"Just wait till we're past the valley, then you'll see something neat."
Johnson is driving them further up the valley than Tom has been anytime. The houses are getting fewer. And then they drive up a short road and stop outside a red hut. On the other side of the hut is a railroad track. On the track is a strange car. "Automotive" explains Johnson. "Like a cross between automobile and locomotive."
Johnson and the two boys wander over to the automotive, and soon they are off. Yes, it is neat. Freed from the concern of keeping the car on the road and meeting other traffic, they speed up. A lot. The terrain is flashing by the sides. The speed is much more noticeable in this thing than in a common passenger train. Tom has taken those from time to time. But that was nothing like this, sitting so close to the action, seeing the landscape hurtling toward them at breakneck speed, just to zip past them and lose itself behind.
"To the left we'll soon see the rail branch off toward the city airport. From here, Antares travels all over the world. The original Visitors supposedly would just disappear one place and appear somewhere else, but she can't do that yet."
"So it is something that comes with age?"
"Or experience. That's what we think, anyway. The original Visitors never explained it, so all we can do is guess."
"Ben, wouldn't it be neat to be able to just pop up anywhere?"
"Yes, but traveling is fun too. And Mom says that if you always are where you ought to be, it is never too far to where you ought to be next. As long as we follow the guidance of the invisible force of goodness, we never come too late or too early."
"But if you could jump around the globe, the Goodness would know that too and could change your plans."
"That's true. I guess we shall just have to wait and see. I am much younger than my mother after all!"
"But the Visitors were all men. What if it is a male thing?"
"I don't think it is a thing of the body. It sounds like a work of the Heritage, or the Miracle Energy as it was called back then. Mom sure has that. Much more than I."
"Right. It was just a weird idea."
The trip would surely have taken a couple hours in an ordinary car on ordinary roads, but in the automotive it only takes a fraction of the time. Soon they pass through a narrow gulch and the landscape opens up into a broad valley surrounded by majestic mountains. The small river that escaped through the ravine is just a large stream where it comes down from the other side, then flows around a low grassy hill in the middle of the valley to meet a smaller stream just beneath the hill. The two continue as one and run out of sight. But on the top of the rounded hill is the bright marble building that was their destination: Starborn Manor.
There is no need to announce their arrival. The quiet of the valley would make it very noticeable when anything mechanical comes here, even the electric automotive. As they walk up the last steps, Tom notices that Johnson is not coming with them to the main gate. Instead he quietly moves toward another door to the left. The door is already ajar, and there is someone just inside, obviously waiting for him. Somehow he had never considered that this man also sacrificed something in order to be with Ben. But it must surely be worth it. There hasn't been any trace of resentment or impatience on the whole trip. Then again, it is hard to maintain such thoughts when a Starborn is around. Or at least that is his experience with Ben.
He will soon find out how the rest of the family is, because the gate opens and Anita Starborn steps out. Having known Ben for so long, Tom is as prepared as any man can be. But he is still struck with awe at the sheer radiance of power, beauty and empathy from this woman. In a more primitive age, people would have knelt in worship of her as a goddess. As it is, he bows as deeply as he can without falling over.
Anita Starborn and her son embrace each other, hug and kiss for quite a while. When they separate, the mother turns to their guest. "Tom Lithus, be welcome! My son has spoken highly of you. It is a great blessing to find such friends as soon as he leaves the nest."
"Thank you, Ma'am. It is a honor even to know your son. And I still can't believe I really am here."
She smiles. "You will believe. We are not nearly as scary as we seem at first glance."
The first time Tom looks away from the regal hostess, he sees that Ben is already holding a girl who seems to have jumped into his arms. For a 13 year old, Rita Starborn is not all that big or developed. She is mostly a child still. But the world's prettiest child, of course. Her hair is a richer, deeper golden than the other two, as if gold just slightly alloyed with copper rather than platinum. Loose and moving freely almost as if alive, it surrounds her head like fire. She is going "Wheeeee!" as Ben is spinning her around. Then she jumps down and looks over at Tom. "That's your boyfriend?"
Tom just gapes, but Ben laughs. "They are just called friends when they are the same gender. Boyfriends and girlfriends are of the opposite gender, and those are the ones you kiss and stuff."
She looks at Tom with big-eyed curiosity. "So if I kiss him, he'll become my boyfriend?"
"Rita" says her mother mildly, "you should not be quick to get a boyfriend. First you have to be sure that you love him more than anyone else."
"Won't I love him because he is my boyfriend? People always love their boyfriends."
