The Wanderer's Worst Nightmare

It was one of those dark, moonless nights, which were a rarity on her planet with five moons. She had always enjoyed the darkness and the calm that came with them; they were so fleeting and sparse in the noisy, exuberant world she lived in. The girl strode forward, through a dew-encrusted meadow and listened to the wind sing to the trees, not far away. She glanced down at her hand and found it strange that she was staring at a child's hand, though she couldn't figure out why. After five minutes of pondering, the girl figured it would be best if she stopped thinking anomalous thoughts and simply enjoyed the beautiful night. She started on her meandering way again, plucking a red and yellow swirly lollipop off its stem and beginning to suck on it as she went.

"Hey, Sofia!"

The girl stopped walking and, very slowly, turned around, her lollipop still in her mouth. The person who had yelled was advancing on her, a relieved look on his face. As she looked at and recognized the boy, Sofia felt puzzled. She knew him, but he wasn't a child—yet he was.

"Vizik? Vizik Xyuu?" The name sounded strange and foreign, enchanting. Sofia couldn't help but feel merry as Vizik, grinning, finally reached her.

"Nice lollipop, Sofia." The Diamian commented on the candy Sofia had taken out of her mouth. "I'm glad you like candy. You never seemed to at college. Trust me, you were missing out."

"College? Vizik, I'm—" Sofia looked down at her short body. "I'm still a child. I haven't been to college yet."

Vizik smirked. "Oh yeah? Then where do you know me from? We met at CPS on Jade-Moth, remember? You liked me so much better than that imbecile who gave you that dinky ring."

In the distance, far behind the two children, a thunderous roar began to blare. After a minute's passing, it slowly began to advance toward where Sofia and Vizik were standing. Sofia's eyes glanced in the direction of the roaring and then back to Vizik. She gulped, fear rising in her gut. "I've never been to college. I am a child." The little girl stated, attempting to convince herself her words were true.

"A child could never have done what we did."

The words made Sofia's confidence disappear and the once serene night instantaneously turned into a dismal void of horrors. Sofia dropped the candy she had been eating and ran as fast as her legs could carry her. "I am a child!" She screamed behind her, at Vizik.

"No, you're not! Stop fooling yourself, Sofia! You are an adult and so am I!"

"I never did anything! I never did anything! I never did ANYTHING!" Sofia tried to block out Vizik's yells behind her and the constantly increasing in volume roaring. "Leave me alone!" She wanted it all to stop. She was a child, just a little child. Why couldn't they understand that? All she ever wanted was to grow up and do something amazing with her life. She was never going to hurt anyone.

Trying to ignore the clashing noises behind her was useless, though. No matter how fast Sofia went, Vizik and the roaring kept up with her. The tree line of the jungle, that had previously passed her notice, grew bigger and bigger before the girl's eyes. Her heart hammered, her feet pounded into the ground, and she prayed to the almighty Anakletos that the jungle would grant her asylum.

Sofia never saw the tree root, not before her foot hooked on it and sent her flying into a nest of tangled vines. She attempted to scramble up, but found that action to be impossible. The vines restrict her in every possible way they could. The girl's terror heightened to unbelievable amounts; she was about to be caught. She couldn't be caught. She could never be caught. If she were caught, it would be the end of her. And she was far too young for it to be the end. She hadn't even grown up yet. Sofia struggled harder and harder, but no matter what she did, the vines held her fast. There was no escape. Finally surrendering, the girl whimpered. This was the end for her…and she was completely alone.

"Will you finally admit that you're no longer a child?" Vizik came up behind Sofia and whispered. "I know you never meant to hurt anyone, especially not that Jacopo guy."

"I want to go home! Why won't you let me go home?"

"I'm not stopping you from doing anything. I never could." Vizik shook his head and departed, leaving the girl to her doom.

Sofia curled herself into the smallest ball possible and began to cry. All she had ever wanted was to be happy, able to laugh, like she had been before she'd been sent to Ogum. She had been forced to grow up faster than she should have. She had lost so much, and never regained it. She longed to be an innocent child again.

Unlike Vizik, the roaring hadn't quietly departed. When, as quick as an unexpected thunderstorm, it reached her, Sofia screamed at the top of her lungs.Thin, snake-like, slimy arms wrapped themselves tightly around the girl, signaling the vines to retreat back to their shadowy domain. Sofia thrashed and kicked, but couldn't stop the snaky arms from fully grasping her and lifting her off the ground. Though, for a Rozetian child, Sofia was relatively strong, her strugglind didn't do anything in freeing her. The roaring, slime creatures carried her away.

The twinkling stars that had once glittered high in the sky were nowhere to be seen as Sofia was dragged to and then thrown down a very dark hole. She hit her head on something excruciatingly hard on her way down and then knew nothing. When the girl awoke, an unknown amount of time later, she was met with utter and complete darkness. Not the good kind that came with night and was dotted with shimmering moons, stars, and the occasional nebula, but the bad kind that choked out everything but itself. It was the kind that hid monsters and elicited fear from its terrified victims.

Sofia did what came naturally to her, she curled herself into the tightest ball possible and willed it to go away, go away and leave her alone. She felt like crying again, but she held the salty tears back. What good would they do? After a couple minutes, a grayness seeped down from somewhere above the girl, and gave her companions, but not the good, affable kind.

They were no more than silver glints, objects she could hardly make out in the eternal, gray dark. They swiftly advanced on her and pricked her arms, causing unbearable, agonizing pain. Sofia flinched away from the nasty, unknowable things, but no matter how far she went she could never truly get away from them. Attacking them, too, she found after she tried, was useless. Nothing she did hurt them. Sofia was completely defenseless against the silver glints and the pain they brought. Her arms, after enough glints had assaulted them, began to glow an eerie shade of light blue. Sofia stared at them, petrified and unable to tear her eyes away.

Then, without warning, there was laughter, the evil, malicious laughter of a maniac.

