Lutz stood right next to the tall oak tree, its canopy of leaves casting a wide shade around him. It was a bright, warm Spring day, the type of day that would encourage most people to kick off their shoes and curl up under the tree -- or better yet, climb up in it -- with a good book. Lutz, however, did not lazily lean against the tree. He did not even touch it. He simply used it as a physical cover as he gazed across the campus of Palma University in Camineet at the twenty-year old girl who had just emerged from Luveno Hall.
Andrea Dahlia Larson.
Her dark brown hair just barely touched her shoulders, swaying back and forth as she walked from the building with two schoolbooks in her arms, two schoolmates with her. The boy to her right suddenly said something Lutz could almost hear, animating his words with his arms as he spoke. Andrea and the girl to her left burst into laughter at the boy's apparent joke.
Lutz's eyes narrowed.
[Andrea Larson!] he called out to her mind. She reacted immediately, looking around briefly before locking her eyes on Lutz, across the lawn from where she and her friends stood near the doors to Luveno Hall. She glanced to her friends, dismissed herself, and started walking his way. Lutz moved to meet her halfway, his legs taking giant strides, his eyes never for one moment ceasing to drill into hers.
When he reached her, he spun on his heels and walked with her back towards the tree he had been hiding near. "You have much to explain, young lady," were Lutz's first crisp words.
"And hello to you, as well, Master Lutz," Andrea replied, absolutely no remorse in her voice, no guilt at what she had done. The words and the tone only made Lutz grit his teeth in more anger.
[Do you have any idea what you have done?] Lutz asked her telepathically; he didn't trust himself enough right now to keep his voice low.
"Of course I do," Andrea replied.
[You may think your answers; I will read them from your mind.]
"Thank you for the option, but I prefer to speak aloud."
Lutz stopped walking, spun on his heels to stand before her. His eyes were like the front drills of the largest ice digger on Dezoris. [Watch your tongue, young lady.]
"Young lady?" Andrea scoffed. "You're not all that much older than me. Physically, anyway."
[You are in enough trouble as it is. I would recommend you do not make it worse for yourself.]
She glanced behind him, over his shoulder. "Where are we going?"
[Where do you think?] Lutz replied. [We're going to a safe place, and then we're teleporting home.]
"No," Andrea said slowly, shaking her head. "No, thanks for the offer, but I think I'll pass."
"It was not an offer!" Lutz chomped out the words.
"I knew it!" Andrea clapped one hand on top of her schoolbooks. "I knew I could get you to talk out loud!"
Lutz simply stared back at her, his teeth clamped together tight. No words would come from his mouth. "Aren't you even going to wish me a happy birthday?" Andrea finally asked him.
"If you are attempting," Lutz began to say, very softly, and very, very slowly, "to anger me, I assure you, you are succeeding."
The smile fell off of Andrea's face and she looked Lutz in the eye. "No, Master Lutz, I am not trying to anger you. But I have to ask you a question. How much time elapsed between the time you came out of cold sleep and the moment you teleported here to Palma to retrieve me?"
"Less than twenty minutes," Lutz replied, no amusement whatsoever in his voice.
Andrea shook her head, genuinely amazed. "You're good," she nodded. "I thought it would take you at least an hour."
"I do not find this amusing, young lady."
"We should head that way," Andrea said, motioning behind her, virtually ignoring Lutz's pointed comment.
"Because the spaceport's that way."
"I am powerful enough to teleport us both back to Dezoris, thank you."
"That's just it, though. We're not teleporting back."
For the first time since the conversation began, the anger on Lutz's face disappeared. His entire face fell into a frown of confusion as he spat out, "Excuse me?"
"We're taking a space ship home."
Lutz pulled the hood of his robe over his head. The Master Esper, in his flowing, white robes would look extremely out of place on the university campus, that is, if anyone save Andrea were capable of seeing him. His telemental powers broadcast a "masking signal" to the other minds in the area, so no one else saw or heard him bring his staff before him and say, "We most certainly are not. We are teleporting. Now."
"I'll come back," Andrea said defiantly, bringing her books to her chest and folding her arms across them.
