The Garsal have landed and Frontier has changed forever. Shanna's new gifts place her on the front line of the war - if she can learn to use them.
Wonderfully imagined - C Scott
Starcats rock! - PauNic
Beautifully written - a must read! - Brenda
Loved it!!! - Matthew Carey
A spectacular adventure with wonderful 'companions'- Lisa H
Starcats are the Best! - Joyce Paige
I love this book & can't wait for the next one - Lynne L
Great characters and a fascinating new world - David Watson
A Captivating Story with Complelling Characters make Frontier Incursion a great read - Chuck Gallagher
4.9 out of 5 stars Amazon.com
Terrific world building with great characters ... can I have a Starcat?
Christina - Ensconced in YA
Five out of five - an amazing 'be absorbed by this world' book ... I am so happy there is a sequel coming out and I really look forward to reading it. It takes a very good author to do that to you.
Janis Hill - author of Bonnie's Story - A Blonde's Guide to Mathematics
SHANNA ran. Insectoid limbs scythed through the vegetation behind her, and red beams slashed past on either side, scorching as they grazed her skin. Her feet seemed mired in mud, and her pack dragged her backwards, overbalancing her towards the six-limbed creatures that dogged her steps. She flung her head frantically from side to side, desperately seeking her starcats. Where were Storm and Twister?
Ahead of her, she saw Allad stumble and fall, the tall scout’s body a smoking ruin as the beams sliced across him. Satin snarled and leapt at the invaders, only to perish in turn. Where were the others? What had happened to them? Still alone, Shanna struggled on, forcing one leaden leg after the other. She tried to discard her pack, but the straps refused to loosen, and then she stumbled over the first body. Storm. His fur was burnt and his eyes staring, and she burst into tears, sobbing as she ran, wanting to do nothing more than stop and cradle him, yet unable to do so for fear of the aliens hunting her. The tears threatened to blind her, but a voice, screaming from ahead, spurred her on.
Her breath was like fire in her throat, and now she could hear the sounds of offworld footsteps only seconds behind her, while a mound in the vegetation ahead told the tale of another body. Frantically she tried to change her course, but her heavy legs refused to turn and she almost fell as she tried to hurdle the still form. A plaintive “No!” burst from her lips as she recognised the familiar cadet insignia and name on the sleeve of Verren’s bloodstained uniform.
The first clutch of an alien limb on her pack almost threw her backwards. Sobbing to breathe, she forced the words out. “Get away! No!” Drawing a ragged breath she tried to turn, but chitinous limbs restrained her. She fought them, but they dragged her back inexorably until she was stranded on her back, held down by the hard alien carapaces, unable to move. She flailed her arms desperately, but they were too heavy. And then she woke, disorientated, lathered in sweat, and panting.
For a moment she panicked, still unable to move and not understanding where she was until a plaintive hum jerked her into the present, and the weight upon her resolved into the anxious faces of two starcats, tidemarks glowing dimly in the darkness. Her muscles lost their terrified tension and she let her head collapse back against the unfamiliar softness of a pillow.
“Storm? Twister?” Relief flooded over her, and one of the feline bodies moved, and then she was able to lift her arms to caress the silky heads. Soft purrs sounded, and she felt the huge cat bodies curl gently around her, providing sorely needed comfort.
For a few moments she just lay there, but the vivid images from her nightmare remained - or rather, the real images of the last year replaced them, devastating in their rawness. Arad’s tear streaked face as he sat with Breeze’s still form vied with the sound of the alien vehicles destroying the beauty of her home world, grinding relentlessly towards the plateau that housed her people. Images of sliders, swarming towards her as their sensitive antennae quested for living flesh, mixed with a jumbled montage of cliff faces scarred by alien aircraft and flashes of the fear she’d experienced when they’d rescued the human slaves from their Garsal captors.
Then came more images - her brother, Kaidan, standing on the front lines with his bow; Verren binding gaping wounds in the aftermath of the battle; Ragar and Zandany sending their starcats to stand guard on the alien prisoners, and Taya and Amma, standing as stunned as she had, before the glowing Starlyne she’d thought was only an animal but had now proved to be so much more.
Her breath caught in her throat once more. She was inside a Starlyne habitation - she’d gone willingly, because of two images sent by the creatures as they’d communicated with the human beings of Frontier. The first image had shown her the origins of her starcat friends. Within the Starlyne memories, she’d seen a tiny feline creature, newly arrived on a crashed starship and accompanied by a human child, yet frolicking in friendship with a Starlyne youngling in a sunlit glade. The second image had featured Storm, Twister and herself as the hope of both human and Starlyne, and it had engendered a burning desire within her to know more about their intentions and her place within their plans. Surely the fate of colliding worlds could not rest with her and her two starcats? The sweat on her body chilled suddenly, and she convulsively grabbed at the two huge heads next to her. Ear tip tidemarks cycled soothingly as if her cats knew what she was feeling, and slowly the overwhelming emotions were submerged once again by physical exhaustion, and she descended back into the blackness of sleep.
A soft chime sounded and Shanna raised her head, rubbing her eyes. Two warm, furry bodies rumbled, purring as she rolled over on the unfamiliarly soft bed and pushed herself upright. As she did, the tenderness of her recent bruises made themselves painfully evident. A dim light emanated from the smooth walls around the room, and she could see her classmates stirring sleepily around her, their starcats stretching and chirping, tousled heads slowly appearing.
After she’d gone back to sleep, her dreams had continued to be full of confused nightmares and disjointed emotions, cycling from one to another in a constant whirl, but she suppressed the lingering fears born of her unconscious mind ruthlessly in case they overwhelmed her ability to function. Storm turned knowing eyes on her, but she distracted herself by scratching his head and hoping that her nightmares hadn’t disturbed anyone else.
As she lay there, she remembered the moment from the day before, after they had left the pungo grove and followed the Starlyne into the wilderness of Below, when Teacher had paused after several hundred metres of silent travel to speak to them all.
“Your fellows will join us,” had come the silent words, along with an image of Nelson, Perri and Barron. The group had exchanged startled glances, and the Starlyne spoke again. “We can speed their healing, and you are needed as a complete unit. Barron will bring a starcat cub for Arad. He has already been chosen.” With that startling comment, Teacher turned again and began to glide silently through the trees, her glow illuminating the vegetation.
The patrol had followed almost automatically. Their subsequent trek through the vegetation of Below had been completely free from predator encounters, which Shanna had found oddly eerie. After several hours of walking, the Starlyne had led them into what appeared to be a natural cave. Twenty metres into the winding tunnel, the rough granite walls had become smooth, then after an S-shaped curve the walls began to glow softly, providing a dim illumination that enabled the Patrol to see where they were walking. The starcats padded softly beside their human companions completely unperturbed, while their partners walked wide-eyed, glancing warily around them. Shanna had run a hand down each cat’s silky head, and tried to avoid the sudden tremble of apprehension that ran through her body. Teacher had conveyed them without words through the tunnels, winding through a complex maze of many branchings that had made Shanna so dizzy she wondered if she’d ever find her way out again, before showing the Scouts and cadets to their current quarters ; two large sleeping rooms, each with an adjacent bathing facility, and a large communal room between, furnished with long low tables and a yielding floor dotted with large cushions. They’d all washed rapidly in the bathing pool, before falling exhausted into the large beds provided. There had been little conversation, and Shanna had felt as if she were in a strange and alien dream.
Now, as she stretched luxuriously, wriggling from side to side, Shanna took another look around the sleeping room. The bed was low and fashioned from what appeared to be a solid piece of polished wood, which was topped with a vaguely organic looking mattress. The bedding looked bizarrely normal and smelt faintly of something freshly aromatic. As she moved around, easing herself out from under her cats, she noticed that the surface under her was oddly yielding, almost conforming to the contours of her body. She yawned widely again, scrubbing her eyes with her hands before running them over her hair, feeling oily wisps sticking out everywhere. Looking around for her pack, Shanna noticed for the first time that there appeared to be small storage compartments built into the walls of the room, and that while she had slept, somehow her pack had ended up tucked neatly into one of them. With a sigh, she swung her legs over the edge of the bed and stood, noticing that she’d apparently taken the time to change into a singlet top and shorts before falling asleep. She must have been exhausted not to remember changing.
“What do you think we’re meant to be doing?” asked Amma through a yawn, as she climbed out of the bed next to Shanna. “I think I need to bathe again ; I was so tired last night that I seem to have missed a few bits, and I think I might have bled on the pillow.” She rubbed at a bloodstain with distaste. Shanna smiled stiffly, feeling the puffy side of her face crinkle uncomfortably, and investigated with a careful fingertip.
“I wouldn’t mind another scrub myself, and then perhaps we can get Verren to stick our damaged bits back together.”
“Did someone say my name?” Verren lifted a tousled head from under his bedding and yawned widely at the two girls.
“Yes, that was us,” laughed Amma, “we’re a bit battered still. Can you do a bit of a repair job when we’re clean and dressed?”
Verren struggled to a sitting position and stretched stiffly, before swinging his legs gingerly over the edge of the bed and leaning his elbows heavily onto his knees.
“I suppose so.” He yawned again. “Give me a few more minutes.” He waved a sleepy hand at the two girls, who busied themselves in their packs.
“We’ll grab the bathroom then,” said Amma. “Shan, do you want to give Taya a poke? We’ll get the three of us out of the way, and then they can have it.” Shanna grimaced slightly, but rounded Verren’s bed and approached Taya, who was sitting up in bed and examining her now grossly swollen left ankle.
