Diversion on Raziel

01

Sgt Kori Eldersun sat in one of the hard plastic chairs outside Lieutenant Colonel Harris’s office, his mind focused. In his left hand, he held the end of an errant thread. He pulled on it to create just enough tension that the blade of his pocket knife sliced cleanly through, close to the seam from which the thread had foolishly exposed itself.

Satisfied with the completion of the task, Sgt Eldersun folded the clip blade back into the body of the knife. There’d been a series of initials embossed on the side. Not his initials but those of the planet and orphanage where he’d come of age. In the right light, the initials were barely visible. He’d been told that when he couldn’t see them anymore, that was when he should request a new pocket knife.

Kori wasn’t sure he wanted to give up this knife. New was all right, but he’d had this one since the day he turned sixteen. Every Hospitaller had one. No matter where a person was in the second radial arm of the galaxy, if they met a Hospitaller and asked them to empty their pockets, they’d find a pocket knife. Except for the initials of planet and orphanage, they were all the same.

It was one of the little things that bound all Hospitallers together. Not just that they were all orphans, or that they’d trained together since the age of ten. But that they were one radial-arm-wide family. If ever a Hospitaller needed shelter on a strange planet, any orphanage in the Hospitaller system would welcome them with open arms, a meal, and a cot. And if they stayed long enough, a company of orphans, future soldiers of the Orphan Corps, might just harangue the guest for stories.

“Planet Glooscap to Sgt Eldersun.”

“What?” Kori sat up, sliding his pocket knife away. “Sorry?”

Cpl Russell chuckled and then pointed with a thumb toward the door behind his right shoulder. “The lieutenant colonel will see you, Sergeant.”

“Right.” Kori stood and brushed down the front of his gray duty uniform. “Thanks, Cpl Russell.”

“Anytime, Sarge.”

With a nod to Cpl Russell, Kori marched to the door. He knocked on it and then entered.

The company commander, LtCol Harris, sat behind his desk. His eyes seemed to track Kori as he took four steps across the floor, stopping on a worn spot on the floor. His heels tapped together and then he performed a solid right face, touching his heels together once more as he finished his turn.

“Sgt Eldersun reporting, LtCol Harris.”

“Eldersun,” LtCol Harris said with a nod. “Grab a chair, Sergeant.”

Kori turned and grabbed a chair. There was a slight pause in his motions as he got a glimpse of the wall behind the chair. Two hundred and fourteen names were etched into the wall. Ten were fresh, Kori could smell the dust and solvent from the work. He also knew the ten names by heart.

This office, like every office of every commanding officer across the Hospitaller’s Orphan Corps, had one wall where the names of the dead were carved. The commander’s desk always faced that wall, lest they forget the price of leadership.

Some walls only had a few names. Others, from some of the original companies formed almost two and a half centuries ago, had hundreds of names on them. The walkway into Hospitaller HQ had slabs for each year with all the names of those who died that year. Two hundred forty slabs carved with thousands of names. And the three years where no one had been lost, the slabs had been substituted with benches, places to rest. Kori had only seen it in Orphan Corps history books. Even then it had been powerful.

“You holding up okay, yeah?” asked LtCol Harris.

“I’m okay, Lieutenant Colonel,” Kori said. It wasn’t a lie, but it was a softening of the truth.

“I know you’ve heard it plenty, Eldersun,” LtCol Harris said, “but you did good, yeah? Your actions saved thirty-seven Hospitallers and the lives of nearly three hundred townies.”

At the cost of ten Hospitallers’ lives, Kori said inside his head. To the lieutenant colonel, he said, “Thank you, LtCol Harris.”

The lieutenant colonel nodded and wiped the top of his desk with the palms of his hand, his eyes looking into the open space their passing created.

“Why I brought you here,” the lieutenant colonel said. “Some people would see this as a reward. What it’s not, Sgt Eldersun, is punishment, yeah?”

In the pause, LtCol Harris sat back and pulled a tablet with him. He tapped on it and then set it back on the desk. Kori wondered why the lieutenant colonel seemed so uncomfortable.

