some refreshment to his office during his evening recess. That's between one hundred sixty and one hundred seventy degrees.”
“Could you contrive to intercept this porter and add a sedative to His Eminence's food and drink?” Proditor asked.
Raven considered. “I don't know … some might think it odd for me to be in the office after hours on my day off.”
“Could you pretend to have left something at the office?” asked Kelly. “Your scan-stone, perhaps? It is your means of purchasing goods, yes?”
“That could work.”
“Good,” said Kelly. “Once His Eminence is unconscious, we'll have around thirty degrees to remove the stone and make our case before the Grand Assembly without Karnak's interference.”
“I'd be happy to help remove the trinket,” Proditor volunteered, raising his hand slightly.
“No, that wouldn't be a good idea,” said the Facilitator. “You're a member of the Eldership. You would draw attention and possibly compromise the mission. Besides, it would be better if the Eldership presents our case as an entire group to show our solidarity. It will make our second purpose – reaffirming the original Triad Agreement without His Eminence – much stronger.”
“Then who will bring the Fire Stone back to Almitas?” asked Proditor.
“Why not Aaric?” Thomas suggested. “He's perfectly capable. And no one knows him in Agilis.”
Kelly scratched the back of his neck. “Wouldn't it look suspicious to have an Almitian in the Agilis offices?”
“What if I came along?” Clara said, surprised to hear herself volunteering. “I'm friends with both Aaric and Raven and could be their excuse to be seen together. We could say the three of us were going out on the town and wanted to check if Raven had left her scan-stone in the office.”
The Facilitator put her fingertips together. “Sounds plausible. Clara will give credence to the ruse, Raven will sedate the captain, and Aaric will retrieve the stone.”
“What if the guards don't let them into the building?” Proditor asked.
The Facilitator looked at Raven. “Is there another way into the captain's offices, Miss Ulric? In case the first plan doesn't work?”
Raven thought, then nodded. “There's a loading dock in the back on the ground floor. They usually fill up the trash trucks shortly after Elpis-setting. I've never seen any guards there.”
“Excellent. Does that satisfy you, Proditor?”
The young man nodded slowly. “It's good to have a backup plan.”
“Very well.” The Facilitator nodded. “We'll work on our defense for Mother Alden and our plea to the Grand Assembly. We'll need to leave Almitas no later than one hundred thirty degrees to arrive in time for the trial. The covert team may follow in Miss Clara's hovercraft afterward. Once we've presented Mother Alden's case, they can drug His Eminence during the recess. We'll argue our true purpose with the Assembly afterward. Mr. Alden, will you inform your son?”
Thomas Alden nodded and stood. “I'll also take these ladies to their teammates. They have much to discuss and can stay at Mother Alden's until it's time to leave.”
“Very well, Mr. Alden.”
Raven and Clara stood to their feet.
“And many thanks for your help in this matter,” the Facilitator said to the young women. “We are grateful for your assistance.”
Raven bowed politely and turned to go.
“We're grateful to be of assistance,” Clara said. Then she turned to follow her friend out the town hall as dust specks danced in the light streaming in through the windows.
What do you think?
Have you ever been pressed into doing a favor for a friend? How did it turn out? Also, I’d be interested in hearing what you think about Clara and Raven’s relationship at this juncture in the comments below!
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