Melissa, the timeship, had been busy. The three half-brothers had done a great deal of hopping about on the world they had chosen to mend, then call home. They had completed the mission to train the psychically bonded group consisting of their sons and an adopted grandson and returned them to see the birth of their children. At that point, they had picked up Connell Buchannon Gallant. He was the remaining second generation child and Clete's firstborn son.
Con had been born in another universe and only recently united with his father and the people who called the three men their own. He too had watched the birth of a child who represented the third generation of a new species. The future was assured. The chosen defenders of the multiverse had fathered the race that would spread through the universes to battle the destroyers of life.
The Three, Knight Champion, Knight Guardian and Knight Judge, had trained the four known as the Builders. Now they would train the three to be known as the Explorers. They had hopped forward to the point in time just before their grandchildren were seventeen and collected the three remaining members of Con's bondgroup; Beauchelle Chervan Gallant, the tall red-haired girl called Butch; Tur a'Ka h'Mina, the blond boy called Turk; and the bondcat kit named Pots.
They'd taken the Builders to the academy of the Orion Arm Federation of Free Worlds Exploration Fleet for the rest of their training. They spent two days in the time and on the world of their chosen culture, the planet where Dutch's mother had been born. There were some things you just couldn't find anywhere else. Things like champagne and caviar and a VERY large supply of fresh roasted coffee beans. They had shown another bondgroup a few of the beauties of the rich and peaceful world called Earth. They'd smiled at the three who cautiously followed. All knew they were there, but they'd played along.
"Dutch, it's time to roust our stowaways. I don't think they've been eating properly. Ice cream sundaes and sodas aren't a healthy diet for growing bodies."
"True, Clete. Butch, contact them telepathically and get them out here. They should know by now we won't send them home."
"They're on their way. Pots is delighted to have Top to play with. Those two kits have always been close."
"We'll train them together. Dutch, my future memories say this mission will deal with our chosen warriors. I've set the coordinates for not quite a million years in the past. We won't be landing on Bernis. It's in the midst of its cyclic volcanic upheaval. We'll be landing on the flagship of their space fleet."
"Lane, tell us a little more about them. My mother's half bernisi, but was separated from them shortly after birth and her racial memory was spotty. I didn't learn much about them. Mom left not long after Mike was born and I didn't get to ask a lot of questions before then. Well, I asked a lot of questions, but not about Bernis. Hello, little sis. Hi, Sandy."
"Hello, Turk. Uh, hi, Grandfather."
Clete shook his head and smiled at his grandson Sandor. He was probably going to be a big strawberry blond like himself, but at fourteen, the massive size was still in the future. His companion Michelle was a too mature tall redhead. Both looked older than they were.
"Hello, Sandy, Mike. You chose to come along. I hope you're ready for the training. You'll have a sixteen hour a day workload for the next thirty days, then the physical training will decrease and the studies will increase. You're here. You'll learn. You will also call me Clete. Too many granddads. Get used to it. If you're yelling duck, we need to know who you mean. Now, sit down on the couch and listen. Get your kit settled. He gets trained too. Lane, the floor is yours."
"Thank you, Clete. The bernisi are the oldest known race in this universe. Their civilization rises and falls with the cyclic worldwide volcanic upheaval of their planet. They have evolved into a unique species. Bernisi have a race memory. That memory carries their culture. The Warrior Lords of Bernis and the strict honor of the culture survive through the cataclysm. Yes, Con?"
"The bernisi are pledged to us. Do we know when it happened?"
"No. We know our father saved their race, but they may have been our warriors even before the race memory developed. About a hundred thousand years before we arrive, they were nearly wiped out. Only a few males were left. Our dad did a bit of biological magic and made them a cross-fertile and genetically dominant species. We've never learned why he was in this universe at the time. You and I both spent our first sixteen years with him and your question indicates you don't know any more than I do. The bernisi call him the Fire Lord. We don't know how he gained the title. We, the Builders and the three of you, who will form the bondgroup you call the Explorers, are mutually pledged to them. They're careful about what they tell us of our own future so we don't really know how or when it all came about. Someday a change will be made and the timewalkers will see it in their future memories. They call us the Sons of the Fire Lord. Bernisi are always led by a group of twenty-one Lords, headed by a person known as the Chief Lord. All positions are assumed by the most qualified person. Since no bernisi would present him or herself as most qualified unless it was true, the system is totally without friction. They don't kill unless absolutely necessary and are individually and racially just. We're going to the time of one of their most revered Chief Lords, An a'Hal h'Lis, Ann."
"Isn't she the first one who took them into space while their planet was in upheaval?"
"Yes, Turk, she is. At least since the race memory developed. The bernisi population drops drastically before an upheaval, from billions to exactly two thousand one hundred in a very few generations. Ann led those twenty-one hundred into space."
"Billions to twenty-one hundred? Exactly?"
"Yes, Mike. It's one of the unique evolutionary solutions of the race. It's also probably the reason they don't colonize other worlds."
"Lane, aren't women lords pretty rare?"
