Cheska stared at her computer screen, her mind in free flight. She had been reading about the Purlieu Experiment for the last hour and she was horrified by what she had discovered. Humans had been abandoned on the planet of Purlieu and left at the mercy of beasts Fontalo had created using human and animal genes.
Fontalo was a private company that had been powerful enough to manipulate the entire Federation of Oriel. But Fontalo had finally been tripped up by their arrogance. It was against the parliamentary laws of Oriel to create human life, but Fontalo had figured out how to bypass that law by genetically modifying humans with animal genes. They were then described as animals in all their reports. Oriel had a new parliamentary law that protected animals. Even so, Fontalo might have been excused because the law went into effect after the creation of the animals, if it had not been for the deathbed confession of one of the original Purlieu Experiment scientists. When other members of that cadre began having convenient accidents that rendered them permanently silent, the rest decided it was safer to talk. After more than forty years, the truth about the Purlieu Experiment had finally been exposed.
When the planet of Purlieu had been discovered, the Galactic Exploration League decided to use it for a conservation experiment. The idea was to take an already pristine environment and learn ways of keeping it that way. The planet of Oriel was so polluted already that it was difficult to determine what worked and what didn’t. The intent was to populate Purlieu with people who were educated about avoiding pollution.
The assignment morphed as soon as it hit the desks of the Scientific Research Project Team. Their idea was to put five colonies on the planet and see how they progressed. Of course, they stuck with the original idea of keeping the planet pristine, but they put their own twist on the project. They decided to put each colony in a different environment, give them different cultures and see how they progressed. The subjects were all volunteers, so their deviation from the original plan was considered compatible and approved.
When Fontalo bought their way into the project, they modified the experiment to fit their needs. Anyone who objected quickly discovered they would lose funding for the project if they didn’t agree. Some even had their lives threatened. The company was greedy, powerful and apparently without principles.
It was bad enough that Fontalo genetically modified humans; and bad enough that they forcefully injected them into the Purlieu Experiment; but to make matters worse, they had forced the scientists to make the beasts leaders.
Forty years ago, the scientists and Fontalo had returned with the news that an organism on Purlieu had caused a plague that killed off the colonists. The planet was written off as uninhabitable and the truth had remained dormant until now.
According to the records forcefully obtained from Fontalo, the plague had only affected the beasts. In fact, it wasn’t a plague at all. Fontalo had created a serum to sterilize the beasts. The serum had killed most of the beasts, but not the humans. Fontalo had defended their actions by saying at the time there was no parliamentary rule that prevented them from sterilizing animals. That might be true, but they had definitely broken the rules when they abandoned the humans, leaving them at the mercy of the beasts. All of them, man and beast, had been left to survive as best they could.
Fontalo defended their actions, saying they left three spaceships to guard the planet. Further questioning had revealed the fact that even the spaceships were commanded by the beasts. Since the beasts were programmed to be stronger and more intelligent, the humans didn’t have a chance against them. To make matters even worse, the beasts were programmed to live 350 to 400 years.
The Centaurus had been unexpectedly rerouted to the planet of Purlieu for an emergency mission. They happened to be the closest ship to Purlieu. Even so, they were a good three months away from Purlieu. Hopefully, that gave them a three month start on the faster Fontalo ship – that was assuming Fontalo didn’t already have another ship in route.
Part of their mission was to rescue the colonists from the beasts. The other part was to protect the beasts from extermination by Fontalo. How they were supposed to do that with an exploration craft was beyond Cheska’s comprehension.
Cheska had been working on the spaceship Centaurus for the last seven years. She had worked her way up the ranks until she was finally the senior officer on the research ship. The Centaurus was part of the GEF; the Galactic Exploration Fleet. It had limited ability to defend itself, much less win a conflict with a fully outfitted spaceship. They would need to assess the situation when they arrived and decide what they were and were not capable of doing.
There were no pictures of the beasts, so Cheska had no idea what they were looking for. She only had names of the beasts that Fontalo apparently intended to exterminate. Those names were: Adriaan, Niall, Xever, Pieter, Farasi, Neirin, Eilig, and Quade. Those were all the leaders of the colonies and the commanders of the spaceships.
