Chapter 1

The growing fury of the storm outside hurled dust and debris that pounded the window so hard Aaron couldn’t have seen out of it even if he was interested in looking up from his computer screen.
The basement lab was dark except for the pale blue glow from the monitor that lit his face. He liked it this way. It kept him focused on his work.

Numbers filled the screen. Calculations, scenarios, prototypes, test sequences. To the average person it would be nothing but a jumbled mess, but Aaron knew he was close. He could feel it.
His long tail danced back and forth behind him, absently counting the seconds as he toiled away. His equations hit another dead end and his left ear wiggled in annoyance. The key was hiding right in front of him. In plain sight. But he couldn’t quite put his finger on it. Every time the solution was almost within his reach, a single number would throw the whole equation out of balance or a variable would refuse to fall into place. Aaron leaned into the backrest of his chair, stretching his long frame as far as it would go. Maybe it was time to turn in for the night. He could get to work again in the morning.

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He was just about to stand and head upstairs when his phone chimed. He winced at the loud, high pitched sound, then lifted the phone to his ear to silence it. He really needed to change that ringtone.
“Is it ready?” Gerik asked.
Aaron sighed and rubbed his forehead with his free hand. “Almost, but—”
“Good. We can show them in the morning.”
“Gerik, no, it’s not finished yet. I’m close, but it’s not ready. I just need a little more time.”
Aaron could hear Gerik’s breathing during the long silence that followed.
“I’ve already set up the meeting.” Gerik’s tone was decisive. “I’ve got the whole Council board ready to see what we have to offer first thing tomorrow morning.”
“Why did you—?”

“It’s now or never, Aaron. Do you have something to show them or not?”
Aaron shook his head. Gerik was an old friend and he appreciated the man’s drive, his passion, but some things couldn’t be rushed. He’d told Gerik as much many times over the five years they’d spent working on this project, but the message never seemed to get through. “What are they expecting?” Maybe he could show them something to tide them over until the real work could be completed.
“What do you mean? They’re expecting what we’ve promised. A clean, sustainable energy source that can power all of Cydnus.”

Aaron could tell Gerik was getting frustrated now.
“I called in every favor I’ve collected in my time with the Council to get the funding for this project and to get us this meeting. You have to deliver.”
“Fine, fine,” Aaron said. “I’ll have it tomorrow.”
“First thing?”
“First thing. See you there.” Aaron dropped the phone on his desk. He’d be up all night to have this ready for a presentation in the morning.

He looked back at his computer screen and one of the equations lit up like a beacon. Aaron bent over his keyboard, fingers flying. Five minutes later, he sat back. That was it. So simple and staring him right in the face, just as he’d always suspected. He didn’t know what had made the difference. Maybe Gerik’s overzealous pressure had actually paid off. Whatever it was, it was done now. He had the key. They could offer renewable energy to the entire city.

“Aaron, are you almost finished down here?”
He turned to see his wife, Messina, standing at the bottom of the steps. He hadn’t even heard her walk down. Aaron smiled. “I’m just finishing up.”
Messina smiled back and Aaron walked across the room to her.
“And how is this little one doing?” He leaned down to kiss his infant daughter on the forehead.
“She’s been sleeping well so far tonight. It’s late Aaron; you really should come up to bed soon.”
He reached out and stroked her bright orange skin with his finger. “Just let me get everything shut down and I’ll be up in a few minutes.” Aaron leaned down to kiss his daughter again. “Daddy loves you, Zarya,” he whispered.
Messina turned and walked back up the stairs. “Just a few minutes?”
Aaron held up his right hand. “I promise.”

Once the door at the top of the stairway closed, he went back to his desk to shut everything down. He had what he needed.
After five long years, he had what he needed.
His finger hovered over the power button. What if…?
Aaron sat down and ran through another flurry of calculations then leaned back, stunned.
He and Gerik had been thinking too small. Now that he had a small-scale solution for sustainable energy figured out, an even more potent possibility leapt out at him. Forget powering New Cebrenia, this could lead to a technology that could provide all of Cydnus with energy for centuries. Maybe even forever. He had to look into this more.
Aaron glanced at the stairs.
But not tonight. He already had something to show the council. He and Gerik would make the presentation and easily secure more funding to research this further.
Now it was time for sleep.

* * *

Aaron woke up early the next morning, five minutes before his alarm was set to go off. He switched the device off and slid out of bed without waking Messina.
It was still dark outside, but he didn’t bother turning on any lights. Like most of the Cydnus people, Aaron could see very well at night. But Aaron’s vision was even better than most, able to make it to Zarya’s room without tripping over a pile of blocks or stepping on that teddy bear that squeaked. He smiled as he dodged around the minefield of toys. How could such a small baby need so many toys?