“Bath Taya? Amma and I thought the three of us might snaffle the bathing room first, and then Verren’s going to patch us up.” The other girl looked up and nodded tiredly.
“Can you give me a hand up?” Surprised, Shanna nodded and hauled the other girl to her feet. Taya winced as she placed weight on the leg and hobbled a few steps with Shanna’s support. From her bed, Spinner watched carefully and then poured himself off it, easing his large body under Taya’s other side with loving gentleness.
“That looks nasty!” Shanna dropped to her haunches, and ran an eye over the swelling and the purpling bruise. “How on earth did you walk on that yesterday? Verren, I think you need to take a look at this now!” She and Spinner carefully eased Taya back onto her bed as Verren pushed himself resignedly to his feet and, squatting down, gently eased the swollen ankle onto his knee.
“Show me how much you can move it, Taya.” He frowned as Taya slowly moved the ankle up and down, then side to side, wincing as the movements pushed into pain. He gently probed the ankle with his fingertips, then grasped the heel and tested the ligaments. Taya gasped in pain as he drew it forward. “Well, that’s good,” he said, and gently placed her foot back on the floor.
“Good?” gasped Taya, “that nearly killed me!” She narrowed her eyes at Verren.
“It means you still have some ligaments attached,” replied Verren. “If it hadn’t hurt, you would’ve been in much more trouble! It’ll take a little while to settle down, but if we strap it, it’ll feel a lot better, and then you’ll need to do some specific exercises. It’ll be some weeks until it’s properly right, but once you get over the next few days, you should be on the mend. When you’ve had a chance to get clean, I’ll strap it. Shan, help her to the bathing room, and Taya, make sure there’s not too much hot water on the ankle or the swelling will get worse.” He yawned again, and began rummaging through his pack.
Shanna supported Taya over to the bathing room while Amma sifted through the other girl’s pack for some clean clothing. Their four cats purred their way towards the warm bath, dipping their paws into the water with pleased hums. Multicoloured tidemarks rippled in happy rhythms. Shanna supported Taya while she shed her clothing.
“Can you just slide in Taya? And then we’ll prop your foot on the edge.” Shanna and Amma lowered the injured girl to the edge of the pool, and she slid gracefully into the water at the shallow end, flipping around and propping her foot on the raised edge, before sinking back into the water with a grateful sigh.
“Thanks, guys,” she even smiled briefly at Shanna, which made her more uneasy, and the three of them began a thorough scrub, shaking out their hair and using handfuls of soapleaves to lather themselves thoroughly.
“So what do you think will be happening today?” asked Shanna. Amma shook her head and shrugged her shoulders.
“After the last few months, I’m not sure anything would surprise me.”
Taya wrung out her hair, and tossing it back, began to lift herself out of the warm water, wriggling her toes carefully.
“Who’d know? Two days ago, we thought Starlynes were animals ; special animals but still animals, and now we’re having a bath inside, I suppose you’d call it one of their houses ... ” She shook her head dazedly, and Shanna found herself nodding in agreement. “Well, time to get dressed, and let the others in to get clean, although I think I could stay here all day. Spinner!” Taya called her cat who had been happily lounging on the edge of the pool, paddling his paws in the warm water. The other three stirred themselves, padding over to Taya and after allowing her to use them to balance on while she dressed, assisted her out of the bathing room - Spinner and Spider on each side, while Storm and Twister carefully pushed the door open and held it back.
“Finally!” Ragar greeted the three girls as they exited the bathing room. “Zandany’s just about gone back to sleep waiting for you!” Zandany stretched and yawned as he levered himself off his bed.
“You all smell much better,’ he grinned, standing back to let Taya hobble to her bed again. She lay down, elevating her ankle with a sigh of relief, and carefully began to comb her long dark hair.
The three girls exchanged smiles, even though Shanna felt slightly awkward about Taya’s sudden camaraderie. Picking up her own comb she ran it carefully through the snags in her hair, wincing as the comb stuck in a particularly large tangle. As she tugged the comb through the strands, she resolutely decided it was time to find out what had caused the sudden change of heart.
“Taya?” Shanna’s tone was hesitant, and the dark haired girl lifted her head and looked up with a raised eyebrow. Shanna pulled the comb out of her hair, placed it on her bed and gathered her courage. “Why are you being nice to me?” Across the room, Amma’s head lifted with a sudden jerk, and she dropped the sock she was putting on.
There was a long silence, while emotions chased themselves one by one across Taya’s face. Some of the old hatred flickered briefly, followed by a dull rising flush, then her shoulders sagged and her face crumpled, while a surprising tear slid down one cheek. Taya ducked her head and scrubbed at her face. There was complete silence in the room; Amma sitting statue-like on her bed. Shanna slowly dragged her comb through another tangle while holding her breath, and the four cats were uncharacteristically silent.
The tableau was broken as Spinner gently nudged Taya’s hands with his nose, ruby tidemarks glinting softly. She raised her face, and Shanna was horrified to see a torrent of tears pouring down the other girl’s face. She made an involuntary movement towards Taya, but stopped mid-movement as Taya cleared her throat noisily and scrubbed her hand across her face again, drying the tears on her trouser leg.
Clearing her throat, Taya set her shoulders back, and turned to look over her shoulder at Amma.
“Come and sit over here. I’m only going through this once. It may as well be now, and then you can tell the others.” She sniffed, looking much younger than Shanna had ever imagined that she could. Amma wasted no time, and carrying her boots and socks over to where Taya sat on her bed, settled herself on the floor next to Shanna. The four cats settled down at their partners’ feet, as Amma and Shanna exchanged puzzled glances.
“It was two years ago that it began,” said Taya. She wiped a final tear from her cheek and shook her dark hair back. “My father is a stone mason, and my mother works as an artificer for the council. I was with my father at a quarry east of Watchtower, waiting for him to arrange delivery of an order of stone for one of his projects.” She paused, and deliberately pushed her hair off her face again. “The owner had a starcat ; a large male called Phantom, with deep violet ear tip tidemarks.” She raised a hand as Shanna leaned forward, stopping the younger girl’s sudden exclamation. “I know ; he’s one of the cats bred by your parents.” Shanna went to speak again, and Taya impatiently hushed her, some of the animosity returning to her face. “He was the first starcat that I’d met up close, and I found him absolutely fascinating. For an hour he allowed me to stroke him, and I was flattered that he seemed to like me so much. Well, Dad finished up his business, and we hopped back into our wagon and headed off home to Watchtower.” She paused and cleared her throat, tears glinting in her eyes again, but defiantly rubbed her hand across her face and continued.
“We were only on the road for about fifteen minutes, and I was telling Dad all about Phantom, when it happened. We’d been laughing and chatting about how great it would be if we could have our own cat, when Dad stopped laughing. His face went white and he was staring at me.” Taya paused, her eyes looking into the distance. “He couldn’t even speak, and I was looking around frantically, wondering if some predator was about to pounce. I was saying: ‘Dad, Dad, what’s wrong?’ But he just kept looking at me, and then he reached forward with one hand, and it was shaking so much that I thought he was ill.” Taya’s face was crumpled, and her voice was quivering when she finally managed to continue. “He, he, f-finally managed to hook one f-finger into m-my hair, and pulled it over my sh-shoulder so that I could see it. And there it was…glowing. Exactly the same shade and pattern of Phantom’s tidemarks.”
Taya paused, and then deliberately pulled a lock of hair forward over her shoulder, and before Shanna and Ammas’ astounded eyes, the lock of hair began to glow in the familiar rippling patterns of a starcat’s coat. As they watched, the rest of her hair took on the pattern, gently twinkling and shining iridescent ruby against the background of brown so dark it was almost black. As Shanna and Amma sat, silently astounded, Taya went on.
“My father was horrified. He kept telling me to stop, and eventually he began to shake me, and shout at me. He became more and more angry when I couldn’t make my hair stop glowing. Eventually I had to climb out of the wagon because he was hurting me.” Her eyes were haunted. “I ran in the end, and hid in the bush. He shouted and shouted for what seemed like hours, but I stayed hidden deep in a patch of pungo trees, until eventually he stopped shouting, and began to plead for me to come out. I was frightened. I’d never seen my father like that. He was so angry with me!” Again Taya wiped tears from her eyes, hair glowing incongruously brightly, reflecting off the drops rolling down her cheeks.
“When I finally crawled out of the bush, he was sobbing, down on his knees at the edge of the road, begging me to come out and come home. Even then, he could barely look at me. When I finally came back to the wagon, he made me wrap my hair up in an old cloth, and then run from the wagon into the house when we got home. He wouldn’t look at me or talk to me the whole way there. I ran into my room, and looked into the mirror. My hair was like this,” she held up a strand, “glowing in Phantom’s patterns, except that now, it glows in Spinner’s patterns.”
“But Taya, how come we’ve never seen your hair do that before?” Amma broke in.
Taya looked at the two of them.
“When my mother found out, she was furious with my father. She came into my room, and just looked at me, then after covering my hair with a scarf, she took me to see Master Cerren. In her position as an artificer, she’d heard enough about him to know that he might be able to help. I felt like a freak, and I was sure that if people found out about my hair they’d react like my father had.” She looked around then, and nodded sadly to herself. “We’ve all spoken about the physical changes in the population. No-one worries about the little ones, but it’s different when things are so obvious, and it wasn’t only the visible changes with me. When we reached Master Cerren’s office, my mother ushered me inside and pulled the scarf off my hair. By that time, I was exhausted and shaking. I just stood there, while Master Cerren looked up at me.” Amma put a hand on Taya’s arm, and Shanna found that her own hand had involuntarily risen to her mouth.
