Godsend by Greg Howell

Jul 18th, 2019 (edited)
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  2. PT I
  6. The rock was uncharted and unremarkable. Seven
  7. kilometers of iron-nickel amalgam tumbling on its eccentric eons-
  8. old orbit against a backdrop of faint stars and pale hydrogen
  9. clouds. The system's single faded, swollen sun was a distant
  10. speck among a myriad of others as the lump of ore and rock
  11. continued its endless path around the hub of the tired system.
  12. When the flare of actinic blue light washed across the
  13. pitted contours of the rock, the shadows from metal struts and
  14. towers reaching into space were thrown into harsh relief against
  15. the barren surface. Again the light burned brighter than the
  16. bloated sun as clusters of ion thrusters fired, nudging the two-
  17. kilometer bulk of the miner ship Aspiration away from the
  18. asteroid.
  19. In the heart of the ship, Hayes finally relaxed, watching
  20. the rock recede through the glowing vector corridor
  21. superimposed on his viewpoint.
  22. "Command: exit."
  23. The view snapped off, replaced with the interior of a
  24. geodesic sphere, every facet labeled with an icon. A wave of his
  25. hand and the scene became vague, transparent, overlaid with
  26. dayglo-green type: WAITING.
  27. He shucked the VR headset and rubbed at his eyes.
  28. Kludge, but that antiquated hardware bugged him. He'd been
  29. using the stuff for a lifetime and it was tough and reliable, but
  30. on the offside slow and cumbersome. Newer systems utilized
  31. nano and bio tech: Microscopically small interfaces linked into
  32. the pilot's nervous system. Just jack in and you ARE the ship; no
  33. more video and audio linkups.
  34. "Proximity one hundred and fifty kilometers," chimed the
  35. AI. Well, the whole ship was old: over two centuries old. An
  36. ancient Nakuma Corp. miner factory ship. It'd been through
  37. several wrecks, a few minor wars, mothballing, and more repairs
  38. and refurbishments than an octogenarian entertainer. From the
  39. outside it resembled an old-time oil rig that'd been put through a
  40. compactor and had other unhealthy things done to it: A cylinder
  41. just over two klicks in length, its exterior was an angular and
  42. lumpy landscape of shielding, heat exchangers, antenna and
  43. sensor arrays, power modules, thrusters, aux. cargo and
  44. equipment pods, locks, the grids of high-density gravimeter, and
  45. kilometers of piping. Fully a half of that mass was filled with
  46. cargo holds while the rest was split between factory and ore
  47. processing, the power plant, and the drive modules. On the
  48. whole vessel the only area intended for human habitation was
  49. the crew module; minuscule by comparison, its whiteness
  50. contrasting with the darkness of the rest of the miner, locked to
  51. the front of the vessel like a leech to a whale by the mechanical
  52. embrace of umbilicals and docking clamps.
  53. The crew of this two kilometer long mass of metal
  54. and ceramic was lounging back in his control couch, monitoring
  55. his vessel while nursing a bulb of chilled beer.
  56. Each of the windows in the main screen was
  57. displaying a different view or schematic. 160/+45 degrees to the
  58. rear the asteroid was growing visibly smaller, the refineries and
  59. furnaces on its surface already too small to be seen at that
  60. resolution. This'd been a juicy system, with five class-four rocks
  61. in two months. It didn't take long to drop a basic package on the
  62. face of an asteroid, but you had to wait and make sure the
  63. systems were running bug-free; also the Von Neumann servos
  64. needed the fusion plant and factory on the miner until their
  65. own power plants went on-line. If necessary, stocks of
  66. deuterium, tritium, hydrogen, and helium were supplied from
  67. onboard stores. When the process was well under way the miner
  68. would depart, either to search out new lodes or return to a
  69. Tincan for resupply, offloading and trading. In a few months
  70. the ore-rich asteroids would fire up their own newly constructed
  71. plasma engines and stretch back to an inhabited system where
  72. the whole unit would be sold and slagged. For a juicy profit, of
  73. course.
  74. Hayes flicked from one external monitor to another,
  75. scanning the exterior of the Aspiration. Some shielding bore
  76. scratches from debris strike, otherwise it was in as good a
  77. condition as it was ever going to get. Same story on a random
  78. scan of the interior. Repair servos scuttled through conduits like
  79. glittering metal spiders. In the holds the heavy mining servos had
  80. had their power packs removed and now were stacked in their
  81. bays, almost indistinguishable from the girders and piping and
  82. machinery around them. The supply holds had been restocked;
  83. the hulking tanks of resources and reaction mass near-full.
  84. This last rock had been a profitable one.
  85. With the extraneous materials strained from the rock
  86. mantle, there was still a good core of iron, nickel, zinc, and
  87. copper. Any company would pay good chits for this stake.
  88. Hayes leaned back and took a good draught then
  89. grinned. Not far to go now and he'd have the installments paid off
  90. and he'd be running his own ship. From there the next stop was
  91. a private business. Christo, who knew: perhaps then on to a
  92. block back on terra, not some tincan or innertube.
  93. The AI chimed again: "Proximity one thousand
  94. kilometres. Clearance. Plasma drive initialized. Systems check
  95. clearance, grids powered and chambers cleared. Drive engaging."
  96. At the rear of the miner, in the power module, a star
  97. was squeezed, the magnetic envelop encasing it developing
  98. a deliberate flaw. More fields seized the outflow, channelling it,
  99. accelerating it. There was a subliminal rumble as massive vents
  100. to the rear of the vessel glowed, then spewed pulses of white-
  101. hot gas at close to seven percent C, jets that narrowed and
  102. focused in their magnetic fields until the battered cylinder seemed
  103. to be riding a nine kilometre long pencil of light.
  104. "Mass interference still critical. Clear to stretch in
  105. thirty minutes."
  106. "Acknowledged," Hayes raised his bulb in the direction
  107. of the main screens. "Thanks."
  108. "You're welcome."
  109. Most rock-hoppers changed their AI's voice, usually to
  110. that of a favourite vid star or singer, usually of the opposite sex.
  111. Hayes had just stuck with the default one, a feminine alto. He
  112. just had never gotten around to changing it, and the personality
  113. had grown on him. Besides, it was an artificial intelligence, just
  114. a machine, not an artificial consciousness which could develop
  115. its own personality. All the AIs were were glorified expert
  116. databases. They could learn, but they simply mimicked a
  117. personality. Artificial Consciousnesses on the other hand. . . ACs
  118. WERE conscious, alive and aware. They were also heavily
  119. restricted: only the largest habitats and military ships used
  120. them.
  121. He finished the rest of the beer, belched, and picked up
  122. the headset again. It smelt of sweat and age. Familiar. A wave of
  123. his hand and the WAITING prompt vanished.
  124. "Okay, Pan, course plot."
  125. It was a complex chart that appeared. He was floating
  126. inside an arm of the galaxy, thousands of systems a multiclolored
  127. myriad of points around him. A twitch of an eye and he zoomed
  128. in on his local, outlined with a glowing three-dimensional recticle.
  129. A word and the database conjured a web of colour-gradiated
  130. spheres around significant masses: the contour lines of the
  131. universe.
  132. It was virgin territory out here, skirting the edges of
  133. human exploration. No matter how many billions; how many
  134. trillions of people there were, there were never enough to fill all
  135. the spaces. Old Terra was the hub of human expansion. It was
  136. from there that five hundred years ago with the advent of the
  137. Bausmer Breach that the first ships had exploded outwards.
  138. In the first two centuries over a thousand solar
  139. systems were colonised. As mankind - humankind, whatever -
  140. finally got the keys to the car and left the home system behind,
  141. he spread everywhere. Orbitals financed by every conceivable
  142. sort of organizations sprang up: the central governments and
  143. massive corporations were closely followed by sects, cults, and
  144. other fringe organizations seeking freedom. So many of those
  145. small groups were hopelessly underfunded and underequipped.
  146. They relied on chartered carriers to get them to their destination
  147. where they settled in tiny, primitive tincans with inadequate
  148. lifesupport and maybe a single surplus insystem workhorse for
  149. mining. More than a few didn't make it.
  150. There were a lot of ghoststations out there.
  151. However, there were always other successes. The
  152. mining corporation stations thrived as they specialised in refining
  153. the raw materials needed by everyone. There were the
  154. agricultural innertubes with the monopolies on hydroponics, the
  155. Corporations producing technologies, others with biotech. . . the
  156. list ran on.
  157. Of course the Terran governments had seen these
  158. colonies as its own personal sweatshops. It demanded taxes
  159. from wealthy, well-developed star systems that were totally self
  160. sufficient. Inevitably, as in colonial revolution centuries earlier,
  161. the fringe orbitals asked for, then demanded independence.
  162. Homeworld influence was strongest in the systems
  163. nearest Terra. Nearly eighty percent of the orbitals were simply
  164. residential or administration, receiving their food, minerals, and
  165. luxuries from Terra, Mars, and the hundreds of other orbitals
  166. already in the Sol system. There were watch stations and a
  167. strong military presence, but there was only so much territory
  168. they could cover.
  169. Wiser heads in the United Nations council realised
  170. that there was no possible way a single planetary system could
  171. dominate the infinity of space. The fringe settlements had literally
  172. unlimited resources and personnel and trade embargoes were a
  173. ludicrous idea. Declaring war was absolutely out of the question,
  174. so therefore the Terran government - privately reluctant -
  175. gave its blessing.
  176. It proved to be a mutually beneficial arrangement.
  177. The colonies - the tincans and innertubes - began to
  178. yield surpluses of raw materials, pharmaceuticals, refined
  179. metals, zero-gee composites, and their own technology. These
  180. they traded with the Terran zones, for luxuries and more
  181. technology, and the one exclusive thing the ancient Sol system
  182. possessed.
  183. Life.
  184. In all the hundreds, the thousands of systems explored,
  185. only Terra had indigenous life. Mars and parts of Venus could
  186. support humans without environment suits, but that was after
  187. centuries of extensive and expensive terraforming. In all other
  188. solar systems from the Barnad Group out to the Salamander
  189. Pearls, mankind lived in sealed jars, hewing a living from dead
  190. worlds and the rubble of space. There were few systems with
  191. planets in the habital zone surrounding a sun. There were fewer
  192. still where that planet was of an acceptable size. Of these many
  193. had no atmosphere at all, or that atmosphere was of something
  194. interesting but lethal, such as compressed ammonia and methane.
  195. Terraforming would take time on the best of these worlds, on the
  196. others. . . There were those who said it just wasn't worth the
  197. effort.
  198. Why be planet bound when you have a whole system in
  199. which to build? Without the burden of gravity. Tuck in behind an
  200. abundant gas giant and you have protection from solar flares
  201. and an inexhaustible supply of hydrocarbons and volatiles. Drop
  202. a planet-breaker on a small moon and harvest the pieces for raw
  203. ore. Use a linear accelerator to lob them across the system on
  204. ballistic orbits to be caught by processing stations that would
  205. churn out machinery, ships, and even more habitats.
  206. People could live just as well in an innertube or tincan,
  207. and they were far more comfortable than a planet. Climatic
  208. control. No rain, no wind, no need for housing. No natural
  209. disasters.
  210. Build your colony inside a planetesimal with hundred-
  211. metre thick rock walls and a layer of collapsium plate and any
  212. meterorite large enough to do any damage would be vaporised or
  213. deflected by any halfway decent defence system.
  214. And there were always more systems. For fifteen
  215. billion light years there were galaxies, each swimming with star
  216. systems. And Mankind had scarcely scratched the surface of
  217. even his own spiral arm.
  218. Hayes was running calcs through the AI, scanning
  219. the chart files he'd bought from remote probes of this quadrant.
  220. There were a few MO types within easy stretch, also some GO,
  221. but he was hunting the older ones, the swollen stellar geriatrics
  222. that'd had time to collect a retinue of debris. A single BO,
  223. massing about ten solar mass was a likely candidate. He swung
  224. the perspective into a schematic calculating distances, power
  225. consumption, stresses, and gravity flux and the AI spat out a
  226. course plot within a second. It had definitely been worthwhile
  227. splurging to install the new system, a Yamaha AICPU-1263 unit.
  228. Cascaded three-dimensional matrix processors and molecular
  229. memory modules. Ten terabytes in a casing the size of his head
  230. and an access time of 3 nanoseconds. It gave his old AI a great
  231. deal more raw storage space and enhanced the artificial
  232. personality with an expert system based on a 3M learning array
  233. model. It was also able to interpolate the output of his clumsy
  234. and outdated General Equipment mass scanner, boosting the
  235. resolution, making stretches safer and more economical.
  236. Once the old Aspiration was finally paid off he'd be able
  237. to afford one of the new SolTech gravity scanners, boasting a
  238. resolution more than five hundred times greater than the old GE
  239. module. With one of those he could skip into a system and do
  240. deep scans of a rock on the other side. He could do a detailed
  241. survey of a system while still in stretch...
  242. But that was in the future.
  243. The chaos of woven lines and points of light surrounded
  244. him in a cocoon of light, a red line plotting a weaving course
  245. onto the next system, a good fifty light years out. He moved his
  246. hand to touch a menu and a data screen came up. A BO system,
  247. four planets, three of those gas giants the other one a rock.
  248. ETA: three days. Fuel consumption including initial boost: two
  249. hundred tons. That was way within acceptable margins.
  250. "All right," Hayes said, nodding slightly. "Lock that
  251. course."
  252. "Confirmed," acknowledged the AI. Throughout the
  253. ship's superstructure the vibration of the engines changes as
  254. thrusters again nudged the vessel, lining it up with its launch
  255. window. "Time to stretch point is approximately three hours."
  256. Hayes moved his hand to pop the interface, then
  257. hesitated and moved his hand to wipe the navigation charts and
  258. selected a main menu. A few blinks of his eyes on subdirectories
  259. and music started, the primitive beat and strings of a new
  260. group from the Terra zone, Zacharea Codo according to the
  261. album label. Now he punched the exit marker.
  262. He dropped the headset, leaving the visor hanging from
  263. its umblilical. The main screen switched to an image of a tropical
  264. rainforest back on Terra, filling an entire wall with greenery and
  265. mist. The music formed a lively background. Humming along,
  266. Hayes descended the access tube to the living deck.
  267. The machinery in the walls was concealed by chitite
  268. panels of light tans and greens. Floor to ceiling holorals gave
  269. an illusion of french windows looking out across a panorama of
  270. deep valleys and mountains. Light came from glowpanels in the
  271. ceiling and walls, casting a soft light mimicking sunlight. The floor
  272. was carpeted in a cream gengineered biograss, a horseshoe-
  273. shaped sunken area lined with gel cushions. Around the rim
  274. were terrariums with heatlamps glowing on a multitude of
  275. flourishing plants. Moisture beaded on the glass like droplets of
  276. sweat. Two other doors led out; one to the galley, the other to
  277. the living quarters and the lift down to the service levels.
  278. Hayes made for the galley, brushing his hand along
  279. the plastic housing a bonsai. Over a centruy old, from old earth,
  280. the gem of his collection. He'd have to clean the few dead leaves
  281. off the meticulously kept sand under the tiny tree.
  282. The galley lights coming on as he stepped through
  283. the door. "Hey, Pan. Break out a chicken, potatoes, and
  284. sweetpeas. Also flour, bread, butter, cooking oil, and the spice
  285. rack."
  286. "Very well, Samuel." The voice came from all around as
  287. non-directional speakers vibrated the air of the room itself.
  288. "How would you like it prepared?"
  289. "I don't," he said as he unfolded workbenches and a
  290. range. "I'm doing myself tonight."
  291. "All right," the AI said. It took half a minute before
  292. the ingredients were delivered from the stores. Cooking for
  293. himself made a welcome diversion from the monotony of
  294. shipboard routine, he also enjoyed it. While the AI was a
  295. capable cook, it was by no means a chef. Its food was good, but
  296. it lacked...flair. Hayes enjoyed throwing on an apron and getting
  297. his hands dirty. He had flash-frozen and vacuum-packed
  298. vegetables and fruit from habitat hydroponics, pro-ten meat
  299. substitue, as well as huge range of flavouring and spices and
  300. ingredients. After a day in a hardsuit taking core samples it
  301. relaxed him in the same way some others might wind down on a
  302. depstick.
  303. But unlike a drugstick you got something out of cooking.
  304. Hayes called up a real external view and turned the lights off as
  305. he carried his meal through. The infinite stars cast their cold light
  306. across him as propped his feet up and worked his way through a
  307. synthetic drumstick.
  309. --\o/--
  312. The plasma drives were finishing their burn. After
  313. fourty-eight hours the twin jets - each five times hotter than the
  314. surface of sol - were shutting down, but their nuclear ghosts
  315. lingered for minutes after. The louvered vents of collapsium and
  316. ceramic alloy glowed with residual heat.
  317. Throughout the ship servos were skittering for the
  318. safety of charging ports where they clamped into place.
  319. Bulkhead seals slammed into place. Saftey grids and nets locked
  320. over movable objects. Power was shunted from unnecessary
  321. operations, valves were sealed.
  322. Like a spider in the centre of his web, Hayes watched as
  323. the VR updated and areas of the intricate wireframe schematic
  324. changed from amber to green. Hayes moved through the
  325. structure, examining system after system. There was a power
  326. drain from the faulty flexors on the third door in hold one and a
  327. slight loss of pressure in a steam duct, but both of those
  328. problems were negligible. In fact the Aspiration was running
  329. smoother than she had for a long time.
  330. "Clear for stretch," the AI reported.
  331. There was a much larger power fluctuation as the fields
  332. went up, spinning a web of reality around the ship, then the
  333. drive grids ripped space open.
  334. Hayes hated this bit.
  335. The stars imploded into a single white burst.
  336. Superstructure squealed before the fields compensated. Hayes
  337. felt his stomach twist and an unbelievable headache flash behind
  338. his eyes. The external monitors and viewports faded to black.
  339. Seen from outside, the Aspiration rippled, then
  340. without fanfare, sank into the universe.
  343. --\o/--
  346. Theoretically, faster-than-light travel wasn't impossible.
  347. Cracking the lightspeed barrier was. The faster to C you got, the
  348. greater your mass became and the more energy you needed to
  349. accelerate and the greater your mass became. . . Ad Infinitum. . .
  350. E=MC2 still ruled.
  351. Looking at it another way: as its velocity approached the
  352. speed of light, the mass of an object also increased,
  353. approaching infinity. If you had a way to convert that mass to
  354. energy, you'd have an unlimited supply. And if there was
  355. enough energy available - from the collision of two particles for
  356. example - it was possible to 'create' still more mass.
  357. So, again theoretically, a ship could be accelerated to
  358. near-lightspeed, but not beyond. Still, even at those speeds
  359. travel between stars would be painfully slow and it was
  360. discovered that even at a crawl - say half-C - things like electrons
  361. and photons and especially neurons started doing strange and
  362. unhealthy things.
  363. So a lot of people were extremely happy when it was
  364. proven that it was possible to circumvent that barrier.
  365. The Bausmer Breach went around space, ducking out of
  366. this level of existence, then in again. The most that was
  367. generally understood about the process was that the drive sank a
  368. warp through the 'fabric' of space, opening a breach into a
  369. subuniverse existing on a lower energy level. This subuniverse
  370. existed in the same area as the normal one, but within it space
  371. was distorted. If it were possible to simply step into a breach walk
  372. a few metres, you would emerge into real space several thousand
  373. kilometres from where you entered.
  374. A was of describing it was that universes existed like
  375. rings in an onion, with our universe as - it was supposed - the
  376. outermost skin. To enter the subuniverse was to move deeper in
  377. directly towards the core. Any movement made there would be
  378. equivalent to a much greater distance out on the surface.
  379. Of course it was impossible to simply walk in. It took a
  380. ship and the power requirements of a small city to form the
  381. breach and maintain the shields needed to prevent the ship from
  382. being sucked into a local gravity well and first pulverised, then
  383. fused with already existing matter with somewhat more
  384. spectacular results. Nature's way of 'Keeping Our Universe
  385. Beautiful'.
  386. Matter was not indigenous to the subuniverse. There
  387. were no planets, moons, suns, space debris, or even the
  388. hydrogen so prevalent in the 'normal' level. Light, when
  389. introduced in the form of navigation beacons on ships, crawled,
  390. the speed of light being several thousand times slower. A ship at
  391. little more than twice 1G escape velicoty was travelling at a
  392. significant percent of C in the subspace.
  393. So for three days the Aspiration would be coasting that
  394. void, in a sense being stretched out over an area of several
  395. light days. It could be tricky when attempting to enter a busy
  396. system. In such cases ships would drop out of stretch at
  397. navigation beacons and ride the rest of the way in on
  398. conventional drives.
  399. In the com couch Hayes unknoted his jaw muscles and
  400. tried to relax as the screens cleared again and the external
  401. pictures switched to the mass scanner images. When in stretch
  402. the only ways to navigate were to either keep dropping out of
  403. stretch and taking a bearing in real space: a process hideously
  404. fuel-hungry, or to use mass scanners. Like the hills and valleys
  405. on a contour map the gravity wells of suns, planets, moons, and
  406. planetisimals showed up. A scanner would produce a three
  407. dimensional map depicting the gravity sinks.
  408. These sinks were the reefs of stellar travel. If a ship
  409. drifted too far into the gravitational sphere of influence it would
  410. be drawn in all the way to the core where it would drop back into
  411. real space. . . in the centre of a planet. A quick - if very spectacular
  412. - way to go.
  413. But the screens were showing the course plot: a clear
  414. line through clear space. Throughout the ship telltales read
  415. green. There were a few sections where metal had been
  416. stressed, but already servos were working on it.
  417. "Okay, Pan," Hayes told the ship as he pulled the
  418. headset off. "It's all yours."
  419. "Thank you, Samuel," the AI returned. The lights of the
  420. bridge faded out behind him.
  423. --\o/--
  427. Some found boredom a problem in singleships. Hayes
  428. wasn't one of these; he'd always found something to keep him
  429. busy. There were the CAD/ CAM programs where he worked at
  430. redesigning and refining various servos. Coupled with computer
  431. aided manufacturing facilities and a completely automated
  432. factory it let him design and build practically anything he could
  433. design himself or had the templates to. There was a gymnasium,
  434. also both holieo and VR vids and games downloaded from his
  435. last port call at Tenington III, books, and music.
