I had never seen the steps of Sanshi so crowded before. It was festival time, and the huge granite steps carved out of a mountainside were thronging with people. There were so many humans and non-humans that you could barely see in front of you. I was holding my little non-human charge, Samira, high above the crowd. She loved viewing everything from up there since she was so small. Samira was six months old, and only a foot high. Her mother, Keena, was just under five feet tall, which was almost a giant for her people, the Lithians.
Samira looked humanoid from a distance, but when you came closer, you realized that her eyes were just a little too close together, even for a baby. She had only 2 fingers on each hand, plus an opposable thumb. She would grow the third finger on each hand when she reached puberty, in several years. Her hair was silky fine with a black sheen to it, similar to a short mane. As her caretaker, I also had observed that when she pricked her finger, her blood was not red like mine. Instead her blood was blue, a very pretty bright blue, like the sky over my home world, Terra. Here, in Lithia, the sky was a dark purple at night. On a beautiful day like today, it was a light blue-lavender color.
I was lucky to be here. I had applied to a university on Lithia to finish my post-graduate studies. I was studying marine life, and Lithia had such a varied one, even more so than Terra. Most all the other students in my field were trying to procure a sponsor here as well. In order to pursue post-graduate studies on Lithia, you had to have a sponsor whom would give you room and board.
If you were really fortunate, your sponsor would also make sure you did not have to pay the taxes to attend school. Many students who had procured sponsors, could still not afford to come to Lithia due to the high taxes placed on education for off-worlders. Lithians did not want any off-world students who were not serious about their education. Tourism was not the main source of their economy, and they wanted to keep it that way.
Sanshi was the city in which my university was located. It was one of the five tourist spots allowed on the planet. The Sanshi Steps were known far and wide across the galaxies for the great festivals held at the top of the steps on Mount Sanshi, which was really a large round hill, flattened at the top by glaciers, tens of thousands of years ago.
The Sanshi Festival started on the first day of spring, and ended on the first day of summer. In the winter, Lithia was coated in ice and snow, and families rarely left their communities. The festival welcomed the rebirth of Lithia every year, from the rebirth of the flowers and trees, to the rejoining of people from all over the planet. Many off-worlders came to visit at this time to see the sights.
I came to visit the festival before last, during my second to last year in pre-graduate studies to see where I wanted to do my post-graduate studies. The program here was the best of all the other universities combined, and I surprised myself by passing the entrance exam, which took a week. They required you to study one mammal, make contact with it, develop a relationship, and apply the knowledge you learned to analyze the species as a whole. The difficulty being that none of the off-world students had ever been exposed to any of the Lithians' marine life before this project. It was a huge undertaking, and out of the two hundred who applied, only eight of us passed. Of the eight, only three of us stayed. Five of the eight found sponsors, of those five, only two could afford the taxes. I was doubly blessed, as my sponsor family was aligned with the university, and I did not have to pay the taxes, or I could not have stayed either.
Keena had chosen to sponsor me among many other applicants for my red hair. Red hair was viewed as lucky among her people. Since I had arrived nine months ago, she had not let me cut it, nor would she let me wear it up. She helped me brush it daily. She preferred that I either wear it loose or in a long braid. When I was taking care of Samira, I usually wore it in a braid, so that the small child would not grab at it. The Lithian atmosphere accelerated my naturally quick hair growth, so that now my hair was at my waist, when before I came it had been chin length.
I began living with Keena when she was in the last stages of her pregnancy with Samira. I held her in the delivery pod while she gave birth. Samira was her second baby. The last student Keena sponsored graduated early, and she was in need of a new caretaker for her soon to be newborn. Garat was her other child, a male of the species. He was about to enter puberty. At this stage in his life, Garat was mostly independent, and what few needs he had, Keena could tend to. Samira, of course, needed constant attention.
I adored Samira. She was a precious bundle of joy. I spent my time between my studies and taking care of Samira. Keena had been very generous to me, making sure I had time for my studies. In return, I gave her and her family, my loyalty, time, and affection.
Festival had started a few weeks ago. On the first official festival day, Keena had given me the afternoon off, so I went for a few hours by myself. When you finally make it to the top of the Sanshi Steps, there are several glass cases of different kinds of food. I located one case with some of my favorite ingredients from my homeworld. It was a pasta dish, with long thin tubes of pale pasta, smoked fish, and something similar to green onions. While I was deciding which portion size to get, a young man appeared at my elbow. He was around my age and definitely human. He was a few inches taller than me, pale skin, brown hair, and hazel eyes. He ordered the dish in my native tongue, instead of in Universal, the common language spoken by all, or in Lita, the language of Lithia.