“For a few moments he said nothing, and then asked the two of us to sit down. His old cat, Prince, strolled over to me, and nudged me with his head. My hair immediately changed colour to match his tidemarks, and then the clock over the mantelpiece stopped ticking. It was quite loud, so the sudden silence was very obvious, and then, to make things worse, all the lamps went out.”
“But, but ... ” Amma was unable to get any further.
“Amma, it was me. Master Cerren was calm, as was my mother, and after the initial surprise, they tested me with a number of devices in the Masters’ offices. I was a freak. Lamps went out, mechanical devices ceased working around me, and my hair kept changing colour and pattern ; I literally glowed in the dark.”
Shanna took a deep breath.
“But you must have learned to control it, because none of us had any idea!”
“Master Cerren worked with me for several days before I was able to change my hair back to its original colour. He talked me through what was going on, and tried to convince me that it was just a simple change, in fact perhaps an enhancement of our genes as a result of our time here on Frontier ; you know what I’m talking about ; we’ve been over it time after time since we first found the Garsal aircraft. And now, we find out that the Starlynes have been tampering with us the whole time we’ve been there ; and it’s probable that I’m not really a freak. It took me months to get everything under control properly, and then I began Scout training.” Taya’s hair dimmed to its natural colour, and then the walls around them began to pulse in Spinner’s tidemark patterns. Shanna blinked several times in disbelief.
“Taya, was it because of Phantom that you hated me so much?” Shanna’s voice trembled, and she had trouble meeting the other girl’s eyes.
The dark haired girl grimaced.
“Partly ; I’d spent so much time trying to learn to control myself and stop glowing in the dark, or extinguishing lights and seizing mechanical equipment, and then, all of a sudden, there was the possibility of ending up with one of your family’s starcats ; and one of those had provided the catalyst for my abnormalities to make themselves known. The truth be told that it wasn’t just the starcat that bothered me, but that you were so much younger than the rest of us ; and so normal! And then you turned up with two cats, and every time I was near you and those two cats, it became harder and harder to stop my hair changing. There was something about the combination of Storm, Twister, and yourself, and the constant nearness of Spinner, that seemed to erode my self control. I was continually struggling to avoid showing everyone how different I was, and the closer I got to Spinner, the harder the struggle became. Shanna, you were everything I wanted to be, and you were way too young! And way too normal! Every time I turned around you were there, doing it better Even now, it’s easier to change the wall colours just because you’re near me. Even one of your cats near me makes me edge closer to losing control!” A trace of the old resentment flashed across Taya’s face.
“But Taya, I didn’t know! I didn’t mean to make anything difficult for you ; and I wouldn’t have a clue why the boys and I make things tougher!” Shanna was almost crying, and she cleared her throat, frantically trying to control her emotions.
Amma put her other hand on the younger girl’s arm, and gripped it gently.
“Shan, this isn’t your fault, and Taya, your abilities are not your fault either ; like you said, they’re most likely to be one of the changes that the Starlynes have facilitated.” She looked grimly at the other two girls. “And who knows what they’ve done to the rest of us? I, for one, intend to ask some very direct questions!” She tied her bootlace with a firm tug, and looked firmly at the other two. “And one more thing Taya, are you sure that you can only fade with the assistance of Spinner?” Amma’s voice was accusing.
The other girl looked slightly guilty.
“Every time I tried without Spinner I could feel my control slipping, and I knew that you’d all find out about me, so I pretended that I needed Spinner to help me ; that way I could stop my hair glowing, but still fade. It made me so angry that everyone thought that learning to fade was such a great thing, but that I still needed to hide what I was.” Her voice trailed off. Shanna looked at the ground as she wondered what to say.
“Well, that was interesting!” Ragar’s voice startled the three girls, and they realised that he and the other two young men had probably been listening for some time. “Do we really need the new wall decorations Tay?”
Taya gave a start, and the walls returned to their previous soft glow.
“Sorry, forgot I’d done that.” She ducked her head, looking at the floor in some embarrassment.
“You know,” said Verren thoughtfully. “Here we are ; in quarters provided by an alien race, knowing they’ve been fiddling with our genetic makeup in ways we don’t understand, but ready to learn whatever they teach us, to deal with yet another alien race ... and one of us has learnt to vanish, another glows in the dark and turns off equipment, so who knows what they’ve done to the rest of us? It’s not really what I signed on to Scout training for! I think my head’s about to explode!” He flopped heavily on to his bed. “Someone tell me if I start growing tentacles!”
There was a collective laugh at the bizarre nature of their predicament, and some of the emotion in the room eased to a more manageable level as the cadets went back to finishing their dressing, and tidying away their belongings, just as if what they’d heard was an everyday occurrence.
Shanna’s head buzzed with Taya’s revelations. The root of all of the older girl’s animosity was now bare for her to see, and there was a small hope that their relationship might really begin to change for the better. After all the frustrations of the last months, Shanna wasn’t quite sure how to proceed though, and as she tied her bootlace and tucked her trouser leg back down, she sighed internally yet again. A thought struck her.
“If Master Cerren knew about you, Taya, and how to help you learn to control things, there must be others who have changed and required help! Who and where are they?”
“Part of the answer is here.” Spiron’s deep voice caused a sudden cessation of activity in the room, and the cadets turned as one to the adjoining door where the Patrol First was standing. He opened one hand and a soft glow, similar to Taya’s hair, outlined it and radiated from his palm, finally appearing to hover like a ball of light above it.
THERE was a stunned silence as Spiron, apparently clutching a ball of light, strolled into their room. He was followed by the rest of the Patrol, all fully dressed and ready for the day. Apart from Spiron’s glowing ball, Challon appeared to be causing a small spark to sizzle from one fingertip to another, Karri and Kalli each had glowing hair just like Taya’s. Arad, still with red rimmed eyes, was mirroring Spiron’s efforts, and Sandar appeared to be balancing a small flame over his fingertips. Allad brought up the rear, nonchalantly gesturing with one fingertip at the door, which promptly slammed shut and then opened again to allow seven, slightly affronted starcats inside.
“It’s time for a few more explanations,” said the Patrol First, grinning at the cadets with an amused twinkle in his eyes. “But let’s sit in the other room. Someone appears to have left breakfast for us, and I’m hungry.” He exited the cadets’ sleeping quarters, followed by his amused patrol, and the six speechless cadets. The tables in the other room were covered in a variety of fruits and hot cereal, and there was a line of bowls along one wall, obviously intended for the starcats. Steaming pitchers of tea sat on the tables’ polished surfaces, and the group eagerly filled plates, bowls, and mugs before seating themselves slightly awkwardly either on the yielding floor surface, or on the cushions scattered around the room. The sight of familiar human crockery and cutlery seemed out of place in the oddly alien surroundings.
Shanna opened her mouth to ask a question as the Patrol First seated himself, but he forestalled her with an upraised palm. “Eat, and we will explain.” He spooned a mouthful of porridge himself, and waved the spoon at Allad while his mouth was full. The tall Scout smiled briefly and began.
“So, Taya, you’ve finally come clean?” Allad’s moustached face was compassionate as he looked at Taya, who had propped her injured ankle up on one of the cushions and was slowly spooning warm porridge into her mouth. Her face was surprised but she nodded hesitantly, then looked down. There was a glint of red playing across her hair. “As you all know, it takes many and varied skills to become a Scout. You need to be bright, practical, and most of all, flexible. You need to be acceptable to starcats, and in addition, we look for a small spark of something else.” Allad paused briefly, bit into a juicy sorplum, chewed a moment and went on.
“The conversation that we began up on the plateau when we discovered the first piece of that Garsal craft was the first step in sounding you out about the ‘differences’ that occur in the human population here on Frontier. Until now, we’ve never been precisely sure why nearly all Scouts demonstrate some kind of extra talent, and it’s not something that we talk about except in general terms, until a cadet has demonstrated that spark.”
“But no one said anything when I faded…” Shanna was confused.
“We were a little distracted at the time,” replied Allad with a wry grin. “It was really the last thing on anyone’s mind right then as we were still coming to grips with the revelations about the Garsal and the threat of imminent invasion. Fortunately your fellow cadets didn’t seem too perturbed, and of course we already knew about Taya, so we just let it ride to sort out at a later date. In the Scout Corps, such gifts are expected and are very welcome. It’s not widely known outside the Corps, of course, and there are those who are not Scouts who demonstrate those same gifts as well. Most are identified early, like Taya, and if they appear suitable, are subtly directed towards us as a career option.”
“So, does that mean that all of us are likely to start glowing in the dark?” said Verren incredulously.
“Well, no,” replied Allad. “Actually, we’ve no idea what you’re capable of but we’re fairly certain that all of you will have that special spark, as that’s actuallpart of my talent sensing that spark and if that first cyclone cleanup hadn’t fortuitously placed you all under our patrol’s supervision, then the first trip Below would have done so deliberately. I can usually tell whether a cadet has the spark, and I think that you all do. However, it remains to be seen just what form that spark will take. There are several of us with my talent.”
“So this ‘spark’ you’re talking about do you think it relates to what the Starlynes have done to humanity since we’ve been here?” asked Zandany.
Allad nodded. “We originally thought that it was the planet changing us, but we’ve had to revise all of our preconceptions in the last two days. We also suspect that we’ve only just scratched the surface of what the Starlynes may have done to us.”