  436. There were his terrariums to tend to. With classical
  437. music and freshner in the ventilation systems it was something he
  438. could lose himself in. He also spent time in the galley, working
  439. through old recipes and inventing his own.
  440. The ship could run itself. The servos carried out
  441. maintenance, even repairing themselves, all centrally controlled
  442. by subroutines in the AI. So while in stretch there was really
  443. little for the pilot to do.
  444. Except when the computer came across something it
  445. couldn't handle.
  446. The alarm buzzed. "Samuel, could you come to the
  447. bridge?" the AI requested in calm tones. He was already on his
  448. way.
  449. The screens were lit when he entered. There was too
  450. much red and it only took a glance to see what was wrong.
  451. "Shit! Where'd that come from?!"
  452. It was a system. A whole kluding system and they'd skim
  453. well within its gravity sink. Not a problem; just unexpected.
  454. "I don't have that information, Samuel," the AI said.
  455. "The scanner just picked up a single planet. The rest have only
  456. just appeared."
  457. Hayes sank down on the couch and stared at the
  458. monitor. "There's nothing wrong with the scanner?"
  459. "No." A pause. "All systems nominal."
  460. "That system WASN'T on the database?"
  461. "No."
  462. "Then there was something interfering with the probe of
  463. this quadrant. Where is that sonofa. . . Ah!" Haye leaned
  464. forward and tapped at the monitor. "How about a closeup here."
  465. The AI obliged.
  466. "Ah, okay. Do a deep scan here, this sector. . . forty-
  467. five, seventy-three degrees."
  468. Outside, on the hull of the ship the seventy-meter
  469. antenna arrays pivoted and realigned themselves. The streams of
  470. individual particles launched down the arrays could be deflected
  471. by the slightest fluctuation in a gravity field. The computer
  472. registered this deflection. From the ten odd antenna it built up a
  473. map, at this range accurate to a few hundred kilometres. Quite
  474. enough to map the major objects in a solar system and more
  475. accurate than the vastly higher resolution probes used at much
  476. greater distances by Survey.
  477. He found the problem. It was on the maps as NSR 275.
  478. A pulsar: a spinning neutron star of about six solar masses.
  479. About as big as they come without going the one step further to
  480. black hole. Probably drew the survey scope's attention so they
  481. forgot what they were supposed to be doing. Also, the emmisions
  482. geyser from those things played merry fuck with all kinds of
  483. scanners. "Christo, Pan, why didn't you compensate for this?"
  484. "There was no reason to suppose a system was there,"
  485. replied the AI.
  486. Ah...Hayes shook his head. If there was no ambiguous
  487. data to arouse its 'suspicions' then an AI wouldn't
  488. investigate further. "Scheisskopf! Pan, next time, triple-check any
  489. area with a high-density object for interference, okay?"
  490. "Logged, Samuel." The voice was a unperturbed as ever.
  491. Well, anyway, it was a whole unmapped system.
  492. Interesting. By the scan its star was at least the mass of a GO
  493. type, maybe slightly larger and brighter than the sun. There was
  494. still some interference. That damn pulsar again.
  495. Hayes leaned back and considered. It was right on
  496. their course, so why not?
  497. "Pan, give me navigation," he said, already reaching for
  498. the headset.
  501. --\o/--
  504. Whole sections were shut down as the generators
  505. pulsed again. Jagged discharges of energy crackled around the
  506. stanchions bracing the field grids.
  507. Vibrations rang through the entire ship as space was
  508. twisted around it. Gravity was warped into a hyperdense tube
  509. - an impossible black hole - then into a Klein bottle.
  510. Hayes felt the headache blossom again and his stomach
  511. twist, then the Aspiration broke into realspace.
  512. Stars rippled and were eclipsed as the bulk of the
  513. vessel solidified.
  514. Almost instantly the Aspiration rang like a gong, a
  515. 2.6 million tonne gong. Klaxons began howling. Bulkhead seals
  516. remained closed. Strobes flashed red throughout the vessel. In
  517. the VR interface a model of the ship appeared, the power module
  518. flashing red.
  519. "What the futz was that?!" Hayes screamed.
  520. "Collision impact in power module, "the AI reported.
  521. "There is oscillation in the fusion containment bottle.
  522. Attempting to compensate. Shields under heavy strain.
  523. Increasing power to forward shields."
  524. "Collision? That's impo..."
  525. Another strike rang against the ship, more muted this
  526. time. Hayes swore and accessed external scan.
  527. Debris was everywhere: dust and rocks flaring past
  528. the sheilds. A larger object struck, sending visible ripples
  529. running across the shields. Those impacts, they would have
  530. been big pieces that got through. There was a scar of molten
  531. metal and vitrified rock down the flank of his ship where
  532. where the meteroid had impacted with limited effect against the
  533. collapsium armour. It looked impressive, but was superficial.
  534. Hayes switched perspectives to see the power module.
  535. He stared.
  536. The starboard unit was all right, but the port...
  537. Armour plates were buckled, the superstructure beneath
  538. rent and twisted like string. Despite the vaccum there were fires
  539. burning in there, along with the mist of escaping gasses.
  540. Electrical sparks showered from shattered conduits. The tiny
  541. motes that were repair servos scuttled around like ants defending
  542. their hive.
  543. Damage reports started coming through.
  544. The rock was inside the shields when the Aspiration
  545. had materialised, going the other way. Their relative velocities
  546. were a good five percent the speed of light. That in itself may
  547. not have been enough to breach the armour, but a combination of
  548. angle and velocity meant it struck an achillies heel. A one in a
  549. billion chance. It came in low and fast, striking a hatchway,
  550. fireballing into the power module in a blast that split the
  551. module open like an overripe fruit, taking with it the port
  552. stabiliser for the fusion reactor bottle along with the backup.
  553. The main fusion reactor! Without that stabiliser the
  554. bottle would break up. The other five could only hold it so long
  555. and despite the AI's efforts it was already beginning to oscillate
  556. wildly. Alarms and red lights blinked up right across the board,
  557. screens flashing options and readouts until Hayes shut them
  558. down.
  559. Without the main power plant he'd have to fall back on
  560. the backup plasma containment units in the command module and
  561. factory areas, but there was no way they could supply sustained
  562. power. And there was no way he could stretch out of here safely.
  563. Indicators were stretching up into the red. More
  564. alarms joined the klaxons. In the power module the housing for
  565. the fusion bottle glowed from the heat escaping the
  566. weakened containment field. Servos scurried around madly as
  567. the system tried desperately to repair the assembly. A gout of
  568. white heat erupted from the star in the centre of the reactor,
  569. fusing metal and spewing out into space.
  570. Even over the artificial gravity Hayes felt the ship yaw in
  571. reaction to the blast. Alarms raved anew.
  575. BREACHED!
  576. "Jettison!" Hayes snapped. "Blow the unit!" But the AI
  577. was seconds ahead of him. Explosive bolts detonated. Fragments
  578. of metal sprayed out into space as corridors, girders,
  579. conduits, cabling and fibrelines were severed. Umbilicals and
  580. massive gantry clamps shifted, locking bolts retracting or being
  581. shorn away. In a flash of flame the stern began to drift away. A
  582. hundred thousand tons of titanium/ceramic alloy, collapsium
  583. plate, and steel poderously separated from the rest of the
  584. Aspiration: the heart torn out of the monolith. The distance
  585. between them increased, slowly at first, but picking up speed.
  586. When it left the lee of the Aspiration the debris began impacting
  587. on it. It had little effect on the outer shell, but inevitably dust
  588. struck the exposed guts. Sparkles of light flared where kinetic
  589. energy was converted to light and heat and globules of metal.
  590. In the VR the telemetry from the engine module flashed
  591. red at the peak of its graph. CONTAINMENT FIELD COLLAPSE:
  592. 97%
  593. A sun-hot gout of liquid gasses vented from a segment
  594. of the module, setting it tumbling like a gargantuan cathrine
  595. wheel.
  596. 98%
  597. "Bring rear shields to max," Hayes snapped.
  598. "With foward shields functioning there is insuffi..."
  599. "Then CUT the forwards! NOW!"
  600. The hull could take it. . . he hoped. Provided nothing too
  601. big met him coming the other way. Even as he hoped the sounds
  602. of rock meeting metal penetrated from the distant hull. The field
  603. metres for the rear screens were up in the green.
  604. On the rear screens the tiny point that was the power
  605. module turned into a star, then into a sun, then into a glare
  606. that filled the whole screen.
  607. The sleet of radiation hit first. A wash of heat, light,
  608. electromagnetic, and hard radiation washed across the
  609. Aspiration, slipping around the screens like water off a
  610. frictionless globe. Without the shields that deluge alone would
  611. have shorted all inadequately shielded circuitry in the
  612. Aspiration, and there was enough of that floating around back
  613. there. In the control module he was probably safe, but he wasn't
  614. taking any chances.
  615. The shockwave was lagging behind, seconds behind
  616. the radiation. The spherical wavefront of expanding gasses and
  617. space debris burst past the Aspiration, rocking the vehicle even
  618. through the shielding. Solid particles struck the fields, energy
  619. flaring out like raindrops on a pond.
  620. Then the blast was past. The remnants of the short-lived
  621. sun dying into a red glow that slowly dissapated in the monitors.
  622. "Default shields," Hayes ordered, then sagged. "Mother
  623. of Mary. Damage report."
  624. A window flashed up on the screen and a list began
  625. scrolling down. There were too many to list vocally, even visually
  626. the list seemed to go on for a long time. Even the survey module
  627. had taken a battering. Without the shields the whole forward
  628. section had been sandblasted by debris, effectively taking out the
  629. forward optical array. He'd lost the primary optical scope as well
  630. as a couple of low gain antenna and camera arrays: scoured
  631. away by the dust. It wasn't too bad a drawback: he could still
  632. use the mainship's optical assemblies. Perhaps they were old
  633. and didn't have quite the res, but they would suffice.
  634. He was still sorting through the red-highlighted items
  635. in the list when the AI chimed, reporting a change in the exterior
  636. conditions: "External debris has reduced sixty three percent."
  637. Sure enough the sound of dust whispering on the hull
  638. had abated. Hayes swung the heavily shielded old opticals on
  639. the mainship to face forward. Illumination from running lights
  640. reflected from the occasional fleck or rock, but besides that
  641. there was nothing. Hayes cut the outside lamps.
  642. A single star glowed in the distance. A step up in the
  643. gain showed a couple more faint ones beyond it. Likely
  644. planets, reflecting sunlight. There were none of the other stars
  645. that should be visible.
  646. The whole system was tucked away inside a dust cloud!
  647. It was the only explanation. That was why the scanner
  648. probes had been so unreliable. That was why no stars were
  649. visible from here.
  650. Ha! He leaned back in the couch, the gel contouring to
  651. his every move. He could make a profit out of this
  652. astronomical anomoly. Single systems in a clear bubble inside a
  653. dust cloud weren't common. There was bound to be some
  654. research group interested in this, or a Corporation. If you could
  655. find a safe route in and out of here, it would be a great place to
  656. build in. Clear a single channel and defending it would be a cinch.
  657. The interface opened and he powered the chair up to see
  658. the main screen. Despite the ventilation in the interface, it seemed
  659. stiffling. He plucked a bulb of beer from the seat's cooler and
  660. snapped the top. So he could turn a profit here.
  661. Provided he could ever get out.
  662. Power was okay for the moment. The Plasma
  663. Containment Units were still well charged. It was enough to use
  664. ion thrusters; sparingly. With the plasma drive gone, he had to
  665. find some other way to dump velocity.
  666. "Pan, can you get a good scan of this system?"
  667. "Yes. There are eight planets. The outermost two are
  668. small Neptune-type ice worlds. Infrared probe of the nearest
  669. shows an atmosphere of methane-ice."
  670. A computer enhanced graphic of a blue, cold-looking
  671. sphere rotated on the screens. Spectroanalysis charts scrolled
  672. across the screen. There were trace elements, but not detectable
  673. in large amounts.
  674. "The next three are gas giants of varying mass, none
  675. larger than Jupiter. The outermost two have debris rings
  676. spiralling out to the dust cloud. I recommend further
  677. investigation of these in respect to repairs."
  678. Hayes blinked at the screen. Planets with leashes
  679. leading out into space. He had a go at the orbital mechanics
  680. involved, then gave up. It would take years by hand.
  681. The analysis of these was more promising, but those
  682. rings made them risky for what he had in mind.
  683. The next two were better. Both were rocks, the
  684. outermost with two moonlets and a small cloud of large
  685. asteroids, the innermost with none. However only the outermost
  686. one would be in the right position anytime in the next eight
  687. months.
  688. The second planet from the sun was looking much
  689. better. Of slightly less than Earth mass, with an atmosphere,
  690. three moons and coming into line nicely with the outermost
  691. Rock. It was. . . Hayes blinked and leaned leaned forward to do a
  692. double-take of the data. Distance from sun: one hundred and
  693. seventy nine million. . . It was well within the habital belt.
  694. A prime candidate for terraforming.
  695. Now he had all the reason more to get back to
  696. civilization. A system with a world that could possibly be
  697. terraformed would make his fortune. He could stake his claim and
  698. name his price. A new ship, new equipment, state of the art
  699. stuff. He could float a private enterprise!
  700. But first he needed a good look at that planet. From
  701. halfway across the system the data he could collect was limited.
  702. From closer in, or with the planet eclipsing the sun, he would be
  703. able to get a spectrograph of the atmosphere. The ships optics
  704. were old, but they were enough to obtain infra-red, UV, and
  705. detailed spectrographs. The AI could collate this, compare
  706. differences in direct solar radiations and the reflections from
  707. planetary atmospheres. It could produce a full spectrum
  708. breakdown of an atmosphere, from 300 to 800 nanometres.
  709. Certain elements would absorb certain wavelengths, producing
  710. blank absorption lines in the spectrum. It was a simple, cheap,
  711. and effective procedure, used for centuries, but of course the
  712. closer you were , the more accurate it was.
  713. The Aspiration had the velocity to make the centre of
  714. the system in a matter of days, the problem would be
  715. stopping. However, even without the main engines there were
  716. still options open.
  717. Hayes leaned forward to study the screen, scratching at
  718. his ear. "Do we have enough juice in the PCUs for orbital
  719. insertion around the second planet?"
  720. "Yes, but it would require using plasma from the
  721. refinery reserves."
  722. "How would that affect repairs?"
  723. "The smallest moon has standard gravity of .32
  724. standard. There would be insufficient fuel to soft-land the
  725. processing servos and initiate mining operations."
  726. "Okay. What about the fourth planet. If we went into
  727. an elliptical orbit around that and went after the rocks around
  728. there, would there be fuel left over?"
  729. "If a broad elliptical orbit was used: yes, it would save a
  730. great deal more mass."
  731. That should be close enough for a good reading. On
  732. impulse he asked, "Would there be enough to send the command
  733. module on to the second planet while the main body proceeded
  734. with repairs?"
  735. "If the module was launched enroute on an
  736. unpowered ballistic intercept trajectory, there would be enough.
  737. The module has ample charge to maneuver to a standard orbit.
  738. Charge would be insufficient to return to mainship."
  739. Hayes nodded. "Alright, make the course correction
  740. needed to get us to the fourth planet. I'll let you know if I want
  741. to separate the comm module."
  743. --\o/--
  746. The corridor ended abruptly, dropping away into
  747. black infinity in all directions. Titanium, SpunSteel, synthetic
  748. and collapsium forests of twisted decking and beams
  749. stretched out toward the dark. Fiberoptic cables sparkled and
  750. threw pinpoints of multicolored laserlight against jet metal.
  751. Stancions and umbilicals that had deliberately severed to jettison
  752. the power module strobed warning lights.
  753. A faint jet of escaping oxy misted the vacuum before
  754. boiling away.
  755. Somewhere an electrical source was arcing out,
  756. throwing a harsh glare against cold metal like distant lightning
  757. reflecting from stormclouds. Every time it flashed it threw a snap
  758. of static through Hayes' headset.
  759. The Agie plates in this sector were out. He floated fifty
  760. metres or so away from the ship, his line stickywadded to a wall.
  761. The twin beams from the worklamps mounted on his shoulder
  762. harness played across the kiblitzed rear of his ship. It looked like
  763. a demolished section of apartment building: huge, with the
  764. naked interior exposed.
  765. He'd spent the best of a day surveying the damage. The
  766. ship was able to handle situations like this; it was the reason it
  767. had been designed in modular sections. If that fusion plant had
  768. blown before he'd ejected it, the damage would have been a fair
  769. bit worse. Perhaps some of the collapsium plating of the outer
  770. hull would have survived, but it would have been an empty husk
  771. drifting forever. He sighed into the helmet of his hardsuit, then
  772. double-blinked at the glowing green icon that began reeling the
  773. suit in again. The winch located where the suit's navel would be
  774. began winding on braided molecular fibre.
  775. It would take a LONG time to repair and replace this. A
  776. suitable rock or rocks would have to be found. Mining servos
  777. would have to land, excavate ore and fissionables, construct
  778. processors and begin processing, then shuttle it to the ship. If
  779. there was insufficient power, the Factory would have to build
  780. makeshift fission plants, use them to jumpstart a fusion plant to
  781. power the operations.
  782. Once power was secured, the work would proceed
  783. rapidly. Part of the factory would produce more servos that'd seek
  784. out another asteroid and begin work there, changing its orbit if
  785. need be to make it more accessible. This process would repeat
  786. until there could be a dozen asteroids swarming around the
  787. mining vessel. Automated factories would start churning out the
  788. material necessary for the rebuilding of the vessel.
  789. There was a faint shock as he hit, the bright red
  790. hardsuit's powered limbs absorbing almost all of the impact.
  791. Impluse jets in the suit pulsed gas and he drifted toward the mass
  792. of grey metal and yellow and black warning legends that was
  793. the bulkhead lock."Hey, Pan! Open Sesame."
  794. The lock swung open.
  795. That was the advantage with the old model AIs he
  796. mused. They were cheap, well-tested, and they'd usually picked
  797. up an incredible database of miscellaneous vernacular.
  798. The lock sealed with a heavy thud he felt through the
  799. suit. Atmosphere and gravity came up to standard. The inner
  800. hatch cycled and he popped the seal on the faceplate. External
  801. noises and smells flooded in: the groan of the lifesupport, burnt
  802. insulation, the clattering as unseen servos laboured on whatever
  803. repairs could be done. The deck grids rang under the three
  804. hundred and fity kilo suit as Hayes walked back to the main
  805. external hatch. He had to duck in places: these areas of the ship
  806. weren't built to accommodate the bulk of a hardsuit.
  807. "Not to good," he sighed. "Any estimates on how long
  808. its going to take to rebuild?"
  809. The Aspiration's AI's reply was echoed through both the
  810. ship intercom and the suit's. "With optimum conditions my
  811. estimate is thirty months."
  812. Great! Futzing Great! Optimum conditions. Well, Murphy
  813. still ruled, so give it thirty six months, perhaps more. Three
  814. years orbiting a dead rock, digging away without even turning a
  815. profit. Kludge take it! He had expenses.
  816. Well, there was a choice he mused as he backed the suit
  817. into its bay and the clamps took hold. He fumbled after the
  818. safety releases and popped them, then keyed in the sequence on
  819. the arm pad. Hermetic seals hissed as they depressurized and
  820. the upper chest shell swung open.
  821. He didn't have to hang around. The ship was quite
  822. capable of carrying on with mining proceedures by itself. He
  823. could go on and check out that planet in the comm module. It was
  824. only a few weeks away. All he'd have to do would be to break
  825. away from the main body and make a classic Hohmann transfer
  826. to the Second, then insert into a loose elliptical orbit. That'd let
  827. the AI get some good mapping shots and all the data he'd need
  828. to stake a claim. He could sleep the transfer out in a slowsleep
  829. and be awoken by the AI to take a look at his motherlode.
  830. Hayes caught hold of the sweat-stained, chamois-lined
  831. hand grips above the suit and hauled himself out of the shell.
  832. The suit sagged into the clamps and standby beads began to
  833. glow on the limbs and around the faceplate rim. With no-one
  834. inside it, the hardsuit was a hulking inanimate red shell of
  835. composite laminate. Hayes made a final check of the status panel
  836. on the wrist, then started back to the comm module.
  837. "Pan!"
  838. "Yes, Samuel?"
  839. "Get the comm module prepped for separation and plot
  840. the most fuel-efficient approach to the second planet. Transfer
  841. the necessary fuel and allow an eight percent safety
  842. margin."He ducked through a hatch and slid down a ladder.
  843. "Yeah, also get the med unit in my quarters ready. I'm going to
  844. sleep this one out."
  845. "Acknowledged,"the AI said.
  846. "Do you see any problems?"
  847. "There is a great deal of debris in this system. The
  848. command module's shields could be overtaxed by a large strike."
  849. "What're the odds?"
  850. "Approximately two to the seventh against."
  851. Hayes shrugged and stepped aside to dodge a spider-
  852. like servo scuttling along the corridor, it's legs clattering against
  853. the deck grating. "I can live with that. Go ahead. Oh," he stopped
  854. and tapped his jaw. "Would there be enough fuel for a controlled
  855. landing?"
  856. "Unknown," the AI said. "Course alterations enroute
  857. may be required. Fuel will be required for orbital manuevering
  858. systems. Basic life support requires minimal amounts.
  859. Maintenance requires one point seven kilowatts.
  860. "In an emergency the module is capable of an
  861. unpowered landing. However the module has sustained damage.
  862. Avionics have been compromised and there is a chance of further
  863. damage, perhaps destruction of the module. Return to orbit
  864. would be impossible until the mainship arrived to ferry fuel,
  865. which would necessitate the construction of at least one lander."
  866. "Just asking," said Hayes. The main lift was located in
  867. a storage bay. The battered bins around the walls were
  868. crammed with junk, working and nonfunctional parts. There was
  869. a status panel with too many lights burning amber. The
  870. elevator's doors rumbled open when Hayes palmed the call
  871. button, then closed behind him with a hollow clang and the hiss
  872. of a vacuum seal. The lift was designed to carry thirty ton mining
  873. servos: it dwarfed a single human. When the mechanism began
  874. moving upwards there was a slight lurch as the agies
  875. compensated and a vibration felt through the feet. It should've
  876. been completely smooth: there must have been some damage to
  877. the superconducting magnetic bearings.
