22 Sephen

The next day echoed the first. Zeke realized just how little time he'd spent wandering the ship during his lonely trip to Anyar with Danil. They had spent most of their time on the bridge. It had been a little spooky wandering the empty passageways alone---and he hadn't done much of it. Now, seeing the passageways filled with people and machines, it was a much different place.

Zeke had asked Ereine to send Helf and Agarad flight an overview of the drone project. A report of the current status of the project went to everyone in both flights. After the evening meal, he met with Helf to brief him on the project. Afterward, they planned a session with A flight to discuss the progress and plans.

They met in a small meeting room with little more than chairs and a large console. Zeke explained how the idea had come about during their simulation missions as Rogue.

"Do you think this idea would have gained any support if it had come from someone besides you?" Helf asked the pointed question.

"This idea was not mine. Dev suggested it first. I was starting to draw the same conclusions---and I suspect others were, too. Was it the fact that I was the one to present the idea? If someone else suggested it, and it had been ignored because they didn't have the reputation that I seem to have, then that would have been unfortunate. Unfortunate for the best interests of Anyar."

"I didn't mean to be critical," Helf apologized. "When we went through the training, it occurred to me that we were doing little more than playing a game in which we were only guessing at the rules."

"Yes. Maybe we were the first with the audacity to voice it."

They met with both flights in the main mess hall, the largest open room in the ship. A few people from other areas on the ship remained after being served. As Zeke started speaking, many seemed to listen attentively.

"You've all read the reports. Little in the deployment plan has changed. Until we detect some Rogue ships and gather some data, I don't think we'll come up with a justification to change the plan," Zeke told both groups.

"Any questions...from anyone?" he asked, specifically looking at the members of Agarad flight.

"What will we do if, or maybe I should say when, we detect Rogue signatures in a system? The sims missions we flew were not based on missions like this," asked N'lenna, a blonde, female pilot from "A" flight.

"We engage them if we are detected. Destroy them to prevent their escape. Detection by probes in remote systems will be dealt with at the command level on Anyar," Helf answered.

"In the Mecran system, protecting the shipyards is our mission. Making sure no Rogue can alert others of our presence there is of paramount importance, as you can imagine."

Zeke looked at Helf, "Anything else?"

Helf looked around the room for people with something to say,

Zeke then addressed B flight, "I have some good news---at least for us. I'm sure Captain Verrin is not happy. A short delay in completing the last few probes will push back our departure. We'll all get three days of leave before the Redun departs. When we return, there will be room in the hangar for our fighters."

Grins lit up every face. Zeke continued, "A flight has already gotten their leave. They can handle anything that needs to be completed. Tomorrow is Fourthday, you'll need to be back on the morning of Seventhday. Departure from orbit is scheduled for sixteen hundred hours on Seventhday; we'll lift from Kanelin spaceport that morning. Questions?"

"Can we leave tonight? Any shuttles going down tonight?" Geren asked.

Zeke didn't know and started to query his comm to find out, but Helf was ahead of him. "A stream of small shuttles are ferrying people and equipment to and from the surface. I think most of you can get down tonight. Request transport through your comms and be ready to pack up some of the stuff you just unpacked," he said with an amiable smile.

Everyone in the flight was quickly tapping on their comms. Zeke thought for a moment. Elenne would be on duty and he didn't want to invite himself to her family's home. Nor did he feel he could contact Ereine. Enne, well that was asking for complications he was not prepared for.

Just as he'd decided to contact Ereine and see if he could make arrangements to return to the Academy to work on drone-related plans, he saw Sephen making his way across the room.

"Dev and I flipped and I won. Why don't you come spend your leave with me and my family?" he asked.

Suddenly, that sounded much better than going over drone documentation and he could feel his face light up. "That would be great," was all he could say.

"Let's go grab our stuff and get in line for a ride back down!"

In his cabin, he and Rilt had to coordinate their movements so that each could pack. He packed the civilian clothes he'd gotten with Elenne, and a uniform.

"Where are you going?" he asked Rilt. "To your family?"