There were two ironies in all of this. The first irony was the fact that Fontalo had called the beasts mascots. They were given the job of guiding, representing and protecting the humans. The other irony was the fact that the Centaurus had been assigned the job of warning the beasts. The Centaur was a mythical beast itself – a combination of man and horse. Of course, in this case it represented a star constellation, but it was irony all the same.
According to records from Fontalo, the modifications of the beasts included genes from birds, cats, goats, camels and even frogs. How frightening that must have been for the humans. The notes said they were not allowed to mix because that would cause mutations.
Cheska leaned back and closed her eyes, rubbing her forehead. Apparently Fontalo didn’t consider the original beasts to be mutations. What would these things look like? Did they walk upright? How did they converse with the humans…telepathy? Where did they live?
She stood and turned off her computer. This had to be the strangest mission she had been on yet. This was the kind of material nightmares were made of.
Gaige came to her doorway and knocked on her open door.
She smiled. “I was headed for the cafeteria to meet Dr. Oriana. Would you like to join me?”
Gaige nodded. “I heard we’ve been ordered to that experimental planet, Purlieu. I thought it was contaminated.”
“Apparently Fontalo lied about that. Are you surprised?”
Gaige lifted sandy brows, his pale blue eyes searching her face. “Not really, but didn’t the research team agree?”
Cheska rolled her eyes. “Name someone who doesn’t agree with Fontalo…and still has a job.”
“I know. I wonder how long I’ll keep my job when Fontalo discovers that little jewel of information. They have ignored me up until now, but that was because I was an insignificant voice among many star-struck fans. Now they’re in trouble, so each negative voice counts.”
They joined Dr. Oriana in the cafeteria and all gathered at a table with their meal to discuss the new mission. Cheska filled them in on the details and waited for the questions she knew the information would inspire. Gaige was a research analyst by title, but in actuality he filled many roles, as did almost everyone. It was cheaper that way for their employer. After all, how much free time could they have when they were trapped on a spaceship? They might as well be doing what they enjoyed – their jobs.
Dr. Oriana was certainly no exception. If Gaige and Dr. Oriana didn’t have their heads together working on something, it was because they were sleeping or eating.
Their crew was small and most of the space on the Centaurus was taken up with the Lab. They had some of the best equipment and one of the best doctors. They had often been called upon in an emergency. Their ability to work together and solve complicated problems had often made them a first choice, but this time it was probably due to the fact that they were the only ship that was close enough to give any assistance at all.
Gaige finished his food and shoved his plate to the side. “So what do they expect us to do if the beasts refuse to cooperate?”
Dr. Oriana’s tone was sarcastic. “Probably introduce a plague.”
Gaige lifted a brow, his expression a façade of innocence. “That’s doable.”
Cheska shook her head at their usual surface reaction to a problem - joking. “They haven’t said anything specific except that we are to warn the mascots that Fontalo may try to kill them; and to assist the colonists as best we can until help arrives.”
“How long will that be?” Dr. Oriana asked.
Cheska shrugged. “They didn’t say. Probably a month or so, I guess. Who knows?”
Gaige groaned. “In the meantime, a Fontalo ship arrives and we defeat them armed with scalpels.”
Dr. Oriana looked at him. “I think it would be more fitting if we fought them with a plague virus.”
Gaige nodded. “And then there is that.”
Cheska sighed. “Or I could send you two to talk them all to death. That shouldn’t take long.”
Gaige laughed. “All right. I’ll be serious. What are the odds that we can get the colonists to help us?”
Dr. Oriana looked at Cheska. “Probably about the same as getting them to trust us after what Fontalo did.”
“That’s true, Gaige said. “But if we are on the side of the colonists, wouldn’t they fight Fontalo?”
“Dr. Oriana stood and picked up her tray. It makes sense to me that if we warn the mascots; they would want to fight Fontalo. If they rule the colonists, they could command them to fight.”
Cheska stood. “I think the objective here is to avoid a fight.”
Gaige stood and pushed his chair under the table before lifting his tray. “Of course. That makes it much simpler. We land; warn the mascots and get out of there.”