"There have been and will be too many of them to call rare, Butch, but they don't make a large percentage of the total. There is no prejudice or inequality between the sexes. When asked about it, the bernisi say that's just the way it happened. They think it an odd question. If more women had known they were most qualified, more women would have been lords."
"Isn't there a split in the duties?"
"Only in war, Mike. The women are as much warriors as the men, but they're the ground troops. When Bernis in in upheaval and the population is low, the women have the duty of protecting the main body of the space fleet, the big ships. I imagine they're rather hoping someone will be foolish enough to attack them. They don't get to fight space battles often."
"Who in their right mind would attack the bernisi?"
"Exactly, Turk. The bernisi are such accomplished warriors, they don't have to kill. They disable attacking space fleets, then rush life support equipment to any ship that needs it. They have a habit of unilaterally declaring themselves allied with any world they see as being unjustly attacked. The attackers usually immediately sue for peace. Their sector is an exceptionally quiet one. The region they define as their sector is rather strangely shaped. We've wondered about it. They're actually near the edge. They tell us it's to allow the growth of several unique cultures that have not yet come to be. One of those is obviously the Fed, but how they know of it in this time we DON'T know. It's just one of the puzzles that make the bernisi so fascinating."
"Could we tell them?"
"That's possible, Turk, but we don't know that either, just that they don't. They don't expand their sector or absorb any other cultures in it, just keep watch over the developing worlds to be sure no one else interferes in their growth. The area they define as their sector does not change in millions of years. The Fed is the first they allow to come into it and they encourage worlds to join it. In all, they're trained, ready, and bored. They LOOK for problems to solve."
"Which is why the Lords are always so happy to see us. Anytime we show up, they know they're going to have fun. We don't call on them unless we plan on using their skills. Those skills are part evolutionary, but predominantly due to training. They're a good match for our training and inherent powers. We're not sure why, but when they're in our company, they share our ability to speak and understand the languages of all peoples. Melissa doesn't surprise them either. They don't see her as impossible. They walk into our little fortune telling booth, through our space ship and into these large rooms without batting an eyelash. They're quite practical about it. 'It exists; therefore, it's not impossible.' They're rather refreshing in that way. They're particularly fond of the gymnasium and pool complex. Which brings us nicely to Clete's territory."
"Thanks, Dutch. I wondered when we'd get back to our first priority. Lane has programmed studies for you and the time you have to complete them. You will keep up with those at all times. We have all been recently injured and will be retraining. You will train with us. We will go on a full thirty day training regimen in one hour. I suggest, Mike and Sandy, you use that time to select rooms for yourselves in the body of the ship proper behind our living suite. Training will begin with a ten-five-ten K run over the course laid out in the corridors."
"Clete, just how big is the ship?"
"I'll answer that, Mike. The ship is its own set of dimensions. It's theoretically infinite, but given finite existence by the program that defines the dimensional matrix. No one knows how big it is. Grandfather programmed the original, but he's been exploring it for thousands of years and has yet to find an end to it. He remembers putting every type of room he could think of into it, but points out it was a very long time ago. He also keeps adding things to it, just finds a 'hole' in the program and sticks them in. He programmed a swimming pool for me and we spent eight days hunting it. Run a string if you go exploring. That's what he does."
"Thanks, Con, but it doesn't sound like we'll have much time for exploration."
"You won't. At least not until you build a matrix for yourselves. At that point you 'll be given the wabbbit program that defines the main body of the ship and gives it engines, data banks, computational facilities, and the capacity for dematerialization and time travel. It also gives it a personality. Somehow, even though the program is the same, the ships each have their own. At some time, one of you will have to learn the method of tapping the power of a star. We still power through the doorway to our father's universe. We'd like to end that eventually, but we've been a bit busy and solar engineering requires a great deal of computation."
"Dez will do it, Dutch. I see it in my future memories. Well, maybe. Dez is Dez. But it's there and, somehow, it's his handiwork."
"Wow! You're right, Butch. How about that? My baby grandson is going to be our first solar engineer. Wonder why I didn't see that before? Wait a minute."
"Don't think about it, Con, just believe he does. Memories of Dez are odd that way. We all know it. Have since Turk saved his life when he was two. Dad says it happens and his long future memory is the one we all choose to believe."
"I think that should be explained, Butch."
"No, Dutch. Call it a timewalker conspiracy. I won't explain any more than the kids will. Dez is Dez. We don't speculate on him OR his mother Maggie. They just are. He's one of the two greatest minds to ever exist. Dad's only real equal."
"Our Dez? My baby brother? The one who's going to be in the bondgroup with me, Sandy, Cal and Top?"
"Yes, Mike, Con's grandson Dez. You've been allowed to come along for a reason. Dutch, Clete and I built our dimensional matrix. You can tell it was experimental because you have to go through the ship we built it in to get into our apartments. We've never been able to figure a way to change that short of starting over. Melissa seems to like the arrangement and we're much too fond of her to risk toying with her essential personality."