((O))

Sofia jerked awake, her heart beating like a drum. Sweat dribbled down her forehead and she took a number of long, gasping breaths. Her mind, both rattled and disturbed, refused to function. The first thing the Rozetian saw was a face and, though a small part of her brain recognized it, the bigger portion of it was still too discombobulated to do so. She spoke, for no reason she could think of, the first words she could think of:

"What are you doing here?"

The face—a child, a girl child, gave her a strange look, but didn't say anything.

Advancing on the odd girl, Sofia repeated, "What are you doing here?"

Now, the girl did say something. It was queer, Sofia felt like she should have understood the words spoken to her, but she didn't. The Rozetian's brows furrowed. She was fluent in seventeen languages and had a neophyte understanding of more than a dozen others. She should have been able to comprehend what was being said to her. Very confused, Sofia spoke again, "What are you doing here? Where is this place? It is very strange. Go away." Sofia's brain felt like it was thinking faster than it could fully apprehend. She wanted it too stop, for everything to slow down so she could understand. "Go away," Sofia repeated. If the girl left, she thought, maybe then sensibility would return to her. She couldn't understand how she came to be where she was. The last thing she'd known was being in complete darkness surrounded by silver, pain-bringing glints. Did the creatures bring her here? Why had they done that? What possible torments could this strange place have in store for her?

Sofia stared into the glower of the young girl before her, before something captured her attention. It was her hand; it had to be, it was attached to her arm, which was attached to her body. It was old. Well, not that old, but older than the child's hand she thought belonged to her. Then, like a bolt of lightning, it struck her. The moonless night, Vizik, the roaring creatures, the horrid, silver glints—it had all been a dream. She'd fallen asleep and she'd had a terrifying nightmare. She was Sofia Darken and she was a translator. She had grown up, and the little, frightened girl she once had been no longer existed. The Rozetian's eyes returned to the girl in front of her—her assistant.

"Kiwi?"

"You have to explain this one, Soap. I can take not having an explanation for the table, but I need to know what happened here." Kiwi snapped, nervous more than actually angry.

To say Sofia was surprised at being ordered around by the girl she'd taken in no longer than a week and a couple days before was an understatement. Sofia was very surprised, but that didn't mean she would merely give in. Her mind was rapidly composing itself. Instead of answering Kiwi's demands, the Waterfall's translator came up with and asked her own question. "What are you doing in here?"

It was a reasonable inquiry, Sofia mused to herself; this was her personal room, which Kiwi didn't have the right to be in. The query was met with silence. Sofia ran her fingers through her hair, wishing to rid herself of frustration. 'I do probably owe her an explanation.' She frowned as she reviewed the language of the words she had been speaking moments before. 'I just went off on her in Rozetian and there's no conceivable way she could have understood. It must have been upsetting for her…and she has been good about not asking about the table. The thing had to go, though. They could track me with it, but Kiwi didn't know that...'

After completing deliberating over her contemplations, Sofia started speaking again. "This had nothing to do with you Kiwi. I apologize to you for yelling in Rozetian." It really hadn't. The entire nightmare episode had been brought on because she'd been foolish enough to look in… Sofia turned her head and gazed down at the old, tattered notebook and heard herself enunciate the words, "Old memories—they lead to bad dreams when one falls asleep thinking about them." She picked up the notebook from the floor.

"You had a nightmare?"

Sofia glared down at the small manuscript she held in her hand. "Yes, you could call it that."

"I'm sorry."

'Her being sorry makes no logical sense.' Sofia shook her head. "Don't be." She grimaced as she remembered what exactly was contained within the notebook. "It was brought on by history that has nothing to do with you." The savant turned and threw the ancient notebook on her cot. Before she could turn back around, she felt two arms suddenly wrap themselves around her torso.

"Kiwi, what are you doing?" Sofia cringed at the contact.

"Whenever I have nightmares, I like to be hugged. It's very comforting." The arms around Darken constricted a little tighter.

Kiwi's employer began to pry at the Skysonne's arms. "Well, I don't. Let me go."

"No."

"Kiwi—"

"The way I see it, you were scared enough to start yelling at me in a language I don't understand. Soap, you're insane. I accept that, but it also means you need an extra amount of hugs." Kiwi maneuvered herself so she and Sofia were facing each other, keeping the Rozetian trapped within her grasp all the while. "Plus, you told me on Kryien that you wouldn't throw stuff at me or hurt me. So, you can't stop me from hugging you."

Sofia intensified her attempts to free herself of the young girl. Beginning to get annoyed, she stated, "Weren't you scared of me two seconds ago? What happened to that?" 'It may not feel good to bring this up, but she needs to let go. Now.'

"That was before you told me you had a nightmare. For your information, bad dreams make all the difference." Kiwi rested her chin on the wanderer's stomach and looked up at her face. "What were you saying anyway? I mean, the Rozetian stuff. What was that?"

'Oh, for the love of the galaxies…' "Nothing that should concern you." Sofia finally managed to loosen Kiwi's tight grasp.

"But it sounded so…so…so cool. I never heard anything like it ever before. Ok, maybe I was a little freaked out because you started it so randomly and you looked like you were ready to hit something, but it was different, very different. In a good way, I mean. You get what I'm saying?" One of Kiwi's eyebrows shot up in a way that mirrored what Sofia's own would do when she was the least bit inquisitive about something. "Will you say something in Rozetian, again? Please?" The girl stuck out her lower lip over her upper and started to make it tremble. Then, she released Sofia, clasped her hands together, and gave the cute-child-in-need look all she had.

'Anakletos, only you know why I'm about to do this.' Kiwi's begging may not have been anywhere near as endearing as either of her sisters', but Sofia was in no mood to continue dealing with took a breath and spoke, "Jok gher L'kaya-ei."

Kiwi, to Sofia's great amusement, jumped up. "What does on that mean?"

Hiding her amusement behind a groan, Sofia answered, "You are an annoying, little child."