“You’ve been through a lot, Sergeant. I wish I could make you take a vacation, but I know how I feel about them and how pretty much every Hospitaller I know feels about them.”

Kori could feel his heart rate start to spike. He didn’t want a vacation. When he’d been in the orphanage on Tagaloa, his house parents had taken him and the rest of his squad on a vacation. They’d gone someplace new and stayed in a hotel. But, they’d still been together. Vacations now, from what he heard, people went away from what they knew. He didn’t want to leave his squad, what there was left of it, his company, his brother and sister Hospitallers. Could he refuse?

He looked up, prepared to do so, and saw LtCol Harris grinning.

“I know what you’re thinking, yeah?” said the lieutenant colonel. “I panicked, too, the first time I thought one of my commanding officers was going to make me go and relax on a beach somewhere. I’d rather be taking artillery fire with my company than do that. Alone, yeah? No, Sgt Eldersun, that’s not how we do it.”

“But, it’s something like that, Lieutenant Colonel?” Was he allowed to refuse?

“Yes, and no,” said LtCol Harris. “Mostly no. Rather, this may be the most difficult assignment I’ve ever given you.”

Kori felt lighter. This sounded much better. Not isolated on a beach or alone in a rustic cabin. Work. With a fireteam or a squad. “I’m up for an assignment, LtCol Harris.”

The lieutenant colonel pointed a finger in Kori’s direction. “Careful what you wish for.”

He slid the tablet across the desk, toward Kori. Kori leaned forward and looked at the TDY orders.

“You want me to be a Shepherd?”

“Normally we’d just call in a Shepherd, yeah? Unfortunately, no one is available that can get here in the next week. And we need to move the kids ASAP. It’s an important duty, Sergeant. An honor, yeah?”

Kori hadn’t been shepherded to the orphanage on Tagaloa. He’d arrived on a carrier with fifty other kids. On the carrier, they’d been matched up with their dorm parents the moment they’d stepped aboard. They’d been chaperoned by an entire squad.

A shepherd was something different. These were Hospitallers who had extra training and were given the hazardous duty of entering enemy territory to bring orphaned children to safety. They had a high attrition rate. Yet, there was always a waiting list of volunteers. But, sometimes an orphanage was overcrowded and squads of orphans were transferred to a different world. When those orphans needed to be moved, a Shepherd was assigned to the task.

“Yes, LtCol Harris, I know it is,” Kori said. “I’m not sure if I’m the right person for this kind of duty. I don’t have the requisite training to be a Shepherd.”

The lieutenant colonel gave his desk a tap with the tips of his right-hand fingers. “Here’s a secret for you, Eldersun. No one is ever ready.” LtCol Harris laughed. “When’s the last time any of us have been in charge of the little ones? Not since we were in the orphanages ourselves, right? You had the occasional squad duty, yeah?”

Eldersun nodded. He did. Everyone did at one point or another. They might be assigned for the day to march the younger orphans to class or out to the parade ground. But that had been years ago and had only been for a half-day here or there. And if things went wrong, there was still a whole orphanage of adults to step in.

To be a shepherd was to be the sole adult responsible for nine children. If it was a squad. Korie could feel the panic rising again.

“Is it just a squad, Lieutenant Colonel?” he asked.

“Of course it’s just a squad.” LtCol Harris rocked back in his chair. “You’ve led squads in firefights, yeah? Before that, you controlled a fireteam. You’ve led before. This is just the same thing, yeah? But your soldiers are smaller.”

There was truth to what the lieutenant colonel was saying. These weren’t civilian children. These were Hospitaller children who’d been raised with military discipline. They’d learned early on to follow orders. He still had reservations.

“I hate to leave the company, LtCol Harris.”

“You aren’t leaving, Eldersun. It’s TDY. You think I’d let one of my best squad leaders get away?”

Kori smiled. He appreciated the lieutenant colonel’s comment.

“So, this would be me just shepherding nine children to their new orphanage and then I’m back on the first carrier I can get a ride on?”