"Don't worry, Mike. You'll get it figured out. You've got Dez. He'll have the essential part worked out before he's thirteen while he's still on Adith. He'll dump the math in Sandy's lap when he joins you."
"Gee, Butch, maybe the continual questions he's been asking since he was a couple months old were worth it. Everyone else has a ship. Nice to know we'll get one."
"A couple MONTHS old?"
"That's Dez, Dutch. He's a telepath and timewalker and he was BORN intensely curious. The Builders and Con's group, the Explorers, took their matrixes away from Simon Barton, Caesar, the man who stole my computations while we were at the academy together. He was rather abusing them."
"Yeah, Lane. First he was building himself a dynasty in the past of an inhabited world, then we took my ship away from him because he was using it to try to murder you."
"Which I thank you for successfully preventing, Con. Mike, your group is already on the path to building a ship. We'll guide, but the chore is yours. That's one of the reasons your studies are beginning two years ahead of the usual. Clete's son Red and Dutch's grandson Mick had designed a matrix before their group captured Barton's first timeship. Con learned from his grandfather. That's why he was given a ship. You must do as we did, but as you've heard, you also have a head start by the name of Dez. We now have a known location of the only non-replicable isotope in this universe or our father's. It's much rarer here. It's called faierie platinum, though not even a metal. It's interesting to note the three other cultures who we know are aware of it have names for it that roughly correspond to that rather fanciful appellation. We'll give you the necessary amount to activate your matrix. Clete is tapping his chron. I believe he's telling us you should get moving. I suggest you find rooms with comp peripheries."
"We will, Lane. Let's go, Mike. We'll want rooms close together and it may take time to find two with computer access near each other and reasonably close to the gym. Come on, Top."
"Puck, see they don't get lost."
Dutch felt his huge white bondcat's silvery laughter in his mind. He was delighted with having two kits to teach. Pots had already changed to the shiny black Con had chosen as the uniform color of his bond group. Top was still a rich nut brown. When Mike and Sandy chose a color for their group and donned it, he would shed his brown coat and become that color. Dutch always worried one of the groups would choose hot pink or something of that nature. The cats averaged eighty centimeters at the shoulder and a weight of about a hundred eighty K. The idea of that much bright colored cat bothered him. When he and Puck had become close enough to really communicate, it was one of the first images Puck teased him with. He sighed when Puck gave him an image of Top in the bright orange and green floral print of the shirt Mike was currently wearing.
Clete grinned at him. He didn't know what image Puck had given him, but Puck's feel of humor and Dutch's sigh told him it was a good one. Butch's wide smile and wink said she'd caught it too.
"You three also have what is left of an hour. I suggest you pull your study materials for your first lesson group. Pay particular attention to the literature and cultural history of Earth. We represent ourselves as coming from that background at the academy and while in fleet service. It will be a major part of your entrance exam. Dutch grew up in it and will assist if you're really confused."
"Grandfather has a real soft spot for human literature, Clete, but the history of the two universes diverges widely after about the twentieth century on Earth. I'm going to have to unlearn a lot. Seems to be a lot we have to remember not to know in math and science too. That's harder than learning it in the first place."
"Con, we have a 'soft spot' for human culture too. Clete's mother and mine were both human. His, in our father's universe; mine, in this one. That's why we're so adamant about not giving them our advanced technology. They're not ready for the kind of power time and dimensional theory represent. Witness Simon Barton."
"I know, Dutch. Grandfather spends a major portion of his time straightening out messes people make hopping around in time in his universe. He mutters constantly about 'amateurs mucking about' with time."
"We don't really have the same situation here, Con. First of all, the element necessary is much rarer. Second, few know it's possible."
"The Dark One puts hints in the way of anyone who looks like they're capable of figuring it out in his universe. So far none of the ones who have are in his service. It's one of Grandfather's worst nightmares. He still runs into one of the dark brothers he's already destroyed once in a while. He says his only comfort comes from knowing that kind of hatred of life and fanaticism don't go with the type of creative genius needed to develop matrix tech."
"Nice to know some things never change. He complained and worried about the same thing when we were with him, which, from scattered comments I've pried out of Lane, seems to have been a good ten thousand years or so before your time with him."
"I didn't know I'd given ANY hints!"
"Lane, you, Clete and I have been together nearly fourteen years. Other than the six we spent on separate ships in the fleet, since we were sixteen. Even YOU drop an occasional unplanned word in that much time."
"It really wasn't you he wanted to keep the knowledge of when in his life Lane comes from. It's himself. I got careful instructions on how NOT to tell him I lived with him til I was sixteen and was my mother's son."
"No, Dad. He's extremely proud of his three sons. It's only things in his own future he doesn't want to know. My mom having me is part of that future. He thought it was a very nice part. He used to spend hours telling me about you. Now I know why he stopped at a certain point. His favorite stories were of the time you, Dutch and Lane spent with him. Dutch is right. It's a very long time in his past from when I come from, but he remembers it with absolute clarity. That's pretty amazing since he has trouble remembering where he was ten days ago. He was always telling me how special I was. It was about the only thing he told me I didn't believe. Mother always agreed with him, but she didn't have the same feel when she said it. I thought she was just going along with what he said to be polite. You taught me better, so don't you start feeling weird."
