THE PORTAL TECHNICIAN
Tabby watched the prison dome shrink away as Raed pulled them over a black, mirrored sea. Captain Joyen appeared at Hiida’s side, staring at her from the dome’s platform.
His teal hair was frayed with many fly away wisps and the fish on his robes danced in the breeze like ocean spirits, giving him a wild look. As he followed the pair with his eyes, his furrowed brow turned up in a strangely relieved smile. Relieved for what, Tabby couldn’t even begin to guess. She turned away, uncomfortable.
They flew over a waterside promenade as the twinkling city illuminated their faces from below. Misty clouds hovered between the mountains, glowing in Cerey’s many lights. The sound of waterfalls filled Tabby’s ears, and she sighed quietly. After thinking she would end the night back in Northbrook, it was surreal in more ways than one to be floating through the Cerian valley again.
“Curse Hiida and her minions,” Raed grumbled. “I won’t hear the end of it from her.” His voice carried surprising maturity coming from such a young face. Tabby wasn’t sure if she’d ever get used to it. “Are you all right?”
“I’m fine,” she said, although she really felt miserable.
“What you did was absolutely foolish. Running off by yourself, no weapon, no way to contact anyone...” He scowled. “What were your plans when you reached the portals, hm? What if there were guards there, what would you have done then?”
Tabby blinked at him, not sure how to respond.
He scoffed and rolled his eyes. “I suppose that kind of naive thinking’s to be expected, given you’re from an isolated planet. I have yet to speak with Philip about how he intended to get you home, but if either of you were honest with me to begin with, all of this trouble would not have come to pass.”
They flew on in silence for several moments, the air between them thick. Tabby waited for Raed to say something more, anything. He didn’t, and she felt horrible.
“Raed,” she said miserably, “I’m so sorry I didn’t tell you who I was, or even introduce myself. It was irresponsible of me and I hope--”
He held up a silencing hand. “I’ll have none of that,” he said sternly. “What’s done is done.” He exhaled a short breath and grit his teeth before continuing. “I’m mainly upset at Philip. Can you believe that he hid you from me because he was afraid I would overreact? Me! Of all people to lose control! Idiotic boy! I don’t seem like the type of person that would lose his head in such an emergency, do I!”
It was more of a statement than a question. Tabby stared at him, waiting for him to finish. She had a feeling Philip hadn’t told him too many details of what they’ve been doing for the past few days. If he had, she was sure Raed would’ve been furious.
“I’ll have you know,” he said, his voice rising, “that I consider your arrival an emergency of the highest priority which must be dealt with swiftly and thoroughly. None of this waiting around until you recover from whatever head injury you apparently suffered from, as Philip has been lazily doing. Typical of him.”
Tabby bit her lip, nervous. “Does he know I was taken by Priestess Hiida?”
“He was already awake and looking for you when Lina came. Apparently he had a dream that you’d been imprisoned. Talk about dumb luck!” Raed paused and tweaked his nose in an effort to appear unconcerned. “He’s been under a lot of stress worrying about you, I think. Now that I’ve met you, I know why. You’ve got a real knack for trouble, Earthling.”
Raed gave her an accusatory glare, and she shrank away guiltily.
“You can take it up with him when you say your farewells,” he continued. “You’ll be seeing him very shortly.”
“I will?” Her heart fluttered. The idea of seeing him again made her unexpectedly nervous.
“I’m taking you straight to a friend of mine. She will bring you home this very evening, and everyone can start fresh tomorrow morning as if none of this happened. Philip has already gone ahead. He will meet us there.”
“Your friend has portal keys?” Tabby asked hopefully.
“Course not,” he frowned. “No one has portal keys anymore, what with SecTr gone. No, she won’t need any keys. She’s a portal technician.”
“Like a mechanic?”
“She performs maintenance on the portals, but I wouldn’t insult her with such a comparison, Earthling. You see, Psymon doesn’t just fix the portals.” He paused dramatically, smiling with pride. “She helped build them.”
Psymon the portal technician had a home that sat at the base of a thundering waterfall, just five miles east of Philip and Raed’s spire. She chose the home years ago because nothing calmed her nerves more than the sound of hundreds of pounds of water crashing into a deeply carved pool.
It was a sparsely decorated home, nothing but a desk, a few tables, a hammock, and a giant statue of Merofi’s head that was built into one wall. The only area that felt truly lived in was the workshop tucked away in a corner, covered in loose cogs, scrapped blueprints, and various unrecognizable Reman tools.
