“You're hurting my hand, ‘Merama.”
Sharra looked down, so distracted by the confusion that at first she didn't even hear Deven's request. When she realized what it was, her death-grip on his little hand, she rubbed it gently between her own and gave him an apologetic hug.
“I'm sorry, darling,” she said. “I guess I was just worried you might get lost.”
“I don't think I could move far enough to do that,” he commented dryly, yet the hint of his perpetual smile sparkled in his dark, intelligent eyes.
Her gaze lingered, haunted by their familiarity as she wondered when she'd see her bondling again. This time it was more than being gone. Every time he'd left Mira III for an offworld onsite there'd always been the chance he might not return. Space travel was hazardous, encompassing frightening games of chance with space and time. It wasn't that she didn't worry, because she did, but that was different. While his loss would have left her with a void that could never be satisfied at least on her naterra she could take care of herself and the children. Her own income was modest but the family of any man lost in the line of HIO service was guaranteed continuing compensation until the end of their lives, at least as long as they remained onworld.
But as Laren had reminded them on the Aquarius, over and over again, they weren't on Mira III anymore.
If he was here, it wouldn't matter. He'd always taken care of her. Always. Far better than most womenwould dare hope for. He earned compensation only exceeded by the governors plus had pledged to protect and honor her forever. Incomprehensible to most Mirans, male or female, sometimes even herself.
And she'd pledged him the same.
In most cases, bonding was for convenience only, and few invested any emotional energy whatsoever. Theirs wasn't like that. He'd even insisted on repeating their bonding ceremony prior to leaving Mira III. The warmth and security she felt as he looked into her eyes and restated his Promises had been nearly overpowering. Her heart had burned, the warmth spreading through her so tangible she’d actually looked to see if she were glowing. Certainly not something she would have expected after so many years of being bonded, no matter how much she loved him. That alone had been enough to make her believe there really was something to that Order business that he and Jen had gotten into on Esheron.
She'd always known he'd die for her or any of their children, more so now than ever, yet the concept was also frightening. Those same qualities that made him an exemplary bondling also made him capable of similar passion in embracing other principles as well. That was what scared her. She was number one, but hardly alone on his list of priorities. There were their children, of course, his brother, and now the added complexity of the Order. How far he'd go for that, she didn't know. Nor wanted to.
The vast domed enclosure that housed Cyrarian immigration was stuffy and hot, conditions entirely foreign to a native Miran. Crowds and disorderly lines were likewise unfamiliar, the perfect order and predictability of her home world something she'd always taken for granted. He hadn't told her much about Cyraria, other than some about its climate, which was erratic and extreme. Probably because he was supposed to be there to deal with situations like this. She wasn’t supposed to worry about such things.
She tried not to worry, to convince herself that everything would work out fine. It was only the noise and confusion, the stifling heat, causing her heart to take flagrant leaps, preventing her lungs from filling with a decent breath. Rarely had she experienced fear but she knew what it was and recognized it now. But Jen would take care of her and Deven until Laren got home, which would certainly be soon. It was unfamiliar and unorganized and uncomfortable but everything was under control. Otherwise Laren would have never left.
The line edged forward, the noise deafening but anonymous, a continuous, roiling roar. The confusion fed her anxiety, energy slipping from her as if she were afflicted by some debilitating disease. She'd never been in such a crowd, yet never felt so utterly alone.
Her thoughts drifted beyond Laren and Dirck to a greater unknown, the whereabouts and safety of their only daughter. A girl whose genetic mix seemed to contradict itself like oil and water, some atavistic throwback from her father's unsettled ancestry compelled to comply in a world of enforced peace. As a youth Laren might have been like that, too, but the rough edges had worn smooth through hardships and trials. Creena had never dealt with anything harsher than an NCR. Sharra had never even had one of those. Yet now they were both alone in different spiral arms of the galaxy, the man they both desperately needed somewhere inbetween.
She smiled slightly at the thought of Laren bringing her home, Creena and Dirck in the close quarters of a private spacecraft for what would be a very long time. Her smile faded. However long it might be for them, it would be longer still for her.