"Excuse me?" Lutz repeated. It was perhaps the first time in his life he had used the phrase so frequently.
"If you teleport me back to Dezoris," Andrea said mockingly slow, "I will leave the mansion again and come back here to Palma."
"You speak in a sarcastic tone, you consider this entire matter a joke, and you treat me with absolutely no respect," Lutz ran down the laundry list, "but do not condescend me, young lady."
"I'm simply telling you what will happen if you teleport me home."
"Is that a threat?"
A shrug from the Esper girl. "It's the truth."
"Then I will retrieve you again."
"Now who's being condescending?" Andrea blinked. "I'd wait until you were asleep again, of course."
"Why do you insist on the two of us taking a shuttle home?" Lutz demanded. The entire situation had gone from bad to worse to unbearable. No Esper, not since Lian and Sophie on that awful first day of his reign so long ago, the day Master Noah had died, had ever questioned his authority. "You know we'll have to pass Mother Brain security checkpoints to do that. The whole reason we're teleporting back is to avoid the devil's trap. We will effectively be sitting in her lap if we take a shuttle."
"Not a shuttle," Andrea shook her head. "That will make the trip in hours. We're taking the scenic route on a space cruiser."
At this point, Lutz did not even bother to react, he simply stared at the girl, his eyes and face expressionless. When she said nothing, he sighed, "And may I ask why?"
"Because when I came here, the only ship I could take was a shuttle. We zoomed right by Motavia and I never got to take a look. I want to take a space cruiser so that I can spend an entire day watching Motavia from the ship's observation deck."
After a long moment of consideration, he released another sigh. "And so if we take a space cruiser home, the 'scenic route,' you will agree to return with me to Dezoris?"
"Absolutely," Andrea smiled.
He stared back at her smiling face, remembering the tender moment of her birth, the exasperating moment in her classroom ten years before, and now this, and wondered where Andrea Larson's parents had went so wrong. How had such disrespect, such contempt for his authority been planted? Had he done something wrong himself?
"You can consider it my birthday present," Andrea smiled, and Lutz didn't have to peek into her thoughts to know she was smiling because she knew she had done what no one else had done in centuries.
She had defeated Lutz.
"Let us go," he said flatly. It was good her smile was big enough for both of them, for he would have no smile on his own face anytime soon.
The last few clouds drifted into nothingness, and then, that was all that was around them: nothingness.
They sat strapped tightly to their seats in the departure/re-entry cabin of the space liner. Once the ship had broken free of Palma's orbit and set course for Dezoris, they and the other passengers on board the space cruiser would be free to return to their cabins, or to enjoy the many recreational and entertainment activities aboard the liner. During departure, however, all passengers were required, for safety purposes, to strap in tightly to their acceleration seats.
Lutz scowled across the walkway towards a passenger who was reading a magazine. The cover read "Mother Brain: What wonderful gifts does she have in store for us in the final decade of her first 100 years?" The Master Esper thought he might be sick, and not from the travel.
He glanced over to his left at Andrea Larson. The belligerent young lady who had insisted on taking "the scenic route" had the window seat... and was also blatantly ignoring it, instead immersing herself in a science magazine. Lutz's scowl deepened...
...then disappeared, as beyond Andrea, out the window she was ignoring (out of pure spite for him, Lutz was sure), Lutz saw something he had never seen before: outer space.
Of course, he had seen the stars, but only when viewed from a planet. Never when viewed close enough to touch! He was six-hundred fifty years old, and he had lived on both Palma and Dezoris, but his method of transportation between the two had always been teleportation. Or rather, if he had ever been on a ship, he had been too young to remember it.
So he had never seen space up close. In fact, he couldn't remember ever having seen anything so beautiful.
"It's beautiful..." he said aloud, his voice little more than a whisper.
Andrea looked up from her science magazine, glanced at him, then outside, then back at him. "It's just space."
Realizing he had spoken aloud, Lutz, embarrassed, looked away from the window. "So it is," he nodded.
Laying the magazine on her lap, Andrea smiled. "You said it was beautiful."
Lutz bit his lip. "I have never seen it before."
