**Note: Although the following is part of a previously self-published eBook, portions have been modified. However, it has not been professionally edited and likely contains typos and other errors. It is offered as an example of raw science fiction storytelling.**
The railcar paused at the first airlock, signaling its arrival at the outer entry to the dome at Star City. When the outer hull of the railcar was cleaned and purged of contaminants, it was permitted through the second airlock and on into the first station where many of the passengers disembarked.
Julie and Chase began gathering up their belongings and stowing away anything they took out of their carry-on luggage on their way. Neville and Mary already completed their preparations and were eagerly waiting to get off the railcar at the next station, on the other side of the city.
The railcar was about half empty after the first stop. A few new passengers boarded and the railcar delayed for the time interval it took for the conveyers beneath the station’s docking platform off load some the luggage designated for the first station. Then conveyor belt reversed direction to load luggage belonging to the newest passengers who were continuing beyond the other Star City station to other cities.
It was an amazingly smooth operation, really and was largely automated with only minimal human monitoring of the process. Every once in a while something would go awry and an attendant would immediately leap into action to correct the malfunction.
Once loaded, the railcar cabin was sealed and it continued on briefly to the other side of the city and the next station where the remaining passengers destined for Star City exited before the railcar boarded any new passengers. When the railcar again came to a complete stop, Neville and Mary were among the first of the passengers queued the exit door. They exited out onto the docking platform as the others who were still aboard the railcar waited. Once inside the station, Neville and Mary waited for Julie and Chase who were separated from them by several passengers in the line. Chase was saying goodbye to Pick, reiterating arrangements to stay in touch, exchanging business cards.
Chase rejoined Julie and they hurried to baggage claim where Chase stood beside Neville to wait alongside the carousel for their checked baggage. The ladies retrieved a luggage cart from a nearby rack and waited a few meters behind the men.
“Neville…Mary!” a voice familiar to them called out.
“Dad,” Neville turned to respond with a broad smile on his face as he embraced the older gentleman who looked older than he ever seemed on the periodic phone video feeds.
They were just completing their hugs when Chase reached for first Neville’s bag and then Julie’s. A few moments later he retrieved his and then Mary’s.
“Chase, this is my father Arnie.”
“The pleasure is mine,” Chase said. “And this is Julie,” he introduced as she approached with Mary to shake hands. Mary hugged her father-in-law.
“I brought the supply coach,” Arnie said. “It is not as comfortable but there’s a lot more room for everyone and the luggage,” Arnie said.
“That’ll be fine, Dad,” Neville said.
“I figured the pretty ladies could sit up front with me. You boys can ride rough in the back on the jump seats with the luggage.”
“Just like the old days,” Neville said, and then made a comment about when he was a little boy going to get supplies for the shop with his father. He would never ride up front in the delivery coach because he preferred resting in the back amongst the bags of coffee beans, sugar, flour, and such, some of them as big of usually much heavier than he was at the time.
Arnie pitched in to help Chase and Neville heft the luggage onto the cart Mary wheeled toward them. Everything loaded Arnie led the way to the van he’d left parked at the curb in a delivery zone. As his vehicle bore a commercial vendor’s decal it was never questioned.
Once everyone and everything they brought with them were loaded into the coach, Arnie used the automatic pilot to direct the coach to return to the alley behind the coffee shop. “I thought we’d stop by so you can see Emma before heading on out the house.”
“How is she?” Mary asked.
“She’s the same as always. She complains once in a while but at our age I suppose complaints are expected if not allowed.”
“The last time we talked, she said she had some stiffness in her elbow,” Mary responded.
“Oh yeah, well I made her go to the clinic about it and they gave her something to rub on it and some sort of injection and after a few hours it was better.”
“You know Emma, though. Half the effort was getting her out of the shop to go there. We closed early one afternoon. It wasn’t like we missed much business, but still, she felt guilty. She was angry at me for insisting she go and then gong with her to boot.”
“She sounds like quite a character,” Julie said.
“Well, she can be,” Arnie said. “I don’t know what to do with her sometimes but I am certain I could never have made it to this point in my life without her.” He chuckled to himself. “I’ll bet she would say the same thing about me.”
It wasn’t that far to the coffee shop. By the time that the coach turned off the street and they arrived in the alley behind, the sun was already high enough in the sky that it shone through the dome illuminating even the darkest corners, chasing away the lingering vestiges of a shadowy, moonlit night. Arnie triggered the releases on the doors and everyone disembarked. Emma met Mary at the back door, hugging her warmly. Then with Mary’s introduction, Emma hugged Julie as well.