"No, I don't think they're ready for that. I have a cousin that has always tolerated me. Hopefully, I'll be easier to tolerate now."

"Good. I'll see you in a few days. Sephen's invited me to spend leave with his family."

"He's good. So is his family. I know of them. Actually, we're all good. It just took me a little longer to get there," he joked.

He found Sephen, along with most of the rest of the flight, waiting in a meeting room near one of the hangar hatches. Enough chairs were available for about half the flight, the rest stood or sat on the floor. Occasionally a comm or two would flash and the owners would head through the hatch.

Finally, he and Sephen got the go-ahead and followed the directions on their comms. The hatch opened into a pressurized passage. The hangar was currently still open to space, so all of the transports in use were connected to similar passageways via their docking ports.

When they reached the port indicated by their comms, they looked into the docked shuttle. It was filled with boxlike containers being returned to the planet.

"Strap in, we depart in two," the co-pilot said simply.

The seats were just frames and webbing, but they had no complaints; they'd be on the surface in thirty minutes. Good to their word, the shuttle started moving as soon as they'd strapped in.

The canopy was big and they had a good view. The pilot negotiated the crowded hangar deck. Most of the traffic was headed out. As they crossed the threshold of the hangar opening, the sensation of falling announced they'd left the ship's gravity field.

The shuttle accelerated and maintained a steady course for several minutes, then they decelerated and nosed down into the atmosphere.

"Where are we headed?" Zeke asked.

"To the closest spaceport to my family's home."

The arc of the planet's horizon flattened as they dove into the atmosphere. They were headed to the upper part of the northern hemisphere, well north of where Elenne's family lived. A large mountain range with snow-capped peaks was visible even farther to the north.

The spaceport was little more than an open tarmac with a few small buildings scattered around the perimeter. After they'd landed, he found that the buildings were really entrances to larger underground structures, primarily warehouses. This area provided metal and metallic components, which were stored there before being transported.

They made their way, with the guidance of their comms, to a tube station.

"My family lives farther north, on the other side of that mountain range. The tube goes through the range to my hometown. We'll be in Kilen before dark."

They entered a capsule like the one he'd ridden in with Elenne. Sephen set the destination with his comm and the capsule started forward.

"We'll be underground most of the trip, but be ready. We'll pass through a transparent section of the tubeway ahead, just before it dives underground."

In just a moment, Zeke could feel the capsule change direction, making a gradual left turn that sent them heading west. Suddenly, the capsule was filled with the evening light. The tube walls had become glass, or at least transparent. To their right, the mountain range loomed, surrealistically detailed and large. They had an amazing view for almost a minute before the tube headed underground again.

"Why go to the trouble of making that section of tube?" Zeke asked.

"Because we can," was the answer. "The additional expense was not significant when it was constructed, about fifty years ago. You might not have gotten much of a chance to see some of the aesthetic and artistic things we do. There isn't much of that at the Academy, but we are more than dull drudges."

The smile on his face showed his comments were made in jest.

"How many brothers and sisters do you have?" Zeke asked. "I just realized I'd never thought to ask."

"A couple of sisters, one younger and one older. Both will be thrilled to meet you and I will surely remain in their good graces for quite a while because of it," he laughed.

"I don't know that I need any more girlfriends," Zeke joked. "I'm in way over my head as it is."

"Oh, one or two more won't hurt," he added in the same jovial tone. "And, if anyone gets the impression that anything is going on between you and either, or both, of them, it will make them minor celebrities."

Zeke raised an eyebrow, to which Sephen replied, "I don't think we are a vain and shallow people. Still, how would you have felt if one of the popular celebrities on Earth had appeared to show an interest in you? Wouldn't your friends have been impressed?"

"I guess they would have," Zeke had to admit. "I guess the situation is what it is, but I don't want to hurt anyone."

"You needn't worry about that," Sephen assured him. "At our age, expectations are limited, and relationships change pretty rapidly. Is that any different on Earth?"

"Well, I guess not. I would appreciate if you would help me keep out of trouble. I don't know what Elenne would think."