Spiron nodded his head emphatically at Allad’s statement, and there was a murmur of agreement from the rest of the Patrol.
“In fact we’re hoping that they explain precisely what they’ve done, rather than leaving us with the rather vague information imparted a couple of days ago. That’s one of the reasons we’re here.” The Patrol First scraped the last spoonful from his bowl, and then placed it on the table in front of him. Levering himself to his feet he looked around the room, eyeing each Scout and Cadet individually, face contemplative. “That’s one of the first things we need to address with Teacher. We don’t want to be blindly following instructions without understanding what’s really going on it’s not our way. We’ve spent over three hundred years learning how to live on this planet and working towards regaining the stars. To simply do everything an alien race suggests, just because they’ve been clandestinely altering us to suit their aims, does not seem either reasonable or sensible. The council would also like to know why, if one Starlyne can stop a convoy of Garsal vehicles in its tracks, then why can’t they do the same thing to anything mechanical?”
There was a flurry of nods around the room. Ragar spoke up. “Yes, I’d wondered that too. It seems like a much simpler response than altering an entire race!”
Shanna nodded emphatically, agreeing with her fellow cadet and wondering what else the Starlynes might have done to the human population living on Frontier, and what forms that ‘spark’ the older Scouts talked about might take in her friends. As if sensing her disquiet, Storm bumped her hand with his large head and purred gently as she ran her hand over his silky fur.
“What do you think might happen today?” asked Amma, with some uncertainty. “Keeper talked as if time was a premium.”
“Yes, he did,” replied Spiron. “I suggest we clean up and meet back in here shortly. I’m sure that our hosts will be along very soon they woke us and have given us time to clean up and food, and if there were no reason for that they wouldn’t have done so.” He turned, called Fury, and exited the central room, followed by the rest of the patrol. The cadets filed out one by one trailed by their cats, and without talking began to tidy their sleeping room.
Shanna carefully stowed her belongings in her pack, separating her filthy, damaged clothes into a separate pile, and hoping that she might have the opportunity to wash and repair them at some point in the future. She carefully tucked her glowstone into the neck of her uniform shirt, feeling a pang of homesickness as she handled its smoothness. She firmly pushed the homesickness back down, trying to concentrate on pulling herself together so that she would be able to cope with whatever the day might bring. Twister gave her a gentle nudge with his nose and she absently scratched his head before tightening her belt and firming up her boot laces. She wondered what Kaidan was up to, whether he was home, whether her parents really had any idea what their daughter was doing, and if they did, what they thought. She absently pulled her bedding together, and smoothed the soft quilt with her hand. She scratched her cats again. Contented purring resonated from both of them. Shanna swiped each soft coat with a loving hand and looked around the sleeping room. Verren was just taking a roll of strapping out of his pack, and Ragar was tightening a boot lace. Across the room, Taya was sitting on her bed waiting for Verren to strap her ankle, and as Shanna watched she could see the odd glint of red chasing across her hair. Amma was sitting, scratching a purring Spider, and Zandany was staring thoughtfully at nothing much while rubbing Punch’s ears.
“What are you thinking, Zan?” asked Shanna curiously.
Zandany smiled at her and stood. “I was just wondering what kind of strange thing that I might be about to start doing, actually. I haven’t started glowing or vanishing, have I?” He grinned again, and pulled one of Punch’s ears, and the big cat hummed happily at him.
“No glowing, no vanishing I think that’s my speciality and so far no other weird stuff either,” replied Shanna grinning back at him, feeling slightly less apprehensive about the days ahead, realising that she wasn’t alone in all of the uncertainty. It was comforting to understand that the other cadets were probably feeling exactly as she was, and with a rush of compassion she looked across again at Taya. Resolutely, she decided that she needed to speak to Taya privately when the next opportunity arose. Despite the older girl’s startling confessions she knew there were still unresolved issues between them, and that the enmity they’d felt had run too deep to simply begin a new relationship immediately.
“Shall we go out then?” asked Ragar, “Verren’s strapped Taya’s ankle up, everything’s tidy, and there’s a whole new pile of experiences just around the corner. Mind you, I think I’m a little scared Tay, you can lean on me if you need to.” He walked around the end of his bed and helped Taya up, letting her lean on him as she tested how her ankle felt in the strapping. “How does it feel?” he asked
“Better, thanks to Verren!” Taya limped a couple of careful steps, nodded to Ragar and removed her arm from his shoulder, while Spinner paced within easy reach of his partner.
Back in the communal room, they found the rest of the Patrol seated on cushions on the floor. Shanna was startled to realise that all the debris of breakfast had vanished and the tables moved over to the far wall, leaving nothing on their polished surfaces except for some pitchers of water and tall jugs containing a variety of juices. Some cups, apparently fashioned from tree knots, were placed next to them. The cadets sat down with the Patrol members, their Starcats lazily couching themselves next to their partners, completely at ease. They all looked around bemusedly at each other, and then Karri said. “So, what’s next?”
Anjo looked out of the window over the rooftops of Watchtower. The sun lit the light coloured stone buildings of the town, built to withstand the violent cyclonic storms that regularly spiralled in from the ocean to devastate the continent. The storm season was now nearly over, and Anjo wondered what the insectoid Garsal would do next, and what their response to the loss of their vehicles would be. Two days previously, Master Erilla had been suddenly summoned from her questioning of Anjo and he’d not seen her since. The quarters to which he’d been assigned were comfortable and were next to those allocated to Semba. There had been no requirement for either of the offworlders to remain sequestered in their quarters, and they had been encouraged to join in the communal eating in the Scout Compound, had they so wished. Anjo’s stomach rumbled, and he decided to venture into the eatery. Leaving his room, he tapped on Semba’s door. “Semba, are you coming to eat?” There was a short silence while Anjo waited patiently.
“I-I’ll stay here again this morning, but come in and chat when you’re back.” Semba’s voice was quavery, and Anjo sighed. The woman had been emotionally fragile since their rescue, and Anjo worried about how slow she’d been to recover. He’d felt nothing but enormous relief since his arrival on the plateau along with a desire to make the most of whatever this new world might offer, and hoped fervently that he would never need to go Below again.
“All right, I’ll see you after breakfast.”
Anjo descended the two flights of stairs down to the ground floor and walked along the wider corridor to the dining hall. There were several Scouts still eating their breakfasts, and Anjo recognised Master Cerren sitting with a boy who looked oddly familiar. He looked up as Anjo walked through the door and beckoned him over to the table.
“When you’ve filled your plate, please join Kaidan and myself. “I’ve a few things to talk over with you.”
“Thank you Master Cerren,” replied Anjo, returning the young man’s welcoming smile with one of his own. He filled his plate with food, enjoying having hot, freshly cooked food every day; it was such a contrast to his time as a Garsal slave.
“Anjo,” Master Cerren said, as Anjo sat down next to them. “This is Kaidan, you know his sister, Shanna the girl with the two cats.” Anjo nodded, eyebrows lifted with surprise as the pieces clicked into place the familiarity of Kaiden’s features now made sense.
Swallowing his mouthful, Anjo replied, “She’s quite a remarkable young lady, Kaidan. She saved my life.” Kaidan smiled at him.
“Yes she’s certainly one of a kind,” Kaidan said.
Master Cerren raised an eyebrow at Kaidan, and the young man blushed a fiery red. “And she’s also quite nice,” he said hurriedly, “Actually I really do like her most of the time.”
Master Cerren’s cat roused herself from her relaxed position near his feet and nudged Kaidan with her large head, and Kaidan absently scratched her along the line of her jaw. She purred thunderously. Even after almost three weeks with these people, Anjo still had difficulty reacting calmly to the enormous felines that strolled so casually and seemingly everywhere on this planet. The large, dark grey cat looked at him and slowly blinked her violet eyes, the glowing tidemarks rippling across her coat in slow, rhythmic patterns, and he had a feeling that she knew exactly what he was thinking. He forked up another mouthful of food slightly nervously, and chewed slowly, trying to relax his suddenly tense muscles.
“I’d like you to spend some time with Kaidan each day, Anjo. He’ll be teaching you about this planet, and how to avoid some of the more common hazards you’ll encounter as you learn to live here. It’s something all children here learn as a matter of course, and it’s essential you learn the basics so that you can move around safely when you finally leave Scout Compound.” The Master smiled, “And you will eventually, when this is over.” There was quiet confidence in his voice, the confidence that made the people of this planet so unusual in Anjo’s experience. Of course, he reminded himself, they had never known subjugation under the Garsal, had never had their independence compromised, living only under their own laws. As far as he could tell, from his limited experience of less than three weeks, the society was egalitarian and very ordered. Everyone seemed to have some kind of place or purpose to their existence.
“When will I start?” he asked.
“Kaidan has time after breakfast each day. He can work with you for two hours each morning, but then he has other tasks. I need to resume discussing the Garsal with you each day after lunch. There have been a number of changes in the situation that require some rethinking, and you may still have more information that will allow us to rescue the other humans on their ship, and then rid the planet of the Garsal. When you return to your room after breakfast, you’ll find some more suitable clothing. Kaidan will go with you now and when you’ve changed, he’ll get your education started.”
“What about Semba?” Anjo asked. “She’ll be expecting me to drop in.”