"I don't. Still guilty about not being there for you, but not weird. We do want you kids to meet him in the time we knew him. You'll have to brief me on what NOT to say too. Now, go do something constructive. Once training begins, your time is not your own."
"Right. Let's go, guys. Pots, no one is going to carry you. You're getting too big. Yes, we think you're pretty, but we're NOT going to carry you."
"Thirty DAYS, Clete?"
"Yes, Dutch. It'll take you that long to rebuild your strength and stamina. I'm going to be monitoring your hearts carefully, especially the left one. If Puck hadn't spent four days in healing trance with you, you'd have died. That white streak in your pretty gold hair is the only outside sign of what happened. It's a scar of your most minor wound. The two young ones will give me an excuse to cut things short if needed. I won't tell them the invincible Dutch is struggling."
Dutch groaned and Lane and Clete laughed. Lane wasn't exactly looking forward to thirty days of rigorous training either, but he didn't dislike it the way Dutch did. Clete, on the other hand, enjoyed it. The massive muscular development of his one ninety-five cen frame showed it. His idea of relaxation was lifting weights and doing advanced theoretical calculations in his head. Dutch's was a glass of fine brandy and a lady on each arm. Lane fell somewhere between. He liked the calculations and the ladies.
The training began on schedule. Dutch soon realized Clete was right. He also knew everyone could tell when he was struggling. Butch and Mike had the full range of telepathic abilities and, though Con didn't use them, he had them. He, Sandy and Clete were empaths. They could feel when he was in trouble. Turk was just too observant not to know. He could SMELL when he was overworking himself.
Lane cheerfully told him he'd get over the worst of it soon and Puck proudly stated his two kits got tired for him so he'd have an excuse. Puck was the only one who teased. The others carefully pretended not to know. It was part of Puck's job to tease. He kept it in perspective. His teasing helped Dutch keep going by reminding him it was a temporary situation. He would never have teased someone who actually had a handicap and Dutch knew it.
Gradually, the closely supervised diet and carefully planned exercise began to work their magic. Dutch no longer flared into his power of will before a workout ended. He started regaining strength, speed and rebuilding muscle mass. The day he outran his grandson Turk, they all quietly celebrated. Dutch was once again the fastest anthropoid in existence. Clete gave them away. He happily purred with contentment and grinned when Dutch complained his teeth were rattling.
"Two more days heavy physical and armed and unarmed combat training, Dutch. Turk's as good as they get with any weapon he touches and absolute perfection with a sword. Butch rivals my mother with the quarterstaff and unarmed. Con can shoot the head off a pin at fifty paces with anything from a bow to a laser pistol. Mike's the best I've seen with anything thrown; stone, javelin, or shuriken. Sandy's poetry in motion with chucks and as strong as an ox. And they've all gotten further in their lessons than required. Even the kits are magnificent. If I'm purring, I've got good reason. I'm ALSO pleased I don't have a dent in MY muscles anymore."
"Thank you, Clete. I'll PRETEND I believe you. You know, Sandy reminds me a lot of you. He's already started doing his math assignments with a set of weights in his hands. It's interesting that Butch does hers with him. All right, Lane, they tumble, run, shoot, and fight to perfection. What next?"
"What else? We take them to meet Dad. We sort of back-to-back him. We took the boys to meet him at the beginning of his fishing trip. We take this group to meet him at the end of it. Dutch, he's going to be crazy about Puck, but not happy with your hair."
"I LIKE it long."
"Not that, the streak. You're not going to be able to keep how badly you were hurt from him."
"Oh, terrific. First he'll yell at me, then he'll lecture me, then he'll fuss over me. If I don't insist on preserving my ostensible role as head of this family, he'll tuck me in."
"That's it exactly."
"You and Clete got hurt too. Both pretty badly. Why me?"
"We didn't nearly die. You had a hole burned in you the size of a large grapefruit. And several others to keep it from being lonely."
"Yeah, yeah, I know. 'A few cens one way or the other' and I'd have been missing a heart or kidney. Have our two prodigies decided a color to go with their name? I kind of like the Dreamers. Seems to fit."
"They will. Dutch, it's time for the rest of the training."
"NO! Lane, I won't do it. There's got to be another way. I'm going to accidentally kill someone in the first instant of rage. Besides, Mike and Sandy are too young to be brought into than kind of bonding with the rest of us. I can't handle knowing every time I take a woman in my arms, my not quite fifteen year old granddaughter is looking for a companion."
"She won't be. She's a very practical girl. She'll grab Sandy and go for a dip in the pool. Dutch, she's a full telepath. She's well aware of the facts of life. As to the other, the only way to teach them to break down and destroy drugs and poisons in their bodies is for you to do it with them while in bond."
"I just hate it, Lane. You know how I am about drugs."
