– Are you ready? asks Sylvester.
– No, I’m terrified, answers Beth.
– You’ll come through very well. I have confidence in you.
– David’s right, Beth. It’s going to be ok, adds Sylvester.
– But I hate giving speeches. And this celebration in my honor, is it really necessary?
– You saved the life of so many people. All of Dalygaran is grateful to you. It’s natural, answers the Major.
– Giving a speech isn’t natural, she protests.
Paul enters the room and announces,
– I’ve just had Star Shining in the Vastness of the Universe on the communicator. He’s waiting for you. The two bodies are ready. The travel pills are of two times twelve Earthling hours, this time. You swallow one, and it’ll be like taking two: the second phase will be delivered by the nanites after an interval of 12 hours. Beth, do you know how the travel pills work?
– Meaning what?
– As soon as the mind leaves the body, the latter’s vital functions slow down. They’ll regain their normal rhythm when the mind comes back. That way, a 12-hour travel is equivalent to the activity of a little more than one hour for your body. Last time, when you went away and came back using almost all your time, you might have felt a numbness on waking.
– That’s true.
– If you choose to use your 24 hours this time, don’t try to get up right away. A slowing down over a longer period has more lasting effects. You’ll be weak for about ten to fifteen minutes. You’ll have to be patient. Everything’ll be back to normal little by little. David, I assume you know all of this.
– We’ve set up a light monitoring to be sure everything is going well during your travel.
Paul heads toward the room from which Beth went away for her first travel in time. Two berths are aligned with a strange little lamppost on each side. Pointing to them Paul says,
– These are our analyzers. We’ll receive data on our tablets. David, Beth, here are your travel pills. We’ll send you a signal at 6, 12, 18 and 23.5 hours if you’re still not back. If you receive several close signals, this is an emergency recall—come back as quickly as possible. By the way, the last call will be an emergency call. Take your places now.
Sylvester holds out a couple of glasses of water to the travellers, who swallow their pills immediately but squabble instead of lying down.
– You let me have my body this time, don’t forget it, says the Major.
– We’ll see who is faster between us.
– You leave me my body. You inaugurate yours today.
– You know, it can happen I’m very clumsy.
Sylvester interrupts them.
– Could you just consider hushing, lying down, and shutting your eyes? Thank you.
The Major and Beth comply, a smile on their lips. It doesn’t take much time for their minds to be freed.
A few moments later they are in the disembarkation room. Star Shining in the Vastness of the Universe is there, waiting for them.
– Beth, I told you to leave me my body!
– What.. I …
– You’re really impossible. Everybody will confuse one for the other now. I’ll have to explain that a little Earthling birdbrain found it funny to exchange our places. It’s going to be bloody hell.
Star Shining in the Vastness of the Universe looks at them bemused.
– Major, you’re in the female body?
– Yes, I asked her not to do it.
Star Shining in the Vastness of the Universe remains silent for a moment. He seems to be thinking. Then he speaks,
– I see. But this language, “little Earthling birdbrain”…
– Oh, if you could only see your face. It’s not the Major, it’s me, Beth, she says bursting out laughing.
– Hold on, hold on. I want to be sure of who is who. You there, the man body, you still have the revelator on your wrist. Push the round button, please.
– She’s going to be surprised. She’s unaware…
– Well, yes, she will be, answers Star Shining in the Vastness of the Universe, but just to be sure…
– I’m right…
– Beth, interrupts the Major. Now you cast doubts in our friend’s mind, I’ll have to push on this button for him to see who I am. And this is really who I am.
The Major pushes the round button and Beth lets a shout out.
– Bloody hell, that’s you, your Dalygaran self with your Earthling clothes.
– That’s who I am—a Dalygaran on Earth…
The door opens suddenly.
– Ah, here is my s…
The Supreme Commander stops and looks at the Major with big eyes, without saying a word. The Major pushes the triangular button to take his initial shape.
– What’s this?
– A revelator, Father.
– Father? asks Beth.
– A revelator? asks the Supreme Commander.
– The Supreme Commander is your father?
– Major Moon Crystal is my son.
– The revelator had been given to Beth by Frigellyans for her to appear in her Earthling shape while in her Dalygaran travel body. It shows the real nature of the being using the body.
– I would like to see you again, my son.
And the Major pushes on the round button again.
– That’s extraordinary, whispers the father. These clothes are strange. Is this how people dress on Earth?
– Yes, Father.
– Oh, but I’m so impolite. I didn’t greet anyone.
– Supreme Commander, it’s quiet understandable.
– Star Shining in the Vastness of the Universe, my boy, I thank you for your understanding. Could you please go and stall the public?
– Yes, Sir.
Star Shining in the Vastness of the Universe leaves the disembarkation room quite puzzled.
– Father, could I…
– Yes my son, I’m sorry. You don’t exist anymore in this shape. You can show yourself in your travel body again. And so, here you are young lady. Come here both of you.