“I shall make sure she’s fine. I think she still needs some more time to adjust to her change of circumstances.” Master Cerren hesitated slightly, and then looked firmly at Anjo, “Anjo, did you know she was actually born in captivity to the Garsal? She’s never known anything else. You at least remember living free, and you were always thinking of escape. Semba was born in an experimental breeding colony in a Garsal hive, and transferred onto your ship directly from there.” Master Cerren’s face was grave, and Anjo was humbled that he’d never really talked to Semba about her past, but had always assumed that, like himself, she’d been taken from a human colony that had been overtaken by Garsal invaders. Life there had been hard, but there was always the small hope of freedom, and rumours that ‘somewhere’ members of the federation were still covertly resisting the Garsal invasion. He’d never met a resistance member, or even known anyone who had, but there were enough rumours that nearly everyone believed there were those who resisted, no matter how futile that seemed. He realised that Semba might have no concept of life free of the insectoid invaders, and no foundation for living except under Garsal rule.
“I had no idea. We didn’t speak much on the ship, because of the informers. And on the vehicle, there was no time…” He broke off, ashamed that he’d never thought to ask Semba about her previous life but had simply made assumptions, which he now discovered were not based in reality. “I’ll try and spend some time with her each day, help her to adjust. It must be almost impossible for her to understand your society.” Anjo pushed out his chair and stood. “I’ll go and change now. If you’ll join me in a few minutes, Kaidan?”
Kaidan watched the offworlder leave the dining room and then turned back to Master Cerren. “Master, when will I be able to go home to see Mum and Dad?”
Master Cerren’s face was compassionate. “Not yet, Kaidan. I’m sorry, but this is an important task I’ve set you to, and it’s essential that we explain a few things to your family before you speak to them yourself. I’ve sent messages to them and they know you’re fine, and that Shanna’s on an extended trip Below.” He hesitated briefly, then nodded decisively to himself. “They’ll be in Watchtower in about five days’ time, as I’ve asked them to meet with myself and the council here. We’ll be explaining to them, and the other starcat breeders, exactly what’s happened in the last few weeks.” He looked gravely at Kaidan. “From our discussions with the Starlynes, it appears that our cats may have more of a role to play in maintaining our freedom than we imagined. At that time, we’ll also explain what your part in all of this will be.” He stood up decisively. “In the meantime, you can start familiarising Anjo with this world. Remember that he knows nothing of how to survive here not a thing, and I expect you to bring him home each morning relatively unscathed! And if you encounter anyone except Scouts or your archery group, explain that he is visiting from Starfall, and is unfamiliar with our local hazards. Hopefully that will keep most people from inquiring too deeply about his origin until we’re ready to explain everything. Which we will very shortly.” He looked at Kaidan with an earnest expression, “It’s essential that Anjo’s identity as an offworlder is kept quiet until the right time. Can I trust you with this?”
Kaidan nodded gravely to the Master, who looked at him for a moment more. Socks purred and he nodded decisively to himself. “Off you go now, then and get started.” He made a shooing motion with his hands and Kaidan, sighing internally, turned away and left the dining room.
He was still very unsettled, very homesick, and missing his family in a way that he’d never expected. In the days since his part in the battle against the Garsal, and after the Starlyne revelations, he’d felt unmoored from his foundations, adrift in uncertainties and isolation. When the greying Master Cerren had approached him about educating the offworlder, he’d been flattered and jumped at the chance to do something other than mope about, confined as he’d been to Scout Compound, but it didn’t change the fact that he missed his family. His group of archers were also still in the compound, but he was so much younger than the others and missed having friends his own age.
Sighing again, he climbed the stairs to the second level and waited outside the quarters assigned to Anjo. The offworlder had been pleasant but he had a very strange accent, and Kaidan hoped he’d be able to understand him.
FOR thirty minutes, the Patrol and the cadets had sat uneasily on the floor of the communal living area, all looking a little uncertainly at each other, slightly unsettled, and all wondering what might happen next. The waiting was a bit anticlimactic. Shanna finally resorted to scratching Storm and Twister, running her hands over their scrapes and missing fur. Unlike their human counterparts, both were completely relaxed in the unfamiliar surroundings and purred loudly as they draped their long lengths around her, tidemarks softly glowing in the colours and patterns of the completely unconcerned starcat. She ran her hands over Storm’s head, and the blue marked cat melted himself luxuriously into her lap. His brother wriggled slightly and leaned himself more comfortably against Shanna’s back, rumbling with contented purring.
The room was oddly quiet, and Shanna could see the other cadets sneaking nervous glances at each other. She attempted a nervous grin as Ragar wiggled his eyebrows at her across the room, and sighed internally as she resigned herself to waiting. Idly, she wondered what Challon did with his sparks, or how useful glowing hair really was. Balls of light and little flames had obvious uses, and Allad had already demonstrated his ability to close and open doors; and his ability to determine whether others had the “spark” that the Scouts seem to value so highly was obviously quite useful. She pondered her fading ability, and made her hands fade. She decided to see if she could make them vanish alternately to while away the time while she waited. It took a little concerted concentration, but she finally managed it and amused herself by fading them in alternating patterns, counting under her breath as she experimented.
“Shan!” There was a furious whisper from Taya, “Can you stop that?” Shanna looked up, startled, to see Taya frowning at her, brows lowered, as her hair pulsed in Spinner’s tidemark patterns.
“Sorry, Taya, I wasn’t thinking!” Shanna was apologetic. She hastily made her right hand reappear and tucked her hands away in her lap, wondering if she’d managed to alienate Taya just when they’d made some progress on repairing their relationship. Storm grunted, slightly affronted, as she disturbed his slumbers. She watched curiously as Taya’s hair slowly settled back into its normal colour, noticing that the wall behind the other girl showed faint tidemark patterns for a few moments after her hair had stopped glowing.
Abruptly the door into the outer corridor opened and Teacher glided in, coiling her large body into concentric circles so quickly that Shanna was startled that such a large ... personage ... (she had to quickly replace the word ‘beast’ in her mind) was able to move so rapidly. There was a flurry of movement and Teacher was suddenly surrounded by the group’s starcats, all gently rubbing their long lengths against her coils in an ecstasy of greeting, and the room was momentarily filled with hums and purrs. Storm had almost catapulted out of Shanna’s lap in his hurry to greet Teacher. The Starlyne lowered her head and unfolded her hands to run them over the shining bodies.
The Scouts and Cadets came to their feet in a group, and Spiron stepped forward towards Teacher. She raised her head and the group again experienced the almost overwhelming communication without words that sufficed for Starlyne speech. This time, Shanna wasn’t quite as disoriented by the flow of information.
“Welcome to our abode,” came the quiet voice, accompanied by images of the entry to the underground dwelling, the quarters where the humans had been accommodated, and what Shanna imagined must be other areas where the Starlynes dwelt. “This is just one of our places of residence here Below. We will use it as your training base for some time then we will move on. There are many facilities like this across this planet you have named Frontier. We call it differently for us this world is called ‘Haven’ the only place of safety we found in our flight from the Garsal threat so long ago.” Along with the last statement came a flood of emotion, sorrow for safety now lost, mixed with hope for a possible final resolution of an ages old conflict. The two emotions warred, and Shanna felt slightly unsteady with the level of their intensity and she almost staggered physically as they ceased.
“My apologies, students.” Teacher ducked her head. “You are unaccustomed to our way of speaking, and I neglected to temper my feelings. I did not mean to overwhelm you.”
“Teacher,” said Spiron. “As you said, we aren’t yet accustomed to the way you communicate but I am sure we will learn to adjust. Might we ask what you plan for this time we have with you?”
“Of course,” she replied. “We have waited to allow you to sleep and refresh yourselves, so that you might be ready to understand what we have to tell you.” She finished stroking the starcats, and rearranged herself slightly as they returned to their partners. “We know that you have many questions, and there is much to explain about what we have done to your species, over many years, without your knowledge.” There was a brief wave of discomfort from the Starlyne. “When we made the first choice to begin to assist the changes within your species, it was a time of much uncertainty for our people.” Quickly flowing images of Starlynes conferring in groups, with traces of confusion, concern, and, oddly, guilt, wafting through the montages, flitted across the minds of the assembled humans, before Teacher went on. “We feared that when one day we had to tell you what we had done, you would withdraw from us, or even turn against us. We felt guilt for accelerating the natural changes that without doubt would set you apart from the rest of your race, and even now there is still no consensus that we have done the right thing. Most of us believe you to be the best hope for both species, but there is a small group that fears what you might become if your people become resentful of the changes.”
“You’ve talked frequently of these changes,” said Spiron. “That is our first question what do you mean by changes?”
Teacher folded her hands beneath her neck, apparently somehow drawing her arms into the flesh of her body, leaving only the tips of her fingers visible. Her glowing sides rippled in muddy patterns, and there was a silent pause for a few minutes. Shanna held her breath, then let it out in a rush as Teacher continued. The image of the small feline, the child, and the Starlyne youngling hovered in the air between the Starlyne and the humans.
“You know from your own records that the survivors of the crash struggled to live on this world. Every year since the first one was held, we have listened in on your Day of Remembrance Ceremonies, and each year we have grieved with you. The survivors of the crash still had many of the tools of high technology at their disposal in those early years, so when they had secured the first interlude of peace from the denizens of this world, they began to record and observe the symbiotic viruses and spores that they realised had already begun to blend with humanity. Right from the beginning, the leaders of the colony decided to restrict the information in order to avoid panic. Wisely, they felt that this information would only add to the fears of the involuntary settlers, particularly since they knew that the remains of their original high technology equipment would last only for a short while. Stored away in your records at Starfall are the original projections of the changes that humanity might undergo or as much as your ancestors were able to understand and extrapolate with the technology that they had left to them.”