"You've never been on a ship?" she asked incredulously.
"No," he scowled, highly uncomfortable. "I have not."
Staring straight ahead, he did not see Andrea keep her eyes on him for a long moment. Her smile widened, then she picked her magazine back up and continued reading. "You're welcome."
"What?" Lutz said, turning his eyes towards her.
"I said," Andrea began, her magazine covering her mouth, but her grin evident just by the look in her eyes, "you're welcome."
Lutz looked forward again, his eyes narrowed. This was going to be a very long trip, indeed.
By the time they had been released from the departure cabin and eaten dinner (in almost absolute silence), it was ship's night. Though Andrea was at the end of her Palman day, Lutz had only been awake for approximately half a day, yet he guessed he was more tired even than Andrea. His first day awake out of cold sleep was usually one of very little activity, mostly one of simply rest, relaxation, and ceremony. It took time for his body to get readjusted to being awake after ten years asleep. But today, he had given himself no such time. He had immediately left the mansion to retrieve the escaped young Esper.
As if she could read his mind, Andrea then said, "You haven't even asked me why I left."
"That is irrelevant," Lutz replied, glancing left and then right as they walked down the residence corridor, passenger cabins on either side of them. His was 1029, hers was 1030, both at the far end of the hall. "Half-Espers are forbidden from leaving the mansion."
"Let me guess: for our own good, right?"
"Mock me if you must, young lady," Lutz replied with a sigh, "but you never witnessed an army of Dezorians on a murderous rampage, burning and killing everything they saw."
"That was centuries ago, Lutz," she pointed out.
"The law still stands," was his flat answer.
She exhaled. "Still, aren't you even a little curious?"
"About what?" Lutz asked.
"About why I left the mansion," she nudged his arm, as if to add, Silly! "Why would an eighteen year old Esper flee Esper Mansion on Dezoris to attend university on Palma?"
"I don't think I want to know," Lutz said flatly. "Everything you do seems designed to fluster me, to upset me, to make me uncomfortable, and to disrupt the order of our society."
"Well, you're right," she nodded. "I did leave because I wanted to 'disrupt the order of our society.'" She paused. "I want to restore power to the Half-Espers."
And once again, Andrea Larson had left Lutz speechless.
"None of the elders would let me anywhere near your research notes," she grumbled. "So I had to sneak in. The library is the most closely guarded room in Esper Mansion, are you awake enough to realize that? The library! I could throw a party for me and a hundred friends using your cold sleep chamber as a buffet table before I could gain unrestricted access to the mansion library."
Lutz realized he had stopped walking, and she had stopped to face him. But even realizing that he had stopped was not enough to get him moving again. Was this a lie? Another trick of Andrea's? A game, like back at her university? Not about the library, of course, but about her motives. Had she really been attending university on Palma... in an effort to help him restore the Half-Espers' powers?
"When I finally got to your notes," Andrea went on, "I realized you were looking for a magical explanation to the loss of powers. But I started to think it could be something else. I think something biological happened to destroy all our powers. All but yours, of course."
"But it was a magical event that robbed the others of their powers," Lutz argued. Even though his eyes had been closed when Master Noah had called upon Lutz's power and the powers of all the other Esper students in his class to rebuild Esper Mansion from the pile of cinder the Dezorians had reduced it to, Lutz could still feel inside the same surge of power he'd felt that day. The feeling of being on fire and about to explode at any moment. "I was there. The only reason I, too, did not lose my powers is because my magic was stronger than anyone else's."
"Maybe," Andrea shrugged. "But Esper power is a genetic trait to begin with. Right? So isn't it possible that such incredible use of that power by Master Noah created... well, created some kind of mutation, for lack of a better word, that disrupted the genetic code of the other students in your class?"
Lutz's eyes were wandering, distant. Pondering. "Why wasn't I affected, then?"
"Well," she began, "my working theory is that the biological effect of what Master Noah did was to crank up the power level of you and all the other students in your class to a few points beyond max, then he sucked that power right out of them and used it for what he needed to do. But that was way, way too much power, more than any of the others were capable of handling, so their systems just shut down in response. They just turned the power off, you see? But you... it just sped up your growth. Made you at age fifteen as powerful as you would have been at age thirty or forty. Maybe even more so." She shrugged. "But that's all just a hypothesis."