"I don't think you understand. Especially at this age, relationships aren't taken too seriously. Well, no, that isn't exactly right. Maybe I should say that they are pretty flexible and that we don't have a very strong sense of ownership. Even with those we feel a special interest or bond with."

"So jealousy is unheard of on this planet?" Zeke asked cynically.

"Jealousy is just another side of insecurity. Everyone has their insecurities. So what is jealousy? When it is about relationships, it is either because of fear of losing that relationship or losing something or someone important to you. That does happen. People get hurt. I don't know if we're different from what you're used to. I've known girls that I was interested in that weren't interested in me, or were for a while but then it faded. One I really cared for, and yes, I was hurt, and more than a little jealous, when it ended."

"I don't want to be the one responsible for hurting anyone: Elenne, Enne, or Ereine. And by the way, what is the deal with so many women's names starting with 'E'?"

"Just a tradition, I guess, that female names are more limited than male ones. Names that start with E, or N with a glottal stop are most common in females. I don't really know why, although I'm sure someone has studied it and could explain."

Zeke nodded at the explanation. "Rolenil told me that Enne could end up being hurt, but he was confident I wouldn't do so carelessly. You know, all that has happened, is happening, it is a lot to take in."

Sephen laughed, "Yes, but surely it's not that bad."

"I can't help but think it will all blow up in my face."

"If it does, there'll be another group of young ladies to take their place," he said with a laugh. "And all three of them are desirable young women. They won't have a shortage of admirers, either."

The capsule had been gradually slowing and the faint light of an opening became visible ahead. It stopped and he heard the familiar faint clunk of the hatch connecting with its mate on the other side. The door opened and the soft light of dusk filled the capsule.

The station was above ground and outside, with only a covered area at the entrance. A group of people was waiting when he stepped out into the cold air. They erupted in cheers and the slow, rhythmic clapping that was Anyari applause.

"Did you know anything about this?" Zeke asked Sephen, who answered with an overly innocent smile.

"Well, I let my family know who was coming with me. No one told me, but I had my suspicions," he added. He introduced his family, "This is my father, Reshen. My older sister Ni'lin, the nice and smart one, and the young and pretty one, Ni'nin."

Each made an exaggerated show of being horrified at his comments, but they all quickly dropped the facade and started laughing.

Reshen shook Zeke's hand quickly, almost perfunctorily and said, "Welcome to Kilen, we are glad and honored to have you spend time with us."

He moved quickly to wrap his arms around Sephen and squeeze him firmly. "I have missed you," he said quietly, but with emotion evident in his voice.

Sephen's expression changed and became serious, something Zeke had seldom seen. "I know, I missed all of you. I am glad to be home."

Each of the girls gave Zeke a quick hug. They turned to stand beside him, facing the crowd of people which filled the small square between the street to the left and a dark brown building behind.

"Would you mind saying a few words to everyone?" Ni'lin whispered in his ear.

Evidently with practice, you got better at everything, and public speaking was getting easier.

"I'm honored that you came out today to meet us," he began, in a voice he hoped was loud enough to reach everyone. "And I'm lucky to have a flight mate like Sephen to bring me here. As you might imagine, at first, Anyar was an unfamiliar and lonely place, but because of many people like you, it has started to feel like home. Thank you."

With that, the girls gently guided him forward into the crowd. He shook hands with many of the men and received countless embraces from women of all ages. Zeke felt a little like an Earth politician, keeping a smile on his face as he made his way around the square, exchanging hellos and short remarks with what must have been almost everyone.

In typical Anyari fashion, the onlookers politely left after each had gotten a chance to meet him. The last few thanked him and waved goodbye, leaving him with Sephen's family.

They walked a short distance to an entrance to the underground portion of the city. Zeke noticed the outside streets and buildings were similar in color to the mountain range to the south. The city wasn't invisible, but it clearly was meant to blend in with the surrounding landscape.

The entrance they took to the underground part of the city was adjacent to a park. A large stairway descended around an open rectangular shaft. The shaft went down several stories and entered through one of several doors in a large glass wall which reminded Zeke of a mall entrance.