"It's also where they learn the healing trance. Clete knows enough to get away from you in that first second when you become enraged. Dutch, from now on, the children will do the training. This is the last time you'll need to do this. Ace for the Builders and Turk for the Explorers will do it for the rest, but you have to teach Turk. Remember, you pass on your hatred of drugs with the training."
"A sneaky way to make sure none of our descendants ever experiment with them."
"That's exactly what you said last time. Dutch, only your reaction and power can make it an autonomic function. This time even the healing trance becomes one. Yes, autonomic. The terrible danger we were in because we couldn't get into trance won't be there except in concussion. Sometimes one or another of us will still need a kick-start, but our bodies will take over without having to be held in. I know that's confusing, but the best I can do. It's what you want for them, so it's what they get. You WILL it to be that way for them."
"Full dress colors. Clete, zeph. If anything goes wrong, it's relatively harmless. Half an hour in the dojo."
"Dutch, the cats too."
"WHAT?! Lane, those kits aren't a third grown."
"Clete will control the dose. We'll monitor closely."
"I see, just me and the kids. And the bond?"
"It's always been centered in you. We'll be included. We just don't need the training. We'll get the healing response just as they do. You taught us the other last time. It saved our lives. Someday, it will save theirs. It makes them immune to all but--"
"Two drugs and four poisons, three of which can't even be created in this universe. The drugs are caffeine and the one we call drowse, and the poison is alcohol. And we're not sure why I left the two common ones out. But since they're relatively harmless if handled reasonably and drowse hasn't been manufactured anywhere in this universe, I suppose it makes sense to remove the dangers of the ones to which we CAN make them immune. Nice thing, injecting our own grandchildren. Half an hour."
"Notice he doesn't count or mention bliss, Lane?"
"Yes, Clete. He still says two drugs even since Dad gave us the formula for drowse. I'm not planning on mentioning it."
"Me either. Since it's based on one of the poisons, I'm going to call it a subcategory and leave it carefully alone. I don't even use the word as a synonym for happy. Took it out of my vocabulary. He flashes anger even when it's the emotion and not the drug we mean. I need to get a weight on both kits. Later."
Lane grinned when Mike and Sandy ran by headed for the replicator in Lissa. They needed uniforms. They'd chosen a name for the bondgroup they would form, but they had to choose a gem and a color. It was an important choice. They'd wear them for tens of thousands of years. Not daily, of course, but any time they functioned as knights. Lane sighed again at the only death the timewalkers saw in their memories and placed his firm faith in Dutch's ability to change things against it. It was called the timewalkers' conspiracy. They all saw it and all set it in Dutch's hands.
Mike and Sandy pulled up a color chart and screened through gems. They wanted something as distinctive as the Builders' burgundy and sapphires or the Explorers' black and rubies. Mike cleared the screen. She'd seen that look on Sandy's face before. She was tempted to peek, but didn't. It wasn't polite. It was the first thing a telepathic child was taught. Don't snoop unless you're pretty sure a person intends harm. Besides, her big brother Turk would have paddled her, even if Sandy didn't mind.
"Mike! I've got it! Dreamers. It's a natural."
"So TELL me. I'm doing all I can not to look."
"Gray and opals. The soft gray of sea mist."
"And Dutch's eyes, just a teeny bluish tint. A shade darker on boots, belt, bandoleers and jacket. Oops. Sorry. But you're kind of projecting."
"Go ahead and look. Ooh, like that smile."
"Oh, Sandy, it's PERFECT. Let's do it. I can find the patterns. There they are. Sandy, who's our group leader?"
"You are. You mean you didn't know? I always have. Been trailing you around since I learned to walk. Cal knows too."
"Of course Cal knows. He remembers the... ME?!"
"Yes. First lady leader. You wear the knight symbol on your jacket."
"All in opals. Me."
"You're Dutch's great-grandchild twice. Once on the adopted side and once on the natural. You're telepath, powerwielder and bernisi. You carry Clete's lines through his grandniece on your daddy's side too. You're everything but a timewalker. Who else could it be?"
"Sandy, I'm not an empath."
"Sure you are. Not strong, but it's there. Your part of the dreams of the Dreamers is figuring out how to help people. You know what they need and Cal knows where to put it to do the most good. Dez creates the solution for you to put. I'm just along to do the math Dez hasn't got time for. Cal and I talked a lot before we left, but you know how timewalkers are. They tell what they know they tell."
"I know Cal didn't tell you you're just around to do EXTRA math. You're special, Sandy. Like your granddad, Clete, even more like him than your dad."
"Thanks. We're all special. We're the Dreamers."
"And I wear the chess piece. Wow. Let's do it. Hmm. First my, ahem, measurements. I won't look right-- Oh, there are Butch's modifications. That makes things easier. Pretty jacket style, but not for me. There. A little more splash. Butch is pretty function oriented about battle dress. Hmm, I don't see anything else I want to change. Oops, almost forgot to specify color and stones and my opal outline of the knight. In. Boots, moc style and military; pants, below the knee and lace up leather; shirt, cotton; tunic, silk; belt with emblem, leather. Metal! Well, it's giving me sterling silver."
