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“We’ll need to go around the city,” Marideen declared, stopping short, “We’ll also need to dump our weapons.”

Berret and Maximil nodded, treating it like a given. Darian frowned and when Beiromon noticed the confusion in his eyes, he moved over to him.

“We need to move into the city like anyone else down the trade road.  That’s where they will be looking for us, but if we entered the city any other way, like from an inhabitable desert, it would look infinitely more suspicious.”

“What about the guns?” Darian inquired.

Beiromon blinked, “Right, I forget you did not grow under the Taerren SPIG. All guns are outlawed among the civilian and noble populations throughout the Taerren colonies. The only people allowed to hold weapons are military forces. It requires permissions and licenses. If we are caught with any weapons of any kind, it will be even more suspicious. We have to go in there looking like anyone else. We’d even be smart to dump the practice swords.”

“So how do we look like everyone else? I still imagine we’re not going to look like the inhabitants of this place.”

“The same as we always do,” Marideen interrupted, walking towards them, “We connect with Lancer sympathizers. Before you took us through the desert, we had made plans to meet with a small farming family. They should be willing to provide us with a cart with some supplies, the appropriate papers, and clothing. It should be enough to convince any authorities that we are just city farmers trying to sell our stuff to spacers.”

“Spacers?” Darian asked

Marideen rolled her eyes, nodding to Beiromon.

He sighed, turning to Darian, “Offworld transporters, essentially. They buy supplies, move them to another world, then sell them. Just another markup on interplanetary trade.”  

“Anyway,” Marideen continued, “It would be nice to have a hot home-cooked meal over rations. We’ll all need baths and to get out of these jumpsuits. They make us stick out like a sore thumb, especially yours.”

Darian glanced down to the suit he was wearing and realized that both he and Beiromon were still in prison garb, dirty and tattered as it was. He almost blushed. He had almost been ready to walk right into the city, not even considering the fact that he was wearing a neon sign of guilt.

Maximil quickly gathered everyone’s weapons, digging a shallow hole before shoving them in it and covering it up.

“It’s almost a shame, even for outlaws like us, that cache of weapons would take weeks to gather,” Maximil sighed regretfully.

The group began moving once again. As the noonday sun came up overhead, they didn’t stop to break. Darian hadn’t really noticed at the time, but the sun did seem to be less severe during the last few days. It appeared that they were moving out of the hottest of the desert area and into a more manageable environment.

As they moved, they steadily began listing north. Marideen continued to guide the way as if led by a compass and map, although Darian never had seen her pull one out. A few plants began to show up, the desert sand turned into grass. It wasn’t the yellow, half-dead grass that he had seen around where they landed. This was green grass that looked tended and taken care of.

As the plant life became more prevalent, Marideen’s pace became slower. She took increasingly more precautions, crouching lower, moving from tree expanse to tree expanse. Twice Darian heard a shout or laugh in the distance. It was usually jovial and resembled life in a way Darian had not experienced in as long as he remembered.

“We’re reaching the more densely populated regions now,” Marideen spoke out to no one in particular, “I don’t want any of us seen until we are out of these jumpsuits.”

Darian had figured at this point that comments like those were merely for his benefit. Even Beiromon seemed to approach this behavior with a seeming amount of familiarity. Darian almost felt like the odd man out, although he did his best to try to emulate the remainder of the group.

Before too long, Marideen brought them up, pointing to a speck of a house barely within eyeshot.

“That should be it, stay back, I’ll make sure it’s safe,” Marideen ordered, moving off.

She was out of sight within a few minutes.

“Is she always like this?” Darian asked out loud.

“Bossy?” Berret rose an eyebrow.

“No, the scouting alone, doing everything herself,” Darian explained.

Berret shrugged, but it was Maximil who responded, “She has trust issues. A few people betrayed us. A few others have lost their lives because of those betrayals.”

“Yeah, but you guys are her friends, she should trust you guys at least, right?” Darian pressed.