The Supreme Commander opens his arms wide to hug his son and Beth in a single embrace. Beth hesitates. The Major holds out his hand to make her come closer. And they stand, all three, in a silent embrace.
– Don’t be embarrassed, young lady. You’re not used to our Dalygaran customs. But my son told me you’re both bound to each other. And this embrace represents the parents’ approval. This is usually between four people, but my wife is no more of this world.
– I’m… I’m sorry. I didn’t know. Well, about the embrace. Your son told me about your wife. He…
– Beth, everything’s fine. You don’t need to apologize, nor to give any explanation. We can feel what you feel, remember. There’s nothing to add. It’s only a welcome ritual.
– Please, Supreme Commander, can we do it again?
– Come on Beth…
– I wasn’t ready. Your father welcomed me and I almost rejected him. I want to welcome him too.
– Young lady, a first contact can’t end with such frustration from you. So let’s do it again.
This time it is the Major who hesitates, and Beth who holds out her hand to make him come closer. After the embrace, the Supreme Commander says,
– Young lady, thank you for what you just gave to my son and me. You’ll have to call me “Father” now.
Beth turns to the Major.
– Dalygaran? she asks him.
– Dalygaran, he answers.
– Father, how about giving Star shining in the Vastness of the Universe assistance?
I have a speech to give.
– My child, your entrance arm in arm with me and my son beside you will cause a stir.
– It’s, in a sense, the official announcement of our relations, clarifies the Major.
– Does everybody need to be aware of it?
– Dalygaran, yes. Happiness has to be shared. But not all parents give the embrace so quickly. If I had known it would happen today, I’d have warned you.
– I preferred to make it a surprise my son. And I am not disappointed. Young lady, take my arm. Let’s go and meet the crowd.
It is on the Supreme Commander’s arm, him to her right and the Major to her left, that Beth arrives on the same terrace where she gave her first speech, the day of her accidental arrival. The crowd is laughing.
– … so she said to me, “The Major asked me not to damage this body.” And I answered, “Oh, you’re now doing what you’re expected to?”
Star Shining in the Vastness of the Universe suddenly freezes. The crowd has hushed. He turns around and opens his eyes wide as he sees the trio heading toward him. When she is next to him, Beth whispers in his ear,
– We’ll have to talk, us two.
– We’ll have to talk too, adds the Major in a low voice.
Beth looks at him and quietly with satisfaction in her voice she says,
– Oh, Earthling…
– Human, retorts the Major with a smile.
– My children, protests the Supreme Commander in a low voice.
Then he addresses the public,
– Ladies and gentlemen; let me introduce you to the two persons who accompany me: my son, Major Moon Crystal, and his partner, the Earthling Beth in her new travel body.
The crowd murmurs. The Supreme Commander goes on.
– You’re not ignoring the fact, I hope, that the Earthling Beth spared our people many sorrows by bringing from the past the morning star. We invited her here today, to hold a party in her honor. Before the festivities begin, she’s going to say a few words. Beth, you have the floor.
– Thank you Supr.. er, Father.
Beth can’t believe what she’s just said. She goes on,
– When I arrived on Dalygaran the first time, I came without a body. I didn’t know it was possible to travel another way.
Murmurs in the crowd.
– And the first person I met was this man who made you laugh so much. He received me and took me into his home with his wife. They gave me the warmth I needed as I was far away from home, stuck in an unknown world. The man here (she points to the Major) is the second person I met. And that day, he stormed out of the room, slamming the door behind him. Our relations have warmed up since.
Small laughs in the crowd.
– I learned so much here: how to ride a horse, how to swim, even how to fight. I learned how to recognize some of your plants, too. But above all, I’ve learned, and I still learn, thanks to the travel body, what it means to be Dalygaran. In my world, empathy is not of the same kind. We can figure out, guess, or imagine. But we can’t feel like you do here. What you’re able to give to each other through this ability is priceless. In this body, I’m one of you, and the more time I spend in it, the more these abilities become mine, even on Earth, in my human body. This is a real gift, and I thank you so much for it.
Beth hushes for a few moments. The crowd remains silent. Beth can feel their expectation, so she goes on,
– When I went away to seek out the morning star, I never traveled in time in my all life. I had some… issues with it, but I succeeded in finding help to better master this kind of travel. When I arrived in the Dalygaran of 500 gold rings ago, again someone helped me. An old man who never gave me his name. Well, he said he was called the Hermit.
Suddenly a hubbub runs through the crowd. Beth turns toward the Major with a questioning look. He nods, inviting her to go on.
– The Hermit took me to the morning star. I wouldn’t have found it without him. He’s the one who saved you all, even if he will never know. So I dedicate this day of festivities you honor me with to him. I’m very happy to see you all in good health. But I always have a thought to those who are missing.
Beth hushes anew. The Major and the Supreme Commander who stood in the background come to stand by her, one on her right, the other on her left. Then one after another, people put their right fist on their left shoulder.
– Dalygaran, whispers the Major. It’s a thank-you. You should answer by putting your left fist to your right shoulder.