"I know that. Sheesh, I try my best. What did you just say in Rozetian?"

'Of all things to take pride in, she takes pride in being annoying?' A part of Sofia wanted to inquire on the topic of Kiwi's pride, but she held her tongue. Instead the Rozetian answered the question put to her. "That's what I said, Kiwi. I called you an annoying child in my native language." The savant rubbed her temple, aching for the end of the conversation.

"Oh…so what words were what? Which meant 'annoying' and 'child' and—"

"Do you honestly need to know all that?" 'Anakletos, why is she going on with this?' Sofia crossed her arms and gave her assistant a glare she had unwittingly given the girl many times. Unbeknownst to her, it no longer fazed Kiwi.

"YES! I need to know!"

Sofia's ears rang with the intensity of the shout. "I can hear you perfectly well. There is no reason for you to scream." Anger quickly replaced the translator's initial annoyance.

It was a gladdening thing for Sofia to here Kiwi apologize. "Sorry. Sorry. Will you please tell me what each word meant, Mistress Soap?"

'Still with the 'Soap' business? When will she ever stop?' "No."

"Please, please, please." Kiwi begged again.

All the Rozetian did was groan, before say, "Maybe later, Kiwi."

There was a loud, resounding knock at the door. Sofia was greatly relieved for the interruption. She quickly walked around Kiwi and went into the central room to open the door.

Sofia didn't recognize the officer at the door, but that wasn't saying much, she hardly knew anyone aboard the ship. The Rozetian crossed her arms, as the officer's watery eyes scrutinized her in the same sour way most of the crew's did. Hiding her displeasure at the officer's appearance, Darken reasoned, would be a waste of time. There was only one reason why he would be at her door and she didn't want to deal with what was coming the slightest.

"Ms. Darken," The voice was, in Sofia's opinion, insipid and exasperated. "We have made contact with a Diamian merchant ship. The captain of said ship does not know Common, do you know Diamian?"

"Yes," Sofia muttered, glaring.

"Very good. Please come with me to the bridge. The captain is waiting."

The Rozetian forced herself nod in assent. "Give me a moment to prepare myself and my assistant. I will join you shortly. Diamians are an intelligent race; if their captain is worth the fame of his people, he will wait."

The officer scowled, but didn't argue. "Don't waste time, Darken," he said before leaving.

The moment the officer was gone, Sofia spun on her assistant. "Kiwi, on one of the bookshelves in the room where you sleep, there is a Common-Diamian dictionary. Retrieve it, and then bring it to the bridge. 'I may not need the dictionary, but I will need time to clear my head without her around asking questions or commenting on whatever she fancies.' "You can get there by taking the elevator. Go out the door, turn right, and it will be at the end of the corridor. The door of the elevator will open automatically when you walk toward it. Once inside, all you have to do is tell it what level you wish to go to and it will take you there. Understand?"

Kiwi blinked once, twice, three times, and then gaped openly. "Soap, you know almost nothing about technology. I've lived with you for a week, thus that little fact is quite obvious. So, how do you know about the elevator?" The girl stopped talking in order to take a breath. "Also, aren't you going to the bridge, too?"

"I am going," Sofia replied. "Now. But Diamian isn't my best language and I may find that dictionary necessary. The only reason I'm having you find the dictionary and not doing it myself is because Diamians can be impatient and our captain isn't known for his finesse. For the sake of Anakletos, he nearly started a war with the Zekis," she muttered. The Rozetian turned on her heel and left.

It was a very relieving thing for Sofia to find the elevator empty. Even in her best of moments, she never enjoyed being stuck around a crewman, and right then was most certainly not one of her best moments. After telling the ship's computer which floor she wished to go to, Sofia leaned back against the wall, shut her eyes, and reviewed the Diamian language in her head. Out of all seventeen languages she was fluent in, it was one of her better ones. She may have never taken an actual Diamian class in college, but the person who had taught her it had been a very good teacher.

Sofia opened her eyes and let out a long sigh. Thinking about Vizik Xyuu, as it would, more often than not, put her in an extremely sour mood. 'I never should have started anything with him in the first place.' Involuntarily, Sofia's hand reached up to a chain she wore around her neck and fingered the small ring encrusted with tiny gemstones that hung from it. Realizing what she was doing, the scholar dropped the engagement ring. It fell against her chest, making her grimace. The memory of the first time she'd taken it off—and broken a promise to Jacopo—floated to the top of her brain. She had felt so alone and Vizik, with his warm, sunny smile, had kept the depression at bay.

"Hey, Sofia. Heading to the trade negotiations, too?"

Darken had not noticed when the elevator had stopped and she wouldn't have if the person who got on hadn't spoken to her. The Waterfall's translator looked at the human, greeted him, and then pressed her lips into silence. Now that Kryien was behind them, she had nothing to say to Stefan Fitzgerald.

Noting Sofia's curtness, silence, and somber mood, Stefan determined the conversation he was going to try and start up would be a fruitless attempt. The man, instead, reached into his pocket and drew out a small, dark grey cube. He tapped it twice and each of its six sides took on a color. After checking to make sure all of the sides had their own hue and nothing was doubled, Stefan tapped the cube again. On each side, a grid of nine squares appeared. Once that was done, another tap messed up the perfection of the grids. The colored squares switched around until no more than three of the same color was on one side. Stefan, now that his amusement for the slow ride to the bridge was fully functional, began playing with it. He slid his fingers across the rows of squares, moving them across the sides of the cube. "It's called a Rubik's Cube 5.0. The point of it is to get all the sides to become a singular color again." Stefan, without looking up, addressed Sofia.

The only reaction the human's companion gave was to turn her head, pretend she hadn't been curiously watching Stefan's actions, and state, "I know. It's the same one you had when we first met."

"I thought you forgot about that." "That scenario is the exact same one we're in now. I think it would be a little hard to forget about, considering." Sofia's lip began to curl and she crossed her arms and took a step farther away from Stefan.

