Stronger and stronger the light grew, until at last the vision cleared.
Telai stood barefoot in the midst of a rolling plain, a wide stretch of grassland decorated in a stunning palette of wildflowers. Children ran in all directions, their hair bouncing with each stride, laughter piping in her ears like music. She raised her arm to shield the sun—and saw not her own flesh but the soft, slender limb of a young girl.
She was the oldest by several years, drowning in the pungent aroma of wild growth, in the dance of her long black hair. She wiggled her toes, laughing. She had never felt grass like this before. No one had created it. No power of the mind, no artificial simulation, nothing but the sun and the rain and the soil. It was a world that had never known the curse of technology, never been touched by anyone from the stars—until today.
“Lovely, isn’t it?”
A grown woman stood at her side. She gazed out over the rolling landscape, her beauty enhanced by a poignant little smile. Her posture, the closeness of her stance, even the slight movement of her hands spoke of a bond only a mother could possess. But the emptiness in her eyes told a different story—not of love but of everlasting grief, as if her heart had been broken so long ago she couldn’t remember feeling any other way.
The young girl knew they shouldn’t be here. She didn’t care. Ever since she was little she had longed for this paradise, to experience what it must have been like for those privileged few children so long ago. She had pleaded and cajoled like only a thirteen-year-old could, until at last her mother relented, hoping to bring a few moments of joy to her charge of troubled girls. Now they were here, their cloaked ship landing in the remotest section of the planet, an ocean away from where the descendants of those forgotten children lived.
Laughter drifted along the breeze, weaving a spell of contentment in the girl’s heart. Her friends did not sound very troubled to her.
The woman sighed in regret, an unmistakable premonition, sabotaging joy. “We have to leave.”
“Not now—it’s too soon!”
“You know what kind of risk we’re taking. The longer we stay, the more likely we’ll be found out.”
“Why? I thought you cloaked us.”
“We already talked about this, Hendra. Even another hour will only make it harder.”
Her mother stepped forward, calling to the girls. Hendra watched for a moment, then folded her gangly limbs and sank to the ground. A short wildflower grew nearby, its tiny yellow blossoms half hidden in the grass. Mournful protests and sad cries reached her ears, but she ignored them. There was only the little flower, and its desperate struggle to reach the sun.
A pair of legs interrupted her vision. One heedless foot trampled her dream into the sod.
Her mother knelt in front of her, hand extended. “It’s time.”
The girl kept her head lowered, her gut churning as if witnessing the death of a close friend. “No,” she whispered.
“You know it’s impossible, Hendra.”
The child glared up at her, trembling with resentment. “You don’t understand—you have to let us stay.”
The woman withdrew her hand. “I shouldn’t have brought you here,” she muttered, as if to herself. She rose, stepped a short distance away, then faced her daughter again. Her brow furrowed. A faint, greenish-blue glow flowed up her arm, lacing the air with tendrils of light.
The girl’s legs twitched. She clenched her jaw, determined to fight a war of wills. But mortal flesh was far too weak against the power of the mind. Her muscles contracted, slowly gaining force, until she stood, her arms and fists shaking with rage.
“You can’t take us back! I won’t—”
Hendra’s voice faltered: something was pressing against the inside of her palm. She opened her hand, and smiled.
Her parents had inserted a cybernetic governor in her mind before activating her device, a practice required by law. Yet the device