Too Many Long Boxes!
   
   

End of Summer
 

A Stranger in the House

by David and Katie Schock

It was on the Terran Christmas Eve just this past year when Akana Napolipolita-Daitokuji stopped believing in the Great Mother.

The green-headed thirteen-year-old had been born on Alpha Cygni, located in what the Terrans call the Constellation of the Swan, and had been raised there by her four older sisters, officers of Her Majesty's Space Navy, and her father Alie Tuzoia. She remembered little of this, of course, because she came to Japan to live when she was just three. The only home she had ever really known was a palace formerly known as the Daitokuji Mansion.

During these past few weeks -- called "the holidays" by Earthers -- her family had experienced its worst crisis ever. And to add insult to injury, not everyone was happy with what Akana had just announced to her family - but she hoped that they would come around in time.

This child who was born on the other side of the Galaxy and spent more time in space then NASA, was now holed up in her room, where she had ducked when the yelling had started. She was fully prepared to foil any intruders (particularly her nasty Earth-sister Biko) with the particle-beam motion tracker she had installed just outside her door. In addition to being an experienced commando, {at least in her child hood fantasies} Aki was also handy at weapons design and surveillance systems - two necessary skills for survival in the Mansion if you wanted to stay ahead of her step-sister, aka Ol' Beekers!

She sighed as she flopped down on her bed, and picked up a opalescent-and-silver colored book. The residents of the Lepton Kingdom had a tradition of keeping a "Memorial Book" -- analogous to a Terran diary - which was meant to be handed down from one generation to the next. Akana sighed once more and opened hers.

Maybe if she reread her entries that chronicled the family crisis, she would have a flash of intuition which would guide her next move. Akana relied heavily on her woman's intuition, even though she wasn't quite a woman yet. She also had a bit of the "shine" - a psychic ability that had bailed her out of more than a few scrapes over her short life. Having turned her back on The Mother the way she just had, she doubted that she would glean any knowledge at all for rereading these entries.

"Why is life so complicated?" she thought, and turned the page. "It was simpler when I was a little kid."

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December 11

My Memorial Book, greetings.

This has been a pretty good year so far. My grades at the Graviton City High School for Girls (this was my first year there) have been "off the charts". That stupid Ayumi Sensei puts my feet to sleep, though. Dull as dishwater and dumb as a post, I can't believe that our princess C-ko and her friend Eiko {A-ko} thought she was a good teacher.

I love these Terran sayings! HA!

And of course, Ma is having another baby. The National Enquirer did another snotty story about it and she held a press conference announcing her latest lawsuit against them, this time for "defamation" and "intentional infliction of emotional distress", whatever the hell that means. She told me later she did it just to get the Patriarchy all cranked up. Good for her.

The press conference itself was really pretty funny. There she stood, big as a frigging house in her Central Astro Agency Director-General's uniform, with its buttons about ready to pop. Arisa [my sister number three] and I were making bets on when they would blow. It was a near thing, because she kept yelling and waving her arms around and we could just SEE those seams straining -

ANYWAY she said that she could have as many babies as she [expletive deleted]-well wanted and if they didn't like it they could blow it out their [expletive deleteds]and she wasn't asking anybody, especially not her husband, for a single yen with which to raise them so it's really nobody's [expletive deleted] business and if the people of Earth have such a big problem with her because she is an alien with a special need to create more citizens for the Leptonain empire. Then they might remember that we have colonies in thirty-three [expletive deleted] colonies and need a lot of people to populate them and if the Terrans find a need to bellyache about it, then they can [expletive deleted] well take it up with the Cygnan Consulate.

I thought she was just great.

Buttko [my stepsister Biko Daitokuji, aka Craphead aka Beekers aka Big Blue Bomber] was whining about how my mother ought to go to the vet to get sprayed or something and I told her that SHE ought to go to the Seventh Level of Avernus {Our version of hell} where she could roll up the latest issue of the National Perspirer and then cram it. She called me a bad name and Daddy yelled at her.

It was pretty funny.

Anyway, she settled down and went to her room to obsess over our Lost Princess for a little while before dinner. I know this because I was in my usual encampment under her bed. Great Mother. With all the anti-bugging and surveillance crap she has in that room you think she'd look under her gd bed. Honestly, some people have [expletive deleted] for brains.

Anyway, it was a nice dinner because Ma and Daddy (Hikaru Daitokuji, my adoptive dad - not my real dad who is Alie Tuzoia but I think I told you that already) were happy and Daddy gave her a present because she had another AA "anniversary". I forget which one. I don't remember her getting drunk, but my sisters do. They said she used to be pretty bad, and it's so much better now. It was a pretty necklace made of the Cullinan Diamond or something. Sucker was as big as my fist. It was awesome.

Then they went off to listen to a little concert that the string quartet of the Kyoto Symphony Orchestra was playing for us on the other side of the Mansion (Daddy bought it for Ma as a present so she would have people to accompany her voice lessons. When he had plain old hired them, they had all quit, so he bought them instead, ha-ha!)

After that, they had a little party in our "ballroom" (I can't understand it -- I've never seen any balls in there or sports equipment of any kind). There were tons of people there, including that kakamatandis [a bad Cygnan swear; Ma would wash my mouth out with soap if I translated it for you]Larry Yashida, who is my mother's boss. Then there was that crazy Roy Moore who runs Gil-Hil Studios, and Ma and Daddy's sometimes-lawyer Katie (the one who says my mama's dark glasses are something called a "rip-off"), and of course Jack and Tess. Dr. Stellamaris was also there. Ma is always complaining about her, for one reason or another. MedAssist Chiranthus was there too - how anyone can survive with only a brain stem is beyond me! Oh yeah, that David guy from Noo Yawk (at least that's how he says it) was there dealing cards. "Place your bets, ladies and gentlemen, place your bets" - he was so cool, especially with that cockatoo or cockatiel or cacadoody or whatever Terrans call those birds perched on his shoulder --

My little sister Kazushi was standing there sucking her thumb and tried to crawl onto Ma's lap but she didn't have one, being six months pregnant (we Cygnans only take seven months to grow a kid, unlike the inefficient Terran women who take a whole lot longer and don't do half as good a job}. Kazi started bawling, so D took her to the kitchens (we have six or seven, I think) for an "Egg Cream" which is a treat Eiko {pronunced A-ko} told her about once. They aren't the greatest thing I ever drank, but I wouldn't spit one out on the floor either. Which is high praise coming from me.

Egg creams don't have eggs or cream in them. What gives?

Anyway, I just had a bath and am in my nightgown that says "SPOILED ROTTEN" on it and if I am, big [expletive deleted] deal. I like it that way.

Good night - Aki

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December 18

My Memorial Book, greetings.

My Ma's old pal Deesha Dakina (Dee or D for short) was over here for most of the day and she and Ma were getting ready for the baby. My new about-to-be-born sister is going to use the same Bikreet outfit that Dee had bought for my other little sister Mitsuko when she had her ceremony (Oh for any ignorant Terrians who might read this some day. A Bikreet is sort of like a Leptonian version of a christening).

Deesha also got Ma to promise that she wouldn't try to sing the Drawing-Down Blessing. YAAAAAAAY!!!!!!!!!! Ma was okay with it, too, because Deesha told her that she'd be far too busy greeting all those guests to find time to sing.

Ma told Dee that she'd been feeling strange lately - not sick or anything, just different. She told me later that she's fine and I believe her.

Personally, I'm looking forward to using my AK-47 Rocket Launcher {If I can find out were mama hid it.} to take down the news helicopters that will no doubt try to invade the airspace over our Mansion - WHAP! BAM! SEE YA, MA'AM!

WAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA!

Good night, Aki

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December 20

My Memorial Book, greetings.

Ma spent today at her office at the EDF Command Center, yelling at her boss for being such an oofunzhi (Leptonese for idiot). He had wanted her to personally test the Athena, the second generation of the Napolipolita-Daitokuji Financial Group's "ENDY" (Ma's light-speed cruiser, which made her a millionaire and Daddy very happy). She wanted no part of that and I think that Yashi-Boy called here a few minutes ago to talk with her. I just heard her yelling (Beekers isn't the only one with surveillance in this house!) that she wasn't a [expletive deleted] grunt and he could go hire himself a [expletive deleted] test pilot and hadn't he noticed she was full-term?

But I digress.

Anyway, she had come home from the Central Astro Agency ranting about how stupid men were, and we -- being budding Cygnan warriors -- all agreed. Then she and Daddy cuddled up on the couch and I massaged her feet and we all watched that old American movie called "My Stepmother was an Alien". That REALLY made ol' Beekers mad. Guess I know what I'm getting her for Christmas! The movie was kind of stupid, though.

Note to self: hack into Bluggy's computer and put Stepmother movie on continuous loop!

Ma already has a first name picked out for my about-to-be-born little sister - "Atanaria". Isn't that pretty? She hasn't settled on a "middle" name yet. Daddy laughed and suggested she name the baby Hikaru Teru, and Ma smacked him across the forehead and reminded him that no males have been born to our line, not ever. He kind of grumbled and his forehead was red for a little while but he got over it. He said there was absolutely nothing wrong with daughters, and that it seemed to be his fate to have plenty of them. Ma said he was [expletive deleted] lucky.

It's a good thing Daddy doesn't understand Leptonian. HA!

Good night, Aki

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December 24

My Memorial Book, greetings.

I am so excited!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Ma is going into labor and the Priestesses of Cybele are already here! Dee is in the birthing room with her, along with Alana and Atina [sisters two and three], Dr. Stellamaris, that va'akensplootz (whoops, Leptonian for bubblehead) MedAssist Chiranthus, whom I could backhand in a heartbeat, and some other Terran women I don't know.

Daddy laughed and smoked a cigar and said something about his new little girl being the best Christmas present he'd ever have. I thought that was funny since we Leptonians really don't celebrate Christmas, being what the Terrans call "pagans".

Oh, oh! I'll finish later, duty calls!

Good night, Aki

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December 25 - The Terran Day of Peace and Joy

I will try to piece together what happened.

Ma had the baby, all right. I knew that because I was standing outside the birthing room (I had gone to fetch her some ice water) and heard the cry. But my glass of ice water smashed to the floor when that baby's cry was followed by a scream.

I'm still not sure who screamed. It didn't sound like Ma. It sort of sounded like D, but I can't be sure. Before I could react, Daddy ran down the hall from the other direction and hit the Bokhara runner at the wrong angle. He fell heavily right on his hip and his elbow, and I swear I could hear his teeth grind from across the room. I ran over and helped him up. More screaming was coming from the room. Oh God God God my Ayshalita is dead, Daddy kept saying over and over until I thought I be the one who would go mad.

We walked toward the door. We didn't run. I think we both were terribly afraid of what we might find on the other side. Right before we got there, one of the Magdiu [our word for priestess] pulled it open. Her face was dark with rage and something else I couldn't read at first.

Now that I think about it, I'm pretty sure it was hate.

"It is a male," she hissed.

I am having trouble keeping everything straight from here. I think what happened next is that Daddy tried to get past her to see Ma and his new little son and one of the other Magdiu ordered him to leave. He told her to go to whatever hell she believed in and pushed her aside. I was right behind him, and pushed myself between him and the priestess to see my mother.

She was all curled up in a ball in the corner of the room [we Cygnans give birth sitting up; it makes sense to use gravity]. She was clutching her knees and shivering. She looked like she was suddenly a hundred years old. Daddy went to her and put his arms around her to show how much he cared for her and of course to comfort her. I looked around and saw that the baby was being tended by Dr. Stellamaris. Eeyanna Chiranthus - that bubbleheaded Beneshandran nurse - was just standing there staring at the priestesses with her mouth hanging open, like she couldn't believe her ears.

It was very confusing. Some of the adults (Stellamaris, Daddy, Chiranthus, the Terran women) were happy and the rest (the priestesses) were - well, I didn't know the right way to put it then, but I do now - filled with what must have been some sick type of self-righteous anger or perhaps it was simply disgust. I don't know which side of the fence Ma was on at that point. As for poor Deesha, she just stood around in shock with a confused look on her face.

I walked over and got my first look at the swaddled baby in the Doctor's arms. By this time, he - I guessed it was a he, I didn't really see anything different -- no extra parts or anything -- he was crying hard, his puffy little face beet-red. And then I looked up at the sound of a commotion, and what I saw will stay trapped in my head forever. {Sorry for the stains on the pages and the smudges, but I am crying all the time I'm writing this.}

I saw the three Priestesses of Cybele pull my father away from my mother. The one known as Kashtaritu gripped him right above his sore elbow. He winced and swore at her, and did what he could to break away. Plancina, the other priestess, stood over my mother, shouting at her that she had failed in her duty. My mother was crying. And then the Magdiu who had hold of Daddy told him the baby was nothing but breeding stock; he tore away and punched her in the face. I could hear the footsteps of our Security team making their way down the corridors in both directions.

In the midst of this, Dr. Stellamaris had tried to get over to Ma to hand her the baby. Ma had started to reach out for him when Vipsania Parsua, the oldest Magdiu and the very same one who had officiated at Alia's Tadispuk Ceretoria - shoved the Doctor away from Ma. Stellamaris almost dropped the baby. My father screamed. It was horrible.

Kashtaritu then turned on my mother and started screaming at her again. "No! It's bad enough that you disgraced your mother's name with your drunkenness, and that you showed your contempt for your Sisters by leaving us so that you could actually cohabit with a male!"

"It's against the Ways," Plancina screamed. "and now you're being punished for it!" She was starting to scare the hell out of me with her ranting. "Don't shame yourself and your family name any further, Commander's daughter. You know the Cygnan Way in such matters. Don't you dare touch that -- 'thing'!"

Dr. Stellamaris ducked under the Magdiu's arm and tried to thrust the baby into Ma's arms. But Ma kept them crossed over her breast and dropped her head, sobbing as if her heart was broken. And thinking about it now as I am writing this, I'm sure that it was.

"Don't listen to these words of hate," the Doctor panted. "This little one needs you desperately. Aysha! Take him!"

But she wasn't fast enough; the priestess whipped around and snatched the crying baby from her arms. Tucking him into her cloak with a disgusted look on her face, she then shoved my father out of her way. "Give me my son, damn you!" he shrieked, and grabbed for him.

Dee had her hands gripped in her hair, not knowing what to do. A Cybele worshipper all her life, I think her obedience to the Magdiu was almost instinctive. It had always been about the males - the males who had subjugated and shamed Cygnan women for thousands of years -- the males who had been thrown out for good by the Matriarchy. D wanted to obey the Magdiu but she also wanted to help her dearest friend. Ma was still crumpled on the floor, destroyed by the soul-shattering realization that they were going to take her baby away.

"You kakamatandis are all the same," Vipsania Parsua growled, shoving my Daddy. "Out of our way." He told her that he was going to kill her.

By this time, our Security team had arrived, and as they trained their weapons on the Magdiu, Dr. Stellamaris screamed, "WAIT!" Everyone looked at her. She was crying too.

"We Pathfollowers do not understand this terrible custom of yours. Religion is not evil, but sometimes its best intentions lead right to it! Why punish the child for being what he is? Being male isn't a crime. Please don't remove this little child from his home. Please." I heard my Daddy moan. Stellamaris' head snapped toward him. Then she looked at the Magdiu again and said, "Is it agreeable to you that the child remain here -- not with his mother but with Deesha Dakina, who is one of your own and who will follow your Ways?"

One of the Magdiu (I forget which one) went to push my father out of the room completely, but he was instantly surrounded by his security guards, weapons at the ready. He was sobbing. I didn't even see my mother at that point because of all the people in the room.

I don't have the words to tell you how awful it was, at any moment I thought a firefight would break out. Ordinarily, I would have gone for my pulse rifle, but frankly I didn't know in my heart which side was right.

I do think that Vipsania Parsua was no fool, and knew it would anger Our Majesty Zazen'lda the First if she provoked an intergalactic incident. If she did, there would be a lot of tall explaining to do, and Our Queen is a Pathfollower, not a worshipper of The Mother. And worse for her that the Kollok-Matrae - members of the Council of Fifteen and Admirals of our Space Navy - are also Pathfollowers, and would stand united behind Her Majesty.

The Chief Priestess straightened her shoulders while clutching my brother, who was instinctively trying to nurse at her breast (I thought he looked kind of cute, although he'd get no sustenance from her, that's for sure).

Daddy reached for the baby, and moaned. "Please," he murmured. "Oh please. I will pay you any amount, any sum. Whatever you want. Just - don't take my son away from me."

For a moment, the room was utterly silent. I was absolutely terrified by the near overwhelming silence of it, and even as I did my best not to, I began to cry myself. My older sisters came to my side, and we clung to one another.

All eyes were upon D, whose eyes were upon the Chief Magdiu, who then nodded at her.

Deesha Dakina - my mother's dearest friend and lifelong protector - stepped forward and took the baby in her arms. She didn't cuddle him, or even try to comfort him. Poor little kid. Born only a few minutes ago, and already people are fighting because of him.

"He will be removed, you can be sure of that, " Vipsania Parsua warned D. "We will give your friend a little female to raise in his place. Napolipolita's arms will not be empty. They will once more be filled, only this time with a proper female - a daughter of a Cygnan warrior who has given her life for her people and her Nation!"

"If I see your face again, you will surely die," Daddy told her, his eyes locked onto hers. "Leave us."

The Doctor said, "Yes. Please leave. Let's not make matters any worse. There's too much anger here for any one of us to think straight."

The Security guards held their positions and waited. Everybody did. The Magdiu looked at the weapons and smiled. I think they knew that they could topple the walls with their sorcery if they wanted to.

The one called Plancina turned to face my poor mother, still curled up in the corner. "He cannot stay," she said to her in her deep voice. "It is against the Ways."

"She understands that," Dee replied for her, tears rolling down her big face.

The Magdiu bowed, turned, and left. After a nod from my father, half the Security team followed on their heels.

His shoulders sagging, Daddy walked over to D, who wordlessly -- and, I believe, with complete understanding -- handed the baby to him. We were all crying and I think I was blowing my nose when there was another commotion when Daddy tried to give Ma the baby to hold.

I really can't remember what happened next. It's still all a blur to me. I only know how sick it makes me feel to think about it. I turned around and saw that Ma still had her arms locked around her. I could see the white ligaments standing out on her big hands. She turned her head away from Daddy and the baby, her shaggy green hair hanging over one eye.

"I can't," she whispered.

Daddy looked at her, stunned and unbelieving. Still clutching the baby against his smoking jacket, he looked into my mama's face and hissed, "Damn you to hell, you alien bitch."

She gasped, jerking as if she'd been slapped. Then, her head dropped and she began to cry again.

Surrounded by the rest of our Security team, my father left the room, taking the baby with him. I couldn't take any more. I tore away from my sisters and ran. I ran out into the foyer, nearly colliding with Biko, who was returning from visiting with Our Lost Princess Ciko and A-ko. She'd seen all the guards and heard the alarms. "What is it?" she shrieked. "What's happened?"

"The baby is a male, and Mama won't accept him!" I told her.

I knew that Biko had issues with my mother and with us, and I was expecting her to laugh and say that we were all going to be tossed out at last. But what she did instead was grab me, and we bawled our eyes out. "Oh God," Beekers said. "The poor little thing."

Yes. He is a poor little thing because his mother won't nurse him or even look at him.

Great Mother, I can't write any more. I've told you all I can remember, or maybe it's all I care to remember. Dr. Stellamaris had said she might give me something to help me sleep; guess I'll go find her now.

I can't say Good Night and mean it. Sorry.

Aki

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December 26

My Memorial Book, greetings.

Daddy sent my sisters away to his own sister's house. I feel sorry for them. They'll probably all choke to death on that skinny-shanks Shinobu Daitokuji's Krakatoa Kretek cigarette smoke.

Things are pretty bad around here. I've spent the last ten hours here in my room. I didn't even let my other sisters in when they knocked. Let them all stay away.

I went to see Ma early this morning and was shocked to see how terrible she looked. The birth didn't go all that well for her and she has some recovering to do. Since she's Cygnan, she feels shame for that also. She also feels shame for doubting the Ways. But what's really tearing her up is that Daddy won't talk to her. I only think this is the way she feels, of course. She hasn't said a single word to anyone since the Magdiu left.

Daddy spent hours with the baby today while the Terran doctors examined him. They all say he's big and strong. Dr. Stellamaris did her own examination and agreed. Dee let me hold him for a while but I felt kind of creepy holding a male. I don't think I like males much. I know the Terrans say that's wrong but a person can't help her feelings.

My father will absolutely not go near my mother. I think he hates her now.

I'm going to bed. Aki

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December 27

My Memorial Book, greetings.

I've been thinking a lot about home lately. Alpha Cygni, I mean. It wouldn't be a bad place to be. This place is the pits.

Ma and Daddy had an awful screaming fight earlier today. I had been working out in the gym when I heard them. At first, I was happy because they were at least talking to one another for a change, but then the yelling began. Daddy called Ma a man-hating bitch and Ma said if he wasn't so insecure he wouldn't say such things and how can she hate men if she married him? He told her she was heartless not to even hold her own flesh and blood and what the hell was the matter with her anyway? At this point I went into the kitchen to drown my sorrows with another Egg Cream but I could even hear them in there.

Even as I was trying to enjoy my Egg Cream, I heard Ma screaming at my step-pop. I wonder what she would say if she knew what I learned in school the other day -- that Terran males determine the sex of their babies - something about Xs and Ys. Maybe if she'd known that, she would have bailed out early --

Daddy yelled back that their child's sex wouldn't matter if she were a real mother, and said that Terrans aren't "ball-breaking man-haters" like her people. Then he yelled that people had told him not to get involved with a drunk and that he should have listened to them. She started crying and he went storming out of the house.

