Track 3:  The Calm Before the Storm



Biting the tip of her thumb, she paced back and forth across her room.  Her thoughts were in turmoil over what she should do.  Should she confront her?  Should she pretend that she never discovered the truth?  Maybe, she should call Nanase...  No, after what happened, that would definitely be a bad idea.  Since she could not discuss it with her usual confidant, she found herself at a loss.

The doorbell wailed like a messenger of doom.  She froze in place.  Only when it rang the third time did she take a step.  Each step seemed to hasten the beating of her heart.  Internally, she told herself to calm down.  Once in front of the door, her cheek muscles pulled her lips to a wide grin and her hand grasped the knob.  With a deep breath, she opened it.

"I'm back!" greeted Sheryl.

"Welcome back!"

"Sorry, for the delay.  I had to do a few more exercises with the queen and it took longer than I thought.  Anyway, I got your favorite dishes at Nyan, nyan's."  She held up a paper bag with the familiar logo on it.

"Nyan, nyan's?  But how did you know about that place?"

Instead of replying, Sheryl flipped her phone open and pressed the touchscreen.  The Nyan, nyan commercial with her in it began to play on its screen.


Her face was aflame.  Somehow, she looked so childish and silly.  "Aaah!  Why do you have that?"  She had an urge to delete it and her hand subconsciously leapt for the phone.

Anticipating her intent, Sheryl kept her distance.  "A memento of your early work."  she replied slyly.  "And I keep it to remind me to visit it someday.  Anyway, let's eat!"  She moved away and began to unpack their food.

Defeated, Ranka hung her head for a moment and exhaled a long sigh.  She walked to the table to help.  "Are they ok?  Last I saw, the windows were all smashed up."

"Unfortunately, it still is.  But they've installed temporary wooden panels and with the production facilities online, they've been able to get enough stock to open for business."

Her eyes brightened with relief.  "I'm so glad!  It's a really nice restaurant!  It's too bad you only got take-out.  You should really eat there."

Offhandedly, she mused, "Hmmm... I wonder if I could find someone to take me there.  I wouldn't know what to order." 

"If... if you want, we can go tomorrow after our morning lessons.  Their lunch dim sum is really good!"

"That's a good idea!  I've never had dim sum."  She handed her a paper plate with utensils.

Sure enough, she had ordered several of her favorite dishes and soup.  Strangely, the take-out containers were brimming with more than the usual serving size.  But how did she know?  "Umm... who told you about my favorites?"

"The cook."  She put several helpings on her plate.  "He told me that a scrawny girl like you should eat more.  He said to put more muscle in those skinny arms that could barely lift a pile of plates."

Her eyes smoldered with indignation.  "What!?  Why that old coot!  Wait till he gets a piece of my mind..."

"Now, now... that can wait till tomorrow.  Mmm... this is really tender and juicy..." 

"Isn't it?  Their Sesame Peking Beef is marinated overnight..."  Glad for a diversion, she told her about their special dishes.

When she was done with her meal, Sheryl broke a fortune cookie.  "You will discover your new self."

"You're supposed to add, 'in bed' at the end." suggested Ranka.

"You will discover your new self in bed."  She giggled since it sounded rather silly.  "What did you get?"

Ranka broke hers and read it.  "Your talents will be recognized and rewarded in bed."

"Hahahaha!  That's a good one!"  Then she smirked to herself.  "Especially if it actually happens..."

Ranka bit off a piece.  "Don't forget to eat yours, ok?  Otherwise, it won't come true."

"Really?  I better not miss out this fortune."  She popped the cookie pieces in her mouth.

Dinner earned Ranka a brief respite from her predicament.  However, once the dishes were cleared, she no longer had an excuse to ignore it.  She glanced at Sheryl and was surprised to see her looking at her with a soft expression on her face.  Why was she staring?  As if to answer her question, Sheryl spoke.

"You look a lot like your mother."

Her hand involuntarily went to her heart.  "How... how do you know that?  Have you seen her?"

Sheryl nodded.  "Dr. Zore showed me some research files.  There was a picture with your mother and my grandma in it.  I bet you'll grow up to be as pretty... no, probably prettier than your mother."  She leaned her cheek on palm of her hand.  "They worked together on many things, your mother and grandma.  Anyway, if you want to know more, check your email.  Dr. Zore said that he was preparing a report for you.  He might've sent it already."

Still blushing from her compliment, she reached for her phone in her pocket.  "Oh, let me see... Ah, here it is!"  It belched and displayed recent email.  Her eyes read the message greedily.  "He put it on the lab server.  C'mon, let's check it right now!"  Finally, she had full access to files about her mother and her own past.  Finally, she could regain what she had lost.

Once in her room, Ranka tapped on the keyboard to turn off the terminal's screensaver.  When the screensaver disappeared, her heart skipped a beat.  Like a homing missile, her finger pressed the power button with deadly aim.  The screen hid its contents in a sea of dispersed electrons.

A drop of sweat rolled down her forehead and she chanced a peek at Sheryl who stood next to her.  She simply stood there and said nothing.  At that moment, Ranka was certain that she saw what was on the screen.  She wanted to crawl in some deep dark hole and forget what just happened in the last 20 seconds.

Sheryl knew that Ranka would eventually find out.  However, she did not expect her to find out so soon.  Ranka's finger was still on the power button.  She took a deep breath and hoped that she could handle it.

"Ranka, I'm sorry you had to see that aspect of yoga.  Those poses that you saw... you don't have to do them nude.  It's just that some people decided to modify it that way.  Over time, many branches of yoga were created.  There's even a branch more suited for zentraedi flexibility.  So it's not surprising that some people prefer to do it in the nude.  But in the end, no matter what branch it is, the essence of yoga remains the same.  So I believe that as long as you maintain the spirit of yoga, then it doesn't matter if other people modified it in a perverted way.  And besides, I've done those poses with my previous yoga instructor, fully clothed, of course.  So it's perfectly ok to do them with other people."  Anxiously, she watched Ranka from the corner of her eye.  A few seconds passed, before she spoke. 

"Sheryl..."  She did not look at her.

"Yes?" she responded timidly.

"I'm tired.  I think I'll go to bed early."

"Oh, that's right.  Sleep well, okay?  And don't worry about coming down.  I'll lock the door behind me.  Good night."

"Thank you.  Good night."

Once outside, she called Lt. Maxwell who showed up promptly.  As they drove around the block, she recognized a van.  Lt. Maxwell and her other hidden friends were probably shadowing them.  A feeling of gratitude rose within her.  At least, someone would be watching over Ranka.  She made a note to send Cathy some flowers in thanks.

Cradling her head between her hands, she sighed heavily.  She should have stopped despite Ranka's insistence.  Giving in to temptation exacted a heavy price and yet, she did not regret doing all those poses.  But it was no use crying over spilt milk.  She leaned back on the seat and watched the stars wink beyond the shattered dome of Island 1.  Hoping that at least one would grant her wish, she asked for Ranka's forgiveness.



The next day, their usual camaraderie was replaced with trite pleasantries and awkward silence all morning long.  Every second of it tore at Sheryl's heart.  Hopefully, Ranka would be more open during lunch.  On their way back from their lessons, she gathered her courage.

"Say, Ranka..."

"Umm, yes...?"  Her tone was distant and guarded.

Internally, she winced.  Masking her disappointment, she spoke casually.  "I hope you don't mind, but I invited Nanase to lunch."

Ranka paled.  Since she was worrying all night, she forgot about lunch.  And to make matters worse, Nanase was coming.  "Why?" she squeaked, her voice constricted by her mortified thoughts.

