11 Elenne

Zeke joined the flight while it listened to a lecture on MI theory. One thing about the comm-net and their bracelets was that an explanation of his late arrival wasn't needed. The MI's knew everything that was going on and it was unusual to question anything unless notified by an MI.

He had missed the overview of the fundamental circuitry and hardware. Some were over his head and a query he sent to comm-net assured him it could be made up later.

He heard other terms discussed that he was familiar with--assuming the translations he received were accurate. Superconductivity and quantum computation were mentioned. His lack of comprehension left him feeling uncomfortable and inadequate.

His mind drifted away from the lecture and he thought about Elenne--and wondered what the future held.

Thoughts of Enne, too, crossed his mind. Elenne was much closer, much more real, and that made her all the more desirable. He'd talked with Dev and Sephen about the upcoming two-day break, about how he'd go back home with one of them. They were both good friends now. Choosing one had made him uncomfortable. From the male conversations and bragging he heard in the showers, no one would question his choice of going with a woman, or was she a girl? He didn't feel old enough to use the term "woman" yet.

The class finished and Zeke marched the flight to their evening meal. He was careful to make sure no pecking order in the squad developed. He sat with different people at each meal and agreed with Dev and Sephen that all the senior members would do the same.

Tonight, though, he wanted to speak with them both. He felt the need to tell them, to share his good fortune with them. Loneliness had not been a problem, but now, with the prospect of sharing time with someone like this, he had the realization of how far away from home he was. How strange everything seemed now, compared to just yesterday.

After he'd dismissed the flight to eat, he gave a questioning look at Dev and Sephen. They'd spent enough time together now to understand his intent. They hung behind as the rest got into the mess line.

The thought of Rilt at the table gave him pause, for a second, but Rilt had changed a good deal. Not all of his sarcasm and snobbishness was gone, but he had mellowed, and they had all shared enough successes that he seldom felt the need to put his guard up.

"What's up?" Sephen asked Zeke as they headed to get into line, "something good happen when you spoke with General Yalt?"

Zeke's answer was a smile.

"Yes, but I have something else to tell you. You know that I wouldn't miss the chance to go with you to meet your families on this break. I have an offer that I don't think I can refuse."

"Elenne," he said. "The physician who treated me when I was injured."

Big smiles broke out on both Dev and Sephen's faces. A shadow crossed Rilt's face for a moment, but even he couldn't suppress a grin.

"Neither of us will get in trouble, will we?" he asked them.

"Nah," Rilt answered, using one of the few Anyari slang expressions. "The doctors aren't really in the same command structure as we are. As long as it doesn't cause any problems, no one will say anything."

"Good," Zeke sighed with relief. "In Earth's military, there are usually rules about relationships within the military."

"Not here, at least not so much. It is seldom a problem. If it is, the couple is usually split up, so they have a strong motivation to keep their military lives separated," Dev explained. "In this case, it is of even less concern."

"How did you have the time to connect with her, as busy as we all are?" Sephen asked.

"I just happened to see her in the officer's mess after talking with the general. We had a 'moment' while she was treating me, and this is her idea. I sure wouldn't have thought, or dared, to ask."

"A moment?" they said in unison, causing the blood to rush to Zeke's face.

"OK, OK, I shouldn't have said anything," Zeke protested.

The other three calmed a bit and Rilt said, "We--all of us--have families to spend time with. No one would begrudge you time with someone. Well, depending on how pretty she is."

"She is far prettier than any girl who'll ever have any of you," Zeke shot back, a smile on his face.

While Rilt and Zeke traded barbs, Dev was fiddling with his comm-bracelet. An image of Elenne appeared on a small display he had. He passed it around.

"Damn," Sephen said, "you might be right."

"Does she have a sister?" asked Rilt.

For the first time since he'd been on Anyar, Zeke laughed until tears moistened his eyes. "It's good to know guys think the same way here as on Earth. I feel more at home than I have since I've been here."

The laughter turned to a faintly bittersweet nostalgia and his mood sobered, but then his mood turned bright again and he told them, "Oh, I am right, and I doubt whether her sister would have you either!"

The next day was the easiest he had since starting at the academy. In the morning they finished the introduction to MI's and robotics, the afternoon was taken with an explanation of appropriate behavior for cadets and military members in general.

Especially when they were in uniform, and they'd be wearing a dressier version of their daily work uniforms when they left in the afternoon, they were expected to behave as if everyone was watching them. They were to be the first to offer assistance if needed; anything from helping carry a bag, to letting everyone else enter a room, vehicle, or anything else, first.

