Chapters Two and Three of Falling Adalta Vol III

Here are the next chapters of FALLING. Chapter Two is the one formerly known as Chapter One, but changed a bit, because I realized it was in the wrong place. So I posted both chapters to make up for getting in a hurry. Blame it on my sister Alice. She made me go back and do some plotting, which I hate, but, OK, she was right. This time. Maybe the only time.

These chapters are works in progress, so if you see something you don’t like, something that doesn’t make sense, God forbid, something misspelled, grammar mistakes, or—Maybe even something you really like, please make a comment in the box below. I promise to pay attention. It takes a village to write a book. Don’t leave me out there, all alone, hanging in the wind when I’ve said their instead of they’re or there. Or have a character sitting in one paragraph and standing in the next, but he never stood up. Or pulling out a sword she wasn’t wearing. It happens, but I don’t write about magically appearing swords.

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Enjoy reading:

Chapter Two

Cedar Evan’s ears popped. The quarantine pod shuddered. The watering can fell off the bench. She lost her balance and smacked her hip on a seedling table. The light over the containment hatch blinked red—on-off on-off on-off––again. Shit.

Cedar moved to the control panel. Oxygen levels were down but climbing. Pressure was down, but climbing. Her stomach was down but climbing. And climbing. Climbing a rope in her throat on its way to panic.

Yet another glitch. One or two or more––they increased every week now on Alal Trade Consortium’s five-hundred-year-old-and-then-some spaceship.

The light switched to steady green. Her stomach slid back down the rope, and the sigh she didn’t know she was holding burst like juice from an over-ripe orange.

She stumbled.  Galaxies curse my bionic foot. Bionic, my foot. It’s a hunk of plastic and wires that only works when it chooses––since we settled into our first orbit of Adalta.

One eye on the light over the door, Cedar moved from plant table to plant table. Quarantine gro-pod six was on the perimeter of the spaceship’s network of pods. The ship spread for kilometers in all directions––an enormous fractal net with hiccups.

The lights in her pod were on full-sun, the air was steamy with humidity and smelled of sweet soil. Her favorite place to be. She’d be lost if the directors ever admitted they had to abandon ship for the anti-tech planet below, and she had to leave this behind.

The seedlings were fifteen centimeters high, full-leafed and ready to transplant. With care, she uprooted a seedling with a sample of soil, spread it on a glass slide, and moved to her electron microscope. She’d miss her microscope as much as she’d miss her foot. How could she work without her equipment? How would she walk without a working foot? Would it fail completely? Would she be a useless cripple?

She dipped her head to the eye pieces and watched the dance of organisms. They made her happy. She was close to certain the microorganisms from the planet would be compatible with the ship’s ancient soils. Plants and microorganisms were so much simpler to deal with than the consortium’s directors. And possibly smarter.

The pod shuddered again. The red light over the door blinked again. This time the shudder didn’t stop. Neither did the blinking. Not good. Not good. Not good.

Cedar looked for her mother. Marion was repotting seedlings three tables away. ”We need to leave, Mother. Now. The containment status—" Her mother didn’t look up.  

Shit shit shit.  Cedar dropped her slide, slipped in a puddle of water, ran for her mother, and stumbled. Again. Shit shit shit. Now wasn’t the time for her foot to freeze. Now wasn’t the time for her mother to freeze.

"Mother!" Cedar yelled, and her mother looked around, her eyes wide with an oh-gods-what’s-happening-now look. "Get to the hatch. Now!" 

Cedar’s ears popped again.

"Now, Mother! Now! The containment is breaching. Move."

She didn’t move.

The breach klaxon clamored over and over. "Containment failing. Exit pod immediately. Containment failing. Exit pod immediately."

 Cedar ran as fast as the solid clunk of her frozen-again foot would let her, grabbed her mother, dragged her to the air lock hatch, and shoved her through.

The door behind them didn’t close.

She slapped her hand on the button to open the second portal, shoved her mother again and dove.