He asked why the tube station wasn't underground as well and was told that there was one. Capsules could be routed to either station. Unless the weather was bad, people used the outdoor station. The other was used mostly for cargo.

Like Kanetel, Kilen had large, open spaces that kept it from feeling claustrophobic.

The door opened onto a main mall filled with people. Small shops lined each side. It gave the familiar impression of a shopping mall. They proceeded to one of the moving strips that ran down the center of the huge corridor. Each strip actually had several lanes, each moving faster than the previous with the fastest in the middle. They moved to the center, one of the girls clutching each arm to help him make the transitions smoothly.

He estimated they were moving at almost thirty kilometers per hour on the inner lane.

"How many people live here?" he asked.

Reshen was the one to answer, "Almost half a million. It is one of the largest cities on Anyar. A lot of industry and mining has been moved into facilities hollowed out inside the mountain range."

"I would not have guessed it would be so large."

"And that is not counting a few small settlements nearby that can be reached by the main tube, or by a few smaller ones used primarily for cargo and ore transport."

The living spaces were on a level below the main mall. They got off the slideway and took an elevator down, and then got on a small cart which carried them all through a series of passages. They passed what appeared to be the fronts of houses and other buildings. Sephen explained that they were actually facades built on the front wall of the living spaces.

When they got to the home of Sephen's family, the facade reminded him of a Greek or Roman building. Inside, he found the home surprisingly large, with a spacious central living area which opened into many other rooms.

Sephen's room had one of the viewscreens that gave the impression of opening out onto a large canyon. The illusion was a little disconcerting at first; he couldn't get used to the view changing as you moved, as though you were really looking out through a window.

With two beds, it was clear he would share this room with Sephen.

"The plan is to have dinner with a few close friends this evening. Tomorrow we'll see a few of the sights that I hope you'll find interesting."

They quickly showered and changed and set off with Reshen and the girls.

Ni'nin told Zeke, "You'll have to tell us how our restaurants compare to those in Kanetel and the other places you've been."

"I would if I could, but the only places I've eaten since I've been here have been at the Academy and in homes or special dinners when I made the presentation to the council. I've never been out to a private restaurant."

The girls almost squealed with delight. "I think you will find it very nice. Perhaps every city thinks they have the best food, but we really do here in Kilen!"

The girls were witty, clever, and entertaining. Usually, they kept up the pretense of giggling girls, but from what Sephen had told him, and little expressions he'd caught, he was sure there was much more to them than that.

This time, they took a smaller slideway on the residential level, then an elevator up to the main, commercial, level. The entrance to the restaurant was through an inconspicuous doorway that led back to an area behind the shops which lined the main mall.

The dining area they entered had a familiar layout. The chairs and tables were a little different, giving the appearance of the craftsmanship he was becoming accustomed to. The lighting was turned down, candles and hanging lamps cast a soft light on each table. He noticed the lack of a regular pattern to the location and size of the tables; not random, but neither were they lined up in neat rows. Each corner had a large, curved table, like he'd seen at Rolenil's palace. They were led to one of these.

A group of ten or so were waiting expectantly for them. Sephen whispered in his ear, "Yeah, we have a lot of close friends. Sorry, we couldn't invite some and not the others. As it is, we may have hurt the feelings of those we could not invite."

"If you want to do it again tomorrow evening and invite the rest, I'm fine with that. Feeling like family again is not something I'm growing tired of," Zeke replied.

A grateful smile brightened Sephen's face. "We might just do that, thank you."

Zeke shook hands and exchanged greetings and introductions with each of the waiting group. They were sitting on the outside of the arc of the table. Their group sat on the inside with Zeke near the middle.

As they sat, an elderly gentlemen across from him asked, "Meeting you in person, you seem to be as pleasant and well-mannered as we have heard, yet we understand Earth is quite barbarous. Is that true?"

Zeke took a moment to compose a defense of his planet. "It seems to me that people here are no different, really. There is a wide range of personalities and egos that we have to learn to get along with. That was true here, even more so before the Rogue first attacked?"

The man nodded agreement.

