After several moments of silence, staring into the dark portal with no sign of the Earth girl Tabby, the five Remans exhaled with a mixture of sadness and relief.
“I’m going to miss her,” Lina admitted. “She was nice, for an alien.”
“Too bad she wasn’t staying,” sighed Paeter with a boyish smirk. “Would’ve been fun to take her out for a few nights, see where it would lead! Right, Philip?”
Philip’s eyes became slits and he gave his friend a cold glare. “I wouldn’t have allowed it.”
“Hmph!” Raed crossed his arms over his small chest with a scowl. “Personally I don’t know what possessed you to be so protective, boy. She seemed dull as a doormat!”
There was a muffled sigh of frustration from beyond the portal. “I can hear you, you know?”
“Tabby?” Philip frowned, peering into the void.
Raed’s eyes went wide with amazement. “She can hear us through the portal! Her powers of hearing are supernatural!”
“I don’t think it’s that, General.” Psymon adjusted her monocle curiously. She shut down the portal with a flick of the lever and the void closed in on itself. Tabby was revealed, standing inside the copper pod with an expression of deep disappointment.
“It... it didn’t work,” she murmured fretfully. “Again.”
The five Remans stared at her, equally confused.
“What do you mean, ‘again’?” Psymon asked briskly, getting to her feet.
“We’ve already tried to go through the portals using a key—” she started to explain, panic rising in her voice. Philip gave her an imperceptible shake of his head. “I mean,” she recovered quickly, “a-a key that Philip already had.”
Psymon’s eyes became glazed over as the gears in her head turned. After a moment of ruminating, she spun on her heels and faced General Raed, frowning deeply.
“What clan is she?”
“Well, she doesn’t have one.” he said, his eyes darting to Tabby. “She’s an Earthling.”
Psymon gaped at him and became noticeably pale. “Earth,” she said flatly. “You didn’t tell me she was from Earth, General.”
“Well,” he huffed, rocking on his toes. “I didn’t think it was important. What difference does it make where she comes from?”
She looked at him past her monocle. “It makes all the difference.”
Psymon nodded her head, although more to herself than to anyone else. She drew in a long sigh and hobbled past the four Keepers, towards her dining table. “I might as well make you some hot tea. You’re going to need it, all of you.”
Raed followed her with his eyes, sneering. “Tea?” he growled. “Are you joking?”
“Earthling Tabby,” Psymon said, her voice echoing through her spacious living room. “Do you prefer leaf teas, flower teas, fruit teas, spice teas, meat teas, or ciphronic teas?”
“Uh,” Tabby muttered, numb with shock. “Flower tea?”
Psymon grabbed a long ceramic jar from a shelf and rummaged through it. “Oh,” she said, disappointed. “Nothing but fruit teas. You’ll have to make do. What about you, General Raed?”
“I don’t drink tea,” he scowled impatiently.
“I’ll have spice tea, if you’re offering,” said Paeter cheerfully. He seemed happiest of all that Tabby was still stuck on Rema.
Psymon smiled at him warmly. “Spice tea it is. And you, mysterious one?”
“Ciphronic tea,” muttered Philip, staring thoughtfully at the empty copper pod.
“Thank you, Pysmon,” said Raed with grating politeness, “but we don’t need the tea. Do you mind explaining what’s going on here? Why didn’t your portal work?”
She paused in mid-pour and gave him a hearty chuckle. “I believe you’re the one that came to me for help, dear General. If I say you’ll need tea, you take the tea. All of you, sit down over there, by my study.”
After exchanging several confused glances, everyone took their seats on the red velvet stools that were arranged around the one messy spot in Psymon’s home – her work desk. Tiny models of strange vehicles and mechanical animals hung from the ceiling in mobiles. A heavy metal desk was cluttered with curled sheets of black paper covered with designs in white ink. Several orphaned gears of varying sizes were stacked in a corner, and many small ones littered the floor and desk area. Paeter nearly knocked one over as he sat down.
“Here we are...” Psymon said cheerfully. She set down a tray of cups, each one filled with piping hot tea. Philip’s glowed with an iridescent light all its own. He sipped at it contemplatively, staring at Tabby with thoughtful focus. She sat beside him, a growing sense of dread filling her insides.
Psymon took a seat behind the desk, the chair creaking as she settled in. “So you’re from Earth, are you?” she said, smiling at Tabby.
She nodded. “And how did you get here?”
Tabby squirmed uncomfortably. Everyone was watching her. “I went through the portal.”
“And how did you find our portal?”
“Um...” she glanced at Philip, slightly nervous. “I-I followed Philip.”
“Philip,” Psymon nodded. “Is that your name, quiet one?”
He looked at her, solemn. “Yes.”
“How did she see you?”
“She saw me gathering samples for the Nonakian Botanical Project.”
Psymon’s eyes shone and her lips curled in a sharp smile. “Were you or were you not outside of the portal’s sphere of influence when she saw you?”
Raed, Paeter, and Lina all leaned forward with baited breath.
Philip paused, uncomfortable, drawing in a deep breath. “I was outside.”
Lina gasped quietly and Paeter stifled a snicker.
“You were what?” Raed growled.
“Well!” Psymon leaned back and threw her hands up in the air. “That’s the whole reason this happened, isn’t it? You were told the rule not to leave the portal’s sphere of influence, were you not?”
Philip kept his eyes directly on Psymon. “I was.”
“Of course he was,” mumbled Raed sourly. “I’m the one that told him that rule! Idiot boy...”