The second containment hatch slammed down behind them.

She laid there, flat on the floor, afraid to move. She couldn’t look. She couldn’t look to see if her foot was smashed. She couldn’t look to see if her foot was still attached to her, she couldn’t breathe.

Gradually the racing rhythm of her heart slowed. She could breathe. The sharp smell of the worn rubber tiles on the floor filled her nose and woke the blank spaces in her brain.

She looked down. She moved her leg. It wasn’t caught. And her foot was right there at the end of her leg where it belonged.

“Oh, dear."

Cedar looked up. Her mother stared at the closed hatch.

"Oh, dear. I think your quarantine gro-pod is gone." She looked down. "I’m sorry, Cedar. I know that experiment was important to you. But I don’t think it can be recovered."

Cedar wanted to bang her head—Shit—on the floor—Shit—three times—Shit. But she already had a headache sharp enough to shatter diamonds. She pushed herself up, stumbled to the control panel, switched on the camera and watched her precious plants drift away.

Her knees threatened to give way.

She wanted to throw up.

Her mother reached a thin arm around her and flipped the com switch. Cedar alerted the captain’s deck. In less than four minutes two tugs appeared and attached themselves to the loose pod. Through its wide-open hatch she could see her seedlings. They looked fine. And they would for about twenty more minutes.

Then they’d dehydrate and die. Like her heart. All the experiments she’d worked on so hard for transferring plants from the ship to the planet.

Gone. Dead. Lost.

And there wasn’t a thing she could do about it. The microorganisms might last a bit longer––if the techs could get the hatch closed and the environmental systems back up. Big IF.

Her mother took her arm, her fingers gentle on Cedar’s clenched muscles. “Let’s go, Cedar. There’s nothing more we can do here. We’ll start over somewhere else.”

But Cedar knew. There would be no somewhere else. This was the beginning of the end to a familiar somewhere else. She looked past the floating pod to the planet beyond. The only somewhere else left.

Ten minutes and three walkways later, she left her mother with a cup of coffee in the small cafe near their apartment and headed for the director’s meeting room. "Glenn," she said to her Cue. 

"Voigt. Don’t call me to fix anything. I’m retired." Grumpy, cryptic Glenn Voigt, Cedar’s former boss and still mentor, clicked off. The old man could be more mothering than her mother in his own crusty, crotchety way.

She called him again. "Don’t click off. I need you in the director’s room. Now, Glenn. The unthinkable has finally happened." She could be just as abrupt and cryptic as he was. And right now it brought a bit of warmth to her stomach. Something normal.

By the time she got to the meeting room, Captain Kendra Pathal, and Clare Taylon, director of engineering and maintenance were seated at the table. Papers and schematics and cups littered its gleaming white surface. Random doors hung open in the wall of cabinets on one side. On the other side of the table was a wall-sized screen. Director of Security Sharon Chobra stood in front of the wall opposite the door filled top to bottom with overflowing plant boxes Every room on the ship had a plant wall—part of the bio-system that was Cedar’s responsibilit . Sharon’s usually immaculate blond hair was a mess, her uniform half buttoned. All of them were much older than Cedar’s nineteen years.

Cedar swallowed hard. She stared at her favorite place on the big screen. Her gro-pod, two small one-person tug-shuttles clamped like parasites to its sides, hung forlorn in space, the brown and blue planet of Adalta beyond it under patchy gray and white cloud cover. Through the still open maw of the hatch she saw her electron microscope toppled over and in pieces. A pile of glass slides lay scattered and broken, glinting ruby crystals in the on-off on-off blinking red light.

Some of her seedlings flats had slid off the growing tables to the floor. How was the grav still working?

The little green plants looked forlorn, withering but upright, as if all they needed was for her to give them a drink.