"Except this time you actually know how to use the elevator." Stefan smirked. He remembered very clearly the day he'd walked into the elevator, intending to observe the Waterfall's first business transaction with its new, alien translator. He had not been expecting to find that very translator stuck in the elevator because she had no idea how to use it. He'd been amused, before Sofia had grown irritated and gave him the first glare he'd ever receive from her.

"Do you have something vitally important that you wish to discuss with me?" Sofia scowled. Though it gained her Stefan Fitzgerald, who'd been a friend on more occasions than he had been an enemy, the Rozetian was not particularly found of thinking of that day in her life. It was too full of embarrassments.

"No, but I suppose you know more about Diamians than anyone else on the ship." Trying not to bring much attention to the action, Stefan held out his puzzle to Sofia. "Perhaps you could tell me about them, so I know what to expect."

It was without a thought that Sofia took Stefan's little device and, with the exact same inquisitive expression she wore on that day, so long ago, when Stefan had first handed it to her, she began to try and defeat it. "The Diamians, the natives of Diamasten, are an exceptionally proud race, as well as loyal and dutiful. They are most known for being the slyest and cleverest of merchants, but few know just how silly and fun loving they can be. Whenever dealing with strangers or business associates, they always wear the most serious of expressions. Diamasten is a beautiful planet. It's mostly mountainous and rugged…"

Sofia stared down at the little cube in her hands. In trying to figure out how she could defeat it, her mind paid no heed to the words coming out of her mouth. The Rozetian was too relieved to have a distraction from brooding about Xyuu to censure what she said to Fitzgerald. She frowned, bemused why her last two moves hadn't worked out like she hypothesized they would. Sofia's eyebrows hurried together and she, while continuing ranting about Diamasten, determined the best moves she could try next.

The Waterfall's translator was completely unaware of the goofy smile Stefan had plastered on his face or that he was privy to the knowledge that objects that challenged her intellect were one of Sofia's greatest weaknesses. If she had something puzzling before her, Darken lowered nearly all of her shields. Stefan had figured out long ago his alien friend would say nearly anything if she were distracted enough.

"Uzaabaurn, the capital of Diamasten, is a particularly fascinating city." Finally remembering she was talking, Sofia punched herself for bringing up the only Diamian city she'd ever traveled to. The memories from that specific place weren't ones she wanted to consider just then. "It is set in the center of the planet's largest tundra, but, because of the natives' intervention, it's not as cold as one might think." She allowed herself the smallest of smiles. The first time she'd heard of the miraculous heating system of the Diamians', Sofia had been amazed. The technology that had gone into the invention was unthinkable, not to mention it had instantly squashed her fear of freezing to death. The Rozetian's smile died when she reminded herself who it had been who had quelled those fears.

"You've been to Uzaabaurn?" How little Stefan knew of the weight hidden within the question he so innocently asked.

Every muscle in Sofia's body tensed and a stony expression retook her face. "It is none of your concern when or why I was on Diamasten." Like she had on Kryien, the scholar forced poison into her voice as she spoke. Then, recalling everything that had transpired on the last planet the Waterfall had visited, she added, "Why do you still converse with me?"

"Happenchance. Everyone knows the elevator of this ship is ancient and very, very slow. Speaking with you was a way I could pass the time." Stefan answered, his voice equally as noxious as the inquirer's. Though it sounded as if the man had chosen to be bitter at the last possible second and only did it to match Sofia's acidity.

Behind her pitiless and unexpressive mask, Sofia flinched. She had only spoken rancorously because Stefan had struck a nerve when he asked about Uzaabaurn. She hadn't expected nor wanted her human companion to answer her as sourly as she had to him.

Far too quickly, Sofia defeated the Rubik's cube and held it out for its master to take. Once the device was out of her grasp, the Waterfall's translator disappeared into the sea of her musings.

Love was such a strange, fickle emotion. One Sofia Darken could never truly understand. When she had been the age where her people usually experimented and figured out what it was, Sofia had been preoccupied with other things, like staying out of prison. Once her life had stabilized, the scholar had defined the emotion, though she barely comprehended it, as what she felt for Jacopo Stellan. He was her best friend, confidant, and then fiancé. If love was anything, it was what she felt toward him. Then Vizik Xyuu sauntered his way into her life and her delicate philosophy was shattered. Sofia could never understand why the Diamian could elicit the same emotional responses in her that Jacopo did. Her definition of love was based around her fiancé. It was impossible, in her mind, for the feeling to be duplicated for someone else.

The Rozetian had tried to defeat her resulting confusion over the emotion of affection with an experiment. She started a relationship with Norman Emerson to see if she could recreate the emotional responses she'd felt with Jacopo and Vizik with anyone. The experiment would become one of Sofia's worst choices. Emerson was not a man she could feel anything for but hatred and the sole reason she no longer ate in the mess. After Sofia had shut down their relationship, the human had tried to poison her. Twice.

It was because of the man she currently stood in an elevator with that Sofia finally determined what love was. Out of the entire crew of the Waterfall, Stefan, for whatever reason, had been the only one to try and befriend her, regardless of her generally accepted unfriendly nature. He sought out conversations with her, and when he figured out how much she loved them, began bringing her small puzzles. He was the one who, while she traveled among the stars, made Sofia feel less alone. It had only been a matter of time for her to become infatuated with the human and realize what exactly what that infatuation was.

On Kryien, Stefan had ventured to further augment his and Sofia's relationship. His action of directly querying about Darken's emotions had caught her off guard, and though she greatly regretted it, the scholar had responded in the only way she'd known how, with violence. If anything as a child, Sofia learned that violence never failed to protect. She hadn't been anywhere near ready for what Stefan had wanted; protecting herself was more than a little necessary.

Allowing her eyes to settle on Fitzgerald, Sofia wondered if she would ever tell him the truth. Bearing in mind, he didn't seem to believe the lies, it seemed like the right move. Yet, in situations like her current one, that would require trust, Sofia's tongue would forever remain silent.

