Beth breaks through the surface of water and crawls to the pond’s edge. The old man is near the fire. He is heating a beverage Beth knows well. A Dalygaran infusion, like the one Fragrant Flower from Isadora Plain used to make.
– You didn’t wake me, he reproaches her.
– I needed to go swimming.
– You call that swimming, the splashes you did in the water?
– I wanted to see the moonfish.
– You’re from North and you know what moonfish are?
– I didn’t say it was the first time I came here. I saw red ones.
– Of course you did. The silver ones are rare… But, your clothes, they are dry?
– Yes, state-of-the-art military clothes. Well, a prototype. They’re not going to come out too soon.
– So, that’s it. You’re a tester, for the military task force.
– Er, you could say that. Have you had breakfast?
– Not yet. I was heating the morning infusion. Sit beside me.
– With pleasure. I didn’t thank you for accepting to help me. I don’t even know your name.
– Oh, young man, I’m always glad to shake up my routine a bit. My name is not important. Here people call me the Hermit.
– The Hermit? Do you want me to call you the Hermit?
– It will be “Sir” to you.
Beth smiles again.
– Yes, Sir.
They take their breakfast in silence: some bread and a few berries.
– We have a day’s march until our next camp.
– Our next camp?
– Yes. We’ll be at the foot of Laurina Mountain by this evening. You’ll find the morning star halfway up the slope.
Beth thinks of abandoning the old man there, now that she knows where to find the plant. She hesitates. A Hermit who seems to appreciate company—her company. She thinks it only fair to give him these moments, moments that he will remember but once. He told her they had found it together. She should go with him to the Laurina Mountain, to find the morning star.
– We’ll eat in my shelter in the forest, he adds.
On foot, the way from the edge of the pond to the forest that Beth knows well is actually very long.
– My hut isn’t very far now. You’re looking tired, young man.
It is true that Beth had thus far never walked so much with this body. She ran, jumped, avoided pendula, traveled through space and time, and battled against two ugly masked men, yet a simple walk is what gives her the most trouble. She feels herself weakening. Never had she put this body through such continuous effort. She feels a need for “fuel”.
– You’re right, she answers. I have to eat a little bit.
– Look. There it is.
Beth sees a wonder of a wooden hut.
– Did you build this yourself?
– Who else could it be?
He bids her to come in.
– Sit down. I’ll bring you straightaway something to nibble on.
It is rather a full meal the Hermit offers Beth. She recognizes with pleasure the Dalygaran flavours she discovered at her hosts’.
– Don’t eat so fast, young man.
– It’s so good, Sir.
– Well, it’ll be good even longer if you eat more slowly.
Once more Beth smiles. Fragrant Flower from Isadora Plain could have said this sentence as well. The meal is bringing back so many memories of her. Maybe Mira was right: never will she be able to go back to a normal life. Two lives. How many humans have this sort of opportunity?
There is a scratching sound on the door. The old man stands up and goes to open it.
– What’s happened to you, eh?
He is addressing a cat, a Dalygaran cat of course, and the cat is bleeding copiously from its right front leg.
– Let me see, demands Beth. Ouch, it’s a really bad injury. All this needs to heal up. Wait for me a moment.
The old man has no time to reply, Beth is already outside and dematerializes to return to the bushes she had located when she was there three months in the future. There it is. Star Shining in the Vastness of the Universe had shown her this plant that’s used to clean wounds and facilitate scar tissue production. It produces an effective sap, he told her. “You’ve got to crumple some leaves in your hands to extract the sap and then apply it to the wound. Then, put a bigger leaf over it and hold it in place. Here, I’ll show you what you can make strips with.” And he pointed out another group of plants with long semi-stiff leaves. “Look, tear it from the top and get a supple strip you can use to fasten whatever you want.”
She does not have to look too long to find some. These plants are almost everywhere.
With all these samples she returns to the old man’s hut. He had begun to clean the wound with clear water while she was away.
– Oh, I see you have some botanic knowledge. I don’t know where you went to get these, but if you had asked me before you disappeared, I would have sent you behind the house.