"Would be my choice anyway."
"Mine too. Bandoleers WITH pockets, please; jacket, leather; cape, swordsman's satin lined; hooded cloak, leather, wool lined; knight chess piece amulet. Socks! Cotton. Got it. Your turn."
"I like Lane's patterns, but not so tailored, just a bit softer and fuller. Mike, help me cross them with Clete's. Thanks. Perfect. Sterling silver, opals, color eight seven three. Go. MIKE! Please. I do notice you're a girl."
"Well, turn around."
"I'm not sure I can. All right, I'm turning. You know what we forgot? Swords. Hey! I'm turned. No fair throwing things when I'm being good."
"That was quick. Oh, Mike, you look gorgeous. The gray matches your eyes and sets your hair off beautifully. The opals are positively luminous. The colors in them really stand out, even in the little ones in your knight symbol, Bondgroup leader."
"Sandy, you're a sweetheart. All right, Top. Here's your color. Sandy, I have noticed you're a boy. As a matter of fact, I've been watching your shoulders get wider."
"Turn around, Mike. You're teasing and we both know it. Program swords and scabbards while I finish dressing."
"Let's see. Hmm, that looks right. Oh! There it is. Butch flagged it for us. Stone and color and replicate! Wow! It occurs to me we'd have trouble convincing people we're only fifteen."
"Which we aren't. Quite. You know, I'm growing. Think I'll get as tall as Clete? Opinion. Don't path Butch for the answer."
"Caught. You've got his pretty strawberry blond curls and gray eyes. Looks like you might carry his mass someday too. Might. You're almost to Dutch's one eighty-five now."
"Yeah. I think he hates it. You and Butch are going to be as tall as he is."
"Butch is already. Now, you hold Top. I'll see... Yes, he's got the idea. He'll probably shed brown all over our rooms. Oops. Grab your stuff. I'll get mine. We're running short of time. Hi, Turk. Think?"
"Outstanding. Absolute perfection. I expect you to use those skills you learned to keep the panting males at a distance, Mike."
"Silly. Thank you. Sandy, you're losing pieces. Top, bring them. Ooh, what a smart kit you are."
"That's a real nice set of colors. They did well."
"You mean Sandy did well, Butch. We know who has the good taste in that pair. How long before she realizes she forgot Top's amulet?"
"Don't get in front of the doors."
"You know, in a year she might outrun me."
"Nah, just looks that way 'cause you were standing still when she went by. Fess up, Con. What's the pense?"
"I just realized I made color and stone choice without you two. We're about to become a bonded group and I hardly know you. More to the point, you hardly know me."
"One; we love the colors. Been looking forward to wearing them since we were babies. Two; we've gotten to know you pretty well in the last thirty days. Three; you're a born leader and we'd follow you into hell. Right, Turk?"
"I always agree with you when you're right, Butch. Con, this has got to be rough for you. You didn't grow up raucousing with a bunch of kids who all know they're destined to become part of a group deeply bonded to one another. You're the most brilliant, competent and powerful insecure person I've ever met. I'm doubled down Dutch's line, but I'm not the leader. You are. We're a unique group. We have between us the five bloodlines doubled up. If the circumstances of my parentage bothered me like yours bother you, we'd be in a real mess. I'm an accident caused by the oddities of time travel. You were the result of a life threat. Neither our parents nor we are to blame. I think we're both terrific. So do our parents. Top it off with Butch thinks we're perfect and you can't help but see the preponderance of high opinion. Am I getting through to him, Butch?"
"Yeah, but I think it's time I took a hand. Before we do this, I want to open us. Bind us. Call it a prelim. Come on, Con. You saw it coming. There's nothing in you that we won't love and understand. Here, you hold Pots. Security kitty. Easy, Con. You say when. You know it'll open the way to your telepathy and widen your empathic channels. You're our center and we need you open to us."
Con sighed and nodded. Butch grinned and put an arm around the shoulders of each. Con knew it would be rough. She was going to blow him wide open and get rid of the dust and cobwebs, but he knew he needed it. He couldn't lead until his powers were freed.
Butch caught the quicksilver laugh and deep strength of Turk first. He was as wild and free as an eagle. He was male to the core and an unabashed sensualist, arrogant and proud with good reason. She opened herself and gave deep held faith in herself and the emotionality beneath the slightly brusque exterior. She brought the total femininity which her short hair and the nickname Butch did nothing to hide. She reached into Con gently, then smashed down his walls. He was brilliance and inundating power.
Suddenly Con was in full control. He was the dominant. His was the place to lead. He was their guide and their protector. He was the child of beyond blended with Clete's deep humanity. He was the second most powerful being in the universe and knew it. He knew it without conceit. He felt the happy kit presence and brought Pots fully in. He was the center. He would draw them together. He burned into power and bonded them. They were his as he was theirs. He loosed them gradually.