“Good plan,” Cheska said as she placed her tray with the others. “I’ll send you to talk to the mascots. We’ll see if they are friendly or if they have you for dinner.” She sighed again. “We’ll simply have to wait and see. Right now, we need to focus on getting there and learning as much as we can about Purlieu.”
Donte stood in his office, gazing out the window at the serene scene below. Anatidae glided gracefully around on the pond below the Groot Thuis. He had inherited the office and the position that went with it when Pieter died four years ago. He was now the ruler of Bergen. His grandfather might not like some of the changes he had made, and that window might be one. Donte had found Pieter’s office dark and confining. The window helped Donte feel connected with both the colony and nature.
The main colony of Bergen sprawled across the mountains. From where he stood, Donte could see the tram station and the monorail that branched out from the station to Bergen’s sub-colonies; Vlaktes and Bosvrouwen. The third branch followed a mountain pass to the colony of Libertad, where he had been raised.
It had been nine years since he had been told he was the prophesied Anialwch Connection. Some believed The Prophecy would begin this year, but he believed it had already begun. According to The Prophecy, the humans would rise up against the mascots. That was already happening in the colony of Lochfowk. The Fontalo or the Parliament was supposed to return. The three spaceships that protected the planet of Purlieu were on the lookout for any incoming spaceships from Oriel.
According to The Prophecy, Donte and Princess Celyn of Anialwch were supposed to lead Purlieu to freedom. That was The Prophecy. Celyn had a vision when she was only nine that she would exchange vows with Donte when she turned nineteen - this year. Donte didn’t question that she was a seer. Her vision had saved him and Akira when they were in the desert. Celyn had told her father, King Neirin, precisely where they were and when to find them. If King Neirin and his men had not arrived when they did, the Nyumbani raiders would likely have caught up with and killed them. Still, Donte was certain that Celyn had misinterpreted the vision about exchanging vows with him. A nine-year-old child would know nothing of nuptial vows. In any case, Donte was almost forty and already had a mate.
Donte left the window and sank into the chair behind the big wooden desk. Things were not going well right now. For the last two years he had been home with Rianne and his children most of the time. Apparently, that wasn’t necessarily a good thing. He was happy with his mate and children. It was Rianne who seemed to be having a problem with their current relationship.
They used to talk about things that bothered them. Now when he asked her what was wrong, her answer was always “nothing” and “I’m fine.” She wasn’t fine and the reason was probably Celyn’s vision. He had stopped telling her that he would never exchange vows with Celyn. She always gave him that look – the one that went with her lecture about his destiny.
To Rianne, The Prophecy and Celyn’s vision were inseparable, but The Prophecy said nothing about Donte exchanging vows with Celyn. The Prophecy was supposed to begin when she came of age. In the colony of Anialwch, a girl came of age at nineteen. That was the only possible connection between The Prophecy and Celyn’s vision.
Rianne had said she was going to live the years they had together before The Prophecy to their fullest, not thinking about the future. She had done so with incredible patience. He could not have asked for a better mate. Maybe it was selfish to expect a continuation of her devotion. In the last few months, as Celyn’s nineteenth birthday approached, Rianne had become withdrawn. She had lost her sense of humor. Her smile was infrequent and lacked enthusiasm. It troubled him to think that he was the cause. Female mascots were programmed to have estrus every three years, making birth only possible every four years, due to the fact that gestation was a twelve-month process. Andras was four now and she had not conceived. The childbearing years for the female mascots were a mere forty to fifty years even though their life expectancy was 350-400 years, like the males. Apparently that manipulation by the Fontalo was a method of birth control, but right now it was a source of concern for both of them. While they weren’t necessarily planning on a third child, both would have welcomed one. Maybe Rianne’s moods were due to the change of life. That wouldn’t exactly ease her mind either. He had no idea what to do. In desperation, he had turned to his grandmother, but even Saskia had no answer.
As the ruler of Bergen colony, Donte was often busy, but he always made himself available to Rianne. The children knew that if his office door was open, they were welcome. Today his door was open. He was watching the children while Saskia and Rianne organized the customary celebration for the homecoming of the three-year servicemen and women. Among them was Celyn. He was looking forward to seeing her after three years, but at the same time he was concerned about how her presence would affect Rianne. Celyn had lived with them for over a year and in that time she and Rianne had become friends, in spite of the fact that Celyn felt she had a prior claim on Donte. Add to that the fact that Celyn was a young mascot with many fertile years ahead of her; that wouldn’t make Rianne feel any better.