“Pretty much, yeah? And we promise not to get into any good dust-ups until you return.”

“Fair enough, Lieutenant Colonel,” Kori said. Out and back, like a patrol in friendly territory.

Sgt Eldersun stepped off the street trolley and set his duffel bag on the pavement. The sun, slightly orange as seen from Glooscop, was almost directly overhead. It wasn’t warm, though. Eldersun wasn’t sure it ever got warm enough to make him shed his jacket. Yet, he was sweating all the same. He took a moment to unbutton the top two buttons on his jacket. The action was only temporary as he needed to extract the packet of orders and instructions put there. As he buttoned his jacket once more, he scanned the facility before him.

Every orphanage was different. Some were like old mansions in the hearts of cities. Some were renovated apartment buildings in suburbs. Phagmo orphanage was a converted industrial building, with a second one turned into an indoor playground and training facility. And Wopeh, where Eldersun grew up, had been a farm

Devenanda orphanage was a converted house with wings to left and right that dwarfed the original building. A picket fence, about a meter tall, ran the breadth of the facility and the turned in to hug the sides of the property.

When he had been a child, playing on the pasture or just running wild on a Saturday morning, he’d had no clue as to the level of security wrapped around each orphanage. So, although Devananda had a white picket fence, Eldersun knew that there were monitoring systems that would alert the Grand Parent in charge of the orphanage as well as every adult on the grounds. Every adult had grown up in an orphanage and had the basics of military training. Many of those adults had spent twenty years or more in the Orphan Corps delivering aid, comfort, and defense. Only a fool or a highly trained military unit would dare breach an orphanage perimeter.

Kori used the entrance walkway, lugging his duffel up the four wide stairs and through the open door.

The whispers of noise he’d heard on the sidewalk exploded into a modest cacophony inside the house. Kori tapped his throat mike and asked for a time check. The automated system gave him the local time. It was just after noon.

Kori laughed to himself. Lunch and then free time. That explained the chaos.

“Remember it?” an approaching man asked.

“Didn’t,” Kori said. “Not until I stepped inside.”

The man who’d inquired into Kori’s memory stopped next to him. “Which were you? Running full tilt down the hall, using the oncoming wall as a brake so you can then run left or right down the other hall? Or would we have found you in a window nook, tablet on your knees, reading some far-fetched adventure?”

“I would have been either one, depending on the weather and the day’s earlier activities.” He held out his hand as saluting wasn’t protocol in the orphanage. “Sgt Kori Eldersun.”

“Roy Borders,” the man said.

His handshake was firm and polite. Eldersun guessed Borders was in his sixties, but he was never very good at that sort of observation. Borders had gray-flecked hair and was several centimeters shorter than Eldersun who was considered tall at 1.6 meters.

“You’re here for Septus squad,” Borders said. “East company.”

Borders had pointed to the left wing of the house which was more east-northeast. But ‘East’ was easier on the tongue. Every orphanage adapted nomenclature to their needs. As the children grew older, they were trained in the proper terminology of the Hospitallers.

Kori took a brief look at the orders packet in his hand. “Yes, Septus squad.” He hadn’t paid as close attention to those details as he would have in a combat situation. It occurred to him that it was a dangerous precedent to set. He’d have to be more careful.

“Right, this way,” Borders said. He started walking. Eldersun snatched up his duffel and hurried after Borders who was now saying, “Freda’s with them. Supposedly they’re packing.”

“Supposedly?” Eldersun didn’t like delays or failures to follow plans. They had a schedule to keep.

“Freda doesn’t like to let the kids go. And normally we have them until they turn eleven and move up to the second floor.” Kori followed Borders around a corner. “So she’s probably telling them a story or giving them candy from her ‘secret’ stash.”

Borders had used air quotes when he mentioned the stash of candy. His dorm parents had also had a ‘secret’ stash. As he’d moved from orphanage to basic training, he learned about T-n-T, toys and treat, bags. These were supplied by the Hospitaller organization to share with children in areas where the Orphan Corps was providing aid, comfort, and the too frequent defense.