The cylindrical home had a swirling dome of glass for a roof, and it boasted two stories of lofts. Spray from the falls constantly showered the glass dome, making the light inside quiver as if underwater. It drenched the home in a constant, rumbling hum, accented with the occasional renegade splatter.
Philip, Paeter, and Lina were waiting in front of the odd house. Tabby and Raed landed gingerly on the surrounding wooden patio. The five of them gathered as the moon shone silver above.
As soon as she landed, Tabby’s eyes locked onto Philip. She wanted to speak to him more than anyone else.
He’d changed back into his elegant black and midnight robes detailed with star patterns, a uniform that did well to complement his lean figure. He was hiding behind his delicate, windswept hair. Behind it, his eyes were wide and troubled. It looked like he had as much sleep as she did. She could only imagine the earful Raed must’ve given him when he discovered what was happening.
He timidly walked up to her, forcing himself to meet her eye. For once, his worry was clearly written on his face. “Are you all right?” he asked above the noise of the falls.
Tabby nodded, brushing the hair from her eyes. “I think so,” she said. “If it wasn’t for Raed, who knows what would’ve happened.”
His open expression hovered between worry and anger. He took her arms, squeezing them as if to check that she wasn’t hurt. His concern surprised her. All night long she had so many things she wanted to say to him, to tell him why she ran off, to apologize for being so rash, but she found it difficult to say anything now that he was there, facing her.
“As long as you’re all right,” he said, relaxing.
Raed glared at his godson. “You’re not off the hook yet, boy. Don’t think that any of this wasn’t your fault to begin with.”
“Really, Raed,” Tabby interceded, “it’s my fault, not his.”
“Nonsense! I don’t know how you’ll be paying for this, boy, but mark my words, it will be severe!”
Philip simply sighed, immune to his threats.
Paeter, optimistic as always, gave Tabby a cheery wave. His eyes were full of wonder as he gazed at her, as if she was glowing with supernatural light.
“Earth!” he exclaimed breathlessly. “Of all places!”
Tabby flashed him a sheepish, uncomfortable smile. Lina was the only one who avoided eye contact all together, preferring to keep her gaze fixed on the floor. Tabby went to her and laid a gentle hand on her arm. “Hey,” she said. “Are you okay?”
Lina glanced up, her words stuck on the tip of her tongue. She bit her lip to prevent them from spilling out.
“Thank you for helping me back there,” Tabby said with a smile. “I probably would’ve been dead without you.”
“Oh Tabby,” Lina said at last, her voice a few octaves higher than normal. “I’m sorry, but I don’t think I’ll ever get used to it. You’re an alien! It’s just so...” her eyes grazed over her Earthling clothes. “Bizarre!”
Tabby paled. “Uh…”
“Thank you for that, Lina,” said Raed briskly. “Thank you also for alerting me of her presence in the temple prison. I know it was a difficult decision for you. We appreciate your honesty.”
“Yes, general,” she said sadly.
Raed leaned in close to Tabby and whispered, “She’s always distraught when she has to do something against the temples’ wishes. She’s a devout Merofian, understand.”
Tabby nodded solemnly. Lina stared at her with a mix of fear and sympathy, seemingly at odds with both feelings.
“General Raed,” a sharp voice said behind them.
A shaft of bright light poured from Psymon’s doorway and illuminated the group. They all squinted in the glare. The silhouette of a plump woman stood there, waiting.
“I thought I heard your cantankerous voice,” said the silhouette. “What brings you here at this ungodly hour?”
Raed shielded his eyes and stood aside, clamping one hand on Tabby’s shoulder. “Psymon, I’d like you to meet a friend of mine. Tabby, this is Psymon. Psymon, Tabby.”
The woman stepped from the doorway and out of the light. Finally, Tabby could see who was speaking.
It was a round-faced, mousy old woman. She wore a bowl-shaped cap on her white head and a gold monocle over her left eye. Despite her older age, she had a lot of energy and carried herself with a clever air, for her eyes shone a bright, pale blue. Tabby knew the kind of person she was. She grew up around people who carried themselves in much the same way. Psymon was a scientist.
“Hello,” said Tabby brightly.
Psymon gave her a nod and a cordial smile. “Yes yes, pleased to meet you. Now, why are you here?”
She looked at Raed, not sure where to begin. He cleared his throat and folded his hands behind his back.