“Trust us, yes, she would trust us to do any mission she set us to. However, trust that we will come back safely? She’ll take any risk to avoid having us take risks.”

“Well, that’s not exactly healthy, is it?”

“Healthy?” Maximil shrugged, “At age eight she lost her home, her life, and her world. At age nineteen, she lost her sister and her father. Just two weeks ago, she killed that same father she had thought dead. I don’t know if there will ever be anything ‘healthy’ about the way that girl thinks.”

“Then why follow her?” Darian demanded.

“You ask that now?” Maximil frowned, “We follow her because she is a good person. She wants to change the world for the better, and she isn’t afraid to do it. I have never met a person more deserving of my loyalty that Marideen Cleefe.”

Darian raised his hands, “I meant nothing by it. It’s just a lot to swallow, and it has been a rough week.

Maximil nodded, but the frown didn’t leave his face.

“I suppose you could say I’m not healthy either,” Darian sighed, “Broken even.”

“You both have been through a lot over the last few years,” Beiromon spoke up, “I think you might find some common ground on that.”

“Just don’t get too common,” Maximil growled, the frown breaking from his lips as his humor returned, “No more sneaking under her covers at night.”

Darian choked, a blush touching his cheeks.

“I’m sorry?” Beiromon asked, “What was that?”

“It’s not like it sounds,” Darian defended himself.

“When I found them, they had their hands all over each other, half-dressed,” Maximil continued.

“Darian, I had no clue…” Beiromon raised an eyebrow.

“That’s a lie!” Darian raised his hands, “We were both fully dressed.”

He cringed, realizing he had just admitted to the rest of it. At least he was pretty sure that she had been dressed. He hadn’t been looking at her body too much and it was dark. Did she take off her jumpsuit at night? No, now was not the time to be thinking about that.

“The one question I have,” Berret suddenly spoke up, “Is what do you do with all the sand? It’s got to be uncomfortable and it probably gets everywhere.”

Darian fidgeted uncomfortably. Berret wasn’t wrong about the sand. He had been pulling sand from his shoes and pockets almost nonstop since the sword practicing with Marideen had regularly tossed him to the ground. Maximil broke out in an uproarious laugh. The others joined with him and Darian gave them a tight smile.

Marideen returned shortly after their laughter died, giving them a nod that everything was alright. They moved the rest of the way to the farmhouse. It seemed like it might be small for a farmhouse, but Darian could not remember the last time he has seen one.

It really seemed gigantic to his eyes. It possessed two complete stories. A man could live comfortably in a nine-foot by nine-foot room, the fact that someone would take up two stories, with at least five to six rooms, seemed to boggle Darian’s mind.

The farmhouse was constructed with wood, sturdy and well built with white painted shingles. A woman stood out on the porch ready to greet them when they came into view. She was about middle-age, with her hair tied in a loose ponytail. She had an earthy appearance. Her fingers were calloused, and her face held a few wrinkles from age. However, her back was straight and her head was held high.

As only the second woman Darian could remember meeting, she seemed kind and strong. She wasn’t strong in the same way as Marideen, who was hardened and weary. Instead, she possessed a determination and naturalness that came off as beautiful to Darian.

“Hello, welcome everyone,” the woman smiled, her face glowing with warmth, “My name is Sidney Pen, it’s a pleasure to meet you all.”

Sidney leaned over and hugged and kissed each of the men. She seemed to recognize Berret and Maximil, enthusiastically welcoming them each to her home. When she came to Darian, she looked him up and down with appraising eyes.

“Well, look at this one,” Sidney laughed throatily, “Looks like you’re adding more Lancers to your roster! And a cute one at that!”

Sidney leaned in and kissed Darian on the cheek, causing him to blush.

“Well that’s a Taerren reaction if I’ve ever seen one,” she laughed again, “Well I’m sorry dear, but the Akari kiss.”