I ran after him yelling Daddy! Daddy! and he stopped and hugged me and told me he couldn't loved me any more even if I was his real daughter, but he couldn't stay. He was crying too. I went and talked to Ma a little while. I asked her why we Great Motherists didn't want men in our religion and she said she was too tired right now but would tell me tomorrow. She looks terrible.

I came back here to my room and cried for a while. Now I'm going to find Dee and see how my brother is doing. "Brother" - that sounds so incredibly strange. No Napolipolita has ever had a brother. Our Princess says it doesn't matter because there's only one race, the human race. I don't know. Boys give me the creeps.

Good night,

Aki

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December 28

My Memorial Book, greetings.

Same old crap around here. Daddy didn't come home last night. He called and told D he was staying at his hotel. When D went in to tell Ma she screamed at her, and D went running out. Ma is all alone in there, but I think she prefers it that way. Dr. Stellamaris told her today to get out of bed but she wouldn't.

I don't think D likes the baby very much. She doesn't fuss over him like she did over my little sisters when they were born. I asked her if it was good for him to just sleep in his cradle by himself and she said she didn't know anything about baby men and couldn't tell me. I would have picked him up myself but like I said, males give me the creeps. Besides, when it comes right down to it, he's just another Earth brat.

Oh Hell, I don't know.

Good night,

Aki

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December 29

My Memorial Book, greetings.

Both D and Dr. Stellamaris sat us down tonight after supper and talked to us. Ma still won't come out of her room.

Dr. Stellamaris said that our empire had a "dark secret". Atina asked what is that? She said that a long time ago, because the Patriarchies were trying to take over the empire, the men (well, most of them, anyway) were expelled from Alpha Cygni. They were scattered all over the colony worlds in the Home Galaxy. I told her I already knew that. But then she told us that the doctors back then decided to do a little "genetic engineering" because too many Cygnans were dying in battle with the Xram, and the birth rate (especially with no males on the Homeworld) wasn't keeping up with it. So they tried to fix it.

She added that from that point on, women of the Lepton Kingdom were stronger, lived longer, were more resistant to disease, more tolerant of pain, earlier to mature, faster to gestate (I think that means grow babies???), and with longer fertility. I said well, what's wrong with that? And Doctor S. said that this plan backfired, because for some reason nearly all babies born to these women were girls. There were so few male babies born that the birth rate plummeted even more!

Arisa said that's nice but I just want Ma to get better and for Daddy to come back.

Then Alana my older sister (who's married, but came home with her little girl Akiko to see if she could help) asked why the Magdiu were trying to take our brother away. Akiko started to cry because she thought they would kill the baby if they took him.

Dr. Stellamaris hugged her and said no, the baby wouldn't be hurt. The Great Motherists would either give him to one of our allied nations (the ones that had males) to raise, or send him back to the Homeworld where only a few Cygnan males are allowed to live.

Akiko said that sounded mean and wouldn't the mothers be upset? D explained to all of us that since the babies were taken right away, their mothers didn't have time to "bond" with them, so it wasn't too bad. And then D said that the mother would be given a girl baby instead, so that her arms wouldn't be empty. I asked where these girl babies came from, and D said they were the orphans of soldiers who had given their lives for the empire.

Later on, it made me sad, thinking about those baby men being taken away from their mamas. I wonder if their feelings are the same as baby women. Who knows.

Good night,

Aki

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December 30

My Memorial Book, greetings.

Daddy came back last night and Ma came out of her room and tried to put her arms around him. He said since she couldn't hold his son she couldn't hold him either, and he pushed her away. She started to cry and said she didn't know how much longer she could live like this.

Daddy told her that he didn't care. He said he had talked to his lawyers about a "divorce". I don't quite understand what all that entails but I think it's when a man pays a woman not to live with him any more. But what ever it is it must be really, really bad because D started to cry too.

He left but not before taking the baby with him. I hope the Magdiu don't find out because D will be in big trouble if they do. I'm beginning to think they are really nasty to hate a baby. The Pathfollowers don't give their little kids away! Dr. Stellamaris has her own son, Keith, and she loves him a lot.

I know I shouldn't feel this way, but I do. If this is all a part of growing up, I'd rather stay a kid.

Good night,

Aki

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December I don't remember the frigging date

My Memorial Book, greetings.

Daddy and the baby came back this morning, and he and D had a long talk. He thanked her for taking care of the baby there in the Mansion, but wanted to get her more help. He said that some "nannies" would be coming to take care of "Hikaru".

D said what did you call him? He then told her that he had the baby "baptized". I asked what did that mean? He said he went to the church where my Grandma Mitsuko's funeral "Mass" was, and they gave him that name there, and that now he's "Christian." I asked Daddy if he was a "Christian" too and he said he didn't know but he sure as hell wasn't a member of a religion that hated half the human race. Nobody knew what to say.

I know some "Christian" girls at school. I will have to ask them about what it means. All I do know about it is it's one of the major religions of Earth, and that everybody's got an opinion about it, either good, bad or in-between. D then asked Daddy if he was going to stop in and see Ma and he said no. D said Ma was sick in her body and in her mind and Daddy said she could go back to getting falling-down drunk and drop dead for all he cared.

Arisa and I began to cry because we knew that if he didn't love our mother any more, most likely we'd all have to leave. But then he put his arms around us and said no matter what happens, I will always be your father and will always love you. Atina pushed him away and said how can you be our father and treat our mother that way? He just dropped his head. I felt bad.

Ma called out for him from her bedroom but he wouldn't answer her.

I'm so scared. I hate this so much. This is so wrong.

Good night,

Aki

--------

January 1

My Memorial Book, greetings.

A New Year. For me, it's just another rotten day in Paradise. Ha ha ha. Life sucks so bad.

Even Dr. Stellamaris got mad at my mother today because she wouldn't hold little Hikaru (and when the Doctor gets mad, which isn't often, you KNOW things are really bad). Ma said that wasn't his name. The Doctor said what do you care what he's called, since you want to give him away?

Stellamaris said our religion was wrong about this, like it was wrong on so many things, and Ma told her to take her Path of Shotosarikan nonsense and go [expletive deleted] herself. Dr. Stellamaris told my mother there was nothing more she could do for her and left.

I think the Magdiu scared the hell out of Ma and that's why she won't see the baby. All she does is sit in her room and cry. Except once, when I heard her recite "Hamlet's Soliloquy" from Shakespeare in Cygnan at the top of her lungs. Cygnans love Shakespeare plays, especially on our colony world of Tauka Banesh. I remember from school that was the part where Hamlet was thinking of killing himself, and debating it in his mind. Was Ma thinking the same thing? I hope not.

I don't know what to do. D said there's nothing we can do. She told all of us, including the servants, that it was absolutely vital that there be no alcohol in the Mansion, not even the kind you cook with.

Sometimes I go in and look at him. He really is kind of cute. His eyes are a real pretty blue color, like the Terran sky.

You know, maybe these males may not be so bad after all. At least, the little ones. I mean, what harm can a baby do to anyone? It just doesn't make sense. And if all of this wasn't bad enough, my big sister Buttko seems to have disappeared for the last two days! The worst part is that no one but me had even noticed she'd gone. I hope she's all right - not that I'd ever tell her that I was worried about the big pain in the [expletive deleted].

Good night,

Aki

***********************************************************************

"It was awful, Mr. Kent, with all the yelling and screaming! But the worst part of all was the look on the face of -- " Biko hesitated for a moment, unsure how she should refer to Napolipolita " -- my mother, Mr. Kent -- the look of shame and pain etched on her face when my brother was born."

"Perhaps it was simple postpartum depression," said Eiko's father. "Many mothers suffer from it and almost all get over it quickly enough."

"It wasn't that, Mr. Kent. She was happy enough until she found out she had a son instead of a daughter. That's when all hell broke loose!"

Suddenly, Eiko's mother walked in through the back door of the farmhouse carrying two large bundles of groceries. Her husband quickly rushed to her side, admonishing her. "I told you I would do the shopping! You need your rest."

"And I need you to stop treating me like an invalid," she protested.

Biko thought to herself, "Eiko's mom needing rest?"

Spying her daughter's friend on the couch, Diana told her, "Hello, Biko -- if you're looking for my daughter, she no longer lives here."

Biko's eyes opened wide in shock as she couldn't bring herself to believe what her own ears were telling her. It was A-ko's father who tried to explain, "What my wife means is that our daughter has decided to be off on her own for a few days, while she tries to sort out some things for herself."

"I mean no such thing," protested A-ko's mother. She quickly added in a emotion-filled voice, "My spoiled selfish ungrateful child will not be welcome under this roof until she learns to show the proper respect to her father!"

Biko was in shock at the venom in her host's voice as she talked about her own daughter. Only the voice of her friend's father helped her get over her shock as he said, "Diana, please. Biko has come to us for help and not to hear our family troubles!"

"You're wrong, Mr. Kent. If there is anything I can do, I would be more than happy to - "

"No, Biko," he replied. "A-ko just needs some time alone to think things out."

"What she needs is a good old-fashioned beating," interrupted his wife. "And she's not so big that I can't prove to her that I'm Amazon enough to do it!"

"You know you don't mean that," said her husband in a sad voice.

In response, A-ko's mother paused, sighed, then took a seat next to Biko. "Clark is right, little one -- tell me what the trouble is."

"When my stepmom gave birth to a son instead of the expected daughter everything fell apart all at once! Napolipolita refused to even hold the little fellow and rejected him outright. Then my father cursed her for rejecting their son, and now is even talking divorce. My stepsisters started bawling and Dee all but fainted. That I can handle! But where I need your help, Mrs. Magami - "

"Diana, Diana Clark now!" she corrected.

"Oh. Sorry. I keep forgetting. The biggest problem is those damned Cybelline priestesses and their godawful caterwauling about how rotten males are," explained Biko, on the verge of tears. "They're just so self-righteous about it. I don't mind others having their own beliefs, but I don't understand their desire to ram them down others' throats. I think they've so bullied Napolipolita that she dares not change her mind now, even if she wants to."

A-ko's mother drew Biko close to her in sympathy, hugging the tall girl as if she was her own child. So enveloped in her warmth, Biko went on with her story. "I heard from my stepsisters that the High Priestess told my stepmother that my brother would be taken back to the Empire for breeding stock, and that a fit female baby would be given to her as a replacement. You can just imagine what my father's reaction was!"

A-ko's father nodded his head 'yes' to show Biko he fully understood the situation before he told her, "This is still Earth and the baby is still his son. I don't care how powerful the Cygnan Empire is. No one will allow a son to be taken from his father."

"You really don't understand, Mr. Kent, I mean Clark. I don't want my father to have my brother either, at least not while my mother isn't there to help raise him as well."

"But why?" asked Diana.

"Because -- without my mother to hold him in check, my father will raise my brother the same way he raised me. He will turn him into what I once was, only worse!"

"Oh, Biko, are you sure? He seems to have mellowed since his remarriage," Diana commented.

"Don't be too sure of that. A tiger can't change its stripes."

"What would you have us do?" asked A-ko's father.

"Monsters aren't born, Mr. Kent. They're made. I have no intention of letting my father create one. When everyone was fighting back and forth, I went upstairs and put on my powersuit so I could steal the baby!"

"Steal the baby?" Diana nearly shrieked. "Why steal the baby?"

"So I could bring him to you and Mr. Kent to raise," answered Biko.

"Why us?" asked Diana.

"Anyone who could raise A-ko into the woman she is today, I want to raise my brother and give him the chance I never had."

"We have no more right to take your brother from your family than the Cygnans believe they do," the Man of Steel replied.

"But what else can I do?" asked a teary-eyed Biko.

"I'll go see..."

"We'll go see your mother," interrupted Wonder Woman, noticing that Biko was vacillating between referencing Napolipolita as mother and stepmother.

"We'll both go see your mother and your father," explained Superman with a smile as he looked over at the woman he loved so very much.

The three of them arrived back in Graviton City in less that an hour. A-ko's mother set down her strange alien craft on the front lawn of the Daitokuji Mansion. They were immediately met and confronted by a squad of her father's private and heavily-armed security squad. They were quickly dispersed by Biko, whose orders were instantly obeyed.

Entering the Mansion, Biko first led her friend's parents to the nursery to see her brother. Upon their arrival, both parents took turns picking up and playing with the infant. Seeing how well they reacted to her baby brother, Biko was more determined than ever that -- if they failed in this mission -- she would make sure that her brother wound up with these two wonderful people. It would be a far better fate for him instead of ending up in some breeding center in the Cygnan Empire, or alone with the father who had caused her own lifelong troubles.

"Poor little man," Diana crooned to him, rubbing his soft baby cheek against her own face. "All alone in this big lonely room with no one for company. There is simply no excuse for it."

After leaving the nursery, attended only by a number of anonymous nannies, A-ko's parents walked down the long corridor that led to where Napolipolita rested. Looking ahead, Biko was shocked to see that two of the high priestess's private Shakanar bodyguards were blocking the door.

"Armed guards to keep a mother and baby apart?" the Man of Steel whispered as he sadly shook his head.

Both he and Biko knew immediately that Diana had recognized them by the low growl escaping her throat. Both also knew that A-ko's mother had a 'thing' for the Shakanar. This was the result of her being forced to kill a few of them when a whole squad tried to kidnap C-ko's beloved foster parents and botched the job, instead killing a score of their neighbors, some of them children. While the Cygnan Civil War had still been raging, the few Shakanar who managed to survive Diana's Amazon wrath were so terrified of her that they were found later hiding in a sewer.

It was with this in mind, that led her husband to whispered to her, "Please -- let me handle this."

"You didn't see the faces or the tiny crushed bodies of the children after others of their kind had finished with them," answered his wife, nodding her head in the direction of the two Shakanar.

"Please?" he all but begged.

For an answer she nodded her head 'yes'.

Stopping in front of the two Shakanar guards, who were blocking the door with their massive frames, the Man of Steel said in a cheerful voice, "Good afternoon, ladies. We're here to visit our friend Captain Napolipolita and to offer her our best wishes on the birth of her son!"

In response, the two Shakanar spit on the ground at his feet and said in unison, "Cursed be to all males, and The Mother's own wrath to the women who bear them!"

"My, aren't they little rays of sunshine?" said Diana. "These two would fit right in back home."

The Shakanar were never mothers. It was against the Ways. And this was just as well, since being a sociopath was a prerequisite for joining their ranks. Thus it was that these women had no sympathy whatsoever for what the mother of the man child might be feeling.

Superman gave them his most disarming smile. "Now, now, good ladies. Napolipolita's daughter Biko also wants to see her mother, and we think it would be best for every if we were with her when she does it."

"Begone! Males have already caused enough heartache here. We need no more of your kind to add to the shame of a one-time Cygnan hero," said the bigger of the two Shakanar, who emphasized her words with a shove of her armored gauntlet into his broad chest.

The result was a deep snarl which slowly escaped from the throat of his beloved as she witnessed the treatment the love of her life was receiving at their hands. Sensing the rise of his wife's temper, the hero known to the world at large as Superman quickly turned to her. "Remember -- you promised!" Turning his attention back to the two guards, he smiled again and asked, "There must be a peaceful way we can handle this -- "

"If it was up to us, your stinking male bones would already be nothing more than decorations around our necks," said the Shakanar shocktrooper, who finished her statement by shoving the barrels of her weapon into his face. Her colleague followed suit.

Faster than they could react or even see, the two gun barrels were bent in half. Furthermore, the two misanthropes suddenly found themselves dangling a good five feet off the ground as A-ko's father had dug handholds into their armor and had hoisted the both of them in the air.

"Now, ladies," he continued, without missing a beat, "perhaps we will try it this way," said Superman, holding the two of them in front of his wife. Gesturing toward Diana, he said, "This woman is an Amazon warrior and, I might add, have the honor of being her husband."

Unintimidated, one of the Shakanar growled, "Oh, we're so frightened!"

The other added, "A Terran Amazon? Pah! Let us show her the sharp edge of our swords!"

Clark then dropped the bombshell. "She is also the mother of your Princess C-ko's best friend!"

There was silence for about ten seconds while this registered in their cracked brains.

"The young redheaded girl who almost destroyed our Admiral Shaska's flagship, the Glry-anna, and defeated a whole squad of our Sisters?" asked the smaller of the two, her jaw agape.

"Is this the same woman who decimated a score of our Sisters here on Earth?" asked the other, already fearing the worst.

"Matter of fact, that is just who she is," he answered. "And if you don't want to talk to me, then I can arrange for the two of you to talk it over with her."

One look into the snarling face of the tall woman standing next to him convinced them to reply as one, "That won't be necessary!"

"Thank you, dear ladies!" said Clark as he lowered the two women carefully back to the ground. As the guards opened the door, the smaller of the two (if one considered seven feet tall 'small') said to the other, "The mother was bad enough, but the father was the one who disabled the whole fleet, even before we got a chance to fight!"

Ignoring the two guards still muttering in Leptonian, Superman, Wonder Woman, and Biko entered the room. As they entered, they saw the two acolytes of the Great Mother Cult in company with Vipsania Parsua, the Chief Priestess of Cybele, all standing around the good Captain's bed.

Three of her daughters - Alana, Atina, and Arisa - were also there, and Akana was in bed with her, hugging her fiercely. The Cygnettes all gazed steadily at A-ko's parents as if to silently entreat them for help; it was bad enough that their new family was being torn apart as they helplessly stood by.

The Cygnettes, though born on the Homeworld, had spent their formative years on Earth and now keenly felt the conflict between both cultures. The younger, Terran-born Napolipolita-Daitokuji daughters - now off with Auntie Shini - had little understanding of Cygnan exclusion policies and, as a consequence, were already hurt and traumatized by their mother's lack of attention to the new baby.

Biko took her place next to her stepsisters. As D removed a damp cloth from the brow of her Captain, who lay listless and hollow-eyed, the head Magdiu came forward, arms raised as if giving a malediction.

"Leave us, Off-Worlders! This is no place for such as you!"

"If you haven't noticed, Cygnan," said Wonder Woman, scanning the room from the doorway and accounting for all its inhabitants. "You and the rest of your Holy Roller chorus line are the Off-Worlders here -- not my husband or I."

"Man-lover!" the high priestess spat in her best vindictive tone.

"You got that right," answered Diana, who then turned her attention to the Captain. "Greetings, Sister," she said to the alien, who was curled up in a knot under the covers. Her eyes were red-rimmed and it was pretty obvious that she hadn't slept much.

"Go away," Captain said.

Well, that was a mistake, because Diana strode across the room, grabbed Napolipolita's arm, and dragged her -- bedcovers and all -- out of the bed and across the rug. She shrieked in outrage and tried to get away, but she was too weak to put up much of a fight. Her daughters kept their peace; they'd been trying to get her out of bed for days. The Magdiu gasped, and bristled with righteous indignation.

"Don't get so excited, Captain," said A-ko's father. "We're here to help."

The alien mother responded by cursing him out in Leptonian. Her daughters' hands flew to their respective mouths; the Priestesses of Cybele gasped; and the person for whom the torrent of invective took notice.

Unfortunately for the Captain, Leptonian was so much like Homeric Greek that Diana had understood every word. She smiled, crossed her arms across her chest, and let loose with a blast of Greek profanity (with a few choice words of Mycenean thrown in for good measure) that caused Napolipolita's jaw to drop. This was good, because this gave Diana the opportunity to finish dragging her across the room toward a soft upholstered chaise lounge.

"I forgot you people stole your language from us," the Captain grumbled. "Get your hands off me, you kakamatandula."

"I would watch what I said if I were you," said Diana, hauling my mother onto the chaise where she released her with a plop. "Akana, get your mother a blanket."

Aki ran for the one that had fallen from the bed. "I'm surprised it doesn't have my mother's teeth marks still in it," the girl thought but did not say.

When she brought it to her, both of the Captain's guests were sitting on elaborately-decorated chairs, facing her. Both fixed the alien with their steely gazes. It was Diana who first spoke.

"I cannot understand for the life of me why you would allow that so-called Great and Venerable High Priestess to get to you, or to even allow her to pay you a visit in the first place. Is this true?"

"You know it is, or you wouldn't have said it. What the Avernus are you doing here? I didn't invite you. I don't want you. I don't want to see anyone. You don't understand my religion, anyway. You don't understand the way we live on Alpha Cygni. We're talking about thousands of years of tradition - "

" -- and thousands of years of wrestling with a declining birth rate, I might add," said Diana wryly. "Some traditions aren't holy."

"Leave me alone."

"No, I don't think I will, thank you. You may be from another world, but you are still an Amazon in our eyes. We Amazons are part of a great Sisterhood, and we make damned sure we don't abandon each other -- as your Sisters have apparently abandoned you."

"They have not," said my mother, trying desperately not to cry in front of them, painfully aware that the Terran Amazons were far more stoic than the overemotional Cygnans.

"Then where are they?" Diana replied, waving her hands in a sweeping gesture. "Certainly these old bags aren't included in that number. What have they done for you, my dear? They've hung around to terrorize you, to tear your husband from your side, to drive your daughters out of their own home, and to station those two thugs in front of your door to isolate and punish you even more!"

"What's the old saying?" Clark mused. "With friends like that, who needs enemies?"

"How do you know that?" the Captain snapped.

"Again - the grapevine. We have our ways of knowing about these things."