Clare’s face was white, and Kendra, the captain, shook her head back and forth. Cedar could almost see the words No No No spinning in a circle over her head. She wanted to shake her own head. Or bang it on the wall. She’d told the captain. She’d told the directors collectively and individually, again and again. She’d told them the ship was failing––not just old, not just needing maintenance, not just damaged. Capital F Failing. But she was young, they said, and unnecessarily worried, needed more experience

She’d just not told them the ship was being sabotaged. By the planet below them. If it was all but impossible for her to believe—

They were probably going to make this her fault since it was her plants sending rootlets and tendrils into sensitive places they didn’t belong. Sometimes shit just sinks, and she was at the bottom of the wobbly pile of hierarchy.

The captain, stocky, short, hair going gray over her square face and stolid expression, looked up. "What did you do, Cedar? What happened to your pod? What has happened to my ship?"

Cedar couldn’t even roll her eyes. She was too sad, too angry, too scared. "I decided the ship was taking up too much space in space, Kendra, so I lopped off a piece." She slid into a chair opposite the captain, her back to the screen. "Mother and I are both ok, by the way. In case, you know, you might be concerned." She turned to the engineering director. "I don’t think this is a fixable problem, Clare."

"No. I’m sorry about your plants, Cedar, and your experiment. We’ve pushed the pod a safe distance from the ship. I’m not sure how it broke loose. Well, I know how—the sudden escape of air acted like a rocket engine and blew it off. Why it broke loose we don’t know yet.”

Mark Kelton, director of finance, walked in, immaculate in a tight white shirt and black trousers with a knife-sharp crease, thin blond hair slicked back off his face. "You’re just going to let it fall? Letting it drop on some farmer’s head is not a good way to let the people down there know we’re here."

"I’ve got two tugs on it now, keeping it in orbit till we figure out what to do with it." Clare gave Mark a duh-you-idiot look. "And do you actually still think we’re a big secret? After what Kayne did? After Galen and Marta? They’re down there on Adalta as we speak having some kind of wedding or marriage ceremony."

"Galen and Marta? I didn’t know they were still together."

"What ship do you live on, Mark?" asked Cedar instead of slapping the back of his head. “What obscure galaxy do you inhabit when you have your nose in your figures?" And your thumb up your nose. Or somewhere else. Galen was bonded to a young woman from the planet and had been for most of the year.

Director of Security Sharon Chobra pulled out a chair and sat. "Kayne." 

Cedar could almost smell the disgust in Sharon’s voice.

"Selling akenguns to a primitive planet where such armaments are not only unknown, but their tech forbidden—and stealing Marta’s inheritance to do it. If the Trade Federation ever finds us he’ll go from our brig to 43Beck b in the Dorma galaxy. A nastier planet doesn’t exist, a fitting end for such a nasty man."

Mark said, "What do you mean, Sharon, ever finds us?"

The four women looked at him, speechless. Cedar propped her elbows on the table and dropped her face to her hands. She was so tired of willful ignorance her head was too heavy for her neck to hold up.

Clare said, her words slow and clearly enunciated, as if she spoke to a five-year-old,  a particularly dim five-year-old, “The com satellites are gone, Mark."

"Oh, Yeah." He glared at her. "Do you have any idea what those satellites cost, Clare?"

Cedar took a deep breath before she could load Mark in a shuttle and aim it for a black hole. "No one out there in the wide wide universe knows where we are, Mark." She avoided looking at the others, who had all turned deaf ears to her warnings about the ship’s failing systems. "And this pod breaking loose is only the biggest and latest in a long series of system failures. The ship is dying, Mark." She didn’t add "As I have said over and over and over to you all." She had to glue her lips together to keep the words behind her teeth.

Glenn Voigt said it for her as he came through the door. The tall, handsome, silver-haired man said, "Face it, people. You have to start planning to abandon ship. And pray that this planet will prove hospitable after what Kayne did. We ain’t going nowhere, boys," and he pulled out the chair next to Cedar and sat. "How’s your mother, Cedar. She okay?"

Cedar waggled her palm.