She turned, giggling as if she had made a fine joke. She continued to talk as she led them into her house. She introduced them to her three children in turn, a three-year-old, Sabasta, a seven-year-old, Tomas, and fifteen-year-old girl, Cinda. They nodded and politely bowed to each of them. Berret, Beiromon, and Maximil grinned from ear to ear as if they had just entered a candy store.

Before long, Darian realized that he was also grinning. Something about the homeliness of Sidney’s residence seemed to put them all in a good mood. Even Marideen appeared to be more at ease.

“You’ll all need baths, I am sure,” Sidney continued on, “A fresh pair of clothing and I’m guessing a hot meal.”

Sidney nodded to herself, tapping her lips as if in thought.

“Well, I only have one bathtub, so you will just have to take turns. Cinda, please start the oven for me, will you? Now who wants to go first?”

When no one spoke up, everyone waiting for someone else to volunteer, Darian spoke, “Marideen does.”

Marideen glanced over at him, her face blank and unreadable. Sidney barked a laugh then grabbed Marideen. Marideen’s face turned to shock as Sidney rushed her upstairs. Before long. Sidney came back down, silently laughing to herself as she went.

“Well boy,” Sidney chuckled, “I think you and I may need to talk a bit about the birds and the bees.”

“I’m sorry?” Darian asked.

“Well, right now Marideen is probably wondered whether you had her go first because you were thinking of her comforts above her own, or because you think she smells. Honestly, you’re going to have to up your game if you’re going to be successful wooing her.”

After hearing that, Maximil broke into laughter again. Why does everyone think Darian is trying to romance her? He didn’t even remember how to romance a woman. The whole thing was just becoming increasingly confusing for Darian. He had better things to worry about right now than a girl.

Sidney broke off the conversation and began cooking. Darian’s thoughts left Marideen and began to concentrate on the wonderful smells emanating from the kitchen. It was quite possibly the most delicious aroma he had ever experienced. At times, the prison food has been acceptable. Even the rations far surpassed the gruel he had lived on in the lab. However, nothing prepared him for the meal that Sidney began placing on the table.

Each of the men and Sidney’s children took a seat at the long wooden table. It was crowded, the table only meant to fit eight at most, but they made due. Once the table was set, Sidney gave a short prayer and Darian began to eagerly dig into the feast in front of them.

It appeared to be a large cooked bird. The meat was tender and moist, with just a touch of sweetness. There were mashed potatoes, sweet potatoes, gravy, noodles, and some kind of broccoli stew. Darian gladly fed himself, taking three to four servings.

A creak by the stairway caught Darian’s attention and he turned, gasping at the sight before him. Marideen had only just now finished her bath and was making her way down the stairs. She wore a simple white blouse and ankle-length brown skirt. Her dark brown hair fell down her shoulders, now loose for the first time in Darian’s memory. It seemed to flow down her shoulders in illustrious wavy locks. Her light brown eyes seeming bigger framed in the loose hair.

A small smile sat on Marideen’s face, and for a bit, she looked like a normal girl. At least, she looked like what Darian vaguely remembered a normal girl might look like. Like a young Sidney, he supposed. A dash of blush appeared on her cheeks, and Darian realized it was because he was looking at her. He coughed, turning his head away, although Sidney seemed to notice the exchange. Darian was quickly suspecting that nothing passed Sidney’s notice in her home.

Marideen came the rest of the way down, taking a seat across from Darian, where the others made room for her. Apparently in Akari, where Sidney’s parents were from, it was custom for females to sit on one side of the table, and males on the others. Being as there were six men present, and only four girls with Sidney still in the kitchen, this made Darian’s side of the table considerably less comfortable.

“Thank you for this, I know it isn’t easy helping us,” Marideen remarked after she had eaten a little bit.

“Oh nonsense, I would always help out a friend in need, no matter what,” Sidney waved dismissively.

“How did you become a friend of the Lancers?” Darian asked before he could help himself.

“Well that’s simple,” Sidney smiled, “I was married to one.”

Darian blinked; he supposed Sidney had to have had a husband with three children. He almost felt embarrassed for not asking her about them sooner.  