When he reached Zarya’s cradle, she was already waking and squirming around. “I’m surprised you’re not crying.” He reached down and lifted her from the cradle. “Keep it up and let Mommy sleep.”
He carried the girl into the kitchen and prepared her morning bottle, bouncing her around and talking to her the whole time. Zarya smiled and even giggled a few times, but never made too much noise.
Aaron was just thinking that he was going to get through a full feeding without waking up Messina when she walked into the kitchen.

“Sorry,” Aaron said. “We were trying not to wake you.”
Messina smiled. “I appreciate it. But my mother’s ears won’t let me sleep too long once this little one is up.” She poked at Zarya’s belly and the little girl let out a squeal.
Aaron passed Zarya to her mother. “Well it’s good that you are up. I’ve got to get ready and head out.”
Messina frowned. “So early? It’s not even light yet.”
“I know. Believe me, it’s not my choice. Gerik set up a meeting this morning with the Council. He wants to show them the new power cell technology.”
“Is that even ready?”

“It wasn’t when he called me. But I had a breakthrough last night and it is now.” He looked around, as if someone could really be listening to them in their own house, and lowered his voice. “I might have found something even better. But I’ll keep it under wraps for now.”
Aaron walked back to the bathroom and took a quick shower. He emerged no more than twenty minutes later and found Messina rocking a crying Zarya in the front room.
“She was so happy earlier,” he said.

Messina shrugged. “Guess that can’t last forever.” She looked down at the crying baby. “Also looks like I’m probably not going back to sleep.”
Aaron leaned down to kiss her. “Sorry, honey. Maybe she’ll quiet down soon.” He grabbed his bag from the table and headed for the door.
“Are you going by Guida’s on your way?”
“How did you know?”
She smiled. “Just a guess. Tell her I said ‘hello’.”
“Will do.”

The bustle of the city assaulted him the moment he stepped out the door. He missed living in Adamas, far from all the crowds and skyscrapers, but his work made it necessary to be here in New Cebrenia. At least it was better than Cebrenia. If half of what he heard about the city was true, it was almost as big as New Cebrenia and twice as dirty. New Cebrenia may be overrun with technology, but at least some of those gadgets and drones kept things clean.
He walked up to his transport and placed his hand on the window.
Identity verified. Welcome, Aaron. The vaguely female voice was soft. The door opened with a whoosh and Aaron climbed in.
What is your destination, sir?

A map appeared on the windshield and a yellow hue highlighted Guida’s house. Confirm destination in 225-4 sector.
“Confirmed,” Aaron said.
The transport lifted off and merged into the flow of traffic overhead.
Aaron used the time to go over his notes for the presentation. He was sure everything was here and that it all would work, but he had to make sure he could tell the board about it in a way that would make sense to everyone. A few of them were once scientists themselves, but most were businessmen and politicians.
A soft chime announced that he was approaching Guida’s house so he took manual control of his transport and guided it down to a landing.

She was already coming out the door to meet him, a basket in hand.
Aaron walked up to the woman who had raised him and hugged her. “Did you know I was coming?”
Guida smiled and tossed another handful of bird seed from her basket. “I always know.”
He shook his head. He couldn’t deny that.
“How is Messina? And little Zarya?”
“They’re both doing great. Messina says ‘hi’.”

“Give my love to them both. Come on inside, I have breakfast ready for you.”
Aaron followed her inside and was immediately hit with the smell of a delicious breakfast. A soup she had fed him since he was a child simmered over the stove. The smell of spices from the bread baking in the oven would give anyone an appetite. Guida was an amazing cook and Aaron had never been to her house, surprise visit or not, without being treated to a magnificent meal. Not only had she raised Aaron, she was also Messina’s godmother. There was no one closer to them in the whole world.
“This looks amazing,” Aaron said as he sat down to eat. The whole meal was devoured in a few minutes and then Aaron stood to leave.

“I assume you’re heading over to the Council,” Guida said as he paused by the door.
Aaron nodded. “Have a big presentation today. Gerik and I have been working on it for five years and we’re finally ready to show the board.”
Guida frowned. “Be careful about what you put in their hands. After all the years I worked for them, I can tell you, you shouldn’t trust a single person on that council.”
“I’ll be careful, Guida.” But she wasn’t done. “And I’m not so sure I like that Gerik character either.”
Aaron laughed. “Gerik is my friend. He can be a little rough sometimes, but without him, this project would have never gotten off the ground.”

Guida’s face softened. “I know, I know. I just worry about you.” She hugged him. “You be careful, and remember, I love you all.”
“We love you, too,” Aaron said.
His comm beeped as he walked out the door. It was a message from Gerik: “Everyone’s in place. See you soon.”
Aaron smiled at the not-so-subtle reminder that he’d better show up with something worthwhile. He dropped the comm back into his pocket and climbed into his transport. No need to answer; he’d be there soon enough.

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