  878. "Pan, how long until the launch window opens?"
  879. "Four days and seventeen hours."
  880. "Okay, that gives me time to work out a shopping list.
  881. Anything you need."
  882. "A gravitic and magnetic compression fusion power
  883. core and mutistaged reactor system. Preferrably a Nikoma 270."
  884. Hayes sighed. "I was joking, Pan."
  885. "So was I."
  886. Hayes shook his head. Where'd it got that respose from?
  887. Some of its previous owners must have been real exotics.
  890. --\o/--
  894. Four days gone.
  895. Hayes tugged off his boots and stowed them then sat
  896. on the bunk, propped elbows upon knees and rubbed his eyes,
  897. carrying his fingers up and through his hair. His quarters were
  898. secured: the desk clamped down, bookcase doors closed and
  899. sealed. He'd triple checked the plants in the terrariums and
  900. assigned a couple of servos to look after them. He'd done
  901. everything he could; the AI would take care of the rest.
  902. With a sigh he lay back on the bunk watching the lights
  903. dim to a pale imitation of twilight. A small hatch in the wall on his
  904. right slid silently open and and a segmented metal arm unfolded.
  905. When it touched his right arm it felt cold, then the cold was all
  906. over his body.
  907. Status beads blinked gently to themselves in the dark
  908. room. A single monitor displayed the vital signs of the
  909. motionless figure on the bunk, but there was nobody to read it.
  910. With a gentle whine the padded bars of the safety restraint
  911. closed over the bunk.
  912. The part of the AI watching over Hayes was vigilant
  913. and eternally patient. It would never leave the bunkside, but the
  914. rest of it had other work to do.
  917. --\o/--
  921. Attitude jets fired and with the ponderous grace of a
  922. pregnant whale, the Aspiration rolled along its Z axis. Heavy
  923. mechanical noises sounded through the pressurized sections of
  924. the hull as huge clamps and umbilicals retracted. Puffs of
  925. atmosphere jetted into space, glittering in the pale light of a
  926. distant sun filtered through seven hundred million kilometres of
  927. dust.
  928. Almost delicately for an object massing over three
  929. thousand tons the sharp-angled elongated wedge that was the
  930. command module eased away from enveloping nest of metals and
  931. ceramics. Seen from inside the module, the main ship would
  932. have been a twisted landscape of cold metal hanging impossibly
  933. overhead. Against that dark hull, the whiteness of the command
  934. module was a stark contrast.
  935. A flattened white wedge the size of an ancient
  936. seagoing destroyer. Engine vents were scorched black. Its dorsal
  937. tower ran from amidships to the stern and was a change from
  938. the smooth metal that the rest of the hull consisted of, instead
  939. being covered with the pipes and gantries of umbilicals,
  940. antenna arrays, docking clamps, and access tubes.
  941. There was a series of blue flashes as the ion
  942. manoeuvering units pulsed. Rapidly the distance between the
  943. two vehicles increased as their courses diverged. A single, long,
  944. fuel hungry burn from the module's thrusters then the engines fell
  945. quiescent, not to be used again until the final days of its voyage.
  946. The only sound inside was the soft whisper of dust against the
  947. shields.
  948. In both vessels the presence of the AI maintained a
  949. constant vigil. It wasn't difficult for it to duplicate its functions
  950. and store a copy in each vessel, but the primary backups still
  951. resided in the command module. The duplicate in the mainship
  952. was slightly slower, because of its smaller memory, dumber,
  953. simply because it didn't have the hardware available in the
  954. module. Nevertheless, it was still quite capable of doing its job.
  955. A pulsed gravity tightbeam of binary bursts linked the two
  956. vessels, a system that didn't suffer from the time-lag posed by
  957. standard radio, but like the stretch drive, it couldn't be used near
  958. any object of great mass. If the mainship encountered a problem
  959. it couldn't handle by itself, the module could download a section
  960. of memory to help it.
  961. But for the next few weeks the only problem likely to
  962. be posed came from stray rocks. Until something happened,
  963. the machine/s were content to watch over and maintain their
  964. dark vessels, deserted of organics, only the multitudes of servos
  965. scurrying about their mechanical ways.
  968. --\o/--
  972. First there was the cold, then close on its heels the
  973. aching of pins and needles through his limbs.
  974. Where? He groped after the elusive thought,
  975. struggling with ideas as sluggish as bubbles in molasses.
  976. Who?
  977. Hayes, uhnnn...Samuels Mason. Privateer. ID
  978. GRMC1067...uh...488, running the class five miner TMC 172
  979. Aspiration. Why was it so difficult to think?
  980. The answer was there, it was just beyond reach...
  981. There was a cool touch on his arm and a slight sting and
  982. a throbbing. A warmth suffused his arm. For a time he lay
  983. twitching, as helpless as a babe
  984. Oh...suspension.
  985. He opened his eyes to a glaring light and pink floaters
  986. spinning. He blinked several times, hard, and his vision cleared.
  987. His quarters, with the lights dim and comfortable, the
  988. psuedowooden panelling glowing warmly, the globular gunmetal
  989. shape of a hovering servo grasping a cup in one manipulator.
  990. It was a few minutes more before Hayes was capable
  991. of sitting up to drink. The AI was familiar with the dehydrating
  992. effects coma had on the body and its mechanical extension had
  993. prepared water laced with a glucose supplement. Hayes took it
  994. gratefully.
  995. "Murphy! I hate coma!" grated Hayes. Still, the
  996. discomfort of waking was still preferable to the long days of
  997. insystem travel. Strange that to travel from planet to planet took
  998. longer than a stretch from on sun to another.
  999. The water helped.
  1000. "Samuel, you are recovered?"
  1001. "Uh-huh. Thanks, Pan. We there yet?"
  1002. "No."
  1003. "What?" Hayes looked up in surprise. "Why?"
  1004. "Remote surveys on the second planet have been
  1005. completed and pilot intervention is required."
  1006. Hayes sat upright. Autonomous units rarely required
  1007. human assistance. When they did, it was for a damn good reason.
  1008. "Okay, what's going on?"
  1009. "The primary survey reported a planet orbiting at a
  1010. mean distance of 160.37 million kilometres. The equatorial diameter
  1011. is 11,412 kilometres. Polar diameter is 11,386. Mass estimated at
  1012. 4.9837x10^24 kilograms. Atmosphere consists mainly of nitrogen,
  1013. 76 percent, and oxygen 23 percent. The remaining percentage
  1014. consists of various noble gases, water vapour, and carbon
  1015. dioxide."
  1016. It had taken a few seconds to percolate through
  1017. Hayes' skull. Now it hit him, but still it took a second for his brain
  1018. to engage the gears to his jaws.
  1019. "Th...That's earth norm."
  1020. "Not exactly. There is a fluc..."
  1021. "Burn it!" Hayes exploded. "It's close enough!" He
  1022. swung out of the bunk and lurched to his feet, cursing as
  1023. he wove unsteadily. "Pan, put the data up on the screen in here."
  1024. On the other side of the room the mirror above the old
  1025. wooden desktop turned mat black and graphics and text filled the
  1026. space. Hayes wobbled over and dropped into the chair to begin
  1027. reading.
  1028. "...Average pressure an estimated 915 millibars.
  1029. Temperature 15 degrees. A well-developed atmosphere, ozone
  1030. layer...ionosphere...This isn't happening."
  1031. The information continued to scroll through the screen
  1032. as Hayes flopped back in the chair and stared in disbelief.
  1035. --\o/--
  1039. In the five centuries after mankind had left his
  1040. motherworld he had ranged far and wide across his galactic arm.
  1041. Probes and huge exploration ships had stretched thousands of
  1042. light years in all direction, on journeys that had taken decades.
  1043. On charts the bubble that indicated the settled, civilized areas of
  1044. human space was hundreds of light years in radius and still
  1045. infinitesimal against the area that represented explored space.
  1046. In all that time, in spite of all the expenditure of effort
  1047. and resources, no planet capable of supporting humans without
  1048. artificial support had been discovered. There were
  1049. the terraforming projects: very expensive and time
  1050. consuming and artificial. Mars was a garden paradise, catering
  1051. only to the obscenely affluent, but it was simply an imitation,
  1052. another earth, with imported terran flora and fauna.
  1053. Here, before Hayes' eyes, was a world that would
  1054. require little - if any - work. The brilliant blue, green, brown, and
  1055. white promised a world abundant in water, with seas and sunsets
  1056. and wind and rain...all the natural phenomena Hayes had only
  1057. ever seen simulated in a habitat. And the greens...
  1058. He spent hours at the screens watching the world,
  1059. studying the surface through every instrument at his disposal.
  1060. Those green patterns and the amounts of nitrogen and carbon
  1061. dioxide in the atmosphere could only mean life. Prolific life in
  1062. the form of plants, perhaps some lower animals too. Unless
  1063. some terran seedship he didn't know about had visited here, it
  1064. was alien life. Pure and exotic.
  1065. Aside form intense natural atmospheric discharges, there
  1066. were no electrical emanations of any kind that he could detect,
  1067. nor any sign of city lights or aerial activity. There was nothing
  1068. in orbit that might pass for any kind of spacecraft so there was
  1069. no unknown colony there, no civilisations.
  1070. Uncharted and unclaimed and uninhabited. It was his
  1071. fortune, something he'd never dared to even dream. Seen from
  1072. space a sunrise takes on a glory all its own, the dark shield
  1073. burning like a crescent of fire-gold as the sun rose from beyond
  1074. the curve of the horizon. Its three moons arrayed in stately rings,
  1075. like necklaces, the two smaller satellites on a much closer orbit
  1076. than their larger companion. A gem. An oasis in a desert.
  1077. It was his future.
  1078. "Hayes, when you strike it lucky, you don't kludge
  1079. around!" For this he could name his price. He'd have
  1080. companies throwing themselves at his feet for the rights to the
  1081. claim. A bit of careful playing and he'd be set for life.
  1082. It couldn't be that easy. There had to be a drawback
  1083. somewhere: perhaps severe tectonic activity or solar flares,
  1084. probably new kinds of bacteria that would prove inimical. If so,
  1085. selling out would be the best way. A corporation had the
  1086. wherewithall to cope with such things. However if, on the other
  1087. hand, it was clean, perhaps he could develop it himself, lease the
  1088. land out to companies. In the long run that would work out to be
  1089. far more lucrative. The place wouldn't be worth much as far as
  1090. mining went: it was far cheaper to hunt rocks. But as a resort, a
  1091. toy-town, it had definite possibilities.
  1092. Could he do that?
  1093. Again he turned his eyes to the glowing gem on the
  1094. screen. It pained him to look on such a thing, a thing of beauty,
  1095. and picture it as a tourist trap. Hell, people would pay a fortune
  1096. just to live in an orbital overlooking a world like this. What
  1097. would this picture look like with the glitter of hundreds of
  1098. tincans swinging around the planet?
  1099. The rim of fire around the planet was spreading,
  1100. washing across oceans and continent until a cresent glowed
  1101. blue-green with white clouds swirling in patterns dictated by
  1102. coriolis force.
  1103. Hayes breathed out in reverence as he watched the
  1104. day spreading across the planet. Softly he murmured, "I dub
  1105. thee Illuminatus."
  1106. "Registered," the AI said.
  1109. --\o/--
  1113. Days later and more details were visible. Without the
  1114. main telescope the AI was restricted, but still the database had
  1115. collated large amounts of data with just the limited low
  1116. resolution optical, gravitational, and electromagnetic sensors
  1117. available. Like Terra, the planet was mostly water: 62 percent
  1118. water to 38 percent land. Most of that land went into one huge
  1119. continent stretching across two hemispheres. Aside from that
  1120. there were two polar land masses as well as numerous islands
  1121. scattered about the vast ocean.
  1122. The continent was impresseve, Hayes concluded.
  1123. Covering over 70 million square kilometres, an area far greater
  1124. than any one continent on Terra. Its westernmost seaboard was
  1125. gentle land climbing to a formidible mountain range forming the
  1126. backbone running the length of the landmass.
  1127. But compared with the crater on the eastern seaboard
  1128. they were inconsequential.
  1129. Hayes whistled as he watched the graphic the computer
  1130. traced on the screen. "That must've been one mother of a bang
  1131. when that one hit."
  1132. It was ancient, incredibly so, and distorted by tectonic
  1133. drift, but it was still recognisable. Two thousand kilometres
  1134. across it was still roughly circular except where the ocean took a
  1135. semi-circular bite out of it. The crater wall had deteriorated. On
  1136. the landward side it was now white-capped mountain ranges,
  1137. ranks of huge mountains that joined with the chain running
  1138. down the centre of the continent. Even part of the rim that had
  1139. been breached by the ocean survived as an arc of islands
  1140. separated by narrow channels. The crater floor was landscaped
  1141. with rolling plains. Doubtless the asteroid had fused vast
  1142. expanses of the ground to glass when it had struck, however
  1143. natural process had prevailed and now there was plant life,
  1144. showing green and gold. The glittering threads of rivers twisted
  1145. their way to the sea and
  1146. Hayes could just make out the lighter wash where they
  1147. discharged sediment.
  1148. Murphy, how he wished for the high power optics! He'd
  1149. have been able to count the trees in a forest. As the situation
  1150. stood, he could either make do with these low -quality pictures,
  1151. or get closer...
  1152. Was it possible?
  1155. --\o/--
  1159. The AI hemmed and hawed for a while, reminding Hayes
  1160. that if the module grounded it would have to wait for the
  1161. mainship to arrive before it could lift again.
  1162. "I know," he shrugged. "But why sit in orbit doing
  1163. nothing when I might as well be down there looking around. Even
  1164. if I have to do it in a hardsuit."
  1165. "The planet is an unknown. There could be dangers..."
  1166. Hayes snorted. "Can you name anything down there
  1167. that'd have a hope of penetrating a collapsium hull?"
  1168. That got it. The computer hesitated a second, then
  1169. confessed, "Nothing that would have a greater than a five and a
  1170. half million chance of happening. Also there would be a problem
  1171. in maintaining communications with the mainship. There is a
  1172. choice between radio contact or launching a relay satellite."
  1173. "Go with the sat," Hayes said. "Do we have a power
  1174. sat on board?"
  1175. "No. The only units in the bays are three Boeing NJVC
  1176. MK6 communication relays."
  1177. They would have been useful for a little extra power, but
  1178. no matter. Hayes ran a demographic program for a forecast if he
  1179. continued to consume fuel at the current rate and spent a minute
  1180. studying the results. No problem. A smooth landing would
  1181. leave more than ample mass in the containment fields for
  1182. lifesupport and other basic functions.
  1183. The final approach he would make at a shallow angle;
  1184. still more savings on fuel. That would enable the module to
  1185. make several orbits of Illuminatus, altitude decaying all the time,
  1186. during which the cameras could take more detailed survey
  1187. pictures.
  1188. He pondered over a landing zone.
  1189. In the electronic web of the VR interface he spun a
  1190. three dimensional simulation of Illuminatus in full colour and
  1191. floated above it. From forty-thousand kilometres the land was
  1192. shades of green, the white-capped mountains looking like paper
  1193. crumpled, then spread out again. A twitch of an eye and the
  1194. planet spun beneath him, thousands of kilometres of sea and
  1195. islands blurring past. The coastline appeared as a streak of white
  1196. clouds on the horizon then was below him. Another twitch and
  1197. it slowed to a crawl. Hayes flicked a sequence of command
  1198. signals, as fluent as a virtuoso on a lightboard, and the eastern
  1199. seaboard began to drift beneath him.
  1200. Where?
  1201. The land was mind-bogglingly huge! He'd never been
  1202. on anything larger than a planetoid that he could circumnavigate
  1203. in a standard day...on foot. Here there were plains that would take
  1204. weeks to cross. Or mountains ten kilometres high.
  1205. The crater drifted into view.
  1206. An area small enough to be covered by drones. A
  1207. varied topology and - hopefully - biology. Again, why not?
  1208. Hayes wondered what the seaside was like.
  1211. --\o/--
  1215. High above the blue-white curve of the planet the
  1216. ship's engines fired, nudging the module from its orbit. Sunlight
  1217. glared from white surfaces as the vehicle rolled, turning its belly
  1218. to the planet.
  1219. The window was open. The command module began its descent.
  1220. From the cocoon of the VR interface Hayes monitored
  1221. the entry. There was little he could do, the AI was quite capable
  1222. of controlling the ship and could respond far faster than he
  1223. could. The Aspiration's AI had a vast battery of sensors
  1224. feeding it information. There was a database larger than the
  1225. libraries of earth it could use to cross-reference the data, then
  1226. cables of laser light transmitted its reactions. All done in the
  1227. time a Human was deciding something was wrong. With one of
  1228. the neural networks a human could match a computer for
  1229. reaction time, but not for the accuracy. There was a far greater
  1230. chance of the jellyware making a mistake than the hardware.
  1231. So Hayes watched as the planet spun around him,
  1232. inverting until he hung over it. This was realtime, the cameras on
  1233. full resolution. Off to the sides green displays flickered, denoting
  1234. altitude, speed relative to the planet, angle of attack, and
  1235. various beads showing the condition of ship's systems.
  1236. Then more indicators flashed to life as the ship skimmed
  1237. the outer exosphere at Mach 27.
  1238. All cameras were rolling, probbing the planet in the
  1239. visible spectrum, infrared, ultraviolet, X-ray. As the module eased
  1240. into a descent angle at -45 degrees latitude the AI set aside a
  1241. block of memory for sorting and storing the influx of information.
  1242. What it was especially interested in was the landing zone.
  1243. Illuminatus sped by beneath as the ship's speed
  1244. decreased.
  1245. On the horizon a brilliant smear of white appeared,
  1246. resolving into a swirling cloud formation covering a swatch of the
  1247. western seaboard. The cameras could pick up flashes of
  1248. lightning among the thunderheads. Scans of the terrain below
  1249. went to shit.
  1250. Hayes cursed.
  1251. Minutes later and it was past them, but the AI had
  1252. gathered enough to confirm the landing zone.
  1253. A hundred kilometres up. Braking. The ship shuddering
  1254. as it began to enter atmosphere proper. Stubby flanges unfolded
  1255. from the flanks of the ship and twisted, disrupting the airflow
  1256. around the superheated hull.
  1257. Speed was sliced to Mach 15.
  1258. The sea was below them. Sub-tropical waters stretched
  1259. away blue and serene. Reefs - or something analogous to them -
  1260. became obvious as they interfered with currents around the
  1261. islands and atols. If there was coral, Hayes knew, there was at
  1262. the very least life beyond plants. By the looks of the reefs they
  1263. were big enough, old enough, that something considerably
  1264. more complex should have evolved.
  1265. Still there was no sign of any electrical activity. No
  1266. lights beyond natural fires and volcanic vents.
  1267. Hours later and again the continent was creeping up
  1268. over the horizon to the east. This time the sharp edge of
  1269. darkness was spreading across the face of the land.
  1270. Mach 10 as the module crossed the dark ranges down
  1271. the heart of the continent.
  1272. At ten kilometres there was air enough to generate a thin
  1273. whine around the stubby fins of the module and send wisps of
  1274. superheated vapour curling away as the ship bellied in.
  1275. Aeronautically speaking, the Aspiration was a brick. A
  1276. very heavy brick. The stubby control surfaces were for
  1277. directional control, with no hope of keeping the vehicle aloft. As
  1278. the crater wall approached they came into play, slewing the ship
  1279. into an S shaped approach. Velocity dropped on every turn, as
  1280. did altitude.
  1281. Now there was a cushion of white hot air washing
  1282. against the module's underside. Streams of fire fled back from
  1283. the stubby wings as the final mountain passed and it was above
  1284. the crater rim, the terrain hidden by bank upon bank of clouds,
  1285. glowing silver in the light of the three moons. In the distance
  1286. lighting flickered.
  1287. Louvered slots opened in the module's underbelly:
  1288. ramjets venting short bursts of high-velocity superheated air.
  1289. The ship levelled, banked, describing a slow spiral down to
  1290. five, then two kilometres. Hayes was transfixed, the first wisps
  1291. of cirrus clouds flashing past, turned to phosphorescent glory
  1292. by the moonlight. A...bird. He'd seen some of them once in a
  1293. reckhab: colourful feathered things fluttering around the
  1294. lightcore and fouling the airplant.
  1295. "Two minutes to wing deployment," the AI informed
  1296. him.
  1297. Barely above Mach 2, the ship levelled and lined itself
  1298. up, then flared. The entire vessel shuddered, superdense metal
  1299. booming as the airflow buffeted it, wrenching at the control
  1300. surfaces. Air brakes sprang from the hull and the plasma
  1301. retros fired a controlled burst. Numerics in the pilot's display
  1302. flickered madly as the vehicle gained altitude, slowing to the point
  1303. of a stall.
  1304. The AI timed it as only a machine can. With faultless
  1305. precision the parafoil exploded and unfolded from its pod on the
  1306. dorsal ridge. Like a vast jellyfish the transparent canopy
  1307. snapped into shape with a boom to drown the thunder as the
  1308. slipstream caught it. The two and a half square kilometres of
  1309. monomolecular compressed Singlex that composed the parafoil
  1310. was pulled taut, but in no danger of tearing despite the thousands
  1311. of tonnes it was supporting.
  1312. Now it had wings. Almost silently, with an occasional jet
  1313. of fire from a thruster, the module dipped and spiraled down into
  1314. the grey cotton of the thunderheads.
  1317. --\o/--
  1321. The video screens were blotted out by the clouds,
  1322. displaying only swirling mists and droplets of moisture
  1323. punctuated by a flash as lighting rippled through a cloud. The
  1324. entire ship trembled slightly as it ran through severe
  1325. turbulence. The external broad-band monitors - IF, UV, etc -
  1326. were hindered, periodically dissolving into white-out as
  1327. electrical discharges crackled around them.
  1328. Silently the Aspiration's command module flashed
  1329. across a breach in the clouds, the ground below clear for a split
  1330. second, then plunged into the cloud banks again.
  1331. Hayes' watched the green bar of the artificial horizon tilt
  1332. then level off again as the ship's inertial navigation system
  1333. homed in on the designated landing zone. Altitude continued to
  1334. drop, below 5,000, the airspeed at just over 700 klicks.
  1335. They dropped out from the low cloud cover and the
  1336. starlite cameras flicked in. Flat plains were passing below the ship.