“How is he?” Darian continued.

Marideen kicked his ankle from under the table and he grimaced slightly. Sidney put a hand on her shoulder, reassuring Marideen.

“No, it’s fine,” Sidney responded, her smile faltering just a bit, “My husband passed away. Three years ago he was executed during the Lancer purge.”

They continued to eat on in silence for a bit, Darian mentally berating himself for always pressing with questions.

“What news have you heard?” Marideen asked.

“News?” Sidney responded, accepting Marideen’s change of conversation, “I don’t get to the city very often, barely once a month, so my news is probably more dated than your own. For example, I saw the fireball in the sky a few weeks ago, but it wasn’t until you told me it was Basalt that I knew anything about it.”

“Still, we’ve been out for a while and any news may be helpful,” Marideen pleaded.

Sidney nodded, “Well, let’s see. There is talk of a new planet having been discovered. Of course, that’s nothing really new. The last new planet has finally finished up excavating and they will be selling land soon and privatizing the planet. It seems like whenever the last discovered planet becomes old news, they find a new planet to obsess about. Rumors say it might be planet Origin.

“Of course, that’s nothing either. Whenever a new system is connected, rumors start flying around that it contains Origin. Then again, the government has been surprisingly quiet about this one. Usually, it’s all bells and whistles. This time around they are being very quiet about the discovery. Makes you think.”

“Is there anything else?” Marideen prodded.

“Well, there has been talk of some unrest with the Ertlanders,” Maximil perked up at the mention of his home, “but I don’t really have any details on what happened. It doesn’t sound serious, but we certainly don’t want Ertlanders to treat us like the Usar do. Taerra still depends on a few Ertlander systems to trade with the Sudmarians and the Malinder.”

“Any rumors about us?” Marideen suggested.

“There are always rumors about the Lancers,” Sidney rolled her eyes, “Those that are sympathizers spread rumors of your victories. Those that hate the Lancers spread rumors of your terrorism. Only half of the blame can be left at the Lancers feet, but both sides are content blaming everything under the sun on the Lancers, from recent bombings to livestock going lame.”

Marideen continued this exchange with Sydney, trying to ferret out any piece of information that could help her. The conversations eventually drifted to the climate at Port Geneva, both political and environmental. A tap on Darian’s shoulder and he realized it was his time to bath.

He went up the stairs, quickly finding the modest bathroom. He filled the bath and moved on in, steadily lowering himself in a bath that might have been a few degrees too hot for himself. Still, by the time he had managed to get the rest of his body in it, he sighed thankfully.

He had not had his entire body immersed in water for as long as he could remember, and the feel of it was something he couldn’t even describe. Warmth flowed around him, the water penetrating and cleaning every part of his body. After a few minutes of idling sitting in the tub, he began to scrub away the dirt and grime. Eventually, he emptied the tube of dirty water, and then refilled it, taking another soak with cleaner water.

By the time he was done, he felt cleaner than he had ever felt in his entire life. Sydney must have sent one of her kids to bring him a set of clothing because he found a fresh set sitting on the counter. It was a simple brown shirt and trousers. It didn’t fit him as well as he might have hoped, but it still felt nice against his skin. Certainly far more comfortable than the perpetual jumpsuits he had worn for the last few years.

He moved down the stairs of the quaint wooden home. It was a bit warm indoors, the house lit with relatively dim lighting and smelling distinctly of lilacs. Darian’s memory was shot, but he imagined this was close to the kind of home he would have wanted to live in. For all he knew, he did live in a home-like this. There was a degree of familiarity with being in here, but he sometimes had trouble sorting out whether that came from his memory or his intuition for the future.

When he made his way to the living room, each of the men was rapidly packing their backpacks. There seemed to be a bit of haste in their movements.

“What going on?” Darian asked.

Just then, Marideen strolled in with Sydney close behind her, “…probably nothing, Marideen, do you really have to go now?”

“I’m sorry Sidney, your hospitality has been wonderful, but the Taerran guard is most likely hot on our tails. We don’t want you being caught up in this.”