Sheryl blinked.  She thought that Ranka would be happy if Nanase was there, but for some reason, Ranka seemed really scared.  "Your co-workers were asking about her, so I told them I'd invite her.  She's meeting us there at the private booth that I've reserved."

Her thoughts were in a jumble.  Canceling right now would probably hurt Nanase's feelings and disappoint her co-workers.  The shuttle was already landing at the lab and right on schedule, she saw Lt. Maxwell's car driving into the parking lot.  It was too late to make any excuses.  Internally, she wailed, "Why is this happening to me?"

Ranka's dread grew as they approached Nyan, nyan.  As they were escorted to the booth by one of the waitresses, she steeled her nerves and put on her most cheerful face.  Nanase was already there, with her wheelchair folded neatly against the wall.

"Ranka!"

"Nana-chan!  How are you?"  She hugged her gently.

"I'm doing fine.  Sheryl!  Thanks for inviting me!"

Sheryl hugged her.  "No problem.  Besides, it's good to get out of that stuffy hospital."   She winked.

"In that case, thanks again!  Oh, and I hope you don't mind, I ordered us some tea and appetizers."

Sheryl took the seat across from Nanase, leaving Ranka standing.  "Thanks!  We're starving!  The queen made us work today."  Her heart sank when Ranka sat next to Nanase.

"Really?  What did you do?"

"She had us teleporting Vajra instead of flying them.  I thought my..."

As they chatted away, Ranka's thoughts preoccupied her.  "Sheryl Nome... who are you?  The Galaxy Fairy... Nanase's savior... a friend... a rival... a pervert..."

Just then, a man and his young son stopped by their table.  "Hello, are you Ms. Nome?"

"Yes, I am." replied Sheryl.

"My name is Leo Berstein and this is my son Eddie.  We were in the same shelter with you during an attack.  We just wanted to thank you for singing.  It really calmed Eddie down."


"It was all that I could do, and I'm glad that it helped in a small way."

He pulled out two Row 1 tickets.  "We'll be cheering for you at the festival!"

"Thank you!  Please enjoy the show!"

Ranka watched them leave.  She felt ashamed as one more description was added to the list.  "...a bringer of hope."  Subconsciously, she poked at her food.  Was she blowing it out of proportion?  Her thoughts went back to Sheryl's explanation last night.  "She did it before with her teacher... and she was only teaching me... it was just yoga."  Somehow, a part of her wished that it was not just yoga.  She shook her head slightly to get rid of that feeling. 

"Is something wrong, Ranka?" asked a concerned Nanase.

"Uh... no... I was just savoring the food.  I kinda missed it."  She lifted her cup to her lips.

"Yeah, me too!  I think I'll order some stuff to go.  Oh, and by the way, thanks for telling me about yoga... Ah!  Are you ok?"  Nanase's hand immediately pounded on Ranka's back.

Upon hearing the word, Ranka spat out her tea.  She pretended to cough while she tried to think of something to change the topic.  "Why did she have to bring it up now?  What am I supposed to do?  But wait... why is she thanking me?"  A quick glance at Sheryl revealed nothing since the teacup that she was sipping from obscured the lower half of her face.  However, Ranka imagined that she was probably amused by her predicament.

"Erhmm... th-thanks, Nanase... I'm ok now."

"Whew... I was worried for a second there... anyway, I've added yoga to our list of things to try.  Oh!  It's so nice to have a boyfriend to do stuff with!"

"What?!  You have a boyfriend?!" exclaimed Ranka.

"My, did I forget to tell you?"  Nanase giggled girlishly.  "Luca confessed to me about a week ago.  We're a couple now."

"It was about time, Luca... good for you!" praised Ranka silently.  She held Nanase's hands.  "That's wonderful, Nana-chan!  But if you do yoga, please don't do it, y'know... you don't have to... and besides, you just started dating."

This time, Nanase blushed beet red.  "Ranka!  You know me better than that!"  She looked away demurely.  "Really, I'm an innocent girl at heart... I'd never dream of doing something like that before I got married.  Ah!  The things you're making me say!"

Ranka was indeed surprised to know about Luca.  However, she was even more surprised that Nanase was not repulsed by nude yoga.  She sighed.  Maybe, she was blowing the issue out of proportion.  But still, her heart ached.  Why did she care so much?  She glanced at Sheryl once more and her attempts to see the expression of her face were foiled by the napkin that she was using to wipe her mouth. 

"Even Nanase isn't bothered by it."  With that in mind, she let go of her feelings and focused on Nanase.

"We should celebrate!  Why not invite him over for dim sum when he comes back?"

"Oh, that's a good idea!  I'll email him as soon as I can."  Suddenly, her eyes grew concerned.  "By the way, have you gotten email from Alto or your brothers lately?"

Ranka squeezed her phone.  "I got one from Ozma-nii about three days ago.  Why do you ask?"

"Luca emails me almost everyday.  I understand that sending messages over foldspace takes time, but I thought that it shouldn't take this long."

Ranka was almost afraid to ask the question.  "Um... Sheryl... did you get any from Alto?"

Sheryl checked.  "No.  If you're worried, let's just ask Cathy.  I'll do it right now."  Her nimble fingers flicked across the touchscreen of her phone.

Relief washed over her.  "But she's real busy isn't she?"

She winked.  "I don't think she would be if it concerns a certain pilot.  Besides, she'll probably ask one her aides to check."

A drop of sweat rolled down her temple.  Discovering this side of her brother was new to her, but she was happy that there was someone who loved him.

They left the restaurant in high-spirits.  Nanase returned to the hospital with take-out in tow while Sheryl and Ranka went to the queen for a short afternoon lesson.  Once lessons were over, they headed for the festival.

Sheryl rummaged through a duffel bag and extracted a pair of sunglasses and a wide-brimmed hat.  "This one's for me.  Here..."  She handed the bag to Ranka.

Ranka peered inside.  She saw more sunglasses, hats and scarves.  "What's this for?"

"Disguises.  So no one will bother us."

She looked at her dubiously.  "Are you sure this'll work?"

Smiling slyly, she replied, "Guaranteed!  Why, I had a really long conversation with a beautiful fan of mine, and she didn't even recognize me until I sang Diamond Crevasse."

Ranka colored.  "That's because... I... oh, never mind!"  Her hands dove into the bag.

Sheryl pretended to suppress a chuckle, but her heart was jumping for joy.  At last, Ranka was talking to her normally.  With mirror in hand, she checked the fit of her hat and the sunglasses.  Then she handed the mirror to Ranka who also checked her disguise as well.

Lt. Maxwell drove them to a secure location at the festival.  When they arrived, she got out first and opened the passenger door.  "Please meet me here when you want to leave.  If you need anything, call me right away."

Sheryl smiled gratefully.  "Thank you for everything.  I hope you get a break to enjoy the festival, Lisa."

"I will.  Please enjoy the festival."  She saluted smartly and left in her hovercar.

Sheryl sat on a nearby bench and unfolded the map.  "So... where to?"

Ranka's eyes studied the map.  "I'm really full, so I feel like walking a bit.  How about market row?"

"Sounds good to me." nodded Sheryl.

Using the map, they walked to market row.  The place was bustling with people browsing goods and sellers hawking their wares.  They wandered around until something caught Ranka's eye in a jewelry booth.

"Look, Sheryl!"  She lifted the pair of earrings to eye level.  "They look exactly like yours!"

Sheryl carefully examined them.  "Yes, it seems so."  She took off hers and held it next to the pair for comparison.  "You're right!"

Ranka smiled widely and handed the seller her token card.  "I'll take these, please."

