Chapter One

Shara'Lynn Besta, Lynn to her friends, had seen people on crutches before, but she'd never imagined one of them would be a Velorian. Now she did... looking back at her from the mirror she stood before. The glint of Vendorian steel, only partially covered by her long skirt, and the dull ache that pulsed from inside her right leg reminded her that she shouldn't even be alive.

She was doing better than her sister, however: Tammy was dead, dead at the hands of that T'set'lar abomination, Tala. Lynn lost it at that point, absolutely lost it. That's why she had crutches, and a cast around her legs made of Vendorian steel. Even with a broken leg, she had enough natural strength to tear through plaster.

But at least she had been the one to finally take down Tala. Those martial arts came in handy. Too damn bad the painkillers didn't work on her biology. The Galen had been just too perfect about Velorian resistance to drugs, too.

Lynn winced as she hobbled toward's Aurora's side. The battle had not gone well for their Virago, either. Aurora had internal bleeding. Nothing short of a doctor's skills, Vendorian steel medical tools, and full Supremis strength could possibly save her life. None of the survivors had any of that right now. Aurora was dying a slow, painful death. Lynn couldn't even imagine the pain she was in, and Lynn was herself in a lot of pain. The only pain that Aurora allowed to show was in her face: a face with eyes scrunched and teeth gritted. Years of training, experience and just plain old guile, she was a picture of Velorian strength and pride, even if she didn't feel that way. She did her damndest to keep still. It wasn't working.

"Shara'Lynn," Aurora whispered. Lynn didn't need to lean down for that. Her hearing was still intact, undamaged. "Shara'Lynn," Aurora whispered again, "you made me proud yesterday. For all your decades as a Scribe, you still have the Protector's heart burning in you. Unfortunately, Velor by now knows."

Lynn's eyes went wide.

Aurora chuckled, then coughed violently. Her hands snapped right through the leather restraints as a reflex, as she instinctively did a partial sit-up from her cough. "I just found out thirty-six hours ago. Velor dispatched a new Scribe and four Protectors to us. With the impending battle, there wasn't... uhhhh... time to tell anyone else. The Scribe arrived first, only a few minutes before the battle broke out. The Protectors will be here tomorrow."

What little color was in Lynn's face drained completely away now. Of course, that Scribe had recorded everything. That's what Scribes of Velor do: take notes. They don't get involved. For an Scribe to get involved was a death sentence.

Even a Scribe like Lynn Besta.

"You are so transparent, Shara'Lynn," Aurora croaked with a weak smile. "You know you only have a few weeks to live: precisely how long it takes to get that report to Dax'xan, for the Velorian bureaucracy to debate it, and for them to return with an order for Earth's new Protectors Team. They won't kill you outright. Even you couldn't kill your own friend in the Andromeda system without seeing it with your own eyes."

"That's why I came to Earth." What the hell? Lynn thought. How many more surprises could her friend have hidden?

"Listen to me! I came here on a special assignment, not for the Protectors, but for you. The Ne'Trona haven't forgotten you." Aurora exhaled painfully.

The Ne'Trona? What do they want with me?

Aurora didn't waste any time in answering that unspoken question. "You remember in that year on Dax'xan, at the Scribes Institute, how a Ne'Trona Virago approached you?"

Lynn groaned. "I wasn't very nice to them. It was only two weeks into my schooling at the Instititute."

Aurora nodded, then thought better of it: the T'set'lar had landed a particularly painful blow to her neck. Wincing, she went on, "The Ne'Trona have always wanted you, Shara'Lynn, as one of them. Your refusal of them on Dax'xan was not the final word. They knew that. They knew your psychological profile, and your desire to be a Protector. They knew you couldn't enjoy life as a Scribe, that you'd do anything you could to bend the rules. They knew... we knew you would eventually break those rules one way or another in a way that couldn't be ignored. You've broken those rules more than once." Aurora smiled.

Lynn smiled with her. Partially because she not only agreed with her, but she couldn't help herself, captivated completely by the most beautiful Velorian she had ever met. One who incited in her all those desires she has never to date been encouraged to express.   As for the rules, oh, yes, she had most definitely broken those rules a dozen times at least. Probably two dozen. But this time she had been caught, and by someone who wouldn't keep it secret.

"So, to save your life, you have to join the Ne'Trona. I'm their representative here, and I was instructed to pass on the offer at the appropriate time. It doesn't get much more appropriate than this," Aurora chuckled again. Then she grew serious again.

