Chapter Two

The next morning, Ash Wednesday, Sharon woke to the smell of bacon frying in a pan. She didn't recognize the smell, but it sure did smell good. After Xara and Cory had gotten through putting her through a "cool-down", Sharon slept well and hard. She glanced at the clock. 6:58 A.M. Sharon pretended not to hear Cory coming up the stairs with breakfast, for about two seconds. Then she gave it up and just sat up in bed. At her age, she felt she had earned the right to be dignified.

Co'ra'na came in bearing a tray of burnt bacon, scrambled eggs, white toast, and an orange liquid... orange juice, she remembered. It had a slightly acidic taste, she thought, and gasped a little as she tasted it. Yes, slightly acidic, just like she remembered. "Thanks, Co'ra'na." Under her left arm Co'ra'na carried a familiar rectangular box, black and thin.

Xara wandered in with a pot of coffee and a mug; Sharon grimaced. Cory said, "Too late, Xara. She needs food more than she needs coffee." Xara shrugged and set it by the window; the smell wafted out, perhaps enticing a couple maintenance men to work just a little harder that morning.

The street was a terrific mess; it hadn't been reopened to traffic yet. Sharon wished she could've really, really joined in that party, but a few people might've ended up in the hospital. It was a party that suited a Vel just fine.

"I suppose you want to hear what I've been up to the last two hundred years," Sharon said, picking up the fork and going after her eggs. Living on this planet was starting to come back to her. Co'ra'na nodded and opened the box by its rear hinge. She pressed a button; Sharon heard a fan whirring and a beep. Co'ra'na sat up straight in her chair and rested two hands on what had to be a keyboard -- with no keys. Sharon cocked her head to one side. "Marvelous things, aren't they?"

Co'ra'na smiled. "How's your import business doing?"

"Probably not well. It's been 270 years since I set it up -- and from what I heard, I might've needed a new supplier about a hundred twenty years ago." Cory chewed her lip, and Xara's face dropped to the ground. The Fourth World War had done a lot of damage. Every single Protector and Virago assigned to Earth died early in that war, and of course, Earth fell into the Arion sphere of influence. It wasn't one of the Velorian Enlightenment's brighter moments. Then again, without the Arions stepping in when they did, Earth might very well have died entirely -- so it partially atoned for Urba Minor VI. The Arions weren't totally worthless, nor were they stupid.

Sharon picked up a piece of bacon with her fingers and chewed on it. Then she began her tale...

On my fourth jump I arrived in system. It was a binary star system, one red giant, one neutron star. I spent over two weeks in very slow flight to get there, while my broken leg tried to heal, encased in that purple cast of Vendorian steel. You remember that cast, don't you, Xara? Without the Messenger station I wouldn't have known where to go; there wasn't anybody around to guide me. As I closed the distance, the neutron star's gravity tugged at me more and more. I couldn't quite see where I was going, and it was a very long journey through a star system with no planets. Every three or four days, though, I ran across a small station with, of all things, a map. "You Are Here" and everything. At one point, the map showed me that if I wanted to reach the Ne'Trona, I'd better be orbiting the neutron star -- orbiting pretty deep in its gravity well, deep enough where I started to worry.

"Why's that? If you're orbiting, you're weightless, right?" Xara asked.

Sharon looked at Cory, annoyed. That was the stupidest question... "Hasn't she ever been through a jump before?"

Cory protested. "We've been busy!"

Sharon turned to face Xara. "One of the first things you learn going through a jump is that even orbiting the singularity, gravity still affects you. If you're orbiting with your feet toward the star, they aren't moving quite fast enough, so you're tugged down there. At the same time, your head is too fast, so you're tugged up in the other direction there. It feels like you're on a rack being pulled at the neck and ankles. Follow me so far?"

"Ummm, yeah, I think so."

"Try orbiting a jump sometime. That difference in pull was increasing, even as I vectored in for an orbit and continued to descend towards the star..."

After six days of that increasing gravity effect, I was starting to get uncomfortable. That cast of Vendorian steel was still on my leg, and it was no featherweight. I actually found myself not tiring, but working more consistently just to keep myself on course. Finally a bulls-eye of lights -- yellow, blue, red circles, the Velorian flag -- passed under me. I looked down.

There was a station, larger than the map stations, way below me, in the orbit. The map had been wrong. Very wrong. I swore. I already felt like I had hydraulics pulling at my cheeks and toenails, and that station was much deeper. Did I really want to go down there?