I looked up at him in surprise, then I turned to the vendor and ordered for him in Lita. I knew from experience that the vendor was unlikely to know our native tongue. I handed him his order, and ordered the same for myself. He looked surprised that I had understood him. I motioned away from the vendor and we sat down at a nearby bench, carved in granite.
“It’s better if we speak in Universal, it’s more accepted here,” I said to him smiling. “My name is Liora.”
He returned the smile and introduced himself as Aron. We chatted for awhile, until I realized it was time for me to get back. He walked me home, and appeared at Keena’s door every day to walk me to and from class after that.
At first he was not allowed to accompany me when I was out with Samira, until he passed Keena’s test. She would not tell me what the test was, and forbade him to speak of it, or risk not being able to come to the house again.
Knowing Keena, I was sure she did a background check on him as well. Nothing was more precious to her than her children, and she would not allow anyone near them she did not trust before they had passed through puberty and were fully able to defend themselves. In the last stages of puberty, all children were trained in self-defense using a similar form to our martial arts back home. When they passed their final test, they were given the coming of age ritual and declared independent. Garat had a few years before he was declared fully independent.
Today, as I climbed the Sanshi Steps, I was surprised that I had not seen Aron yet. I knew very little of him, only that Keena had given her approval. He did not usually speak of himself. I knew he was from Terra, and most likely from my home community, or nearby, as he spoke the native language with the same dialect as I did. He had not told me how long he would be on Lithia, only that he was on vacation for a little while. I suspected he was in the technology industry, or he could not have afforded to come stay in Lithia. It was quite expensive here. I had only afforded visiting at the last festival to see the university through a brief scholarship.
I brought back my thoughts to enjoying the day. I pulled Samira down for a brief cuddle, then hoisted her back up above the crowd so she could people watch. When we reached the top of the steps, I hurried over to the glass cases as I hadn’t had lunch yet, and was feeling quite hungry after the climb.
“Eema, Eema,” Samira cried. “Eema” was the word in my native tongue for mother. I had taught Samira the word completely by accident, and it stuck. Thankfully, Keena seemed not to mind.
Keena appeared at my side a few moments later, picked up Samira, and placed her in a baby carrier she wore on her front.
“It’s unusual for her to be so fussy this early in the day, she’s probably tired,” I observed. Keena agreed with me. I offered to relieve Keena of the baby carrier, but she declined with a shake of her head.
“Your suitor is here,” she said gently, and walked over to the next glass case.
“My suitor?” I turned around to find Aron standing there smiling.
He leaned over to kiss me, but I pulled back.
“Not here, the Lithians get upset by that.”
Aron looked surprised.
“Yes, I know, on campus or on private grounds it’s different. But, this is the public fairgrounds.”
I spoke in our native tongue without noticing it, and pulled him to where there were closed off rooms nearby. We gave a coin to open the door, and walked in. There were a few couches made of cushions on the floor to sit. Aron pulled me into his arms and starting kissing me.
“Marry me,” he said.
“Marry me! I have to be in Brussels tomorrow. Come back with me and marry me.”
“Why Brussels?” I asked.
“Because that’s where I live.”
He didn’t give me much time to think about it, he just started kissing me again. It was getting rather hot and heavy to the point where we both had unbuttoned our shirts, and then we were kissing more. We moved to sit on one of the couches on the ground. Suddenly, he was gone.
I turned around and surveyed the room. He had vanished, as if he had never been there. I buttoned my shirt, walked out of the room, and looked down the hallway. I saw some candlelight coming in from another room around the corner.
I walked into the room and saw a vid clip being displayed. It was of Aron and myself, from the time he appeared at my side at the glass counter to a moment ago. Then the image switched to Aron in another room with a bed in it. There was a woman with short dark hair on the bed.
Aron was standing a few feet away from the bed. A bot next to him said, “There’s someone else here, sir.”
Aron turned and looked at the bot. “There can’t be anyone else here,” replied Aron. The woman on the bed suddenly convulsed, and fell forward on her face. She lay there, inert, possibly permanently. Somehow I knew that Aron thought the woman on the bed was me. I could not figure out why I thought that. He may have even called her by my name, I wasn’t sure. It was all very muddled.