"I'll bet it was that rotten Biko," my mother mumbled. "Little witch would do anything to break up my marriage."

"She's not as rotten as you think," Diana replied. "In fact, it was she who contacted us and pleaded with us to help her family. This is breaking her heart!"

"I don't believe you," the Captain said, her face turned away so that the visitors would not see the tears running down her thin face.

"It doesn't matter what you believe," said the Man of Steel. "You have a very caring stepdaughter -- a little weird, perhaps, but caring. Again. So what if your new offspring is a male? He's yours! He's flesh of your flesh, blood of your blood. He was a part of you for six months already, and you accepted him all that time. Why should it be different now that he is in your arms instead?"

"If he was in your arms, that is," Diana said in a low voice, taking the green-headed alien by the chin and staring her down. "We understand that you won't touch him. Is that right?"

"Yes."

Sighing, the former Amazon princess said, "Clark and I stopped off at the nursery. You have a beautiful baby."

The Cygnan's face crumpled, and she began to cry. "I have no baby," Napolipolita wailed.

"Then what do you call that little bundle of joy we just visited?" asked A-ko's mother.

"A punishment from the Great Mother for daring to love an Earth male!" moaned Napolipolita.

"Nonsense," said A-ko's father. "Your son was conceived out of the love you and your husband have for one another. How can your 'Great Mother' -- or any god -- be against that? Your daughter Biko told us that you're upset because you gave birth to a son instead of the daughter you expected, and because of this you blame yourself. Well, I have news for you, Captain." He paused for a moment before telling the alien, "Whether you know it or not, here on Earth, biologically it is the father -- not the mother -- whose chromosomes determine the sex of the child."

"So this is all Hikaru's fault????" screamed Napolipolita, sitting upright.

"There is no fault," said Diana. "There is only a small baby boy who needs his mother, almost as much as -- you need him!"

The Chief Priestess bristled. "Have you no shame? Must you add to the shame of this ruined warrior of the Empire with your lies and your own disgraceful behavior?" shouted Vipsania Parsua. "Isn't it bad enough that she'll never be able to hold her head high amongst decent Cygnan warriors?"

"Oh, blow it out your ass."

"Diana!" her husband cried, trying to cut her off.

As another argument was about to erupt, D slipped out of her poor Captain's bedchamber and quietly made her way down the hall to the nursery. She opened the door and quickly closed it behind her, holding one of her Captain's bedpillows in one of her oversized hands.

Diana, known to the world at large as Wonder Woman, now turned her attention back to Napolipolita. A-ko's mother told her, "Do you really think that this cruel and heartless behavior reflects the will of your Great Mother?"

Silence.

"Well?"

The alien wouldn't answer her.

"You should know that Cybele herself never advocated treating males like dirt. Your faith also teaches you that women are creators of the family, yet it also advocates the destruction of those families. This is wrong, and I believe that you know it."

Clark cleared his throat and spoke gently to my mother, "The very thing you find horrible in males -their denigration of the females in this society - is the very thing you and your spiritual cohorts are now practicing against your own son. That makes you both sexist bigots."

My mother gasped, and probably would have taken a swing at him but for the fact that she would have dropped like a stone if she had tried, and -- after all, the man was Superman.

Diana put her arm around her. "It's all right. Your people are realizing that the world is not as they thought it was. It often takes time for religions to acknowledge that. Even we had to realize this basic fact. We do not regularly cohabit with men, but we don't consider them pariahs either. That would be wrong. Like your treatment of that precious child alone in the other room is wrong."

"The blind leading the blind," Plancina growled. "One disgraced warrior advising another. Pathetic."

"Don't listen to these dried-up old crones! Remember when we sat on the porch and talked about the men in our lives? Remember how you told me how much you loved your Hikaru?"

"I remember," said Napolipolita.

"Well, what has changed?" asked Diana.

"I have no honor because I disgraced my mothers before me! I will never again be able to set foot on the Homeworld again without feeling the shame of my disgrace!"

"What do you care what a bunch of stuck-up zealots who live two light-years away think of you? You'd already decided to make your life here on Earth with the man you love. So tell me -- what has changed?" demanded Diana.

Just then, Hikaru Daitokuji rushed into the room, ready to open his mouth and launch another vindictive attack on all Cygnans in general and on his wife in particular.

A-ko's father cut him off by taking him by the arm and escorting him to a quiet corner of the room. "For once in your life," Superman hissed, "just shut your mouth and keep quiet."

"But you don't understand," wailed Napolipolita.

"I don't understand?" Wonder Woman mimicked. "Apparently, you're the one who doesn't understand! Just as that bag of bones standing over there gaping at us was so eager to point out, I can never show my face in my home again!" Captain blinked and stared at her. "I will never be with my Sisters again, or hold my own mother in my arms, not ever again. I gave that all up to be with the man I love and I would do it over again!"

Napolipolita then looked across the room at her husband, who up until the last few days she would have trusted with her life. He stared back at her, but without the coldness in his blue eyes that she'd seen the day before. In its place, she saw heartbreaking loneliness.

"But the terrible things we said to one another! How can Hikaru and I ever forgive one another?" asked Napolipolita.

--------

As she was posing this question, in a room down the corridor D's huge form stood towering over the crib in which the living proof of her Captain's shame lay.

Her years in the Shakanar had taught her to be a dedicated, ruthless, and efficient weapon of the Empire. With her size and combat skills, she had fit right into that troubled band of misanthropes, save in one very important respect. D was blessed, or -- if you were Shakanar -- cursed with something called a conscience. It was because of this flaw that her Captain was able to finally liberate her from that murderous band.

The other thing D had in common with the dreaded Shakanar was her loyalty. To the Shakanar, loyalty meant being loyal to each other and only secondly loyal to the Empire they served. D too was loyal to the Empire, but her greatest loyalty was to her Captain and friend. It was because of this very loyalty that she now stood above her male child with a pillow in her hands.

It wouldn't take much effort to eliminate the little mistake who was in front of her; just a simple push of the pillow on a tiny face for a few moments and it would soon be over. Then, once again her Captain would be able to hold up her head among her Sisters.

D's loyalty and, what is more, her love of her Captain demanded it -- demanded that she carry out this terrible duty.

A true Shakanar would have had no hesitation in snuffing the breath of life from the helpless little mite. But D was no longer a Shakanar, and in fact she truly never was one because of her great weakness -- the conscience with which she had been born.

It was because of this weakness that D took her huge and empty hand and placed it near her Captain's son. Without hesitation the tiny bundle reached up and took the finger of the huge hand and held onto it. To Earth mothers this was merely the grasping reflex, common to all Terran infants but unknown to D's people. She tried to pull away but the little bundle refused to let go, and held on all the harder.

Dropping the pillow she held in her other hand, D used it instead to gently poke the infant in the stomach. The result wasn't the release of her finger that D had intended, but a tiny smile and the joyous kicking of baby legs that caught the giant D completely off guard.

The result was that D couldn't stop herself from smiling back at the tiny bundle of life and saying, "Brave little fellow, aren't you?" When she didn't get an answer right away, D succeeded in pulling her finger free and told the little bundle, "You know - you're kind of cute for a man child!"

The man child in question was raising his arms at that moment and cooing as he did it. D couldn't understand at first what her Captain's son needed or wanted, until her own dormant maternal instinct kicked in. Placing her hand behind the baby's head -- as she saw the nurses do -- D picked up the infant in her oversized hand and held him to her breast in a warm embrace.

The shunned child held her back as D told him, "You're not so bad, are you? I guess it's not your fault you were born male, any more than it is mine that I am so big and ugly. It was partly because of the way I looked that they mistakenly sent me to Mur Sejanus for Shakanar training in the first place. Perhaps -- in our blind devotion to our past -- we're making a mistake about you as well."

As the little fellow rested his head on her huge breast, D said to him, "Maybe your mama changed her mind about you. How about you and I go and find out?"

And with that, D walked out of the room and headed to her Captain's room, gently holding the baby in her arms.

--------

"How can we ever forgive one another?" Napolipolita said, her pain and grief obvious to all who cared to see it.

"You should hear some of the things my husband and I say to each other!" said A-ko's mother. "It doesn't mean we don't love one another."

"That is because the two of you are sure in your love for one another," said Napolipolita. "Who will be able to help us?"

"Perhaps this brave little fellow can," said D, stepping forward with Napolipolita's son in her arms. She walked to the chaise and handed the little boy to Diana, who in turn gently placed the small soul into the arms of his mother.

The Captain's heart turned over as she looked for the first time at her beautiful child. She pressed him against her breast and smelled his clean baby smell and moaned in the anguish of her remorse. Trembling, Hikaru moved to their side and -- kneeling down beside his woman - they held each other in their arms and kissed with their son in between them. They remained this way for quite a while, kissing and hugging as they each in turn made their apologies, while in the background the Magdiu growled imprecations damning Hikaru's testosterone-ridden soul to the Seventh Level of Avernus.

After a few more minutes of Napolipolita-Daitokuji bonding had passed, the ex-Amazon princess stood and announced, "All those cursed with the 'Y' chromosome or who are religious fanatics -- get out!"

It was her husband who led the billionaire out the door as Biko and the rest of the good Captain's daughters gave the bum's rush to the religious set. As they were leaving, Diana opened up the front of Napolipolita's nightgown so she could begin nursing her son in peace, if not in full contentment.

-------

Outside, the Priestesses of Cybele prepared to leave. Superman had to restrain Hikaru from giving them an extra boost courtesy of the end of his expensively-shod foot. "Like they couldn't pop you right to the moon, old man," Clark thought.

The Chief Magdiu spoke in a voice loud enough so that everyone - including the Captain - could hear every word. She turned and pointed at her through the still-open door. "From this moment on, this woman is bane! Her name is bane! She is no longer our Sister. From this day forth, she is shunned!"

As if on cue, all three priestesses turned their backs to the mother and her baby. Then - after a dramatic pause - they marched down the hall toward the front entrance of the Mansion.

"Don't let the door hit you in the ass," Captain called after them.

But in spite of her bravery and defiance, her stomach roiled with upset. Her fears, doubts, and insecurities descended upon her like a heavy cloak. She murmured, "May the Mother forgive me and my weakness," so softly that no one could hear her.

No one, that is, but the Man of Steel --

*********************************************************************

January 5

My Memorial Book, greetings.

I didn't do very well on a mathematics test today at school and my teacher asked if I was all right. I said I was, but it's in all the newspapers about my mom and dad. How did they find out, I would like to know? Probably those damned nannies. There's no privacy anywhere any more.

I was so happy when Ma accepted the baby. And I was happy to see Daddy; I nearly hugged him to death. They let me hold the baby. It was cool. Daddy was so happy too that he had the Director of Commerce go out and buy Ma a platinum necklace with opals and canary diamonds! She said she didn't need any more of that stuff, just him. He said that seeing her with the baby was the most beautiful thing he'd ever seen.

I'm so relieved. Tess told me something once, and I now believe it's true - "Anger only fuels hate for so long until exhaustion overcomes the soul."

My little sisters all came back, and our little brother is pretty much one of us now. We've left Ma, Daddy, and him to themselves for the last day or two. It was almost like if we talked about how well things turned out, or did anything to disturb it, everything would blow apart again.

I hope that Ma can forget the mean things Daddy said to her. I don't think he meant any of them. I think he was just scared.

What the hell, we all were.

I can't help but wonder what this means for Ma and for us. Just because the Magdiu pitched a hissy fit doesn't mean we're not in the Sisterhood any more. I haven't said anything to anybody but I think maybe our religion is wrong. I never thought I would doubt our faith but that is exactly what I'm doing. It's very uncomfortable and makes me very anxious. I don't like it at all, but since I can't solve it tonight I'll just say

Good night,

Aki

--------

January 9

My Memorial Book, greetings.

I think maybe The Mother didn't invent all that stuff about males. I think people did it. I'm really mad but the only trouble is, I don't know who to be mad at.

Today Ma told me that she had been very upset when she'd found out that Daddy had "baptized" the baby. I said what difference did it make since the Cybele Cult wouldn't give him a Bikreet anyway? She said that Daddy had told her that he didn't know what else to do. He thought that the baby needed some protection - any protection. He couldn't understand how just coming into the world would brand someone a pariah, whatever that is.

Ma looked pretty today. She had on a turquoise blue top and had Hikaru strapped to her chest in a little blue pouch. She said that dumb-ass (well, she didn't say dumb-ass, but I do) Yashida had given it to her because blue was a Terran "boy's color". I thought that was stupid but didn't say so.

Oh. I forgot to tell you. The Magdiu tried to see Ma yesterday but Security wouldn't let them down the driveway. HA!

I did okay on that test, I think. Ma will be so happy about my grades. I told my friends about my baby brother and showed them a picture and they said he looked like me. A lot of them have brothers too. But then Atina told me not to act so happy since we weren't sure what the Magdiu had in mind. I told her I didn't give a damn about them because they were a bunch of mean old cows. Atina said I would be punished for talking about The Mother's servants like that. I told her they were all psychos and for her to kiss my butt.

In fact, I'm going to have a talk with the Doctor about all this. I need to get some of these things straight in my head, about The Mother and the Magdiu and what the Pathfollowers think about it. I just don't want to be disloyal to Ma. Or to myself, for that matter.

Life is so weird.

Good night,

Aki

You would think that after the trauma of giving birth at her age, Captain Napolipolita would have no trouble sleeping. But after the shock of giving birth to a son and the trauma inflicted upon her because of it by the Chief Priestess, the good Captain found out for herself that, even in her dreams, she couldn't even find the rest and peace she both craved and needed.

Perhaps it was the emotional baggage she carried or simply the emotional stress to which she had been subjected -- she was being pulled first in one way, then in another. One moment it was the direction that led to Duty, Honor, and Religion. But it was the equally compelling love of a mother for her child which pulled her in another.

Tradition -- and those who perpetuate and defend such nonsense -- had ordered her to give up what she as a mother should hold most dear. The love of her husband and the counsel of powerful friends and allies told her to follow her heart and to listen to the call of love, both as a mother and as a wife. This had not brought her the peace she sought and most of all needed.

It took Dr. Stellamaris and the benefit of Cygnan pharmaceuticals in the form of an injection to permit the good Captain and new mother some escape from her torment -- for at least a few hours -- into the world of dreams. But even here, Napolipolita was denied the peace she sought. D watched, all but helpless, as she sat next to her Captain's bed and watched her friend toss and turn throughout the long night.

This was because at that moment, Captain Napolipolita found herself once more on the command deck of a Cygnan imperial battlecruiser. She recognized the ship well enough, only she wasn't its captain. The ship's name was the Pana Gaia and her captain was Napolipolita's own mother.

As for Napolipolita she was once again that same terrified twelve-year-old little girl who hid in a corner of the command bridge as she watched her mother and what was left of her bridge crew fight off an invading Kirlian attack squad.

When the Cygnans managed at last to kill with their swords the last of the Kirlians who had made it that far, they closed the armored doors once more. Commander Alia Napolipolita - a six-and-a-half foot tall soldier distinguished for her levelheadedness and resoluteness, collapsed back down into her command chair, severely wounded with a deep gash in her side.

Noticing her only child was slowly approaching her, the Commander swept her now-blood-soaked cape around her side, to cover her wound. She hadn't thought the girl had seen how badly she was injured, and she wouldn't have frightened her, not for the world.

While her second in comand knelt at her feet and attended to her wound, young Aysheia Lisia Napolipolita stood at her side with her small arms tight around her. "Mama, are you all right?" asked the terrified twelve-year-old.

Alia's life's blood was already beginning to pool at her feet as her first officer did her best to stem the flow. At least she was comforted by the fact that her daughter had approached her on the opposite side. The Commander glanced at her first officer as she continued to soothe her frightened daughter. Even as she watched the sad face of her second shake her head 'no', Napolipolita's mother told her, "Mama is fine, little Ashiu -- it's hardly more than a scratch."

As she stroked her little girl's shaggy hair, Alia issued a verbal code to the Second Generation Egota's command computer. When this sentient computer acknowledged her command code, she said, "Mother! What is the count of living Cygnans on board?"

>26< came the answer.

"26 out of a ship's company of 300," whispered Alia, her brave heart thudding in her chest. Her second tried to comfort her by telling her, "We were jumped by six Kirlian attack ships, Commander, led by that damned renegade General Tokuro. And you still managed to destroy three and damage two more before they were able to board us. I don't think you have anything to be ashamed of."

"If anyone deserves to be proud, it should be me. I am very lucky to have such brave warriors whom I had the honor to lead into a hopeless defense," corrected her superior. The five remaining warriors on the bridge rose as one and, giving their best tiger-claw salutes, shouted, "We serve and honor our Commander even as we serve and honor both Queen and Empire!"

Touched by the loyalty of her crew, Napolipolita's mother struggled to her feet, returning their salute. "May the Sisterhood live forever, and may we all serve together once again in the Summerland!"

Sinking back into her chair, with her daughter still clinging desperately to her good side, Alia realized that this was nothing less than her last stand. Knowing that the Kirlians never took prisoners, and wanting to save something from her final defeat, Commander Alia said, "Mother. By my command -- Alpha 623 code Beta Gamma 13." The computer responded almost at once.

>what is your command<

"Monitor Cygnan lifesigns. When there is only one left alive on this ship, begin countdown to self-destruct. Make sure to broadcast countdown throughout the ship, in case you are mistaken."

>We are never mistaken, our Commander<

"I have no time for your jokes, Mother," Alia panted, now growing short of breath. Ironic, how the shipboard computers on the new ships all responded to the appellation of "Mother" - a nice touch by some homesick ship designer, perhaps. "Listen to me carefully. When the last Kirlian leaves the Pana Gaia, stop the countdown and cancel self- destruct."

When Mother had confirmed her orders, Napolipolita's mother asked the computer for the status of the remaining ship's personnel.

>Six of ships personnel on command bridge plus one child. Also there are two living members of ship's personnel in corridor. Correction. New data. One<

It was only a scant few moments before the computer announced that all remaining crewmembers were now located on the Gaia's bridge, even as its armored doors began to show puncture marks as if struck by a particularly malevolent battering ram.

Now knowing for certain that the rest of her crew was dead, the Commander ordered the computer to begin shutdown of all life support, except for the bridge. She then asked, "If remaining life support energy is transferred to hyperdrive, how long can we travel through hyperspace?"

>Three seconds<

Feeling her life force slipping away, Alia ordered Mother to fire hyperdrive engines as soon as the last of the Kirlians leaves the ship and the remaining Kirlian cruisers back away.

"What good will that do, Commander?" asked her second.

"Cowards that they are, the Kirlians will flee the ship as soon as the self -destruct countdown starts. The same for their ships, which will back off to make minimum safe distance. Even a tiny trip through the sea of hyperspace might allow us to salvage something from all of this." The "something" in question watched her mother's face intently. Alia then silently nodded in her small daughter's direction.

Her second smiled wistfully. "I wish I could be there to see the looks on those Kirlian pig-dogs' faces when they figure out they've been suckered."

Alia laughed as heartily as she could as she stood up. With her last strength, she picked up her daughter and, carrying her to a small air vent high in the bridge ceiling, told her, "Remember how you hid so well that even the whole crew couldn't find you?"

"I was in the vent!" said little Napolipolita.

"Well, you're going to do that again, my little Ashiu."

"Mama! Let me run for the doctor! Oh Mama - so much blood -- !"

The child hadn't heard Mother's grim news that the doctors - along with everyone else the girl had known and loved as family - had gone to the Summerland ahead of her.

One of the remaining crew opened the vent as Alia kissed her on the lips and told her, "I love you, baby, more than life itself."

Shoving her into the vent, careful not to scrape the girl's long legs, Alia gravely whispered, "Don't make a sound and don't come out, no matter what you hear!"

"Yes, Madere misua," Napolipolita answered, using the Leptonian diminutive for beloved mama.

"Make sure you stay in here until the ship makes its jump to hyperspace. Do you remember how to set the navicomputer?"

For an answer, the girl nodded her head yes. Of course she did. Hadn't she been raised on her mother's knee? She'd learned everything.

Removing the sword from her hip, Commander Alia Napolipolita handed it to her young daughter and told her, "This was your grandmother's and great-grandmother's, and it has stayed in our family for over ten generations. I give it now to you, my brave little warrior."

"Commander!" warned her second. "They're almost through!"

"There's no rush toward where we're heading, Pasiphaia. Resign yourself."

With a last kiss and hug from her mother, Napolipolita crawled into the duct, turning around for one last look at the tear-covered face of her mother. "Remember. You are a warrior. Make sure you obey your Commander."

"I will, Mama," the girl answered. "See you soon!"

After sealing the vent, her mother turned around to see her second holding her a fresh black command cape. Handing it to her leader, the second said, "You should be properly dressed, my Commander, for our final battle." Another warrior handed her a sword from one of their dead comrades with a grim smile.

"Not only has it been an honor to serve with you all, but no commander could ever hope to have a better crew than I have." The remaining five Cygnan warriors snapped to attention and gave their best tiger-claw salute.

When they finished, Alia told them, "Now. Open those doors and show those damn Kirlians what real fighting is like!"

With that, the armored doors to the bridge sprang opened and a horde of the enemy rushed in to be met by six fighting-mad Cygnan warriors.

--------

It had been over three hours of total silence since the Delos jumped to light speed. Little Napolipolita pried open the air vent and first carefully dropped her mother's sword onto the body of a dead Kirlian. Starting to moan deep in her throat, she eased herself through the sharp edges of the opening before making the ten-foot drop to the floor.