"Copy cat." chided Sheryl teasingly.

"You're wrong."  Instead of an explanation, she pressed the box with the earrings into Sheryl's hand.

Sheryl stared at the box.  "Are you...?"

Ranka winked.  "You're missing one, right?"

"Well, yes, but..."

"Just say 'thank you'."

Her expression softened.  "Thank you."

"So, what are you waiting for?"  Ranka winked coyly.

Sheryl smiled gently and took the lid off.  "Can you put it on for me?"

Ranka felt her face warm up.  She did not expect this.  Her hand poised over the box for a moment before picking up an earring.  Then Sheryl leaned down and presented her ear.  As she clipped it to her ear, she felt like a guy giving jewelry to his girlfriend.

When she was done, Sheryl swiveled her head slowly.  "How does it look?"

Ranka wished that the hat was not obstructing the flow of her hair.  She could almost imagine those golden-coral locks swinging in the sunlight.  "It looks great!"

"Thanks."  Sheryl grabbed her hand.  "Let me get a little something for you too."

Ranka followed her lead.  "Oh, you don't have to..."

Within half an hour, they spent almost all the tokens on their cards.  As Sheryl stuffed her last gift into her already packed new purse, Hope chirped a complaint and crawled out to perch on her shoulder.  "Ah, that was fun!"

Ranka nodded in agreement.  "Since we're almost out of tokens, want to waste it at the arcade?"

"Sure!"

And waste them, they did.  After some ufo catcher games and several rounds of dance dance revolution, their cards were empty.  The only thing left to do was to watch the stage shows.  As they looked through the show schedule, Sheryl's eyes caught an interesting entry.

"There's a kabuki show on stage 3 at 6 PM.  We can grab some dinner and watch it before the concert."

"What's playing?"

"Tales of Princess Sakura"

Ranka's hand flew to her mouth as she gasped.  "Is that related to Alto's role?"

Sheryl read the show description.  "Yes.  It's not the full production, but is based on it.  Looks like it's performed by Alto's troupe."

"Let's go see it!"

With that, they spent their food tokens and made their way to stage 3.  The play was worthy of the troupe's reputation and was quite a spectacle to behold.  When the final curtain fell, they stood up with the rest of the audience in applause.

"That was so awesome!" remarked Ranka as they walked to stage 1.

"Yes, quite.  The actor for Princess Sakura did a great job."

At the word actor, Ranka's heart skipped a beat.  "Wait a minute... are they all guys?"

Sheryl stared at her.  "Yes, all the actors are guys."

"But if that's the case... then the love scene..."  Her hand went to her mouth.

Goosebumps broke out on Sheryl's skin.  Judging from Ranka's reaction, she realized it as well.  It was no small wonder why Alto was very sensitive about being mistaken as a girl.  At least, he could take comfort that Sakura's lover was played by his brother.  No, wait, perhaps that was even worse.  At that moment, she felt very sorry for Alto.

They met Elmo near stage 1.  He showed them to their dressing room and gave them digipads.  "Please check your track list.  I'm going to get your costumes, so I'll be right back."

Ranka was almost done with her list when she felt her stomach churn.  She put the digipad down.  "Sheryl, I need to go to the restroom."

Sheryl nodded.  "Ok."

Ranka wandered around and tried to find it.  After five minutes of wandering, she regretted leaving the map behind and asked someone.  After she was done, she walked quickly to their dressing room.  About a few feet away from the door, she heard voices and stopped in her tracks.

"If you give me a chance, I promise to make you happy and protect you forever."

Her eyes widened in recognition.  It was Saotome Yasaburo.  She pressed her ear on the door to hear better.

"I'm sorry, but I..."

"Forgive me for saying this, but Alto... Alto was just pretending... he's an actor, so you see..."

"And a very good one.  Even if it was just pretend, his kindness gave me strength.  So I..."

"Ah!  There you are, Ranka!"

Ranka flinched and turned around to see Elmo carrying two bodysuits.  "Umm... yes?"

"Here are your suits.  I've programmed them with the outfits you've selected.  Try them out and see if they work, ok?"

Ranka held out her arms and accepted the suits.  "Ok."

"I'll be in the soundbooth if you want something changed."  He checked his watch.  "35 minutes to show time.  Please be at stage 1 five minutes before."  

"Ok." nodded Ranka.

Just then, the door opened.  Yasaburo stood at the threshold, his body turned sideways towards Sheryl.  "Please believe me.  I'm the one who's not pretending."

"I'll keep it in mind." replied Sheryl.

"Thank you."  Yasaburo inclined his head and left.

Ranka entered and closed the door behind her.  "Elmo asked us to try these suits."  Although she said it as casually as possible, her mind was already wondering about the conversation with Yasaburo.  From what little she heard, it seemed that he just confessed to Sheryl.

"Alright, let's check them out."  Sheryl identified the bigger suit and took it.  She began to undress.

Ranka immediately turned around.  "I guess I should undress too..." she thought.  She put the suit on her dresser and unbuttoned her blouse.  By the time she had one foot in the suit, she noticed a flash of light behind her.  She turned around to see Sheryl in her concert clothes modeling in front of a mirror.  Then with a tap on her hip, the dress changed.  Ranka gasped in surprise.

"What's wrong?" asked Sheryl.

"The dress... it changed..."

Sheryl looked at her with a puzzled expression.  Then understanding dawned on her face.  "Oh, you mean this?  It's a holosuit."  She tapped her left hip three times.  The dress disappeared and she was wearing the suit.

"Wow... you mean we can change dresses just like that?"

"Yup.  To turn it on and off, press this area on your left hip three times.  To change to your next outfit, press this area on your right hip once."

"That's really cool!  Elmo had me change dresses during my concert.  It was tough trying to change so fast."  Suddenly, a thought occurred to her.  "But wait... if we can change dresses this easily, why did we have to try all those dresses at your place?"

Sheryl quickly glanced at her watch.  "Oh, no!  I forgot to tell the soundbooth about a track change.  Gotta go."  She strode to the door.

Ranka called after her.  "Sheryl!"  But already, the door was closing behind her.

She sat down on her chair.  Her behavior could only mean one thing.  Her hands rose to her face.  "She tricked me again!"

Irritation and indignation mixed together in her heart.  Who would have thought that she was so mischievous?  Her image of Sheryl crumbled even more.  And perhaps, it ought to.  Her hands clasped together on her lap.  "Is this the real you?"

As her reflection stared back at her, her lips curved up in determination.  "I guess I'll just have to hang in there and find out."

After testing her suit, she went to stage 1.  Sheryl was already there with Elmo. 

"Oh, good.  You're here.  Are you ready?"

"Yes!"  answered Ranka cheerfully.

"Come this way." beckoned Elmo.

They followed him to an area under the stage.  He gestured to a platform.  "Step over here and face the red light.  When the light turns green, the platform will go up to the stage.  There's going to be a lot of fog in the beginning, so watch your step."  He held his thumb up.  "Go get 'em!"

Finally, the light turned green.  Sheryl winked at her.  "I won't lose."

Ranka smiled back in challenge.  "Neither will I."

Together, they rose to the stage.



As usual, Ranka woke up to the music from her phone.  She squeezed it off.  Her eyes wandered across the posters in her room.  She grinned widely.  Last night's concert was awesome.  She only wished that she was in the audience to watch Sheryl instead of performing.  Her only consolation was Elmo's promise to give her a copy of the concert recording.

She stretched, feeling her muscles ache.  Today was back to normal.  Reluctantly, she got up to change.