The vid clip stopped there. I stumbled out of the room, and frantically tried to call out for Aron, but I could not remember his name. I walked away from the rooms, back out into the festival. I saw Keena standing by one of the glass cases.
“Keena, please forgive me for disturbing you at this festival.” She nodded for me to continue after I had given her the proper public greeting. “What is my suitor’s name?”
Her eyes widened in surprise. “Aron Amiel,” she replied. She noticed my distress, gathered up Garat and Samira, and hurried all of us home. When we arrived in the house, she instructed Garat to take care of his baby sister.
I told Keena a brief edited version of what happened. She would only say the word “guardians” and shake her head. She told me that it was better if I pretended it had never happened. I agreed with her publicly, and thought to myself that I would find out what had occurred.
The next day after classes, I went in search of Professor Katherine O’Malley, Kate to her friends. The marine life department was fairly small and spread out. I knew the other two first year off-worlders, more by sight, than anything else. Our work was quite diverse, and we rarely came into contact with each other. Ling was Terran, but from the opposite side of Terra than me. Xiao was from a planet I had never heard of before, far past our galaxy. Kate was a Terran as well. When she passed her fifth year here, they finally offered her a teaching position. It was almost unheard of to offer an off-worlder a teaching position at the university. She and I had met when I came to visit and see the university two years ago. We had become friends immediately. She oversaw Ling’s research. Professor Karon oversaw my research. My contact with him was extremely limited. If I had been able to choose my advisor, I would have chosen Kate, but her specialty and my interests were different.
I tracked Kate down in her laboratory. She was viewing different cultures. Whenever she was in the lab, she was very involved in her work, and rarely heard anyone else coming or going. I tapped gently on the counter, hoping she wouldn’t jump. She looked up with a slight gasp. She put her slides down, gave me a quick hug, and looked at me expectantly.
“Have you ever heard about the ‘Guardians’?” I asked.
“Guardianship for Samira?” she replied and nudged me with her foot. “No, I don’t think you have to worry about that. I’m sure that Keena has thought of everything. You haven’t been out in the garden since before spring. I have to show you some new flowers that look just like some flowers from home.”
She walked outside and motioned for me to follow her. When we were both outside, she started to talk in a low voice, careful to keep a smile on her face as she pointed out different flowers. She made sure to walk us by the water generator, which was responsible for keeping the plants watered and extremely noisy, before she started speaking.
“Now we can speak in private. And, yes, I do believe they have listening devices in the university building, as well as in every public place possible. I think they listen for anything out of the ordinary. I have never been asked about my work by anyone I have not told, but once the left sink clogged up in the lab. I guess the drain had rusted as well. I spoke about it out loud to myself as I was leaving my room. I have a tendency to keep a running commentary of what I need to remember as I get ready in the morning. I did not have time to ask maintenance to take care of it, as I had a class to teach. I told no one about the drain during that day. When I came back to the lab that afternoon, the left sink had a shiny new drain and was working perfectly.”
She turned to me. “What’s going on? What’s all this about Guardians? And, don’t ask anyone but me about the Guardians. It’s a subject they don’t discuss here.”
I told Kate the unedited version of what had happened at the festival, and Keena’s response to it. I asked her if she could make sense of what had happened.
“The Guardians are, for a lack of a better term for it, Lithia’s version of an underground secret network run by the government. Some of the studies here at the university fall under Lithia’s military intelligence, which is also part of the Guardians. Aren’t you working on the tertiary delphinidae?”
The delphinidae was a species of mammals whom I believed to be related to the dolphins on Terra. I picked them to study originally because their physical appearance was so similar to Terran dolphins, whom I had studied on Terra. I have a natural affinity towards dolphins, and it’s easier to study with what you are comfortable.
“No, actually, I’m working with the primary delphinidae.”
“You’re what? But the primary species is classified!” She explained that the tertiary species have an average intelligence of a Terran canine or feline. The primary species have an average intelligence close to that of humans.
I told her that I had been working on the primary delphinidae since I first came here to take the entrance exam. I told her how Professor Karon had come to me after I chose to work with the delphinidae, and told me to work with the primary species. Now that I looked back on it, it occurred to me that the instructor was surprised by Professor Karon’s input, but he did not tell me to do otherwise. He let Professor Karon take over guiding me through the rest of the entrance exam.