Was that what the ‘secret’ stash really was? Something that all dorm parents did and was supplied by the organization? It made sense to Kori. The training, intended or not, had worked and every Hospitaller looked forward to dipping into the T-n-T bag during a new mission.

“Here.” Borders had stopped outside a set of double doors. The top halves were glass and showed a tidy and organized squad barracks with nine bunks along one wall, a play and learn area on the opposite. Down at the far end was the bathrooms, dorm parent rooms, and a small kitchenette. The kitchenettes were used for late night and early weekend morning treats.

What the dorm lacked was nine children either hurriedly packing their duffels, or, as Kori would have preferred, packed and ready to go. Instead, it was emptiness. No children, no duffels, no house mother.

“Where are they?” Kori asked.

“I don’t know,” Borders said. “Maybe we should go inside and check?”

“Sure,” Kori said. He was feeling confused. Borders didn’t seem the least bit concerned, even though he’d said the children and dorm mother were here. “I guess we should go and check.”

Borders nodded and opened the door. Loudly he said, “After you, Sgt Eldersun.”

Now Eldersun felt even more confused. He shared that look with Borders as he stepped over the threshold. No sooner had he stepped over the threshold than a small voice shout-screamed, “There he is! Get him!”

Then the shooting started.

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02

Two things happened when the shooting started. The first, Kori grabbed for his MUW but the weapon wasn’t strapped to his chest and he suddenly felt naked. The second, a confectionary aroma filled the air around him. These things had happened quickly and the only productive thing Kori had been able to do was drop his duffel bag, freeing his hands.

Small white poofs continued to sail in his direction, bouncing off his face and chest. When he pinched one out of the air, it proved to squishy. When he popped it in his mouth, a sugary flavor with a light wash of vanilla filled his mouth.

“Marshmallows?”

He turned to look at Borders but found only the door. It was closed. On the other side of the door, a doubled over Border, his shoulders heaving, appeared to be laughing.

In the dorm room there was a cheer of, “Marshmallows!”

Koir turned as nine small people rushed him, almost bowling him over except for the presence of the closed doors.

“We got you! We got you!” The little people, children, shouted as they dogpiled Kori.

“Okay, kids. Okay.” A woman’s voice, lyrical, stilled the children for a moment. Then they were back to shouting and bouncing on their victim.

When the door was pulled opened behind Kori, the children’s actions sent them all sprawling into the hallway.

“Okay, kids, give your shepherd a moment to breathe.”

The children, sitting or sprawled on their backs were giggling, breathing deeply, and occasionally saying with a satisfied voice, “We got him. We got him.”

“I’d tell you I was sorry about that,” Borders said as he offered Kori a hand, “But I’d be lying. That was absolutely hilarious.”

“If he’d been carrying a weapon, it might not have,” said the woman. She held out her hand as Kori rose to his feet. “Freda Vaughan. Nice to meet you Sgt Eldersun.”

“We got him!” several children shouted. Most of them were still laying on the floor. Two had made it to their feet. They watched Kori with smiles on their faces, but their eyes seemed wary.

“Nice ambush, Ms. Vaughan.”

“Please, it’s Freda.” She paused and returned a hug one of the children had given her, picking a piece of marshmallow out of his hair. “I grew up in Wopeh, too, Sgt Eldersun. Though, long before you.”

“Really?” The Orphan Corps was large and spread across the second radial arm of the galaxy. There were over a hundred orphanages on seventy planets, if Eldersun remembered correctly. “Well, it’s still a nice place.”

“I’ve been back several times. Anyway, Sergeant, we have a squad to move out.”

“Form up,” said Borders. The children moved on command and formed a line off the tallest member of their squad. They pulled and tugged at their gray barracks uniforms and then checked the person to their right and left. After several seconds each nodded to their squad leader who nodded to Borders.

A small smile made itself comfortable on Borders’ face. “Check in!”

“Joao Maderia, present, Dorm Father.”

“Marin Tocantins, present, Dorm Father.”