Chase offered his hand to Emma and she shook it and smiled before focusing her attentions on her only son. They held one another in a shared embrace for several moments, Neville lifting her from her feet. “I’ve missed you, Mom.”
“You don’t have to be such a stranger, you know.”
“Well, I am pretty busy at work.”
“And it’s such a long trip,” Arnie offered as an excuse for his boy.
“Well, there’s that too,” Neville said.
“Why waste the words now that you’re here. Come on inside. Arnie made fresh coffee before he left and I made breakfast for everyone.”
“Great,” Neville said.
“Yes, that sounds wonderful,” Julie said as she reached back and grabbed Chase’s hand and led him inside. While Mary and Neville continued catching up on everything with Emma and Arnie, Chase and Julie continued through the kitchen and out into the front dining area where they sat at a table. Arnie poured two cups of coffee and carried them out on a tray to Chase and Julie.
“There are a couple of people I’d like you to meet,” Emma said to Neville and Mary as they lingered back in the kitchen. “They should be awake by now.”
“They are very nice young people using our old place upstairs – temporarily,” Arnie explained as he returned to the kitchen to gather up a tray of steamed sweet rolls. “They are from out of town and seemed to be having it a little rough.”
“And you just took them in,” Neville said incredulously as shook his head.
“Well, I always do what I feel is right and treat people how I would want to be treated.”
“You know my concern.”
“I’m not as cynical as you are, I guess. I assume people are good people until it’s proven otherwise.”
“Well from my experience there are few people you can trust.”
“And that’s a very sad commentary on our world and times,” Arnie said.
“Well, it is as much my fault,” Emma said. “I couldn’t help it. I know they’re really good people.”
“Where are they from?”
“From New Milan.”
“What are they doing all the way up here?” Neville asked.
“They have been looking for the girl’s brother.”
“Don’t be negative,” Mary chided Neville.
“I’m not being negative. I’m just trying to watch out for the safety and best interests of my parents.”
“And your parents have a lot of experience looking out for themselves,” Mary said, coming to Emma’s defense. “They also did a pretty good job raising you and your sisters.”
“I’m not about to change ‘who’ I am and ‘what’ I believe is right. The world can continue going to hell, I’m going to take care of my part of it, though,” Arnie said.
“Regardless of your concerns, they’re heading back to New Milan in a few days, along with their friend,” Emma said.
“Well, maybe they are all right, then,” Neville finally relented. “It’s just I worry about you guys and your good nature. People take advantage of you.”
“What if they have? It’s on their conscience. Emma and I are fine.”
“You should not pass judgment on people without ever having met them,” Emma said and she started up the steps at the back of the kitchen. “There’s no reason for us to change the way we are. But you are still young enough to learn and adapt.”
The burn of Mary’s glare at Neville caused him to turn away but he received no better from his father’s stare on the other side.
“Okay, okay, I get it. Believe in people until they earn mistrust.”
“I wondered if you even remembered that,” Arnie said.
“Dad, I live by it. I just have always been over protective of you, every since I was a teenager.”
Arnie chuckled. “Yeah, I remember your attempts to protect me.”
“I don’t think I’ve ever heard this story,” Mary said.
“And you should never hear it,” Neville said.
“There are some secrets made to be kept between a father and his son,” Arnie vocalized his support for his son’s privacy.
“I see how it is. You two gang up on me whenever I’m close to learning something potentially embarrassing.”
“I assure you it’s not embarrassing,” Arnie said.
“Then why can’t I know the secret?”
“Because it’s a secret,” Neville said.
“You and your secrets!” Mary complained.
Just then, Emma returned from upstairs and announced that her other guests would be down shortly. “They said they were awake but I really think I woke them up.”
“They were probably tired,” Arnie said.
“They were out for a good while yesterday. I feel bad for them,” Emma said. “They seemed so disappointed when they came home late yesterday afternoon.”
Suddenly Alix peered from the stairs around the edge of the ceiling as he descended the stairs. When he had reached the kitchen floor Emma offered an introduction, “This is my son Neville and his wife Mary.”
“It is good to meet you,” Alix said as he extended his hand to first Mary and then Neville.
“The pleasure is mine,” Neville said.
“Ours,” Mary amended.
Emma offered. “Where’s Cristina?”
“She’s coming. She’s still doing the make-up thing.”
Cristina appeared feet first descended the stairs as first Alix then everyone else turned in her direction. “This is Cristina,” Alix introduced as she had arrived downstairs.
“This is Mary, my wife and I’m Neville.”
“So, we finally meet,” Cristina said directly to him, then turned to Mary, “Both of you. Emma has spoken of you.”