They were told that they were the heart, soul, and hope of Anyar and that their behavior was important in instilling confidence and courage in the populace.

Even with the prospect of the weekend ahead, the afternoon passed swiftly and the class soon ended.

The evening meal was optional and Zeke was due at Elenne's office in a few minutes. Those that wanted to eat were allowed the rare privilege of walking to the cafeteria on their own. Zeke headed directly to Elenne's office.

As he walked, Yipt appeared at his side.

"Did I forget something?" Zeke asked.

"No, it seemed like a good time to have a few words with you," Yipt replied. He continued, "You deserve the time off as much as anyone. I think you will have a good time, where you're going, but don't forget what you were told today. You, especially, might encounter some who might not be as admiring as they could be."

"If you know where I'm going, you know more than I do," Zeke said pleasantly, "but I will not embarrass you, or the Academy."

"I have no concern on that score, especially in a small town up north. The rural districts are the most supportive. Sometimes, people in the larger cities are less so."

"Thank you. I will be careful."

Yipt corrected him, "Not careful, confident and proud. Confident people aren't disturbed by the opinions of others."

"I will be."

Yipt left him just before he reached Elenne's office. No one was in the outer room.

He knocked at the door and it opened. Before he knew it, Elenne had her arms around him and her lips pressed against his. After a moment she said, "Yes, you're fine. You pass the exam."

Zeke was silent with surprise. "You don't do that with all your patients?"

"I can assure you I do not! You are the first and very likely the last," she said with what he thought might be a touch of irritation.

But in a moment she was pressing against him again and she didn't seem very irritated then.

After a moment, they separated.

"You didn't bring your bag?" she asked.

"It is packed, I wasn't sure what you were planning."

"Meet me at the tube station in ten minutes?" she said and kissed him quickly one more time.

He hadn't seen the tube station before and started to consult his comm-bracelet.

"At the south end of the main hallway," she said as she walked out the door, "don't be late or I might be gone."

He doubted that but didn't want to find out, so he walked quickly to the barracks to get his dress uniform on and grab his bag. It was about twelve minutes before he made it to the tube station and found her waiting patiently.

They went down the steps to the tube entrance. Along one wall capsules glided slowly in a track. When they came to a stop, people entered and the capsules smoothly accelerated down the track and out an opening at the far end.

The waiting area had a few hundred people, with more arriving steadily. There were no lines. He saw people check their comm-bracelets and enter the capsules as they arrived. Usually there were four, or even five in a cabin. Sometimes, though, there were only one or two.

Occasionally someone would exit an arriving capsule, but the majority of traffic was outbound.

"Where are we going?" Zeke asked her.

"My hometown is about three thousand klicks to the north. We're the only ones going there, so we'll have the cabin to ourselves for a couple of hours," she said with a smile. "The town, and my parent's home, are near the ocean. I hope you'll like it as much as I do."

"I'm sure I will. Is it a large town?" Zeke asked.

"Only a few thousand, and it is some distance from the nearest large city. Your home was near a small town?"

"Yes, so it may be a little like home. I'm sure I'll like it."

She held his hand and almost stretched up to kiss him, but evidently thought better of it. Still, she stood close, and he enjoyed the warmth of her hand.

Within a few minutes, a capsule arrived. When its door opened Elenne stood and pulled gently on his hand.

When they got in, he could see that the capsule had a comfortable cabin, with a place to stow their bags and soft seats that lined the walls. Much of it appeared to be glass, or some clear material, supported by a sturdy frame that was artistically sculptured.

They sat down and the door closed with a whoosh.

"How long will it take us to get there?"

"About two hours," she answered.

Zeke figured in his head, "Fifteen hundred klicks per hour?"

"That's the average. I think it goes over two thousand for part of the trip."

The capsule rocked a bit, and he could feel it rise. They started to accelerate, slowly, but enough so he could feel it.

"How does it work?" he asked her.

"You're asking me?" she teased. "You're the one studying engineering, aren't you?"

"This hasn't been on the curriculum yet," he replied with a smile.

"The capsules are lifted, and propelled with some kind of magnetic, ...uhmm electromagnetic field. The tubes are kept at a near vacuum. So there is essentially no friction."

"Are they safe?" he asked. "Two thousand clicks per hour with the walls of the tube that close seems a little dicey to me."

"No one has ever been killed, or even hurt, in the last hundred years. Before that, occasional failures and, very rarely, tunnel collapses caused by seismic activity. A few people were banged up a bit, but the last time someone was killed was long, long ago."

"Is that safe enough?" she said with a smile.