“I have seen a little of what you are talking about,” interjected Spiron. “It is part of the information a Patrol Leader is made privy to, but some of our records have deteriorated over time, and for some we now lack the technology to access it. We have records of some of the technology our ancestors were unable to maintain and have slowly begun to rebuild our civilisation, but we are still a long way from being able to reclaim what we once had. We know so much, and understand so much, but for us, surviving the challenges of this planet has taken so much of our available resources that only recently have we begun to attempt to reconstruct some of the more basic pieces of technology our ancestors took for granted. We have the theory, but lack both the human and material resources for construction.” He broke off as Teacher inclined her head to him.
“Patrol Leader, this is known to us. It is not a failing of your people that this is so. From afar we have admired your perseverance. The creatures and vegetation of this world almost destroyed you in the beginning that your ancestors preserved so much and that you have valued the education of your children almost above all, is to the credit of your race. We have watched your struggles, and we made that one, now irreversible, choice to change your species development.” She gently eased her narrow tail on the floor. Bizarrely, Shanna noticed that the very end of her tail was tipped in a gently glowing silky tassel.
“As your species became gradually infected with the symbiotic viruses that make their home on this world we, in turn, chose to make some adjustments of our own that would accelerate those changes, and also give you conscious control over those changes. We also chose to do the same to the feline companions that had come with you from your home world. With them, and yourselves, we facilitated the incorporation of the symbiotic viruses into your tissues, but added our own technological expertise to enable complete integration of the changes. We arranged things so that those of you compatible with the newly developed starcats would change faster. To a certain extent, they have acted as our catalysts.” There was a start from Taya. “Since many of you ended up in the Scout Corps, there began to be an acceptance of what you now call the ‘spark’ of ability within that body. With each generation that ‘spark’ has intensified, so that now we have not only those with the ‘spark’, but their catalyst companions, who you call starcats, approaching the pinnacle of development.” Again Teacher paused, and Shanna tried to understand what the Starlyne had told them. Once again, the group was overwhelmed with a series of images. Some seemed familiar from her studies of biology, some seemed to relate to even more complex concepts than those she had studied, and some were of various humans and starcats. With a start, Shanna recognised some she knew Master Cerren and Prince, her mother and Sabre, Josen and his starcat, Master Yendy, Master Peron, and then that same image of herself and her two cats, this time ringed with both her cadet group and Patrol Ten, prominent amongst them Satin and Allad.
“You are the first humans who will learn to fully control and use your talents. Some of you have discovered the beginnings of what you might do, others as yet have no idea. But within this group is the catalyst for even more rapid change.” The Scouts and cadets all looked a little uneasily at each other.
“What do you mean ‘only the beginnings’?” asked Allad. His moustache bristled slightly, and Satin rubbed her sleek head gently against his hand. She began a deep rumbling purr.
“You have learnt a few tricks, Allad, and your ability to detect the spark is well developed, but there is much more to learn, even for you.” There was a hint of a smile in the silent voice and, Shanna thought, underlying amusement. “Follow me now and we will begin. There is much you have to learn, and the sooner you begin the better. But first the injured amongst you must be healed.” The Starlyne abruptly uncoiled herself and glided towards the door in a fluid, sinuous movement. Slightly startled at the sudden movement, the normally athletic group was slow to regain their feet. The door to the outer hallway opened smoothly to allow Teacher’s passage, and the human contingent filed out slowly, accompanied by their feline companions.
Verren nudged Shanna. “So what do you think we’ll end up being able to do? As far as I know, I’ve never demonstrated any kind of weird ability!”
Shanna rolled her eyes at him. “Verren, you learnt to fade!”
“Oh yes ... but I meant something that you can’t do.”
“Well, that means you’ll probably never be able to cook then,” replied Ragar with a quiet snicker as they paced after the Starlyne. The other cadets smiled, even Taya, who was limping slightly despite Zandany’s supporting elbow, and they followed Patrol Ten and the Starlyne down the dimly lit corridor.
Many twists and turns later, the Starlyne paused outside another sliding door. “Please enter, and your injuries will be treated. When you are healed, we will begin to explore what you can do.” With that cryptic statement the door opened, and Teacher gestured for them to enter. There were a number of Starlynes gliding across the cushioned floor, and a number of raised platforms dotted here and there across the room. As the group entered, the sinuous creatures paused in their activities and turned towards them, fanning out towards individuals.
Several hours later, Shanna touched the side of her face incredulously for what must have been the tenth time, marvelling at the lack of pain and swelling. Just in front of her she could see Taya rotating her ankle and smiling up at the Starlyne who was gently running her fingers down the outside of the girl’s leg. There was an immense feeling of satisfaction emanating from the creatures in the room. Shanna had sat enthralled on one of the platforms, watching as the Starlyne healers gently probed each injury with their fingertips, their bodies glowing and flickering in complex patterns. After several moments of simply sitting curled in one spot, they would abruptly uncoil and hasten towards the outer edge of the room. At a touch, a drawer or bench would appear from the apparently seamless wall and the Starlyne would remove either equipment or vial from the surface, before gliding back to their human patient and applying whatever equipment or medication they had determined would help. Despite the alien environment, Shanna had found it difficult to feel fearful of the huge gliding Starlynes and their novel methods of treatment. Watching her friends’ bruises and cuts fade, and seeing Taya’s swollen ankle gradually resume its normal size and shape was almost miraculous. Across the room, she could see Verren following one of the Starlyne healers around the room, almost jogging in his haste to look at everything that the creature was doing. He noticed her watching him.
“My family won’t believe what these people can do!” he exclaimed, “The equipment, the knowledge! How they can look, touch, and diagnose, then treat so quickly!” The Starlyne he was following stopped suddenly and Verren actually cannoned into its glowing side, bouncing backwards and apologising profusely, before rejoining his now mostly healed classmates.
“Verren!” Ragar grabbed his fellow cadet and sat him forcibly on the nearest platform. “You’re going to break something, or worse, re-injure one of us!” Cirrus came and carefully leaned her bulk across Verren’s legs, effectively pinning him down, as the other cadets laughed at his expression.
Kaidan took a deep breath, and squatted down next to Anjo, carefully indicating the leaves of the ‘wait a while’ trees. “If you look carefully Anjo, you’ll see the sap oozing to the surface of the leaves. If you get any of it on you, it’s really sticky and everything sticks to you.” He smiled slightly, recalling his last encounter with the plant. “See the leaf patterns? You’ll notice that the leaves are only about a centimetre long and a few millimetres wide, and are quite a dusky green which is really different to most of the other plants around here. That’s your clue to identification if you’re in a hurry.” Too late, Kaidan made a grab for Anjo’s hand as the offworlder closed his hand around the frond Kaidan was indicating. “Oh dear.”
“You’re right about the stickiness!” said Anjo ruefully, flicking his hand to try and detach the sticky leaves from his skin.
“Careful!” admonished Kaidan, “You need to scrape as much as possible off with a stick first, then rinse your hand in water as soon as you can. When the sap sets, you need hot water to soften it, and in the time it takes to set you can get all kinds of stuff stuck to you.” He handed Anjo a clean stick and Anjo began to clean the leaves and stem off his hand.
“Yuck!” Anjo stuck and unstuck his thumb and forefinger, watching the tacky sap form golden brown strings which gradually began to solidify. He hastily recommenced scraping as much of the residue off his hand as possible. “Hmm, think I’m going to have to use some hot water later!”
“Yep, you will,” Kaidan said smiling, “Now, don’t touch anything else before I have time to explain it! You could get yourself into some serious trouble if you touch the wrong thing.” He gestured to Anjo to follow him.
“Kaidan,” Anjo’s voice was hesitant. “How old are you?” Kaidan stopped abruptly and turned to face the offworlder, eyebrows drawing down in puzzlement.
“Didn’t Master Cerren tell you? I’m thirteen.”
“Thirteen?” Anjo’s voice was slightly startled. “I thought you were sixteen or seventeen! So how old is your sister?”
“Shanna? Oh, she’s just turned sixteen.” He turned towards the vegetation in front. “Now come and check this out I can see a marmal track here, and once you’re out and about you need to know about them they’re delicious!”
Anjo swallowed slightly, feeling confronted by the fact that one day he might have to kill and butcher his own food should he continue wishing to eat meat, and slightly bemused that his teacher was all of thirteen years old. Before his Garsal captivity, he’d come from a city on his home planet a city where meat was sold neatly packaged in sterile containers, not still walking around on its own legs. There would be more to get used to on Frontier than just the local flora and fauna.
The Garsal Overlord surveyed the hive entrance. Despite the recent loss of the exploratory vehicles, he felt some small satisfaction. This world was his to win or lose. The feeling was slightly dampened as he watched the slaves struggling to set the archway capstone into place. His supply of labour had been severely reduced by the hazards found on this planet.
On the other hand, this planet had yielded some wonderful stone for the hive. He refused to allow the loss of the exploratory vehicles to spoil the thought of showing the Matriarch images of the finished archway. The pale grey stone showed up well against the thick greenery around the entrance, and other slaves had already begun work on the ground paving. There was still the pressing need for certain minerals, and he toyed with the idea of establishing an external mining camp on the sites that the vehicles had already located. Clicking his manipulator arms irritably, he decided that the security of the hive was more important. His limited vehicle supply and slave labour pool must be used carefully, and venture nowhere near the humans until he could be certain of defeating them and adding them to the labour pool. How technologically limited humans had overcome the Garsal sent to locate them was a nagging problem. The limited and grainy images sent back to the mother ship had shown that they were generally taller than the human stock he was accustomed to, but still nowhere had any of the images shown high tech weapons, equipment, or anything that might mark these human beings as significantly different to the enslaved ones in his ship.