Once she had, she was horrified because she had fallen on her mother's Chief Engineer, Mira Thracia, by accident. Instinctively, she whispered an apology although it was obvious to anyone that saw her that the woman had been dead for some time.

The girl looked around the silent, blood-smeared bridge, blinking. Her mind, hazed by the merciful shroud of shock, allowed her to function when common sense would dictate that she go stark raving mad instead.

"Madere. Madere misua - ? " Young Napolipolita cried out searching for her mother.

She then saw her; her heart skipped its next beat and she felt the thud of shock rebervorate through her thin frame. She picked her way through the corpses to the Commander's body. She pulled three dead Kirlians off her mother, victims of her mother's skill and courage.

Then it hit the young girl like a load of bricks, "My mama is dead and everyone else is dead and I'm all alone."

She wanted to talk to Mother but she didn't have the access code. She stood, wringing her hands and crying because, for the first time in her still young life. There was no one - not even a sentient machine - to tell her what to do. It was then bright coal of clear sanity cut through the child's terror as the recent memory of her mother's final order came to her consciousness, and Aysheia set the navicomputer for home and activated the crippled ship's distress beacons. She made her way to her mother's side once more - for the last time, she knew -- and lay down next to her.

The ship was cold; the hyperdrive had drained much of the ship's power. The child had no idea how long it would be before the heat quit entirely, not to mention the air. Shivering, she wrapped her mother's command cloak around her.

Maybe it's just as well that I die here and now, she thought distractedly. Just as well.

But in spite of her heartwrenching grief, young Napolipolita drew her mother's broadsword and -- laying it carefully across them both, waited bravely for the Kirlian attack that never came.

And it was there where they found her three days later, covered with blood, defending her dead mother with her family's blade in her child's hand, defiant and brave but refusing to say a word even as the rescue party watched the tears run down her blank face.

------------

In the Captain's continuing nightmare, the scene now shifted to one of sand dunes and a ruined temple. Napolipolita looked around and recognized the place with that funny shivery feeling of déjà vu, even as she knew she never had been there before. She looked up at the partly-fallen roof -- barely visible in the haze -- when a voice seemed to come from out of the fog. She looked down and saw her mother's sword in her hand.

"It's good to see you again, my little Ashiu," said the voice. The amorphous figure shimmered into view as she said, "But you're not so little now, are you?"

"Mama? Madere misua?"

"Who else, little one!"

Napolipolita rushed forward and threw her arms around the mother who had fallen in battle over thirty years ago.

-------

Dee watched as her Captain moaned in the throes of some terrible dream that her loyal retainer was powerless to stop. The big woman wept quietly, motioning to Hikaru to go get some sleep.

--------

"Oh Mama, I'm grown up now! I became a soldier like you and tried to drink my pain away, but it didn't work and I almost died. I have daughters, Mama! I named my eldest after you! She's Commander, just like you, and like I should have been - " The dream Napolipolita sank in the comfort of her mother's arms.

"I know. I saw. It doesn't matter. I am very proud of you. But there is something you should know."

"Oh Mama. I'm in trouble."

"It's nothing you can't handle. You've grown so strong and I am so proud of you."

"For what?"

"For putting down the wine. Your father had the same problem, you know."

"Yes - when we were reunited, he was desperately ill, but now he's in recovery - along with me. But I don't want to talk about him. Mama! Why am I seeing you? This is impossible!"

"Some of us have children whose hearts and minds are so clogged by their day-to-day pain that they can't hear our voices. As yours have been, my baby."

"You don't understand what has happened, Madere misua. My last child was a - "

"Male. Yes. He was sent as a gift to you from The Mother."

"You must be joking! She sent him as a curse!"

"No," the shade intoned. Captain could see the back of her mother's utility belt through the front of her uniform. This is not real, she thought again and again -

"He was sent as a gift not only to expand your mind and your heart, but also to give you the opportunity to honor Kir Azenath."

"Who?"

"Father of the first Cygnan Queen, and founder of our Royal Family. Don't you remember?"

"No."

"When you were little, I would tell you about him, but would cloak the tales as legends. You thought they were bedtime stories. He is also your ancestor, little Ashiu."

"What?"

"Yes. His sister Atenate founded our branch of what the Terrans call the family tree. Our relationship to the Royal Family is too attenuated to be of any significance. Nevertheless, my baby, his blood runs in your veins, as surely as the blood of the Great Xramcrusher - she is quite a character, by the way."

Captain laughed in spite of herself, imagining the conversations her mother held with an ancestor who died a thousand years ago. "Mother. I sense this is a dream and it will all end very quickly. Please. Tell me. Why did you seek me out?"

"So you could first know that your son is a gift, not a burden. Also know that The Mother expects you to recognize that, as a woman and a warrior and a mother."

"But the Magdiu!"

"I expect that they will have to answer to Her personally for their shabby treatment of you, their Sister. But that is not my concern. This is what you must do."

"Yes?"

"Give your baby his name, to honor his soul and to instill in your little one a bit of his goodness. Then, take him to the Homeworld, to the ruins where his temple - desecrated though it may be - still exists. After that, take your little one to our family shrine outside CygniCity, and record his name among those who have made and who make up our ancient lineage."

"And if I do, Mama?"

"Then he will be greater than you or I or even the Great Xramcrusher. He will become one of the greatest heroes the Empire has ever produced."

Napolipolita's delight elated her. "Even though he is a male??"

"Yes, my baby. Don't be so prejudiced." The shade of Alia Napolipolita held her daughter at arm's length. "You would have had no way of knowing how dearly I loved your father, and how desperately I wanted to share my life with him. But - I lacked your courage - "

"Don't talk to me about courage, Madere misua! You are a hundred times the woman and soldier I will ever be!"

"No. That is not true. I died and you lived - you live still. Each day you have the opportunity to do all the things I could not because I had crossed over into the Summerland before my time."

"You're breaking my heart!"

"It's not so bad. General Tokuro stews in Avernus, where every day he relives his execution at the hands of the Cygnans. I find that most satisfying."

"Mama - "

"Know that I love you and shower you with invisible kisses every day of your life. You - not my military record - are my greatest accomplishment, and my greatest legacy to Queen and Kingdom. And one more thing, my precious child - "

"Don't leave me, Mama - "

"You know I must. Listen to me."

"Yes - "

"As the Terran author, whose plays our people so enjoy on our colony world of Tauka Banesh, once wrote, 'To thine own self be true'."

"Mama - "

"No matter. We will touch souls again - "

"But the Magdiu -- ! They will - "

Alia's angular and strong face began to shimmer in front of her eyes.

"NO!"

"To thine own self be true, my little Ashiu. And remember - The Mother loves all her children - something those who profess to speak for her have forgotten." Her black cape of command billowed out behind her suddenly, as if caught in a gust of unseen and unfelt wind. "They have all forgotten."

"Madere!"

"I love you - "

"I love you, Mama!"

"I know - "

-------

"Wake up, my Captain!" D shouted, frantic with worry because Napolipolita's breathing had become so shallow. She had seen her close to death more than once, and was terrified that the grief had been too great for her.

The alien's eyes snapped open. For a moment, D was frightened by the look in her wide gray eyes. "Do you want me to get Hikaru?" she asked.

"No. I want you to record this information; I'm about to forget it all!"

"Uh - wait - "

"HURRY!"

Without another word, D clicked a device on her bracelet and held it near her Captain's face as the daughter of the Venerable Alia Napolipolita, former Commander of Her Majesty's Space Navy, began to release her words in a torrent.

"Before the time of Queen Zazen'lda, Queen Cesariu, Queen Rupta, Queen Aia, Queen Morganas, Queen Tiwa Eloi, and their ancestors - before them all, Kir Azenath ruled the Realm in peace and prosperity -- "

***********************************************************************

January 27

My Memorial Book, greetings.

Ma came into my room late last night and woke me up. I asked if she felt sick and she said no. She lay down next to me and stroked my hair and told me I was a good girl and we both cried. I've been so lonely for her the past few days! She said she missed me so much too and that she had something special to tell me.

She said that Cygnan mothers sometimes develop very powerful psychic abilities after giving birth, and for a little while they are "prescient" (I think that's what I am). Anyway, she said that sometimes they could dream about the future, but that all these powers fade away within a couple of weeks and there's nothing more.

I asked her if she had dreamed about the future and she said yes, she had, and had to tell me about it before it faded from her mind, like dreams do.

She dreamed that she saw my grandmother Alia, and that she poured out her fears to her, about having a little male and not knowing what to do. Her mother told her that she shouldn't care so much about what the Priestesses say, because her life is really here on Earth now, and that she will truly put down roots here.

And then she said something that freaked me out. She said her mom (who'd died when she was twelve) told her that the baby would become a great hero and serve the Empire with honor.

A male doing these things? A MALE??????? I know how weird this sounds. But that is exactly what she said.

Then Ma said that her mother told her that she had really loved her father, Theram Avaris, and would have gone off to live with him if she could, but it was forbidden and she was not strong enough to defy the Ways. She told Ma she was proud that she'd managed to find the courage that she - my grandmother - hadn't. And then my grandmother told my mother about an ancient Cygnan male hero, and told her to name her grandson after him, in remembrance.

So, I asked Ma if she had decided on a name for the baby. She said that she had. She told me that his Terran name will be Hikaru, but his Cygnan name will be Kir Azenath, for that was the hero about which her own mother had spoken.

Kir Azenath! My kid brother -- !

Good night, Aki

Dee was at the controls when Napolipolita's small private scout craft touched down in the vast emptiness of the Mur Sejanus Desert, also known as the 'blasted land'.

It had other names, of course -- each one more colorful and more terrible than the last. To those who followed the teachings of the Great Mother, it was the land of lost souls. To the Pathfollowers, it was the land of the dead.

One legend that was believed throughout the Fleet was that this vast wasteland was the final destination for the souls of those warriors who were cowards, or who had failed in their duty to Queen and Empire. By analogy to Terran mythology, no Valhalla had waited for these unfortunate Valkyries. Their destination instead was the cold world of Niflheim, Hela's icy land of the unmourned and undistinguished dead.

In this great emptiness of Alpha Cygnan rock and sand dune there was but one structure visible; it was a vast temple that stood proudly amidst its own decay.

Napolipolita stared at the almost limitless veil of stars above her as she stood shivering in the cold of the desert night. Checking to make sure that the son in her arms was bundled warmly, she marveled at how cold it seemed to get in the desert at night here on the Homeworld the same as it did on Earth.

"Land of fire and ice," she mused aloud, her heart still unhappy and restless.

"Such terrain shows no mercy," Deesha answered back. "Why have we come here, my Captain?" The big woman stared at the ruins that stood before the three of them.

The roof of the desecrated temple was supported by one hundred and twenty-four columns, a third of which were now lying on their sides with fallen sections of roof scattered over them. Making their way past two giant bronze doors that had long since been knocked off their hinges, Napolipolita told her friend and comrade, "I thought my son should visit the temple of his namesake."

Both women then looked up and recognized the ancient and venerable heroes and gods of their past, sculpted into and around the fallen temple. Many had their heads broken off. But headless or not -- where the walls and roof still stood, the ancient figures still stood proudly in the dim light thrown off by their electric torches. But it was the place of honor above the altar that had the most striking impact on the two warriors. There before them -- towering above the altar in a place of honor -- stood an immense statue, or what was left of one.

In spite of its condition, both D and Napolipolita could see at once that the marble figure that loomed over them had been that of a male. It was also equally evident that it had been neither time nor neglect that had caused all the damage to the figure standing before them. One glance told them that human hands, armed with tools and weapons, caused this damage. It was as if some long-vanished group had tried to destroy the memory of the venerated man himself by destroying the giant figure in front of them, though only his effigy.

Shivering and clutching her baby boy more tightly and rubbing his soft green hair with her lips and cheek, the Captain now recalled something she had once read during her research of Earth's race of men and women.

One thousand three hundred-thirty years before the birth of Christ, the world saw Akhenaten -formerly known as Amenhotep IV - become Pharaoh and absolute ruler of ancient Egypt. The Cretan Minoans, who had -- for a while at least --carried the mantle of their extraterrestrial Cygnan heritage, had traded with the Egyptians. Napolipolita had learned much about Akhenaten through this circuitous route.

Akhenaten had been a radical, throwing out the old gods of Egypt and building a roofless temple to Aten, proclaiming the rising Sun as their new - and only - god. He had discarded the pantheon of the old Gods and moved the capital from ancient Thebes and to a new one he had created at Tell el-Amarna. By his mandate and with the love and support of his wife Nefertiti at his side, he forcibly dragged Egypt and his subjects into monotheism.

But his reign was not a happy one for the Egyptians. They faced poverty because of his lavish spending on the army, which struggled constantly to keep the Hittites from overrunning their country, and their Pharaoh's near-uncontrollable spending on temples and monuments dedicated to his new god.

Almost as soon as Akhenaten died, his blasphemous temples to the One God were demolished. His name was struck from the carved hieroglyphs decorating the temple walls. The massive sandstone images of his face and his misshapen body were smashed. As if that could have erased his existence -- ! His name lived on, long after those who had denounced him and had destroyed his legacy had become dust blowing in the hot desert winds.

As Akhenaten had lived and died, so it had been for Kir Azenath, an ancient Cygnan king who ruled the Lepton Kingdom back in the days when the kingdom had kings. He had been an extraordinary man - a scholar, leader, and a visionary. He had protected the Lepton Kingdom from war for decades, and had forged a lasting peace with Thessalonika and Midia, other worlds located in the Tauka Banesh System, which otherwise might just as easily have become their enemies instead.

His new capital, Bashtorethi or the Azure City, had been here on the High Desert, in a region now known as Mur Sejanus. Captain Napolipolita shuddered, not only from the biting cold but also from her realization that this land had also become the birthplace of Gorash Zunda, the founder of the Shakanar, and its first and greatest soldier. She had been the prototype and the founding mother to all other Shakanar who followed in her bloody, body-strewn path. Captain also now recalled that the Shakanar War College was also located not far from where she now stood.

Kir Azenath had - like his Terran counterpart, Akhenaten - worshipped a single deity, and celebrated his faith with music and processions. His people knew peace and prosperity for forty years, a time once referenced as the Kingdom's Golden Age. However, this placid time was not to last.

The Captain had never been quite sure about what had happened to his rule or to the man himself, for that matter. The truth had either been lost in the mists of time, or - what she suspected was more likely the case - had been actively suppressed. The Great Motherists of the Kingdom, at least, did not like to recall a time when a Patriarch reigned. For whatever reason, Kir Azenath's legacy had ultimately been reduced to this pile of rubble, once covered with bleached bones but now surmounted instead by thirty feet of ice-cold desert sand.

Napolipolita sighed. She tucked the baby next to her bare skin, where she knew he would benefit from her own warmth. She also knew that the little one would enjoy being soothed by her heartbeat once again. Although she had grown to truly know that he was hers and that she would unhesitatingly kill anyone who would try to harm him, she still felt the sting of shame when she realized what her body had produced.

As she stared up at the ruined statue that stood before them, Deesha asked, "Who was that, Captain?"

"Kir Asenath," answered Napolipolita. "Sage, philosopher, leader -- and my son's namesake!"

"Leader?" asked Dee in shock.

"Yes, leader. And a great one, according to the ancient and forbidden texts," Napolipolita replied.

"But Captain! How could any male be a leader?"

"It was during the Before Time, D -- before the sexes on this world grew apart and before women took their rightful and natural places as the warriors, leaders, and rulers of the Cygnan Nation." She then added, "Kir Asenath was also noted for one other thing."

"And what would that be?" asked D.

Looking up once more at the remains of the statue that loomed over both of them, Captain Napolipolita told her friend and companion, "He was also the sire and, more importantly, the father and teacher of the blessed Regina Caeli the First, first Queen and Mother of the Cygnan Empire."

As was the custom, the two warrior women bowed their heads respectfully to honor the founding mother of their matriarchal society.

"If he was such an esteemed person, why would someone destroy his image?" asked D.

"Because those who would think to rule the future do so by first trying to destroy the past," said a new voice, which came from the entrance of the one-time great temple.

Quickly spinning around with drawn sidearms, D and Napolipolita were both surprised and shocked to see Queen Zazen'lda standing before them.

Dropping to their knees out of respect and awe, they bowed their heads. Almost as a reflex action, the Captain tried to hide the small bundle of shame who was her son.

"D - Napolipolita -- both of you, on your feet!" ordered their Queen, her silvery-white hair almost ethereal in the starlight.

Standing up, Napolipolita was relieved to hear her Queen say, "It's good to see you again, Captain -- I mean Admiral. You too, D!" Then, almost as an afterthought the Queen added, "Faithful as ever, aren't you, D?"

"I live to serve my Queen and my Nation and my Captain," D replied.

Turning her attention back to Napolipolita and, more importantly, to the infant she was holding, Queen Zazen'lda said, "And that must be the son I've been hearing so much about from the religious cultists you call the Cybellines."

"I apologize for Your Majesty's being forced to gaze upon this object of shame to our Nation and my Queen," answered Napolipolita in scarcely more than a whisper.

"The belief that you mention, that you have shamed yourself, your ancestors, and the Lepton Kingdom, is the prevailing opinion of your Sisters of the Great Mother - all of whom have branded you a traitor for defying their orders," said the Queen. Looking into the face of her slender green-headed warrior, Zazen'lda asked, "Do you have a question you'd like to ask me, Napolipolita?"

"Yes, my Queen."

"Go ahead and ask," replied Zazen'lda.

"How did you know we were here, my Queen?" answered the suddenly-worried Napolipolita, beginning to fear for the safety of her son. Her eyes darted from the Queen's face to those of her retainers, now crowding behind her.

"Where else would a mother who'd given the name of Kir Asenath to her son come, but to the very temple dedicated to the memory of the man for whom her son was named?" answered the Fifth Queen of the Cygnan Empire. She paused for a moment to observe the effect her words had on her two loyal soldiers, and then she smiled. "I wasn't totally sure where you would go first, when you had arrived on the Homeworld. And that is why two of my daughters are waiting for you at your family shrine on the Briabor Plain."

The Captain blushed to her hairline. "I hope my Queen doesn't believe that I was trying to avoid punishment for having given birth to a male. You didn't have to become involved in my dishonor yourself. I gladly would have surrendered myself to receive my punishment at your hand whenever you summoned."

"I see that your new habit of taking responsibility for your drinking has also shown itself in both your personal and professional life, Napolipolita."

"One of the things I learned on Earth, Your Majesty, is that one cannot live without the other," the Captain answered.

Queen Zazen'lda smiled once. Turning to her Prime Minister and the Captain of her personal Guard, she told the former, "Drusilla Cantabrigia, take my guards and my private shuttle and return to the Palace. I shall return with Napolipolita in her hop ship."

"I don't think that is very wise, Your Majesty," warned her Prime Minister, who spied assassins behind every overturned pillar.

"I don't care about that," said the Queen. "You have your orders and I expect them to be carried out."

With a bow of her head, the Prime Minister and the Captain of the Royal Guard bowed respectively and said in unison, "To hear is to obey, my Queen." As they were leaving, the Queen called out to them and said, "Stop off at the Napolipolita family shrine on the way home, and inform my daughters to return to their regular duties." Zazen'lda sighed. "I'm sure one of them wants to heat her soup and the other wants to sharpen her sword - preferably on the neck of a Xram."

Turning back to Napolipolita and D, the Queen of the Cygnan Empire told her two loyal servants, "As your stepdaughter Biko once told me, 'It's good to be the Queen!'" She grinned, a gesture that relaxed all three women just a bit. Captain was still in secret fear for her baby's life. D was in fear for both her Captain and for tiny Kir Azenath, also known as Hikaru Daitokuji, depending on to whom you spoke.

When they were alone, Queen Zazen'lda looked around the great temple by the light of her own electric torch. Stopping before the smashed statue of Kir Azenath, she looked up and told Napolipolita almost as an afterthought, "I wish I had the courage to rebuild this palace, and once more turn this lonely ruin into a fitting place of honor for a great man." She turned back to her two soldiers and told them, "After all -- we owe him so very much!"

--------

After the trio was settled in Napolipolita's scout craft, Queen Zazen'lda ordered Dee to fly them to the Royal Palace, and to take her time in doing it. With Deesha Dakina's capable hand at the controls, Napolipolita and her Queen sat across from one another. And as they sat there together without speaking, the tiny child began to squirm and fuss. Napolipolita pretended to ignore her son's needs, but it was her Queen who told her, "I have been a mother enough times to recognize what the little one both wants and needs, Napolipolita."

Embarrassed, Napolipolita opened her vest and began to nurse her son. Even as he suckled contentedly, the red-faced soldier asked forgiveness for feeding her son in front of the Sovereign Majesty of thirty-three galaxies.

"Babies have to eat, don't they?" answered Zazen'lda with a smile.

"True, my Queen. But I beg forgiveness for letting you see me nurse a mere man-child in front of my Queen!"

"The same rules about female babies needing to eat goes for them as well, don't they?" responded the Queen with a kind smile.

A few minutes later as Napolipolita was rubbing her son's back to pat out any errant air bubbles, the Queen asked her, "How did you learn about Kir Asenath?"

Napolipolita revealed to her Sovereign her mother's dream-visitation back on Earth, and what the shade had told her about him. When she had finished, the Queen proceeded to tell both the Captain and D the whole story of the ancient Cygnan King -- a story kept secret over the millennia; a story meant to be passed down from mother to daughter in the Cygnan royal household alone.