"I'm sorry."

Or not.

Taken by surprise from his own ruminations, Stefan could only answer with a "huh?" and then a "what?"

Sofia was not able to stop herself from saying, "For everything I did on Kryien, I am truly sorry."

The fact that the elevator took that moment to arrive at its destination was more than a little lucky for Sofia. Her tongue had spoken without her brain thinking through what it was going to say; she couldn't trust herself to speak now. More rigid than she should have been, Sofia marched into the bridge and found reality had lodged itself in one of her worst fears.

'Considering my foul luck, its only logical that Vizik would actually become a merchant and then find the one ship I happen to be on to do business with.' Sofia grimaced at the screen where her former lover stood and prepared for his worst. It may have been close to two years since she'd last seen Vizik Xyuu, but he hadn't changed much—physically, that is. Taking into account that she had not yet conversed with the Diamian, Sofia didn't know how much his personality had changed. She wondered if he would be the same fun-loving goof he'd been back at college, but she doubted it. The commandant jacket he wore, a new addition to his wardrobe and one that made him appear quite handsome, was far too formal for the Diamian Sofia had once known.

Turning her gaze away from the screen that portrayed Vizik, Sofia approached Captain Dewey and greeted him. She felt herself tense as Vizik's cat-like eyes meandered over to her. Though he remained silent during Sofia's brief discussion with Dewey, the way Vizik appeared to be shifting his weight from foot to foot proved he was impatient to either talk to her or commence trading. Knowing, as she did, that Vizik was actually fluent in Common, Sofia suspected the first option more than she did the second.

Finally Sofia received the dreaded order to converse with Vizik.

"It has been a while, has it not, Sofia?" The Diamian smirked at the Rozetian when she turned to face him. "I first contacted this ship because humans make such good customers. I can get nearly any price I desire out of them. Then, after contact was established, I heard one of them let it slip that their translator was a Rozetian. I thought to myself, 'no, it couldn't be'—but it is. You, in the flesh, are standing before me." Everything Vizik said, of course, was in Diamian. No one but Sofia could understand him. "You see my little experiment was a success."

"What experiment, Vizik?"

"I pretended I didn't speak Common, in order that they would bring me the Rozetian translator and they did." Vizik grinned widely. "You have not changed in the slightest, Sofia. Still quite stingy and uptight...or so you seem." He waggled his eyebrows.

Captain Dewey took this moment to but in. "What is he saying? What does he want?" He inquired his one alien crewmember.

"Trade," Sofia hurriedly switched languages and blurted. "He states that is why he made contact with us. Did he not tell you upon initial contact?"

"Tell him we are more than happy to do business." Dewey commanded, but refused to answer Sofia's question.

The Rozetian turned back to Vizik. "You understood all that, didn't you?" She barked.

"Understood what? That your human boss is far too eager to do business with a high and mighty Diamian?"

"Vizik, you really haven't changed. I would have hoped you'd mature in the time since I last saw you."

"I have," the merchant of Diamasten spat. "You've just brought out my immature side. You always had that affect, Sofia." A shadow flickered over Vizik's eyes. "Now, to commence the trading. I have—" He cut off, his eyes focused on something behind Sofia. The Rozetian didn't have to turn around to know what it was that had snatched his attention. A small book—a dictionary—was placed in her hand.

Kiwi had arrived on the bridge.

Following Vizik's gaze, Captain Dewey turned his attention to Kiwi. "Who, pray tell me, is this?" He inquired Sofia. "And where did she come from?"

"My assistant. Her name is Kiwi," Sofia responded, perhaps sharper than she should have.

"When did she come aboard?"

"Captain, I don't believe this is the time or the place. I can and will explain to you fully later." Sofia nodded to Vizik.

"Yes, yes of course," Dewey replied. "Ask Captain Xyuu how he would like to begin."

Sofia didn't answer Dewey, but instead turned and addressed Vizik. She asked the question she was commanded to and, overall, kept their colloquy as brief as possible.

"So," Captain Dewey spoke to Sofia the moment she had finished her conversation with Captain Xyuu. "What did he say?"

"Captain Xyuu," Sofia heard the bitterness in her voice, but didn't try to curb it. "Is very eager to trade with us. However, he has told me he prefers an actual face-to-face meeting as opposed to speaking between images as we are now. He has, also, graciously invited you or a representative for you to board his ship and look through the wares he has stored in his cargo bay. I would, if I were you, take Xyuu's offer instead of attempting to buy his merchandise without inspection. Xyuu's respect for you would heighten, as he would see you as a trader with more intelligence than he initially thought. Being invited into the hold of a Diamian vessel, too, is a great honor. I believe Xyuu would feel slighted and most likely attack if you did not accept." The Diamian had informed her quite clearly that he would. Sofia spoke again, "After all, you must know, Diamians are famed warriors as much as they are famed merchants."

"I know, Darken. It is common knowledge that the only reason Demetra, Diamasten's jewel-filled sister planet, hasn't been annexed by someone stronger yet is because of Diamian protection. And many have tried to conquer Demetra. I do know something about Swan Loop, as you so often seem to forget." Captain, offended, snapped before turning away from his translator and to his assembly of officers. His eyes wandered over them until they came to rest on the one he was searching for. "Mr. Piers—Stanley, would you be up for a trip over to an alien vessel?"

The man questioned, an older fellow with a brown cap Sofia rather liked, answered, "I am at your command, captain, but might I advise sending someone who can actually speak the Diamian language. I am afraid, in that department, I am quite useless."

Dewey muttered a few curse words Sofia decided to ignore. "I thought you knew languages, Mr. Piers," the captain snarled at his crewman.

"I know some, captain, but not too many and definitively not Diamian. Not as many as our ship translator, I might say." Piers replied calmly.