Beth is a bit embarrassed. But she badly needed to use her body, to scratch an itch as it were, so she took any available pretext to dematerialize and rematerialize.
– Oh, I feel so stupid.
– I can see that. Give me your plants. I’ll use them as they’re here now. I have to make the psychic bond with the cat, so it can feel my caring and won’t move. This is the only way to treat a cat.
Earthling cats should learn about this, thinks Beth.
The old man makes a dressing for his cat, and then takes it to a little basket, which Beth guesses is its assigned place. The basket is lined with a comfortable-looking cushion.
The cat lets itself be pampered.
– He goes to sleep. When the effect of the plant takes hold of such a small animal, it becomes drowsy. As for us, we need to get ready to go. I always have a couple of bags ready for my nightly escapades, just in case.
He heads to the other end of the room, and comes back with the bags in his hands.
– Here is mine, he says, putting it on his shoulder, and here is yours.
He gives her an identical bag.
– Let’s go.
They soon arrive at the viewpoint Star Shining in the Vastness of the Universe once showed her.
– Here is Laurina Mountain. The path leading to it isn’t direct unfortunately. We’ll stop a few times before nightfall.
The old man was right: they walk and walk, and Beth has the feeling the mountain is still as far away as when they had started. But, little by little they get closer.
As the light fades, the old man decides to stop.
– We’ll camp here.
Beth and he hear a crackle in the woods.
– Who is it? asks the old man.
– I can feel your presence, says Beth. Show yourself. Don’t force me to come and search you out.
The old man looks at Beth with surprise. The tone she employed was not ambiguous at all, from a Dalygaran point of view. The threat is clear in the voice and the determination can be felt.
Some more crackles can be heard and soon a young Dalygaran girl in military clothes appears. Beth can’t avoid a yell of surprise. The girl’s overalls look strangely like hers. But more intriguing, she is the spitting image of Fragrant Flower from Isadora Plain.
– Who are you? asks the old man.
– Moon Crystal
– You’re kidding me. This is Moon Crystal, says the old man pointing to Beth, who turns to him.
– May I speak with her alone? She is of my unit…
– You’re both from a testing unit?
– I am sorry. But it’s complicated. Very complicated.
– You don’t want to tell me anything, right?
Beth leads the girl away to a more remote area.
– He lets you go just like that, not a word?
– He prefers I say nothing rather than tell fibs. Who are you?
– I… I told you. And I shouldn’t have.
– Moon Crystal?
– Yes. That’s who I am. But not… like you.
– What do you mean, not like me?
– Your name isn’t Moon Crystal.
– I know that, but how do you…? Do we know each other? In the future…
– I’m not allowed to answer.
– Listen my girl, you’re the spitting image of Fragrant Flower from Isadora Plain. Is she your mother?
– I’m not supposed to give you this kind of information.
– Oh, come on. It’s obvious you’re close relatives. Daughter or granddaughter?
– … impossible, I know.
– They’ve called you Moon Crystal at least.
– It’s a hero’s name.
– It’s a man’s name.
– Sorry? It’s a name, just a name. You once told me that on Earth, there’re name for boys and name for girls. On Dalygaran, a name is a parent’s decision. No gender is associated with it.
– Do you mean your mother could have been called Star Shining in the Vastness of the Universe?
– Yes, and my father could have been named Fragrant Flower of Isadora Plain, if his parents saw that in him at his birth.
– You’re not in a travel body…
– This isn’t a military expedition but an archeological one. I came with a transporter. We’re restoring the lost data from around this era.
– You’re wearing a uniform though; those are military overalls…
– It is compulsory when piloting a transporter.
– You’re a pilot?
– Listen heartm…
– I can’t talk about this.
– What is heartm…?
– Oh, yes, heartmother. Father told me once, that on Earth, the closer appellation is godmother. On Dalygaran, parents could choose to widen the family circle by choosing people they trust as heartparents. It’s a mark of great esteem and confidence.
– Oh… I’m honored
– Heartmother, I shouldn’t be here. I never should have succumbed to the temptation.
– Which is?