The remaining directors arrived, and the conversation ebbed and flowed, drifting like a cloud of galactic gas for another three hours before those whose heads had been mining the astroid-of-denial were willing to take action. Cedar’s rear end was numb, and her non-existent foot itched like crazy when they finally made some sort-of decision

Clair, Glenn, and Cedar were to do a systemic study of the ship’s condition. Cedar knew they only included her because Glenn insisted. After all, she was young and excitable—and had already made up her mind. But at least something would be done. It was a start.

They even went so far as to appoint Glenn Voigt the ship’s ambassador to Adalta. Whatever they decided about the ship’s condition, they were known and official contact needed to be initiated. Cedar could see he was pleased despite his grumpy, grudging acceptance. Assam Kamal, who was Kayne Morrel’s replacement as director of planetary affairs, would accompany him. Cedar was appointed to tag along as the if-needed-scapegoat.

Assam, a big, shambling, deceptively athletic blond with the kind of face so ugly it’s sexy, walked out with her. "You have your work cut out for you, handling that old man, but I guess you’ve been practicing for it most of your life."

“But your mess is bigger, Assam. Kayne left you a big pile down there."

On her other side, Sharon said, "Do you think you’ll get a chance to ride one of those flying hawk-horses? Handling Voigt is a small price to pay for that chance. I’ll envy you forever if you get to ride one before I do.”

Cedar’s eyes rolled as she limp-clumped out the door. She’d rolled her eyes so many times in the last few hours they ached and only didn’t out of her head because she refused to let them and closed them tight when the urge got too urgent.

Ah, Karda, there’s the bright side to this debacle. The sudden glare is blinding.

Chapter Three

Daryl walked into the long narrow inside room of the keep lit by small balls of light in bronze brackets on the red sandstone walls and warmed by ornate, open iron stoves with glowing magma stones at either end. A polished stone table surrounded with carved wood chairs were the only furniture.  He took a place at one end of the long table, and Prime Guardian Hugh Me’Rahl from the citadel at Rashiba moved to the other.

Guardian Turin of Akhara sat midway between them, two of his guards standing behind him. The enormous man sat, unmoving. Daryl noticed his closed eyes, as though he were meditating. If so, it wasn’t bringing him peace if the lines of cruelty carved deep in his face were to be believed. He turned one open eye on Daryl as if taking his measure then closed it again, hands folded on the table in front of him.

Marta Me’Rowan, from Toldar Quadrant, and Tessa Me’Cowyn, the Austringer came through the door laughing and talking, Galen Me’Cowyn, Tessa’s bonded, behind them.

Others arrived and arranged themselves around the table––Holder Connor Me’Cowyn, Tessa’s father, Restal Holders Me’Fiere and Me’Neve, two officials accompanying Hugh Me’Rahl, and Anuma Quadrant’s new guardian, Ballard Me’Kahryl. Ballard’s face, his whole demeanor shouted anger and grief for the mother he’d lost to the Itza Larrak in the battle just before last winter set in. Tessa and Marta stopped laughing.

Finally, Daryl began, “Welcome, all of you, to Restal Prime. May our table provide you sustenance, may our land provide you work to suit your heart and hands, and may you find safety within our walls in your rest. And may we find mutual benefit and agreement in the issues before us today.” He turned to Turin. “Guardian Turin, I want to particularly welcome you.  I know your winter was long, cold, and arduous, and you would much rather have been able to return to Akhara than spend the winter in the cold here. Perhaps you could start with what you know of the most pressing issue. What did you see happening to the Circles of Disorder you passed on your way up from the far eastern border with Toldar, Rashiba, and Anuma?”

Turin leaned into the table, and his chair creaked. “Of course, we couldn’t ride near them, but my Karda Patrol and their two Mi’hiru were able to see further as they flew above us.” His voice was deep, and his eyes narrowed to slits in his broad face. “The last word I received from my people is that whatever your brother loosed here in Restal has spread as far as Akhara. Our last guardian wasn’t diligent about keeping up the remedial planting around the circles, and there are lines of dead trees leading for kilometers out of every one the Mi’hiru scouted. All of them point toward another circle.” 