After a long moment, Lutz finally snapped back to attention. His brain was racing with new ideas. He began walking again, much faster than before. Andrea, at his side, kept up. "We should not be discussing this in the open." He arrived at his cabin door, fumbled with the key, opened it. "Come inside," he ushered her. "We have much to discuss, Andrea."
"You can call me Andi," she smiled. "My friends all call me that. Partner."
A small smile fell across Lutz's lips, one filled with hope.
He found her the next day on the ship's observation deck, a huge area open to space -- or at least apparently so, as the transparisteel that covered the deck was difficult to see. Andi was standing at the very edge of the deck, her arms folded on top of the guard rail there, oblivious to the children running around her, and the other passengers relaxing in chairs all over the deck, and to the sound from the restaurant, behind her a ways and on a balcony overlooking the main floor of the observation deck.
Normally, the observation deck was moderately filled as passengers used the opportunity to remind themselves they were out amongst the stars. With the invisible walls and ceiling of the spacious area, one almost thought it was possible to reach up, grab a star, and take it home as a souvenir. Now, however, the deck was packed almost to capacity, as the ship was passing Motavia on their course for distant Dezoris.
Over in one corner of the deck, a ship employee was speaking into a microphone, spouting off all sorts of facts and figures about the desert world they were now passing. "Last year," he was projecting into the microphone, his voice filled with zest and zeal, "Mother Brain completed construction of Climatrol on Motavia. Now all of you are familiar with Climatrol on Palma, but more than just controlling Motavia's weather, Motavia's Climatrol will actually help begin to reform the planet, and within a few centuries, Motavia is expected to be a world as green as Palma."
All around him, passengers ooohed and aaahed and applauded at the news. "Damn that computer to hell," Lutz muttered under his breath. He was almost to where Andi stood now, but even if he had spoken at a normal volume, she wouldn't have been able to hear him. As he got near her, he realized she was standing raptured, not paying attention to the narration booming through the deck, but merely staring at the sandball, which could be seen clearly in its entirety ahead and just a bit to the left of the ship.
"Hello," he greeted her, taking a spot next to her, setting his hands down on the guard rail.
"Isn't it lovely?" she asked him.
"Motavia?" he frowned. "If I had to pick which planet in Algo was loveliest, I'd have to say Palma. But I was born there, so I'm a bit biased, I suppose."
"It's not just it's physical appearance, it's terrain," Andi explained to him. "It's the whole package. The warm wind hitting your face. Walking barefoot through the sand. The cool waters of Odin Lake refreshing you after a long day in the sun. The Paseo nightlife..."
"I see Palma isn't the only place you've visited," Lutz noted with a minor frown, but most of his anger towards Andi at her leaving the mansion had pretty much been erased by the news that she, like he, was actively trying to restore power to the Half-Espers.
"No," Andi shook her head. "You misunderstand. I've never been to Motavia. But I'd love to. Oh goodness, how I would love to."
Lutz looked at her, out at the planet, then back to her. Then, he chuckled. "Why?"
"What?" Andrea snapped at him, her attention finally pulled from the planet.
"Why?" Lutz repeated. "Why would you ever want to go to Motavia?"
She punched him lightly on the shoulder. "Weren't you listening to anything I just said?" she chided him. "I've read so much about it. It sounds like such a wondrous, fascinating place. It's certainly warmer than the Alplatin Plateau, I guarantee that." Her gaze then returned to the distant brown sandball.
"That it is," Lutz nodded. "It's always been a little too warm, for my tastes."
For the second time in almost as many seconds, he managed to whip her attention away from the planet and to him. "You've been there?" she practically shouted in his face.
"A few times," Lutz nodded, unable to restrain a smile. "But never for very long. Most of my waking time is always spent in my study, on my work. But every once in a while, I leave and visit Palma, to pay my respects at the Heroine's Tomb. Whenever I do that, I usually stop on Motavia on my way back, to also visit the grave of Sirus, an old governor of Motavia. He was a good man, and almost a second father to my master, Noah. I try to tend his grave, out of respect for my master."