"I think we're ready. Shall we go?"
"Con, look at Pots' eyes. We're bonded."
"I know, Turk. It was necessary. We had to be a unit before Dutch brought us together with Sandy and Mike. Otherwise, they'd have been caught in our bonding. Now Mike can bond the two of them and Top. She's a power that doesn't know its own strength. She's going to reach through time and pull her other group members in."
"Yes. They'll all be the same age, even though Dez was a baby when they left. She'll bond him at almost fifteen. They're going to be a great group. Thank you, Butch. I needed the breakthrough. I did it once with Mick's help, but managed to get myself all walled in again. We're ready, Dutch."
"I know. I felt you power up. About time too. Look, I don't like this and you're going to get that at full strength. You'll get my hatred of drugs right along with my ability to combat them. From now on, even medicines won't work on you unless you consciously will it. Be warned alcohol and caffeine will. Clete will give you the names and chemical formulations of the others. All but one are based on a non-replicable molecule that doesn't exist in this universe because the plant that produces it doesn't exist here."
"Grandfather calls it the impossible plant and says it shouldn't exist there either, but the Dark One pushes the development of the odd type of plasma weapon that caused the mutation and creates fertile ground for it."
"Yes, Con, and every race that serves the Dark One spreads it, so it's a real threat to us there. The drug is something new and, though we've never encountered it, it could be manufactured here. It will render you unconscious, but we don't expect it to be a problem. It's very hard to produce. This information goes no further. It is discussed with no one. Not even a member of another group. Now, keep well away from me in the first second after the injector hits me. The drug affects my judgment for a split second. I could kill someone in that time. We start by entering a meditative state together. By the way, Mike and Sandy, I really like your colors. That's a beautiful gray."
"We've always thought so, Dutch. It's the color of your eyes."
"Mike, YOU are definitely one of mine."
"Great-grand on both sides. Mick and Mina."
"Lan's and Ace's. No wonder you're precocious. Let's begin. Bring your groups together, then join with me."
Dutch felt Puck slip into meditation with him. Clete and Lane would be pulled in when he flared into power. He felt the two groups join. When they were fully in meditative state, Clete and Lane rapidly hit each kid and cat with zeph. Clete hit Dutch and dove away.
Dutch came straight up from lotus and raged into power. Con and Mike blazed up with him. Puck roared and the power seared through them. Mike forged her link to all her group as the drug fell apart in her system. Far away in time and space two others were transformed in that instant. The Builders were suddenly with them. The power surged through the four groups and bound them inextricably to Dutch.
Lane saw the change as the fifth group burned into existence and into the bond. The Defenders were bonded on distant Adith. The Builders' children were bound. The third generation was complete and the fourth begun. The change was good.
"THAT was not supposed to happen! Lane!"
"Easy, Dutch. None of us saw what would happen when both Mike and Con powered in with you. You're ten times the power you were when we did this with the boys. The last group was drawn in by a kit named Pip, but you helped. Leader is Ace's daughter Cassandra. Three in the group. Color red-brown; stone topaz; metal, copper. They also wear one emerald. They have good reason to do so. You just taught them all how to heal themselves and rid themselves of drugs and poisons."
"All of them?!"
"All of them, here and on Adith. Look with Puck's eyes. See the bond? Ours wraps us and theirs wraps them, but see the bond between you and each group. They're yours, Dutch. Yours to the fourth generation. They'll still experience the racial bonding at seventeen, even the ones who don't leave home, but our sons and their bonded children are linked to us and to you personally."
"Why, Lane? Why to me?"
"It's who you are, Dutch. All of us are yours, especially these three groups. You have two great-grandchildren among them."
"See what all this bouncing around in time gets me? I'm not quite thirty-six and we're talking about my great-grandchildren. One's even with us. Puck's laughing at me."
"Yeah, he thinks you're wonderfully silly. Personally, I'm not worried. I quit trying to keep track of who was whose after the first generation. Con's my firstborn son, but he's younger than my second son. My second son was born five years before the other three members of his bondgroup, but he's younger than they are by a few days. See why I don't keep track of my grandkids? I have trouble with my two boys. Let's have dinner. I'm hungry."
"Clete, although I do think you said it just for my benefit, I agree. They're just our kids. They certainly look like us."
"Thank you. We'll all take that as a compliment, girls as well as boys. Don't worry about who belongs to who. We all know who we are. More important we know WHAT we are. We're the Gallants and we have two days of intensive training left, then we meet the original, your daddy. Come on, Sandy, we'll cook."
"You mean I'll cook and you'll keep me company. Top, you have pretty green eyes, not yellow anymore. Mike! He's shedding all over me!"
"He's in a hurry. He likes our colors. Let's go fix dinner!"
"Those two are quite a pair."
"You should see them when they team up with my brother Cal, Dutch. He's Grandmother Shaena with Daddy's logic and future memory and Uncle Mick's eye for ladies. He can't wait for Dez to grow up so he can play math games with Sandy and him. He's the one who never gets tired of Dez' questions. Ban and Alban don't either, but they don't get quite as many. Ban says he doesn't ask any more than Turk did. Of course, Dez asks everybody as many questions as Turk asked Ban. Are you going to tell them, Lane?"