“Diogo Tapajas, present, Dorm Father.”

The names moved from right to left, adding Rodrigo Jurua, Martim Purus, Tiago Araguaia, Tomas Rio, Beatriz Parana, and Leonora Amazona. Leonora, though the smallest by several centimeters seem to Eldersun to have a fire to her spirit. He was pretty sure she was the one that first yelled to, “get him!” And she’d definitely been the first to pounce on him.

“All present, Sergeant.”

“Thank you, Mr. Borders.” To Freda, Kori asked, “Do they have their duffels packed?”

“Yes, they do,” Freda said. “All right, Septus squad, grab your gear. You’re moving out.”

The children gave a half-hearted cheer and jogged into the dorm, slowing to a walk as they did. Several of them wiped at their eyes with their shirt sleeves.

“How’s everyone taking this?” Eldersun asked. “It can’t be easy.”

“It’s not,” Freda said. Her eyes were wet. “But we explained to the children that there were young ones who need a place to be safe and that by them making the transfer, they were helping the smaller kids. They’re eight and nine, but they understand.”

“That’s part of the reason they’re going as a squad,” Borders added. “They’ll have a connection to someone when they get there. Though, they’ll have new friends soon enough. I’ve never met a Hospitaller orphan who could make fast friends.”

“So I’m not going to have to deal with any weeping?”

Freda was blinking hard and she’d pulled a balled tissue from a pocket. She was unfolding it while sniffling. “Not from them. No, Sgt Eldersun.”

Borders put an arm around Freda, giving her a sidearm hug. “The kids are going into space. On a Hospitaller spaceship. They’re very excited. That will keep them distracted. You might have to tell a few bedtime stories, though.”

“And treats.” Freda was wiping her nose. The first of the children had returned from the dorm, dragging their duffel bag behind them. Freda smiled at the child and then asked, “You did pack a T-n-T bag, right, Sergeant?”

Kori paused long enough that he earned a laugh from Borders and a stern look from Freda.

“Just a moment,” Freda said. She entered the dorm and marched to the back of the room, ruffling a few heads of hair along the way.

“Normally,” Borders said. “When the kids move out of the dorm, they just go up stairs or to the other wing. She’d still see them until their sixteen. She’s often asked to be the one to present them with their pocket knife. This time, well, she may never see them again. We always knew there might be a time when some of our kids would get transferred. What with that conflict you all have going on down south and the number of orphans coming in. We had a feeling it was only a matter of time.”

There was a silent pause where Eldersun and Borders stood in silence. Eldersun could hear the children in the dorm, though the words were indistinct.

“What kind of ship are we going in?”

Eldersun looked down at the child. He had to look at the boy for several heartbeats. “Diogo, yes?”

“Diogo Tapajas. I turned nine last week.”

“Happy birthday, Diogo.” Several more of the children were now filing out of the dorm, duffels in tow. “I’m not sure what kind of ship we’re taking. We have many ships from flagships to frigates. There’s packets, too, but those don’t have much room.”

“I hope it’s a battleship,” said a girl. Eldersun recalled her name to be Marin. “And we get in a battle.”

“I fear the enemy that encounters this squad,” Borders said. He cupped his hands around his mouth and leaned to the side so that his voice was aimed through the open doors. “Tomas, Leonora, come along, you’re making a bad impression.”

Eldersun was going to say that it was okay, they’re kids, but Borders winked and shook his head.

“I’m going to beat you to the door.” Freda’s voice came from the far end of the dorm. She’d stepped out of the dorm parents’ rooms, a satchel in her hand. She began running with mincing steps toward the doors.

“No!” Leonora said. She was in the open space between bunks and play area. She was laughing and then she picked up her duffel and ran to the door, losing her balance at the last second. Her duffel flew forward, landing at Kori’s feet. She slid across the floor, bumping her head against the bag.

Before Kori could offer her a hand up, she was on her feet, a big grin that exposed several dark holes where her adult teeth had yet to grow in. “I won,” she said. Then, she grabbed the strap of her duffel and hauled it back to join the rest of the squad.