And speaking of time she couldn't understand why the line crept forward so slowly. If there even was a line. Things were never like this on Mira III. Unexpected delays or disorganization were unheard of, wouldn't be tolerated. At least their records were in order, choices she and Laren made together before leaving, so she wouldn't have to make any hard decisions. Until the move there hadn't been many to make. Mirans made very few, most insignificant, and while Laren always consulted her for those that arose, her comfort zone was easily exceeded without his guidance. Except those rare times when something deeper than conscious thought led the way.
Which hadn't been the case with Cyraria. She'd been reluctant in the first place, but he'd insisted that he'd never be farther than Cyraria's moon and they'd always have no less than voice com if she or the children needed him. The emptiness in her heart expanded. They'd barely arrived and already that supposition was false.
Not that surprises were really anything new. That was what being bonded to Laren was all about. Fear still kindled in her heart whenever she recalled the very first chron they'd spent together as bondlings. When he'd jokingly told her that his naterra permitted multiple bonds. It took a lot of convincing to assure her that he was only teasing and would never consider such a thing. It wasn't allowed on Mira III anyway, and back then the possibility of returning to Esheron had been zero. More recently, that also had proven untrue. If he only knew that hoards of lecherous Esheronian females pursuing her bondmate terrified her more than the toils of war.
Several decichrons and increasingly dismal thoughts later the press formed a visible line then split again before they reached the front, its contingents tired, hungry and more confused than ever. At last, Jen and his family, directly in front, were in-processed with remarkable speed.
His assignment as a healer was to Delta/Epsilon, to set up a Physical Assistance and Remediation center, or PAR, to service the newly developed sectors of the region. During the trip he'd explained that telemedicine would be substantially different there than Mira III, a challenge he looked forward to. ALSIC's, or Advanced Life Support Intervention Centers, were networked everywhere on Mira III, their diagnostic and regeneration equipment so automated there was little need for a human in the loop. Cyraria, however, was a different story. Here he'd have less technology, more patients and occasional emergencies, something seldom seen on Mira III. He'd never been much like Laren but the fact he was happily anticipating an experience in utter unpredictability implied they shared more common blood than she realized.
Jen, Para, and their children were logged in, given a transport disk, directions to the landing bay and summarily dismissed. They didn't leave, of course, instead waiting to assure that she and Deven were directed likewise. The jendak supervising the movement didn't take well to the anomaly, jumping up and down with a babble of nasal-sounding protests. With Jen's efforts to explain fruitless, at length he simply ignored him to focus on Sharra and the hollow-eyed immigration clerk.
“Palm in, please,” he directed, and Sharra complied. The clerk paused, confused. “Your records indicate you're part of a unit.”
“Yes,” she said. “I am.”
“I can't admit you without your unit lead. Shown here as Laren Brightstar. Is that correct?”
“Technically, yes,” she answered, frowning. “He's not here, but I'm his bondling. I'll speak in his name and accept our assignment in his behalf.”
“Sorry, ma'am, you're only a dependent. No one but the unit lead can make that claim.”
She stared back, dumbfounded, unprepared to have no more significance than baggage after sharing identical privileges on Mira III, her voice and his equal before the law. Impatient with her silence, the clerk looked questioningly at Jen, who explained briefly about the unexpected excursion to find Creena. The clerk's expression remained disinterested.
“Without your unit lead you can't be admitted,” he repeated.
“Then add them to mine,” Jen said.
The clerk stared at them momentarily, eyes glazed with fatigue, then gestured for Jen to palm back in. His records displayed on the screen.
“You're not Miran,” he said, scowling.
“Then your unit falls under different laws. Your naterra's Esheron?”
The clerk queried for the legal definition of a unit under Esheronian law. He read it, then shifted to numerous addenda.
“Okay,” he said, after what seemed a very long time. “It appears that can be done. Cyraria honors cultural, political and sociological conventions for cleared immigrants. The Esheronian Contingency Law allows for the change.” He turned his attention from Jen to Sharra. “You, however, are Miran. Do you understand what it will mean if you submit yourself to ECL convention?”