Did I really have a choice?

Actually, I didn't, as a couple of tough women leapt up from the station -- literally leapt, it seemed, from what my eyes could see, and came up to my eye level. They smiled -- their feet were facing the star where my head was pointed, so it looked like they were upside down. But I did have all that blood in my temples... One of them motioned for me to flip over and point my feet at the star, at the station. I pointed at my cast, and their smiles faded. The one who told me to flip over nodded. I slowly began the turn.

They reached out and caught me under my arms, and dragged me to the station's center -- deeper in the orbit than what I saw. From there, they took me in, and then descended even more -- and that was disorienting in itself. From having my cheeks and toenails tugged, now I was being pulled -- hard -- by the star, while I was in the station.

"Okay, now I'm confused," Xara said. "How could you be falling towards the star, but still orbiting?"

Co'ra'na handled that one. "It's really simple. An orbit isn't really free-fall like people think it is. If you throw a rock at me in space, it goes in a straight line, right?"


"If you throw a rock at me here on Earth, it follows a parabola." Co'ra'na traced the path with her finger.

"Uh huh."

"That's because gravity is accelerating the rock downward, and the rock isn't moving fast enough to escape that gravity. Throw the rock fast enough, in any direction that doesn't bring the rock closer to Earth, and it moves away from Earth. It's moving fast enough to escape Earth's gravity."

"Yeah, I know all that."

"I'm not done yet. Throw the rock at just the right speed and direction, ignoring the atmosphere for now, and it orbits; its speed isn't enough to move it away from Earth, but more than enough to keep Earth from reeling it in."

Xara nodded.

Co'ra'na went on. "Now, imagine orbits in concentric circles from the Earth's surface. One of those orbits goes through the center of the rock, actually through its center of gravity. That's the best orbit for the rock to follow. But the bottom half of that rock, the edge closest to Earth, is in a smaller circle, not quite the same orbit. It's pulled towards the Earth -- whereas the top half is moving too fast, and wants to move away. It balances out. "

"So the bottom half of the rock is in a closer orbit, and isn't moving fast enough to hold that orbit... but it's kept up there by the rock being one piece...?"

"You got it. So the bottom half of the rock feels this tiny pull towards Earth anyway, even though the rock as a whole is in orbit, following its center of gravity. With a neutron star, gravity and the orbital speeds change much more for such a small distance. Sharon?"

Sharon summed it up. "Up until then, I'd been traveling with an orbit based on my center of gravity. Now, I was moving into an orbit based on the station's center. As I got closer to the star, the speed I needed to orbit increased, but I wasn't moving any faster. So, I felt gravity in one direction again instead of two, inside the station. A lot of gravity..."

We descended into an atmosphere -- nitrogen and oxygen, about the same mix as Velor. As we got further down towards the floor beneath me that I could barely see -- it was basically an elevator shaft, and we were the elevator -- everything started feeling heavy: my eyelids, my fingers, and especially that cast. Finally we reached bottom. Just before we touched, I said, "Thanks," but they didn't respond, didn't even look at me. When I was about ten centimeters above the floor, they tightened their grips momentarily, and a second later, let go. I fell. Thud, like a thunderclap. The Vendorian steel cast made a ringing sound, and my leg felt a jolt of pain almost as bad as when I'd broken it less than a month earlier.

The two women touched down onto the floor with nary a sound. They glided down with an exquisite control. I could hear their footsteps, as one of them picked up a pad and started asking me questions. She used her fingernail to etch patterns in the iron pad, handwriting down there. Name, age, why I was there, what'd I'd been doing, when I graduated from the Institute of Scribes, basically my life history. I answered them, wearily, wincing at the sound of the screeching metal. They looked at each other and walked through a door.

A few minutes later, the door opened again... and the Incredible Hulk walked in.

"Bullshit," Xara laughed. "Gray or green?"

Sharon smiled. "Pink, actually, like you and me, with blond hair. This guy was huge, almost as wide as he was tall (and he was tall), and half as thick. A walking behemoth of muscle. Now, I've still got a broken leg, I've exhausted myself through four jumps, I'm in a one-thousand-plus-gee gravity field, and Mr. Universe walks in, menacing. I was scared out of my wits."

"Shara'Lynn Besta," his voice boomed. I struggled to stand up and look him in the eye. Well, I couldn't do that -- he was probably about two meters in height. "You are late."