Lt. Maxwell and Sheryl arrived on schedule.  As they were headed for the lab, Ranka took the opportunity to ask.

"Did you hear from Cathy yet?"

Sheryl nodded.  "Yes.  She emailed back and said that her aide is looking into it.  They'll let us know by the end of the day."

Her shoulders drooped in disappointment.  "I see."

The day seemed to stretch indefinitely.  After they finished dinner, Sheryl's phone finally rang.  Ranka hovered near, impatient for news.

"I see... thanks again.  Bye."  Sheryl turned off her phone. 

Her heart sank when she saw her expression.  "What did she say?"

"They tried, but their message only got to the third relay and stopped.  The fourth relay wasn't responding."

"Relay?" repeated Ranka, confused.

"There are irregularities in foldspace, so they drop relays to bypass them and retransmit the signal to the next relay.  Without the relays, it'll take days to send and receive messages."

A sense of dread washed over her heart and she staggered as if she was struck.  "Is there anything we can do?"

Sheryl shook her head sadly.  "Cathy's looking into it.  She said that she'll try to send a team to the location of the fourth relay.  However, by the time it's ready, the Quarter may already be back.  By the schedule, they should be back within three days."  Her hand squeezed her shoulder gently.  "For now, let's believe in them."

Her hand rose to cup hers.  "Yeah."



The next day, Ranka woke up later than usual.  Their composing session lasted until midnight, and Ranka extended it even further by editing at home until 1 AM.  She quickly gathered her things and stuffed them in her purse.  In her haste, she knocked her purse from her desk.  As she cursed while picking up its contents, she noticed a purple phone.  Then she remembered.  With shaking fingers, she turned it on and pressed the button.  It rang for a few seconds before a synthesized voice responded.

"Brera Sterne is unreachable at the moment.  Please leave a message and it will be sent via uni-link."  It beeped.

"Onii-chan!  It's Ranka!  Cathy hasn't heard from the Quarter, so... so I just wanted to check.  Please tell me you're ok."  She paused for a moment.  "I love you!  Bye!"

She hung up.  The screen displayed that the message was being sent.  Ranka watched it for a minute and it was still displayed the same text.  She gave up and put it in her purse.

That day's lesson was more grueling than usual.  This time, the queen asked them to teleport Vajra off the planet.  As she stepped off the platform, her brain felt like it was going to explode.  She swayed for a moment before a hand steadied her.

"Are you alright?" asked Sheryl who looked just as exhausted.

"I just felt a bit dizzy."  She squeezed Sheryl's hand gently to reassure her.

Suddenly, something held her other hand.  Alarmed, she turned and saw a young girl who looked almost like her except for more reddish skin and large dark pupils.  She was wearing a lab coat tied with string.

"...Ai-chan?!"

"Lan-ka..." responded Ai in a high-pitched voice.  Then she turned to Sheryl.  "Ch-ril..."

Finally, she understood the queen's explanation about Ai-chan.  As they walked to the shuttle, the Dr. Jenus and Dr. LaSalle gathered around them.

"Amazing, isn't she?" remarked Dr. Jenus.  He pointed to a broken cocoon.  "She just hatched an hour ago."

Dr. LaSalle handed them two memory disks.  "We recorded her 'rebirth'.  It's very fascinating.  I've also included scans on her anatomy.  She may look human, but she is still Vajra underneath."

Ranka took hers.  "Thanks.  I'd love to see it."

The look on Lt. Maxwell's face when she saw Ai was priceless.  After they explained what happened to her, she relaxed to her usual self.  Along the way to Ranka's house, they talked to Ai and found out that she only knew how to say their names.  However, she seemed to understand what they were saying.  They began to teach her more words.  When they arrived at Ranka's house, Ranka went upstairs with Ai-chan to pick out new clothes while Sheryl unpacked their dinner.
 
Before dinner, Ranka inserted the memory disk into the player.  The player's screen sprang to life and Ranka sat at the table with Sheryl, Hope and Ai-chan.  Together, they watched Ai-chan's rebirth.

"She has wings?" exclaimed Sheryl.

In response, Ai-chan slipped her insect-like wings from under her sleeveless shirt and showed them proudly.

"Yeah.  I only saw them after I took off the lab coat.  That's why I gave her that shirt."

Sheryl's eyes went back and forth from the video and Ai.  "The queen did a pretty good job on her body.  It's just like a girl's."

Ranka blushed in memory.  "Way too much like a girl's..." she said silently.  It did not help that Ai-chan had no sense of propriety and had her legs spread out while she sat on the floor and tried to awkwardly put on some underwear.  Since she was having such a hard time, Ranka was forced to help her. 

"Yeah.  We have to teach her how to act like a girl her age."

"We?  Is she like a daughter then?" asked Sheryl playfully.

It took a few moments for the implication of her question to sink in.  "Eh?  No, what I meant is... you know, as her guardians..."  As soon as she said that, she felt like she was digging her own grave.  "No, I mean, we're like teachers, you see.  And Ai-chan is our student."  There.  That argument should clarify her intent.  A drop of sweat rolled off her temple.

"Well, she certainly resembles you.  She could be your sister."

"I wonder why she looks like me.  I guess we'll have to ask the queen tomorrow."

They finished their dinner and spent the evening teaching Ai.  Ai learned at such an amazing speed that they were in awe of her intelligence.  Around 10 PM, they decided to call it a night.  Sheryl and Hope bid them good night and left with Lt. Maxwell. 

Ranka helped Ai change into pajamas.  Then she led her to Brera's room.  She gestured to the bed.  "You can sleep here, Ai-chan."  However, Ai left the room.

"Ai-chan?  What's wrong?"  She went back to her room and found her curled up in the pet bed that she slept in when she was still in Vajra form.

"No, Ai-chan!  You're a girl now, so can't sleep there."  Once again, she tried to bring her to Brera's room, but she resisted.  Ai looked rather uncomfortable on the pet bed, so it was strange for her to want it.  Then she realized.  Since she was a larvae, Ai had always stayed in her room.

Ranka reached out and mussed up her stringy hair.  "I'm sorry.  Did you want to stay with me?"

Ai nodded.

"Ok, but you can't sleep here.  It's too small for you.  I'll get you another bed tomorrow, so for now, you can sleep with me.

Ai smiled and threw her arms around her.  "Ranka!"  she chirped.

She led Ai to her bed and tucked her in.  She was about to lie down when her phone rang.  Who could be calling so late?  Impatiently, she squeezed it and answered, "Hello?"

"Hi, Ranka!  It's Elmo.  I have super-duper good news for you!  Galactic Records is going to reopen for business and want to sign you on as an idol.  If you agree, I'll draw up the contract."

She could hardly contain her excitement.  "Is it a good company?"

"Yes.  They were very successful at Macross Galaxy.  They're really good at promoting their people.  In fact, if you sign up, they'll ask you to do a kick-off concert right away."

She almost yelled into the phone.  "Yes, please look into it!"

"Will do!  Good night!"

"Good night!"

Her heart was giddy with joy over the news.  However, it had been a long day so she snuggled into bed and promptly fell asleep.



Ranka greeted the morning with a yawn.  She had to wake up a little earlier to give her time to prepare herself and Ai.  They had a bit of breakfast and dressed up afterwards.  When Ranka checked her purse to make sure she had her keys, she noticed a purple blinking light.  She fished out Brera's phone.  Her eyes widened when the display indicated that the message was sent and that a new message was received.  Quickly, she checked it and read, "Tel# Ca#hy##rac# #s #ac#."  It seemed that the message was garbled.  Unable to make sense of it, she showed it to Sheryl while they were in route to the lab. 