"I know many fine, dedicated, and tolerant people on Earth. They are, I like to think, in the majority. However, a few seem to cause most of the problems. They incite anger among the rest. Though it may not be true here now, was that not the case in the past?"

The man nodded and asked, "Are we different from Earth? Here on Anyar?"

"I can only give you one view. My grandparents raised me with most of the same principles that are valued here. It is, I think, a difficult time on Earth. From the little history I know, I'm not certain how much better the past really was."

The group was a mixture of sexes, mostly about Reshen's age or older. He could see sympathy cast upon their faces. The Anyari were, on the whole, a culture with a healthy dose of empathy.

Wine was evidently a customary drink. They all drank the same thing as it was poured, in small quantities, from a small pitcher and not a bottle.

He was handed a menu to order from and a human server took their selections. The food was delivered within just a few minutes on automated carts. Reshen and the girls, and not any kind of server, removed the plates from the cart and passed them around. The person who'd taken their orders appeared from time to time, checking on them, socializing, and sometimes taking empty plates and cups.

The robotic help meshed seamlessly with the atmosphere. They did not contrast with the wooden decor and Zeke was becoming accustomed to having them around, moving silently in the background.

As the evening continued, Zeke remained the center of attention, answering many questions.

Reshen was at the end of the table, sitting across from N'arre, his sister.

"How are you doing?" she asked in a quiet tone Zeke could just hear.

"Better," Reshen replied. "It is getting easier. Sephen's induction into the academy, though..."

He paused, and N'arre answered, "It will be alright. We are here."

"I know," he said when she reached across the table to squeeze his hand.

The spoke of the increased needs for the metals and minerals that the mines produced. A high proportion of the residents of this city were engaged in industrial and similar occupations.

The evening ended and they returned to Sephen's home. Before they went to sleep, Zeke cautiously asked him about what he'd heard at the table.

Zeke could see the emotion on Sephen's face and he quickly apologized.

"No, it's OK," he responded. "My mother died a little over a year ago. Our doctors can cure or treat almost anything, but there are still a few..." and he stopped.

Zeke muttered an "I'm sorry," but otherwise kept silent to let Sephen speak.

"It was, of course, hard on us all, but it was especially hard on my father. Even with my sisters here, I know it was harder still when I left for the Academy. I've been gone for schooling and such for months at a time before, but this was different for him."

"I understand, I think, how hard it is for him, and for you."

Zeke talked about his grandparents and the guilt he felt about leaving. Sephen's life had been different in many ways, but they shared much more than he'd realized.

In the morning, they were up and out early. The stopped to get warm clothes and backpacks with food and water. Zeke assumed they'd go hiking or climbing, but it was to be more than that.

Sephen guided him to what looked like a railway station. In fact, it was complete with a dark, hissing steam engine and several enclosed cars. They were all fashioned somewhat differently than what Zeke had seen on Earth, but its purpose was unmistakable.

"A steam engine pulling a train?" he asked.

A broad grin lit up Sephen's face. "Why not?" he answered.

"'Why?' Is a better question. I will admit that it is pretty cool."

"Some things we do just for enjoyment, or for the feeling it gives us. Look, see the wooden ties? Notice any trees around here? This train and track were first used hundreds of years ago to haul ore and equipment. It was replaced long ago, but this is an industrial city. We could have abandoned it, but it is a source of pride. With the resources we have and robotic labor, it isn't that hard to maintain.

"To tell you the truth, robotic labor is used only when maintenance requires heavy lifting. Many are on the waiting list to be on the maintenance crew. My father was on the crew when I was young."

"Where is it taking us?"

"The line is long--almost a hundred klicks. The train goes to the end of the line, then comes back. I thought we'd take it part way and get off to hike a trail up the mountain. It's not too far. It's a place my father and I used to go and the view is worth the hike. OK?" he asked.

Zeke nodded and they boarded one of the cars. Evidently, no ticket was required. Sephen told him that they could access the train's schedule and current location through their comms.

"Hiking is a popular pastime and the train will let us off wherever we like. Then, later in the day, we'll hike back down and catch it coming back."