Turin nodded his head toward Marta in what Daryl thought might pass for respect if he stretched the word to its limit. “Mi’hiru Marta, Congratulations on your bonding and your new position. I was privileged to be invited to witness.” He nodded to Tessa and Galen. 

He continued. “Toldar and Anuma have been more diligent in their care of the circles. The lines were there, leading out of every circle we passed, but they were only a few kilometers, sometimes only a few hundred meters long.” He turned back to Daryl, and his look couldn’t have passed for friendliness. “I cannot say the same for the circles in Restal. Not only are the lines longer, but the circles are growing larger, far worse than Akhara. I resumed the remedial planting as soon as I became guardian.”

His chair creaked again as he leaned back and crossed his arms. “It was only when we started to move toward the Prime that we were attacked by what you call urbat. And it was only a small number. They swiped at us and moved on, as if they were in a hurry to be somewhere else. Restal has a lot to answer for.” Turin and his troops had been stationed all winter in the lower part of Restal where the borders between Anuma, Rashiba, and Restal were close. “They moved on with a lot fewer of them after we finished.”

Holder Me’Cowyn leaned forward to look around his neighbors at Turin. “It isn’t Restal, Guardian, it’s Readen—”

“No,” said Daryl. “Restal must take responsibility. The growth of the circles began under my grandfather and worsened under my father. I take responsibility.”

The Circles of Disorder were enormous, roughly circular, mostly barren areas created by the alien Larrak race millennia before. When the colonists from a devastated and close to uninhabitable Earth arrived, they found themselves in the middle of a war between the Larrak and the planet Adalta they wished to take over. They were well on the way to stripping the planet making the entire world as toxic as the circles. Then they would move on to another world to sustain them. 

It was the Karda who asked the humans for help, and between them, they destroyed all but one Larrak, the Itza, the last Larrak. The colonists’ Ark ship was loaded with the seeds, embryos, the DNA of every species of life that could be rescued from earth. And after centuries of pollution, they had many remedial plants. When they succeeded in crossing an Earth poplar, long used for pollution remediation, with a native abelee tree, they began planting them around the circles. Over the five centuries since they began, and with much work, the circles diminished and forests grew. From the space ship they looked like great bowls with a sick canker in their midst.

Now, with the release of the Itza Larrak from its cavern prison, Lines of Devastation had begun to snake out of first one, and then more, circles, reaching for each other to form a net that would cover the continent.

Prime Guardian Hugh spoke up. “But it is Readen who is responsible for the Lines of Devastation. It was your brother who loosed this curse on us. And, make no mistake—” He looked directly at Turin. “It is a curse that affects all of Adalta. If we do not stop it here we are lost.”

He turned to Daryl. “I know with spring coming the urbat attacks have started again. How bad has it been?”

“We,” Daryl nodded at Armsmaster Krager who sat at his right, “have stretched our troops as far as we can. The worst attack was a village in Me’Mattik’s hold, where we’d assumed they’d be protected by his troops. But he has defected and joined Readen in the North.” He looked down and then back up. “Me’Mattik hold has been confiscated, and Krager managed to find enough troops to station there and Karda Patrol to scout.”

Marta spoke up. “Prime Guardian Hugh has brought word from Mother Cailyn in Rashiba. She has scoured the continent for all the Mi’hiru that can be spared.”

Hugh nodded. “I’ve also sent word to both the Coastal Holders asking for troops. Me’Nowyk is sending as many as he can spare across the southern pass into Toldar.”

Daryl wondered just how many troops Me’Nowyk would “spare.”

“They caught up with Altan and his Toldar troops two days ago. They are trudging through muddy ice and snow. They’ll be here in a tenday or so if all goes well,” said Marta. “But I’ve heard nothing from the Karda about Holder Me’Nowyk, nor has the Mi’hiru assigned there sent word.”