– To see you find the morning star. I was forbidden to try to find you. They trusted me. You’ll tell nobody, will you?
– If you’re here, it means I never talked about this, doesn’t it?
– You’re right.
– You look beautiful, she tells Moon Crystal.
– You’re impressive too in the… in this man’s body. I beg you, don’t ask me questions anymore.
Beth can feel the distress of her heartdaughter and so stops asking questions.
– You need to go to another time-space and quickly. The old man has to forget you. Is your transporter far from here?
– No. I just missed the landing a little bit. I damaged a tree.
– It was your landing we heard?
– Yes, we try to miniaturize our transporter as much as possible and to arrange as best we can the equipment inside. But it forces us to modify the security protocol. Until we get it right, we need to try to materialize in a clear area. I missed the clearing. It’s very close to here.
-Ok, ok. Go quickly back to your transporter and change the era. As long as I’m here, I don’t want to see you again, understood?
– Off you go now. Hurry up.
Moon Crystal goes off, leaving Beth alone to absorb the new revelation.
She is so happy. This meeting has lifted her spirit.
“I’m part of the family. Oh my god, I’m part of the family,” she says to herself, as she comes back to the camp.
– Where have you been? asks the old man irritated.
– I heard a noise, and I went to see what it was.
– I didn’t hear anything.
– I didn’t find anything.
– You might have dreamt.
– You’re certainly right.
– Let’s eat, and then we’ll sleep. Tomorrow we’ll seek out the morning star.
The meal is prepared and polished off quickly. Beth and the old man fall asleep rapidly. In the morning he awakens her.
– Breakfast is ready, he says proudly, happy to have been the first to wake up this time.
Morning infusion, bread and berries on the menu.
Beth takes a look at the mountain while chewing.
– We should find the first flowers halfway up the slope. We’ll go as soon as we’re finished with breakfast. If we hurry a bit, you’ll be able to see a few before they close up.
– I’m done. Are you?
– You’re something different today. You’re…
– … happy. Yes, I slept fabulously, maybe the best sleep I’ve had in many nights; and the morning star is at hand.
– We still have to walk quite some time, young man.
– What are we waiting for?
– Oh, I can feel such impatience in you. Let’s go then.
Beth and the old man go on their way. And once more he was right. There is so much walking still to do. Beth, now virtually seething with impatience, almost runs.
– Young man, if you want me to show you the morning star, you’d better slow down so I can keep up with you.
– I’m sorry.
They go on in silence for a while. Then the old man points his index finger in a forward direction.
– Look over there. There’s one.
Beth has to hold herself back from dematerializing to go to pick the flower immediately. She waits for the old man instead. When he reaches the plant, he says with a hint of emotion in his voice:
– This is it. Look how beautiful it is. You’re lucky, it’s just starting to close. You can still see the star shape inside.
Beth brings the temporal conservation tube out of her pocket.
– What is that?
– A tube to store the sample.
– It looks special.
– Yes, it is.
– So, we just have to go back now. We’re too far from my shelter, but we have enough food to last until tomorrow.
– I thank you, Sir. Thank you very much for your help. But I have to go back quickly now.
– And you don’t want to burden yourself with an old man, now that you have what you want…
– This sample is very important and long awaited. I give you my word.
– I can… I can feel the urgency of the situation. Young man, you didn’t show me anything till now. You seem to have a surprisingly good command of your psyche for someone so young. But what I can feel now from you really frightens me…
– I’m so sorry. I can’t say anything. Except, again, thank you. Thank you very much. I have to go now.
– Will you find your way?
– Yes, I promise.
And Beth starts to hurtle down the mountain, dropping her bag in some bushes where the old man won’t find it again… She dematerializes before she is out of the old man’s sight. She rematerializes at the Great Waterfall viewpoint. She searches in her pocket for her tablet. She has to know the exact spatiotemporal coordinates to go back. Her time of departure is recorded. The difference with the actual time is displayed.
Beth chooses to go back to just a few seconds after she left. She gives the time indications to the regulator with her thought and takes measures to rematerialize at the right place.