Beth complies and the applause begins.
After a while, the Supreme Commander raises his hand to ask for silence.
– My dear friends, let’s get the festivities started!
A clamorous joy greets the Supreme Commander’s words, and the crowd scatters in the nearby streets. The trio linger a moment, motionless. Then the Major takes Beth by the arm and leads her inside. His father follows them.
– Beth, when you told the Smiths and me about your quest for the morning star, you spoke of an old man. You now say, it was the Hermit?
– It’s what he told me.
– The Hermit?
– Are you sure?
– Yes, I am. What’s going on?
– My child you’ve just brought a legend into the side of reality. And this legend says that a man known under the name of the Hermit arrived one day at the medical research center with the morning star in hand insisting that that plant be meticulously analyzed because it had to hold the key to cure a terrible disease. According to this legend, this man was one of our planet’s greatest specialists in the field of Botany at the time. He had dedicated his life to analyzing plants’ medicinal properties and had never imagined life other than the one he spent among his plants. That’s where his name, the Hermit, came from. He was known as a rather affable person. Thanks to his work with plants, he was widely trusted. He wasn’t able to say why he thought the morning star concealed an important cure inside itself; it was just something he could deeply feel. And here, feelings are not to be doubted. What we know for sure is that researchers from that time analyzed the morning star, and stored the results coupled with a note. Some hundred gold rings later, when the twin epidemic as the one we lived here a few months ago started, this note saved us valuable time. Not knowing where to begin, researchers began with this. And the morning star really contained the element that helped stopping the pathogen.
– Beth, you hadn’t talked of the future with him… the Hermit?
– No, of course not. But I… Well, for a moment, I released my mind. I had this picture of thousands of dead people in my head, and I let the emotion go. I felt in a hurry to act, and I rushed as quickly as possible. Just before I vanished, the Hermit told me something like, “Young man, you seem to have a surprisingly good command of your psyche. But what I can feel from you now really frightens me.”
– Beth, he received your emotions and it was so strong that something remained in his memory after you left. He made the link with the plant. Do you know what that means?
– I did something wrong?
– You saved the planet twice. Since the beginning it was you. It always has been you. This link between the epidemic and the morning star…
– Your decision was the right one my son.
The Major turns to Beth.
– My father analyzed your memory, as I did.
– He knows then.
– Yes, I know. And today, I even know that it was a decision already written in the past. We exist because thanks to you our ancestors survived the first epidemic. My son, you only protected the continuum. It’s part of your job after all.
– I don’t want to appear rude, but I don’t understand anything here…
– The main role of a Chief Commander on Dalygaran is to be the time continuum keeper. And that’s my title here. I am the guarantor of the past and the future. If I wouldn’t have allowed you to go back to Earth, your travel body would have become yours and would never have been modified for you if you were not authorized to get off this planet. The one you’re inside today was very far from being ready. Nobody would have been able to go and bring back the morning star. Furthermore, we really couldn’t send a classical transporter. It wouldn’t have been possible to be sure it was a hundred percent decontaminated because of its size. Having let you go back to Earth was the only way to have a second potential pilot for a body well set in time, if something happened to me. And it did. If we exist today, it’s because our ancestors survived the first epidemic and they survived the fist epidemic because you unwillingly implanted this idea in the Hermit’s mind. We wouldn’t have paid attention to the morning star without this. This plant had almost disappeared when the epidemic started. Thanks to you and the Hermit, all its biology was recorded, and with the help of our calculators we were able to find the molecule we were searching for. These data and many others from that period were damaged as time went by. My decision allowed this past to happen; I couldn’t have made another one for I was already existing.
– This is a very complicated story.
– I know. As you stop watching time like a straight line and you begin to take in consideration all the possible interweaving, it becomes complicated. Very complicated.
– On this last point, I strongly agree with you, answers Beth. But if I understood all this correctly, you’re the real hero.
– I think you’re perfect in this role. We’re going to keep the version I’ve defended in front of the Great Council. A wise man already recommended it to me once. I had, without knowing it, prevented the Great Council from committing a great mistake. It’s pointless to put them in an embarrassing situation.
– Dalygaran? asks Beth.
– Dalygaran, answers the Major.
– My son, the wise man thanks you. But now we mustn’t delay this project of past data recovery any longer. The loss of the morning star’s had already put the planet in great danger…
– Your son and I, we’ll have to explore the past to collect these data, won’t we?
– Yes, my child. Since we noticed the missing data between 400 and 500 gold rings before our era, we never stopped working with the aim of getting them back. The two bodies you’re inside will allow us to start a reconnaissance mission to later be able to discreetly send other teams with transporters. Travels will be frequent and we have to do all that we’re able to not be noticed. As you know it now with the Hermit’s case, young lady, even if people forget the time travellers, some things may remain in their memory. It’s why we have to absolutely limit direct contacts.
– I understand.
– But enough talking now. Let’s go and join the festivities.