The cause of Azenath's downfall was, for lack of a better word, the forces of nature. The portion of Alpha Cygni in which he had established his new capital had been rocked by earthquakes of alarming proportions. The people had panicked at each new quake, blaming him for bringing down the wrath of the ancient - and now repudiated -- gods down upon their heads. Finally driven half-mad by fear, several of his generals had assassinated him. They had also smashed his face off temple sculptures and had outlawed his faith. In time, and as the eruptions worsened in size and frequency, their beliefs had degenerated into the sanction of human sacrifice -- a desperate attempt to appease the old gods and to forestall their own inevitable deaths.

Queen Zazen'lda confided that her own archaeologists had recently found the remains of a temple containing three skeletons: one of a priest, lying on his back with his arms upraised as if to ward off the collapsing ceiling -- a priestess, knocked face-down on the floor as her world ended -- and a trussed-up young man lying on his side in a sacrificial lustral basin. The Cygnan scholars had concluded through examination of this young man's bones that he had died by exsanguination.

Human sacrifice, without a doubt.

"It truly seemed that desperate times had called for equally desperate measures," Zazenl'da sighed. "Nevertheless, it remains a matter of the highest disgrace to our people. Now. Speaking of disgrace, let me hold that male child of yours."

"I wouldn't dream of disgusting my Queen with his touch," answered Napolipolita, frantically trying to think out whether she would kill the Queen to save her son.

"I think he won't be able to hurt me too badly," said the Queen as she held out her hands.

The Captain's hands shook as she handed her precious burden to her ruler. She felt both honored and terrified that her Queen would be even willing to acknowledge him, let alone hold him.

As she rocked him back and forth, Zazen'lda silently began to weep.

As Napolipolita watched the tears run down her face, she asked, "Is there anything I can do, Your Majesty?"

"No, Captain. My tears are not for your son or even for me, but for the baby boy I had to give up long ago."

**********************************************************************

January 29

My Memorial Book, greetings.

I had my talk with Dr. Stellamaris today, and it gave me a lot to think about. Besides being a doctor, she's a Prayerteacher for the Pathfollowers in the ship's crew. We talked about why those who follow the Great Mother hate baby males, and about the All-Highest Being they follow, and about lots of stuff.

She told me that the Cygnans had a similar problem that the Terrans had regarding equality. The Terrans were struggling with equal rights for women, and we were struggling with equal rights for men!

The Pathfollowers were taught that males were not to be thought as mere "breeding stock", but as partners in raising families and building the Kingdom. It was true that males only used half of their brains to think, and they had to deal with all that testosterone in their systems. But those defects didn't make them inferior to us, just different.

Then we talked about the Path. We talked about how the All-Highest made the universe from nothing, and sustains it from moment to moment. We talked about how the Path was revealed to the people through the Prophetesses over the centuries. We talked about the last and greatest, Almah the Doe-Eyed, after whom the Doctor was named. We talked about how and when they worshipped, and why they considered Great Motherism a cult. We talked about the Path was not an easy way to live, but it was a sure way to freedom of the soul. We talked about the Shadow Terrors, and how they could lead people to think wrong things about stuff. And that thinking wrong can lead to acting wrong. Especially when it came to males and male babies.

I told her what the Priestesses did to Ma - shunning her and such - and Dr. Stellamaris shook her head and gave me a hug. Then she stood to leave, and looked at me. "To me, Akana, the Path is one of love and caring and kindness, not rejection and hate. You will have to make up your own mind, of course."

I think I already have.

Oh, big-time stink in the house. Daddy and Ma aren't fighting again, but Ma has gone to Alpha Cygni with D and the baby without telling him. I expect she didn't want to put him in the position of asking her to stay home.

He went nutzoid on us. Dr. Agama came over and checked him out to see if he needed medicine for anxiety. Dr. Agama told him to have a "martini" instead. I wonder what that is?

I also wonder if Daddy is afraid Ma will give the baby to the Magdiu. Ha-ha, fat chance. If they tried, she'd rip out their hearts and livers before they knew they were gone.

A woman's got to do what a woman's got to do. He'll just have to suck it up and deal with it. As Ma is fond of saying, males are weird the universe over.

Good night,

Aki

*********************************************************************

D almost crashed the shuttle into a giant fegore tree in shock. Her own thoughts spinning, Napolipolita asked, "Son? Your Majesty bore a son?"

"Yes," the Queen admitted. "He was my little C-ko's twin brother, and a day has yet to go by when I don't think about him."

"I didn't know," said Napolipolita.

"No one knew. My own mother saw to that by ordering the execution of every guard -- every doctor - every medassist -- and of anyone else who might know the Royal Family's most shameful and most terrible of secrets."

"I had no idea, my Queen," D stammered, tears now rolling down her own big face.

"Of course you didn't. No one did." Zazen'lda paused for a second before continuing, "Did you ever wonder how or why Princess C-ko became lost all those years ago?"

Captain raised her head. "Why, yes. The story was - "

" - but one more carefully crafted lie by my mother. The truth was that I was returning to our Homeworld with C-ko after disposing of her brother when we came under attack from a Xram attack squadron."

Both women nodded, silent.

"The ship was on fire, and my retainers -- under orders from my mother to protect me at all costs -- shoved me into an escape pod. There was no time to remove C-ko from her stasis chamber. And so it came to be that as I was shot into hyperspace and made my escape, my poor daughter was lost as the wreck of the freighter slipped into hyperspace as well. From what our scientists have been able to piece together, its hyperdrive was somehow disabled in the System of Sol. Apparently, the Terrans were experimenting with - well, things they had no business experimenting with, because the result was that catastrophic explosion which wiped out your Graviton City."

"And what of the Princess, my Queen?"

"My daughter's stasis chamber was expelled from the doomed ship at the last moment. The one which belonged to your infant sister, D, the woman known as Mari Okugi, Cygnan name Ionia Dakina, was also blown out of harm's way, with a handful of others. The rest of the crew wasn't so lucky. The detonation of our antimatter particle engines not only wiped out my whole crew but six million Terrans as well."

D's jaw dropped.

"Your mother never told you that story, did she, D? Well, she was always a loyal soldier, and a good one too. I have felt badly ever since for all those unnecessary deaths - "

The Captain leaned forward. "They died doing their duty, Your Highness -- a better end no Cygnan warrior could ever hope for."

"At least it was a nobler death than they would have suffered if they had lived long enough to make it back to the Homeworld," replied Zazen'lda.

"What do you mean?" asked Napolipolita.

"I mean -- that I found out later that my mother had already signed the death warrants for every member of that ship's crew." The Queen wiped tears from her cheek; several had already splashed upon the baby's fuzzy head. "And all of this, just to keep the dark secret of her daughter's shameful failure because she gave birth to an accursed male!"

"We are so sorry, Your Majesty," the Captain said, nodding in D's direction.

"Thank you. By the time I came home, there was no longer anyone in the Palace who even knew I was pregnant for those seven long months. No one knew of my grief over losing not one - but both children."

Zazen'lda wept for a while, hugging the Captain's infant as if he had been her own little boy.

Wiping her eyes once again, she continued her story. "My mother had already decided to bypass my older sister Shaska and instead to make me the Queen. She did this not as a reflection on Shaska, whom I believed would have made a better ruler. My mother apparently believed that there would be new problems and new issues which would confront the Empire once she was gone. She believed that a ruler with a more flexible attitude was needed, and -- knowing that I could stomach the loss of my two babies with such outward strength -- she picked me."

She rubbed the baby boy's stomach before going on. "You know how it is with us Cygnans. As is our custom, I got pregnant at a young age to ensure that there would be a new generation to follow me. Aside from C-ko and her three older sisters, her poor little twin brother would also have been part of that ancient succession."

"I know how it is to have a child when being only a child oneself," the Captain whispered. "I wasn't aware that you'd even been a worshipper of The Mother."

"I chose to discard the religion of my mother and my childhood and instead chose the Path of Shotosarikan. I could no longer abide being part of a system of beliefs that forced me to repudiate my own son."

"My Queen -- may I be blunt?" asked Napolipolita.

"More than anyone else, both you and D have earned that right," answered the Queen.

The Captain swallowed hard once, and then asked, "Why are you telling us? Why are you so willing to share a state secret with the two of us which - if it was ever revealed -- might topple the Royal Throne?"

"Because -- I don't want you to make the same mistake I did," answered the Ruler of the Cygnan Empire. "I owe both you and D my Throne and my sister's life, along with the life of my daughter C-ko. I wouldn't be much of a woman, let alone a ruler, if I wasn't grateful to the both of you. But most of all - Aysheia Lisia, daughter of my greatest Commander Alia Napolipolita -- I don't want you to suffer the way I do." Her chin quivered, her blue eyes clouded with regret and old grief. "Every day I regret having been forced to give up my son, but also know that I was trapped by duty and custom, and my fate as the future Queen of our people."

She took Napolipolita by her hand and, as she held it, told her, "But you aren't trapped, Captain. You have another life on Earth, a life you have decided to share with a male and his daughter along with your own daughters. Don't you see? You may still serve the Empire, but from Earth instead of Alpha Cygni. There, you can keep your son and still serve the Empire!"

"Thank you, my Queen -- but I will have to think about it."

"Even a Queen has no right to ask more than that," Zazen'lda replied. "Only you are accountable to your Great Mother." She then turned to D, still sitting at the controls. "What about you, D? Have you found a reason to live your life on Earth, in addition to your devotion to your Captain?"

D thought for a moment, blushed, and answered, "There is a certain sumo champion who brings a smile to my lips."

"Good for you, D!"

"Do you know what ever happened to your little boy, Your Majesty?" the Captain whispered, fearing that the little mite had been murdered.

"No. Such knowledge was kept from me with every trick at my mother's disposal. Forgive me, Captain, for speaking honestly to you. I can't help but feel that we converse this night as mother to mother, not Queen to subject. I didn't like my mother much. I have tried to be a kinder woman all my life, and hope that I've succeeded."

Looking at the way the Queen gently held her baby, the Captain smiled. "No fear of that."

"All I know is -- that he lives. Where, and how, I do not know. And that lack of knowledge - which flies in the face of the awesome power at my command - gnaws at my heart to this day."

"I wish I could find him for you."

"But you found his twin sister!"

"That was D, not me."

"But she was under your command. As sick as you were then, you still managed to successfully complete your mission. I would be very pleased to do what I can for you, as I am in your debt."

"You owe me nothing, Your Majesty. I just did my duty. And the only matter with which I need help isn't one you can influence. I have a meeting with the Sanctum Sanctorum in CygniCity. Because I landed on Cygnan soil, I subjected myself to their jurisdiction. They summoned me and want me to explain myself." Napolipolita leaned forward and stroked her son's smooth head.

"So you do love him, after all," the Queen queried, looking at the Captain's thin face.

"Better than my life, my Queen," she replied, her voice shaking. "Better than my own life, a thousand times."

"I know how you feel," Zazen'lda replied simply.

Both women hugged the little man-child, and both let their tears flow freely as D approached CygniCity and the Palace.

It had been a busy three days for Napolipolita and her son since her return to the Homeworld. She fulfilled her promise to her mother by paying her respects and presenting her son to her ancestors at the family shrine. D had spent a pleasant few days with her own mother out at Dartish Mikaia, a retirement colony of sorts for former cargo payload specialists.

Unfortunately, the last part of their visit would not prove as pleasant.

Her so-called treason reported to the Magdiu Veru by Vipsania Parsua herself, Napolipolita had been ordered to stand before the governing council of the Sisterhood of Cybele. This could prove her undoing -- a fact that weighed heavily upon her heart, and upon D's as well. Fortunately, the little boy who slept in her arms was unaware of the danger that loomed before all of them.

The night before, all three had paid a visit to the Royal Palace at the request of Zazen'lda. The Queen had her ditzy moments, but what her detractors had often forgotten -- and at their peril, too -- was that she was an intelligent and realistic monarch.

"Napolipolita," the Queen had said, "I don't want you to go in there and stand in front of those zealots under any delusions. When it comes to the Magdiu Veru, even I have my limits. We have just avoided a full-scale civil war with your help and the help of your Terran friends. But I cannot -- and will not -- start a even more horrendous internal war over you and your son." She paused for a moment then added, "I couldn't risk that, even for my own children."

"I understand," the Captain had replied. "The Empire and the Cygnan people come first my son, and I are on our own."

"On the contrary," Zazen'lda had corrected her. "I have already been contacted by certain parties, and help is on the way. But I cannot be connected to it in any way. Do you understand?"

"We do, Your Majesty," answered Napolipolita for all three of them.

The Queen had embraced both women and had stroked little Kir Azenath's fuzzy green head. She had gazed fondly into his eyes, which were open and bright as buttons. "May your Great Mother look kindly upon -- all of you." Then to show her respect, the Queen of the Cygnan Empire had given them the tiger-claw salute. Recognizing the honor the Queen had given the both of them, Napolipolita and D had immediately snapped to attention, returning it.

Right after the Queen and her retinue had had departed, the Captain had sighed heavily and had turned to her old friend. "I want you to stay here, Dee. I have decided to stand in the Sanctum Sanctorum alone with my son."

Suspicious, Desha had responded, "Why should I stay behind, my Captain?"

"No particular reason, really. I just don't see any reason why you should be mixed up in this mess any more than you've already been."

"Uh-huh," D had said. "Is that all, Captain?"

Hanging her head, Napolipolita had taken her broadsword from its scabbard and had handed it to D. "If something happens, I trust you to make sure that my oldest daughter Alia gets this -- in case something unforeseen happens to me."

"I suggest you leave your family sword behind with a note asking our Queen to ensure that the Commander gets your sword -- because I will be coming with you. After all, you're going to need someone to stand by your side."

Napolipolita's face had grown stern. "You have always obeyed me, D, even when I was ill with drink. Don't change your ways now."

"Then why won't you trust me enough to share the truth with me?" D had asked.

Napolipolita had looked at her oldest and dearest friend. "The bottom line is that I won't give up my son, D. If the Magdiu Veru tries to take him from me, there will be bloodshed. My son and I will die together, but not before I shed the blood of others as well." She had then added, "If that does happen, I don't want you there with me."

After putting her Captain's sword in a safe place, D had strapped on her own weapon. "Shall we go?"

"No! I am your commanding officer and I have given you an order, D. I expect you to obey me!"

"If we're both alive to see the setting of the suns tomorrow, you may bring me up on charges of insubordination, Captain. Until then, I suggest that we hurry before we're both late for our appointment with our destinies."

Napolipolita's angry expression had softened. "I've warned you before, D, about this sentimentality of yours."

D had replied, "I'll be sure to work on it, Captain. Starting tomorrow."

The two warriors had hugged one another. "Thank you, D -- thank you for being my friend."

Standing at attention, Deesha Dakina -- like the Queen herself -- had given her best tiger-claw salute. "I live to serve and if needed to die with my Captain!"

Returning the salute, Napolipolita had said, "There's no one else I'd rather walk that final road with than you, D."

With their broadswords on their hips and the baby in his mother's arms, D and Captain now prepared to march to their fate with their heads held high and smiles on their faces.

-------

"WHERE THE HELL IS SHE???" Hikaru Daitokuji shrieked into his desk com. Standing out in the hallway in front of his home office, Biko felt sorry for the Napolipolita-Daitokuji Financial Group's Chief Investigator at whom her father was now screaming maniacally.

The billionaire's daughter stepped closer to the door. There was silence as, she assumed, the hapless employee gave his report. From her father's explosion of curses, it wasn't a very good one.

"DAMMIT, MAN! MY WIFE AND MY BABY ARE GONE AND YOU CAN'T TELL ME WHERE? I'LL TAKE AWAY YOUR STOCK OPTIONS! THEN I'LL DO AWAY WITH YOUR GOLDEN PARACHUTE! THEN I'LL - "

"Oh, just stop it, Father," his daughter said, entering the room unannounced. Considering the mood he was in, this was risky, but she frankly didn't care. "Stop threatening that poor soul and hang up the phone."

"WHAAAAAAAAT??" Hikaru shrieked, his hair disheveled and his eyes wild.

"Hang - up - the - phone," Biko repeated, as if she was talking to a total dullard. Perhaps I am at that, she thought.

Daitokuji hung up the phone.

"Now, breathe deeply, Father."

"TO HELL WITH BREATHING DEEPLY! I'LL - "

"You'll what? Have another hissy fit and a massive coronary to go with it? I know where they are. Sit down."

"WHAAAT???"

"SIT - DOWN."

He did.

Biko was amused that the tables were turned. Usually it was Daddy giving the orders around here.

"Where are they?" her father said through clenched teeth.

"They're on Alpha Cygni with D," Biko replied, then braced herself for the blast that was sure to follow.

"OH HELL! OH NO!!! CRAZY BITCH IS GOING TO GIVE MY SON AWAY!

SHE - "

"She is not a crazy bitch and she is not giving your son away. She had a dream visitation from her mother, who told her to take him to the Homeworld to visit his namesake's ancient temple."

"I'M HIS NAMESAKE!!!!!!! HIS NAME IS HIKARU!!!!!!!!!!!"

"His Cygnan name, Father."

"WHAT CYGNAN NAME????" the man spat. "WHAT THE - "

Calculating the risk of her father's imminent heart attack if she told him the full truth, Biko opted for the higher ground. "Relax, Father. She is safe, and so is my brother, and I'm going now with A-ko's parents to go get them."

Hikaru blinked twice and plopped back into his Italian leather desk chair.

"Cat got your tongue?" Biko commented.

"I'm flummoxed," he replied. "Why do you - have to go - 'get them'??"

"Because," Biko said, eyeing the door for a quick escape from the tsunami of swearing that was sure to roll her way. "it seems that they're in a spot of bother, as that Aussie Ed says."

"WHAT AUSSIE?"

"Oh, never mind, Father," Biko said, striding for the door. If she got away fast enough and made a break for HIKI-3, she'd be able to drive away before he really got cranked up.

Actually Daddy, she thought, Captain is in trouble. D's in trouble. The baby is in trouble. And we're going to get them out of trouble.

"No sweat, Father. They're fine, including little Kir Azenath."

'KIR WHATTYNATH???????????????????????"

"My baby brother's name," Biko said, and bit her tongue before she finished her sentence with "you cluck!" "I'll be home in a few days. Don't worry. My mother isn't going anywhere with the baby but back home. You can bank on it."

"Your - mother?" Hikaru whispered.

"Yes. I think it's about time that I accepted her, before the two of you produce another forty-six kids and we run out of bathrooms."

"Don't be wise," he growled.

"I'll be in touch. Ah. The Magamis are here. Later, Father."

Hikaru stood back up as she strode back out of his office and the door slammed behind her. A few moments later, he watched the three of them drive away to whatever fate awaited them.

I'm sorry I lost my temper and called her that name, he prayed to whatever higher power was out there. Please don't punish me for it by taking them away from me --

"Hello Daddy," said Hikaru's second daughter Shiiko.

He rounded quickly, then sighed and smiled. "Hello baby. Home from school?"

The aquamarine-haired girl nodded and threw her book bag onto his cherrywood conference table. "The Cygnettes want to know if you don't love them any more."

"WHAT?"

"Don't yell, Daddy. It isn't nice."

Hikaru ran his fingers through his lavender-going-gray hair and sighed deeply. "No. Of course not. How silly."

Then Shiiko raised her head, with her mother's smirk on her face. "Well, then," she said in a confident tone. "you won't mind taking us to Disney World this afternoon, then."

Hikaru grabbed his head with both hands. The Rat Kingdom? he thought. I HATE the damned Rat Kingdom!!

The poor beleaguered man sighed once again. "Fire up the ENDY," he said, his face still a mask of worry over the fate of his wife and son.

--------

The Sisterhood of Cybele had been established on the Homeworld some six thousand years ago. Its principal tenets included service to the Realm (which included the production of as many new citizens to fill its colonies as possible), loyalty to one's Sisters, and exclusivity to the female gender.

Both D and Captain had been born into it and had believed in it with all their hearts their entire lives. This was particularly ironic since they could now be walking into a deathtrap arranged by their own "Sisters".

-------

Napolipolita and the ever-faithful D paused before entering the Great Hall. Captain carried her son in front of her in an Indian sling contraption that her stepdaughter Biko had given to her as a gift. After making sure her little boy was comfortable, she turned and said, "It's still not too late to change your mind, D. "

"With all due respect, my Captain, it won't do for us to be late for our appointment."

Captain stopped short, seeing the futility of talking her big friend out of it. "So be it, then," she sighed, with a touch of a grim smile on her face.

Both squared their shoulders as the bronze doors to the Sanctum Sanctorum - the Holy of Holies - swung open to admit them.

-------

The interior of the vast circular room was gold-colored, and five to ten-foot long tourmaline crystals grew in profusion both on the floor and on the walls. The High Council - the Magdiu Veru - sat directly in front of the three of them in a semicircle. This arrangement was intended to make invitees quite uncomfortable since Cygnans had been taught not to leave their backs exposed.

In other words, one did not come here voluntarily.

Captain's heart was pounding. The child who would become known as Hikiri (an amalgam of Hikaru and Kir) sensed his mother's distress, and began to wail.

Oh Great Mother not now, she thought frantically. Not now!

Both invitees jumped as the doors slammed shut behind them, the boom echoing and re-echoing until the sounds faded into the distance. The only sound in the room was the poor infant's cry.

"Napolipolita!" shouted Mizra Gitu, a white-haired potentate of long years and little tolerance for foolishness. "You dare come before us with that creature? It is forbidden for a Sister to bring a male in our Sacred Presence!"