"Fine. Ms. Darken," Dewey switched his attention back to his ship's only Rozetian. "You will escort—"

Suddenly, a being Sofia would rather not have seen at that moment stormed onto the bridge, yelling in his native tongue. Already irked by her current situation, the translator immediately changed languages and started to yell at the imbecile, ordering him to shut up about the conspiracy nonsense he was spewing out. If the Ia representative would be silent for a minute or two, she could fully explain to him why the ship had stopped moving.

"Darken," Captain Dewey commanded the second after Sofia had gotten Jolion to cease shouting, "Ask Representative Me-Swaya what in God's name he's doing here."

Instead of asking the Ia agent escorting the Waterfall to his native planet what Dewey wished her to, Sofia immediately answered the human. "Jolion Me-Swaya is here because he has noticed that we've stopped moving. He feared that we were trying to deceive his company in one way or another."

"Why would we do that?" Dewey growled. "There's too much at stake in the bargain we've made with the Ia."

"Jolion wasn't aware of your feelings on the topic." Sofia had been sore when she'd woken up on the floor. She had become aggravated during her conversation with Kiwi. Now, the little amount of patience she had was almost out. "As you should know," the Rozetian continued, "The Ia is a naturally suspicious race. Since they have created all the best ship designs and machinery, they see thieves and deception everywhere."

Vizik took the moment after Sofia finished talking, when Dewey was opening his mouth to begin, to speak, "Sofia, tell your captain that I was not aware an agent of an Ia company was aboard your ship. My invitation to come over extends to him."

"I do not take commands from you," Sofia switched over to Diamian and responded to Xyuu. "But, I will tell Dewey. You'll probably attack us if I don't," she added bitterly.

"You have such little faith in me, dear Darken." Vizik nearly laughed, but stopped himself before anyone noticed.

"What does he want?" The growing agitation of Dewey, seen clearly in his twitchiness, proved how unsettled he was by the entire situation.

Sofia took one of the deepest breaths in history and changed languages again. "Captain Xyuu was not aware that a representative of an Ia company was aboard the Waterfall. He believes his merchandise may also interest Jolion and has extended his invitation to board to him. Considering Jolion's limited language skills, I think it would be wise if I translated between them while they sort out an agreement. With your permission, of course, captain."

"Do it." There wasn't much else Dewey felt he could say.

It was a miracle, Sofia would reflect later, that she was still sane by the end of that conversation. Neither language flowing from her mouth—Diamian or Ia—did she speak regularly, and having to go between them gave her a massive headache. The Rozetian was glad when everything between Vizik and Jolion was finally sorted. Relieved, she turned back to Dewey.

"It has been decided that Agent Me-Swaya will accompany Mr. Piers and I onto Xyuu's ship. Jolion agrees with Captain Xyuu; there may be products aboard Xyuu's ship that his company would be very interested in." The Rozetian stated in an impassive tone. "If that is alright with you, captain."

"I don't see how my opinion will have any weight in the matter, thus I have no choice but to accept." The frown on the captain of the Waterfall's face deepened into its severest expression. "In the future, though, Darken, I would be pleased if you did not conduct business that concerns my ship, as you are now."

'How in the name of Anakletos is anything I'm doing business? That moronic, asinine—he hired me to translate! What does he expect me to do? Not translate between him, Vizik, and Jolion?' Sofia honestly felt like slapping her captain, but refrained from the action and settled instead on glowering. "Captain, I am not conducting business of any kind, that is not my duty aboard this ship. I am merely translating between three different parties that wish to do business with one another. If you have a problem with me doing the job I was hired to do, tell me. I am a translator, Captain Dewey, nothing more."

It was a very tense moment that came next. Captain Dewey and Sofia appeared to be trying to stare each other down and, while they were, no one wanted to speak. Finally, the captain of the ship broke both eye contact and silence. "Ms. Darken, inform Master Xyuu that we are ready to begin connecting our ships whenever he is."

Sofia nodded her understanding, told Xyuu in the piercing tone of the Diamian language, and then turned her complete attention to Kiwi. "While I am over there, I want you to remain in the bridge. You are not to bother anyone nor ask any questions. Kiwi, this is imperative if you wish to keep your job. Not because I'll fire you if you don't obey my orders—though, I could—but if you aggravate him, Captain Dewey will see you thrown off the ship." 'For once, she'd better listen. Never bothering to tell the captain about her was not a good idea.'

"I should come with you." Kiwi argued, though Sofia couldn't comprehend why. "I'm your assistant. I brought you the dictionary. I'm useful, very useful."

"Yes, I am aware of that you did that and am grateful you did, but you will only hinder the negotiations if you come with us." Sofia paused, guilty that she had never needed the dictionary in the first place. "I'm sorry." The Rozetian was more than a little glad when her assistant decided not to argue again. Without another word to the girl, Darken headed to the airlock

Sofia walked behind Stanley Piers and in front of Jolion as they left the Waterfall and boarded Vizik's vessel. For the most part, the wanderer ignored her companions; her thoughts were churning like a restless ocean. If Vizik was anything like the other merchants of his species, and he most likely was, he had to have an ulterior motive for inviting them to his ship. To the extent of Sofia's knowledge, Diamians always brought their merchandise to their buyers, never the other way around. They didn't want prospective customers to see what they weren't supposed to see.

Sofia winced as the airlock door to the Waterfall closed behind her. If her theory, which she had thought up within the last sixty seconds, on why Vizik had done what he had was true, this little trip would be very memorable for her—for all the wrong reasons.

"Darken, you seem to know more about the Diamians than the rest of us. Is there anything you think I should prepare for?" Stanley, the one and only human of the trio, inquired the wandering savant.

"Stanley Piers, correct?" Sofia didn't necessarily have to ask the man's identity. She already knew who he was; Dewey had made it plain enough to figure out. "Taking into the account the trust you've gained from Captain Dewey, I do not doubt you are an intelligent person. What do you think?" After informing both Stefan and Dewey upon the Diamians, Sofia was not going to do it again if she could help it.