“Good things I hope.”
“Of course it was good,” Emma offered in protest.
“Emma tells us you are from New Milan,” Neville said.
“That we are,” Alix said. “Do you know New Milan?”
“I’ve been there,” Mary said. “Neville has been there a few times for meetings.”
“Really,” Alix smiled. “You’re from Andromeda, right?”
“Yeah,” Mary said. “You know Andromeda?”
“A little,” Alix said. “We performed there a few times in the last year.”
“Performed? Are you actors?”
“That would have been my second guess,” Mary said.
“We were on a world tour.”
“Are you on tour here?”
“Not really,” Cristina said. “We were on vacation, spending some time with some friends in Andromeda before going back to the studio for recording. I came here looking for my brother.”
“We are getting ready to go back home,” Alix said. “Arnie and Emma asked us to stay and meet you. We’ll be leaving in a couple of days.”
“You know,” Mary said, “We’ve completely forgotten about Julie and Chase,” she said to Neville.
“Where are they?” he asked even as Cristina looked to Alix.
“Out in the front,” Arnie said, sitting at a table. “I poured them some coffee.”
“It can’t be the same Chase and Julie,” Cristina said mainly to Alix.
“You know them?” Emma asked as she overheard.
“Well, it could be someone different.” Alix allowed.
“Which seems unlikely,” Cristina added, and then shouted, “Chase, is that you?”
Both Chase and Julie responded, coming into the kitchen, Julie embracing Cristina as Alix shook Chase’s hand the pulled in closer to embrace. “We thought you were missing.”
“Well, we have to talk about that,” Alix replied to Chase.
“So you know each other already?” Neville asked probably just a couple of seconds before Arnie was going to.
“Chase managed our world tour. We met Julie when we visited them in Andromeda several days ago.”
Arnie leaned back against the counter. “Let me get this straight. My son and daughter-in-law know people who are friends of people I met here a few days ago who spent the night the alley beside my building.”
“Small world,” Emma said in summary.
“To say the very least,” Neville said.
“It is quite a coincidence.”
“Except there are no coincidences,” Julie said.
“None at all,” Cristina confirmed.
“I assume Cristina and Alix have the attributes, then,” Neville said.
“Of course,” Chase said.
“It seems as if The Twenty-Four are being drawn together, a pair at a time then into mutual associations.”
“Because we’re supposed to,” Julie said.
“I presume from that statement you know of other pairings?” Alix probed.
“A few,” Neville said. “You mothers have told me of them. They have access to information resources on their children.”
“Our mothers?” Alix asked.
“They’re alive,” Chase said. “Julie and I met our mothers.”
Both Alix and Cristina were suddenly silent.
“Sometimes it’s almost like some evil genie is controlling all of us like marionettes,” Neville offered.
“What determines whether the genie is evil?” Cristina asked.
“Perception?” Alix suggested.
“Everything is about perception,” Arnie said. “That’s been that way from my experience.”
“What is there that exists if no one’s around to perceive it?” Chase asked.
“Such was the divine dilemma,” Neville proposed. “Does a tree falling in the forest make a sound if no one is there to hear it. Was there ever a sunrise on this planet before we arrived to be the first to witness it? The very origin of this planet was regarded as crazy, unscientific speculation no one could possibly corroborate until a remote probe was arrived and through it we perceived a younger version of Earth, uninhabited.”
“Except for the uninhabited part, that is true,” Cristina said.
“Well, now that we’re all here, of course Pravda is inhabited.”
“It was inhabited for a long time before we arrived,” Cristina insisted. “Sand-morphs exist.”
“Yes, yes, that childhood fantasy,” Neville responded. “They find piles of sand in a cave and speculate there was life here before we came.”
“So we’re told,” Chase said.
“No one’s seen one,” Neville said, then sipped from his coffee.
“Except for the people who found the piles of sand when they were still in tact,” Chase said.
“And us,” Alix added.
“You have seen one?” Neville asked with a chuckle.
“They perceived one back in time, through a portal their orbs created,” Chase said.
“Things have evolved a good bit since that, Chase,” Cristina said.
“Has it now? How?” he asked.
“Something I learned to do, called folding time. We went back and found one.”
“Your met one, in the flesh – so to speak?”
“Actually, we met several but communicated most directly with the one,” Cristina said. “His name was Slahl’yukim, the real name, anyway.”
“That’s a mouthful of a name,” Neville said.
“That’s why we shortened it a bit,” Alix said.
“Come sit down out front, all of you,” Arnie suggested, motioning for everyone to come along.