I wasn't too happy to hear that, and I opened my mouth to ask him what the hell he was talking about. "SILENCE!" I shut my mouth. "You will not SPEAK unless given permission to speak! You haven't earned that yet."

He paced around me, while I stood there stoically. "A hundred and sixty years late. I'm surprised. You have the gall to show up here, a hundred and sixty years after we invited you?"

Oh. That's what he meant. He meant when I was on Dax'xan, training to be a Scribe instead of a Protector. He went on, "You have the gall to show up here, after insulting our representative so professionally. I've got his report right here, in my hand. I do not appreciate having one of my best friends, and a graduate of this training program, spoken to in so callous a manner. I will not tolerate it here! Am I understood?"

I blinked. Then I nodded.


"Yes!" I shouted back at him.

"Good! Now, you are here. That says something for you. It means you can learn something. I knew Aurora, I knew her well. And I know she wouldn't have passed on our offer to you if she felt you didn't belong here. She wouldn't have said a word to you about it. We trusted her judgment then, and we trust it now. Don't betray that trust."

He glanced down, continuing to pace around me. "That cast also says something for you. It means you won't run away from a challenge. A Scribe, taking out a T'set'lar. That's something. That's a lot. We respect that here, it means you're not going to back down. But guess what? My job is to make you back down. My job is to push you to your absolute limits. And I will do that! If you will let me. If you will not run in fear, because it hurts. Because it is going to hurt. This isn't Earth, Shara'Lynn, and it sure isn't Dax'xan or even Velor. This is the Ne'Trona, the Neutron Star Proving Ground. Because here, we prove who's a Protector, who's a Virago... and who's a town crier."

He came directly in front of me, hunched down, and looked me right in the eye. "What are you going to be?"

This time I didn't wait to answer him. "I'm going to be a Protector, then a Virago." I smiled. "Then I'm going to be you."

He laughed, explosively. "That's exactly what I wanted to hear. Welcome... to boot camp."

"Boot camp?" Co'ra'na looked up, stopping her typing.

"Well, it wasn't exactly boot camp. More like Special Forces training. You've seen them before, right, Navy SEALs, Marine Recon, airborne paratroopers, right?" Sharon sipped at her orange juice. "Same thing, but for Vels. Those who had been rejected by the system, unfairly. A second chance for those wrongly denied their first. But it didn't make it any easier..."

... as I found out a moment later.

"Did you just... dent... my deck?"

I looked down. Sure enough, my Vendorian steel cast had put a small bruise in the metal floor. "Tsk, tsk, tsk, tsk, tsk. Really, Shara'Lynn, I expected better of you. Must've made a helluva bang for the secretaries, didn't it? Oh, you're going to fix that, I guarantee. Not right now. But by the end of the day -- and yes, we do have a day and a night here -- by the end of the day, you're going to fix it. With your bare hands, and with the deck fifteen meters below you. Without a ladder. You'd better not dent that deck. But for now, well, there's a price to pay for denting my deck."

"Without denting my deck any more, I want you to lay out, face down, on the floor. I want your arms square to your shoulders, palms on the deck. And I want you to push yourself off the deck without flying. Leave your feet and that cast on the ground, touching each other. Keep your back straight, and your knees do not bend. Eyes forward, not looking at the deck at all. Do you understand?"

I understood. He was asking me to do a push-up. Normally that was a joke. Normally, I'd be on Earth, and I could do push-ups until I got bored. I could do push-ups with an eighteen-wheeler strapped to my back and no wheels.

Not here. Here, I had a lot of gravity to fight for that one push-up. I answered, "Yes."

"Do it."

I knelt down (carefully this time -- didn't want to scratch his precious deck), placed my hands in position, extended my feet back (again, carefully), and did a push-up. It actually took some effort. I pulled my feet back in, stood up again, and looked him in the eye. He didn't say anything for a few seconds, and I wondered what I'd done wrong.

"Did I tell you to do just one?"

I was embarrassed again, but I could smile about it. "No, sir."

Then he leaned in real close to my nose and lowered his voice. "Get down there...", and here his eyes flared,"and puuuuuuuuuuuush."

I got down there, and I pushed.

Xara laughed. "Calisthenics? Old-fashioned push-ups? What else did they have you do, sit-ups, crunches, leg lifts, running?"

"Not running -- too easy to damage that deck with a hard foot landing. They had distance flying for that. But the rest... yeah. Just your normal strength training that you'd find on Earth. I didn't get to use the weights for two months."

"Weights?!? Hahahahaa...."