The cars were made mostly of wood, with padded bench seats. Zeke sat near the window with Sephen beside him. Soon they could hear a change in the engine. The conductor announced their impending departure.

The engine's familiar slow chugging accompanied the initial, slightly jerky, movements. As they pulled out of the station, Zeke looked back. The track and ties matched the color of the grasses. The landscape was barren; no trees were to be seen. The station, designed to blend with the terrain, was soon out of sight.

The track slanted upwards. The mountain range, ahead and above them, was pasted against a clear blue sky. At this elevation the path was straight, but Zeke could see that as they rose, it would follow the curves of the mountains. He asked Sephen how high the line went.

"Near the snowline at the end. We'll reach the snowline too, on our hike. Our gear, though, will keep us warm and comfortable."

To the left, Zeke could see the opposing mountain range, not quite as tall as the one they were traversing. A large valley, or it might be better to call it a small plain, separated them. The two ranges appeared to run parallel. Sephen confirmed that indeed, that was the case all the way to the ocean, and even then they extended out to form a string of islands.

The range they were on, Zeke finally thought to ask, was called the Miner's Boots, though the actual name was the Nallek range. The far range was called the Lady's Slippers.

In a half hour they'd risen far above the valley floor. Sephen pulled a cord near the seat and the train gradually slowed to a stop.

They hopped off at a trail marker. It was much cooler and Zeke followed Sephen's example, zipping closed the top of his garment and pulling up a hood. Inside, Sephen showed him, there was a flap to pull across his face.

They set off up the trail, which was little more than a path through the rocks. They were above the green line where grass and the few other plants ended. The terrain was rougher with ravines and ridges. Soon, they rounded a bend and followed the trail through a dip in a large ridge. On the other side, a large frozen lake was visible; the ridge acted as a dam to retain the water, which at this altitude was frozen most of the year.

The trail followed the shore of the lake and when they'd gone most of the way to the other side Zeke could see an opening that was man-made.

"That is an entrance to the internal tunnels," Sephen explained. "As remote as it looks out here, a few hundred meters and we'll find a tunnel. It isn't used much anymore, but farther on is a track that is used to haul equipment. Similar ones are used to transport ores. This area is rich in minerals that were lifted up when the range was thrust up."

"But," he added, "it is not nearly as much fun to come that way."

They had walked for an hour or two and Sephen sat on a large flat boulder, taking off his pack. He motioned to another nearby one and Zeke did the same.

"This is, I'm afraid, as close to 'roughing it' as it gets around here. There isn't much to see or do out on the plain. I used to come here, and other places along the range, with my dad. When I was older I'd come by myself or with friends. Sometimes we'd stay until night, or even bring a tent and spend the night. They are heated, so it is almost as comfortable as being back home," he said with a smile.

It was a stark vista, but the Lady's Slippers could be seen over the ridge, on the far side of the lake. Behind them, the mountain towered many thousands of feet above them.

"How far up the mountain have you been?" Zeke asked.

"Not very far. It gets rougher and more dangerous pretty quickly. I have been through the mountains in flitters. This area is pretty isolated, without much of a food chain and very few animals. Boring, I guess, but it's home."

They took off the warm, but thin, gloves and facial covering to eat. Zeke's hands soon became cold and he ate quickly so he could put the gloves back on.

Except for the washed-out green of the plains and the blue sky, the landscape could have passed for the moon. Sephen sat silently and looked out over the plain. Anyari, he noticed, had a tendency to sit silently. For a while, they just enjoyed the view and the silence.

"Do you like it here?" Sephen asked.

"It is strange, like no place I've ever been to---especially on Earth. Where I was from was more like the climate at the Academy. Being able to see so far is kind of... magnificent. Is it as amazing to you as it is to me, after having lived here most of your life?"

"Good question. I guess I'm used to it. Seeing Anyar from space, that was magnificent. This is more... familiar."

They spent a few more minutes before Sephen announced, "We can leave now and easily make it back to the trailhead before the train returns. They would wait for us if we were late, but that wouldn't be polite."