Irritably, he motioned with one manipulator arm and Zoash hurried forward. “Overlord?” he queried.
“Prepare a montage of the archway for the Matriarch.”
“It will be done as you wish.” Zoash motioned in turn to an aide who began to record the images. “Overlord, will you be pursuing the humans?” The Overlord swung to face his hatching sib, quelling his irritation. Zoash’s posture was all correct obedience, and the Overlord knew that he would have asked the same question had their positions been reversed it was the Garsal way. Rankings had been determined in the creche through ruthless competition, and those most likely to gain the right to breed were often paired with a subservient sibling. That sibling’s sole purpose was to challenge and drive the higher ranked brother. Early rankings did not determine the limits of ambition however, and many a higher ranked warrior had been displaced by a crafty undersib. Already several of the Overlord’s hatching had risen high within the Garsal hierarchy, and more than one was close to earning breeding privileges. Assuming that Zoash had no such ambition of his own could be tantamount to suicide they shared the same genes after all. Still, he was correct to challenge the Overlord, and he was correct to provoke him with doubts and insecurities. Only the strong deserved to breed.
“At this stage, I will not be pursuing them. We will bide our time, Zoash, and obtain more information before committing ourselves to battle. You will detail two of the remaining vehicles south to explore for the most needed minerals.” His hatching sib nodded and made a small notation on his tablet. “And you will select troopers to begin the task of camouflaging the ship and hive.”
“You would hide from the humans, Overlord?” Zoash’s tone was properly respectful but the Overlord assayed a sharp look. His irritation climbed.
“We are not hiding, Zosh. Simply being cautious until we have more information. There is little likelihood of such a primitive culture locating us, however it is wise not to be unprepared.” Zoash bowed his head.
“Of course, Overlord.”
IT HAD been a strange kind of day, and Shanna wasn’t yet quite sure what to make of it. After leaving the medical facility, she and the others had followed Teacher into another of the large rooms where a further group of somewhat larger Starlynes had gathered. She felt very small and very young, dwarfed by the creatures, and she could see the same feelings on her fellow cadets’ faces. The older Scouts seemed more self possessed but still uncertain. The day had become surreal rather than educational.
“Please just relax,” Teacher had stated, indicating the couches and cushions positioned around the room. “We would spend some time with your cats.” With that somewhat cryptic comment, she had made a small gesture, and all of the starcats simultaneously turned their heads towards her, then to their companions for permission, before grouping themselves around the Starlyne educator. Shanna and her fellows propped themselves on the cushions and simply watched.
“What do you think they’re doing?” asked Amma, quietly.
“Wish I knew,” replied Zandany, grimacing slightly. “While it’s nice not to hurt every time I move, I’d still really like to know exactly what’s going on.”
“Watch and listen, cadets,” Spiron said. “We’ll learn by observation if necessary.” The Patrol Leader frowned slightly as he followed his own advice. The Starlynes had joined the starcats grouped around Teacher. Fury and Satin had advanced themselves slightly in front of the others, almost as if they were mimicking the rank structure of the Patrol. Intrigued, they all watched as Satin lifted her face towards Teacher, accepting the caress of the Starlyne’s small hands. She dipped her head momentarily and looked at Fury, who in turn swept a look across the grouped cats. They immediately divided themselves between the assembled Starlynes, each cat pairing up with one of the gently glowing creatures. Except for Storm and Twister, who together approached a Starlyne coiled on the perimeter of the group.
Shanna watched, intrigued, as Storm and Twister wound their lengths along the Starlyne, allowing it to run its hands across their heads and through the silkiness of their fur. Twister was purring loudly enough that she could hear him across the room. Storm, ever the more self possessed of the two cats, was leaning into the Starlyne’s caress with a look of bliss on his face. After about ten minutes of effusive caresses, the two had followed the Starlyne across the room, lying down near its coils. She noticed that the Starlyne was unusually patterned, its tidemarks glowing in spirals rather than the more vertical wave that usually characterised both Starlyne and starcat markings. As the Starlyne and cats communed, she noticed that the Starlyne’s tidemarks began to show both blue and indigo hues, matching those of her cats.
“Look at the Starlyne’s tidemarks,” she whispered to Amma. “Is the same thing happening with Spider?”
Amma nodded. The Starlyne with Spider was showing tidemarks tinged with the deep blue of Spider’s own glowing patterns.
“Wonder what that means?” mused Amma, “Look at the Starlyne with Satin!” Satin was sitting regally with her Starlyne companion, both pulsing with emerald green tones as their tidemarks chased each other across their bodies. Occasionally the Starlyne would incline its head, and Satin would gently dip hers in return. “Looks like we’re in for a bit of a wait.” She settled herself back against the couch she was reclining on, and patted the seat companionably. “I reckon we can just relax for a while.” Shanna nodded and joined Amma on the couch, punching a cushion into a more comfortable shape.
An hour later, Shanna was nudged awake by Storm. She roused herself hurriedly, rubbing her eyes and looking around to see what was happening. The blue marked cat purred at her and nudged her hand with his head, entreating for a scratch. She obliged as Twister pushed in towards her other hand.
“What’s been going on?” Shanna asked Amma.
“More of the same until the cats returned to us just then. You looked so relaxed, I didn’t bother waking you.”
“Did you know you sleep with your mouth open, Shan?” asked Verren. “I was so tempted to stick something in it, but Amma wouldn’t let me.” Shanna blushed.
“Verren!” Amma gave the other cadet a poke in the ribs. “You’re so mean!”
Teacher glided over to the seated group. They scrambled to their feet, cats leaning comfortably against their partners, tidemarks rippling gently. She coiled herself gracefully and folded her small hands against her chest.
“Students, you will be divided into smaller groups this afternoon and then we will begin your training. Please follow me back to your quarters. You will need to eat before we begin. You will find that we have supplied you with a coloured armband which will be awaiting you on your bed. The colour will indicate your group. There will be an hour for eating, please be ready to proceed when the chime sounds.” She turned sinuously and glided out of the door, and the humans, with mute glances at each other, followed silently.
Back at their quarters, Teacher silently indicated that they should enter, and glided off without a backward glance. They entered the rooms bemusedly and there was a buzz of conversation as everyone speculated on what “groups” actually meant. The table in the main room was again loaded with food, and they began filling plates and cups.
“Mmmm, not sure what this is, but it’s really good,” mumbled Ragar around a mouthful of what appeared to be some sort of heavily spiced stew. “So, did you all notice the tidemark changes on the Starlynes?” There was general nodding as Scouts and cadets found seats on the cushions scattered around the room.
“I’ve never seen that happen in any other cat and Starlyne encounter,” offered Allad.
“No, me neither,” replied Spiron. “I’ve no idea what it means perhaps the Starlynes have ways of communicating with our starcats that we don’t understand. Of course, we all know that they understand more than the average animal the complex commands, the ability to understand what we mean from just a few signals.” He paused and took a bite out of the flatbread he’d been dipping in his stew.
“My mum used to joke that I talked to them when I was small,” said Shanna. “Perhaps she was right.” At her feet, Twister twinkled his earmarks as if replying, and the group laughed. The buzz of conversation continued throughout the meal.
“Well, we’d better go and see what these armbands are like,” said Spiron, placing his bowl back on the tabletop, and heaving himself to his feet. “Meet back here in ten minutes and we’ll see how they’ve grouped us. Perhaps that will tell us.”
When Shanna entered the sleeping room, she could see Verren waving an armband. “Looks like I’m in blue group.” Shanna picked up the armband on the end of her bed. There were three stripes of colour on it: blue, emerald green, and indigo. She frowned at it, puzzled.
“I’m blue group too, Verren!” Amma’s voice was excited.
“I’m emerald,” came Ragar’s voice,
“Me too.” That was Zandany.
“I’m indigo,” said Taya.
“Shan, what group are you?” asked Amma. Shanna turned around slowly, holding the armband.
“Apparently I’m all three not sure how that works.” There was a sudden silence in the room. “Maybe it’s just a ‘multicolour’ group.” She felt suddenly uncomfortable again, just when she’d finally thought she was finding some acceptance amongst her peers. Amma hastened to agree with her, however.
“Yes, probably ‘rainbow’ group.” She giggled slightly. “So, two blue, two emerald, one indigo, and one rainbow. Wonder what the others are in.”
“Speaking of which,” said Ragar, “We’d better join the others!”
The six of them filed into the common room, glancing around at the assembled Scouts, and surreptitiously noting the colour on each person’s sleeve. “Divide into colour groups,” commanded Spiron.
After a bit of shuffling, they all looked at each other, assembled in their various groups. Grouped with Amma and Verren, were Arad and Challon. Taya was standing with Karri and Kalli, and Ragar and Zandany were standing next to Sandar. Spiron and Allad were standing together, dual bands of blue and green on their left arms, and Shanna, yet again, was alone, the three bands of colour on her left arm setting her apart. She was uncomfortably aware of the stares of the rest of the group. Group ‘rainbow’ indeed, she thought grimly.
“So,” said Spiron, “we can already see that there appears to be some similarity of groupings based on known gifts. It remains to see what else we might discover.” He broke off as Teacher entered the room, and they turned as one to face her.