“Here you go.” Freda held out a T-n-T satchel for Eldersun.

When he accepted it, he was surprised by the weight. “How much is in here?”

“As much as I could fit.”

Eldersun slipped the bag over his shoulder, aware of a brief hint of flowers as the strap passed by his nose.

“Okay, squad,” Borders said. He stepped forward. “Is everyone ready to go?”

There was a mixture of “yes” and “no” from the squad.

“One last hug?”

There were nods and then the kids crowded forward to hug Borders and then over to hug Freda who hugged back fiercely enough to elicit squeals of laughter and mock cries for help. After several rounds of hugs, the children moved back into formation.

“Let’s do this,” Borders said. His voice sounded wet to Kori. Several of the children had tears resting on the edges of their cheeks. “I’ll bring your duffels, so leave them there. Sgt Eldersun, there should be a van waiting out front to take the you and the squad to the train station.”

“Thank you, Borders. Felda, thank you.” Eldersun turned to the squad and snapped to attention. “Squad. Attention!”

The children popped to attention with a sharpness that came from years of good practice.

“Squad. Left face! Forward, march.”

The excited chatter that had followed Kori to the train station petered out over the the course of the three hour train ride to the base of the space port. Clouds made seeing the elevator that lifted and lowered cargo and people impossible to see except for the rare glimpse that disappeared just as quickly as it was sighted.

The entire planet seemed to be more cloudy than not. The temperature seemed to always be just on the wrong side of warm enough to enjoy. Hopefully, by the time he returned, Castille Langue would have finished the mop-up duties following the would-be warlord’s attempt to carve out his own little kingdom.

Despite the clouds, there was no missing the thick black line of the elevator core touching the clouds. Capsules raced up and down it even now.

“Is that the spaceship?” asked Rodrigo. He kept pushing his hair away from his eyes even though it barely reached his eyebrows.

“That’s the elevator,” Leonora said. She turned to Kori. “There’s no spaceships down here, isn’t that right?”

“Right,” Kori said. “We have to ride one of the trunks up to the actual space port.

“What’s it like, Sgt Eldersun?” Tiago asked. “Riding up the elevator? Bet it’s not like at the museum.”

“I don’t know. I landed on Gooscop in a drop-ship. I did see the spaceport before we left space to come down here.”

There was more questioning confusion. Why did they have to go through a civilian spaceport? Why not just send a drop-ship down to pick them up at the Hospitaller base? Why this meandering path to leave atmo?

More thoughts and questions were stifled by the train making a gentle lurch as it stopped. The children shouted their cheers and grabbed the duffle bags by their straps. Kori stood by the open door, watching as each of the children towed their duffel onto the train platform and then collapsed on it like they’d just done a forty kilometer force march.

“Fall in,” Eldersun said. He was glad to see there wasn’t any groaning or whining at the command. Rather, the children hustled to the line started by Joao. When they’d organized themselves and were at attention, Kori said, “Stand easy.”

While the children relaxed in position, Kori extracted the document packet from his jacket. They had travel orders and wouldn’t need to stop and pick up tickets. He pulled the travel orders from the packet and slipped the rest back where they’d been. He then looked at the children.

The children were all smiling at him, seeming to be enjoying the adventure. How were they going to feel about dragging their duffels a hundred meters? They’d have huge holes worn into the sides of their duffels before they even reached their new home. He needed some assistance.

Five meters down the platform, two local security officers were standing, chatting, ignoring the civilians around them.

“Stay here. Joao, you’re in charge.”

Kori walked over to the two security officers. “Excuse me, gentlemen.”

The security officers paused in their conversation and gave Sgt Eldersun a once over with their eyes.

“Yes, Hospitaller?”

Kori didn’t like the tone, but he ignored it. “I was wondering if there was some sort of baggage trolley? I have a lot of bags to move.”

One of the officers looked past Kori. He presumed the officer was eyeing the children. Finally, the officer nodded with his head. “Over there.”

They resumed their conversation as if Kori had never interrupted.