"I'm guessing that the first part is 'Tell Cathy'.  So I suggest that we forward this message to her.  Maybe she can make sense of it."  She took out her phone and brought up her number.  "This is her direct line."

Ranka forwarded the message and hoped for the best.

At the end of their morning lessons, they asked the queen about Ai.

"It was her choice." replied the queen simply.

As they got off the pod, Sheryl remarked, "Since you raised her, she must think of you as her mother."

Ranka sighed.  "I guess so."  Suddenly, her phone squealed.  She squeezed it.  "Hello?"

"Ranka, it's Cathy.  I got your message.  Can both of you meet me for lunch?"

Excitedly, Ranka relayed the question.  "It's Cathy!  She wants to meet us for lunch."

Sheryl nodded.  "That's fine with me."

Ranka spoke into the receiver.  "Yes, we can.  Where will we meet?"

"My office.  Are sandwiches ok?"

"Yes, that's fine."

"Good.  Come over as soon as possible.  Good-bye."

"Bye."

They discussed the lesson with the scientists as quickly as possible.  Then they asked Lt. Maxwell to drive them to City Hall.  Upon arriving, they were escorted to Cathy's office. 

Cathy stood up from her chair.  "Welcome, ladies.  Please have a seat.  Lunch will be served in a bit.  How are both of you?"

They exchanged pleasantries and told Cathy about what they had done that morning.  Ten minutes later, an aide with a food cart came.  They selected their sandwiches and were served coffee.

Cathy sipped her coffee.  "Now then, on to business.  Ranka, where did you get this message?"

"I got it from my brother's phone."

"Is it a Galaxy model?"

"I'm not sure."  She pulled it out of her purse and handed it to Cathy.

Cathy turned it on.  "Yes, it is.  And from the looks of it, a prototype for uni-link."

"Uni-link?"

"Yes.  It's the next generation fold communication system that was being developed at Galaxy.  Do you mind if I keep this today?  I'd like the Galaxy engineers to check it out.  It may give us a clue on how to contact the Quarter."

"Yes, but on one condition.  Don't take it apart.  I'd like to know if my brother leaves me a message."

"Of course.  I'll specifically ask them not to do that.  Now the next order of business is the content of the message.  I don't wish to alarm you ladies, but I believe it is a warning."

"What kind of a warning?" asked Sheryl.

"Something has happened to the Quarter and its relays.  This message is very short, which from my military experience, indicates that Major Sterne is concerned that it might be detected and tried to reduce the risk by keeping it short.  The malfunctioning relay and this message imply that someone is interfering with Quarter's communications."

"So someone doesn't want us to know what's going on with the Quarter." stated Sheryl darkly.

"Most likely."  She held up Brera's phone.  "But now, we have an alternative.  The Galaxy engineers may be able to reconstruct the message.  However, we don't have to wait for them because we know the nature of its contents.  Ladies, I believe we must prepare for the worst.  We must be ready to fight."

Sheryl's eyes narrowed.  She had an idea what Cathy was asking for.  "So what do you want us to do?"

"Command the Vajra and assist our fleet.  The last battle destroyed a lot of our warships.  We have built the minimum needed to protect us from the Vajra on this planet.  The military's resources are still used for stabilizing the colony.  We need all the help we can get."

"You would use them as a shield?" said Sheryl with an angry note in her voice.

At her tone, Cathy's eyebrows rose up in surprise.  "I'm sorry.  I didn't mean to offend you."

Her anger deflated with her apology.  However, she was surprised at her own reaction.  "Why did I feel that way?"  she wondered.  However, Ranka answered her question indirectly.

"The Vajra are not our tools.  They're our friends." said Ranka.  "If we ask the queen, I'm sure that she'll help us."

Cathy smiled ruefully.  "You're right.  My apologies.  I guess I have to work on my alien diplomacy."  She laughed at herself and Sheryl and Ranka laughed with her.  Then she coughed into her hand.  "Ahem... In that case, will you both go to the queen and ask her this afternoon?"

"Of course." responded Ranka confidently.

They enjoyed the rest of their lunch with random conversation.  When they were done, they left with Lt. Maxwell who drove them back to the lab.  As soon as they had a chance, they explained the situation to the queen. 

The queen looked thoughtful.  "You may use everything except a carrier and its fighters.  We need them."

Her statement puzzled Sheryl.  "It sounds like you're not going to fight."

"This is your battle.  We do not wish to fight unless needed."

"Then, will you teach us how to fight?"

"Yes.  We shall begin now."

By the middle of the lesson, Sheryl felt like throwing up.  Ranka's tight grip on her hand indicated that she was probably feeling the same way.  The combat exercises took place in space and her point of view consisted of feedback from twenty different Vajra.

The queen's voice spoke through her haze of vertigo.  "Do not use your human eyes.  Feel it.  Go with the flow."

Sheryl tried to but could not feel whatever this flow thing was.  When the queen announced the end of the lesson, she flopped down on the pod.  Meanwhile, Ranka leaned on Ai.

A movement caught Sheryl's eye.  A Vajra drone landed near the shuttle.  Its body cavity undulated and a gush of green goo spewed from its mouth.  Then as quickly as it had come, it flew away.

Then the queen spoke.  "Take these crystals and learn to feel the flow."

Sheryl propped herself on her elbow and called out, "The queen says there's crystals in there.  Can someone pick it up?"

Dr. Jenus stared at the goo and then at Sheryl.  "Of course."  He and Dr. LaSalle went into the shuttle and rolled out a huge canister on wheels.  Dr. LaSalle positioned a large hose over the goo and turned on the machine which began to suck the goo into the canister.

Meanwhile, Dr. Jenus fiddled with the scanner.  His face was painted with incredulity and his fingers quickly tapped over the scanner's control interface.  Then his jaw dropped.  "This... this is... a fortune in flow crystals!"

The hose slipped from Dr.LaSalle's hands but she managed to grab it again.  Curious, Sheryl got off the pod and helped Ranka down.  "What's going on?"

By this time, Dr. Jenus' hands were shaking.  "She gave us a lot of flow crystals, just like the one in your earring.  Deculture!  Look at the purity!"

At the moment, she was too tired to sympathize with his elation.  "Please do us a favor and clean them up.  The queen wants us to use them."

It took a moment before Dr. Jenus responded, "Yes, yes, of course.  Dr. LaSalle will put them in a cleansing bath when we get back to the lab."

"Thank you.  Now if you excuse us, we're really wiped out."

In consideration for their condition, the scientists decided to delay the discussion until tomorrow morning and only made them wait for the crystal cleaning.  Sheryl and Ranka each received a box of crystals. 

"Say, Sheryl... can we do more composing today?" asked Ranka shyly.

Her eyebrows went up as she slipped the box in her purse.  "I thought you were tired."

"Well... a little bit, right now.  But after dinner, I'll have rested by then.  So... can we?"

Those pleading eyes caught her off-guard.  "Ah... sure, why not?  We can order dinner from the hotel menu."

"Thanks, Sheryl!  You're the best!"  Unconsciously, she wrapped her arms around Sheryl's right arm and hugged it tightly to her chest.  It was only when Sheryl's arm tensed up that she realized what she had done.  Immediately, she withdrew.  "Ohmigod... now she must think that I'm weird,"  she thought.

Meanwhile, Sheryl's heart was racing.  Except for holding her hand, Ranka did not touch her since the yoga incident.  Her spontaneous action caused goosebumps to break out on her arm.

"Sheryl!  The best!"  This time, Ai latched onto her left arm.