Kate’s face turned a bit ashen when I told her this. She explained that she had wondered why, Petra, the young woman who Keena had previously sponsored, had suddenly decided to leave after her first year. Kate told me that most likely Professor Karon had instructed Petra she could no longer stay on, in order to make room for me. How he had known Keena’s superstition and preference for redheads, he could only guess that it was likely as Keena was Lithian born. Professor Karon most likely saw my natural affinity with the delphinidae, and used it to his advantage. She told me that she believed Professor Karon reported directly to the lower branches of the Guardians.
“Liora, they weren’t after Aron, they were after you. They did not want you to leave the planet and leave your studies, so they probably made Aron think you were dead. Most likely, the ‘woman’ you saw on the bed in that room with him was a bot. Tell no one that we had this conversation, and leave Lithia as soon as you can!”
“What about Keena?” I asked hesitantly.
“Keena will be fine. And, no, I don’t think she’s involved in any of this. But, I do think that your life is in danger due to your studies.”
I went back to Keena’s after speaking with Kate. I wrote a letter to a cousin of mine in my home village on Terra. I wrote it in our native language, and phrased it as a chatty note, so that anyone who bothered to decipher it, would think it was a regular correspondence. I mentioned meeting Aron, and gave Aron’s full name, which in our native language includes the parents’ names. I also wrote him about when we were children, and the schoolmaster had come to our respective homes to tell us we had to come to school because we did not have doctor’s notes saying we could stay home. This was a signal to him that I needed an emergency to come home and that he could not send the note as it would not be believed. The emergency had to be real, so that if the hospital was checked, everything could be confirmed. I signed the letter with my full name. It was a signal to him from our childhood. You only used a full name when you were in trouble. Of course, when we were children, it was because we had been caught not doing our schoolwork and wouldn’t be able to play. I hoped he would remember.
In the meantime, I went through the piles of stuff I had collected in the past nine months. Keena was surprised to see me tidying things up. I intimated that I had the time now that my suitor was no longer around. She didn’t say anything, merely left me to it.
There was very little I could take with me and have it not seem suspicious. I decided to leave everything but a few clothes and books, as well as a picture of Keena, Samira, and Garat. I would miss them; however, I could not afford to stay on Lithia anymore. I knew that I could probably finish my year at a local university on Terra. It wouldn’t be the same, but I could most likely get a teaching position if I published a paper on the primary delphinidae, which I would live longer if I did that immediately, before they could come after me.
A few days later, an urgent message came from my mother saying my father had to have an emergency operation. My mother, the consummate actress who enjoyed a good drama scene, sent a vid clip detailing the operation and hospital, the urgency, and the necessity that I be there.
I had logged off my computer every time I left the university recently, in the hope that I would not be coming back the next day. The professors encouraged us to log off, in order to free up the network. I usually ignored their requests, more out of wanting to avoid hassles than anything else. When I logged off my computer, the firewalls Professor Karon had urged me to add came into their full affect. I had added so many over the past nine months, that it was virtually impossible to get past them unless you knew the intricate code sequence. Every time I logged back on, I had to use all the intricate codes, and it took at least half an hour, if I remembered all of the codes, and remembered in which order they went. I could get in through the network from a different computer if I wanted to, but it would be extremely difficult.
When my mother’s call came in, I asked Keena to call for a shuttle while I packed. I was “packed” in less than five minutes, kissed everyone goodbye, and assured them I would see them in a week or two at the most. I told Keena I would call the university myself to tell them how long I would be gone.
I had no intention of calling the university. My main hope was that I would be off Lithia, preferably already on Terra, before they were alerted. I boarded the shuttle for Terra wearing a hat Samira had picked out for me while we were wandering in the festival one afternoon. She loved dark colors, like the night sky, and had grasped it in her little fingers, before trying to push it onto my head. I almost smiled in remembrance as wound all of my bright red hair up in the hat, so I would not be remembered as easily.
The shuttle landed on Terra with no delays. My cousin was waiting to pick me up and take me to the hospital so that we could keep up the pretense a little longer.
I walked into my father’s hospital room, and gasped.
Aron was standing next to my mother. He said my cousin had contacted him. Aron had helped my mother with the hospital arrangements and with scheduling to get me off of Lithia. I still didn't know anything about Aron, other than he had told me he lived in Belgium. I didn't know if he was involved with the guardians, or if I could trust him. Or, if he was part of another group entirely, who wanted my research.
I had hidden an info dot with all my notes of my research about the primary delphinidae on Lithia as a button on my jacket. I knew having the research was dangerous, but I was hoping it would be a bargaining point for my life when they came after me. I wondered how long I had before the first wave of guardians appeared.