While things at home were not going well, in general, the colonies had been quiet. The colonies were all united and working together. Currently there were only two points of contention.
The first was the division between the believers of The Prophecy and those who thought it was mere folklore. To Donte, fighting over what a person believed was pointless and counter-productive. In his preparation for The Prophecy, he tried to make sure that any changes he made worked for the people regardless of what they believed. If The Prophecy came to pass, they would be prepared. If it didn’t, they would still benefit from the changes.
The second was the division between the mascots and the humans – the colonists. As hard as he had tried to unite them and make things equal, the gap didn’t seem to be getting much smaller.
The most frightening part of The Prophecy was the idea that the Fontalo would return. The Fontalo was the company that created the mascots. They had attempted to sterilize all the male mascots with a serum that was given to all mascots, male or female, adult or child. Instead it had killed most of them. When they realized the serum was killing people, they gave it to the mascot leaders. Donte’s father was one of those leaders. Quade was the president of Libertad Colony. Over forty years later he still held that position.
The Fontalo had done one thing that made Donte certain they would return. They had left three spaceships to protect the planet. To Donte’s way of thinking, they had abandoned the ships and had no right to them now – especially after what they had done to the mascots. Even so, Donte wasn’t representing only the mascots. His concern was for all of Purlieu.
Only one of the original spaceship commanders was still alive, and that was Adriaan. All the commanders had been mascots when the Fontalo controlled Purlieu, but now one of the commanders was a human. Many agreed with Donte that having a human commander was progress. Some didn’t. Chait, the President of Lochfowk Colony, thought that only mascots should rule. It was no wonder that they were having so much trouble.
Not all colonies had a spaceship. The Moeder was originally a Bergen spaceship. Bergen had since split into three colonies, but where the spaceships were concerned, Bergen, Bosvrouwen and Vlaktes were still all one colony. The Baigh was a Lochfowk ship commanded by a mascot woman; Cadha. The Azar belonged to Libertad and it was commanded by a human; Vidal. Anialwch was building a spaceship, the Elw, but that was going to be a long process. The colony of Nyumbani was still struggling to live independently.
Four years ago Donte began working with the commanders of the spaceships in a new way. For the first time, shuttles were used to accomplish a mission, and communications medallions were used by members of the mission. In the last three years, Donte had convinced the commanders to put communication relay stations in remote places on Purlieu. Nieke, a human of Vlaktes, had assisted in making that possible. Now all the colony leaders had communication medallions. They were working on a code to communicate between leaders – a code that the Fontalo wouldn’t know.
A rail had been built from Playa, following the sea all the way through Anialwch and to the main colony of Nyumbani. Lochfowk had built docks and a station on the sea. The first land shuttles were being manufactured in Bosvrouwen and were scheduled to be completed in a few weeks. They were gradually attaining the goals required for more complete unification of the colonies.
Petra stopped in the doorway to Donte’s office, holding a book. “Daddy, will you read to us?”
Andras peered from behind her, grinning at Donte.
Petra was eight years old already. It was hard to believe. She had her mother’s golden blond hair and dark blue eyes. Today she was dressed in a yellow sun dress that Rianne had made for her and her hair was gathered in a ribbon behind each ear. Andras was a lively four-year-old with dark hair and big blue eyes. He almost always had a smile on his face.
Donte couldn’t help but smile at them. “Come over here and get on my lap.”
Both of them dashed around his desk and hopped onto his lap. Petra handed him the book. He put an arm around each of them, holding the book so that they could both see it, and began reading. He occasionally skipped a word or added something so that Petra would correct him. She was perfectly capable of reading any book in the Groot Thuis, but she still liked to sit on Daddy’s lap and listen to him read. It was something he enjoyed as well.
He had almost completed the book when Andras lifted his head and looked into the other room. Donte paused and looked down at him, surprised. Donte had sensed when someone exited the lift into the hallway. Andras must have sensed it as well. Did Rianne know he was doing that, and if she knew, how did she feel about it?