“I think so,” she replied. “I'll be part of Jen's household until my own bondling returns.”
“No,” the clerk said. “Your previous bonding will be cancelled. You'll be legally bound to this man here and unable to change that status until he dies.”
She looked at Jen, puzzled. “But I thought Laren and my Promises were valid anywhere,” she said. “Forever.”
Jen shook his head. “The ECL is part of the ruling covenant,” he said. “The one Laren and I made when we accepted the Order. Promises are only in force as long as the bonding is. They're intended to assure your safety, not tie you to someone who's unable to provide for your needs.”
Jen's wife, Para, pulled her aside, large, green eyes wide with concern. “It's okay, Sharra,” she said. “Come with us. Please. When Laren gets back, he'll figure something out. He knows lots of people, important people. He'll get it reversed.”
All Sharra could think of were their Promises, solemn pledges that simply wouldn't allow for such a thing. Even in name only, for as long as she knew, or even suspected, he was alive, it simply wasn't an option. She hugged Para, thanked her. Shook her head and turned back to the clerk.
“No,” she said simply. “I can't do that.”
“What are the other alternatives?” Jen asked, panic smoldering in his usually calm, blue eyes. “I promised my brother I’d take care of her.”
“She's Miran, right?” Jen nodded. The clerk pulled up the addendum for Mira III. “Okay. She can be admitted as an indigent ballomesteader. There's a waiting list but she and the child can stay in an immigrant shelter until her name comes up.”
“She can't stay with us until then?”
“No? Why not?”
The clerk closed his eyes and sighed. “Because Delta Epsilon doesn't allow long-term visitors who aren't domiciled onworld.”
“She will be when she gets the ballomestead,” Jen argued.
“If she stays with you, she's not entitled to the ballomestead.”
“The indigent ballomesteads are only available in Sigma/Epsilon. If she leaves the region, she sacrifices her claim. I'm sorry, but her only alternatives are to join your unit or wait for a ballomestead. What's it going to be?”
Jen's eyes met hers, waiting. She shook her head, undecided. “What exactly does the ballomestead include?” he asked.
“She'd be issued land, minimal shelter, some household goods, and a food ration to last a trilachron.”
“What happens after that?” Sharra asked, knowing three hundred chrons, or days, now that they were onworld, may not be long enough.
The clerk eyed her wearily, patience spent. “I have absolutely no idea,” he said. “Most immigrants consider how they'll manage before leaving their naterra.”
Sharra swallowed hard, the dilemma too much for her ordered, Miran mind. Then she thought of her bondling, their Promises and everything they'd shared. “Very well,” she said, gripping Deven's hand as it slipped into her own. “I'll take the ballomestead. I'll figure something out in a trilachron.”
For some reason the clerk's expression softened. “There's always the Miran Spacetime Travel and Events Statute,” he explained. “You can declare your bondling dead if he doesn't return within a certain amount of time of when you expect him. Then you could join the other unit under the ECL.”
“I'm afraid I don't know when that might be,” she answered, the statement somehow even more ambiguous when spoken aloud.
“I'm sorry, ma'am.”
“I'm sorry, too.”
Jen’s expression was so saturated with dissent she stiffened, worried he could negate her decision. “No, Jen,” she said. “It's my only choice. Anything else would be a betrayal.”
The clerk handed her the transport disks and insisted they move on, the jendak's ears leveled with continuing frustration as they walked hesitantly in his direction.
“Sharra, no. I can't let you do this,” Jen insisted, his wife reinforcing his argument almost enough to make her sway until Deven squeezed her hand. She looked down at her son, finding the answer she'd known all along hidden deep in his dark, innocent eyes.
“I'm sorry, Jen,” she said firmly. “I really am. But I can't betray him like that.”
Jen's pleading expression evolved to near-panic. “I promised him, Sharra. Please. Don’t do this. This way you're forcing me to betray him.”
“I'm sorry, Jen,” she repeated firmly, “I promised him, too.” She rested her free hand on his arm and forced a smile, adding more softly, “And I really think he'd rather be betrayed by his brother than his bondling.”
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