"Where is the grave?" Andi asked. "Paseo?"
"Outside of it," Lutz nodded. "It's a very beautiful area."
"Tell me about it!" Andi eagerly asked.
"Well," Lutz chuckled, "as I said, I haven't been there much. But what I remember the most is the sunset. The entire sky filled with red, as far as the eye could see, and that red sun, hovering above the sand dunes..." He became lost in the thought of him standing out in that area, grassy where he stood, but sand everywhere else as far as the eye could see, placing the flowers on the grave of Sirus... He shook himself back to the present. "It was the most beautiful sunset I had ever seen."
Just as Andi had been raptured by the planet before, now she was raptured by his words. She just stared at him for a long moment after he finished, then she whispered, "Wow."
She reached out then and grabbed one of his hands, squeezing it gently in both of hers. "Thank you," she told him sincerely, her voice still little more than a whisper.
Lutz, somewhat taken aback, gave her hands a small squeeze in return. "You're welcome, Andrea," he smiled back at her. Her eyes still hadn't left his own. Lutz had never before noticed their magnificent green color.
Finally, with one last squeeze, Andi let go of Lutz's hand, and turned back to stare at distant Motavia, but the smile did not leave her face. Likewise, even after she turned, Lutz kept his eyes on her for another long moment. Brown is a rather unusual hair color for an Esper, Lutz thought to himself, but it suits Andrea well. Again, before that moment, he had never quite noticed that about Andrea Larson.
Lutz tapped his fingers nervously across the table. This is a mistake, he thought, glancing at the two candles burning softly in the middle of the table, the place setting directly to his right rather than across the table from him. The bottle of wine, standing between the two candles. I am acting like I am sixteen, not six hundred. But even if that were true, was that such a bad thing?
When Lutz was fifteen years old, Esper society was destroyed and rebuilt before his very eyes, and both on the same day. His parents and his teacher, Master Noah, had all died that day, and at fifteen years of age he had been handed the Frad Mantle, and with it, the literal mantle of leadership. He was expected to lead his people, to restore their powers, and to prepare for the return of a hellspawn one thousand years hence.
He had barely had time to be a teenager. He had never had time to fall in love.
He cringed silently at the word, curling his left hand into a fist and resting his chin upon it. She was on her way, he could detect her mind approaching the dining hall. It wasn't too late yet, but it soon would be. Did he want her to walk in and see the grim six-hundred year old leader of the Espers, uncompromising in his rules for their society and unwavering in his own ways, or did he want her to see the part of him that had stopped growing when he was fifteen, the part of him that was still a teenager, the part of him that wanted to spin pirouettes and loudly sing songs every time he thought of Andrea Larson's smile?
And that is when Lutz closed his eyes and sighed. Masks, he spat at himself. They were all masks, all coverings he wore to keep everyone from him. His destiny was a painful one. He had watched his teenage friends grow old and die, and then their great-great-great grandchildren do the same. He had always kept up his defense mechanisms to keep from getting too close to his people. He loved his people, for sure, cared for them deeply. It was why he continued his quest, rather than having swallowed poison centuries before. But he loved them at a distance, and he was alone at that distance.
Alone, and lonely. Don't I deserve to fall in love? he asked himself again. After all I have done, haven't I earned that much, at least?
He had been so lost in his self-reflection that he hadn't sensed her entering the dining hall, nor seen her approach their corner, secluded table. He looked up at her to find her simply staring at him, her jaw moving slowly, as if unsure what to say. Standing from his own chair, he simply returned her gaze. She cleared her throat but said nothing at first. Finally she said, "Nice table. Bet you had to tip nicely to get this one."
"Yes, I did," he nodded, then grinned slightly and tapped the side of his head, "or at least they thought I did."
Andrea's jaw dropped, the corners of her mouth pulling up into a smile "You did not!"