The Captain reached back and fingered the pommel of her sword. Her thoughts were frantic.

Unless I take an offensive posture now, they'll cut us down like dogs -

"Answer me!"

The Captain's interrogation had begun, and continued for the next two Terran hours.

-------

The third Council member had just sat down after finishing her tirade aimed at Napolipolita for daring to choose her son over Cybelline law and custom. One of the Queen's personal bodyguards then entered the Great Hall, while the fourth in the string of vindictive old crones started making her own speech denouncing their errant Sister. Listening for a few moments, she turned and left.

The women glared after her. Unfortunately for them, even they couldn't keep the Queen out. Even if she was a Pathfollower.

Stepping quickly over to Zazen'lda, the bodyguard whispered into her Sovereign's ear. After listening intently for a few moments, the Queen asked the members of the Magdiu Veru for a brief recess, and got it.

She then made her way down to where Napolipolita and D stood below her. "It doesn't look good, Captain," she said.

"I know," the green-headed soldier said. "Thank you for speaking on my behalf, Your Majesty, but I fear the only way this will end will be with blood -- both ours and theirs!"

Curious, Zazen'lda then asked, "And how do you feel, D?"

"My Captain speaks for the both of us," was her simple but elegant answer.

The Queen smiled at the woman's loyalty, even if she was a little jealous of not having such a friend herself. She turned to Napolipolita. "Well -- if I were you, I wouldn't be planning the funeral just yet."

Willing to reach for any straw if it could mean the protection of her child, Captain asked hopefully, "What do you mean, my Queen?"

"What I mean is that there is someone outside waiting to see you."

Captain handed her son to D, sure that she would do anything to protect him, including sacrificing herself on his behalf. Thus reassured for the moment for the safety of her little boy, Napolipolita rushed outside into the corridor.

There waiting for her, with her back to her, was a familiar form, even if she was covered from head to ankle in a long and very expensive imported leather raincoat.

"Biko?"

Turning quickly, Biko rushed to her stepmother and -- much to Napolipolita's surprise -- actually threw her arms around her.

"What are you doing here?" she asked in disbelief.

"I came to help. You didn't think I was going to let some dried-up old bitches take my brother and my - uh, mother -- from me without a fight," she answered.

Napolipolita took Biko in her arms in a tight hug, not knowing what pleased her most -- the love and concern she had for her little brother, or this new and wonderful show of affection for her. Feeling something hard under the bodice of her stepdaughter's long coat, Napolipolita raised an eyebrow. "You wouldn't happen to be wearing your Akagiyama 25 battlesuit, would you? If so, would you mind telling me why?"

"I'm not losing the both of you without a fight," was the only answer the young woman could offer.

Napolipolita shook her head no. "Things aren't going very well for your brother and me. Unless something happens quickly to change it, this in fact will be the last sunset Deesha and I will see. I will not allow you to share this fate with us. You have to much to live for back home."

"You just said it yourself, Ma, when you used the word 'home'. I have a plan and the Queen approves of it, even if she can't acknowledge it publicly. "

"What ever you have cooked up, It's sure too be far to dangerous," protested Napolipolita, touched by Biko's use of the name her birth daughters gave her. "I also owe it to your father to make sure you're not endangered as well."

"I know it's dangerous," Biko replied. "and that is why I brought help."

"Help? What do you mean by help?"

"Before I answer that, first tell me if your people have anything equivalent to godparents," asked Biko as she took her stepmother by the arm and guided her to a marble bench. They began to whisper together.

When they finished talking and the Captain was called back into the Council chamber, the alien asked Biko, "How did you manage to get here on home world, anyway?"

"Shaska brought me."

"The Queen's older sister has been banished! She wouldn't dare return to the Homeworld!"

"I know that, you know that, and Shaska knows that best of all. But what you don't know is that Queen Zazen'lda has her big sister hidden in the Palace, where no one but her, you, and me know about it. And there she'll remain until it's time to go back home!"

"I see you have this well-planned," said Napolipolita with a smile.

Biko replied, "Don't I always make the best plans?"

"Then why all the failures with your friend A-ko?" her stepmother asked with a grin.

"She was lucky," Biko replied with an even bigger grin.

"Speaking of which, where is your well-muscled friend?"

"Back home looking after your other daug.... I mean, my sisters. Seems that the Grand High Imperial Pooh-Bah of Upper Butt Crack -- or whatever it is that nasty priestess calls herself -- had left orders behind for her two Shakanar bodyguards to put the snatch on them after she left, to put pressure on you!"

Suddenly worried about her other children, Napolipolita gasped. "What happened?"

"What do you think happened? My large friend put a quick stop to that," answered Biko. "They never knew what hit them. After A-ko got done with them, their next stop was the Graviton City Municipal Hospital."

"But how did your friend know to show up?" asked the Captain, almost faint from relief.

"My friend's mom had her suspicions about why Old Laughing Girl would be leaving her two bodyguards behind. So, she asked me to get in touch with A-ko and to ask her to look out for my sisters."

Napolipolita was relieved at the Amazon princess' foresight, but then had a troubling thought of her own. "Why didn't she simply ask her daughter herself?'

"A-ko and her parents are having some trouble. Most of it seems to be between A-ko and her mom. I don't know what it could be. No one will talk about it," said Biko.

"I might know what it is," said her stepmother.

"Then give," said Biko.

Putting her hand on her newest daughter's shoulder, Napolipolita told Biko, "I don't have the right to break a confidence and tell anyone what I might -- or might not -- know."

Just then, she was called back in to appear before the council. Standing up, she and Biko made their way to the entrance. There they paused for a moment, side by side. Turning to Biko, the Captain said to her, "It's not too late to change your mind about jumping into the fire with me."

"Shut up! You know -- you talk too much! I thought you were just a talkative drunk, but now I know better. You just like to talk."

Napolipolita laughed, and then replied, "First Dee, and now you! When this is over, I'll have to remember to have a long talk with the both of you!"

Arm-in-arm, mother and daughter marched into the Great Hall together. Just before they entered the chamber proper, Napolipolita said to Biko, "Please promise me one thing before we go in."

"If I can," she replied.

"If the judgment goes against us, as I almost know it will, I want you to promise me, that you will grab your brother from me and get back to the Palace. I'm sure Her Majesty will see to it that Shaska takes both of you safely home to your father."

"I won't, and can't do that!"

"You must! One of us must survive to save the baby, and to return home to help raise my other daughters!"

"NO!" was Biko's emotional answer.

"Obey me in this, Biko," said Napolipolita in a strong and strident voice, which then quickly softened. "Please, Biko. I also need you to return home so you can tell your father that as much as I wanted to, I'm sorry I couldn't live the rest of our lives raising our son together. I need someone to tell him how sorry I am for saying the things I did. But most of all, I need you to tell him I loved him, and died loving him."

"Tell him yourself when we all return home," Biko told her.

"I'm sorry, my daughter, but I don't think you realize the type of game you've gotten yourself into. It has many rules, and almost none of them are written down. And when you lose -- you lose everything."

"Well, if I were you, Ma, I wouldn't be so ready to cash in my chips just yet. We have a game on Earth called poker -- and when you play, it always pays to have an ace in the hole." Biko then smiled and added, "I just happen to have two of them!"

Before Napolipolita could ask what they were, the duo found themselves back inside the chamber -- the Sanctum Sanctorum -- and standing next to the giant D.

Handing the baby back to her Captain, D said, "I see we have company." The big woman was delighted to see that her Captain's errant stepdaughter had grown to become what the Terrans would call a stand-up woman.

Biko didn't seem to hear D's appreciative comment, as she was too busy staring at the great crystal dome above her. She then looked around and above them, and noticed that even more members of the Magdiu Veru were filing into the Sanctum Sanctorum, each taking her place. These women sat above the four, like layers on a wedding cake. Below them, and on the same level as the accused and her friends, were dozens of the Chief Priestess' own private Shakanar. Biko could see that they belonged to the Sisterhood because they wore black armor and had red sashes around their waists.

"Now I know how a goldfish feels in its bowl," whispered Biko to D.

In front of them also sat Queen Zazen'lda, on a throne which was mounted on a raised platform. She sat, regal and elegant, with the ancient Napolipolita family sword in her lap. She was surrounded by her ministers, by one or two generals, and by her own devoted guards. Next to her -- and on a slightly lower platform -- sat the same Magdiu whom Biko had recognized as the one with the big mouth who caused all the trouble back home.

Biko's musings were suddenly ended by the shrill and vindictive voice of Vipsania Parsua herself. "What is that Terran dog doing in this sacred place?" she screamed, challenging Biko's right to stand by the Captain's side.

Biko answered for herself. "Napolipolita is the only mother I've ever known. And since her other daughters cannot be here to stand with their mother, I will stand at her side for them!"

"An what do you have to say about this, Napolipolita?" asked the Queen of the Cygnan Empire.

The Captain turned to Biko and smiled at her as she took her by the hand. "It is true that Biko is not the daughter of my womb, but as time passes, I find that it is even more true that she has become the child of my heart!"

"It is that thing you call a son that concerns us today, not that Terran bitch you mistakenly call a daughter!" Vipsania spat, now remembering how Biko had given her the bum's rush out of Napolipolita's bedchamber back on Terra.

Biko had a sudden urge to answer her by enabling her Akagiyama missiles and giving the harpy a couple dozen. But she successfully fought the urge and instead cocked her head at the priestess, smiling. "What's the matter, Lady? Not getting any?"

There was a brief burst of laughter from the Queen and even more from the Shakanar shocktroops. If Napolipolita didn't know better, she thought she also heard some snickers from the gathered Magdiu seated above and around her.

This reaction to Biko's remark only outraged Vipsania Parsua all the more. She proved it by releasing a veritable torrent of denunciation, now aimed at both Napolipolita and Biko. The blue-haired Terran then turned off her translator and fired back a few colorful expressions of her own, directed at and the assembled religious zealots in general and Vipsania Parsua in particular.

D remained quiet, hoping as she looked at her Captain's family sword lying in the Royal lap that she wouldn't have to use it to sever Parsua's head from her body. The Captain herself remained dignified in her silence, and all the more defiant. Her proud and dignified defiance drove Vipsania Parsua into a frenzy of hate.

She called for the vote.

Even the Queen -- who had done her best to delay or to prevent it -- was unable to change the inevitable conclusion to the assembly. Then just as Napolipolita knew it must, the vote went against her and her son.

-------

One of Vipsania's aides then stepped forward. "Now do your duty and surrender the brat, Napolipolita!"

"Over my dead body," was the Captain's answer, drawing her sword.

"Over our dead bodies," the ever-loyal D quickly added, also brandishing hers.

With a silent nod of her head, Vipasania Parsua then ordered her Shakanar to begin advancing slowly in their direction.

Both D and her Captain waited, weapons at the ready. Napolipolita kissed her son for the last time, and -- turning to D -- said, "Goodbye my friend! May we meet again soon in the Summerland!"

D simply smiled and nodded her head in agreement.

Captain then whispered to Biko. "Now go and save yourself, and take your little brother with you! And remember my message to your father!"

Biko's reaction was to throw off her raincoat, revealing her Akagiyama 25 Mark 2 power biosuit. "Nobody screws with my family and lives to brag about it!" the blue-headed Terran shrieked.

Captain looked around, judging just how she would get her baby safely into Biko's arms in the few seconds she had left. "Now go before it's too late! All is lost, and with so many Shakanar, it's all but hopeless. I love you, and I love your father and your brother and all my girls, goodbye! Obey me now and GO!" Napolipolita shoved the girl away with her free arm. "GO NOW!!!!!!"

Resisting her stepmother's push, Biko smiled as a warning light on her gauntlet sprang to life. She whispered to her, "If you watched more John Wayne movies like I've told you, you'd know that the cavalry always arrives in the nick of time!"

"What cavalry?" asked Napolipolita, dumbstruck at such nonsense at a time like this.

Suddenly, the two great armored doors of the inner sanctum were torn off and sent crashing to the floor. There in the great portal stood a large man in a colorful costume with a large S emblem on his chest. He was immediately followed by a tall and well-built woman with hair the color of a raven's wing and the sense of danger about her.

For the first time in days, Napolipolita had reason to hope that all was not lost for her friend, her son, and herself. She turned to Biko and said, "Now, that is what I call cavalry!"

The Shakanar reached for their weapons as if they were one person. Queen Zazen'lda did a acting performance worthy of an Terran Oscar, feigning great surprise, even brandishing the sword in her lap as a final fillip. In the Sanctum Sanctorum there was a near riot as calls of protest and screams of blasphemy reverberated throughout the great domed hall. Biko just stood there, grinning like the large cat who ate the canary.

Vipsania Parsua stood up, pointing to Superman. "He has defiled our Holy Ground with his presence! DESTROY HIM! In the name of The Mother, DESTROY THE VILE BEAST!"

The Shakanar were always more than happy to kill, and were particularly delighted, not to mention egar to spill male blood. However, they all hesitated for a moment as they stared at the tall female who stood with her arm proudly around the huge man's waist.

To a woman, they'd all heard the stories about this Terror from their Sisters who had survived their first encounter with the Terran Amazon. The story of what she'd done to their Sisters had traveled though the whole Shakanar community from mouth to mouth, each time growing in the telling, until now in Shakanar eyes Diana had become a demon from the darkest pit of Avernus.

It was only when A-ko's father turned to his wife and told her, "Remember, you agreed to let me handle this. After all, you do have more than yourself to worry about now."

She smiled, kissed his cheek, and stepped back to join Biko and the Cygnans, now finding themselves standing behind the Man of Steel. He was blocking the Shakanar advance quite nicely.

Now seeing the Terran Amazon retreating, however, the shocktroops grew bold and advanced on the despised male. He stood there with his arms crossed over his chest, calmly awaiting their onslaught.

He didn't have long to wait.

An unusually large specimen of those psychotic Sisters rushed forward, bringing her sword down in a great arc between his shoulder and head. The blade forged from the best Cygnan alloy snapped at the hilt, sending the vibration to his attacker's hands. She was forced to drop the broken hilt from her numb fingers. Another one then drove her head and shoulder in to the steel girder he called a ribcage, knocking herself unconscious.

More and more of the dreaded Shakanar rushed forward, trying their collective best to move him out of the Sanctum Sanctorum, or at least knock him off his feet. Their efforts were entirely wasted. Even as their frustration grew, A-ko's father simply stood there like some great tree whose roots were set deeply in rich brown earth.

Slowly, the fruitless onslaught faded away like the setting sun on a warm summer evening. It was when even the Shakanar recognized the futility of their task did the Queen stand up and make her way to where the Man of Steel stood. Her guards and ministers were flabbergasted at their ruler's reaction. They were even more so when she offered her hand to him.

"I've always wanted to meet the parents of your remarkable child. Even on our side of the Galaxy, we have heard of you, Kal-el of Krypton!"

He smiled at her, returning her handshake gently. "My friends call me Clark, Your Majesty, but if you want to meet the real boss of our little family, may I introduce you to my Diana." He then held out his other hand to his wife, who took it and stepped forward.

When Diana faced Zazen'lda, she bowed deeply and began to drop down on one knee to honor the Queen, as she'd been taught. Zazen'lda stopped her, pulling her up by her shoulders. "A Princess of Amazons should never feel that she should bow to a Queen."

"A Princess no longer, Your Majesty -- only an exile and an outlaw now," answered Diana.

"I'm sorry to hear that - 'Wonder Woman', is it?"

"Diana is good enough, Your Majesty!"

They were interrupted by members of the High Council screaming curses and threats to call down The Mother's wrath on the heads of these interlopers.

Zazen'lda turned and spread her arms wide in a gracious gesture. "Perhaps we should listen to our visitors first," said the Queen, acting the peacemaker in this volatile situation.

"Visitor?" screamed Vipsania Parsua. "More like invaders, mixing in affairs that don't concern them!"

"But they do concern us. They concern us deeply," Superman replied.

"Perhaps we should allow Her Royal Highness' lifemate to address the Council, as a courtesy to further good interplanetary relations," Zazen'lda suggested, knowing that no woman in the room would openly defy her.

Another member of the High Council now stood. "From her own lips we know that the Terran no longer has any royal station! And as for the accursed male she believes to be her mate, no male has station or prestige enough to be worthy of addressing us!"

"Tell that to half the fleet," Zazen'lda replied as she reminded the members of the high council what Eiko's father had done to both her and her sister's fleet, as they met in the Sol system.

"Lies and rumors!" the Chief Priestess replied. "As it is written in our Book of Deeds, so long as the sacred crystal dome crowns this noble hall, no male will ever be worthy enough to address the Magdiu Veru!"

A-ko's mother stepped forward and, placing her hand on her husband's shoulder to draw his attention, she rolled her eyes toward the ceiling. She then turned to him and said, "You heard the lady, dear. Perhaps it's time to let some fresh air into this stuffy hall filled with religious bigotry!"

He proceeded to kiss her on her lips, and then slowly rose into the air.

One glance with his x-ray vision told him that the great crystal dome was not attached to the rest of the building in any way. It was simply the crystal's immense weight that locked it firmly into place. Bracing his back against the balance point of the dome, he grunted once, then slowly and majestically -- and most of all, unbelievably slowly -- continued his ascent with the massive structure on his back.

At first, the crystal moved slowly upward, with nothing more to note its passing than the sudden breeze, the blue of the sky, and the dust that rained down onto all who were gathered there like fine snowflakes on a winter morning. It had taken the combined power of three star ships to place the dome on top of the great hall. An now the last anyone saw of the dome and the man who had, for the want of a better word, stolen it -- was as it headed east to the Blasted Lands.

It was Queen Zazen'lda herself who first recovered from the shock. But still secretly delighted, turned once more to the assembled Magdiu Veru and said with a straight face, "You were saying something about being worthy?"

Napolipolita never thought she'd see the day when the Cybelline council erupted in such utter panic. It did her troubled heart good to witness these religious zealots -- these self-appointed guardians of the social order and Cybelline morality -- all talking at once to each other. Now and again, they would glance at the now-empty space above their heads, where their "Miracle of Faith" had once covered the Sanctum Sanctorum.

Vipsania Parsua might have been a sexist bigot, but she was no coward. She proved it by keeping up her attack on Napolipolita, even as she harangued the wife of the male creature who had just carried away the Great Hall's roof away. A-ko's mother had always had the greatest respect for religion, both her own and others. Perhaps this was the reason why she couldn't make herself believe that the woman now screaming at her typified Cygnan spirituality.

True to form, Parsua had realized that it was the Terran Amazon's idea to take away her Holy Order's great crystal dome. "May The Mother's own wrath rain down upon you and yours. May the flesh rot and fall from your bones, and may you never find a moment's peace for as long as you live. I curse you and yours to Avernus for all eternity!"

Diana's reaction was to fold her arms over her impressive chest and to turn her back in disdain at the Chief Priestess's ranting.

This only infuriated the Magdiu even more. "Don't you dare turn your back on me, you slut daughter of a pig whore!"

A-ko's mother slowly turned around to face her tormentor. Staring straight into her eyes, Diana said, "I wish you were twenty years younger. Then you would discover for yourself just how expensive it is to talk about my mother like that!"

"Tell me, man-lover," Vipsania Parsua fired back, also folding her arms. "If you truly cared for your mother and your Sisters, would you have abandoned them to satisfy your lust by lying in the arms of an accursed male?"

"Is someone talking about me?" asked the Man of Steel as he landed next to his wife.

Diana decided to answer her husband's question as well as the Magdiu's in the best way she knew. She reached up and pulled his head down to her waiting and eager lips.

After their long and passion-filled kiss, the Queen of the Cygnan Empire remarked, "I think she just answered you."

Further frustrated by her Queen's reaction, Vipsania Parsua turned to the other members of the Magdiu Veru, who were once again in a panic over the return of A-ko's father. "Sisters! These invaders are trying to impose their alien ideals and beliefs on us all! They wish to usurp the rights of this Holy Order in deciding the case of Napolipolita and the shameful mistake she dares call her son!"

A-ko's father stepped forward. "That is not true. As much as my wife and I believe that your beliefs and customs are wrong, we would never impose our beliefs upon you."

Seeing an opening, Zazen'lda asked, "Why is that, Kal-El of Krypton?"

"Because we don't have the right," interrupted his wife. "even less right than this Council has in deciding the fate of this mother and her little boy!"

"This Council has every right to determine their fate, Offworlder," said Vipsania Parsua, now recalling what Wonder Woman had told her back at the Napolipolita-Daitokuji Mansion.

"Are you talking for the Council or for yourself?" asked the Captain, making herself the target of the Magdiu's rage once again.

"If you were a loyal Cygnan, you would never ask me that!"

"Now now," Zazen'lda chided, shaking her index finger almost playfully in Parsua's direction. "Throughout the best and the worst times in her life, this soldier's loyalty to her Nation and Queen has never been questioned."

Walking over to the Captain, A-ko's father took her small son into his hands -- hands that only a few minutes ago demonstrated their immense power to everyone present. Now those same hands cradled the small and fragile bundle of life. He lifted the precious package and, bowing, once again addressed the Magdiu Veru.

"This Assembly has no right to decide the fate of this child! He was born on Earth, and that makes him a citizen of Earth. His mother -- as loyal and caring as she is for her people and her ruler -- is also an Earth citizen through her marriage to a Terran."

"We recognize no such thing as marriage!" Vipsania Parsua snarled.

"Neither does Queen Hippolyta, my own mother," said Diana. "But we certainly do, whether you like it or not."