  1337. Once they crossed what looked like a long line of forest.
  1338. Growing along a river? Hayes looked around with fascination,
  1339. seeing as if the bulk of the ship wasn't there. The plains seemed to
  1340. stretched off to the horizon, to merge with the dark wall of
  1341. mountains supporting the roof of clouds.
  1342. Long minutes passed in silence.
  1343. When it came, the AI's voice startled him, saying,
  1344. "Landing may be rough."
  1345. The altimeter was counting down, the final couple of
  1346. hundred feet flashing by too quickly. Speed was 267 klicks.
  1347. Altitude into two digits...
  1348. Shallow gullies flashed by, then an impact that rattled
  1349. his teeth and pounded him against the restraint web. Anti-
  1350. inertial systems fluctuated under the strain. Cameras went dark.
  1351. hull and structural supports boomed and screamed. At the rear of
  1352. the craft struts integral to the ship's docking facilities were bent
  1353. and crumpled as it hit stern-first, gouging a huge rut through the
  1354. alien earth.
  1355. The sound of wind and rain in grass was joined by
  1356. the ticking and groaning of cooling metal.
  1359. --\o/--
  1363. A thermal lance glared like a miniature sun, throwing
  1364. dancing shadows and sparks as the servos swarmed over the
  1365. damaged section of inner hull, cutting wreckage apart. Other units
  1366. carted the scrap away.
  1367. Hayes blinked away the afterimages and shook his
  1368. head, sending the beam of his lamp bobbing around the
  1369. crawlspace. Not good. The collapsium section of the hull had
  1370. held well, but in this section of the stern, standard
  1371. titanium/collapsium composite structural supports inside the hull
  1372. had failed. It would take a while to replace them. There was other
  1373. damage, mostly minimal: here a cracked coolant pipe, a strap
  1374. breaking and sending a piece of equipment careening and
  1375. smashing a console. The parafoil was being salvaged, ready for
  1376. recycling.
  1377. The crawlways riddled the ship behind the walls, under
  1378. the floors, in the ceilings. They were close, cramped, and dark.
  1379. Hayes hated them. He swore as a servo scuttled past him,
  1380. clattering along the wall on its six legs. He hated these damned
  1381. places and his mild claustrophobia - unusual in a spacer - didn't
  1382. make it easier, but he made a point of eyeballing things himself.
  1383. He paused to open an inspection panel, spending a
  1384. few seconds to trace the optical connection inside, then pulled
  1385. a cable from his wrist Nexus and jacked it into a port. The
  1386. holographic display glowed to life above the Nexus and Hayes'
  1387. fingers played across the lists of files, selecting a diagnostics
  1388. program. Circuit after circuit was tested by the wrist unit, all
  1389. coming up green.
  1390. While the program ran, Hayes leaned back and sighed.
  1391. Wedged into a stuffy tube while a whole planet waited outside...
  1392. "Hey! Pan!"
  1393. The intercomm indicator on the Nexus flashed on.
  1394. "Yes, Samuel?"
  1395. "Are the tests done yet?"
  1396. "The medical systems are examining samples as fast
  1397. as possible. I have dispatched a pair of remote servos to collect
  1398. samples from remote areas. So far no inimical bacteria have been
  1399. found, however at least another day of testing is required to be
  1400. reasonably certain a human can survive without protection. The
  1401. longer the testing period the better.
  1402. "Preliminary soil analysis reveals an abundance of
  1403. silicates, also large quantities of lead, gold, silver, zinc, copper,
  1404. mercury, and tin. There are low trace readings of iron, nickle. Rare
  1405. earth elements..."
  1406. "Hold it," Hayes raised a hand to interrupt. "That's not a
  1407. representative sampling, is it."
  1408. "That is just in this area."
  1409. "Well, get some more servos out to take more
  1410. samples. There're two geoprobes on board: use em and get back
  1411. to me with the results." The diagnostics had come up clean. He
  1412. unjacked the plug and closed the inspection panel. "Now, what
  1413. I'm interested in is if I can live out there."
  1414. The AI hesitated. It was designed to protect its
  1415. operator and it was old enough that it had had experience with a
  1416. wide sampling of humans. That experience told it they would
  1417. often take risks a machine would deem unnecessary. At the
  1418. moment it was seventy-three percent certain a human could
  1419. survive unaided. A human might decided to risk it, therefore...
  1420. "Insufficient data."
  1423. --\o/--
  1427. This day the view in the holorals was real. Hayes tended
  1428. his plants with panoramas of seemingly endless plains around
  1429. him. The grasses were golden, blending to a slight purple where
  1430. they met the sky. Patterns of light changed as wind riffled
  1431. through the stalks. He spread some more nutrient on the plant
  1432. beds and turned the sprinkler system on low. The transparent
  1433. display cases housing the plants filled with mist.
  1434. Was that what those distant cloud-topped mountains
  1435. would be like? Massive peaks enshrouded in mists?
  1436. Murphy, but he longed to be out there. Fifteen years
  1437. he'd spent in this ship, but suddenly it seemed close. A new world
  1438. and it was just beyond those walls. The holorals weren't the
  1439. same thing at all.
  1440. Out of idle interest he called up a window in one of the
  1441. holorals, listing the data coming in. Some of it was beyond his
  1442. ken. Molecular biology, complex organic chemistry. The AI was
  1443. recording EVERYTHING.
  1444. Hayes shook his head and went across to open a
  1445. storage cabinet. The small package he pulled out was of genuine
  1446. tooled leather, the tiny blades and trimmers inside shiny, razor
  1447. sharp. He spread it out on the biograss beside him as he set
  1448. himself down tailor-fashion, selected a pair of tiny clippers and
  1449. began trimming the delicate branches and needles away.
  1450. "Samuel."
  1451. "Hmmm?"He didn't look up from his work.
  1452. "A servo has caught a local animal. It's being brought
  1453. back to the module now."
  1454. Now he looked up."What is it? What kind?"
  1455. "A small herbivore. Quadraped. Perhaps analogous to
  1456. an terran rabbit."
  1457. "A what?"
  1458. An archive picture appeared on a holoral. A small
  1459. furry creature with long pointed ears and big hind legs. It
  1460. hopped around the screen, looking harmless. Beside it the AI
  1461. showed a computer reconstruction of the Illuminatus equivalent:
  1462. round ears like furry radar dishes, bulbous black eyes, black nose,
  1463. and long whiskers. It ran, didn't hop.
  1464. When the servo scurried back to a service lock it was
  1465. carrying a limp bundle with a laser burn through the base of its
  1466. skull. More servos met it to seal the prize into a cannister and cart
  1467. the package into the heart of the ship.
  1468. Hayes leaned against the transparent plex isolating
  1469. the sterile medical bay watching the multiple lenses and
  1470. manipulators of surgical servos hovering over the small carcass
  1471. on the table. Already there were more probes and sensors stuck
  1472. onto and into it than any human patient would warrant. When the
  1473. scalpels came out he watched for a second, then grimaced and
  1474. turned away. "Christo! People used to EAT that?"
  1475. He walked back to the elevator and leaned against the
  1476. back wall, watching the door close: "Main deck." The lift
  1477. moved smoothly. "Pan, how are the tests going?"
  1478. The AIs voice came back as unperturbed as ever. "The
  1479. creature is a female, warm blooded and marsupial-"
  1480. "Marsupial?"
  1481. "A mammal of the order Marsupialia. The young are
  1482. ejected from the womb before they are completely developed and
  1483. complete their term in an external pouch. On Terra these
  1484. include kangaroos, wallabies, bandicoots, opossums, and
  1485. wombats. Found principally in the Australian region and South
  1486. and central America."
  1487. "Right. Thanks."
  1488. "Warm blooded and marsupial with a rapid, carbon-
  1489. based metabolism. Blood temperature is approximately twenty-
  1490. seven degrees with a probable pressure of about 30/20. Amino
  1491. acid groups have been broken down into - "
  1492. "Hey! Just a second!"The elevator stopped, the doors
  1493. opening and Hayes exiting. "Look, I just want to know, can I
  1494. live out there?"
  1495. The hesitation was so slight Hayes never noticed. "So
  1496. far tissue biopsies have detected no inimical bacteria. However,
  1497. there are proportionally large amounts of lead and potassium in
  1498. the animal's system. Ingesting native fauna or water would prove
  1499. hazardous or fatal in the long term."
  1500. Hayes entered the living area where his pruning tools
  1501. were still spread out on the floor. He knelt to pack them back
  1502. into their places and rolled the kit up. The plants were beautiful,
  1503. organic masterpieces of life, but still the terrariums were poor
  1504. mockeries of the verdant excesses outside. Standing before a
  1505. holoral he could see the wind in the grasses, he could see the
  1506. clouds and mountains, all as clear as if they were just beyond a
  1507. window. But it wasn't even that satisfying.
  1508. He stared into the holoral for a while longer, tapping his
  1509. hand indecisively against his leg, then spun on his heel and made
  1510. for the lift.
  1512. --\o/--
  1515. Metal decking grids rang under his feet when he stepped
  1516. from the lift, drowning the hum as the door closed. Low
  1517. intensity worklamps powered up as he entered, illuminating a
  1518. room with cargo doors running off to bays and the heavy seals
  1519. of the dorsal access hatch. Normally used when docking with a
  1520. habitat or another ship, it was now dogged tight.
  1521. The walls were white chitite, battered but clean,
  1522. convoluted with the molded doors of lockers and storage bins
  1523. with their bright legends and warning logos. Hayes pressed his
  1524. right wrist against a locker, the imbedded chip popping the door.
  1525. There was an assortment of equipment inside, from packs to
  1526. work lights, including four suits: a fairly recent model red-shelled
  1527. hardsuit and three softsuits: two of those Kisuki-Ford models
  1528. over fifty years old, their green pectoral armour and smartseal
  1529. fabric scarred. The last was an Altair Fabrications softsuit,
  1530. barely three years old, gleaming white. Hayes checked the
  1531. diagnostic, then unplugged it from the support systems.
  1532. As light as an off-the-rack standard suit, highly flexible,
  1533. it was his suit of preference for areas too restricting for a
  1534. hardsuit. It had damned effective life-support and recycling
  1535. facilities, chameleon capabilities, and best of all the Flexlink outer
  1536. layer was impact armour: for all intensive purposes puncture
  1537. proof.
  1538. Hayes separated the suit into its components, then
  1539. stripped off his boots, pants, underwear, and nexus, leaving his
  1540. tunic, and pulled the suit's lower half on. There was an
  1541. uncomfortable moment as the catheters lodged themselves in
  1542. place. The inside lining inflated to hug his legs. The boots
  1543. with their nearindestructable high-grip soles bonded with the
  1544. leggings, the seam almost imperceptible. As with the leggings,
  1545. the padded jacket's lining adjusted itself to fit.
  1546. "Samuel."
  1547. Hayes picked a set of gauntlets off their rack and
  1548. stuffed them into a pocket. There was no point in trying to ignore
  1549. an AI: If they wanted to talk they'd generate a subroutine to
  1550. keep trying until they got your attention. You'd go mad before
  1551. they got bored.
  1552. "Yeah?"
  1553. "You are intending to leave the ship?"
  1554. "Uh-huh."
  1555. "That is not wise. There are still tests to be completed. I
  1556. do not have the facilities to be entirely-"
  1557. "Pan, you have the specs for this suit."
  1558. "Yes."
  1559. "What are the chances of bacteria penetrating if it's
  1560. sealed?"
  1561. "Close to zero."
  1562. "Fine. Sas. Then I'm going out. No more debate...that's
  1563. an order."
  1564. "Acknowledged."
  1565. Hayes grunted and pulled a helmet from its charging
  1566. sockets. He pressed the TEST stud and the status beads glowed
  1567. green. Power cells full, respirator cycling perfectly, software
  1568. diagnostics reading 100%.
  1569. From another locker he withdrew a canteen and
  1570. ratcakes, packing the canteen into its place in his suit and
  1571. the concentrates into an empty pouch. He hesitated over the
  1572. emergency flares, then shrugged, grabbed a handful of thermal
  1573. flares and seismic charges and stuffed them into the suit's
  1574. dispenser.
  1575. He sealed the locker, then pondered for a second and
  1576. crossed the room to another bin. His Personal Ident Chip
  1577. unlocked it. The thing they'd found, the psuedo-rabbit...pabbit?
  1578. had over-developed eyes and ears. It had powerful legs for
  1579. running. It burrowed. That meant there was something it had
  1580. evolved to flee and hide from.
  1581. Predators.
  1582. And perhaps there were things that didn't make these
  1583. little pabbits their exclusive diet.
  1584. The universe was a dangerous place, a place it was not
  1585. wise to journey in unless prepared. Asides from nature, there
  1586. was always the human factor. Privateers and Jumpers lurked in
  1587. the outermost regions of human habitation and on the fringes of
  1588. the space lanes. Skirmishes between systems and habitats did
  1589. happen. A century ago the Aspiration had been involved in a
  1590. minor war, the old miner being commandeered and fitted with
  1591. missile, railgun, and plasma cannon pods to blockade a
  1592. stretchpoint. She had one kill - an old heavy carrier retrofitted to
  1593. transport batteries of thermonuke pulse-bombs.
  1594. Those old railguns were still there: seven pods on the
  1595. mainship still harboured the turrets with their coiled gravitic
  1596. accelerators. They were used for destroying any rocks that may
  1597. wander too close to a mining installations, also for persuading
  1598. privateers to keep their distance.
  1599. Risk didn't only travel outside the habitats. There were
  1600. places, especially the refineries and Markets, where only the
  1601. incredibly brave or foolish went without some form of life
  1602. assurance. Hayes preferred the type with a barrel or blade.
  1603. The locker was filled with a clutter of weaponry
  1604. collected by Hayes and previous ships owners, from Bowies to
  1605. old chemical firearms to more recent plasma sprayers. Most of
  1606. them were antipersonnel: effective against humans but of little
  1607. effect against a vital bulkhead or life-support equipment. They
  1608. were all in mint condition, the servos breaking them down to clean
  1609. regularly.
  1610. He wanted something lightweight, with enough punch
  1611. to stop anything that might have a chance of doing him some
  1612. damage, even in the skinsuit. Something that also made an
  1613. impressive bang. He choose an electrothermochemical handgun
  1614. with an explosive load. Big, angular, and black, the tribarreled
  1615. weapon was psychologically reassuring, but the water cylinder
  1616. needed replacing, as did the battery. It took a while to hunt
  1617. down the replacements, but when installed they worked perfectly.
  1618. Clipped to his belt the weight of the weapon was a
  1619. reassurance.
  1621. --\o/--
  1623. Through its multitude of eyes and other sensors the
  1624. AI watched Hayes prepping the suit. Through suit monitors it
  1625. saw his elevated pulse and blood pressure, his accelerated
  1626. breathing. In its own way, the machine too felt concern, part of it
  1627. compelled to persuade him to stop and wait, but countermanded
  1628. by Hayes' order. Again it scanned the ship's perimeter with
  1629. every local sensor available, then it switched to the drones and
  1630. servos, sections of its personality monitoring over twenty eyes
  1631. scuttling though the grass or skimming the plains nearby.
  1632. Pabbits dived for their burrows as the shadow of an
  1633. aerial passed overhead. Large herbivores stopped grazing and
  1634. stared at a servo from bulbous eyes, but nowhere did it detect
  1635. anything that would warrant overriding Hayes' order for
  1636. noninterference.
  1637. Still it 'felt' anxiety. Submolecular gateways rippled in
  1638. indecision, the arrays favouring overriding Hayes' order losing
  1639. out. It needed more data before it could sway the balance. There
  1640. were discrepancies in the final aerial images, so the machine
  1641. allocated more processing time to analysing these. If there was
  1642. something there, it would find it.
  1644. --\o/--
  1647. The decontamination spray smelt like pine needles and
  1648. sea air and tingled as it touched the skin then dried almost
  1649. instantly. The light in the battered whiteness of the main lock
  1650. increased to an uncomfortable level, then faded back to normal
  1651. intensity.
  1652. Hayes blinked, rubbed his eyes and pulled the
  1653. faceplate down. With a hiss it sealed and double-locked.
  1654. Pressure in the lock dropped and the suit expanded as the
  1655. atmosphere was evacuated, pumped back into the ship. For a
  1656. second the lock was in hard vacuum, then the pressure returned
  1657. as air was pumped back in, air from the outside.
  1658. Atmosphere inside and out equalized. Warning legends
  1659. lit up and strobes flashed. Locking bolts rotated and withdrew.
  1660. The seals on the door cracked and the massive hatch slid out,
  1661. then sideways.
  1662. Helmet polarisors came on as sunlight flooded into the
  1663. dock. It wasn't the raw, searing stuff of near-stellar space,
  1664. unfiltered light that could blind eyes and sear skin tissues. This
  1665. light was slightly harsher than the illumination in the Aspiration;
  1666. maybe moderately uncomfortable to human eyes, but not
  1667. terminal.
  1668. Hayes stepped out of the lock: cautiously. The ramp
  1669. and docking umbilicals that would be available at a habitat
  1670. weren't there and the hatch opened onto the port side of the hull,
  1671. high up, so it was a long way down. Cautiously he was picking
  1672. his way across exposed conduits and connections, then he
  1673. froze, eyes widening in awe.
  1674. The horizon was endless, greens and dusty golds and
  1675. hazy purples, the sky...it was nothing like the depth of space,
  1676. nothing like the sharp pinpoints of the stars as seen from a cold
  1677. rock: a boundless blue emptiness that captured the eye and drew
  1678. it in, deeper and deeper.
  1679. Hayes swayed and caught at a flex pipe to steady
  1680. himself. A glance down and he swallowed. Beyond the docking
  1681. clamps was the platform of the external lift and beyond that the
  1682. hull dropped away, straight down.
  1683. He couldn't count the times he'd stepped out of this
  1684. very lock when going EVA, but this was so different, so
  1685. impossibly different. Of course he wasn't afraid of heights: no
  1686. deep spacer was. He could hang from a belt clamp over a five
  1687. hundred metre deep cargo hold without a qualm, but this wasn't
  1688. normal. Perhaps it was the wind, winding its way around the
  1689. grounded ship and upsetting his sense of balance.
  1690. Anyway, he kept a hand on the control box as the lift
  1691. platform swung out, then began crawling down the sheer face of
  1692. the white hull, now marked with carbon-scoring. The module's ID -
  1693. TMC-172 - stencilled in black letters three times Hayes' height
  1694. passed behind him, his shadow becoming invisible against the
  1695. dark surface then reappearing against the white collapsium skin.
  1696. Despite the parafoil the ship had struck hard. It lay in the
  1697. remains of a hill shattered when a vessel massing more than it
  1698. did impacted and tore the top off. That rubble now lay banked up
  1699. around the ship, covering perhaps two metres of the lower hull;
  1700. more towards the stern. It was onto this mess of torn loam, sod,
  1701. and boulders that Hayes dropped.
  1702. And promptly landed on his ass.
  1703. "Samuel?"The AI's voice sounded in his
  1704. ears."Your biomonitors show..."
  1705. "I'm fine,"he spat, sitting up and slapping a
  1706. palm disgustedly down on the dirt. "Just slipped."
  1707. Of all the possible drawbacks he'd been expecting,
  1708. walking wasn't one of them. It was the combination of near full
  1709. gravity and the treacherous footing; his life of smooth decks in
  1710. habitats and ships and micro-gravity on rocks hadn't prepared
  1711. him for
  1712. this. It took him a while to clamber across the loose rubble
  1713. lying around the Aspiration and he nearly twisted his ankle more
  1714. than once as an unstable rock rolled underfoot. A small servo
  1715. scuttled to the top of a knoll to watch him as he clambered out of
  1716. the rut the ship had left.
  1717. The grasses around the landing site were burned,
  1718. charring a great black, lopsided streak across the countryside.
  1719. The rains on the night of the drop were a blessing, otherwise the
  1720. wildfire would have raced across the grasses, wiping the slate
  1721. clean.
  1723. Every time Hayes' boot touched it raised a puff of dark soot. It
  1724. reminded him of the obsidian ash found on some larger asteroids,
  1725. but this stuff, instead of slowly drifting back to the surface, was
  1726. wafted away. Stolen by the wind.
  1728. --\o/--
  1731. He was still occasionally stumbling over tussocks of
  1732. grass and an odd, low-lying type of bush over-endowed with
  1733. long creeping branches that seemed intent on tripping him.
  1734. It was on a broad, windswept hilltop that Hayes stopped
  1735. to survey his world, his breath hissing in his helmet. The
  1736. Aspiration was behind him, now only the top of the hull and a
  1737. few sensor array stacks visible above the gullies and hills. Far,
  1738. far away to the west the hazy purple-blue-grey of the mountains
  1739. merged with low, dark clouds. Other points of the compass bore
  1740. hills and grass and long stretches of greenery sprawled across the
  1741. skyline. He dialed up the magnification in his helmet and the
  1742. greenery resolved into banks of bushes and larger plants. Trees,
  1743. Hayes guessed.
  1744. Slowly he sank down into a crouch, arms resting on
  1745. knees. So much, so big.
  1746. "And it's all mine!" he grinned.
  1747. "What?"
  1748. "Forget it, Pan,"Hayes replied then tapped the sequence
  1749. on the Nexus to disable the communicator.
  1750. For several minutes he watched the clouds drifting
  1751. slowly across the landscape, the wind rippling across the
  1752. grasses, then he raised hands to twist the seals on his helmet. The
  1753. faintest of hisses sounded as the visor swung up. The air outside
  1754. was cool, a sharp shock against his skin. There were smells and
  1755. scents, damp coolness, a rich tang. He reached down to pluck a
  1756. single leaf from a plant and held it up to his nose, crushing it
  1757. between his fingers: almost a pine-scent, like his bonsai.
  1758. Standing, he popped the seals again, turning the neck
  1759. ring to lift the whole helmet off and clip it to his belt. The wind
  1760. caught at his close-cropped blonde hair like a live thing.
  1761. On his wrist the Nesxus' comm light blinked on and
  1762. on, unheeded.
  1764. --\o/--
  1767. It was perhaps three kilometres before the servo
  1768. dogging Hayes' footsteps began to falter. It was a localised
  1769. repair robot, not really designed for long distance travel across
  1770. this type of terrain. With the Aspiration out of sight it had
  1771. reached the limits of its effective range.