"I think I'd better tell Dutch first. Go on, Butch. Dutch has the choice. You and Con will know it. Help them with dinner."
"All right, Lane. What's the problem?"
"We need to train them all, Dutch, all together or one group at a time. You have to decide. Three, four and three, seven and three, or ten. Missions depending on your decision. If ten, we drop this five and pick them up in a day or so and run physical on the rest. Same with seven."
"In other words, no vacation. Lane, is it possible to train ten?"
"Yes, and it would be a very interesting mission, a lot of individual group work. The other ways would be just as interesting. Point is, could you stand it? We'll be on this for months any way we do it, longer if separately. You're an incredible mother hen. Could you stand a brood of ten to watch over?"
"Not if half or more were fourteen. Almost seventeen is very different."
"That won't be a problem, Dutch. Mike and Sandy are quite willing to take two years advanced schooling in the Federation. So are the others. If we take all ten of them, that's what we do with them. We drop the five on Earth, pick up the other five, do the physical training, then put the seven young ones in school. We come back in two years for them, a few days for us, then take them to train. It starts a precedent for the next generations. Dutch, in their time, my best friend Mick is getting older. He can't give them the physical and technical training he once did. It's been a long time since he was the best transporter chief in the fleet. Adith has good space contact, but the sector's a long way behind the Orion Fed in some ways. We could do that even if we ran separate missions for them. These kids and the others have been away from home before. They've been on long space and sea voyages. It won't bother them. They'll have each other."
"Hmm, if they got everything but our own real advanced work on Earth, we could concentrate on that during the training missions. Three fourths of what we teach is Earth history and culture."
"Ah, decision made. Ride the winds of change. Yes, good choice. Mission goes with nine at sixteen, Con at seventeen. Makes them stronger. We put seven in the academy four years behind three. They gain and we lose nothing. Except you. You lose sleep because you worry about them. We pull the mission with the bernisi another time another way. Not much change there either. We still get it fixed."
"I'm looking with Puck's eyes. Dutch, we don't see Dad."
"Yeah. Hurts Lane and me too. Think we'll ever stop missing him? Stupid question. The answer's no."
"I just wanted to hear his voice, Clete. Yelling at me if I could arrange it. You'd think after nearly twenty years I'd stop aching for the sound of it."
"We'll still go see him at the end of that fishing trip, Dutch. It hasn't been long since we saw him, less than a year."
"I know, Lane. I think I'd move back in with him if I could."
"You know what this is, don't you?"
"You almost died, Dutch. Your subconscious knows even if you don't. Dad's your guardian against harm. The one person who makes you feel safe and protected. I think Lane's wrong. I think you need to see Dad badly, with or without the kids. Puck agrees. Lane, check it. Is there a way we can take him and still do the rest?"
"No. Yes! Got to do it now though. I'll set the coordinates."
"How long for the trip?"
"We're close. Thirty minutes to drop the kids, three hours to find Dad."
"We can't take the kids?"
"How many do you want running around a place he's trying to be very quiet?"
"Not the fishing trip."
"No, we're going to pull him out and put him back."
"Oh, he'll LOVE that."
"You wanted to be yelled at."
Clete apologized for disappointing them. He didn't explain why they were going alone, but Puck did. He padded up to Butch and looked her in the eye until she got the message and read him. She dropped the contact in shock when he showed her the image of Dutch dying on the floor with his face and scalp blistered, a huge hole in his left side and flames around him. He waited til she recovered, then let her feel Dutch's need for his father's voice and the shelter of his arms. He took the opportunity to pass her the secret.
The cats had been created for one purpose. Dutch's descendants had created them to save his life. It was the biggest change they would ever make. They'd chosen to alter the universe by not letting him die. His power would have lived on and could have been summoned, but the man who laughed and loved would not have existed. Without him, Lane would have never smiled again and Clete would have died, still mourning, a thousand years later. He too would have become a power without form. Lane would have gone on forever, unsmiling and alone. He gave her the joy he felt in his own existence and she gave the promise Lane, Clete and Dutch would never know why the cats came to be. They still had to be created and placed where Lis would find them. He told her he liked his name because it touched the paradox.
"I'll carry the message to all the children, Puck. Do the Builders know? Yes, of course they do. We didn't see him til you'd healed him. None of us knew it had been... Oh, you're right. Don't worry. We won't treat him as if he's fragile."
Puck showed her the image of Dutch tripping over him and getting a bath with his wide tongue, then laughed silver in her mind. He padded out of the kitchen with the sound of her laughter in his tufted ears. He brushed brown kit fur into a pile with the tuft on his tail and went to find a brush. Mike would get the message when he dropped it in her lap. Top would be gray by morning.
* * * *
Copyright © 1999 Sharon L 'Spinner' Reddy
All Rights Reserved