Piers eyed his companion, conclusions being drawn behind his purposefully blank look. "I've already gathered that the one we're dealing with is manipulative to a degree. Contrary to what I told Dewey, I do know something about the Diamian language. I withheld that information because translating is your territory and I did not wish to insult you." He took a breath before going on. "I may have not understood everything that was said in your and Captain Xyuu's conversations, but I know there was far more than mere trading being discussed.

"There should be no problems due to our shared history. Vizik is intelligent. He'll put this possible sale before stirring up trouble." Though she spoke with confidence, Sofia severely doubted her words.

"That girl. The one you called your assistant. Is she your child?" Stanley held out his hand to Sofia, to help her down the step between the airlock and Vizik's ship.

"No." Sofia refused Stanley's hand, entering Xyuu's vessel on her own.

"You turned your attention away from Captain Xyuu when she entered the bridge; you did not see what I did. It was plainly written on the Diamian's face that he'd made the assumption that she was. Believe me, Ms. Darken, I've seen the expression before and I've become rather adept at recognizing it." Stanley waited for Sofia to board Vizik's ship.

"When I next see him, if necessary, I will correct his alleged assumption." Sofia's glower, which had faded, returned.

The time for conversation abruptly ended as an advance escort, sent by the captain himself, greeted them. Upon asking why Vizik himself wasn't there, Sofia received the answer that the captain would be along shortly and nothing more.

When Vizik did arrive, to Sofia's great surprise, he acted extraordinarily professional. The only words he spoke to her were a formal greeting, which she translated for Stanley and Jolion and the general instructions to follow him to the cargo hold.

For one glorious moment, Sofia believed the Diamian had been deterred from approaching her with the topic of their past. She trailed along behind the main bulk of the small group, only catching up or speaking when it was necessary for her to translate. Slowly, Sofia began to believe she'd be able to get off the ship without any kind of major confrontation with Captain Xyuu.

The Rozetian would later realize her one failing had been putting too much of her concentration in hoping and not enough in actually paying attention to what was happening around her. Perhaps if she had acted differently she would have been able to escape one of the storerooms before its automatic door malfunctioned and closed. Once what happened settled in her brain, Sofia realized that, not only had the door malfunctioned, but it had also locked her in a small, confined space with Vizik Xyuu, who'd also lingered.

With an increased heart rate, Sofia ran her hands over the wall space surrounding the door, looking for a nonexistent manual door release. "You didn't install an emergency release?" The translator found herself snapping at her companion.

"I'm a merchant working my first decade. Good door releases are something I can't afford yet. Not if I want the best defense system possible." Vizik leaned against one of the walls of the small room. "And whomever stated I want to leave this room? For all you know, this could be my favorite room on the ship."

Sofia crossed her arms and scowled. "You purposefully locked us in here, didn't you?"

"Now, dear Sofia, why would I do that?" Vizik gave the Rozetian a falsely innocent look. "Could it be because I want to know why someone I once cared about and thought I knew upped and vanished one day, without the slightest explanation? No, of course not. I don't know anyone like that."

"Sarcasm doesn't suit you, Vizik Xyuu."

The Diamian snorted derisively. "Why should I believe the word of a deceiver?"

Sofia moved herself to stand by the wall opposite the captain of the ship she was on. "Vizik, what do you want?"

"Many, many things, dear Sofia, but from you specifically, I want the truth. I wish to know why you left Jade-Moth and you'd be surprised at the prices I can pay for that information."

"Why?"

"You have no idea how much of a stir you caused. The only Rozetian student to ever walk the halls of CPS one day disappears without a trace. Your little stunt caused the biggest scandal in CPS history. Do you know how many current, rich students would pay however much I asked for the truth?"

"You could easily lie to them and still get your money."

"I'm trying to build a reputation. Selling false information will only hinder my endeavors." Vizik paused. "I, also personally, want to know and I will not unlock the door until you tell me."

"How did you go from offering me any price for my reason for leaving to trapping me until I tell you?" Sofia asked, her voice sounding like she's accidentally eaten a particularly sour lemon.

"You know how quickly I change my mind on things." The queried Diamian shrugged. "Trapping you was always my plan, the price thing popped out while I was talking, a minor mishap." He left his place at the wall and began to pace in front of his captive. "Now, I know you better than anyone has ever known you, Sofia Darken. I know you will not tell anyone anything unless you find it absolutely necessary or your being forced into it. In the name of Diamasten, I am not asking you to trust me. I am asking you to give me the truth and I don't care if it's the simplest, most thing you can come up with." Vizik stopped, turned, and stared at Sofia. "I need closure, curse you. Considering the circumstances of our lives at the time we were together, I knew it was probable that our relationship wouldn't work out, but I thought it would be a peaceful end. I didn't expect you to run off—from both me and that guy you were going to be marrying—and then conceive a child with a third person!"

The silence that came next reigned for many minutes.

"Kiwi," Sofia finally broke the oppressive quiet, "Is not my child. There is no third person." She thought briefly of Stefan Fitzgerald, but banished the thought of the man as soon as it had come. "You have no right to be angry, Vizik, and even if Kiwi were mine, she would be none of your concern.

Vizik only stared. Then, he regained his composure. "Would it have been any of that guy whom you were going to marry's concern?"

"Kiwi has nothing to do with either you or Jacopo." Sofia said snappishly.

"Who, may I ask, is she and why she is with you? Your captain didn't know her identity and you called her your assistant when you were still on your ship. If I recall correctly from our time together, one of your greatest issues with your once impending marriage was the fact your fiancé loved the idea of children and you completely despised it. Sofia, what about this child makes her so special as to change your mind?"

"She is not mine." Sofia pursed her lips. "Again, Kiwi is none of your concern. Nothing in my life is. Not anymore. Much has changed since I last stood before you, Vizik."

"I have my own starship; I know things have changed. I also know the past can never be reclaimed. I see, in this moment, that your Kiwi child may not be relevant to me. I apologize if I spoke in rough terms. It was uncivilized, but you must understand how unsettled I was." The Diamian's tone finally became the calm, dignified cadence of a merchant.