For once he took the initiative and kissed her. "Yes," he said, "transportation on Earth is not nearly as safe."

They had a couple hours to kill and they found an enjoyable way to do so. About halfway through the trip he found that she didn't mind if his hands did a little exploring and she seemed to enjoy what he feared might be awkward fumblings.

Her hands found their way inside his shirt, but that was as far as they got before a mechanical voice notified them they were a few minutes from their destination.

They'd felt a few movements up and down during the trip, but the whys and hows were pretty far from Zeke's mind at the time.

By the time the hatch and door opened, they had organized themselves and had their bags in hand.

The door opened onto a much smaller room. They exited into an empty station, much smaller than the one at the Academy. Elenne grabbed his hand and they proceeded up the stairs.

To his surprise, the town that awaited them was strangely similar to a European village. The streets looked like they were made of cobblestones, although they were, perhaps, a little too smooth and uniform.

"This," she told him, "is North Engleston. There is no South Engleston, that part of the name is a mystery. I was born and raised here. What do you think?"

The buildings were, or appeared to be, made of wood, brick, and stone. Shops and cottages lined the few narrow streets. It was dark, and the streets were lit by lamps that reminded him of streetlamps from the nineteenth century--though he was pretty sure they didn't burn anything.

"This is not what I expected," Zeke told her. "It isn't what I'd expected from technology hundreds of years ahead of what I'm used to."

"Hmm," she said. "I guess I don't think of it as technologically advanced. I want it to be pleasant, safe, and comfortable. It seems to be all that to me. It's home."

"I'm sorry, I like it too, very much. It is beautiful and much better than I expected."

He figured it was OK to kiss her again here, and he did.

"My family's home overlooks the ocean. We could take local tubes, but they're mostly for automated deliveries. I'd like to take an open car, if that's OK. It will only take us about fifteen minutes to get there."

They went into a small building that looked, from the outside, like a large stable or garage. Inside, there were a number of vehicles and she led him to a simple, four-wheeled car with rubber, or rubber-looking, air-filled tires. It reminded him a little of an antique car. It wasn't enclosed, but had a top and even a steering wheel.

"Who's going to drive?" he asked.

She smiled, "Well, either of us could, but it will just drive itself, and there are a few other things we can do instead."

"Look at the scenery?" he joked.

"Well, actually, this time we just might."

The car took them out of town at a sedate pace. They didn't spend the whole time looking at the scenery, but the night was dark and the road appeared to have a thick forest on either side. The moons were both up and they could see the countryside as they traveled.

The road soon turned to what looked like a well-built graveled road.

"Is this really a gravel road?"

"Sort of," she said, "although it won't get muddy no matter how much it rains. We do get a lot of rain and some snow here."

The road meandered its way around and soon they were headed south along a bluff overlooking the ocean.

"Can we stop here for a moment?" he asked.

She touched the wheel and the car stopped.

The night was cool and a breeze blew in off the ocean. She snuggled close to him.

He felt his eyes grow damp and he was glad she couldn't see.

"It is," and he had to pause for a moment to control his emotions, "very nice to be here. To be here with you. Thank you."

"It must be lonely for you here. I can't imagine how strange it must be."

"It isn't strange. Everything is familiar, in some ways. But it is different, not the same as home."

"Do you want to go back?" she asked.

"You're the first person who has asked me that. And it hadn't really occurred to me, honestly. I was just a lonely kid. Nothing special. Nothing special at all."

"You were special," she said quietly. "Just because no one recognized it at the time, doesn't mean it wasn't so."

"My grandparents...they were---they are good people. They won't understand what's happened to me. The thought of hurting them..." and he had to stop.

"We don't really have the kind of religions you have on Earth. I've read a little of what's been written about you, and about Earth. But we do have a view about the rightness of things, and about the patterns that make up the universe, and us.

"I don't know what you'd call it," she went on. "It's not even a philosophy, it's a kind of way of looking at things. Looking at the things you can change, and accepting what you can't, and choosing to believe that everything will come out well in the end."

His heart moved a little at her words and he felt more at home than he could remember. He'd never realized how important his home with his grandparents had been.

He kissed her, softly, one more time and they started the car.

The road wound away from the bluff and they passed what seemed to be an entrance to a drive, then another. Finally, when the road ended, the car turned left and they followed a long drive, perhaps a hundred meters.

At the end was just a small building. A wide door opened up and the car entered. The floor had a finish, something between stone and concrete. As they got out, a door opened and an older man and women entered.

Elenne hurried to hug the lady. The man walked up to Zeke, his hand extended.