Still holding the baby, who was obviously enjoying the bright colors of his costume, Superman continued. "On Earth, a child belongs with his or her mother, and that is why we are here today -- to make sure that mother and child are not separated. Napolipolita's home is now to be found on Earth, with the husband and the daughters who now await them both. I'm sure she'll always be loyal to her People and to her heritage. And I'm equally sure that she'll always be there if she's ever needed. But her heart and her life are now to be found back on Earth."

Scanning the crowd, the Man of Steel raised his voice so that it bounced off the remaining walls and echoed in the ears of every Cybelline present. "I therefore entreat this Council to let her return there with the child she loves, and let them be reunited with the family who loves them both."

"THIS IS NONE OF YOUR BUSINESS!" Vipsania Parsua screamed in a fit of rage.

"Why, it IS our business," A-ko's mother screamed right back at her. "We are little Kir's godparents! I don't know if you people know what a godmother or godfather are. But let me tell you that back on Earth, godparents are very important indeed. If something was to happen to Napolipolita and her husband, then her son would become our son, a part of our family." And then Wonder Woman added, "And let me tell you, both as a woman and a mother -- no one, and I mean no one -- comes between me and my family!"

--------

It was then that Zazen'lda called for a short recess, which was instantly granted. As the members of the Magdiu Veru talked among themselves, Napolipolita was being reassured by A-ko's father.

"No one will die today, Captain; that is the one thing I can promise you. But what it may cost you, D and the rest of your family -- including your daughters -- in other ways, I have no way of knowing."

"You mean exile and banishment for me and mine?" asked Napolipolita.

"It's a definite possibility," he sadly answered her.

Meanwhile, the Cygnan queen and the one-time Amazon princess were deep in conversation. Napolipolita over heard Zazen'lda asked her guest, "Do you think your mother would agree to my proposal?"

"It is a wonderful idea," Diana agreed. "But only if I'm not the one to bring it to her attention!"

"You don't -- talk?" asked the Queen.

"Not any more -- at least not since the day I told her I was pregnant and that I was going to marry A-ko's father!"

"That's too bad," Zazen'lda sighed. "It would have solved a great many problems."

Diana replied, "Don't give up yet. I will ask my sister Donna to propose it to my mother Hippolyta. Like you, she is a queen who puts the welfare of her people first, and above all else. She will see the benefits this cooperation would bring to both our nations, and she will agree to it after she convinces the Royal Council back home on Paradise Island."

It was then that the Council was called back to order.

After Diana's warning or threat (depending on your point of view), Queen Zazen'lda took the opportunity to ask the accused Cygnan a question. "Napolipolita! You have always both honored and followed the customs of the Cybellines. Just why have you changed now?"

Grateful that her son - at least for the moment - was absolutely safe in the Man of Steel's arms, the Captain said, "Life can be described as nothing more that a learning experience, my Queen. The longer one lives, the more one learns. During my time on Earth, I have learned many things -- not all of them acceptable in Cygnan society."

"It is just as I thought!" screamed Vipsania once again, interrupting Napolipolita. "The time she's spent on that backward ball of dung has corrupted and ruined the fine mind of a Leptonian warrior!"

"Perhaps to your way of thinking I was corrupted," Napolipolita replied. "But I also learned to stay sober on that 'ball of dung', as you call it. I'd never been able to do that on Alpha Cygni, or on the Pallas Athena, or anywhere else in my travels over the years."

"Sheer pathetic weakness," Plancina Douksas chimed in, chuckling.

"I don't think so," Biko said. "Do you think my mother actually enjoyed being abandoned, friendless, beaten up, left for dead, and all the other terrible things that happen to a drunken woman in a patriarchal society? I don't think so."

"Silence, whelp," Vipsania snapped.

Captain squeezed Biko's hand and smiled at her for a moment, and then continued. "I also learned that there are strong males worthy to share one's life with. I learned to love, and -- most important of all -- I learned how to let others love me. But most of all, Eminensiou, I discovered that a mother's love for a baby boy is just as strong and important and precious as the love of a mother for an infant daughter."

She then pointed at Eiko's parents. "From others, I learned that there should be no difference between carrying a baby boy in my belly and carrying him in my arms." She smiled at Diana. "Most of all, I learned that there are some women willing to risk everything to be with the male they love -- be it a grown man or a baby boy."

Then Sisostris Kania, a member of the Magdiu Veru with a more moderate cast of mind than the vituperative Vipsania, stood. "If this is true, then tell us why when you first discovered you unwittingly gave life to a male, you were initially willing to do the right thing? What was it that drove you off the correct path?"

"I had just given birth. I was confused and in shock. Eminensiou Parsua and her acolytes were too busy shrieking in my face to notice that I needed medical and emotional care."

D hung her head, remembering now how she'd been totally useless to her Captain during those first traumatic minutes.

Napolipolita continued. "At first, I didn't realize the mistake I was making. But most of all -- and as ashamed as I am to admit it -- I simply was afraid."

It was Zazen'lda who then asked, "But what made you finally change your mind, Napolipolita?"

"The dream and the visit from my mother, Your Majesty," the accused answered.

"What dream?"

Napolipolita then described to the highest-ranking clergy of the Great Mother Cult the visitation from her dead mother. More importantly, she told of the secret history of Kir Azenath, and the even more secret relationship he had to the present Cygnan Royal House.

When she finished, Vipsania Parsua snickered. "A dream, is it? Is that why you are here defying your own Sisters? And blaming it on a dead woman, too! How cowardly! I find it impossible to believe that you are willing to die for a dream and a visit from the so-called shade of your mother!"

Zazen'lda stopped this line of inquiry in its tracks. "Napolipolita has just told the Magdiu Veru secrets which have been passed down from Leptonian Queens to their daughters for the past thousand years. How else would she know about them, when these secrets have never been repeated outside the innermost chambers of the Royal Palace? If the spirit of her dead mother has shared these secrets with her daughter, we must acknowledge that it must have been done for a reason!" The Queen then stood and swept her right arm toward the accused, and then towards the Palace itself. "What's more, these reasons may well have both important and lasting effects on the future of our Empire and its people!"

"What possible reason could there be?" asked another member of the Magdiu Veru. Many of these women were now intrigued rather than angered. How else would a mere soldier know secrets to which only Royalty had privy?

Raising her chin, Napolipolita continued the story, telling how she'd learned that the Napolipolita clan was distantly related to the Royal House through Atenate, Kir Azenath's elder sister.

"What I beg you to believe, Eminensiou, is that my own mother's spirit told me that this child in this great man's arms is destined to become one of the greatest heroes the Lepton Kingdom has ever produced!"

"A MALE?" queried another Council member.

"Lies! Nothing but lies! screamed Vipsania Parsua, seeing now that she was losing the upper hand. "This is nothing more than a feeble attempt by a corrupted drunk to hide her shame and to save her mistake of nature!"

--------

Napolipolita, D, and Biko could scarcely make out each other's words during the next five minutes (as Terrans reckon time) while the Magdiu Veru debated these issues with one another.

Finally, however, Phas-Dasha banged her staff, surmounted with the Cygnan double-axe, and stood.

A hush fell over the Great Hall; Phas-Dasha was the ancient leader of a specialized branch of the Cybele Cult charged with the genealogy of the great family houses of the Lepton Kingdom. She was helped to her feet by her own acolytes, and spoke in a surprisingly powerful voice for one so old and frail.

"I do not know the value or the truth of the prediction concerning Napolipolita's son, or have any information concerning his future importance to our Homeworld and Empire. But Napolipolita's claim that she is distantly related to the Royal House is quite true, as well as her claim that her daughters and now her son are in fact descendents of Kir Azenath through the Venerable Kirte Atenate, his sister. And further - except by some divine or supernatural intervention, such information has never - and I repeat, never - been revealed by the Cybelline Priestesses to the followers of The Mother."

The old woman's voice was immediately drowned out by the uproar as the entire assembly began talking at once about these new facts that had just came to light.

"Order!" shouted the ancient mystic, pounding the floor once again with her labrys-headed cane. "And enough! The Mother has spoken to us through the Magdiu Veru, and has condemned this woman as a heretic. She has gone against the Ways. So be it. Call the question of punishment! Shelelit Mikros - expert on the divinely-inspired Book of Deeds - kindly inform us of our choices in this regard."

A slender young woman with cerulean blue hair stood, and waited until the Great Hall was completely silent once again. "The Magdiu Veru has three choices. First, they can execute the accused and her son. Second, they can allow the accused to live but surrender her son to be dealt with as the Council sees fit - "

"NO!" shrieked Napolipolita. D stepped in front of her Captain's sword so that she would not be tempted to use it.

"Silence, if you please," chided the Queen, still successfully pulling off her role of impartial arbiter in this drama still being played out under the Cygnan sky.

Shelelit Mikros again paused until the assembly was quiet. "Or - the third choice - is that the Magdiu Veru can ask the Queen - purely as a courtesy, mind you - for a punishment which she believes to be in the best interests of the Kingdom."

Phas-Dasha - whom herself had birthed and raised sixteen daughters - said,"I recommend the last choice, my Sisters. Let us extend our graciousness to the Queen, and let her decide." She looked around the room, daring with a glance of her piercing eyes for anyone to defy her. No one did.

The vote was nearly unanimous in support of Phas-Dasha.

"Cowards!" Vipsania hissed, low enough so that only her acolytes heard.

Zazen'lda stood, smiled, and bowed to the Council. "I thank you, esteemed Sisters of Cybele, for this honor you have bestowed on me. I fully recognize that this is a privilege - not a right." She then bowed once again to the Magdiu Veru, who to a woman returned her bow - with the sole exception of Vipsania Parsua, who was fit to be tied at this point.

The Queen then turned to Napolipolita, and raised her hand so that her outstretched index finger pointed to the spot between the accused's solemn gray eyes. "My judgment and this Body's judgment upon you is thus, Aysheia Lisia Napolipolita. May you be stripped of your title of Admiral - "

Both D and Captain gasped.

" - and that your former rank of Captain be imposed upon you. Further, it is my judgment and this Body's judgment that you and the infant named Kir Azenath will return to Terra so that you may serve me as my Ambassador to queen Hippolyta in the Court of Themiscyra."

Napolipolita burst into tears of relief. The Queen went on with her sentence.

"Where you live and with whom you live is immaterial in my eyes and in the eyes of this Body. I feel that there is much we can learn from our Terran Sisters, and you will be our conduit for such knowledge. You are henceforth to be known as Captain Napolipolita, Ambassador to the Amazon Nation."

Queen Zazen'lda raised her head and focused her piercing gaze on each face she saw, stifling any opposition. "So shall it be written!"

"So shall it be done," the members of the Magdiu Veru chanted in response.

All, except for Vipsania Parsua and her retinue.

February 1

My Memorial Book, greetings.

Beekers left with A-ko's parents a couple days ago to go get my mother and my little brother. Wish they'd hurry up. I miss them so much. Ma and Kir, I mean. Or Hikaru, or whatever the Avernus his name is.

I suppose I miss Ol' Beekers too, even though she is a poop.

Daddy has been a wreck. He was so upset the day we went to Disney World that he got sick on the spinning teacups. I know he's my daddy, but what a wussy! I'm sure he'll be better when Ma gets home.

He's spent a lot of time watching footage of her on his monitor. I stuck my head in and he smiled and told me to watch with him, and I did. Ma looked so cool in her Cygnan uniform. That sure was a long time ago.

I'd better stop because I'm even boring myself. I'll write again when something exciting happens in my life, which may be never at the rate I'm going.

Goodnight,

Aki

**************************************************************

Immediately after the verdict of the Magdiu Veru was announced, there were hugs all around, both in relief and joy. Vipsania shook with rage and hate. Angered by the outcome, she stormed out of the Sanctum Sanctorum, followed closely by her own acolytes.

It was when Napolipolita was hugging A-ko's mother in gratitude that Biko realized for the first time what had been bothering her about her friend's mother. As Napolipolita moved off to thank the Man of Steel (and to recover her baby), Biko moved over to talk to his wife.

"Mrs. Magami -- I mean, Clark -- may I speak to you?"

"Of course, but as I told you before, you're a woman now and you should address me as Diana."

"Then, Diana, do you mind telling me what is wrong between you and your daughter? I asked A-ko, but she told me to mind my own business. Your friend Napolipolita also seems to know, but refuses to talk about it. I'm only asking now because I care about you both. So -- since no one will talk about it, I'm asking you."

"My daughter is right about one thing, Biko -- it is none of your concern or business!"

With that, the former Amazon princess turned her back and moved down the corridor to join her husband. She stopped in mid-stride when Biko asked the retreating small of her back, "Then do you mind telling me why you're wearing Eiko's black bracelets?"

She turned slowly to face the young woman as she continued.

"Now that I think about it, the last time I saw A-ko, she was wearing your old bracelets." Her voice softened as she added, "I'm not asking just to be nosy, but I am her friend and I have always admired her parents. If there is something wrong, I just want to help."

Diana smiled. "Thank you, Biko, for being a true friend to my daughter. But the only person who can help A-ko now, is A-ko!"

With that, Diana put her arm around the young woman, and the two then walked down the corridor side by side as they hurried to catch up to the group.

------------

Later that evening, Vipsania Parsua was brooding in her private quarters as her young devotees prepared her gown for the Queen's reception to be held this very night. She didn't want to go, of course, but any failure to attend would be a sure sign of weakness, and that she could not afford.

When she was alone with her youngest and most devoted acolyte, Vipsania asked the young woman, "You never knew Queen Zazen'lda's mother, did you?"

"No, Your Holiness. I was only five years old when she traveled to the Summerland."

"She was a true Cygnan, a queen worthy to sit on the Topaz Throne. She was nothing like the pretender who sits there now. Caesariu was a truly strong queen, and one who worshipped and honored the Great Mother. None of that Pathfollower shilly-shallying about her! She not only respected the Ways, but lived her life by their teachings. She served both the people and the Order all her life. She even had time to conquer three new star systems and place them under the rule of the Empire."

Vipsania Parsua took a long swallow of the Order's best vintage before she went on. "I could never understand why she would choose that weakling Zazen'lda to be her successor, instead of her strong eldest daughter Shaska."

"Then why didn't you join so many of our Sisters who supported Shaska in the Civil War?" asked the young woman.

"Because -- fool that I was -- I would and could not stand to see so many of our people dying at the hands of their own Sisters!"

"Have you changed your mind now because of this Napolipolita affair?" she asked.

"No, my young friend. I now believe that Napolipolita and her little bastard are nothing more than symptoms of a much greater problem. It is our so-called Queen herself who is the malignancy eating away at the Empire!" She took another swig of wine. "And the best way I know to cure any cancer is to cut it out!"

Shocked, the young priestess asked, "Eminensiou, you're not planning to move against the Queen, are you?"

For an answer, Vipsania opened the lower drawer of her desk and took out a small flask containing a clear liquid. She held it up to the light.

"This is the Shratar, the 'kiss of peace'. Odorless, tasteless and untraceable. Coat the inside of a goblet with it and let it dry. Drink from that same cup and a hour later the drinker dies of a heart attack, and no trace remains behind to tell the story!"

Horrified now, the acolyte asked in a shaky voice, "You can't be planning on using that on the Queen tonight, are you?"

Smiling, Vipsania answered, "No, my child. I plan on using it on Shaksa's daughter Zelda."

"Zelda? Why Zelda?" she all but screamed.

"Because -- our weak and idiotic Queen has already picked her niece to succeed her. Another soft, foolish weakling to follow another weakling!"

"But why kill Zelda?"

"Because she has no daughter of her own to claim the Throne. Without Zelda, Zazen'lda will have to turn to one of her own daughters to follow her. She will have to turn to her daughter Eriko to follow her -- and Eriko is far more like her grandmother than her mother."

Vipsania smiled as she added, "Although she mouths the words of the Pathfollowers, I suspect that Eriko is in her heart devoted to the Great Mother. If given the opportunity, I believe that she will be a true Warrior Queen, expanding her division, the Kollya Straegesh, and spreading the Empire across the known universe. Under her, I believe that the mere mention of the name of the Cygnan Empire will once again spread fear and terror from one side of the Galaxy to the other!"

Vipsania's young aide cleared her throat and hoped that her tone wouldn't sound querulous. "But, Eminensiou, Eriko is also devoted to her mother. She is also more sister then cousin to Zelda!" She then added, "I need not remind you that the two of them practically grew up together. It is also well-known that Eriko has already publicly sworn her devotion and fidelity to her cousin as the next Queen of the Empire. She seems - at least from outward appearances - to be than content to act as Zelda's shield and sword arm, just as her aunt Shaska was once her own sister's shield and sword!"

"That is the beauty of the thing!" Vipsania Parsua replied. "Neither Eriko nor her mother will know anything about the plan. And then -- when Eriko has been proclaimed our next Queen -- the present mistake who sits on the Topaz Throne can be safely done away with." Taking another swig of booze, the Chief Priestess said, "With a little persuasion, the Sisterhood can once again have a Queen worthy of us!"

Fearful, the teenage acolyte lowered her eyes before she dared speak to her mentor. "It may not be my place to speak, Holy One. But if I failed to ask you my question, I would not be performing my duties as your loyal and devoted acolyte."

"Go ahead and ask."

"Are you planning on doing this -- for the lack of a better word -'deed' -- for the benefit of our Nation, or for revenge on the Queen because of what she did to you in the Great Hall?"

"Whatever I do or don't do -- rest assured, Young One, that it is always for the good of the Nation," she lied to herself.

The young girl bowed deeply with respect before saying, "Forgive me, Eminensiou Vipsania! I, as always, will be yours to command."

-------

Biko was roaming around the enormous room in which Queen Zazen'lda was holding her reception. She glided around wearing a long flowing gown, thoughtfully supplied to her by the Queen's own daughter, Denako. She was sampling some of the best Cygnan vintages as she silently observed the collection of large females with multicolored hair who surrounded her.

Her friend's mother was out of her pantsuit and into a formal Leptonian gown that -- as Biko learned later -- was only worn by members of the Royal Family on state occasions. Watching her dressed this way only made Biko wonder why she wasn't wearing her famous Wonder Woman costume while she had defended Napolipolita.

She was amused to note that A-ko's pop was out of his own costume and into a rather nice but conservative sport coat and slacks outfit. As she studied him, she wondered where he'd stored his civilian clothes. She also noticed the disappointed looks on many a Leptonian warrior's face because The Man of Steel hadn't attended the reception wearing his skintight spandex.

She moved to where the Queen was talking to the one-time Amazon princess, and decided to join their conversation. When she arrived, she noticed that the both of them had been laughing. Taking notice of her arrival, Zazen'lda trilled a greeting, and asked Biko, "Well, honored guest, what do you make of our Cygnan hospitality?"

"Different!" admitted Biko. "And I was involved in many a debutante ball when I was growing up."

Just then, another tall warrior in a dress uniform walked up to the little group and bowed respectfully -- first to her Queen, then to the Terran Amazon at her side, and then (just to be nice) to Biko.

"Princess Diana, may I formally request permission to address your lifemate directly?"

"If you wish," answered Diana with a polite bow of her head.

When she left, the two royal cousins broke out once again in a case of schoolgirl laughter. "That makes ten in the last hour," said Diana.

"Twelve, if you count General Kivish and her aide de camp!" corrected the ruler of thirty-three star systems.

"How long has this been going on?" asked Biko. She remembered that, due to the dearth of males on the Homeworld, it was considered the height of bad manners to directly address another warrior's "taken male" without her permission. She also knew that once a male was "taken", his earlobe was tattooed with the warrior's mark. She knew this because her father had whined for a week over his own 'tat'. His wife had entreated him to not be "such a big baby."

"All night," said the Queen with a smirk. She then added, "Seems that Princess Diana's lifemate -- I mean, husband -- has become the center of attention among my warriors!"

"Do you mind it, Mrs. --, er, I mean, Diana?" asked Biko.

"No, I don't mind. They can look all they want, but they'd better not touch!" warned the one-time Amazon princess with a grin.

The Queen of the Lepton kingdom of Alpha Cygni began choking on her wine because she'd begun laughing so hard. When she finally caught her breath, Diana noticed the look of despair on her husband's face as he looked at the woman he loved with pleading eyes.

"Excuse me, Your Majesty, but I do believe my lifemate is in serious need of rescuing from your subjects," the woman known on her own Homeworld as Wonder Woman explained, as she left to join her husband.

As she left, the Sergeant-at-Arms standing at the door, Buyabah by name, banged her labrys-headed staff on the floor twice, and announced the arrival of Ambassador Napolipolita and her aide Deesha Dakina.

Well, she made it, Biko thought, and looking none the worse for wear after her trial earlier today --

The Captain (for this was once again her formal Space Navy title; since she was the Central Astro Agency Director-General back on Earth, it didn't concern her unduly) was dressed in what Terrans would call a Grecian-style gown. It was made from some sort of shimmering iridescent material, which skimmed lightly over her temporarily-generous figure. She wore a choker of Kirkassian Tenaka crystals around her neck, one of the few things she was able to salvage from the Pana Gaia massacre many years before, and her long hair was pulled back into a high ponytail.

Dee wore a midnight blue gown covered with silver stars, its skirt slit to the hip Lepton style. It would have surprised many Gravitonians if they'd known that D enjoyed fashion; she rarely wore such attire back on Earth because it nearly always led to ridicule. Terran standards of beauty were nearly impossible for many Cygnan soldiers to satisfy - they were simply too big or too muscular to satisfy men who favored small-boned, delicate women.

