Chapter 18 (part 1 of 3)

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Primary Jagget took a quick survey of the room at the inn, as if he were checking to be sure he didn't leave something when he departed. "We must hurry," he said. "Are you ready to go?"

"Five minutes," Veriasse answered. "When we jump out of the gate, we will be on Dronon. Everynne should be dressed appropriately."

"A couple more minutes, then," Primary Jagget said. "But hurry. Time is of the essence."

Everyone left the room but Veriasse and Everynne. Veriasse opened his pack, unfolded Everynne's golden attire. The metallic robe was made of a flowing material that felt cool, almost watery under his touch. It had an odd sheen to it and was peculiarly heavy, as if it were actually made of microscopic ringlets of pure gold.

Veriasse let his fingers play over the robe. It seemed somehow appropriate that Everynne should wear it this day. She truly was golden, the human equivalent of the dronon's great queen. He had seen it in people's eyes a thousand times: they would look at Everynne and respond with adoration. And though there were physiological reasons for their devotion, something in his bones whispered to Veriasse that mere science could not explain Everynne's power over him. Everynne was sublime. Some said that she was perfect in figure, that the proportions of each bone in her body were designed to conform to some racial dream, an image of perfection shared by all. Others claimed that it was only a combination of scents that she exuded, a carefully selected range of pheromones that turned men into mindless creatures, willing to sacrifice themselves at her feet.

But Everynne's beauty seemed to him to be more than perfect. When she touched him, he shivered in ecstasy. When she spoke, something in her voice demanded attention, so that the softest words whispered in a noisy room would hold him riveted. Everynne transcended the hopes of the scientists who had created her, and in his weaker moments, Veriasse would have admitted that he believed she was supernatural. There was something mystical in the way she moved him, something holy in the way she could transform a man.

And so, today she would wear gold, an appropriate color for the last Tharrin alive on the conquered worlds, the sole child of a race dead in this sector of the galaxy. When all was ready, he left the room. Everynne dressed quickly in her golden robes, boots, and gloves, then put on her mantle of golden ringlets. Though she was a woman, and fully as beautiful as any of her previous incarnations, Veriasse looked at her and thought that there was something special about this incarnation of Semarritte. Perhaps it was only her youthfulness. By having been force grown in the vats, she had attained the appearance of being twenty years old by the time she was two. Perhaps that was part of it: there was an innocence, a freshness to this incarnation that had been missing in the previous generations.

When she finished dressing, she sat on her bed and smiled up at Veriasse, weakly, her face pale with fear. But for her expression, she looked the part of a queen. He said, "You look wonderful. You look radiant. Are you afraid?"

Everynne nodded. Veriasse himself had great doubts about this plan. "You will do well today, my love," Veriasse assured her. "Never has there been a woman more worthy to represent the human species in such a contest. I can only hope that I shall be as worthy.

Everynne took his hand, looked into his eyes. "I trust you," she said. "If your devotion for me can grant you power, then I know you cannot be beaten today."

Veriasse kissed her hand, then they went outside to meet the others. Gallen, Orick, Maggie, and Jagget sat in front of the inn, straddling their airbikes. Far to the south, Veriasse heard a dim concussion, the sound of heavy artillery.

"Hurry," Primary Jagget whispered. "Every minute is costing the lives of my men."

Veriasse hopped on his bike, and Everynne climbed aboard hers. She was shaking, unsettled, and Veriasse would have reassured her, but she twisted the handlebars, revving her thrusters, and the rest of the group was forced to hurry to catch her.

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