"I am Jonephs, Elenne's father. We have heard a great deal about you, as you might imagine, and we are truly pleased to have you here."

Zeke grasped his hand and Jonephs shook it slowly, but firmly. "I hope I don't disappoint. Some seem to think I'm some kind of...well, something more than I really am."

Jonephs smiled warmly. "Here, you're only a young man my daughter has brought home, I hope that is alright with you."

Zeke brightened, "Yes, thank you, that will be more than alright."

Elenne's mother came to him and gave him a motherly hug. "I am Ne'eme. We are so very happy to have you here. You have had a long trip, have you eaten?"

"No," he and Elenne answered together and laughed.

He and Elenne followed her parents back down the steps. She slipped her hand in his.

The bottom of the stairs opened into a living room. In front of them, windows looked out onto a porch, or deck, revealing a moonlit ocean and a beach down below.

The home was mostly underground, but the eastern side was mostly windows that framed the view of the beach and ocean. Ne'eme lead them to a large, dark, beautifully finished wooden table. She disappeared into another room as they sat down at the table.

Jonephs explained, "This is a special occasion, we cook the meals ourselves at times like these. Or should I say, I would if I could cook," he laughed. "Ne'eme has already started and it won't be long."

A young girl, looking much like Elenne, but in her mid-teens, came out from the kitchen, carrying a tray with several steaming mugs.

"This is my younger sister, Enenne," Elenne said. Enenne smiled shyly with wide eyes and handed the mugs to Zeke and Elenne.

Zeke sipped the contents and exclaimed, "Hot chocolate? Thirty light years from Earth?"

"Whatever you call it, it is a favorite winter drink here too," Jonephs said.

"We have a younger son, Jonets. I'm sure he is still awake and would like to meet you."

Zeke smiled and nodded. Jonephs, with clearly exaggerated exasperation, looked down the hallway and said, loudly, "OK, come on out."

Immediately, a door slammed open and a young boy, perhaps ten years old, raced down the hallway along the front of the house.

Instead of reprimanding him, Jonephs just smiled, "I think I can give him some leeway this once."

Zeke rose from the chair and introduced himself, "I'm very pleased to meet you Jonets, my name is Zeke."

"Oh, I know that," Jonets responded. "I am very happy to meet you. Will you tell me about the battle? Please?"

"Jonets! " Ne'eme scolded.

"I don't mind," Zeke said. "I'll tell you what I can remember, tomorrow? It may not be as exciting as you think, being as afraid as I was. Well, I don't think of it as very heroic."

"I'll be the judge of that," Jonets said confidently and everyone else in the room laughed.

"You can have a mug of 'hot chocolate' too, then off to bed with you," Jonephs told his son.

Jonets was puzzled until he saw what was in the mug and smiled. He drained the mug before everyone else had half finished theirs and was hustled back to bed.

Shortly Ne'eme brought in a meal of fragrantly spicy meats and vegetables. Jonephs raised his mug and declared, "To our good fortune and the company we keep tonight."

As they ate, Zeke could see Enenne sneaking looks at him. Occasionally he caught her and returned her glance with a friendly smile.

"I am curious," Jonephs asked, "how Elenne was able to land such an impressive visitor?"

Zeke turned red, surely enough for everyone at the table to see. "Well, not that it is the primary reason, but the fact that she is the most attractive woman at the Academy doesn't hurt."

Elenne countered, "I was smart enough to get to him first. Brains over looks any day." Everyone laughed.

"I don't know if Elenne told you, but I am a historian," Jonephs said. "I would, if you can find the time, very much like to hear about Earth, and your impressions of Anyar."

"Of course," Zeke answered. "I don't know what Elenne has planned, but I was very interested in history, Earth's history, myself, although I hadn't even completed my secondary education when I found Danil. What I can recall, I would be happy to share."

"That would be wonderful," Jonephs said. "Thank you."

They finished the meal and Enenne helped her mother take the dishes away.

"I think we're going to retire now," Jonephs told them. "I hope you have an enjoyable stay here with us."

Zeke went back up to the vehicle to grab their bags, which they'd left in the excitement of their arrival. When he got back, the room was empty except for Elenne.

She grabbed his hand and led him down the hallway, to the last room on the end. It had a small window looking out over the ocean.

"This is my room," she said. "It is good to be home."

"Where am I going to sleep?" he asked.

She just smiled.

"Are you kidding me? What will your parents say?"

"Not a thing," she said. "Well, they might say, 'It's about time'."

Before long, they were in the warm, soft bed and he found that girls were every bit as much fun as he thought they'd be.