Ranka's hand involuntarily went to mouth.  Sheryl looked rather surprised while Ai was grinning happily for all she was worth.  "Is that how we looked like when I hugged her?"  Embarrassed, she scolded Ai, "That's enough, Ai-chan!  You shouldn't cling to her while we're walking."

Ai looked sad and pulled away.  "When sit, is ok?"

"No."

"When sleep is ok?"

"No."

"Only Ranka is ok."  She bowed her head.

Ranka exhaled a long sigh.  She did not like how this conversation was turning out.  "It's a bit complicated, Ai-chan.  I'll explain it to you when we get home."

Then Sheryl reached for Ai's hand with her left and Ranka's hand with her right.  She held them up.  "Now, now... There's a lot of me to go around, so let's all walk together."  Although she smiled casually, inside she was laughing hysterically at their dialogue.  It took all her self-control to remain calm.  What amused her most were Ranka's efforts to stop Ai from touching her.  It left a warm glow in her heart.

"Sheryl!  The best!" proclaimed Ai cheerfully.

"Geez, Sheryl..."  However, she made no move to take her hand away.  At least, Sheryl did not seem to think that what she did before was weird.

Hand-in-hand, they walked to the parking lot where Lt. Maxwell was waiting.  They got in the car and were driven to Sheryl's hotel.  At the front desk, they ordered dinner before going to Sheryl's room.

Once at her room, Sheryl prepared the keyboard and digipad.  Ai sat down with Hope in her lap to watch them.  After thirty minutes or so of composing, their dinner arrived. 

Ranka watched in admiration as the table was transformed.  She loved the ambiance as well as the food itself.  This time, three plates instead of two were arranged.  Of course, Ai would be eating with them from now on.  The phrase, 'Two is company and three is a crowd.' came to mind, and the ambiance of the table seemed diminished.

After dinner, they resumed composing.  While Ranka was trying to modify the melody on the keyboard, Ai began to sing along.  To their amazement, they heard the words of the melody and along with the basic instrumental tune of the harmony.

"How are you doing that Ai-chan?" asked Ranka.

"Just sing," replied Ai.

"She's like a bird," guessed Sheryl.  "Her vocal chords are probably not the same as ours.  Can you sing this, Ai-chan?"  Her fingers danced across the keyboard.  The first set of notes was in piano while the second set of notes was in violin.

Ai-chan imitated the melody.  The piano and violin parts were not that clear but still recognizable.

"Amazing..." said Ranka in awe.

"Looks like we have ourselves another rival."  said Sheryl jokingly.

"I sing like Ranka and Sheryl!" said Ai-chan.  "Teach please!"

"Hmmm... she has a point, Ranka.  Maybe we should stop for now, and teach her more basics."

"I suppose."  agreed Ranka reluctantly.  She saved her song and switched off the digipad.

They taught Ai-chan more words and social behavior until 10 PM.  At that point, they decided that it was time for bed.  After Ranka and Ai left, Sheryl scooped up Hope and was surprised at her weight.

"My, you're getting bigger.  No wonder my shoulder hurts."  She poked her forehead.  "I'm going to have get a bigger bag for you."

Hope chirped and ran to her pillow.  It sank with her weight as she curled up on top.  She chirped again.

"Yes, yes.  Time to sleep."  With that, she went to the bathroom to prepare for bed.



Before they left for the lab, Ranka ordered a futon to be delivered to her house for Ai.  Then she checked her phone for messages.  Finding none, she waited with Ai for Lt. Maxwell.

The morning lessons began with the use of the flow crystals.  This time, with the crystals in their hands, it was much easier to command individual Vajra. 

In fact, Sheryl grew accustomed enough to try a barrel roll.  A thrill rushed down her spine when she managed to do it.  From her Vajra's point of view, she saw Ranka's Vajra and that Vajra tried to do the barrel roll but broke off the turn midway.  Sheryl smirked and made her Vajra do a victory pose.  She was in the middle of trying a rolling scissors maneuver when she heard the queen's voice.

"Please listen."

Abashed, she broke off the maneuver and followed the queen's instructions.  "Sorry..."

The lesson ended in a high note.  Even the queen was pleased.  Sheryl was humming as she helped Ranka off the pod. 

"Say, Sheryl, Ai-chan's getting a futon today, so can we have lunch at my place?" asked Ranka.

"Sure.  By the way, any news from Cathy?"

"I didn't get any this morning.  My purse is in the shuttle, so let's go and check."

They walked to the shuttle and Ranka checked her phone.  A new message was available.  She listened to it.

"Hello, this is Cathy.  When you get a chance, please come to City Hall ASAP.  Bye."

A worried look stole over her face as Ranka turned her phone off.  "Cathy called.  She wants us to come over."

"Are you worried about the futon?"

"Yeah."

"Hmmm."  Sheryl drummed her fingers on the armrest.  "Maybe we can ask Lisa for help.  She's pretty reliable."

Her eyes brightened.  "Ah!  She seems nice.  Maybe she can drive us over to City Hall and then wait for the futon at my house."

A quick chat with Lt. Maxwell solved Ranka's predicament.  As Sheryl suspected, one of her companions, Private Kim Porter was nearby and she was assigned to wait for the futon.  Lt. Maxwell drove them to City Hall.

As usual, they had lunch in Cathy's office.  While they ate, Cathy explained the situation.

"The engineers were able to find one of the uni-link relays and were able to download its memory.  The message is:  Tell Cathy Grace is back."

Sheryl's heart went cold at the name.  "No... that can't be.  There must be some mistake!"

"For the moment, let's assume so.  If that's the case, we need the queen's cooperation.  Is she willing to help?"

Sheryl shook her head.  "She won't fight.  Instead, she gave us her Vajra to fight with."

Cathy leaned back on the couch.  "I see.  Can you do it?"

"Yes," nodded Sheryl.  "She's training us right now."

Relief formed on Cathy's face.  "That's good to know.  NUNS will do their share.  As of today, I've diverted military resources to building more ships.  The Galaxy crew is modifying the bridge programs so they can control the ghost fighters."

"Any news from my brother?"

Cathy shook her head sadly.  "No.  But I'll let you know if we get any."

Desperation clutched her heart.  "Can we send a small one?"

"I advise against it," replied Cathy sternly.  "Unless absolutely necessary.  Grace was one of the top scientists in Galaxy and she may be able to detect the uni-link relays if they're sending a message.  We're just lucky that she hasn't yet."

"I see."  Her shoulders slumped in disappointment.

"I further advise that you don't tell anyone about this.  I'm not going to announce this to the public.  The last thing we need is widespread panic.  Crime rate is way down since we got here.  Everybody has been cooperating with reconstruction.  If the public knew about another attack, morale would go down and some people might take advantage of the situation to loot."

When presented in that manner, Sheryl hated to admit that she had a point.  However, as a civilian, it irked her that the government did not tell them the truth about the Vajra in the beginning.  "I understand that.  However, please tell them the truth when the time comes.  I don't want to be part of a cover-up."

For a moment, Cathy flushed slightly.  In a controlled voice, she responded, "Very well.  When we have further proof that Grace is back, we will tell the public."  She leaned forward and spoke more casually.  "If this didn't involve Grace, I'd have NUNS handle it and leave both of you out of it.  But with Grace as an unknown variable, I don't want to take any chances.  In the meantime, do what you normally do.  It's even better if you sing.  I want the colonists to feel that they can resume their normal lives." 

Her phone beeped.  She glanced at it and promptly gulped down the rest of her coffee.  She stood up.  "I have a few things to attend to.  Please enjoy your lunch."