"We were never in love. Changes to my life shouldn't unsettle you." Sofia crossed her arms. "Our relationship was born because you wanted to add another name to your list of scores and I was weak."

"A beginning and an end never see the same situations—emotions. Much can change when given the right amount of time." A form of tenderness Sofia had not heard in Vizik's voice for a long time came forth from his mouth. "In addition to that, a person is not weak because she is lonely or tormented by gruesome nightmares whenever she dares to sleep."

"What is your point?"

"You really don't know all that you think you do, Sofia Darken."

"Vizik, let me out of here."

"We've already discussed this. Not until you tell me the truth. Why did you run away?"

"It shouldn't matter to you—"

"It does!" Vizik boomed, far longer than he expected to. "Because I love you. I never intended to and it was stupid, but that kind of thing seldom listens to logic. I hurt for you every time you dreamt of terrors. I wound up holding you until you could sleep again more times than I can remember. I felt your agony when that Jacopo guy made some kind of excuse and cancelled one of his already scarce visits. Even though, knowing you, it was probably impossibility, I wanted to make you happy. Seeing you smile or laugh meant more to me than you could ever know. And I knew you would never be mine. It was more than plain to see that your heart wouldn't be swayed from its obligation to your fiancé. There was no future for us while you were going to marry him. I always had the impending ache of your departure from my life hanging over my head, but I still didn't leave like any rational person." He took a large, relieving gulp of air. "When you left, I worried, I hated, I mourned. When your fiancé came to Jade-Moth I was enraged with him for being what I could never be, for being at the root of so many of your problems. Impulsively, I lied to him. I wove him tales telling that we did things we never came close to. I wanted him to feel the same, wretched pain that I felt and I succeeded. Sofia, I don't like hurting people and you drove me to do it. So, don't you dare say that you reason for vanishing shouldn't matter to me. It matters very much to me, now that I can never make up for what I did to that Jacopo guy." He stopped himself and snorted. "Listen to me. I'm actually sorry I inflicted pain on that imbecile."

"You didn't hurt him too much." Any emotion Sofia may have had was carefully concealed behind a blank face. "He's married now." It was far easier to speak upon the topic of Jacopo for the Rozetian than addressing Vizik's sudden declarations.

A curious expression came over Vizik's face. "Is that why you left, because you knew he loved someone else? I could believe that happening."

"No."

"Then, what was it?"

Silence fell again.

Sofia found herself staring at a spot, a stain of some kind, on the floor. At the top of her brain was the answer her companion sought, but she couldn't bring herself to utter it. It was hers, wholly so, and she could claim only a small amount of things as that. The truth was Sofia Darken's most prized possession and she always had great difficulty with giving it up. "What is your crew telling mine about our little situation?" The wandering scholar, finally realizing that someone on the outside could be trying to free her, asked.

"The door malfunctioned, what else? My men are 'attempting' to 'fix it' as we speak. It's really a very simple situation when looked at from the outside. From our view, I believe, it is full of complexities no one else but us could understand.

"Complexities?"

"You stated that you and your old fiancé are no longer together. that means both of us have no one else. I can be considered a very forgiving person." Carefully, Vizik maneuvered himself so that he and Sofia were side by side. "Merely because old flames currently exist as embers, it does not mean they cannot be rekindled."

"That possibility nullifies your wish for closure. Closure means an end, you have now proposed a new beginning." Sofia raised an eyebrow, not realizing she and the Diamian had fallen back into their old way of talking.

"My wants and needs have a tendency to change like the winds." Vizik cupped Sofia's chin in his hand and, before the Rozetian could stop him, he kissed her with no small amount of passion.

Upon registering what was going on, Sofia rationalized she had to stop Vizik. It was a simple action, really. All she'd have to do was take two steps back and push him away. Two things, however, two very strong things were holding her back; Vizik's sudden grasp on her body, strong and holding her in place, and her own desire to not back away. Strangely, what she was partaking in felt good. Sensations running through her body due to her close proximity to another life form, one of the opposite gender, felt somehow right. Sofia hadn't felt anything like what she was feeling just then for so very long.

It wasn't very hard, the scholar found, for the first time in her life, for her mind to stop thinking. Every muscle she had she let relax—well, almost every muscle. The ones required to keep her shifted remained tense. They had to, it didn't matter what she was doing. Rozetian tradition dictated that a Rozetian must never reveal her true form to aliens. For eons, it had be a rule of her people's life and for nothing could Sofia break it. Within the thought that, just then, she was shapeshifted was the beginning of Darken's great spiral downward from her sudden state of ecstasy.

Vizik wasn't technically kissing her. Though the two of them were connected at the lips and he could most certainly feel her, the texture that he felt wasn't honestly her. What the merchant was kissing was an artificial texture resting on an artificial appearance. She had created everything he could see of her for the sole purpose of deception. In essence, Sofia came to think, Vizik was kissing an apparition, nothing more than a vague image. Sofia Darken wasn't truly there, she hadn't truly been anywhere for the longest of times. The notion was one of the most depressing one she'd ever surmised. It also became the reason she freed herself from the fantastical person who'd captured her.

Sofia, hurriedly, from the little information she'd gathered on the modern Vizik came to a decision. Though the translator knew Vizik's brain was transmuting into jelly, she kept hers focused. Cautiously, the Rozetian placed her hands on the merchant's chest and unbuttoned the two top buttons of his jacket, causing him to quiver. Once she could reach what she was looking for, Sofia acted quickly. She found Vizik's pocket, the little device that resided in it, and pressed the button the device held. The second she heard the door open behind her Sofia untangled herself from Vizik.

"You were right." The savant turned from her merchant companion and to the open doorway. "When you first called me a deceiver." Without other words, she went to where Stanley and Jolion stood waiting. For the remainder of her time on his ship, she forced Vizik to pretend that nothing had transpired within the storeroom.