“Thank you.”

Kori had to walk a further six meters to a kiosk of three-wheel carts. They required a deposit which Eldersun paid with his cred-card. Every Hospitaller had a cred-card. Their pay was deposited to it every week. The interesting part was that most of them seldom had a need to use their cards. Kori had heard of a master sergeant who’d retired after thirty years and found he had twelve million in credits sitting on his card. Kori’s was well funded from years of neglect, but it wasn’t twelve million. However, a cart fee wouldn’t even scratch his total. With the fee paid and his card back in his pocket, Kori pushed the cart over to the waiting children.

“Load up.”

Once the bags were loaded and balance, Kori brought the children to attention, gave them a right face command, and marched them toward the boarding gates. The children’s single file march across the station drew the attention of many people. They stopped and admired or stopped and glared.

Perhaps some of them thought of the orphanages as some brutal place where the children were treated like criminals. Most of them had never been inside a Hospitaller orphanage. They hadn’t seen the dorm parents comforting a child after a midnight nightmare. Hadn’t seen the dorm parent give every child a pony ride around the play area on a rainy day. They certainly hadn’t seen the children execute a textbook perfect ambush with marshmallow guns. Which was a shame. It might neutralize some of the souring attitude the Hospitallers had been receiving over the last few years.

But, no one interfered in route to the boarding gates. The security officer checking their papers didn’t bat an eye. She merely grunted and handed the papers back to Kori. Before he could thank her, she’d turned to the next person waiting impatiently for the squad of orphans to move along.

“Forward, march, Hospitallers,” Kori said. The children followed orders and marched beside him as they made their way over to a circular, moving sidewalk that would take them to position ten where they would board the trunk for the ride up.

Each new thing was like an adventure for the children. They giggled and laughed as they all jumped onto the moving sidewalk. They received a few indulgent smiles from the adults around them. But mostly, they were ignored. Being so used to each other’s company, they didn’t notice the slight.

It only took a few minutes for the sidewalk to bring them around to position ten. The trunk was already open and people were filing in after dropping off their luggage. Robotic arms picked up the luggage and slid along rails, placing the luggage in bins based on reasoning known only to their programmers. The children stared slack-jawed at the oversized pincer hands as they picked up each duffel bag and tucked it into the trunk’s storage compartment.

“Okay, squad, fall out, get in line.” Eldersun had

Once again, the children behaved like young soldiers and got in line politely and quickly. Kori began to wonder if maybe he’d been worried about nothing. The children were Hospitallers, after all.

They were coming up on their turn to cross the metal gangway that led to the wide door of the trunk. The exterior was shaped like a squat loaf of bread, but wider where the trunk hugged the rail that it would soon crawl up to reach the port.

Inside the trunk, which was specifically designed for people transport, were rows of seats. Each rows of seats faced a metal grill. When the trunk started up the elevator core, it would be perpendicular to the planet. The seats would tilt to maintain passengers in upright positions. The metal grill they faced at the start would become the gangway that lead to a circular staircase down to the door. It would all happen under decreasing microgravity until they reached the port platform.

The seats were higher than a normal dining chair. Kori help each of the children into their seats, assisting several with their 5-point restraints before getting himself situated. They were a party of ten and took up two and a half rows of seats on the port side.

Several minutes after boarding, Kori heard the door hiss shut. A mild breeze of cycling air, a hint of ozone in it, wafted across his face.

“Are you nervous?”

Leonora was sitting next to him. He’d overheard her pestering Tiago to move over because that was her seat. She’d been quiet up until now.

“Nervous?” Kori asked. “About taking the elevator to the port?”

“Yes.” Leonora’s voice was hushed. If Kori hadn’t been so close, he’d never have heard her.

The trunk shuddered there was a jolt as it started to crawl forward. Leonora’s eyes went wide.

“No, I’m not nervous,” Kori said. “Why? Are you?”

There was a small quiver on the tip of Leonora’s lower lip that went still as she pressed them hard together. She shook her head and then said in a thin voice, “Nope, me neither.”

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