"Getting a boyfriend is very serious. It is like adding a new person to the family."
"Like having a baby?"
"In a manner of speaking. You promise to love them and take care of them always."
"But you don't need to change their diapers!"
"Not until they grow very old."
Thank the Goodness that the mother is here. For a moment Tom had been afraid the girl would just walk up to him and kiss him to see if he really transformed into a boyfriend. Evidently being ignorant of human behavior is the way of the family rather than something special for Ben. Is that a good thing or a bad thing? Tom can't decide. Also, he can't decide whether he would or wouldn't have become her boyfriend if she had kissed him. Probably. Although he would have to wait some years for her to grow up. She is definitely not in the age for mushy stuff. Trine is right on the target there, however wrong she is otherwise. And she is. He is so not telling her about this conversation.
The family is just about to eat dinner. Given the marble halls and stuff, he has certain expectations: A large table with white linen, silverware at the very least, and servants waiting on them with a sumptuous feast. Despite wearing his Sunday clothes, he feels just inadequate in a manor like this. And then the Lady of the manor leads them through the large halls, to a much smaller room off near a corner of the main building. Half the room is a very everyday kitchen, the other half is a simple dining room with furniture such as could be found in any random Norwegian home. "I hope you like this, Tom" says Anita Starborn, the world's one and only superheroine. "Ben is crazy for the stuff, so I try to make it when he comes home."
"The stuff" turns out to be a mix of finely cut, fried vegetables including potatoes and a small part of hard fruits like apple or pear. There is also something that at first sight could be mistaken for meat, but when he tastes it, he decides it must be some kind of mushroom, probably chanterelles. Ben has never mentioned his family being vegetarians, but come to think of it, Tom has never seen him eat meat either. Perhaps he just doesn't like it; he certainly hasn't asked Tom to stop keeping sheep. Not that Tom has much choice in the matter anyway. Be that as it may, the food is quite tasty. He still has a hard time believing that he is eating a dinner made by Anita Starborn. This is something to tell your grandchildren. No, this is something to tell your grandchildren to tell their grandchildren! "The world's most powerful person made my dinner."
"Hehe, we have it every Friday" says Rita, and Tom realizes he has spoken out loud. OK, not very loud, but still. He can feel his face cooking immediately.
"Actually I enjoy cooking when I have the time" says The World's Most Powerful Person. "With all the traveling there is all too little time for such simple pleasures. And now Rita is getting into it too. Ben can memorize recipes, but he simply doesn't have the inclination. He sure can eat it though!"
"Your food is simply the best, Mommy" replies Ben. And he is probably right. Tom would not have chosen the most expensive restaurant instead. Although that could be just as much for the atmosphere. There is a quiet, a feeling of absolute safety and ... love. Not the wild storm of romantic love, but the mirror-like quiet of an old, settled family love. That reminds him ...
"Your father isn't here?"
"No, Dad went to the conference already. He is sixty already, you know, so he appreciates a good night's sleep before the roundtable starts. Mom is going to fly straight down."
"In fact I am going in half an hour. But don't worry, they do fine on their own, and both Johnsons and Lees are in the house. Besides, I would not have left my children behind if there was any darkness over it."
Tom does not understand that expression, and he is too awed to ask. But evidently she has some gift of fortunetelling or something. As could be expected, he thinks.
After thanking for the food, Tom notices that there is no dishwasher machine, and still no sign of servants. He is not sure what role these Johnsons and Lees play, but clearly they are not dishwashers. So he volunteers his help. He is almost surprised to find that it is accepted without hesitation. "Rita is doing the dishes this meal, but you can help her." Anita and Ben almost immediately leaves the room. Rita flashes him a smile.
Tom carries the plates to the sink while Rita fills up with hot water. "It's best that you wash and I dry" she tells him, "because I know where to put the stuff." He is amazed that they do it this old-fashioned way, but it is OK with him. He has done the dishes often enough on the farm. She sure uses hot water, though. It almost burns his fingers, but he will not let it show and make himself a coward before a little girl. So he steels himself and washes the dishes.
"Do you love Ben?"
His fingers are suddenly numb, and the glass falls from them, turning oh so slowly in the air as it starts to spin toward the floor. He is frozen into a statue, unable to move, unable to even think, able only to observe the glass on its resigned tumble toward oblivion. His ears adjust to the sound of the coming crash. The glass spins one more time, and lands bottom down on the floor, quietly like a settling feather. Rita bows, picks it up and puts it back into the water. "So, do you?"