  1772. It hesitated once with a delicate metallic leg poised, then
  1773. turned and began scuttling back along its tracks.
  1775. --\o/--
  1778. So, what now?
  1779. By now acquainted with the uneven ground Hayes was
  1780. able to let his thoughts drift off on tangents. With a warm sun
  1781. and cool air it was pleasant. Strange how perspectives change. . .
  1782. in space it was a star, on a planet it was a sun, the sun.
  1783. He could get used to this, he mused. Well, why not? He
  1784. could take this time as a vacation. The years it would take to
  1785. rebuild the Aspiration he could use as a vacation, explore this
  1786. world at his leisure. Perhaps try skiing, or surfing, hang gliding.
  1787. He'd tried the latter once before, in a habitat, but here, with the
  1788. unlimited skies, it would be very different: Huge monomolecular
  1789. wings and foamed framework and you could soar forever.
  1790. He resettled the helmet in the crook of his arm.
  1791. And he'd have to get a beacon installed somewhere. His
  1792. claim marker. He could even start construction on a fusion plant
  1793. downside. That'd give him a reliable power source so he could
  1794. begin work on a power plant for repressurising the module's
  1795. containment unit.
  1796. But before then there was so much more to explore.
  1797. He'd break a surface rover out of stowage to get a little further
  1798. afield. There were some pictures taken on the descent that looked
  1799. interesting. Some of those big rivers for instance. . .
  1800. Speaking of which. . .
  1801. There was a glittering about a kilometre ahead that
  1802. caught his eye. The optics in the helmet resolved it into water;
  1803. perhaps a small lake. Hmm. . .
  1804. He lifted the helmet off and angled his route in that
  1805. direction.
  1806. The ground changed as he approached. The grasses
  1807. thinned, turning to clay and gravel. Cracks ran across the terrain
  1808. like fissures in fractured glass: some shallow, others metres
  1809. deep. Those he could he jumped across, others he had to skirt
  1810. around. Erosion, he guessed, water running through here. It
  1811. must be a seasonal thing, dry now.
  1812. It was water that had caught his eye: a small lake of
  1813. grey water with few stunted plants growing around it.
  1814. Rivulets trickled down from converging gullies and cracks. Those
  1815. would be from the rain the previous night. Steep banks led down
  1816. to the lake in several places where the water had dug away
  1817. the surrounding soil.
  1818. There was something else:
  1819. Along the edge of the lake was a strip of land with
  1820. parallel ruts in it. Animal tracks? They didn't look like it. Hayes
  1821. jumped across a small ravine and cautiously made his way along
  1822. the rim of a steep eroded bank, almost a small cliff, to get a
  1823. better look. He crouched down and touched his nexus:
  1824. "Pan, what do those tracks look like?"
  1825. "They resemble vehicle tracks," the AI replied. "Or
  1826. possibly animal trails. An exact statement is impossible without
  1827. more information. . ." There was a pause: then," Samuel, a
  1828. servo has detected objects in your vicinity, moving towards
  1829. you."
  1831. "What? Animals?"
  1832. "Visual range is extreme. Enhancing: Objects are
  1833. vehicles. . ."
  1834. "WHAT!"
  1835. "Samuel! Behind. . . "
  1836. But he had already seen the shadow, spinning and
  1837. clambering to his feet.
  1838. Gaping jaws and amber eyes locked on him. Light
  1839. glittering from metal, a scrabble of feet launched it forward, a long
  1840. blade raised and gleaming like copper. The piercing scream that
  1841. hit his eardrums like an icepick. Automatically his hand darted to
  1842. his holster.
  1843. The clay beneath his feet crumbled away.
  1844. He yelled, his arms windmilled for balance as he teetered
  1845. on the crumbling brink of the cliff. The blade hovering over him
  1846. hesitated and he stared into eyes that widened as they met his,
  1847. then he went over backwards, the world spinning, his helmet
  1848. flying. His suit went rigid as steel as he hit stone and clay and
  1849. slid, dropped again, his head striking rock once, then again. The
  1850. sun flared in his head then the world faded...
  1851. A shower of small stones, dirt, and dust spilled down
  1852. over the white suit as he slid to a halt. His gun clattered down
  1853. and splashed into the water. Slowly the dust settled over the
  1854. motionless heap at the foot of the cliff.
  1856. --\o/--
  1858. PART II
  1859. In times of need,
  1860. What better recourse than war?
  1861. -From 'Observations of the Blind'
  1862. The city was burning.
  1863. Above the rooftops of the western quarter the night sky
  1864. was glowing as fires raged. That would be the area around the
  1865. breach in the city's curtain wall, the gatehouse perhaps. There
  1866. was already the distant sounds of fighting in the streets around
  1867. him, house to house as the Chrsty Rim soldiery advanced.
  1868. Sekher nervously licked his jowls and clutched tighter
  1869. at sword and shield. The hilt of his Shern'ae blade was damp
  1870. with perspiration, causing his fur to cling to the binding. His
  1871. heart was hammering in his chest, the reek of his fear and
  1872. excitement rank upon the air in the dark doorway. Where in the
  1873. names of the Gods was he? In the excitement - dodging enemy
  1874. troops and mobs of fleeing citizens - he'd twisted and turned like
  1875. a ribbon in a river, completely losing himself in the strange town.
  1876. For now he tried to get his bearings. Over there to the north, the
  1877. wall of the female quarters loomed, its whitewashed planes
  1878. ethereal against the dark sky. Eastwards was the inner wall, the
  1879. final line of defence surrounding the palace grounds.
  1880. The K'streth Plain militia and guard would need all the
  1881. help they could muster.
  1882. Pulling his shield close he ducked his head from the
  1883. doorway, making sure the coast was clear, then began following
  1884. the road north at a steady jog, hugging the shadows, tail rigid.
  1885. He'd try to reach the main thoroughfare below the white wall.
  1886. From there it wasn't far to the walls and the fighting.
  1887. An explosion thumped. Sekher's ears and ruff folded
  1888. flat. That came from the direction of the temple. The priests. He
  1889. shuddered, refusing to imagine the conflict taking place there.
  1890. With what Gifts were the shaved Rim priests possessed?
  1891. Gods! Being enbroiled in a full-blooded war was not
  1892. what he'd imagined his tour of the bordering principalities
  1893. would entail. His sire had decided it was now time for him to see
  1894. more of the world and at the same time make a gesture of goodwill
  1895. to his allies and neighbours by sending his son as emissary. It
  1896. would be an opportunity to make new acquaintances and learn
  1897. something about protocol, diplomacy, and the idiosyncrasies of
  1898. other lands in one stroke.
  1899. Copulating great timing! he snarled to himself as his
  1900. toe claws clattered on wet cobblestones. Bless the damp plains
  1901. night, it would make fires harder to start. There had been
  1902. ominous rumblings from the south for some time now, but
  1903. nobody had expected it to flare into all-out war.
  1904. He dodged around a wagon sitting abandoned in the
  1905. middle of the lane, the draft shen ululating lowly and rolling their
  1906. eyes nervously, nearly ran into the enemy.
  1907. A trio of them in their errie red, orange, and black armour
  1908. were backing a warrior in K'streth cream livery and visored helm
  1909. up against a wall. The lone soldier's blade was wavering before
  1910. him, tip flicking from foe to foe as he tried to watch them all at
  1911. once. An impossible effort.
  1912. And the stink of Sekher's fear redoubled. He'd been
  1913. trained, had drilled many long hours with weapons of many sorts,
  1914. but this was no game where the loser would lose some fur,
  1915. perhaps gain a bruise.
  1916. And that training held fast where his consciousness
  1917. failed. Still holding the Shern'ae his hand slipped behind the
  1918. shield, finding one of the four flat blades fastened there, rose,
  1919. and snapped down. One of the three Rim soldiers screamed in
  1920. pain and just had time to try to clasp a hand to the flat blade
  1921. jutting from the opening in his armpit, then collapsed.
  1922. As his comrades automatically turned to his cry, the
  1923. K'streth guard took advantage of the opening. His sword
  1924. slashed and opened the neck of a Rim trooper beneath the helmet
  1925. flange. Blood fountained in a dark spray. The remaining one
  1926. howled and flung himself upon Sekher. He barely had time to
  1927. fling his shield up before it rang with the resounding clang of
  1928. swordstrike.
  1929. He struck out with the shield and danced back,
  1930. whipping his own sword around, but the Rim soldier was fleeing
  1931. back towards his own lines. Panting from shock and exertion
  1932. Sekher lowered his sword.
  1933. Across the street the K'streth guard was also
  1934. gasping, looking up at Sekher with the most incredible gold eyes
  1935. showing above the visor. With one hand he reached up and
  1936. stripped aside the mask to catch a mouthful of air and Sekher's
  1937. ears wilted in shock. Not a he...she.
  1938. A female! He gaped in foolish wonder. A pelt of a grey-
  1939. blue so deep it faded into the night, making her sand-coloured
  1940. armour seem to float unsupported. She returned the stare with a
  1941. slightly amused smile, raised her sword in salute to him. Small
  1942. Guard, she had to be: the females who kept order in their part of
  1943. the city where males were forbidden. What was she doing here?
  1944. in the male sector?
  1945. Only one reason.
  1946. He saw it. Beyond the White Wall was the glow of
  1947. flames.
  1948. The female followed his gaze, then gave a wry grimace.
  1949. She had beautiful little teeth.
  1950. There was a commotion behind him as a mass of soldiery
  1951. burst into the street. The light cream armour of K'streth troops
  1952. this time, some smeared with soot, others bleeding from minor
  1953. wounds. Sekher flattened back against the wall as they ran past,
  1954. metal jingling, headed for the palace. Beyond them he saw the
  1955. female join them.
  1956. "Wait!" he began to start after her.
  1957. "Hai! Outsider! Hold!" another voice hailed him.
  1958. "What?" he jumped as a grizzled mass of red-brown fur
  1959. in an officer's helm and armour clamped a hand over his
  1960. shoulder, forestalling him. "You Sekher Che, right?" A squad
  1961. of weary looking guards had halted behind their leader,
  1962. watching their surroundings with nervous eyes. "Orders from the
  1963. High Lord. We're to get you out of the city and away in one
  1964. piece."
  1965. "But the city..."
  1966. "A lost cause,"the officer growled. The designs on all
  1967. their shields were scratched and scared. They'd seen action and
  1968. from the looks of them had barely gotten away with their pelts
  1969. intact. "Come on. There's a postern gate to the river on the west
  1970. wall."
  1971. Behind them another explosion rolled across the city. Balls of fire
  1972. rose from seige engines, then fell in graceful arcs into the packed
  1973. mass of buildings.
  1975. --\o/--
  1978. The tiny postern gate did open into the river; by way of
  1979. the storm drains. By the time they reached the grill at the far end,
  1980. the small band was covered in the filth that congealed in those
  1981. tunnels. Sekher coughed and spat in disgust, gagging at the reek.
  1982. In the cloudless sky the Hole was a brilliant mass of
  1983. dots in the night, turning the river into a rippling mass of
  1984. blackness. There was a small boat well concealed near the drain
  1985. and within a minute the soldiers had it upright and in the water.
  1986. Before they boarded, the troopers all smeared their armour with
  1987. mud, hiding the tell-tale whiteness, although after the filth of the
  1988. sewers there was little to cover. Sekher in his green and brown
  1989. blotched livery was dark enough to be exempt. For this he
  1990. had cause to be grateful: the mud had the thick stench of bad
  1991. flatulence.
  1992. The muffled oars made little noise as the two troopers
  1993. rowing moved them out into the current. Another pair sat with
  1994. arrows on their bowstrings; ready.
  1995. They could all see the dark mass that was the walls of
  1996. the city moving away behind them. The orange glow in the sky
  1997. was brighter. The Lightbringer rising or a more mundane fire?
  1998. "Where do we go from here?" Sekher asked.
  1999. "Shut it!" the elder warrior hissed, cuffing his ears.
  2000. Ears stinging, Sekher bristled, about to reply when a
  2001. hand was clamped over his mouth. "Silence!" the officer
  2002. repeated his hiss, directing Sekher's head.
  2003. The younger one's eyes widened as the bridged
  2004. appeared, the troops on it silhouetted against the sky. Silently
  2005. the boat drifted past, its passengers holding their breath. They
  2006. could hear the conversation of the guard above, the laughter.
  2007. Then they were past.
  2008. When they were out of earshot Sekher felt the the
  2009. pressure on his jaws lessen, but then there was a painful tweak
  2010. on his ears. "Cub," the officer snarled. "When I tell you to be
  2011. shut your face, you obey. Without question. I have my orders to
  2012. protect you, but I swear by all that's scared I shall put you off at
  2013. the first town if you endanger the rest of us! Understand?"
  2014. Sekher gaped, feeling the heat rising in his ears, then
  2015. swallowed. "Yes...Sir. Understand."
  2016. "Good."
  2017. "Ah, Sir?"
  2018. "Huhhnn?"
  2019. "What is your name?"
  2020. The warrior grinned, his teeth flashing beneath the
  2021. fringe of his moustache. "Twistfur. But they," he jerked a finger
  2022. towards the other troopers crowded into the small craft, "usually
  2023. call me Furball."
  2024. None of the others said a word.
  2025. "But never to my face," Twistfur concluded with a
  2026. glistening grin. "Now stay down and quiet."
  2027. Sekher crouched down low. There was water in the
  2028. bottom of the boat, wet on his feet. He grimaced in distaste at
  2029. the feel, water was something he never felt comfortable around.
  2030. Still, he tried to find a spot where he could wait out a long ride
  2031. without cramping up.
  2032. They moved as silently as they could, the only sounds
  2033. the water flowing past the gunwhales and dripping from the
  2034. paddles. In the remote distance, from beyond the mountains
  2035. bounding the realms of the Trenalbi, the Lightbringer was
  2036. stirring, the sky bleeding in his honour, while the twin
  2037. Daughters of darkness danced into the sea.
  2038. And ahead of them, against the rising light, four boats
  2039. moved out into the river, archers standing to draw their bows.
  2040. Twistfur saw them also. "Down!" he screamed, throwing
  2041. himself on Sekher before the younger male had time to react. He
  2042. landed face down with the warrior on top of him and there were
  2043. screams of pain and the weight on his back spasmed, then went
  2044. lax with a gurgling sigh and the boat tipped, spilling him into
  2045. the water.
  2046. He sank, of course, the armour weighing him down.
  2047. He tried to cry out; cold tendrils wound their way into
  2048. his nostrils and down his throat. With frantic desperation he
  2049. clawed and scrabbled at the encompassing liquid, fighting
  2050. toward the light above.
  2051. Coughing streamers of water, Sekher broke the surface.
  2052. "Hai! Here's one!"
  2053. Claws caught at his ruff before he could sink again,
  2054. dragging him through the water to finally dump him on soft sand.
  2055. He twitched, shuddered, then vomited. Someone rolled him
  2056. over.
  2057. Voices:
  2058. "Others are dead. What about this? He'll live?" "Huh,
  2059. just tried breathing some water. He'll live."
  2060. "Look. The others were all K'streth Plain. He's Che
  2061. Plain."
  2062. "Well, well. Do we throw him back?"
  2063. "Nah, keep him. Looks like a prize catch to me. Here,
  2064. look at his sword." Hands touched the Shern'ae blade pulling it
  2065. from his belt. Sekher batted out feebly but a foot was planted
  2066. on his throat, claws biting.
  2067. "A prize! Look! The crest! It's the Che crest. Gods! He's
  2068. Highborn."
  2069. A face leaned close to Sekher and hands caught at his
  2070. jaw and jerked his head around to hiss in his face, "Highborn,
  2071. Huh? I know someone who's going to be very pleased to see
  2072. you."
  2074. --\o/--
  2076. Sekher ached; inside and out.
  2077. He huddled inside his cage, a box of heavywood and
  2078. expensive metal scarcely twice his length and barely high enough
  2079. to sit upright in. It filled most of the back of a goods wagon.
  2080. There were always guards.
  2081. He'd been stripped of his armour and weapons, then
  2082. shuttled, naked, through a Ch'sty Rim encampment to an
  2083. occupied town that was now being used as a supply staging
  2084. post for the invading army. There was no telling how long he'd
  2085. been locked in a half-flooded cellar before they dragged him out,
  2086. chained him, then threw him into his little cage.
  2087. The wagon was part of a convoy. Southbound for the
  2088. foothills of the Ch'sty Rim. The other wagons carried supplies and
  2089. troopers bound for home. Also they carried the loot of the
  2090. countryside. Near priceless silver and jade ornaments mixed with
  2091. the more mundane gold and diamonds. Sekher had witnessed
  2092. troopers gambling away earrings, armlets, statuets, and small
  2093. utensils they'd 'liberated'. He'd seen villages and quiet towns
  2094. with burned buildings and Rim warriors in the streets.
  2095. Would this be the fate of his land?
  2096. He felt his claws twitch, winced, and spread his hands.
  2097. Projecting from the ends of his fingers were the remaining
  2098. stumps of his claws.
  2099. His land was not one of the most prosperous. The
  2100. city's walls were still undergoing extension, as they had been
  2101. for decades. A little added now and then as budgeting allowed.
  2102. There were problems with the guard: their equipment was old and
  2103. worn.
  2104. Gods, anyone could find that out. He knew more.
  2105. Such as the fact that the grain warehouses stood near
  2106. empty after the last failed harvest. Many, too many young
  2107. warriors had been forced to find employment in other, wealthier
  2108. realms, hence the low muster of the few garrison towns.
  2109. Also, there was no doubt he'd be held as a hostage.
  2110. Sekher clamped his other hand over his ruined claws,
  2111. wishing he could take them to his own throat. Perhaps he would
  2112. be able to escape, but the closer he came to the Ch'sty Rim, the
  2113. slimmer that hope grew.
  2114. He pulled his legs up and curled into a furry ball of
  2115. despair.
  2117. --\o/--
  2120. A strange cry echoed outside, followed by the shouting
  2121. of Trenalbi and the clattering of equipment as wagons rolled to a
  2122. halt.
  2123. Sekher lookep up and blinked, then shook his head
  2124. violently. Outside his cage he saw troopers in armour and others
  2125. in only fur and kilts running towards the disturbance at the head
  2126. of the column. Bandits? He saw no weapons being readied.
  2127. On all fours he crawled to the heavy bronze grill and
  2128. twisted his head up against it, trying to see what was going on.
  2129. There was a knot of soldiers gathered around a white
  2130. lump at the foot of a small cliff. An outrider atop the bluff was
  2131. cautiously leaning over, shouting something down to the others.
  2132. What was going on?
  2133. A couple of the Rim troopers were bending over the
  2134. object, poking at it with their swords, then examining it more
  2135. intensely. They picked up a few bits and pieces, pondering over
  2136. them with much bemusement and scratching of heads.
  2137. There was also an argument taking place, with the white
  2138. lump the object of the disagreement. Finally a solution was
  2139. reached, one which caused an uproar of snarling laughter that
  2140. Sekher liked not in the least. Four warriors took up the burden
  2141. which appeared to have arms and legs. As they hauled the thing
  2142. back along the line of wagons and draught beasts, Sekher got a
  2143. good glimpse of it and stared in astonishment.
  2144. Then guards were in front of his cage, slapping the flats
  2145. of their blades against the bars where his fingers had been a split
  2146. second before. "All right! Get back there, high one! You've got a
  2147. house guest!" The last was delivered in a derisive bark.
  2148. Sekher snarled back at them, then scrambled madly
  2149. backwards in a rattling of chains as swords and spears jabbed
  2150. through the bars at him. Again he crouched in the back of the
  2151. cage. Outside, the guards were watching with amusement
  2152. something he couldn't see, then they rattled around with the
  2153. lock on the cage, sliding the door up. Then Sekher understood.
  2154. "Hai! No, you can't!" he cried in panic. "Not in here!"
  2155. They beat him back with spearpoints while several of
  2156. them pushed the white thing inside. The door rattled down behind
  2157. it.
  2158. Sekher crouched in his corner, panting, the smell of his
  2159. fear overpowering in the confinement. The thing in the cage with
  2160. him gave vent to a low noise, then raised a head caked with
  2161. impossibly red blood and saw him.
  2162. It gave a yelp, tried to leap to its feet, cracked its head
  2163. against the overhead, tried to fall forward and was yanked
  2164. backwards to collapse in a heap, clutching at its skull and making
  2165. low noises. Now Sekher saw the dull bronze collar about its neck
  2166. and the very short chain tying it to the cage hatch.
  2167. And his captors found this hilarious.
  2168. So, it couldn't reach him if he stayed at the back of the
  2169. cage. They weren't about to risk their prisoner being torn limb
  2170. from limb, but it meant his tiny box had just grown that much
  2171. smaller. Sekher snarled silently but relaxed a little, his bristling
  2172. tail subsiding. He warily studied the semi-conscious creature.
  2173. His houseguest was not attractive. That hairless face
  2174. looked like it had been struck by the flat of a shovel. The short fur
  2175. covering the top of its skull was a light, dusty brown. However
  2176. that whiteness covering it was not hide by any stretch of the
  2177. imagination. Clothing; like none he had ever seen before, but
  2178. clothing nevertheless. Even its feet were covered. Another little
  2179. point to puzzle: the creature's furless flat face, fur, and
  2180. forepaws were coated with dust and a red liquid that could only
  2181. be blood, but its apparel - the white tunic-like thing and
  2182. peculiar breeches - were spotless.
  2183. Its shoulders were broad, not sloped as a Trenalbi's,
  2184. and its broad chest and narrower waist gave its torso a
  2185. marginally triangular shape. Those forepaws, they certainly
  2186. looked to be at least as dexterous as Sekher's own, despite their
  2187. apparent lack of claws. That face was flat, muzzle-less, with a
  2188. small, pointed nose and eyes of a piercing grey, like stone, with
  2189. round pupils.
  2190. What was this thing?
  2192. --\o/--
  2195. Chenuk sat apart from the others gathered about the
  2196. warm glow of the campfire, half-listening to their conversation
  2197. and jokes while turning the strange artifact over and over in his
  2198. hands.
  2199. That peculiar creature that'd fallen from the cliff that day
  2200. had dropped it. It'd tumbled and rolled down rocks and a scree
  2201. slope, bounced across the road, and come to lie at the waters
  2202. edge. And the thing didn't have a scratch on it.