“Psymon,” he said. “This girl requires guaranteed, safe passage to the planet Earth. There are no keys left, and as you know SecTr is damaged beyond repair. I was hoping...”
“You want me to open the portal manually.”
She looked away and scoffed, then turned to go inside. Everyone exchanged uncertain glances.
“Well don’t just stand there,” said Psymon. “Come on in.”
The portly technician shuffled through the obsidian front door, her long striped skirt swaying lazily behind her. Raed pushed Tabby ahead of him with Paeter, Lina, and Philip trailing behind.
It was incredibly bright inside, as bright as a sunny afternoon. Everyone had to blink away the spots from their eyes. Once Tabby’s sight adjusted, she immediately noticed the large statue of Merofi’s head directly across from her. It stared at them in regal bliss.
Tucked into the corner of the room was an exact replica of one of the copper pods from the portal dome. Psymon hobbled over to it, grumbling.
“Let’s make this quick,” she mumbled, opening the pod’s door. “I have lots to do tomorrow, what with SecTr being obliterated.”
With a grunt, the woman kneeled in front of a panel on the pod’s side and pried it open with a golden knife. “Which planet did you say she was travelling to?” she asked.
“Earth,” answered Raed. “She’s travelling to Earth.”
“Oh? The neutral planet?”
“Yes, that one.”
“I do like that place. And she has everything she needs for the trip? There’s no ciphrony there, I hope you know.”
“We are aware of that.”
“Well all right. As long as you’re aware.”
Psymon returned her attention to the glittering panel in front of her and inserted a lever into an unseen slot. She yanked it downwards. The blue gem hanging from the pod’s ceiling flickered to life. A pulse of ciphrony shocked the air and within seconds a swirl of black cloud materialized within the pod’s open doorway.
Lina gasped quietly, having never seen a portal face to face. Paeter shifted uncomfortably, staring into the swirling darkness. Philip, however, seemed as used to it as flight itself. He had his steadfast gaze on Tabby instead, thinking.
“Say your farewells,” Psymon told her. “The portal’s ready when you are.”
Tabby nodded with an appreciative smile. She looked over her shoulder at Raed, Paeter, and Lina.
Lina took a step forward, clearing her throat. “Goodbye, Tabby,” she chirped. “It was nice to meet you.”
Tabby took her hand and shook it. “Thanks for bringing me back to life,” she said. “You’re a great healer.”
“Oh,” Lina blushed with surprise. She wasn’t expecting a compliment from the alien. “Thank you. It was the least I could do.”
Paeter stepped forward and smiled at Tabby, doe-eyed. “Don’t go talking to strangers, all right? Unless it’s me, of course.”
“Of course,” she laughed. She looked over at Raed, hovering apart from everyone.
“Goodbye, Tabby,” he said gruffly. “Good luck.”
She nodded and turned back to face the copper pod. When she did, she saw Philip standing by its doorway.
She felt a pang of sadness. Despite trying her best to erase any care for him, she would miss him most of all when she returned home. She had a feeling it would take a long while before she let him go completely.
Tabby quietly walked up to him, being sure to keep her distance so she wouldn’t do something foolish, like hug him again. “Goodbye,” she said, trying to keep it as painless as possible. Better to peel the bandage off quickly, so to speak. “Thanks for everything.”
He seemed put off by her casual tone. He closed the gap between them cautiously, as if he was approaching a frightened creature. He stood close enough so only she could hear.
“Don’t worry,” he whispered with a light smile. “I’ll visit you, at least once. I promise.”
Tabby blinked with surprise, and a great weight lifted off her spirit. His endearing smile was infectious, and she grinned. “I was hoping you would.”
“I’m sorry if I scared you off. I didn’t mean what I said, about only helping you because I had to. I don’t want you to leave thinking you haven’t made friends while being here.” Then, pausing, he clarified, “I don’t want you to leave thinking we haven’t become friends.”
Tabby smiled broadly. It was exactly what she needed to hear. “Thank you.”
“Go on, then, Tabby,” he said, giving her arm a light shove. “I’ll see you again.”
“See you,” she said.
Feeling encouraged, Tabby faced the portal’s black void once more. It was time to go. It almost seemed routine at this point, and with Psymon controlling the portals herself it would be sure to work.
Everyone held their breath and watched as she stepped over the door’s threshold and into the copper pod.
Familiar cold seeped into the air all around her, and she had to suppress a sudden chill. Tabby closed her eyes, stepped through without pause, and disappeared into the darkness once more.