Lutz just continued to smile, watching Andrea. He didn't know what to say. Luckily, she did, so he let her speak to avoid an awkward silence. "This is, uhh, a little different from our normal booth in the cafeteria. I thought maybe you wanted to eat something a little more high class than burgers and colas for a change, but I, uhh... I mean, I didn't expect..."
"I'm afraid I'm a little new at this, as well," Lutz shrugged uncomfortably. "I mean, you would think, in six-hundred fifty years... But I've never... asked... a girl on... a date..." A pause. "Before." He lowered his eyes, having finally gotten the words out. Now he just waited for her reaction. She was clearly uncomfortable, of that he could tell even without his telepathy. But unwilling?
He stepped closer to her and she did not take a step back. He grasped her chair and pulled it away from the table, inviting her to sit. It was as good a way to prompt a response out of her as any. If she walked away, left the dining hall...
(Returning to Esper Mansion dejected, the entire Esper society knowing that I had asked the runaway Esper out for a date and I had been rejected, and they would lose so much respect for me and...)
...well, he wasn't going to think about that. If he had thought about that, he never would have got here in the first place.
She sat down. "Thank you," she said, glancing over her shoulder at him. There was a hint of a smile on her face.
"Of course," Lutz nodded, the words almost unable to come out of his throat. The man who had lived for six and a half centuries then sat down for his very first date.
After the dinner, they strolled back to the ship's observation deck. At this time of ship's night, and with Motavia behind them and Dezoris another thirty hours or so ahead of them, the deck was practically deserted. Every chair on the deck was empty, but instead of taking them, Lutz and Andrea instead stood at the edge of the deck, the transparisteel dome just inches before their faces, their eyes scanning the comets and the constellations.
"You love it here, don't you?" Andi asked him. "I forget that this is your first trip into space."
"It's my first time for a lot of things," Lutz replied. "This is my first date, you know."
Andi raised an eyebrow. "I know you've started to develop a sense of humor, but get out," she said, clearly disbelieving him. "Are you kidding me, Lutz?"
"No," he shook his head. "No, I've just never had time for those kinds of things."
She took his hand in her own, and looked him straight in the eye. "Lutz, there are some things that you make the time for." She squeezed his hand once, looked back to the stars. But she did not release his hand.
"Sometimes," he started, "back at the mansion, I liked to go outside in the middle of the night, and look up at the stars, and just..." His voice drifted away for a moment as his mind traveled amongst the stars, his consciousness floating from his body and spreading out into the cosmos, opening his mind to all the wonders of the universe. He couldn't help the feeling, though, that the most spectacular wonder was the one standing right next to him.
When he spoke again, his voice came as if from a distance. "I just open my mind..." he barely whispered. "Soak everything in. I wonder if someday, I'll find other life out there..."
"I'd love to be able to join you someday," he heard Andi's voice from far away, and Lutz then did something he had never done before.
He dropped all of his walls, all of his masks, and all of his defenses and let Andi into his mind.
He opened his mind completely to her, brought her inside it, and the gasp Lutz heard at his side was her, learning for the first time what true telemental power was all about. From within his mind, she was the cosmos all around her, she experienced this complete, literal open-mindedness, and more than that, she saw Lutz, the real Lutz, the hidden Lutz, more intimately than anyone else ever had.
"Oh my goodness..." she whispered. Lutz closed his mind off from the world, not all the way, but mostly, and turned to face Andi. He kept the mental link between the two of them. "I... never imagined..." Andi said, her voice coming in gasps. She placed one hand on the side of his face. "I can see you," she whispered in wonder. "I can see... everything..."
He leaned forward, kissed her cheek gently. His heart pounded against his chest. He kissed her cheek again, and again, each kiss moving closer to her lips. She closed her eyes as he did so. Through their mental link, Lutz could tell it was an occurrence unlike any other she'd ever experienced. Not only could she feel Lutz's lips on her skin, but she could feel his mind in her own, feel what was in his heart...
Lutz finally worked up his courage and kissed her lips. He kissed her quickly then pulled away. "Oh my goodness," she said again, then put her hand on the back of his head and pulled him back towards her. She kissed him deeply.
Father wants me to accompany your party. It is my duty to find out what happened.
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