  2203. Again Chenuk raised it to his nose and sniffed
  2204. carefully: the thing bore a lingering, indefinable odour; faintly
  2205. salty, faintly musky, like old armour.
  2206. It was larger than his head, rounded, like a bowl of some
  2207. kind. In fact it reminded Chenuk of a battle helmet more than
  2208. anything, but there were no ear holes. Also there was that thing
  2209. that could be a visor: from the outside it was opaque, black, but
  2210. by tilting it in his hands Chenuk found he could see through
  2211. without obstruction. The inside was also padded and lined with
  2212. curious little projections. Outside it was a mat white, thin blue
  2213. lines running laterally around the back, two red C shapes on either
  2214. side.
  2215. With a claw Chenuk tried to scratch the black, one-way
  2216. glass on the front. Nothing. A bluesteel dagger was
  2217. equally ineffective.
  2218. Chenuk weighed the thing in one hand, then impulsively
  2219. tried it on.
  2220. His muzzle almost brushed the glass and his ears
  2221. were uncomfortably pressed back against his ruff, then slowly,
  2222. almost imperceptibly, the discomfort faded. He realised with a
  2223. start that the thing was moving, shifting, reconfiguring itself to fit
  2224. his head. In front of his eyes the night landscape abruptly
  2225. flared into brilliant relief, the fire, the warriors around it, and
  2226. dozens of specks in the grasslands beyond glowing white,
  2227. shades of grey.
  2228. "Gods!" With a muffled curse of fear and disgust he tore
  2229. it off. Twice it bounced, then lay still. He stared at the thing,
  2230. heart hammering.
  2231. "Hai! Chenuk," a comrade hailed him from the fire.
  2232. "Problem?"
  2233. "Ahhh," he eyed the cursed thing, then
  2234. cautiously replied, "No...no problems."
  2235. "The spirits wandering tonight, huh?" There was
  2236. laughter.
  2237. No, it wasn't tales told to frighten cubs that had his fur
  2238. standing on end. It was lying like the oversized egg of a
  2239. coldblood in the light of the moons. Not without trepidation he
  2240. picked it up again. This time it was still.
  2241. The guards around the cage pricked up their ears as
  2242. he approached. "Hai! What do you want?"
  2243. "Just looking," Chenuk said. "What've they been up
  2244. to?"
  2245. "Not much. I thought we'd get a little more excitement.
  2246. Still, that thing scared the fur off our highborn guest, all that
  2247. banging on the bars and grunting at us. Seems to have
  2248. quietened down now."
  2249. Chenuk moved so he could see into the dark box. The
  2250. Highborn captive was sitting against the far wall, Drifting, eyes
  2251. watching the beyond. He shuddered and focused on Chenuk
  2252. when he moved in front of the bars, watching him warily. The
  2253. creature was slumped against a wall, head bowed and eyes
  2254. closed, unmoving.
  2255. Creature? Demon!
  2256. And that thing in his hand had to be a helmet. That head
  2257. would fit it like a sword fits a sheath! A demon-made tool! The
  2258. fear rose from him, almost swamping the scent that came from the
  2259. cage. The guards looked at him curiously as he backed away from
  2260. the cage, then spun and bolted for the commanders' pavilion.
  2262. --\o/--
  2265. The rise of the Lightbringer roused Sekher from drift.
  2266. Several times he blinked into the light seeping into his cage before
  2267. he actually began seeing. From outside came the sights and
  2268. sounds of the Ch'sty Rimmers preparing to move onwards. He
  2269. stretched as well as he could, then scratched and spent a while
  2270. chasing small biters through his fur. Gods, but he stank.
  2271. At the other end of the cage the creature was still
  2272. slumped in the corner with its eyes closed. Occasionally it
  2273. twitched a foot or hand and made a small sound. Was it ill? The
  2274. previous evening it had growled and tried to scratch lines on the
  2275. floor for some time before howling, pounding its head against the
  2276. wall and finally curling up in its corner.
  2277. Even last night, when that Ch'sty Rim trooper had come
  2278. so close to stare at it, the thing hadn't moved. Still, for some
  2279. reason that trooper had been terrified, taking off as if his tail were
  2280. alight.
  2281. Beyond the bars the Lightbringer was eclipsed as a
  2282. guard crouched to peer into the gloom of the cage. "Your
  2283. friend all right?" he grinned.
  2284. "Gods," Sekher hissed, "get that thrice-cursed thing
  2285. OUT of here!"
  2286. "Sorry, "the other said, looking anything but, "no
  2287. spare cages. Here's your meal. Enjoy." So saying he pushed
  2288. pieces of meat through the bars. They fell to the floor at the
  2289. creature's feet.
  2290. "There you go," the guard chittered in amusement.
  2291. "Prime stuff too. Perhaps it'll share."
  2292. "You're not fit to give your seed to a riding beast!"
  2293. Sekher snarled after him as light once again strained through the
  2294. bars. His stomach growled to him and he shifted his gaze to the
  2295. steaks, running his tongue around his salivating mouth. How
  2296. was he going to accomplish this?
  2297. As gods-be carefully as possible.
  2298. The creature didn't move as he crept forward one finger
  2299. span at a time on all fours, eyes flicking from the prize to the thing
  2300. and back again. Stretch out an arm under the creature's leg.
  2301. Almost. Not quite. A little further. . . There!
  2302. He attempted to hook a piece, belatedly remembered his
  2303. claws were gone, then tried to grab it. . . At the instant the wagon
  2304. started off with a jolt.
  2305. Off balance he fell flat on his face, slamming his nose
  2306. against the floor. Pain blew a white hole in his face. He lay still
  2307. until the haze cleared, then shook his head and looked up into
  2308. the open eyes of the creature.
  2309. With a howl, Sekher threw himself backward and
  2310. crouched panting in his corner. Too close. . . and he'd dropped
  2311. the meat. It still lay there.
  2312. A hairless hand scooped the slabs up and raised them to
  2313. the face as the creature sniffed at the steaks. Sekher groaned in
  2314. despair. There went his meal, and he'd been so close!
  2315. And the creature made a low noise, then held out the
  2316. meat to him. Sekher froze in astonishment, then gazed longingly
  2317. at the food. The thing shook it, then beckoned with its other
  2318. hand. Come.
  2319. Slowly Sekher did so. Reaching out carefully, then
  2320. snatching the meat and scrambling back to his corner. The
  2321. creature hadn't moved and watched as he tore into the meat,
  2322. bolting it. Cold it was, he'd have preferred it warm, barely living,
  2323. but still the tangy juices flowed over his tongue and chin. He was
  2324. growling as he polished it off, licked his fingers clean, and
  2325. belched.
  2326. The creature was watching him with head cocked to one
  2327. side.
  2328. "Thanks," Sekher said, then felt foolish.
  2329. Its mouth twitched, then it reached down to its side
  2330. and fiddled around with a formerly concealed flap in its clothing,
  2331. producing a small rectangle of some dusty-colored material that
  2332. it then proceeded to eat: slowly, with no great relish.
  2333. Why? It'd had perfectly good food right there in its
  2334. hand. Sekher watched, not understanding, while it ate,
  2335. ridiculously tiny mouthfuls and much chewing. Then, from that
  2336. pouch, it produced a silvery thing like a wineskin that it raised
  2337. and drank from.
  2338. Sekher smelled water, licked his lips again, aware of
  2339. how thirsty he was...
  2340. "Hai," he said, feeling incredibly foolish.
  2341. The creature glanced at him.
  2342. "That's water?" Sekher asked, then hesitantly pointed at
  2343. the flask. "Water?"
  2344. The thing looked down at it's hand, then slowly offered
  2345. him the skin.
  2346. Just as slowly he took it, surprised at its weight. A skin it
  2347. wasn't; something else thin and flexible. And he couldn't get a
  2348. drop out of it. Again the creature beckoned him and its long
  2349. slender fingers showed him where to press the neck of the flask.
  2350. The water that came out was the freshest he'd ever tasted, and as
  2351. cold as if it had just come from a mountain spring.
  2352. He drank his fill: there was an impossible amount for
  2353. the size of the receptacle. The creature took it back, making it
  2354. disappear again, but for an instant Sekher's fingertips brushed its
  2355. hand: the flesh was warm, soft, and silky smooth. He absently
  2356. stroked his own coarse fur.
  2357. It sat there, staring out through the bars.
  2358. "Hai," Sekher began.
  2359. It turned its head. Eyes lost in their shadows, but there
  2360. was a spark there...
  2361. "You're not an animal, are you," Sekher murmured.
  2362. The strips of fur above its eyes drew together.
  2363. What then?
  2365. --\o/--
  2368. Jai'stra, seat of power of the Ch'sty Rim domain, nestled
  2369. in the south-western foothills with its back to the grey, cloud-
  2370. capped wall of the Rampart mountains. The rolling hills
  2371. surrounding it were dotted with farming communities, their
  2372. fields mottled yellow-gold, light and dark chasing each other
  2373. across the countryside.
  2374. The city engulfed five hills on the southern bank of
  2375. the She'ng River, one of the none-too-modest tributaries feeding
  2376. the distant Daycross river, then the still more distant Torn Teeth
  2377. Sea. Dark, stocky, granite walls and docks faced the river, high
  2378. above the water mark to guard against the floods the mountain
  2379. thaws brought. Watchtowers loomed over the walls like
  2380. overprotective dams. On several towers were the skeleton-like
  2381. structures of semaphore stations, their outlying counterparts
  2382. mere sticks wandering off across the plains to the horizon. In the
  2383. river, barges and skips lined the quays in the shelter of a
  2384. breakwater while workers moved bales and barrels, loading and
  2385. unloading. The covered bridge that crossed the She'ng was a
  2386. wonder of engineering: five arches supporting the weight of a
  2387. thousand-span wide mass of stone, wide enough for two
  2388. goods wagons to pass. There were three more like it. Beyond
  2389. them the walls loomed, a massive gatehouse warding gates of
  2390. Heavywood, bronze, and iron.
  2391. It looked too massive to Sekher. You could fit the royal
  2392. palace of Tsuba into the temple grounds of this place. Crowds
  2393. began to gather around the convoy as it crossed the bridge.
  2394. Sekher's fur bristled to a chill wind as the gatehouse's shadow
  2395. swallowed him.
  2396. An hour out from the city he had been taken from the
  2397. cage, his fur stinking, plastered to his body, and had his arms tied
  2398. to the framework intended for a canopy. He was forced to stand
  2399. with arms spread high and wide as if supplicating the
  2400. Lightbringer. Every muscle in his upper torso now ached from
  2401. holding the impossible position.
  2402. Despite the absence of many males off fighting in the
  2403. north the main street was bustling with activity. The smell of
  2404. animals and body wastes was just as oppressive as they had
  2405. been in any other city Sekher had visited. The buildings were
  2406. strange, with their high-gabled roofs and red and orange trimming
  2407. contrasting with the black slate of roof tiles.
  2408. Stalls and shops lined the thoroughfare, as did carts
  2409. and traps from which signs and scents advertised the wares.
  2410. Outside a prospering armourer a troop of Wanderers, their long
  2411. leather roadcoats dusty from riding, waited on their mounts,
  2412. watching him alertly but disinterestedly from under their floppy,
  2413. wide-brimmed hats. Sekher saw this, these Trenalbi living their
  2414. lives while half a world away he had seen their counterparts
  2415. fighting for their homes and their lives.
  2416. Merchants, soldiers, professionals, mercs, and even a
  2417. cluster of females in colourful veils with their entourage watched
  2418. the caravan, jesting with the guards, swapping news, exclaiming
  2419. in astonishment and mock bravado at the creature in the cage,
  2420. jeering at the tattered prisoner. Sekher lolled his head back,
  2421. staring at the dark azure vault of the sky above. Gods, why me?
  2422. The main street of Jai'stra was aligned west to east, to
  2423. follow the path of the Lightbringer. It ended in a plaza
  2424. dominated by the royal palace: a vast, tiered disk squatting
  2425. behind its walls, towers jutting up from the top like the spikes on
  2426. a northern warhelm. Unlike the subtle white and cream
  2427. stonework that would be employed by the masons of northern
  2428. realms, the Rim palace was built of a dark material that endowed
  2429. nothing of the airy grace and coolness of northern buildings.
  2430. Instead it was solid, indomitable, an edifices designed to
  2431. withstand the winter storms of the southern climes. Behind it,
  2432. the north-south wall separating the female quarter was also a
  2433. dark grey.
  2434. Royal mounted guards moved to escort their single
  2435. wagon as it separated from the rest, their shaggy Shens
  2436. stamping and tugging at their reings as they led the prisoner's
  2437. wagon through the inner gates into the the palace courtyard. He
  2438. was cut down, manacled, and dragged from the wagon.
  2439. "Sir? Where can we put that thing?" one of the caravan
  2440. guards asked, jabbing a thumb at the cage.
  2441. Palace troopers peered into the cage and recoiled
  2442. slightly. "What in the hells is that thing?!" a sergeant demanded.
  2443. "This ain't a zoo! Where'd you find it anyhows?"
  2444. "Just sort of dropped in." There was some laughter.
  2445. "Ahhh!" the sergeant growled. "Dangerous?"
  2446. "Doesn't seem to be. No claws. Doesn't like meat...or
  2447. plants. Gods know what it eats. We've had it in with our friend
  2448. here. Keeping him company."
  2449. "Well, what do you expect us to do with the wretched
  2450. thing?! Huh? There's not much room down there at the moment."
  2451. He made a noise of disgust and waved at the guards, "Ah, stick it
  2452. in with him again for the time being. Until we see what the Lord
  2453. wants done with it, just make sure it doesn't eat him. Lower level:
  2454. the royal suites."
  2455. His guards seized him by the scruff and arms and hauled
  2456. him off. Behind him the cage was being opened and animal
  2457. handlers with restraints moved in.
  2459. --\o/--
  2462. Sekher sat quietly while the guards fastened the
  2463. creature's chain to a ring in the cell wall, two others holding it at
  2464. bay with noses on poles looped around its neck; they seemed to
  2465. be half-strangling the thing if that bluish color it was turning was
  2466. anything to judge by. Sekher really had no choice, the sword
  2467. resting on his throat made sure he behaved.
  2468. Once the chain was fastened securely, the handlers
  2469. flipped the ropes off with practiced twitches and withdrew from
  2470. the cell. The heavy door swung to with a dull boom and the light
  2471. was gone but for the faint glow from around the edges of the
  2472. door, barely enough to see by. A key turned in the lock and
  2473. there was the muffled sound of voices outside, footsteps
  2474. receding.
  2475. Then there was silence, and an emptiness that clutched
  2476. at Sekher's chest. Alone!
  2477. "Roommates again, huh?" Sekher said, trying to cover
  2478. the quaver in his voice. The creature looked up from where it was
  2479. hungrily sucking air, rubbing at the collar around its neck and
  2480. bared square teeth in a warning grin.
  2481. "Just trying to be sociable," Sekher sighed. Talking to
  2482. a beast. Gods! was he losing it already? He muttered a hasty
  2483. prayer that they wouldn't leave him waiting for long. He'd
  2484. seen convicted criminals who'd been sentenced to solitary before,
  2485. and it wasn't a pretty sight.
  2486. Trying to banish thoughts like that Sekher stood and
  2487. went across to the door, trying to peep through a crack. He could
  2488. see a chink of corridor and blank wall. He sighed and leaned
  2489. against the damp wood. "Don't suppose you've got a key
  2490. tucked away somewhere?" he asked the creature. It just stared at
  2491. him. "Didn't think so."
  2492. Twenty-five spans by the same again: a featureless
  2493. cubical of cold stone. Palatial in comparison with his previous
  2494. accomodations, but still small. A stinking slit in a corner was the
  2495. depository for bodily wastes. Sekher made use of it, reflecting
  2496. that for the eight days they'd been locked in that box, not once
  2497. had he seen the creature relieve itself. Did it not shit like
  2498. everything else? Urinate? Gods, was it male or female?
  2499. At the moment it had opened that concealed pouch
  2500. again and was laying upon its lap those little bricks it ate every
  2501. now and then. There were three left. What did that portend?
  2502. Sekher wondered. What happened when they ran out?
  2503. He settled himself and watched the creature nibble a
  2504. little of a brick and wondered when something would happen.
  2506. --\o/--
  2509. The door slammed open, startling Sekher out of his drift.
  2510. "You! Out!"
  2511. Hulking guards in full body armour decorated with the
  2512. royal Ch'sty crest glared down at him, short swords in hand.
  2513. The creature stirred from where it had been curled up in a corner
  2514. and blinked tired grey eyes at the disturbance.
  2515. "Move it! The High Lord wants a chat with you."
  2516. Sekher groaned and hauled himself to his feet.
  2517. "Alright, alright."
  2518. He knew what was coming.
  2519. Still, he was surprised they let him get through the door
  2520. before an armoured forearm cracked into the back of his head.
  2521. They had their fun bouncing him off the walls for a while before
  2522. bodily dragging him off down the corridor.
  2523. "By the hells! He stinks worse than Feshi shit!"
  2524. "Huh! His lordship would have our tails for dropping
  2525. this at his feet. I think he needs a bath."
  2526. "You reckon all Che royalty looks like this?"
  2527. "Huh! Compared with most of them he probably looks
  2528. elegant." There was a nasty laugh.
  2529. Sekher was hauled upstairs into the lower levels of the
  2530. palace and tossed into a small chamber, little more than a
  2531. closet, with slimy wooden grating on the floor, smelling of water.
  2532. He dragged himself to his knees and shook his head, wondering
  2533. where the water was if this was a bath. Then he screamed as the
  2534. ceiling opened and he was deluged. It was scalding hot!
  2535. Frantically he twisted and turned, beating at the door,
  2536. then huddling in a corner with his arms over his head as the
  2537. water poured on and on.
  2538. Finally it stopped, the guards opened the door to drag
  2539. him sopping and dripping from the cubicle.
  2540. "Smelling better, huh?"
  2541. "Probably used the hot water for the entire wing," the
  2542. other laughed. "Still, he's presentable now."
  2543. "Burn you!" Sekher spat. "Shave your clan!"
  2544. "Talkative, isn't he," one of them observed as he rammed
  2545. an elbow into Sekher's head. "Save it for his Lordship!"
  2547. --\o/--
  2550. Sheer size made the room cool, colder still for Sekher
  2551. and his still-damp fur.
  2552. In another place the style of the room may have been
  2553. called gothic, with peaked archways and ribbed vaulting, subtle-
  2554. cross vistas, dramatic screens of fluted columns framing arched
  2555. windows filled with coloured glass shedding kaleidoscopes of
  2556. light across polychromatic marble veneers. It was an
  2557. extravagantly beautiful sight, a room designed to overawe and
  2558. impress, and that it did, bringing Sekher's head up despite
  2559. himself. The craftsmanship, the skill, the expense! His father's
  2560. great hall, the pride of the Che clan, was but a hovel in contrast.
  2561. Before a great circular window of gold, orange, and
  2562. red glass that splintered light as though it were fragmented
  2563. eveninglight, was the dais of the High Lord of the Ch'Sty Rim.
  2564. The guards half-dragged him across the fine white sand
  2565. of the floor, gouging twin furrows, and deposited him at the foot
  2566. of the dais. Behind him a menial scuttled across the floor with a
  2567. hand rake, smoothing the way. Courtiers, sycophants, and
  2568. hangerson in gaudy gowns and robes gathered around behind a
  2569. cordon of alert royal guards, muttering and twittering amongst
  2570. themselves.
  2571. This was the conqueror of three kingdoms? was
  2572. Sekher's thought upon seeing the one resting on the cushions
  2573. and furs atop the steps.
  2574. A thin, nearly skeletal Trenalbi turned slowly to look at
  2575. him, letting a sheaf of papers fall to a lacquered table at his side.
  2576. His fur was a deep brown, like loam, his expansive ruff the same
  2577. but with grey streaks. Nothing to do with age. His head looked
  2578. too big for that body, and the eyes...
  2579. Sekher felt his hackles rise, claws extruded in fear. Gods,
  2580. they burned yellow with an intensity like that of the
  2581. Lightbringer. Madness? And those furs...
  2582. The chill of fear tickled his back, twitching his tail, his
  2583. anal scent glands. Those furs still had the heads of their
  2584. previous owners attached, glass eyes glittering lifelessly. With
  2585. difficulty Sekher tore his eyes away from the glassy stare of one
  2586. of the Lord's former enemies.
  2587. A nearly imperceptible flick of a wiry hand made
  2588. Sekher's expressionless guards retreat a couple of steps. Kissaki
  2589. Ch'sty leaned forward:
  2590. "Sekher She'at Che Youngest?"
  2591. Sekher said nothing.
  2592. Kissaki sat back and hissed. "Yes. Of course you are.
  2593. You are, you know, a very pleasing catch. You will undoubtedly
  2594. save me some time and trouble. You are hungry?" Another twitch
  2595. of his hand and a servitor scurried forwards with a small tray
  2596. laden with chunks of meat, pastries, and berries.
  2597. Sekher glanced at the tray and felt his mouth betray him
  2598. by salivating. He clamped his jaws shut.
  2599. "Huh! Yes, very hungry." The High Lord's ears twitched
  2600. and he beckoned Sekher go ahead: "You look like you need it,
  2601. young one."
  2602. "You...you have no right," Sekher finally blurted.
  2603. "Holding me here like this. You know my father..." Sekher
  2604. stumbled to a halt, woefully aware of how pitiful this sounded to
  2605. this lord in the centre of his domain.
  2606. "No right?" Kissaki leant forward, his lips peeling back in
  2607. a glistening grin. "Cub, here your rights are my will, here my will is
  2608. law. I did not have you brought before me just to listen to your
  2609. ridiculous bluffs.
  2610. "Now, young one. I know you must care deeply for
  2611. your homeland, your people, your clan. Correct? Yes. If you had
  2612. the opportunity to save the lives of untold numbers of your
  2613. people would you take it?"
  2614. Sekher ducked his muzzle, ears folding back in
  2615. wariness. "Perhaps," he breathed. "And how would I do that?"
  2616. "Very simple." Kissaki rose to his feet and
  2617. continued, punctuating his words with emphatic gestures. "All
  2618. you would have to do would be provide me with a little
  2619. information, just answer a few questions."
  2620. "Such as?"
  2621. "Simple matters: how well prepared is Tsuba to
  2622. withstand a seige? Are there any alternative routes into the city?