"Thousand gees of gravity, babe. And that was just the first day! But the rewards..." Sharon lifted her arms up from the bed and glanced at them, showing them to Xara and Co'ra'na once more. They were thick, and very well-defined. She glanced back at Xara. "Betcha can't beat me at arm-wrestling now."

Xara shook her head. She was no ninety pound weakling herself, but it wouldn't do to break your Virago's arm her first day on the job... Those legs were something to admire too, big long mountain ranges under that blanket.

Co'ra'na was still a little sore from massaging that monster in the bed last night, after her long journey. She was glad Sharon wasn't looking her way. Sharon went on, and Co'ra'na got back to typing.

The next few weeks weren't all strength training, of course; the mind will only take so much non-use. So, they put me into several training classes. The big man, Fa'red was his name, was there all the time, constantly ready to snap me back awake if it looked like I was drifting. Interestingly, he didn't do all the teaching. Others did that for me.

It was a wide range of things; everything from protocols on various planets (I recognized a couple, and impressed them when I reported more than they knew about one) to survival in the most adverse of conditions (thank Skietra they didn't actually take me to one of those sulfuric acid nebulae). For the most part, it was a refresher course on what I'd learned at the Institute of Scribes -- with one big difference.

Here, they were asking me to be a leader. On Dax'xan, they were very strict about us staying in the background, not doing a damn thing besides thinking about scratching our asses. No, this was the fun stuff. This was asking me to solve problems, throwing all sorts of challenges at me. They even brought in on more than once occasion several instructors as actors to play out a scenario. Putting me in charge of all these men and women who looked like they could stomp me into the deck with a breath, and having me tell them what to do. Sometimes it worked, sometimes it didn't, but they never mistreated me afterward. They saved that for my instructor and the physical conditioning...

And then there were the staged fights. That was the most fun of all. I hadn't told them about my black belts in karate, judo, and tae kwon do. They wouldn't have understood, because it's not something they're taught. Scribes get a piece of it on Dax'xan, but they've got nothing on humans...

Fa'red dared me, soon after my leg had healed, to knock him down. This was the first time I was in a staged combat. "If you can put me on the deck in one shot, I'll lay off you for a good week on the conditioning. Okay?" I nodded, grinning from ear to ear. He wouldn't know what hit him. It took me less than five seconds to land a blow on him.

He staggered back, one, two thundering steps... and then his face lit up brighter than that neutron star. I was stunned. I'd hit him with everything I had, right to the upper chest... and it didn't even faze him.

Next thing I knew, I was flying through the air, and not under my own power. I landed hard a good hundred meters away from him. I've never heard a sound that loud before in my life, except maybe for a nuclear explosion. I was dizzy.

Through blurry eyes, I could just make out his shaking his hand out after that punch. "Whoa. I don't know how you did that, Shara'Lynn, but I'm never making you that offer again..." He walked over and offered me a hand up.

I took it with a most enthusiastic greeting, and the firmest grip I could muster on his big hand. I even got a little closer to him than I figured he'd let me, and he didn't push me off right away...

"What, no clothes?" Xara said, in amusement as Sharon winked. Co'ra'na kept typing, non-chalant. Xara had been on Earth, and away from other Velorians, far too long.

Sharon ignored Xara and added, "Well, he had been a Messenger, after all."

That made Co'ra'na look up from her laptop, and pause in her typing. It was Co'ra'na's turn to smile and call that, "Bullshit." She didn't laugh, but she did raise an amused eyebrow. Cory and Sharon shared a look; obviously, that little sign at the Dax'xan Institute of Scribes was still there when Cory had gone through the program.

Sharon shook her head. "I've been attracted to women only all my life. But this guy had enough meat on his bones..." Sharon leaned forward and lowered her voice conspiratorially, "and enough bone in his meat... and all Grade A Velorian?" Sharon sighed in utter satisfaction; Xara smelled honey, and tittered. "If all the Messengers were like that, I'd be a grandmother."

Xara's eyes widened. "Sharon, you didn't become... pregnant, did you?"

Sharon smiled coquettishly.

"Oh, no, no, you couldn't be, you couldn't be!" Xara roared in laughter, and was only mildly disappointed when Sharon finally shook her head. After all these years -- hell, these centuries -- Sharon still knew how to tell a story.

She went on...

When I did get strong enough to max out on every physical conditioning exam they could throw at me, I was pretty proud of myself. I had the confidence, the endurance, and I even swaggered a little. I was lean, and I was showing more curves than I'd ever shown before. I thought I was pretty as a Scribe; that Scribe would've been slack-jawed to see me now.