The trek back down the mountain seemed faster now that the trail was familiar. They got to the trail head a good half hour before the train and spent the time talking about what the future held aboard the Redun.

Zeke asked, "You brought your fighter here after graduation? What did your sisters think, and your father?"

"They were proud, as I'm sure you can understand. I think it eased some of my father's pain. You probably don't realize just how special it is. How incredibly lucky we are. They will be inducting more cadets, and it will be, I'm sure, more common. Is there an equivalent on Earth?"

"People who play on sports teams and musicians, they are the people who seem to be admired, or envied, most."

"It is different here. You are, of course, well-known because of your adventure with Danil. None of us anticipated the little bit of fame we seem to have found. Dev, Ereine, and I, maybe because of our attendance at the council meeting, and all the members of Zeta/Behrlende flight, are each well-known in our own towns and our association with you. My sisters, level-headed though they are, can't help but enjoy the notice they now receive."

Zeke shook his head, expressing his puzzlement, "I still can't grasp it all... can't quite believe it. Except for the few times I meet groups, like coming here, everything seems normal and I'm just another cadet... Well now, a lieutenant."

Soon they could hear the chugging of the train in the distance. They boarded and continued their conversation.

"We have communal, you might call them 'neighborhood', dinners frequently. Tonight is one, so you'll be on display again, I'm afraid. It will be nice, though, I hope. I have a lot of friends I haven't seen since before the Academy. Maybe a few girls that I can impress," he added with a wry smile.

"You've earned it, more than anyone knows. I think you'll deserve it even more, after our first mission."

They were soon back at the city. By design, it was difficult to make it out until they were close. They pulled back in through an opening, the entire train concealed in the large train chamber.

Within an hour, they had showered and were walking with the rest of Sephen's family to a large dining area. The girls were carrying dishes which, they explained, they had made themselves with minimal help from the house's automated staff. That was the custom.

They also warned him that some of those providing dishes were more accomplished than others, but good manners in this regard were highly appreciated.

"Usually!" Ni'lin emphasized with a laugh.

Their destination was a banquet hall. It was big enough for about a hundred people. The dishes everyone had prepared were lined up on tables like a pot-luck back home. They served themselves and Zeke, aware of the impression he'd make, took very small portions of every dish.

Everyone was, as always, polite and he received little extra attention until he'd finished his meal. By then, many had risen from their tables and were standing in groups talking. Both he and Sephen attracted large groups, perhaps with a slightly disproportionate percentage of young girls.

The conversations were something he'd grown accustomed to now. Everyone was so friendly that it did not become tiresome.

Ni'lin and Ni'nin stayed close to him, often with an arm intertwined with his. He wasn't sure if they were demonstrating some kind of ownership, or merely giving him moral support.

He looked over at Sephen. His groups appeared to be mostly young men and women his own age. He was animated when he spoke--comfortable among his friends, telling stories of his adventures. Watching filled Zeke with a warm feeling of camaraderie.

As before, everyone stayed in his group for a polite time, then moved on to allow the opportunity to others. He retold the same stories a couple of times, but the wonder in their eyes, especially the younger kids, was encouragement to continue.

He and Sephen remained until only a few were left. The last few accompanied them as they walked back to Sephen's home, where they said their goodnights. It had gotten late. Talking so long, with so many people, had been enjoyable, but tiring.

"What's up for tomorrow?" Zeke asked.

"I thought we'd just visit my favorite places around town and introduce you to some more of my friends. I'm sure there are a couple of girls waiting to be impressed. If not by you, then by me!"

The next day Sephen showed him around the city--the places he'd played and explored as a child. With machines to keep an eye on everyone, even the remote grottoes were safe, even for children. All the children of Kilen had a vast underground area to explore---tens of miles of abandoned tunnels.

"Do you ever have privacy? Are machines always keeping an eye on you?" Zeke asked. "Right now, I assume a machine is aware of our location, right?"

"I guess we don't consider what a machine knows about us, even an MI, to be at odds with our privacy. They will share info about us only if we're doing something illegal, or we need help. I suppose there is a trade-off. If we were oppressed or limited in any way, then we would mind; otherwise, the benefits far outweigh any negatives. In fact, I guess I would say we don't really see any negatives."