  2623. In what towns are the largest garrisons stationed? What steps
  2624. would be taken in event of an invasion?"
  2625. Sekher barked in outright disbelief at that. "Gods! You
  2626. would expect ME to tell you that? While I'm at it, why don't I
  2627. just give you the keys to the city's gates?!"
  2628. Kissaki laughed at that. "And how grateful I would be. I
  2629. may even give you a town of your own to watch over." Then he
  2630. stopped laughing, "or I could simply use the persuasion of pain
  2631. to give me what I want, just trample over Che as if it weren't even
  2632. there."
  2633. "That you would not do!" Sekher spat. "There is a
  2634. treaty amongst Che, Taiska, and Fhel. Fight one, you challenge
  2635. them all. I think that even your forces would be hard pressed."
  2636. The High Lord regarded him calmly with what could have
  2637. been amusement, then turned to face the crowd of courtiers:
  2638. "Heicko!"
  2639. A single figure stepped to the fore. Sekher's heart
  2640. lapsed into a triple beat as he recognised the dust-grey
  2641. robes, differing only marginally from the northlands to the
  2642. south. Priest!
  2643. The elderly male studied Sekher with mild yellow eyes for
  2644. a breath. Sekher desperately tried to hold onto his thoughts, and
  2645. it was probably his imagination, but he was sure he felt a chill
  2646. wind touch his mind; just for a beat. The Priest blinked, then
  2647. smiled and turned to Kissaki and bowed: "Highest, he is lying."
  2648. Again Kissaki snarled his laughter. "Cub, you waste my
  2649. time! I give you some time alone to think things over, then I will
  2650. have you here again to see if you will be more cooperative." In
  2651. turning his back he waved his hand negligently at his guards:
  2652. "Take him. Shave him. The usually treatment, but nothing too
  2653. permanent; I may want him again."
  2654. They seized him. Sekher howled in pain as his tail was
  2655. grabbed and he was dragged towards the door. Laughter rose
  2656. from the court. He scrambled to his feet and was promptly
  2657. forcemarched from the room.
  2658. The huge doors swung shut behind him and again the
  2659. menial scuttled out to rake the light-stained sands smooth again.
  2661. --\o/--
  2664. Kicking and thrashing, Sekher was dragged down to the
  2665. lower levels again, to a room with walls hung with blades,
  2666. needles, vices, irons, bludgeons, and a host of other instruments
  2667. designed to inflict pain. He tried to break free, but now the guards
  2668. beat him into submission.
  2669. Half-conscious they hoisted him bodily onto a table
  2670. and strapped him down whilst a mangy male in an apron mapped
  2671. with stains of gods-only-knew-what laid out a gleaming array of
  2672. sharp utensils.
  2673. Fingers knotted into his ruff, pulled it taught, then a
  2674. knife blade hacked through it, stripping it away. A pot of
  2675. steaming water was brought over from a brazier and near-boiling
  2676. liquid splashed on his face. He howled, tried to bite. Deftly a
  2677. muzzle was flicked over his face, straps tightened. The white
  2678. edge of a knife came close.
  2679. Sekher trembled in dazed humiliation as they
  2680. delicately shaved him, turning him over like meat on a spit to
  2681. remove every last tuft of fur.
  2683. --\o/--
  2686. He hit the floor hard, tumbling to lie in a heap against the
  2687. wall. The cell door closed with a dull thunder that resonated
  2688. along the corridors and the guards' laughter faded into distance.
  2689. Sekher lay still for a time, then groaned, trying to stir
  2690. himself. His battered body rebelled, dumped him back on the
  2691. damp flagstones. There was a deep growling from across the cell.
  2692. With cheek pressed against the floor, he saw the creature staring
  2693. at him, at his naked grey skin, bruised and cut, his tail looking
  2694. absolutely ridiculous; like a twitching piece of grey rope.
  2695. He moaned again and closed his eyes.
  2696. After his shaving he'd been paraded through the town
  2697. with other criminals and prisoners of war, then had been left in
  2698. the pilories for public humiliation until the Daughters were high in
  2699. the sky. Never before had he understood what it meant to be
  2700. naked; completely and utterly exposed. He felt every breeze
  2701. against his skin, every chill, every thrown stone, piece of
  2702. rotting fruit and excrement as he had never felt anything
  2703. before. It was a terrible feeling to be so...so vulnerable.
  2704. Now there was a dull aching in his bones. Gods, but he
  2705. was COLD! He huddled into a small ball, as if trying to squeeze
  2706. the warmth from his body, a part of him yearing for the comfort
  2707. of his dam's pouch.
  2708. There was the growling again. He looked up at the
  2709. creature making its noises, as if trying to tell him something. It
  2710. reached up to its collar and fiddled with the catch at the back.
  2711. A click and the bronze collar and chain fell away.
  2712. Sekher suddenly forgot his discomfort. His nostrils
  2713. flared, his fear beginning to permeate the cell. The thing moved
  2714. closer and Sekher retreated until a corner at his back halted
  2715. him. Crouching, spreading his arms to defend himself, the
  2716. remains of his claws poked from his fingertips, his toes. Standing
  2717. upright, the creature was taller than he by almost a full head, albeit
  2718. not nearly as broad. Sekher snarled, jaws gaping.
  2719. It stopped where it was, the corners of its mobile
  2720. mouth curling up. Then it crouched, kneeling before him. A
  2721. slender finger with the odd, flat claws traced a path down the
  2722. middle of its torso, then it shrugged out of its spotless white
  2723. covering, offering it to him in the same way it had offered food
  2724. on that first night.
  2725. It was trying to be friendly.
  2726. Beneath that outer layer was yet more clothing,
  2727. something of a light grey almost the same hue as his own skin
  2728. with blue piping. Decorations? Gingerly, Sekher reached out to
  2729. touch the white jerkin; it was padded on the inside, lined with
  2730. more unfamiliar materials, smooth and soft, still warm. The
  2731. creature pressed it into his hands.
  2732. Awkwardly Sekher put it on. It smelt strange; of salt
  2733. and damp grass, felt even stranger against his skin, slick, actually
  2734. exuding a soft warmth. Parts of it seemed to have things buried
  2735. in the material, strange lumps that weighed oddly upon Sekher's
  2736. shoulders. It was also much too large, allowing him to huddle up
  2737. and pull it around his legs.
  2738. Again the creature's mouth curved up and it reached
  2739. over to pat Sekher's shoulder. Nonplussed for a second, he
  2740. belatedly returned the gesture. It gave one of those deeps growls
  2741. again, so deep that it seemed to be more felt than heard, and
  2742. moved to inspect the door.
  2743. "What are you?" Sekher again asked the creature's
  2744. back. It didn't turn, gave no sign of hearing.
  2746. --\o/--
  2749. Chenuk hastily straightened his gleaming bronze cuirass
  2750. and cuisse, settled his sword sheath and gauntlets more
  2751. comfortably upon his belt, and entered the audience hall.
  2752. He had been here before, of course, standing sentry
  2753. duty when the high Lord was absent, but this was the first time he
  2754. had ever been summoned directly. His commander had kicked his
  2755. tail from the tavern where he had been partaking in a
  2756. homecoming celebration to the Palace and hustled him into his
  2757. armour. Chenuk had a nasty foreboding of what was wanted of
  2758. him, but he brushed his ruff flat and prayed to any deities that
  2759. might be listening that nobody would smell his nervousness.
  2760. Of the two Royal Guards who flanked him either side,
  2761. their ornate armour making his standard infantry issue appear
  2762. scruffy, no scent betrayed them. They'd had their glands
  2763. removed. That thought always made the the base of Chenuk's
  2764. own tail clench in sympathy, but that self-mutilation was
  2765. something they were proud of, making them difficult to scent,
  2766. and also somewhat inscrutable.
  2767. Sand warmed by sunlight pushed betwen his toes as
  2768. Chenuk walked the length of the audience to the foot of the High
  2769. Lord's dais, where the Highest reclined in a nest of intricately
  2770. embroidered fabrics. "Milord," he knelt. The guards moved off to
  2771. a respectful distance.
  2772. Unusually, Kissaki was almost alone. Of his regular
  2773. retinue only a few now stood around their lord, all five of them
  2774. huddled in their grey robes. Chenuk sniffed curiously. What were
  2775. priests doing here? He thought he recognised one: Sare, expert
  2776. alchemist. They were all gathered about a small table on which
  2777. rested several odd objects, one of which was all too familiar to
  2778. Chenuk.
  2779. "You recognise that?" Kissaki asked without any further
  2780. ado. "Ahh, yes sire," Chenuk hesitantly replied.
  2781. "Do you have any idea of what it is?"
  2782. "No, sire."
  2783. "That was not what you told your commander."
  2784. Chenuk licked his lips, feeling his tail stiffen in
  2785. alarm."Sir, I...I did say I thought it was a helmet, but I'm not
  2786. sure..."
  2787. "A helmet," Kissaki regarded him with an assessing eye.
  2788. "That is a most interesting observation. Tell me, how did you
  2789. come by that line of thought?"
  2790. "It...it looked a little like a war helm, especially that
  2791. visor."
  2792. "You tried it on?"
  2793. "Yes Sir."
  2794. "Why did you do that?"
  2795. "I...I do not really know, Sir. I was puzzled over what it
  2796. was and just put it on out of curiosity. That was when the cursed
  2797. thing moved."
  2798. "Yes, we are familiar with that,"Kissaki mused."Also,
  2799. you claimed this thing belonged to the creature that was found in
  2800. the plains."
  2801. "Ah, yes Sir. It was carrying it and it did seem to be a
  2802. perfect fit for its head."
  2803. "I have yet to see this beast," Kissaki said.
  2804. A guard stepped forward and bowed. "It is being
  2805. brought to you now, milord."
  2806. "Ah, excellent." Kissaki rose from his cushions,
  2807. stretched and stepped down to the sandy floor, walking over to
  2808. the tray of demon artifacts. "Here," he beckoned Chenuk. "Do
  2809. you recognise any of these?"
  2810. He did, the creature had been carrying all of them, but
  2811. they were all utterly alien to Chenuk. There were parts that
  2812. looked like metal, and other parts that were of something he
  2813. couldn't identify. Kissaki picked up an object that resembled a
  2814. lower cannon, a piece of armour intended to protect the forearm,
  2815. save that the thicker, flattened face of the thing was engraved
  2816. with a pattern of small squares and circles. Chenuk blinked.
  2817. Perhaps some of those projections DID look familiar.
  2818. "Uh, no my lord."
  2819. Kissaki returned the artifact, then took up the helm-like
  2820. object and moved over to confer with the priests in muted tones
  2821. that Chenuk didn't even try to eavesdrop on. All the while the
  2822. Lord was turning the device over and around in his hands with a
  2823. lack of caution that made Chenuk's ears flick backwards. He
  2824. hastily caught himself from that breach of etiquette before
  2825. Kissaki returned his attention to him.
  2826. Which Kissaki now did. Briskly he marched over to
  2827. Chenuk and thrust the helmet-thing at him: "Put it on."
  2828. "Mi...milord?" Chenuk stammered. By sheer dint of
  2829. effort he kept his ears from wilting, but he couldn't restrain his
  2830. fearscent.
  2831. "I said, put it on," Kissaki repeated in what could
  2832. almost have been a bored tone, but again there was that keen
  2833. glint in his eyes, like the edge of the knife Chenuk could find
  2834. himself up against if he disobeyed a direct command from the
  2835. apex of power itself.
  2836. "Yessir," he croaked, and mumbled a prayer as he took
  2837. the demon device in his own hands. His was not an
  2838. inordinately religious upbringing, yet it was at time like this that
  2839. the faith took him, and if ever he needed a god, now was that time.
  2840. This time there was far less reshaping of the helmet's
  2841. interior, but still air whispered around his face and the visor
  2842. flared, transforming the room into a hellish scene. There seemed
  2843. to be no light, no shadows, the walls a shade of grey and the
  2844. sun-warmed sand a lighter shade. Torches in their sconces were
  2845. the brightest of all. When Chenuk turned to look at Kissaki he
  2846. almost screamed.
  2847. The High Lord's visage was that of a demon, with a
  2848. whitehot mouth and grey eyes and ears. The shape of his skull
  2849. was visible beneath the pale halo of fur. Not just him, all the
  2850. Trenalbi, nobility and guards alike, glowed white where fur and
  2851. flesh was exposed, slighly darker where there was clothing, and
  2852. darkest of all where there was metal. Chenuk could see the
  2853. outline of daggers and darters concealed beneath the priest's
  2854. robes and that shook him still more. Priests were not supposed to
  2855. carry weapons.
  2856. And they were not the only concealed things.
  2857. Behind tapestries hanging around the edge of the room Chenuk
  2858. spied the glowing outlines of hidden guards, also door-sized
  2859. patches of wall that didn't match their surroundings.
  2860. "Hai, soldier." One of the priests was addressing
  2861. him. Looking at the priest was a mistake. It did something to his
  2862. stomach to be addressed by a creature with a glowing head
  2863. breathing clouds of glowing steam with every sentence. "You
  2864. are alright?"
  2865. "Uhhnn, yes." Chenuk's own voice startled him, deadend
  2866. in the helm instead of reverberating as it would have in a normal
  2867. one. "I think so."
  2868. "You see," the priest declared triumphantly. "It can be
  2869. used by anyone. The shape changing proves it. It is intended to
  2870. fit heads of varying shapes and sizes. It does not necessarily
  2871. have to belong to that creature."
  2872. "Then who does it belong to?" another interjected.
  2873. "Can you name a craftsman with the skill to produce something
  2874. like that? And I have never heard of any priest with the skill to
  2875. devise a visor such as that."
  2876. They were using him as a test subject. Although the
  2877. helm didn't actually seem to be dangerous, he would still much
  2878. rather prefer to be back in the tavern with a chilled ale and a
  2879. few friends, cracking jokes about climbing the wall.
  2880. "Alright soldier, you can take it off now." Kissaki
  2881. returned to his seat.
  2882. A relieved Chenuk hastily pulled the helm off, depositing
  2883. it on the tray with the other devices. If a helmet had that kind of
  2884. power, what capabilities were the others bestowed with? That
  2885. small box with the little glass window and still more of those
  2886. engraved squares, what powers was that gifted with?
  2887. The double doors at the far end of the hall swung
  2888. open again, admitting entrance to a squad of Royal Guard and
  2889. the burden they carried between them. Forgotten for the
  2890. time, Chenuk stood quietly at ease as the priests scurried forward
  2891. to inspect the stretcher that was deposited at the foot of the
  2892. dais. Even the High Lord craned foward to look down upon it
  2893. from his seat. Chenuk caught a glimpse as the surrounding
  2894. priests parted: the demon; eyes closed and unmoving,
  2895. strapped down on the cot by heavy restraints about chest, arms,
  2896. and legs.
  2897. The sergeant responsible for the squad delivering the
  2898. thing snapped to respectful attention before the High Lord. "Sir,
  2899. I'm afraid it got loose from its chains. We had to use force."
  2900. "So I see," murmured Kissaki. "It's not damaged too
  2901. badly?"
  2902. "Nosir."
  2903. "Very good." The guards were dismissed. With a
  2904. clatter of arms and armour they left the hall, the doors
  2905. swinging shut behind them on well-oiled hinges. A menial
  2906. scuttled from another concealed door to attend to the churned
  2907. sand.
  2908. Kissaki stepped down to stand above the creature with
  2909. hands clasped behind his back, then he knelt and took two
  2910. handfuls of the creature's clothing and pulled; hard, lifting the cot
  2911. partly off the ground before dropping it back. The cloth
  2912. didn't part. "Huh," he snorted. "Very well. Hai, Neric, you're the
  2913. expert. Can you tell us anything about this?"
  2914. One of the priests, a young one, burly and well
  2915. groomed, obviously uncomfortable in his robes, stepped forward
  2916. to give the creature a cursory examination. "I have never seen
  2917. its likes anywhere...and I am familiar with all the animals of the
  2918. plains, lowlands, and mountains. Nor is it described in any of my
  2919. texts."
  2920. "Perhaps from beyond the mountains?" another
  2921. suggested.
  2922. "Don't be ridiculous," he retorted, running fingers
  2923. through the golden fur on the thing's head. There were traces
  2924. of unnaturally red blood there. "Still, it bleeds."
  2925. "A minor demon?" There was uneasy stirring.
  2926. "Huh! And I am a female! Well, we can settle the matter
  2927. of where it comes from!"
  2928. A hush settled over the hall as the priest settled himself
  2929. crosslegged at the head of the cot, his hands on the creatures
  2930. head. Slowly he bowed his own head until his breath was stirring
  2931. the fine fur, his eyes closed.
  2932. Many heartbeats passed.
  2933. The creature twitched; once, then again, then spasmed,
  2934. the straps holding it fast creaking under the strain. Cords stood
  2935. out on its neck as lips fleered back from square teeth. A
  2936. rumbling howl shook through the hall.
  2937. And Neric screamed also, mouth gaping and eyes
  2938. staring in absolute terror as his own body was wracked with
  2939. convulsions. Blood began to flow from the corners of his eyes,
  2940. his ears, spreading through his fur in dark rivulets as the
  2941. scream continued to force itself from his lungs. There was an
  2942. explosive stench as he voided his scent gland and bowels
  2943. simultaneously.
  2944. "Gods! Separate them!"
  2945. "I don't..."
  2946. "DO IT!"
  2947. Guards were throwing the hall's doors open, pouring in
  2948. from doors on all sides, but the priests were already prising
  2949. Neric's hands from the creature's skull, throwing him back to the
  2950. sand and holding him as he threshed and bucked, foaming and
  2951. bleeding, eyes staring into nothing.
  2952. Slowly he subsided, winding down like a clockwork
  2953. machine, sheer exhaustion subduing him until he lay
  2954. whimpering and gasping.
  2955. " Neric?" a priest cautiously spoke the name.
  2956. There was no flicker in the eyes. Neric was no longer
  2957. there.
  2959. --\o/--
  2962. Sekher's ears perked up at the commotion in the
  2963. corridor outside. At last; already the solitude was beginning to
  2964. gnaw at his consciousness. Keys rattled and the door swung
  2965. open. Beyond it the hall was packed with guards, all with
  2966. drawn weapons, enough raw steel to outfit an army. They
  2967. pressed back against the walls as more came through, carrying the
  2968. stretcher.
  2969. The creature, still unconscious, looked a lot the worse
  2970. for wear than when they'd carted it away, despite the battering it
  2971. had taken. There was blood coating its face and the scent of
  2972. terror was a palpable aura around it.
  2973. Without further ado the guards clamped the chain about
  2974. its neck then slashed the bonds holding it down and dumped it
  2975. off the stretcher, retreating in haste.
  2976. "Hai!" Sekher called. "What happened?! What's going on?"
  2977. But the door slammed shut, not quite blocking out the
  2978. fear rolling from the guards. In the dimness Sekher stared at the
  2979. prostrate from of the creature lying in the spread of light
  2980. seeping under the door.
  2981. "Hai, you alright?"
  2982. At a push it flopped over onto its back and Sekher stared
  2983. at its face, the closest he'd been. There was blood on its forehead
  2984. and what seemed to be a fine layer of fur sprouting on its chin.
  2985. Hardly daring, he reached out, stroked the face. Yes, there were
  2986. bristles there. Strange that in captivity he should lose his fur and
  2987. this creature grow more. That hairless hide was soft,
  2988. incredibly fine, and that fur... He stroked it gently. At his touch
  2989. the creature twitched, gave an unmistakable moan, and curled
  2990. up into a peculiar little ball, arms wrapped about knees hugged
  2991. against its chest, head tucked down.
  2992. Sekher looked from it to the closed door. What had
  2993. happened out there?
  2995. --\o/--
  2998. Was it showing some sign of recovering?
  2999. The rumble, as low as that of the mighty sheets of
  3000. bronze used to signal prayer, stirred the air in the cell as the
  3001. creature stirred.
  3002. "Feeling better?" Sekher asked, looking up.
  3003. It didn't pay him any heed; struggled to sit up,
  3004. slumped against the wall clasping its head in its hands,
  3005. contorting its features in a hideous grimace.
  3006. "Obviously not," Sekher said. "You want some water?
  3007. You're going to have to get it yourself. I still haven't figured out
  3008. how you open this..." He shut up. He was babbling. Gods! How
  3009. much longer would they leave him alone in here. Solitude was
  3010. not something that any Trenalbi handled well. Give him a few
  3011. more days and he'd be a gibbering ball in a corner.
  3012. He scrambled across to the door, pounded against
  3013. it shouting, "Hai! Anyone! Say something! Gods, answer me!"
  3014. Not a whisper from the far side, just the oppressive nothingness
  3015. of the dungeons. Sekher leaned his head against the wood.
  3016. "Say something," he moaned.
  3017. And the creature growled at him.
  3018. "And YOU close your face!"he snarled back at the top of
  3019. his voice, ears flattening.
  3020. The creature cringed at his shout, shutting its eyes
  3021. and holding its head, then it rose unsteadily to its feet, the wall
  3022. its support, and growled again.
  3023. "Why by all that's holy did they have to stick me in
  3024. here with YOU?!" Sekher howled, impotently furious.
  3025. It winced again, then roared back at him. Sekher stared
  3026. in mute shock, the cell echoing. Gods! The thing was LOUD. His
  3027. ears were still humming. He awkwardly tried to pat his nonexistant
  3028. fur flat again, stroking only skin covered in tiny bumps, and
  3029. coughed. What was the use of shouting at that thing?
  3030. "Sorry," he muttered. It stared at him, head tilted to one
  3031. side, then beckoned him. Sekher flinched, but the thing mimed
  3032. drinking so Sekher allowed it to touch him, to open that hidden
  3033. pocket on the jerkin. It drank deeply from the flask, then poured a
  3034. little over its face and proffered the flask to Sekher. Gratefully
  3035. he also partook, it was a welcome change from the metallic-
  3036. tasting stuff in the pitcher the guards had provided. When
  3037. finished, the flask was slipped back into its pocket in Sekher's
  3038. right side, and the creature returned to its corner, curling up on
  3039. the floor and closing its eyes.
  3040. Time passed.
  3041. Its breathing slowed, the only movement was the
  3042. twitching of its eyelids, then that stopped. Unconscious. Sekher
  3043. crept close. It was as it had done at nights in the cage. Perhaps a
  3044. way to avoid boredom? Why did it not just Drift?