They watched her leave and close the door.  Sheryl's eyes rested on her half-eaten sandwich.  With a colony to protect, she did not envy her position at all.  They finished their lunch quickly and returned to Ranka's house.  The futon was delivered as scheduled.  To Ranka's relief, Lt. Maxwell and Pvt. Porter carried it to her room.  Then they moved the pet bed to the attic.

They spent the rest of the afternoon doing more combat exercises.  At one point, the queen seemed very satisfied with their performance.

"Please step off the pod and try again."

They did as they were told and tried.  This time, their level of skill was very similar to their first lesson.

"Go with the flow."

As Sheryl concentrated, the crystals in her hands tingled.  Her abdomen felt warm and her connection to the Vajra seemed a bit clearer.  She tried to grasp that feeling.  For a brief moment, she felt like she was standing in the asteroid belt where they were practicing.

"Feel it.  Flow."

The crystals tingled again and she lifted her hand to look at it.  Instead, she saw a red claw.  At that moment, her concentration broke and she collapsed on the floor.  Immediately, Dr. LaSalle was by her side.

"Are you hurt?"

Sheryl rubbed her behind as she stood up.  "Only my pride," she replied.  "I'm not done yet."  She closed her eyes and concentrated once more.

Meanwhile, Dr. Jenus beckoned Dr. LaSalle to the shuttle.  He pointed to a scan and said quietly, "We have to watch her.  With every lesson, more of the virus is moving to her brain."

"Understood.  I will do more scans and in-depth analysis."

By the end of the lesson, Sheryl felt that she was getting the hang of it.  As usual, the scientists were eager for feedback. 

"Do you have to hold them in your hand?" asked Dr. Jenus.

"Hmmm... She told us to hold them close," replied Ranka.

Dr. Jenus pointed to a scan of Sheryl on the wide screen.  "The purple glow is from the crystals.  As you can see, they are located on the hands and right here, near this ear.  This chart shows the amount crystal reaction from a given location.  As you can see, amount of reaction is about the same for each crystal."

"Does this mean that we don't have to hold the crystals?" asked Sheryl.

He nodded. "I believe so.  We can test the hypothesis by giving you a pouch and hanging it around your neck."

"I have a better idea.  Why not make them into jewelry?  It would be less tacky than a pouch." suggested Ranka.

Dr. Jenus laughed.  "Yes, that is a better idea.  Forgive this old man."  He bowed slightly and they laughed.  "Now, if I may have your attention again, Miss Lee, would you do a simple experiment for me?"

"What is it?"

"With your crystals, ask a Vajra to come to the parking lot.  However, instead of communicating as the queen told you, sing your command."

The notion intrigued her.  "Ok."

Together, they walked to the parking lot.  Ranka took a deep breath and sang, "Come to me..."

A few seconds later, several Vajra hovered around Ranka.  Dr. Jenus tapped his scanner excitedly.

"As I suspected, the reaction increased by a factor of 10 when you sing.  The flow magnitude is almost as high as when you stand in the pod."

"But they always come to me when I sing."

"That's true.  However, when you sang, they just came, but you weren't able to control them.  But now I can assume that you can command them to do more complicated things."  He pointed to some sandy soil.  "Can you ask one of them to draw the letter A here?"

Ranka looked up and picked a Vajra with small claws.  She sang her instructions and pictured the letter A in her mind.  The Vajra landed near the soil and clawed the soil.  When it was done, a crude letter A was sketched in the soil.

"Magnificent!  Bravo, Miss Lee!  This is truly a large leap."

She flushed at his praise.  "Thank you."

"Should I try it too?" asked Sheryl.

"There is no need for duplicate effort.  We have the data already.  For now, let us go back to the meeting room.  Miss Lee, please thank your friends on my behalf for their assistance."

After Ranka dismissed the Vajra, they returned to the meeting room and continued their discussion.  When they were done, Dr. Zore came over.

"Miss Nome, Miss Lee, I just wanted to tell you that I have prepared more reports about the Vajra research that your grandmother and mother did.  As usual, these are available on the lab server.  Please check your email for the access codes."

"Thank you very much.  We really appreciate your summaries.  The actual reports are hard to understand." said Sheryl.

"I'm happy that you find it useful.  As I work, I will continue to provide my reports."

"Thanks.  That really helps."  said Ranka.

They bid the scientists farewell and headed towards Sheryl's place for dinner.  After dinner, they began teaching Ai.  Around 9 PM, Ranka's phone rang and she answered it.

"Ranka, it's Elmo.  The contract is ready.  When is a good time to go over it?"

Her heart started to race excitedly.  "Ummm... how about tomorrow at lunch?  My place?"

"Got it.  I'll bring lunch.  By the way, I've also emailed it to you, so feel free to read it in advance."

"Thanks a lot Elmo!"

"No problem!  I'm your manager, girl!  Anyway, see you tomorrow!"

"Yes!  Bye!"  Ranka squeezed her phone so hard that it belched repeatedly. 

"You look really happy.  What's up?" asked Sheryl.

"Elmo... Elmo got me a contract with Galaxy Records!" bubbled Ranka.

Sheryl's jaw dropped.  Galaxy Records was a big competitor to her record company.  If they were moving, then her company would not be far behind.  However, Ranka was lucky that it was a Galaxy company instead of a Frontier company.  The Galaxy colonists would not know about her supposed betrayal.  "That's awesome, Ranka!  Good for you!"

"This is it!" thought Ranka.  "My new chance.  My chance to convince people that I'm on their side."  She turned to Sheryl.

"Elmo wants to meet me tomorrow at lunch.  Is that ok?"

"Why are you asking me for permission?"

Her heart skipped a beat.  Why indeed?  Her fingers twiddled randomly.  "Well, we always have lunch together, so... I hope you don't mind if he comes over..."

Sheryl smiled softly and thought, "You've already included me.  I wonder what you'd say if..."  She cleared her throat.  "Well, I was thinking of going to the jeweler who did this earring and asking him to mount our crystals on some bracelets and necklaces."

"Oh.  So you'll be busy?" asked Ranka, sounding a bit disappointed.  Her hair lost its usual bounce.

"Tee hee... such a cute expression." noted Sheryl silently.  She pretended to think.  "Hmmm... Well... I could ask Lisa for a favor again.  Maybe she could deliver our crystals to the jeweler while we have lunch."  She had already planned to ask her, but had not had a chance to tell Ranka of her plan.

Ranka's hair bobbed up.  "Do you think she'll agree?"

"She's nice, so she probably will."

"Then you can come for lunch?"

"Of course."

They resumed Ai's lessons.  Although they did not do any composing that night, Ranka went home in high spirits.  That night, she slept very well.



In anticipation of their lunch meeting, the morning seemed to breeze by for Ranka.  Finally, noon approached and so did butterflies in her stomach.  When the doorbell rang, she almost ran to open it.

"Ranka!  How are you?"  He waved with one hand while carrying bags in the other.

"I'm fine!"

"And Sheryl's here too?" said Elmo, sounding a bit surprised.  "You two seem inseparable now."

Blood rushed to her face and she grabbed the bags of food irritably.  "What are you saying?  We've just come back from lessons with the queen.  Didn't I tell you that?"

"Well, she was with you last night too..."

She blushed even more.  "How do you know that?"

He lifted his hand to his ear.  "I can hear her voice in the background."

"Let's just eat.  We need time to go through the contract."

Elmo saluted.  "Yes ma'am!"

After lunch, Ranka and Elmo went over the contract while Sheryl taught Ai in Ranka's room.  With her digipad, Sheryl moved through the set of preschool lessons that she downloaded from the Frontier server.  She pointed at the text and the corresponding pictures.