“There is no reason they have to check our farms, and even if they do, they’d be unlikely to catch anything. My husband died without giving them a single name. They don’t know we are sympathizers. This place has plenty of nooks and crannies, we can keep you somewhere safe.

Marideen was already shaking her head, “I won’t put your kids in any kind of danger. It isn’t abnormal for farmers to be moving goods at night, especially this close to Geneva. That way they get an extra day to sell their wares in the marketplace. We look less suspicious on the road than we do hiding on a farm.

“Alright,” Sydney conceded,” Be careful though. It’s fall and that means the fall market is in full swing.

“We will, if anything, a large number of visitors will help us remain hidden in the crowds. Are you sure you won’t come with us? At the very least, you should head to Ophran, it’s the safest place for any of us right now.”

Sydney was already shaking her head, “My family has been settled here for many years. I’m not prepared to leave everything behind just yet. Besides, I am of more use to you on the inside.”

Marideen sighed, lowering her head in resignation, “Thank you for everything you have done, you are truly a friend.”

Sydney waved away her flattery, giving each of the men a farewell hug as well. When she reached Darian she winked at him, causing him to blush. This caused her to let out a throaty chuckle as she kissed him on the cheek as well. He wasn’t exactly uncomfortable from the attention, it just was not an interaction Darian could remember before. Marideen seemed to largely ignore the interaction.

Sydney eventually pulled Darian aside, whispering into his ear, “Good luck.”

Darian had no clue what that was about, but she winked at him again before turning away. She finished saying her goodbyes to everyone else and Maximil ushered Darian out the door, where he came up to a wagon attached to two horses. He balked as he looked the wagon up and down. It was made of wood and metal, with four simple wooden wheels. He glanced up at the horses, who whinnied and shook their heads.

“Horses?” Darian couldn’t help but say indignantly, “Why on earth are we using horses?”

Marideen muttered something under her breath as she gave him another glare, moving up onto the driver’s seat.  Beiromon looked to Berret and Maximil, who simply went to work loading the wagon with bags of supplies. When he realized he was once again relegated to explaining things to Darian, he sighed.

“This is a class c planet,” Marideen suddenly spoke up before Beiromon could start as if that answered everything.

When Darian’s face remained blank, Beiromon looked over at Marideen once before continuing, “Most planets aren’t set up for people to live on them. Although there are many planets that can be made habitable for humans. We call these terraformable planets. Through a series of steps, the planets are made more human-friendly. Animals and plants are added, the gas levels are managed, and eventually a planet can support life.”

The men finished loading and jumped into the wagon. Darian leaped in just as  Marideen struck the reigns, sending the wagon shooting forward. He fell back hard onto his butt before he could regain his footing. He glared at her, but couldn’t see her face with her back to him.

“The planet Paris is rather new,” Beiromon continued after they had moved down the trail for just a bit, “It’s still terraforming. Humans can live and breathe on it now, but it is by no means a fully developed world. One of the last stages of terraforming is to put animals and plants, to set fires and produce ash and moisture. In essence, to create waste.”

“Farmers, merchants, even simple residents, receive subsidies and tax breaks for doing things that positively help the terraforming process. Horses produce manure, which helps the planet gain a topsoil layer. Fires give off large quantities of moisture and debris into the air, and the leftover ash is used in fertilizer. Even homes of wood are encouraged so that in a few hundred years they will degrade and help flora and fauna growth.”

“Worlds like Terra or Ophran have already been lived in. You’ll find stone and metal homes, massively paved streets, completed infrastructure. Paris? It will be another hundred years or so before it can finally start adapting more civilized technologies.”

Darian shook his head. It was pretty incredible. In a universe with spaceships, jump gates, and time experiments they still used things like a horse and carriage. Darian supposed the old ways never died. He wasn’t sure why he thought that. He couldn’t remember life before, how did he know what was old and what wasn’t? Either way, it was time to look to the future.

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