She looked like she wanted to add something else, then stopped herself. Marta had the unique ability to speak telepathically with all Karda, whether they spoke to anyone else or not. “There may be a reason for his silence,” Marta said. “The Karda tell me the ice in your harbors is breaking up, Guardian Turin, and two large bands of mercenaries, maybe fifty or so each, were spotted loading supplies onto ships in Port Exhallan on your border with Toldar’s Coastal Holding. I assume as soon as they can safely leave harbor they’ll load their horses and embark.”

Daryl looked at Turin and waited for a response—and waited.

Finally Turin turned to look at Daryl.

He always looks like he’s half asleep. He’s not. I need to remember that.

“What colors did they wear?” Turin asked Marta.

“Colors? Oh, yes, one band wore maroon and the other dark blue.”

Daryl couldn’t interpret the look that flashed in Turin’s eyes before they turned to dark, still lakes.

Revolts sprang up in Akhara Quadrant as regularly as the seasons changed. And there were always mercenary companies available for hire to anyone inside or outside the quadrant. Like Readen. Daryl stiffened his posture. His shoulders wanted to slump.

“Stefan will not allow them to cross Toldar,” Marta said. “They’ll have to land somewhere in Restal’s Coastal Holding.”

“It’s a long coast,” said Krager. “With far too many inlets and coves where they can disembark without being seen.”

Hugh spoke up. “That probably explains why we haven’t heard from Me’Bolyn. He’ll be protecting his own.”

“Yes.”  Marta hit the table with her fist, grimaced, and rubbed it against her wool skirt. “Mi’hiru Dalys might know something. She speaks telepathically with—I can’t remember her Karda’s name. And so does Me’Nowyk’s daughter.”

Daryl cocked his head. “Jenna? I thought she was terrified of Karda.”

“No, his youngest daughter. She’s only ten but an accomplished flier, and she flies all along the coast.” Marta’s voice lowered until her words almost couldn’t be heard, and her mouth quivered with the effort not to curve into a nasty smile. “I bet that infuriates Jenna.”

Jenna had been after Altan, Marta’s bonded, since she was sixteen. Jenna wasn’t a gracious loser, and they weren’t friends.

Turin slapped a hand on the table. “I’m not here to talk about little girls and Karda. I’m here to talk about what your brother loosed on us, Daryl. I want to know what the situation is now. I was trapped where the borders of your three quadrants meet all winter, and those Lines of Devastation are already forming there, as I told you last evening. What else are we going to face?” He looked across the table to Marta, Galen, and Tessa. “While it was an honor to be invited to attend your bonding ceremony, I want to get back to Akhara. The Mi’hiru have reported lines are extending there, too. Let’s get to the real issues here.”

Hugh Me’Rahl spoke in a quiet voice that commanded attention. “Since one of the real issues is the expected arrival of two mercenary troops from your quadrant who were not invited by Daryl, perhaps we can start there.”

Turin’s ponderous head turned to the prime guardian. “I do not control all the mercenary troops in Akhara. Those are not my troops, their colors told me that. Frankly, I’m glad they are out of Akhara and not my problem.”

Commander Kyle spoke, “Yes, the problem seemes to have been handed to us. But our most immediate problem is the urbat and the Itza Larrak that controls them.”

Hugh’s eyes hadn’t left Turin’s face. “I repeat, this problem is not just Restal’s. That’s the reason you and I, Ballard, and Marta as Toldar’s representative, are at this meeting. These monsters need to be contained and defeated here, and Daryl needs help defeating them. He’s fighting another front to recapture Readen, which isn’t helped by your mercenaries, Turin. If we do not help here, we risk once again plunging all Adalta into a war with the aliens we know next to nothing about. The Itza Larrak cannot be allowed to build his communication net to call other Larrak. And you do not want another Ardencroft in Akhara if the urbat from your circles are released.”

Tessa spoke up, her voice low and intense. “No, you do not want an Ardencroft, Guardian Turin. The urbat killed every person in that village and in the prison where Readen was being held. Every one. We had to bury them all in a common grave. I had to put a baby in that grave with no way of knowing who his parents were. He still haunts my dreams, crying for his mother. You do not want that.”