   Max loves apples.
   Max loves planes.
   Max loves Miriya.

"Max loves Miriya," repeated Ai while pointing to a picture of Max and Miriya hugging.  "Just like Ranka loves Sheryl?"

"What?  Where did you get that idea?"  Already, her heart was beating wildly, hoping for more confirmation.

"See?"  She pointed to her posters on the wall.

Her heart sank.  She was hoping for far too much.  "She admires me, Ai-chan.  That's different."

Instead, Ai shook her head.  "She hug you.  When sleep, she says Sheryl and hugs me tight."

"How often?" asked Sheryl eagerly.

Ai closed her dark orbs.  "Mmmm... 3 times when night and then 2 times when night then day then night."

"What else does she do that involves me?"

"Mmmm... when me small, she sings your songs.  And then..."  Ai stood up and went to her dresser.  She pulled out a towel and wrapped it over her torso.  "She put this." 

Sheryl gasped.  The picture on it was from one of her posters with just her face centered.  It was enough.  Despite the temptation to discover more, she decided that she should respect her privacy.  She took the towel from Ai and carefully folded it.  "Ai, don't just take stuff out of her dresser without her permission, ok?"

"You ask..." said Ai, looking confused.

She put the towel in the dresser and closed it.  "I know.  I'm sorry I didn't tell you about that.  But from now on, ask Ranka before you open or take anything from her dresser."  She picked up the digipad and skipped to the next lesson.  "Here, try this one."

Downstairs, Elmo and Ranka continued to plod through the contract.  Around 1:30 PM, they finished.  As she signed it, Ranka fought her trembling hand.  After she was done, Elmo held out his hand.

"Congratulations!"

Ranka shook it vigorously.  "Thanks, Elmo!  And thanks again for putting this together.  It must've been a lot of work."

Elmo slipped the papers into a folder.  "It was, but I think it's worth it.  They want to do the concert in a week or two.  When can you do a photo shoot for your concert poster?"

She thought for a moment.  "After lunch.  I'll ask the queen to delay the lessons until mid-afternoon."

"In that case, let's meet here for lunch, so I can tell you what to expect."

After Elmo left, they went to the queen to resume their lessons.  Along the way, Ranka told Sheryl about the contract.

"It's good." said Sheryl politely.  There were some terms that could have been negotiated better, but Sheryl did not feel like putting Elmo in a bad spot.

The days before the concert settled to a routine pattern of lessons, preparation and teaching.  Occasionally, they would ask Cathy for news about the Quarter, but she still did not have any.  Along the way to the mothership, they could see an increase of activity on the airbase.  More ships were appearing on the tarmac.

Finally, the day of the concert came.  A week and a half ago, Ranka never thought that this would happen.  And yet, here she was about to step on the stage once more.

"Nervous?" asked Sheryl behind her.

"Yes... it's my first solo concert since we got here."

"Well, go out there and give me a challenge.  Mine will be in a couple of weeks."

Ranka swallowed.  Almost a week after she signed her contract, Sheryl's company assigned her a new manager and arranged for her concert.  She gave a thumbs up.  "I won't be beat!"  When the cue came for the curtain call, she strode forward with determination.

By intermission, the crowd was still cheering and whistling for her.  A cold towel was welcome relief over her sweaty forehead.  She headed for her dressing room to change into a new suit.  Suddenly, there was a twang in the air.

"Look out!"

From the voice and the flash of golden-coral hair, she knew that Sheryl tackled her. 


There were several twangs followed by the whine of laser fire.  Somewhere in the distance, a man screamed.  She looked up and saw Lt. Maxwell standing before them with laser pistols in her hands.  Pvt. Porter helped them up.  Meanwhile, just around the corner, there were shadows of several people struggling and a voice of a man cursing.

"Secure the perimeter.  Arrest anyone suspicious," ordered Lt. Maxwell.  Three women in civilian clothes obeyed and scattered.

"We have an injury," reported Pvt. Porter.  She held a scanner over Sheryl's arm.  "Non-fatal.  Administering first aid in a secure location."  She pressed a piece of tissue over the wound.  "Hold it there for now."

"Affirmative.  Report when you're done."

Sheryl winced as she did as she was told.  Blood stained the tissue.

Pvt. Porter gently guided their arms.  "Please come with me."

Walking quickly, she led them to a van that Sheryl noticed outside of Ranka's house.  All sorts of equipment were in it along with a small recessed table and a bench. 

"Please sit comfortably.  I'll dress your wound in a moment."

Ranka was shaking uncontrollably.  Before she knew it, everything went black.  The next thing she knew, she was lying on the bench.  An awful smell assaulted her nose and she sneezed.  She sat up slowly.

"Here, drink this."  Pvt. Porter offered a bottle with a straw.  "It'll calm your nerves."

Ranka sipped the cool green liquid.  Then she remembered.  "The concert!  I have to go!"

Pvt. Porter put a gentle hand on her shoulder.  "They're going to end it now.  As a consolation, each attendee will receive a discount coupon for your new CD."

"But they came to see me.  I have to sing."

"I'm sorry, but..."

"Let her sing."  said Sheryl firmly.

"We can't protect her on stage!"

"Then we will.  Hope and I will keep an eye... or rather... several eyes on her.  If something looks suspicious, we will protect her right away."

"But how?"

"Please peek outside the window."

She did and was surprised to see several Vajra nearby.  "You called them here," she whispered in a voice tinted with awe and perhaps, fear.

Sheryl nodded.  She turned to Ranka and held her hands.  "So sing.  Sing and show them who you really are."

"But what about you?"

"Oh this?" She touched the bandage.  "This, after all the other things I've been through?  This is just a scratch."  She cupped her cheek in her palm.  "I'm fine.  Go.  They're waiting for you.  Go."  The last word sounded with a sure and confident note.

Ranka's lips drew taut with determination.  "I'm going."

Escorted by Vajra, they made their way back in time to convince the stage manager to continue the concert.  While Ranka prepared for her entrance, Sheryl discreetly deployed the flying Vajra over the concert area.  The smaller Vajra and larvae hid in the shadows among the concertgoers and around the stage.  When they were ready, she opened her mind to them and watched through their eyes.

Thankfully, no further incidents occurred for the rest of the concert.  The applause and energy from the crowd indicated that they forgot about the abnormally long intermission.  However, as a precaution, Sheryl and Ranka left in the van instead of Lt. Maxwell's car.  Unlike the car, the van was armor plated and even amphibious.

After thirty minutes, they switched to a different van.  Another thirty minutes later, they arrived at Sheryl's hotel.  They were escorted to the penthouse suite next to Sheryl's.  Lt. Maxwell opened it with a card and handed the card to Ranka.  "From now on, please stay here until we've determined that it's safe.  Use that card to access this floor.  Other than the lab and the mothership, please clear any other excursions with me."

Ranka clutched the card to her heart.  "For how long?"

Lt. Maxwell shrugged.  "I don't know.  A week, maybe two.  We have the perpetrator.  Security for the concert was tight so we need to figure out how he sneaked crossbows in and whether he had any accomplices."

"I see."

"Pvt. Porter will be on duty tonight.  She will be outside your suites if you need her.  My squad and I will patrol the area.  You're safe here, so please get some rest."  She saluted.  "Good night."

With that, they went into their rooms.  Ranka sat on the bed.  Trembling, her hands covered her face.  Finally, she released her control and sobbed like a child.  Warm arms embraced her from behind. 

"Ranka..." whispered Ai softly. 

Ranka turned around and wept into her chest.  Ai held her tightly.



Track 4












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