“I see you are already grouped.” Her voice was pleased. “As you may have already surmised, we are grouping you by gifts. Shanna has taught you all to fade, however some of you are able to do this only with the assistance of your cats. In your group sessions, you will discover skills that you can master without needing physical contact with your cats. When you work together, you will all learn to do what your friends can do, however for some of these skills, you will need the assistance of your starcats. Yes, Spiron.”
“Teacher, what do the multiple bands mean?” The Starlyne uncoiled and recoiled herself, and then replied, her thoughts amused.
“The multiple bands mean that you will be learning multiple skills skills that you can learn to use without your cat’s physical presence. There will be some differences between you all, and some will be more or less proficient. When the others arrive, they will join their respective groups. And Arad, you will again have a new companion. She will arrive with your friends.” With that startling statement, she turned and glided out the door. “Follow please.”
Again feeling like schoolchildren, the humans followed their Starlyne mentor. Taking a different direction than the morning, she moved swiftly down the passage that Shanna vaguely remembered entering the facility through. After taking a side passage, Teacher paused outside another door.
“Blue group, and today Spiron, Allad and Shanna, please enter. One of my fellows will be waiting.” The designated people broke from the main group and entered the room to find yet another of the Starlynes awaiting them. Shanna recognised the spiral patterned tidemarks on its side and wondered at seeing the same creature again. She noticed the far wall contained a large double door, and that there were cushions scattered across the other half of the room.
As they walked into the room, a deep ‘voice’ rumbled through Shanna’s mind, almost tickling with overtones of amusement and interest; and she caught a suppressed sense of satisfaction and a fleeting picture of Storm and Twister. She frowned slightly and the voice rumbled again.
“Welcome students, I am Fractus.” The spiral patterns twinkled on the Starlyne’s sides. “There is much to learn and little time, so we will begin immediately. Be seated with your cats please, and demonstrate your ability to fade.” Shanna and Amma exchanged quizzical glances, then followed the Starlyne’s instructions. Shanna smiled slightly as she faded from view, feeling that at least there would be one thing she could achieve without too much trouble. Around the room she could see Amma, Verren, Allad and Spiron fading with ease. Challon put a hand on Dipper and faded slowly, but Arad, cat-less, stood stricken, and Shanna’s eyes welled with tears in sudden sympathy as his face blanched and then began to crumple. Before anyone could react, Cirrus had slid her sleek length underneath his hand, purring softly and blinking her great violet eyes. Shanna saw him swallow, collect himself visibly, and determinedly begin to fade. Arad’s tall form wavered once or twice, then vanished, leaving only a trace of the heat shimmer of a faded starcat. Shanna realised that her throat was hurting with the force of shared grief, and placed a hand on each of her cats, breathing deeply to ease the tightness.
“Well done, students.” The Starlyne’s deep voice echoed in Shanna’s head, “Please relax your fade and listen.” Allowing herself to reappear, Shanna turned her attention to the Starlyne. “When you fade, you do many complex things. Put simply, you manipulate light waves, forcing them to flow around you. Your cats also have this ability, and for those whose instinct is less developed, they reinforce the ability. Arad and Challon will not need the presence of a starcat in time. This is just one of the simplest things you will be able to do. There is much more to learn. We will begin now with Amma.” Shanna felt Amma startle slightly next to her, but sighed in relief to realise that for once, she would not be immediately in the spotlight. There was another faint feeling of amusement that she knew was only for her.
“Amma, your family predicts the weather not only predicts it in general terms, but understands specifics of what is to come. And you are currently the most accurate of your family.”
Amma nodded, and Shanna recalled with a grin the amount of money she’d won betting on Amma’s accuracy.
“You do this because you are sensitive to changes in air pressure and currents, humidity, and electromagnetic fields. Your mind processes the information and consequently you understand the weather. This is the least of your abilities. You, Amma, will learn to fly, and when you have learnt, we will see who you might teach.”
“Learn to fly? Are you serious?” Amma leapt abruptly to her feet, gesticulating wildly with her arms. “How on earth will I fly? You might not have noticed, but I don’t have wings.” The normally calm cadet was almost hysterical, and Shanna reached up to lay a hand on her arm.
“I had no idea I could vanish either Amma and now I discover that apparently I can manipulate light waves! I mean, really!” There was a small sound of hastily stifled laughter from Verren. “Fractus, exactly what do you mean by ‘fly’?”
The Starlyne gestured gracefully with its small hands and indicated the door in the wall. “I shall show you.” The door opened of its own accord, and they followed the Starlyne into a small cavern. Shanna smelt the freshness of Below, mixed with the pungent odour of pungo, as a small air current stirred the wisps escaping from her braids. There were a number of strange looking suits, which appeared to have oddly elongated extensions on the arms and legs. She frowned at them, thinking they looked remarkably like the kites her father had made when she was a small child.
“The Garsal are a high technology race. They conquer because their defence and detection technologies are second to none, and their sheer numbers then allow them to overwhelm other species. Approaching them using high tech equipment is unfeasible we learnt that at the expense of almost all of our race.” A sensation of sadness floated over the room. “These glider suits will allow Amma, and perhaps a few more of you, to fly. Amma will learn to read the air currents, she will learn to launch and fly and she, and you, will travel more swiftly than you have ever dreamed. She will be able to search for the Garsal ship from the air, locating in a short time what might otherwise take you months.”
Shanna turned her head to watch Amma and almost laughed out loud as she saw that the older girl was standing stunned, mouth hanging open. She took the opportunity to nudge her gently in the ribs.
She grinned as Amma shut her mouth with a snap, then opened and shut it again, completely speechless. She shook her head.
The Starlyne beckoned them back into the other room, and when they had seated themselves, nodded to Challon. “Challon, you will learn to create lightning.”
“I’ll what?” The dark, lean man nearly fell off his cushion. Dipper nudged him with her head, and he reseated himself.
“You have the ability to draw electromagnetic charge from the ambient atmosphere. This will prove most useful as an offensive weapon. And for sabotage.” Shanna felt slightly evil to be enjoying everyone else’s discomfiture so much. But she was finding it a nice change not to be the centre of attention for once.
Fractus turned to Arad, whose red rimmed eyes still spoke of sadness. “Your new companion will be here tomorrow. Be comforted, this time of sadness will pass and you will eventually be able to think of Breeze without undue pain. Arad, you will learn to make light to illuminate the darkness, and to create warmth and heat. You will learn to adjust your light to dazzle, or to find a safe path in the night. You will be a comfort to your friends.” The Starlyne turned again, spiral tidemarks pulsing gently as Arad blinked against tears. Shanna’s throat had tightened again.
“Verren, you have within you the ability to see into the infrared and ultraviolet spectrum, and perhaps even further with training. In addition, you will never be lost. You will always know precisely where you are.” There was a strangled noise from Verren’s corner and Shanna almost laughed out loud.
“Allad, you have already learnt to identify the spark within a person. But there is much more that you can learn. You will learn to identify what lies ahead, lurking in the bush or around the corner. Instead of small tricks with doors, you will learn to move boulders.” Fractus moved on. “Spiron, you will learn to expand your light, to superheat metals or to freeze and cool as required. Both of you will learn more about your other gifts from my compatriot. These are simply the things you will learn here.” Finally Fractus turned to Shanna, and his tidemarks began to pulse with blue and violet tints. She swallowed slightly apprehensively.
“Shanna, you have demonstrated your ability to fade. You have already hidden one other. Here you will learn to hide the whole patrol, and you, like Amma, will learn to fly. You will also learn how many of the gifts of your friends you are able to emulate. You will attend the two other class groups in turn, in order to explore the whole spectrum of your gifts.” Shanna blushed bright red. “You and your starcats will have many new skills to explore, and the time is short.” The Starlyne uncoiled abruptly. “We will begin. Amma, and indeed all of you we will begin with understanding how you will sense air currents.”
The Garsal Commander waited at the sealed door to the female quarters. He placed his manipulator limb on the annunciator and as the offering receptacle extruded itself, lowered the recordings of the hive entrance carefully onto its surface, along with a selection of the local fruits that had tested safe and were delicious to the Garsal palate. As the offering was withdrawn into the sequestered female’s quarters, he inclined his thorax towards the external monitors. The Matriarch would indicate her approval or otherwise in her own time.
Growing up in Western Australia, Leonie was an avid reader from an early age. Her mother vividly recalls her stating “I can read faster with my eyes than you can with your mouth, Mum…” at around the age of six. Her parents and great aunt encouraged her interest in literature, providing her with books of many different genres, and . She began writing during high school, placing in the Western Australian Young Writers Award in 1980, and she fondly remembers several of her English teachers, who encouraged her to write, both fiction and poetry.
Leonie trained at Curtin University as a physiotherapist and moved to the remote north west of Western Australia, as a new graduate, in late 1986. She continued to write poetry for herself and for friends. Living in the remote northwest, she had the opportunity to work with camels, fight fires as a volunteer fire fighter, and develop vertical rescue and cyclone operation skills with the State Emergency Service.
After relocating to NSW with her husband and two children, Leonie continued to work as a physiotherapist, while still dabbling with writing. Finally deciding to stop procrastinating, Leonie decided to write the novel she’d had sitting in the back of her head for the last twenty years. Her husband and two teenage children have been extremely tolerant of the amount of time she has devoted to writing in the last few years.
For more information visit Leonie's Facebook page.
Book 2 of the FRONTIER series
The moral rights of Leonie Rogers to be identified as the author of this work have been asserted.
Copyright © 2014 Hague Publishing
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means without written permission of the publisher.
Cover Art: Frontier Resistance by Emma Llewelyn
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