Then I found out how Fa'red got so big.

"This is the end of Phase One, Shara'Lynn. But, we're about to move you to Phase Two. Are you ready for it to begin all over again?"

Again? What was he talking about? Fa'red raised his arm, bent his wrist toward the deck, and pointed down.

"Oh, no," I muttered, but laughingly. He smiled, and he wasn't kidding. We went to another station in a lower orbit, even deeper in that gravity well, where the orbital speed was faster and the gravity effect greater. I was at one thousand gees, roughly -- I don't know the exact figure -- but based on the weights I could now lift, it had to be about six times that at Phase Two.

After that, it was just more of the same -- more conditioning, more training. Not long after I maxed out the physical exams again -- about a year after I'd started at the Ne'Trona -- they formally promoted me. Not to Protector, as I'd expected, but to Virago. "You don't know how tough you've gotten, do you? Not just in strength, but in endurance, education, tolerance, leadership. You've put yourself through a training program that you couldn't conceive when you started it. Now you're almost ready to be a real officer of the Velorian Enlightenment. You just have to finish Phase Three."

"You've got to be kidding," I said. "Down even further?"

He shook his head, still smiling. "No, the physical training is done. Now, we polish your mental training. You wanted my job when you started the program. Now you've got it, for as long as you want it. Use some of those black-belt skills on our initiates... but not too much, okay? We want to break them down, but not break them apart. We want new recruits to learn, in as hard a manner as they can handle. We want them to grow, but not to run away."

Fa'red casually mentioned to me Phase One was for Protectors only, and that they never told their candidates that -- only graduates. I'd been duped into becoming a full-fledged Virago. I was overjoyed, and I gripped him in a hug which would have crushed my former self to pulp. He grunted under the hug -- a sign of how far I'd come -- and offered me a job as an instructor. That offer was standard upon graduation too. It included a residency on Phase Two; all the instructors lived there, spent their lives there when they weren't training a new candidate. Finally, after all this pomp, circumstance, and congratulations, he invited me to dinner.

One of the most intimate dinners I've ever been to...

"Well, I hate to interrupt, Sharon," Co'ra'na said, closing her laptop, "but it's nearly 7:30 here, and almost time for Admiral Yevgeni's address to the United Nations in Moscow."

"Oh, it's in Moscow now?"

"After the Fourth World War, there wasn't a New York anymore. City, or state."

Sharon nodded, and they turned the TV on to channel three. Yevgeni hadn't arrived in the chamber yet, so Sharon wrapped up her story.

I spent the next one hundred and eighty years there; I never had so much fun in my life. Especially watching Messengers, Scribes, and your occasional rogue Protector go from being scrawny and loudmouthed to beefy and quietly confident. Those were good years too.

When word came of Earth's little revolution, I sent a message to the Enlightenment, requesting the assignment. Okay, it wasn't a request, it was a demand. Backed up not by the full force of one honored Virago, but of thousands. Turns out I'd made quite the impression among my colleagues and graduate students, and I didn't realize how much like a labor union on Earth we considered ourselves. Or a fraternity, I guess -- because it was a brotherhood, an elite. When faced with that demand from the Ne'Trona, who had bailed the Enlightenment out of more than one potentially embarrassing situation and had held their own against the T'set'lar, it didn't take them very long to approve.

Co'ra'na asked Sharon one question. "So why are you telling us about that little graduation trick, to lure you into being a Virago? You know I can't leave that out of the story; it's too juicy."

Sharon paused for a moment. "You've endured over a hundred years living under the Arion thumb, Co'ra'na. That takes guts -- more than I had when I was a Scribe. I've decided to make the same offer to you, Cory."

Co'ra'na's jaw dropped. Xara looked over and said, "You go, girl. You need it anyway."

Co'ra'na thought about it for several seconds, and slowly shook her head. "I don't think so. I like being a Scribe. I don't see myself breaking the rules as much as you did, Sharon. It's just not me."

Sharon sighed mock-regretfully; she understood. Some were born to be Viragoes, others Protectors, some Sa'ra'yen, still others, Scribes, or just ordinary citizens back home. Cory was born to be a Scribe. "Well, the offer is still out there, for now. Just don't do what I did, and decide to take the offer a hundred years down the road. You won't like it..."

The television's view turned to Admiral Yevgeni walking in front of the gold-painted U.N. logo and the green marble.