Velor knew we'd take heavy losses down here, probably all die. That's why they dispatched the new Team. Velor's assumed the worst, and hoped we would injure Tala badly enough for the new Team to finish her. Four Protectors and a new Scribe were apparently the best they could do on such short notice. They'll have to do. And you'll have to run."

Aurora steadied her voice as best she could, and proceeded with firmness. "Shara'Lynn, you know that as a Virago, I have command of all Velorians on Earth. This is therefore a direct order: get the hell away from Earth. I don't care if you take up orbit around Jupiter or Mercury while you heal, but get out of here now. Earth is no longer safe for you. You know that. When word of your... rebellion and escape... reach Velor, every available Scribe in the Galaxy, and more than a few Protectors and Viragoes will be looking for you. With orders to kill you. As soon as you've healed, head for the Ne'Trona. Even if Velor sends Protectors and Viragoes to intercept you, the Ne'Trona will be able to escort you in safely."

"You're not a Scribe anymore, Shara'Lynn of Velor. You're not much of a Protector, either," she laughed. "The Ne'Trona will make you a Protector. And if you don't become a Virago there, I'm going to personally come out of whatever grave or star they bury me in and roast you alive!"

Even Lynn had to laugh at that. This regal and beautiful woman thought so highly of her, and this was just a jab in the gut, one delivered so lovingly and warmly, she just could help herself, as the desire and aching for powerful woman was nearly uncontainable. Aurora wasn't going to come out of any grave. Not even as flowers, ten thousand years from now. The maggots wouldn't stand a chance on her stellar skin.

"Now get out of here. And take those damned crutches with you. Leave me to die here. Titus will take care of me."

Shara leaned down to kiss Aurora goodbye on the forehead, then thought better of it.   Her eyes spoke volumes, the years of longing to share something special with the Protector she chronicled all her adult life rushing to the surface, not lost on Aurora.   She gently and delicately took Aurora's head in her hands, and slowly brought her lips to hers.   Aurora received her with the last ounce of passion and desire she could muster, their brief exchange seeming to melt away the pain, the deadly memories of the last several hours, and the unavoidable future they would face.  Lynn's heart fluttered. The warmth and softness of this Virago was unlike anything she'd experienced before.   The end of this kiss would be a dismemberment, the fullness of her desire denied her again, as it had been so many times in the past.  They finally parted, as Aurora's eyes blinked twice, and closed slowly. Lynn spoke softly. "By the way, his name is Geoff." 

"Geoff," Aurora whispered, quietly. Then she fell to sleep.

Lynn sat there for twenty more seconds. After twelve seconds, Aurora's chest rose no more, fell no more. Not even a centimeter. Lynn closed her eyes, and let a few tears fall to the tiled floor of her house.   For the first time in her life, she felt the loss as if it were the loss of her own.

Carrie Jr., Carrie's part-Galen daughter, greeted Lynn at the door. Her tears confirmed Junior's worst fear. "Aurora too?"

Lynn nodded, her tears a gateway to her heart.

Junior stepped forward to hug her firmly, the slender softness of a goddess brushing against her skin, blonde hair like spun silk flowing across Lynn's bare shoulders. A shiver of steel rippled through Junior's body as she hugged her old friend tightly. The crutches immediately fell to the ground, as a chill ran up her spine from the very touch of this beautiful young woman.  Then the pain.

Lynn winced. "Please, Junior, the shoulder."

"Oh, right, sorry," Junior said as she quickly stepped back, sniffing away the sadness she felt, and emptiness growing inside her. She'd hoped to learn so much from Aurora. Now she was gone.

"Where's your mother?" Lynn asked.

"In the studio room. She's looking over the artwork she's collected." The artwork the movers would be coming to pick up tomorrow, they both knew.  Junior opened her arms to Lynn, holding them just above the former Scribe's waist. Lynn nodded, leaning forward to fall into them. Junior lifted her up like an origami crane. Flying instead of walking, they rose up the spiral staircase like wounded angels.

"Mom, Lynn's here." Carrie blinked her eyes as she placed Eric's old photograph in the box. The photograph was like a window into another world, evoking memories of living alone with Eric, adorned in gold, making shallow love with warm sandstone beneath her back and desert stars (many of which she'd visited) overhead. She'd told Eric of her time living with that ancient tribe, and he'd turned that into a best-selling book, one that most people still thought was fiction.

Since then, her life had grown more difficult, finally culminating in this disaster. Velorians had died on her planet, defending her people, and she'd not been able to stop it. Now her personal life was a shambles and the company she'd built was being run by men whose only interest was the bottom line. Luthor and Eric had met, and the secrets she'd so long hidden had been revealed.