"Everyone feels that way?"

"I wouldn't say everyone. In my experience, most of the few who do mind have other emotional problems. It is something we studied in school. Generations ago, a conscious decision was made to accept robots, MI's in particular. Though that acceptance has limits.

"If there is some kind of conspiracy, a secret ruling class, that tracks us through the machines, then I see no signs of it. I can't tell, and I can't find any limitations imposed on us."

Zeke was quiet as he absorbed this.

"It is so much different. Where I'm from, independence is a highly valued trait."

"We could use a little more of that. But, except for the ability to do harm undetected, I think we view the machines like a safety belt, not something that restricts us, except when needed."

The day passed quickly and Zeke met many more people. Sephen told him that Kilen had as diverse a population as anywhere on Anyar. He couldn't see any racial or ethnic differences. Some of the accents he heard varied from what he'd grown accustomed to, but though the pronunciations were a little different, everyone was easy to understand.

Late in the afternoon, they headed back to Sephen's home. They spent the evening playing a few Anyari games. These were more like the parlor games he'd played. They assumed a lot of knowledge Zeke didn't have and it took a few tries to find something he could participate in with comfort.

The next day was left open. Sephen and the girls listed a number of things they could do, letting Zeke choose. In the morning they visited a zoo and aquarium. Although the aquarium was large and had a large number of different species, the zoo was smaller than he'd expected. Zeke talked about the tremendous number of land species on Earth. Evidently the Anyari biosphere on land was much simpler.

The afternoon found them in two museums, one with paintings and sculpture, the other with historical items from Kilen's past. The girls took turns explaining the use of the different machines and their histories. Zeke was surprised with the knowledge the girls possessed and commented on it.

"Father is a mining engineer, a very common occupation here. Sephen's run off to space so it is up to us to continue the family tradition," they said with smiles. "It might be a little unusual for two daughters to follow in their father's career, but not much. Mother was an engineer, too."

After an uncomfortable quiet they perked up again to talk about their destination for the night, a play presented at the local theater.

The auditorium was the largest room Zeke had seen on Anyar. It held about five hundred people. Zeke had not been at such a large gathering since his arrival. He was recognized quickly, as was Sephen. As they waited in the lobby before going in, many people came up with a few kind or grateful words.

The doors opened and they took their seats. The large room was ornate, not unlike some he'd seen on Earth, with seating on the sides, a balcony above, and a few unoccupied boxes along the sides.

The play was well-done, with a plot similar to Romeo and Juliet--two lovers from feuding families. The plot contained many twists: jealous suitors, scheming relatives, and surprise revelations. The ending, though, was not Shakespeare's tragic one.

As they left, Zeke told them about the Earth version and how old the story was.

Ni'lin explained, "Not all our stories have happy endings, but with the current situation, that's what I prefer."

They would need to leave early the next morning, so they could be in Kanelin for the flight back up to the Redun. Zeke sensed a growing quietness in Sephen.

In the morning, they shared a somber breakfast, then the family walked with them to the tube station. Reshen's mood was somber, his eyes moist. When they reached the station, he took a visibly deep breath and shook Zeke's hand.

"I know you and Sephen have an important job to do. That does not make it easier, you understand?" he said gently. "No, I don't think the young ever do, how hard it is to see your children leave, to be exposed to danger."

"I don't know," Zeke answered. "Perhaps not, I did not realize how close I was to my family until I left. It will be a long time before I see them again, if ever. That does not make it any easier, but you are not alone."

The two girls, who had been happy and teased him throughout his visit, were quiet now. Sephen embraced his father. The son was as tall with only a slightly lighter build. The girls hugged Zeke politely, then hugged Sephen, burying their faces in his shoulder.

Zeke entered the waiting car and waited for Sephen, who entered a few moments later, tears streaming down his face.

"I'm sorry," he said, wiping his eyes with the sleeve of his shirt.

"You will be back, and I'll come with you. We will have stories to tell."