Moving to where her Queen, Diana, and her stepdaughter stood, Napolipolita first bowed. D's courtly gesture immediately followed. Taking her loyal soldier and newest ambassador by the hands, Queen Zazen'lda said, "Welcome to you both. It gladdens my heart to see you here this evening, in spite of your ordeal earlier today."

"We weren't expecting an invitation, Your Majesty," replied Napolipolita.

"We thank you, Your Highness," D added, bowing a second time for good measure.

"Nonsense! There aren't two people I'd rather see here than my two most loyal warriors and faithful subjects!"

After both D and Napolipolita said their thanks, Her Royal Majesty asked, "And where is the little one?"

"With his babysitter, my Queen."

"And whom would you be willing to trust with this most precious of treasures?" asked Zazen'lda.

"A certain one-time admiral with whom my Queen is quite familiar," Napolipolita whispered.

Realizing that she was talking about her own sister, who was -- even now -- hiding in the Royal Palace, Zazen'lda bent over and whispered into Napolipolita's ear, "She was always the best babysitter I ever had when I was growing up!"

Just then, two large young women entered the room arm in arm. They brushed past Sergeant Buyabah and walked up to the Queen, even before they could be properly announced. Zazen'lda smiled at the sight of her daughter Eriko and her almost constant companion, friend, and first cousin Zelda.

Eriko was the warrior of the family, and led the Kollya Straegesh, otherwise known as the "Crazy Division second only to the dreaded Shaknar in the terror they struck in the hearts of the many enemies of the Leptonian empire." This group of dedicated warriors often struck terror in the breasts of their Xramese enemies, who often retreated shrieking, "Prukh Dani!" which had the same meaning. Eriko the leader of this group looked quite a bit like her baby sister C-ko, but more muscular and with a much more assertive mien.

Zelda was Shaska's daughter and Zazen'lda's niece, and was also the de facto Crown Princess since Zazen'lda's own daughters had surrendered their claim to the Topaz Throne. Starting with the queens oldest daughter who left the home world to marry a Thessalonikan prince.

Zazen'lda and her daughters were worshippers of the Shotosarikan; they were Pathfollowers rather than devotees of the Great Mother. Their faith did not forbid cohabitation with males. But the queens middle daughter Freiranda was already working on daughter #2 and was quite content to be the representative of her mother's Empire to the patriarchal Thessalonikan Nation. And as for Denako - well, she was the Chief Librarian of the Royal Archives, and had no interest in ruling over a billion indigenous and colonial subjects.

"What have the two of you been up to?" Zazen'lda asked, noticing that both of them had been into the G'nazian gin already this evening.

"We were celebrating!"

"I can see that for myself, but just what were the two of you - uh, celebrating?"

"Your finally putting those old hags in their place," said her niece.

"Well, pull yourselves together. I want you both to meet two extraordinary people," explained the Queen before she walked off to bring back A-ko's parents. As she moved off to fetch them, Zazen'lda thought to herself, Best those two get the partying out of their systems now, before the weight of responsibility drives it out of them altogether --

When the Queen left, Eriko turned to Napolipolita. "Well well well. If it isn't my favorite Egota-crashing - "

" - and sister-finding - " Captain added, shaking her finger for emphasis.

" - dirty ol' soldier of the Realm!"

Both grinned. For a moment, Biko had been anxious that a fight might break out, but now realized that the two Cygnans were on cordial terms.

"Well. Before you interrupted me, Aysha old girl, Zelda and I just spent some time with a small bundle of joy and a certain cousin's mother. Hey, nice job ya did with the kid. And good on ya to stick it to those snotty Magdiu cows. Sorry I missed it! Couldn't have happened to a nicer buncha bags!" The Princess threw her head back and donkeyed a laugh which caused her more proper mother to roll her eyes.

Zelda then said quietly, "Mama told me to reassure you that all is well with the little fellow. He has been changed and is peacefully sleeping as we speak!"

Just then, Zazen'lda called the two young women over to meet both of A-ko's parents. When the two cousins arrived, Zazen'lda introduced A-ko's parents to her daughter and niece. "Zelda, Eriko -- I want you both to meet two important people."

After the introductions, Zelda told the two visitors, "I want to thank you for helping Napolipolita and her son."

"It was nothing," the one-time Amazon princess replied.

"NOTHING?" interrupted Eriko. "Every tavern, ale house and gambling dive in the city is talking about nothing else -- most of all about what you did to the holy rollers' sacred dome!"

"And you spend too much time in such places," her mother scolded.

"Just enjoying my shore leave, Ma," said Eriko.

"Don't call me Ma!"

"Okay ------ MUTHERRRRRRRRR."

"That was always my excuse," interrupted Napolipolita as she joined the conversation.

Zelda began to laugh as she said, "She got you there, cousin."

"And what was your excuse?" asked her aunt.

Zelda turned to her cousin and friend and asked, "You told your mother I was with you?"

"No, I swear!"

It was her aunt who saved Eriko by telling her niece and heir apparent, "Next time you decide to disguise yourself so you can go slumming with your cousin, wear a better wig!"

This brought about a round of laughter from everyone, including the two cousins. But it was Diana who topped off the conversation by telling the heir apparent to the Cygnan Throne, "If you want to know all about secrets, I suggest you talk to my husband." She put her muscular arm around her husband's waist.

Curious, Zelda asked, "And why would I do that?"

"Because my husband is an expert on such matters!"

"Expert?"

A-ko's mother answered, "What else would you call someone who managed for thirty years to keep his most important secret from a newsroom full of nosy reporters, and with only a pair of glasses, a high-pitched voice, and a collection of lame excuses to shield his true self?"

Seeing the bewildered faces of the gathered Cygnans, Diana explained her husband's earlier life and what he had to do to protect it - all much to his embarrassment.

After the laughing died down, it was Eriko who asked, "But why did you need to pretend to be this Clark Kent fellow?"

"I wasn't pretending, Princess, I am Clark Kent. Superman is someone I put on just to help people!"

Zazen'lda called over to her one of the young academy cadets, who were acting as servers. On the tray the girl was holding were glasses of fine Cygnan wine. With her own hand, the Queen of thirty-three star systems started to pass them out, in order to make a toast.

Diana smiled and told her, "Please -- no alcohol for me."

"None for me as well," the Captain added, which caused her friends to laugh at the irony of this woman actually turning down booze.

"None for me also," said her husband. Diana then turned to her husband and told him, "Just because I can't sample the wine is no reason for you to deny yourself."

He smiled and told her," It took the two of us to get in this condition. It seems only fair that I share in some of the sacrifices as well!"

It was Napolipolita who flagged down another cadet and, taking three goblets from the tray she was carrying, handed them to her Terran friends. "This is Kevar. I'm sorry to say it's not Cygnan brandy, but it's not bad, either!"

"From one who knows?" the Queen smiled.

"Used to know," the Captain returned, shrugging good-naturedly.

When everyone had a drink in their hand, Queen Zazen'lda offered a toast. "In the future, may we be always as close and as content as we are today!"

As everyone drained their drinks (with the exception of Diana and Captain), Sergeant Buyabah announced the arrival of the Magdiu Vipsania Parsua and her young acolyte.

It was Eriko who took the opportunity to say aloud what everyone was thinking, "Well, that's the end of this party!"

"No -- just the end of my enjoying myself," sighed Zazen'lda as she made her way to greet and welcome Vipsania, as custom and protocol demanded.

As Queen and religious leader performed the formal greeting ceremony, Napolipolita spied her young acolyte and -- of even more importance -- what she was holding. Even from across the room, Napolipolita recognized what it was. It was nothing less than a one hundred and fifty year old bottle of vintage Cygnan wine called Sugato.

"I once lived for that stuff," she thought to herself as her mouth began to water. "It went down like silk and hit like fire. It was the thing I liked best about heading up the Cybele Cult on the Pallas Athena - "

Napolipolita explained to her Terran friends that, like certain religious orders on Earth, Vipsania's sect was well-known throughout the Galaxy for the creation of this special wine. It was so special, in fact, that besides the religious leaders of the Cybele Cult, only the Royal Family alone was allowed to partake of this special and very rare golden nectar.

As the good Captain was going over the history of this royal beverage, Diana's attention was centered on the teenage girl who seemed to be doing her best to disappear into the far corner of the room. This was hard to do since she was standing there with a solid gold serving tray -- upon which rested four identical goblets seemingly carved from large matching quartz crystals -- along with the dusty bottle of Sugato. But what bothered Diana the most about her was that her body language was all wrong.

"Well, duty calls! Protocol also demands me to pay my respect to the nasty old

bit -- , I mean, witch!" she apologized to Napolipolita as she left.

Noticing his wife staring at the teenage girl, A-ko's father asked her, "Something wrong?"

She had been trained at an early age by her mother to read body language, and the youngster's every movement spoke volumes to A-ko's mother. That was the reason she asked her husband, "You picking anything up from that young girl that came in with Vipsania?"

He told her, "The poor girl's heart is racing and pounding like a jackhammer. She is terrified. I can smell the fear on her."

They watched as Vipsania gestured and the young girl made her way to where Zazen'lda, Eriko, Zelda, and Vipsania stood talking together.

"By Athena's sacred owl Bepo! She poisoned the wine?"

"No," answered her husband. "One of the goblets," as he used a combination of his microscopic and x-ray vision to learn the truth.

"She must be mad to try and take out Zazen'lda after their confrontation in the Council chambers! She would be the first person everyone would suspect."

"No, she's not after the Queen. She's just handed the goblet to the heir apparent," her husband pointed out.

Wonder Woman rushed to where the four woman stood. Vipsania had just poured out a sample of the royal wine into each of the crystal goblets.

Diana arrived just before the women were about to drink. "Please join us, Princess! You too are royalty. One hundred and fifty year old Sugato is an experience one should never miss when one has the chance!"

Napolipolita smiled sadly and told her Terran friend, "It's an occasion such as this that is the most difficult time for me -- giving up the grape and staying sober is only a day-to-day reprieve. But if I hadn't, I wouldn't have had my girls back, or married Hikaru, or -- "

" - been alive," Eriko added in an uncharacteristically caring tone of voice.

Diana smiled and took the goblet from Zelda. Then, almost as an afterthought, she took Vipsania's crystal goblet as well. She held them both up to the light and said, "These goblets are in themselves true works of art! I wish I could discover for myself if the contents are worthy of the containers."

A-ko's mother made a point of handing back the goblets back to Vipsania and Zelda, only she made it obvious to everyone that she'd reversed them.

Vipsania smiled weakly. "I seem to have your wine, Your Highness."

Without thinking, Zelda began to hand over her goblet to Vipsania while at the same time reaching for her own.

Diana stopped her by taking hold of her wrist.

As everyone turned to face A-ko's mother, she in turn said to the Magdiu, "Why should it matter who drinks from what goblet, Vipsania?"

It was at that moment that Vipsania began to shake. Queen Zazen'lda caught on immediately. "Yes. Why should it matter, Vipsania?"

There was a crash in the corner of the now-silent room as the acolyte dropped her tray and made a break for the door. She was unable to make good her escape only because her way had been blocked by the huge form of D. The big woman quickly seized and held the now-hysterical young girl in her huge arms.

Vipsania now knew that all was lost for her, as everyone in the room turned to stare at her. She slowly sank to her knees, even as she held the poisoned wine in her trembling hand. With bowed head she begged, "Please, my Queen! Forgive me!"

Eriko reached for her own sword to take her head, for trying to poison the woman who was both her friend and her sister in all but name. Zazen'lda stopped her daughter with a touch of her own hand, and then turned to the groveling Magdiu at her feet." Arise, Vipsania! You are forgiven."

"Ma, I mean Mother! Isn't that a bit - generous of you??" Eriko gaped.

It took Zelda's strong arm to help the priestess to her feet. When she was at last standing on shaky legs she said, "Thank you, my Queen."

She started to place her poisoned goblet on a nearby table when Zazen'lda told her,"Vipsania! You forgot to finish your wine! You know that Sugato is a gift from the Mother and should never be wasted. To do so would insult The Mother herself!"

Vipsania turned white as she fought with herself not to become sick. Her lips moved as if she were begging, but no sound came out.

"DRINK IT!" Zazen'lda demanded in a harsh voice. "Or would you rather face the ancient penalty for trying to kill a member of the Royal House?"

Vipsania knew all to well just how awful that ancient penalty was, and so brought up the goblet to her trembling lips --

-- only to have it snatched from her trembling hand at the very last moment.

A-ko's father smiled. Holding the goblet, he said cheerfully, "You know, I would just hate myself when I got back home if I didn't at least try this vintage while I'm here!" With that, he downed the contents and announced, "Wonderful! Simply wonderful! It could have done without the little 'something extra' in it. But without a doubt, it's the finest liquor I have ever tried. Your Order really knows their vintages, Vipsania!"

Zazen'lda was stunned at what A-ko's father had apparently done to himself until a smile and a quick wink from his wife reassured her. Smiling, the Cygnan Queen pointed at Vipsania and said to Napolipolita, "Take her!"

At once, the newest Ambassador to Paradise Island took hold of the disgraced Magdiu in a half-nelson.

"Yeung tae, Captain," Deesha said, now approaching with the terrified acolyte still in her grip. "Not bad."

Telling her niece and daughter to join her, Zazen'lda said, "Please join us, Princess?" As the group moved off to an adjoining room, the Queen gestured for D to also join them with her prisoner.

When at last they were all alone, the Queen announced, "We must discover how far this conspiracy goes. That is why I have asked Diana to join us. Both my daughter C-ko and Napolipolta have told me that she has a wonderful way of finding out the truth."

She then nodded in the direction of the young acolyte. In response, A-ko's mother began to unravel her golden lasso from where it had been safely hidden, beneath her royal gown. Nodding her head yes, she took the arm of the terrified girl and retreated with her to a quiet corner of the room.

Hoping to turn this dreadful situation into a learning experience, Zazen'lda turned to her daughter Eriko. "What should we do with her, my daughter?"

"If it was up to me, I'd nail her carcass to the Palace walls and leave her there to rot, as a warning to the next ten generations what the price of treachery is!"

"And you, my niece? What say you?"

"As much as I would enjoy seeing my cousin's suggestion carried out -- not to mention the fact that I was the one who was about to take the long nap - we can't afford to do as she wishes," answered Zelda.

"Why?" asked her aunt.

"With your recent confrontation with Vipsania at the gathering of the Magdiu Veru today, any such punishment might appear as a personal attack by you upon not only her, but on the whole Cybele Cult as well."

"True, my Queen, true," said the Captain, still holding Vipsania in a headlock. "She would become a martyr."

It was Eriko who said, "Once again, cousin, you show me that my mother was right in picking you for our next Queen!"

"But only if you are there to help me," replied Zelda.

Eriko smiled at her cousin and her friend gave her best Tiger claw salute and swore, "I will always be my Queen's good sword arm!"

For the first time since this mess had started, Zazen'lda smiled with the knowledge that the future of the Cygnan Empire would be both safe and sound with these two young women working together to serve the people.

Just then, Diana and D returned with the young girl in tow. "She says only she and Vipsania knew anything about the attack on your niece," Diana reported.

Vipsania took the opportunity to add, "She did only what she did because she thought she was serving The Mother by following my orders!"

Turning to D, Zazen'lda told her, "There is a transport leaving from the CygniCity Alpha Spaceport within the hour. They're going to clean out a nest of Kirlians who have come dangerously close to our borders. Make sure she's on it!" She then added, "Perhaps if she'd spent some time with honest warriors who shed their blood on their people's behalf, she might learn the true meaning of serving The Mother!"

D was just taking her away when Diana stopped them. "Whenever someone, be it queen or priestess, tells you ignore your conscience or asks you to forget what you know about telling right from wrong -- fear them not, and don't listen to their counsel!"

With the encouragement of Diana's lasso, Vipsania revealed the details of her plot against the Royal House.

"So what are we going to do with her?" asked Zelda.

"Perhaps the fact that it was a mere male who saved her miserable life would be punishment enough for her," answered Eeiko.

"No. I have a better idea," Turning to Vipsania, Zazen'lda said, "You will be put in charge of restoring the Temple of Kir Azenath's ancient One God back to its former glory. Furthermore, it will be your own Order who will pay for it all!"

"You can't do that! I won't let you!" protested Vipsania, forgetting herself.

"You won't let me?" screamed the Cygnan Queen. "How dare you try and tell me what I can and can't do, after what you tried. Or would you prefer my handing you over to my daughter, and allowing her to choose your punishment?" She turned quickly and looked over at Eriko, who was smiling as she thumbed the edge of her partially-drawn broadsword.

Instead, Vipsania Parsua knelt before her Queen. "To hear is to obey, my Queen!"

"Now, that's more like it," Zazen'lda said. "Remember this, Priestess. If you ever so much as think about doing this to me or mine again, I swear that you'll find out for yourself that I am Caesariu's daughter after all!"

"Yeung tae -- not bad, Ma - I mean, Mother," Eriko added.

It was the next day when the two Cygnans, one Kryptonian, and three Terrans (including Baby Kir) boarded their vessel. Soon, they were on their way - well, for the lack of a better word - home.

Deesha watched her Captain for a while, gauging her mood, before she asked her the question she'd been dying to ask for days.

"Uh - Cap'n?"

"Yes?"

"What are you going to do for a religion now?"

The green-haired woman cuddled her baby and sighed. "I can't stop believing in The Mother, D. I think it was just her servants that were corrupt. This is exactly as it was foretold to me by my mother."

"I'm glad," D said, relaxing. "I would have missed you at the Temple."

"Well, it might be a little altar in my own house these days. Once burned, twice shy, as the Terrans say."

"Look, Ma," Biko said, pointing out the hatch of the ENDY which carried them home. "A comet!"

"Make a wish," the Cygnan said, and hugged both her children.

Shaska's personal cruiser had made its best speed as it had rushed back home to Earth, or -- strange as it had seemed to the ex-Admiral of the Cygnan Space Navy -- that she begun to think of Earth as her home. It had seemed rather odd and very surprising to the Queen's sister that this strange blue ball had such an effect on Cygnans. This little world on the spiral rim of the Galaxy just seemed to grow on you.

Napolipolita's own personal scout ship had been tucked safely inside the bigger ship's cargo hold. Its owner and newest Ambassador was sound asleep with her small son safely in her arms, in Shaska's private cabin. This was the first really peaceful sleep Napolipolita had since giving birth to her son.

Diana remembered that Shaska had considered the trip a wonderful adventure. She'd not only been able to spend time with her own daughter Zelda, but she'd also had a good visit with the sister she loved. But as much as she had enjoyed visiting with them both, it was equally true that she had been saddened because she'd been forced to hide in the very palace in which she'd grown up in as a girl.

As she had sat at the controls, Shaska had made sure to keep the main cabin's light low for the benefit of her other passengers. As always, Deesha had attended to business as she sat next to Shaska, keeping her attention riveted to the ship's scanners and early warning systems.

"Dee, you really should learn to relax more, " Shaska had said to D as she turned over the piloting of her cruiser to its robot pilot.

"Sorry, Admiral," D had responded, "but I will feel a lot safer when we leave the border of Kirlian space. The last thing we need is to be jumped by a Kirlian attack squadron on the way home, especially because we carry the precious cargo that is now sound asleep in your own cabin."

Shaska had smiled and told D, "I remember my reaction when I first saw our passengers' daughter launch herself at my flagship the Glry-anna. Can you imagine a Kirlian commander's reaction on seeing that same girl's father coming at them?"

D's reaction had been to laugh. "I can see your point." She had then sat back and had visibly relaxed.

-------

One of the objects of their conversation had at the same time covered an exhausted and sleeping Biko with a blanket he had found in the ship's storage locker. He'd walked across the ship and had taken a seat next to Diana, who had promptly leaned her head on his broad shoulder. He had looked once more at the sleeping Biko and had told his wife, "Poor girl must be totally wasted."

"She hasn't slept for almost two whole days, worrying the way she's been about her mother and little brother," Diana had pointed out.

Turning to her, the Man of Steel had asked, "And what about you? How do you feel?"

"I'm fine," she had lied.

"How do you feel?" he had asked once again.

"All right, I admit it. I'm tired, too!"

"You have to start taking better care of yourself!'

"Stop worrying so! You sound like an old woman," Diana had scolded him, but tenderly. "Still, it's going to be good to sleep in my own bed again."

"That goes for me too," he had answered. "I only wish I didn't have to run a few errands when we get home."

"Now who is kidding whom?" she had asked. "Don't you think by now I know you well enough to know that you're planning to go looking for our wayward daughter?"

The Man of Steel had smiled as he had told her, "I never could fool you -- or Lois either, for that matter!"

"Well, forget it. A-ko must come home on her own, and only after she changes her attitude!" Diana's voice had risen in anger, and had awakened Biko.

"You don't mean that!"

"Like hell I don't," she had answered.

Suddenly, she stiffened and sat straight up with a strange smile on her face. Then, as she had settled back down into her seat and before she went back to snuggling the only man in her life. She smiled once again and took this quiet and private opportunity to take her husband's large hand and place it under her bulky sweater upon the small swell of her usualy flat stomach.

His reaction was to smile as his eyes widened at what he felt there. Neither had said a word as they had both smiled and had kissed one another before settling back down in each other's arms.

Unknown to them both, they had been silently observed by a smiling and now fully-informed Biko. She had turned her back and had gone back to sleep, with a smile on her face for the miracle of life.

But that as the teller of tales say, IS ANOTHER STORY!

THE END

 
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