Daryl watched Turin’s face. It seemed a placid blank, but around his eyes and mouth the lines of cruelty deepened. Daryl would be glad to see him leave Restal. But not yet. 

“Since this is my quadrant, and Krager, Kyle, and myself are most familiar with the terrain and have experience fighting the urbat, Hugh has agreed that we take the lead. You have all had troops stationed here all winter, but what I need to know is how many more troops you can send. The urbat have started to attack with a vengeance as the weather warms and they can move again. Several villages have been hit.”

“Altan will be in Restal with four hundred troops from Toldar within a tenday,” said Marta. “He stopped at two circles with his strongest Earth and Air talents and cut the Lines of Devastation growing in this direction. He knows he cannot bring his troops directly to Restal Prime. He and his father, Toldar’s Guardian Stephan, do not want their movements misconstrued as a threat. He proposes to skirt the mountains, get close enough to Readen’s hold to gather what information he can, and approach from that direction.” She looked at Daryl. “The Karda tell me the urbat will not approach the mountains.”

Tessa spoke up, “Kishar says the same.” Kishar was the strange small black Karda, so different from any other, who had named Tessa the Austringer, one who hunts with hawks. He was very old and had fought Larrak centuries before.

“I have a hundred inside your borders, and two hundred more are preparing to deploy from Anuma,” said Ballard. “From the reports I’ve gotten, the attacks that began this spring have been between Restal Prime and the circle to the North where we fought when winter began. Unless there are reports of urbat rising from other circles, I suggest we begin to move in that direction.”

He looked at Turin. “I understand your hundred-fifty troops are moving in the direction of the urbat’s circle now.”

Turin looked at Ballard and Daryl looked at Turin, Daryl and Ballard both knew quite well Turin’s troops were headed straight for Restal Prime. There was a long silence, then Turin nodded. Daryl calculated how many Karda and Karda Patrol he would have to divert to keep track of Turin’s direction.

“We are trying to confine them to defending the circle they are rising from. I’ve pulled every planter in Restal from the field, and they’ve worked all winter preparing and loading saplings and seeds. They’ll be deployed all the way around the circumference of the circle, not concentrated like last time. And they’ll be well guarded, with the fastest Karda we can find to send to your troops for help when they are needed.”

He knocked his knuckles on the table. “The problem now becomes the Itza Larrak. We don’t know where it is. It has powers of illusion so we won’t know where it goes if he uses them. We also know that if it acts as it did last fall, it will not leave us alone to cut the Lines leading out of the circle and to re-establish the remedial plants that reverse its growth. It and its urbat will attack there. That’s where we need to be. There and ready for it.”

Tessa spoke, her words low and hard and pointed as one of her arrows. “And we know it can be hurt. We know it’s possible to kill it.”

Daryl noted Turin’s assessing look at young and beautiful Tessa. It was Tessa and Kishar who’d come close to killing it, who’d wounded it, who’d almost severed one of its metal wings. Young and beautiful Tessa was also fierce and dangerous Tessa.

He broke the silence that followed her words. “Hugh, perhaps now is the time to tell us of the other problem we are facing.”

The prime guardian pushed his chair back and slowly walked to stand near the stove. He looked at each of the other guardians in turn. “As you all are aware, for the first time in five hundred years we have been reached by other humans. The ship orbiting above us has dropped its mirror shields and is plainly visible in the night sky. I have been contacted, through Marta and Galen on their communication devices, with a message that the ship is failing. It is one of the original Ark ships peopled by trader families who elected to stay in space rather than on a planet.”

“So it’s leaving,” said Ballard. “And we’ve been discovered.”

“We’ve been discovered. But it’s not leaving, Ballard. They want permission to send envoys to ask for a place here. The ship cannot leave orbit around Adalta. It is failing. Its people have no other place to go but here.”