She hugged herself tightly, wishing the arms that held her were Eric's, and thought back to those years. She'd lived and died and been reborn. And then this. Carrie wiped tears from her eyes, the salt burning her vision like nothing else.

The deaths and near-fatal injuries among the Team had taken a heavy toll. But for the Arions to sabotage her life like this was almost as bad. They just couldn't leave Luthor out of it, could they? She had been through rapes, nuclear wars... hell, she'd even died a couple times. But this time they'd baited Luthor, and he'd fallen for it. The American public, such as it was, hadn't forgiven Luthor. By association Carrie and Junior were guilty as well.

There was more, of course, but that was the worst of it, the part she could not get over. Even Eric had died thinking their family was horrific.

Junior had grown up a bit spoiled. Tala had changed all that -- and for the first time, Junior began to really see the decades on her mother's eyes. Carrie couldn't take care of her like she had in the past. They'd be moving into a much smaller house within a few days. And Junior would be going out on her own, to make her own way. Bruises and all -- including a few Luthor had given her. Carrie also knew she wouldn't be able to keep Junior and Luthor apart now. They'd formed their own special bond, and Junior was learning a lot from her father, Carrie's ex-lover, these days. If Luthor kept it up, within a few months, Carrie wouldn't even recognize her own only daughter. She only partially recognized Junior even now.

The T'set'lar had changed all their lives, permanently. And there were still two others out there, Skietra herself only knew where, doing whatever the hell the wanted to...

"Junior, Lynn," Carrie acknowledged tonelessly, still in shock over the whole debacle. Lynn hobbled forward on her crutches to come within a meter of Carrie, bowing her head.

Carrie acknowledged the Scribe's arrival with but a glance. Lynn hobbled forward on her crutches, still unable to fly do to her internal injuries, and paused a meter in front of Carrie. She bowed her head as was the traditional greeting for a Planetary Protector. "You bring me news?" Carrie asked.

"Yes. Velor has sent a new Protection Team. Four Protectors will arrive tomorrow, and an Scribe who has been hidden here for a few hours is joining them."

"Then you are in danger, Lynn," Carrie said, her thoughts rising from her own despair momentarily.

Lynn nodded. "Aurora's last order was for me to leave. Which means you and Junior will be responsible for in-processing." In-processing was a courtesy a host Protector or Scribe offered to arriving parties from Velor to help them become part of the local planet's society. On Earth, that meant getting them clothing, a job, a place to stay, whatever Social Security they needed, all the cover story required to integrate them into the current society. It was a hell of a lot harder on the first Protector on a planet, who had to make friends to get all that. Especially with Earth's own bureaucracies.

Carrie looked away. "It's not going to be easy. My own credibility is pretty heavily damaged."

"I know," Lynn replied. And it doesn't matter, she didn't need to add. The silence weighed heavily for several seconds between them.

Carrie sighed, and nodded. Lynn realized that was all she was going to get from Carrie. Carrie was still grieving for Cat and Tammy, and now had another to grieve for. Of the original seven who had gone after Tala, none had gotten out unscathed. Cat died several battles ago, and Geoff's nuclear abilities didn't help as much as they hoped. Once Tala discovered x-rays simply erased Geoff's shielding control, he was out of the fight.   Tammy, Carrie, and Aurora tag-teamed on Tala, while Junior did the best she could. Junior failed, and Tala let loose on Tammy and Aurora. Lynn had also gotten in there whenever she could, but when Tala incinerated Tammy with those T'set'lar laser eyes from hell, even Aurora had to get out of Lynn's way. Junior had a black eye from one of Lynn's off-target punches. That's how much Lynn's ferocity and fury had enhanced her strength and power: enough for an Scribe with Protector genetics to give a part-Galen, half-Protector woman a black eye with one punch.

Once Lynn got in there after her younger sister's death, the depleted Tala didn't have a chance. Lynn had killed Tala just before completely running out of energy herself. Even with Aurora's order, she didn't know if she could leave Earth: her reserves were that depleted.

Three dead. Of the remaining four, two were public outcasts from Earth's people. Another had buried himself in his lab, throwing all his energies into his work to better protect himself, and to distance himself from the emotional pains. And the fourth was now an exile from the planet she had called home for many, many years.

Thanks to one T'set'lar, and the Arions who created her and provided logistical support and propaganda.

Lynn had to admit one sad fact as her thoughts reflected on this: Velor had been absolutely right to send another Protector Team.

Lynn slowly turned around and headed back towards the front door. Neither Carrie nor Junior said one word. The rubber feet of the crutches echoed loudly in all their heads.