Donte had always been able to sense the presence of animals near him and their moods. In the last few years he had developed the ability to identify some people. He was unable to identify the person approaching the door, but he didn’t sense animosity. From where he sat in his office, he could see the door. When they knocked, he called for them to enter.
Nieke cautiously opened the door and glanced around. She spotted them in his office and shut the door, grinning as she approached them.
“Oh, that’s adorable. You’re such a good daddy.”
Donte’s neck felt warm. He had never learned how to graciously accept praise from her. After three years as her commander aboard the Moeder and another three years working with her off and on in the field, he should feel completely comfortable with her. In fact, he had never felt comfortable around her. It wasn’t her fault, though. Nieke was an amazing person with many strengths and only one weakness, as far as he knew - her feelings for him. While she had confessed her love, she had never done anything inappropriate. She knew he loved Rianne and she respected both of them.
Nieke stretched out both hands to Andras as she glanced at Donte. “Saskia asked me to come get the children so you could get ready. She said the guests will be arriving in about an hour.
Andras eyed her suspiciously, but Petra hopped off Donte’s lap. “Come on, Andras. We’re supposed to go downstairs with her.”
Donte kissed both of them and lifted Andras, holding him out so Nieke could take him. When Nieke had Andras on her hip, Donte stood. “I’ll be down in a little while.”
After Nieke left, Donte bathed and dressed in his uniform. He no longer wore the badges on his uniform. Those honors were old. In any case, he was the ruler of Bergen. He didn’t need any credentials.
Donte arrived in the lobby in time to welcome the first guests. He hugged his father. “Welcome Dad. It’s always nice to see you.” He offered a palm to Akira, Quade’s mate. “Welcome Nomi. I hope you had a nice trip.”
Akira gripped his forearm in the traditional mascot-to-mascot greeting and tipped her head slightly forward with respect. “Yes, Monomi. Bergen is beautiful this time of year.”
Donte offered a palm to Kenyon. “Now there’s a face I have missed for a while. What’s been keeping you away?”
Kenyon gripped his forearm and pulled him into a hug. He slapped his back in an affectionate way. “That tram travels both ways, brother. What’s going on with you? Is Rianne keeping you busy?” His smile was wry.
Donte forced a smile. “I can’t think of a better reason to stay home.”
Quade glanced around. “Where are Rianne and my grandchildren?”
“Rianne is in the Kitchen with Saskia, I think.” Donte pointed at a door. “Nieke took Petra and Andras to the play room.”
Two people came through the entry door and Donte nudged Kenyon. “Look who’s here.”
Akira caught her breath. “I’ll go tell Rianne.” She hurried off to the kitchen.
Quade stared after Akira for a second before glancing at the door. He smiled. “Donica.”
Donte was the first to reach his sister. They wrapped their arms around each other, smiling and hugging each other. Donte gazed down at her. “I’m so glad you got to come!”
He released her and offered a palm to Chait. “Welcome. Thank you so much for taking the time out of your busy schedule to attend, Monomi.”
Chait gripped his forearm. “It was the least I could do.”
Donte wasn’t sure what he meant, but he didn’t linger on the conversation. He squatted and offered a palm to Tavin. “It’s nice to see you, young man.” He glanced up at Donica, who was emerging from Quade’s arms and plunging into Kenyon’s.
“Would you like me to take him to the playroom?” Donte asked Donica.
“Hold on,” Quade said. “I haven’t had an opportunity to greet him yet. I can take him to the playroom when I go see Petra and Andras.”
Akira returned with Saskia and Rianne. Akira giggled. “He is enjoying all the little grandchildren.” She winked at Donte and Donica. “I think he’s hoping for a few more.”
Donte was careful not to look at Rianne. It was difficult enough for her to be in this situation without anyone else knowing about it.
Donica looked up at Chait and smiled, lifting her brows.
Chait shrugged. “It’s not a secret.”
Donica smiled at Quade. “In about 6 months you are going to have another one to enjoy.”
Rianne smiled at her. “Congratulations.” She looked at Donte.
He wasn’t sure what he was supposed to do, so he simply congratulated Donica and Chait. He could hardly get into trouble for that.