Psymon stayed focused on Philip. “Then why did you leave it?” she asked.
Raed let out an impatient sigh and began to tap his fingers on his knees irritably.
“Because,” Philip said, his voice rising in defense, “the trees looked different outside. How will we find alien trees that can grow on Nonak if they’re being unnaturally sustained by the ciphrony spilling from our portals? Every sample I’ve ever returned for the Botanical Project has been tainted because of that rule.”
Everyone was momentarily silenced. Tabby glanced at him, surprised by his passion. She didn’t realize he cared so deeply about his mission. He obviously kept his opinions close.
Psymon, on the other hand, wasn’t impressed. “Did you ever stop and think that the rule might be applied for security reasons?” she noted tersely. “It is not your job as a low-rank Keeper to take matters into your own hands. It’s your job to do The Council’s bidding. End of story.”
Philip bristled but kept his mouth firmly shut.
She sighed and turned to Tabby. “What was it like when you went through the portal, young lady? What did you see? What did you feel?”
Her eyes became distant as she remembered. “It was cold, dark, and strange,” Tabby explained, “like I just woke up from a nap, like time passed without me knowing. I don’t know if that makes any sense.”
“While this is all very fascinating,” said Raed with increasing annoyance, “what does any of it have to do with the fact that your portals don’t work?”
“Oh, it has everything to do with it, General.”
Psymon folded her hands on her desk, facing the group with a grave expression. She adjusted her monocle so she may spy at Tabby from over the rim.
“There are quite a few things about the portals that you all should know,” she said solemnly. “Number one is that they were specifically designed for Remans. By using strict, Reman-specific spectral coding on the portal’s threshold barrier, we can prevent any aliens from entering or exiting our planet. With tensions on Nonak being what they are, you understand why this is an important feature. We wouldn’t want any Nonakians coming through our portals, or any alien, for that matter. They’ve been this way since we first implemented them no less than forty years ago.”
Here, Psymon paused with a long intake of breath and locked her pale eyes onto Tabby’s.
“Unfortunately for you,” she said with grim reluctance, “unless you’re secretly a Reman – you aren’t, are you?”
Tabby shook her head. “No.”
“No. Then, as an Earthling, the chance of you using the portals again is zero. This includes using them to return to Earth.”
“Zero...” Tabby murmured.
“Zero. Goodness knows what sort of miracle had to occur for you to get here the first time around.” Psymon tried to ignore the growing panic on Tabby’s face. “That is why it was so important for me to know how she got here and under what circumstances, General.”
Raed scoffed. “You mean to tell me that there’s nothing you can do about this?”
“I mean there is nothing anyone can do. Her arrival here is a paradox and she won’t be returning home.” Psymon paused to hastily straighten a stack of papers in front of her, obviously irritated by Raed’s unappreciative tone of voice. “And with the situation being what it is at SecTr, worrying about an accidental alien arrival is – to be honest – the last concern on my list, especially if she’s from a place as innocuous as Earth.”
Raed sneered at Psymon and got to his feet. “If you won’t help us, then take me to someone who will!”
It was Psymon’s turn to stand, and she looked down at Raed from the brim of her monocle with confident authority.
“Dear General, I am the last remaining builder of these portals. I helped fashion them from scratch. Speak to the counsel of Cerey, speak to the high priestesses of the temples – there is no one else to go to and I believe you already knew that otherwise you wouldn’t be here. If there was something I could do, I would do it, but these portals aren’t mechanical. It isn’t like fixing a clock. To make them work for her, we’d have to scramble her spectral code and rearrange her very soul, a technological feat that no one – thank The Gods – is capable of. As it is, if she passed through an open portal, it would be like passing through a cloud. It would be a waste of all of our time.”
“Then...!” he grunted, incensed. “Then build another portal! Build one for Earthlings!”
At this Psymon gave him such a disapproving glower, even he shrunk in his spot. “Unlike you, General, I don’t believe in bending Helvir Law just to save face. The arrival of this young woman happened because of actions from your godson, and therefore you are responsible. Accept it as such, and move on. This lack of maturity is unbecoming for someone of your stature.”
Raed stood huffing and puffing, speechless. Tabby, meanwhile, had her eyes fixed on the open copper pod. There, barely visible in the shadows, was the ghost woman. She was the same specter that grabbed Tabby’s hand and forced her to touch the portal in the first place. Like a faded photograph, her ghastly image blinked in and out of existence. No one else seemed to notice her.
The ghost gave a start when Tabby spotted her. She drew her head back in acknowledgement and held a skeletal finger to her parched lips, smiling meekly.
You made me touch the portal, thought Tabby, her breath quickening with clarity. You’re the reason I can’t go back. You’re blocking the portals. I’m here because of you!
Seeing recognition in Tabby’s eyes, the ghost nodded, satisfied, and turned. She hovered straight through the giant head of Merofi to the patio outside.
Tabby slowly stood from her chair, hypnotized. Everyone around her fell silent. She walked outside without a word, leaving the others to stare after her curiously.
“Where is she going?” Psymon asked.
Raed waved a disinterested hand. “Probably needed some air.”
Philip stood from his seat. “I’ll make sure she’s all right.”
“Philip,” Lina grabbed his sleeve, shaking her head. “I think she wants to be alone.”
Paeter and Psymon nodded their heads in agreement.
He gently pulled away his sleeve. “Then you don’t know her as well as I do.”
Without giving them a chance to reply, he turned and went after Tabby.