  3045. He shook his head violently, rubbed at his muzzle,
  3046. then flopped down in his corner and slowly sank into Drift
  3047. himself, mulling over this little enigma...
  3049. --\o/--
  3052. Door? A noise, movement, shifting light.
  3053. Sekher slowly returned, withdrawing nictating
  3054. membranes from across his eyes. What was it...?
  3055. There! Again. Metal scraping on metal as a key was
  3056. fitted to the lock. Sekher groaned; now what? Which of them had
  3057. they come for this time. Over there the creature was still
  3058. unconscious, oblivious.
  3059. Keys rattled again. There was a muttering outside, then
  3060. a voice hissing: "Che? Sekher Che?"
  3061. "Huh?" His ears pricked up curiously. The warden
  3062. losing the keys? Not likely. "Who?"
  3063. "Friends," the voice hissed back. Again metal rattled in
  3064. the lock and there was muffled cursing. Sekher scrambled to his
  3065. feet to listen at the door. At least two of them, arguing.
  3066. "Friends? Who?"
  3067. "We're here to get you out."
  3068. To trust his ears? Sekher gaped at the door in disbelief,
  3069. then pressed up against it, hands spread against the wood.
  3070. Again metal rattled in the lock. "Gods!" he hissed. "Hurry!"
  3071. There was a pause. "The key! It's not here!"
  3072. "WHAT?!" Sekher slammed his hand against the door.
  3073. Hard. It didn't budge a finger.
  3074. "Calm down!" the voice hissed. "We'll get a pry bar."
  3075. "No time!" the other voice growled.
  3076. "Then what in all the gods-blasted wastes ARE you
  3077. going to do?!" Sekher screamed.
  3078. "Quiet yourself!" came the desperate hiss and the
  3079. sound of metal scratching at the lock.
  3080. And from behind him came another sound, a
  3081. questioning growl as the creature stirred and blinked strangely
  3082. coloured eyes at him. Sekher sank to a squat and shook his
  3083. head ruefully at the thing. "Even if you could understand, you
  3084. wouldn't believe it," he said.
  3085. The scratching stopped. "What?" came from the other
  3086. side of the door.
  3087. "Nothing," he spat back. "I was talking to a friend.
  3088. "Two of them?" he heard through the thick wood. Two
  3089. of them? Huh, sort of...Now what was it doing? Growling and
  3090. pointing at the door. "Someone's trying to get us out," Sekher
  3091. told it. "Idiots got the wrong key and I don't need any trouble
  3092. from you."
  3093. "What's going on in there?"
  3094. "Local entertainment," Sekher shot back, and even that
  3095. little exchange excited the creature. Frantically, it pointed at
  3096. Sekher again, indicating the jerkin, that it wanted to touch him.
  3097. This time it opened another concealed pouch low down on
  3098. Sekher's hip, removing a couple of slender little silver cylinders,
  3099. each no larger than a finger, some coloured with red and white
  3100. stripes, others yellow and black, others with even more peculiar
  3101. colour combinations. Only one it selected, blue and white
  3102. checks. It fiddled with this, slipped it into the keyhole, and
  3103. seized Sekher's arm. The Trenalbi squalled, automatically slashed
  3104. out and connected with useless claws, but the creature was
  3105. amazingly strong and hauled him into the corner furthest from the
  3106. door.
  3107. Again not hurting him. It was gesturing at the door again,
  3108. making pushing movments, move back.
  3109. "Back!" Sekher shouted at his amateurish liberators
  3110. beyond the door. "Get away from the door!"
  3111. A couple of beats later the lock exploded into a shower
  3112. of red sparks, then a brilliant scarlet light flared. Sekher
  3113. squeaked and threw his arms over his face. Heat seared against
  3114. his hands, arms, legs, ears; all exposed skin.
  3115. An acrid smell was hanging heavy in the cell, a haze
  3116. of smoke obscuring the door. The lock was a formless mass
  3117. of glowing, heated slag dribbling down the blackened wood. A
  3118. charred hole the size of a head and a half had been bitten from the
  3119. door. The lock had been welded to the frame, but was no longer
  3120. attached to the wood. Nose and eyes running, fanning smoke
  3121. away from his face, Sekher tugged the recalcitrant door open. For
  3122. once the hinges chose not to squeal.
  3123. Air in the dungeons was heavy, static, slow moving.
  3124. The smoke hung like a heavy veil over the doorway, stinging
  3125. his nostrils as he stepped through it. How long until somebody
  3126. else smelled it, raised the alarm?
  3127. His saviours were also wreathed in smoke, blurring but
  3128. not concealing the arrays of multicolored veils and gossamar
  3129. robes adorning their bodies. Females? By all the denziens of
  3130. the Ramparts! Why did they...
  3131. And Sekher knew that exotic pelt of blue-grey, the eyes
  3132. that glittered gold.
  3133. "You," he croaked.
  3134. She and her companion were both staring past him, at
  3135. the door, with confounded expressions. "How did you do that?"
  3136. the dark furred one breathed: awed. Her voice...With the exception
  3137. of his dam and some others when he was no more than a cub, still
  3138. in her pouch, he had never spoken with a female, had never
  3139. grasped the subtle differences in their speech.
  3140. Sekher's ears wilted." Ah, my companion," he began,
  3141. then winced. Gods! What would they do when they saw...
  3142. He knew when their eyes went wide and arms spasmed
  3143. as they brought claws up. The creature had appeared in the
  3144. smoke, an apparition from the farthest hell. It halted in the
  3145. doorway, looming in the moving torchlight, eyeing the females
  3146. warily while they began to back away.
  3147. "Hai! No, it's alright," Sekher hastened to reassure them.
  3148. "It won't hurt you." I hope, he added under his breath.
  3149. "What...is it!" the dark furred one hissed, eyes wild.
  3150. "I have not the tiniest idea," he confessed."But it seems
  3151. to be on our side."
  3152. They stared again." You cannot expect to take it with
  3153. us?"
  3154. "Why..."
  3155. "Think of it, male! That thing? It would be more
  3156. conspicuous than a shen in a bed!"
  3157. "We can't just leave it. It appeared when I most needed
  3158. it..."
  3159. "A sending, you believe," she looked doubtful.
  3160. "What else?" he asked.
  3161. She stepped towards the creature, examining
  3162. without touching. "It understands you?"
  3163. "I think not," he admitted. "Sometimes I don't think the
  3164. thhing even hears me. Nevertheless, it's more than a simple
  3165. beast."
  3166. "What must be done, must be done," she finally
  3167. spat, obviously not relishing the idea. "Bring it and let's get out
  3168. of this stink."
  3169. Sekher touched the creature's arm, tugging it. "Come,"
  3170. he said and it followed him, docile as a well-trained shen.
  3171. The sight that awaited him in the torchlight of the
  3172. guardroom to their level was not entirely unexpected. There was a
  3173. lot of blood. All three of the soldiers on guard there were naked
  3174. and dead, two sprawled on thin pallets, slit open from crotch to
  3175. chest, chin to breastbone, the other lying twisted as if he was
  3176. trying to clutch at the pair of throwing daggers that caught him in
  3177. the back just before he reached the door.
  3178. "Males," the darkfur grinned. Almost a warning.
  3179. "Huh!" Sekher looked around at the carnage. Such
  3180. ruthlessness was something he'd never expected in a female.
  3181. The creature was hovering in the background, staring at
  3182. the corpses and both females were regarding him in the
  3183. brighter light. "You know, Sekher," the dark one said, "you look a
  3184. great deal different without your fur. And where did you get that
  3185. tunic?"
  3186. He ignored that. "You know my name. Do you happen to have
  3187. one?"
  3188. Dark fur stroked at one of her squared little ears, then
  3189. grinned. "Alright, Sekher Che. Call me Chaiila, my friend is
  3190. Nersi."
  3191. "I think I owe you."
  3192. "Not this time, male," Chaiila said. "I'm repaying a debt."
  3193. "You came all this way for that?!"
  3194. "I had other business as well," she muttered. Then:
  3195. "Alright. Now we get out of here."
  3197. --\o/--
  3200. "This isn't going to work,"Sekher grumbled.
  3201. In full battle armour, holding the twisted leather leash, he
  3202. followed Chaiila and the creature. He was beginning to appreciate
  3203. the effectiveness of shaving prisoners.
  3204. He was forced to wear every piece of armour he could
  3205. find to cover his furlessness, a dead givaway to anyone they
  3206. might run into. His tail had been a major concern. No trooper
  3207. would put his tail into the sheath built into the back of the
  3208. armour specifically for that purpose unless battle was imminent,
  3209. and there was no way Sekher could leave his pathetic,
  3210. shaved appendage wave around like a flag advertising to all and
  3211. sundry that here was a shaved Trenalbi; a prisoner.
  3212. Chaiila had solved that problem in a straightforward
  3213. manner. She'd grabbed the tail of one of the dead guards, cut a
  3214. ring around the base, slit it laterally, then just peeled it off with a
  3215. wet, tearing sound. They tied it in place with thread
  3216. unravelled from an undergarment.
  3217. Now Sekher's tail twitched at the feel of the dead pelt tied
  3218. to it. There was blood or something leaking from it, dribbling
  3219. between Sekher's buttocks. Gods! It looked almost real, but
  3220. surely someone would smell the gods bedamned thing!
  3221. The creature was another problem of epic proportions,
  3222. but Sekher was adamant: it would go with them. Now it walked in
  3223. front of him, once more wearing its tunic sealed up, a leather
  3224. collar around its neck again, the strap in Sekher's hand while his
  3225. other grasped his sword. The creature had balked when they first
  3226. tried to put the collar and leashes on, but Sekher patted its
  3227. shoulder, making encouraging noises and eventually it
  3228. acquiesced.
  3229. One beside him, one leading in front of the creature.
  3230. The two females were anonymous in their liberated armour, the
  3231. masks and visors concealing their features. If anyone stopped
  3232. them they were taking the creature to the temple. Orders of the
  3233. priests. Nobody was going to interfere with that.
  3234. Hopefully.
  3235. "Quiet, male!" Nersi hissed, her armoured elbow
  3236. thudding into his arm. "And stop that fear-scent!"
  3237. "What am I supposed to do!" he hissed back. "Cut them
  3238. off?!"
  3239. "That can be arranged!"
  3240. The creature, who had been watching this tirade
  3241. avidly, abruptly faltered. "Hai!" Sekher began, "What's..."
  3242. He trailed off. Trenalbi were approaching them from
  3243. down the corridor: a trio of warriors in light leather armour and
  3244. breeks. They froze at the sight of the procession heading towards
  3245. them.
  3246. Sekher prodded the creature with his sword to get it
  3247. walking again, somehow keeping his own legs moving. The Rim
  3248. Trenalbi drifted to the side of the corridor.
  3249. "Hai!" one of them hailed Chaiila as she passed. "What
  3250. in the name of all that's holy is that thing?!"
  3251. Sekher's heart plummeted into his bowels. Surely they
  3252. would notice!
  3253. The leather mask across her mouth muffled her voice.
  3254. Not by much: she still sounded a little strange for a male. "A
  3255. guest of his Highest," she said with a hint of a snort. "We're to
  3256. deliver it to the temple. I don't know. . . perhaps they want to cut
  3257. it open and see how it works."
  3258. The guard eyed the gangling, tufted head speculatively
  3259. while grey eyes stared back. "Huh, can't possibly look any worse
  3260. on the inside."
  3261. Chaiila's laugh sounded genuine.
  3262. "Well, if the priests are waiting I won't keep you," the
  3263. guard waved them on. As Sekher passed, the guard's muzzle
  3264. wrinkled slightly, as though trying to follow a scent. Sekher
  3265. tried to master his fear.
  3266. As soon as they were around the corner: "See," Chaiila
  3267. hissed in triumph, "nothing to it!"
  3268. "Sure!" Sekher spat back. "Now how do we get out?!
  3269. Just walk out through the gates then through the town?"
  3270. "Why not?" she replied, again staring at the creature as
  3271. it stared back. "It's night out there you know. We slip out the
  3272. gate, then through the town, over the walls...nothing to it!"
  3273. Gods preserve his hide! They were lunatics! Here was
  3274. he, escaping with a thing that defied description from a dungeon
  3275. with the aid of two mad females!
  3276. "It'll work!" she assured him.
  3277. The palace was quieter at night, but still there were
  3278. Trenalbi about. The stairs leading from the servants level to
  3279. ground were well-travelled routes, with untold scores of menials
  3280. scurrying to and fro between their masters and duties. The few
  3281. who saw them paused only to stare at the bizarre prisoner being
  3282. escorted by three armoured guards. It was none of their concern
  3283. so they simply kept out of the way then went about their
  3284. business.
  3285. It was dark out.
  3286. The chamber that opened upon the front courtyard was
  3287. vast space, a rectangular cleft in the side of the palace. Three
  3288. floors over their head strongstone vaulting supported the roof.
  3289. Around the walls, over a hundred paces apart, torches burned,
  3290. tiny mites throwing small pools of light. More glows spilled from
  3291. arrow loopholes and doorways: stables, guardrooms,
  3292. storerooms. Trenalbi waded through these puddles of light,
  3293. dwarfed by their own works, went about their business; here
  3294. individual guards lounging against their pole arms, a courier
  3295. scurrying on his way, there a group of males back from the
  3296. town, their barks of laughter echoing.
  3297. Beyond the huge archway the sand of the courtyard
  3298. was blue beneath the light of the Daughters and the Palace
  3299. walls were distant black ribbons. Past them the peaks of
  3300. rooftops and chimneys.
  3301. Beyond that...
  3302. Sekher raised his muzzle, unable to scent properly for
  3303. the mask across his face that blocked the night breeze. Freedom,
  3304. so close now. To remove the mask would be sheer folly.
  3305. The creature was rubbernecking wildly, obviously trying
  3306. to cope with something it had no comprehension of. How could
  3307. it? Whatever it was, wherever it had come from, how could it
  3308. have encountered anything that could possibly compare with the
  3309. scale of this.
  3310. The females were both silent now. Trying to hold
  3311. themselves like males, and doing a creditable job. It was
  3312. working! They could bluff their way past the guards, then...
  3313. Then an outcry sounded. As one the four fugitives
  3314. looked to where that group of down-shift troopers were
  3315. struggling with one of their number who was straining against
  3316. their grasp, pointing across the space at them. His screaming
  3317. carried: ". . . Demon! It killed a priest! Stop them!"
  3318. Guards were beginning to look interested now.
  3319. "Alarm! Sound the alarm!" the male screamed.
  3320. "They're escaping!"
  3321. That did it. Guards began to appear in doors, moved
  3322. towards them with weapons in hand.
  3323. "Oh Gods!" Sekher breathed.
  3324. "Don't pray!" Chaiila hissed. "Move!" So saying, she
  3325. bolted for the closest door with Sekher and Nersi close behind.
  3326. The creature, demon the Rimmer had called it, took a look at the
  3327. charging guards and followed them with leashes dragging.
  3328. Something whirred and rang against the wall as Sekher ducked
  3329. through the door: someone had a crossbow.
  3330. It was the creature that slammed the door, rammed the
  3331. bar into place. The door was sturdy, intended to keep things on
  3332. the other side of it, but it wouldn't take long for their pursuers to
  3333. move to cut them off. All this door boasted behind it was a
  3334. spiral staircase, leading upwards. Already Sekher could hear the
  3335. females clattering their way up ahead of him. He paused to help
  3336. the creature unfasten its collar, then swatted its arm: "Come on!"
  3337. Its peculiar foot coverings pounded the steps close
  3338. behind as Sekher scrambled up the staircase.
  3339. The females were waiting in a door way at the top of
  3340. the stair. "Move your tail, male!" Chaiila hissed. They'd both
  3341. stripped away their masks and now Sekher did the same,
  3342. gasping air. He was about to speak when Chaiila gave his
  3343. helm a resounding slap and snarled, "Don't say it! Don't even
  3344. think it. Come on."
  3345. Again the females took off. Sekher gave his creature a
  3346. resigned look: "Well it didn't work, did it."
  3347. It growled, then slapped Sekher's shoulder to get him
  3348. moving after the females who'd paused at the intersection at the
  3349. end of the corridor. Somewhere alarm gongs were sounding.
  3350. "Where now?" he gasped.
  3351. Chaiila twisted uncertainly, turning left and right, then
  3352. she cursed and tore the helmet off and bounced it off the wall.
  3353. "This way," she snarled, choosing the left corridor.
  3354. They were lived in, these levels. The wooden floors
  3355. were worn smooth, there were tapestries, simple black and white
  3356. line compositions on the walls, covering the grey stonework. A
  3357. servant stepped out of a door and promptly dropped his armload
  3358. of laundry as he cringed at the sight of a grotesque gargoyle and
  3359. a bevy of armed and armour warriors bearing down on him. They
  3360. swept past him, then a guard appeared from around a corner.
  3361. It was the creature who received the full brunt of his
  3362. attack. The trooper's sword flared torchlight as it swung in a
  3363. brutal arc. If the creature had been of average height the slash
  3364. would have taken it in the neck, as it was the sword hit it its
  3365. upper arm.
  3366. And, impossibly, snapped.
  3367. All the Trenalbi: the females, Sekher, the Rim guard
  3368. gaped at the shattered blade as it rang against the wall, then
  3369. clattered to the floor. Then the creature struck out, a single blow
  3370. from a fist sending the trooper reeling, then came a kick that
  3371. connected with the audible crackle of ribs breaking.
  3372. They left the trooper hugging himself and coughing
  3373. blood. Now Sekher stared nervously at his creature. So easily it
  3374. could have killed him in the cell. So easily it could have escaped!
  3375. Why had it waited?
  3376. Another door at the end of the corridor. Another
  3377. spiral staircase. Easy to defend and space-efficient. They'd
  3378. started moving downwards when the sounds of shouting, feet,
  3379. and equipment jangling drifted up. "Back! Back!" Sekher cried as
  3380. he turned. The creature lagged behind them, pulling out another
  3381. of the little cylinders. It fiddled with it, then hurled it back
  3382. downstairs where it clattered out of sight. Heartbeats later the
  3383. walls were lit with a brilliant red glow.
  3384. Cries and screams of terror sounded.
  3385. "Come on!" Sekher urged his creature. It seemed even
  3386. more tired than they were, gasping hard. He caught its arm to pull
  3387. it upwards and was surprised at its weight. It wasn't as broad as a
  3388. Trenalbi, but that was deceptive. It was solidly built. The way it
  3389. had handled that guard...
  3390. They caught up with the females again on a landing a
  3391. floor up just as they opened the door.
  3392. The hall beyond was full of guards charging towards
  3393. them, spears lowered, swords drawn.
  3394. "GODS!"
  3395. Chaiila slammed the door. There was no bar on this one,
  3396. just a lock. Then the creature pushed through them, ramming a
  3397. small cylinder into the keyhole then frantically pushing them
  3398. back, herding the Trenalbi upstairs.
  3399. They'd gone a couple of revolutions up the stairs when
  3400. the shouts sounded behind them. A vicious snarl twisted
  3401. Sekher's muzzle. He wished he could have witnessed that: the
  3402. door exploding in demonic fire just as they reached to open it.
  3403. When the stair ran out, there was another heavy
  3404. door blocking the way. Unlocked, it was, hinges squalling loudly
  3405. as it was pushed open. Sekher rammed the bar into place, then
  3406. leaned his back against the door, praying for his trembling legs to
  3407. hold him.
  3408. This corridor, leading left-right, was a barrel vault, tiled in
  3409. dark blue with the wooden floor stained a dried-blood purple.
  3410. "Alright," Sekher said. "Now where? There's no more
  3411. up."
  3412. "Uh...This way," Chaiila pointed left. "There should
  3413. be another stair down."
  3414. "Which will have a hundred warriors on it by this time,"
  3415. said Sekher.
  3416. "You perhaps have a better idea?"she snarled back.
  3417. No, he didn't.
  3418. From somewhere on that level came the sound of a
  3419. door slamming open. Voices echoed from the hard tiles.
  3420. Wearily, the fugitives once again began running. At
  3421. one intersection they were spotted by a pair of guards, who
  3422. howled the alarm and immediately gave chase. The creature threw
  3423. another of those fire-cylinders behind it and the resulting small
  3424. orange sun that flared in the centre of the corridor effectively
  3425. discouraged pursuit.
  3426. "This...is...hopeless," Sekher gasped. The Sh'sty Rim
  3427. forces knew they were on this level. It was but a matter of time
  3428. before they found them, and then...How many of those little
  3429. cylinders did his creature have? An escape? Huh ! A farce! The
  3430. Rim troopers were doubtless enjoying the hunt.
  3431. Nersi poked her head out to check the next corridor
  3432. they approached, then she signalled 'all clear'. It was more
  3433. conventional, this passage: Plastered stonework with murals of
  3434. gods and deities depicted in bas reliefs. Long, also. They had
  3435. traversed perhaps half the length when the squad of Rim warriors
  3436. in full battledress rounded the corner at the far end. Several of
  3437. them raised crossbows and the flat snaps of the strings being
  3438. released sounded down the corridor. Nersi cried out and
  3439. stumbled wildly, mewling in pain. Two bolts struck the creature,
  3440. staggering it slightly, then clattering harmlessly to the floor.
  3441. Another little cylinder was hurled back down the corridor to
  3442. explode into a yellow glare that obscured anything beyond it.
  3443. "In here!"Chaiila ordered, catching and hooking Nersi's
  3444. arm about her shoulder to help her through the door to their left.
  3445. Sekher was the last through, throwing his weight against the
  3446. heavy door to seal it. There was no lock on it save a simple dowl
  3447. bolt.
  3448. "Haiii," Chaiila hissed despairingly. "Gods preserve us."
  3449. Slowly Sekher turned to look.
  3450. A temple. Here in the palace, a temple!
  3451. The circular room of Communion was nothing compared
  3452. to those in the great temples, nor was it as impressive as the
  3453. Audience Hall he had so recently been introduced to, but it
  3454. wasn't the size of the room that shook the Trenalbi, it was the
  3455. essence, the power that emanated from the very walls and floor.
  3456. Masks of the gods watched from niches around the
  3457. walls. The great faces in gleaming black Nightglow stone
  3458. watching their every move, dark eye sockets glowing with a
  3459. green light. Phast, the god of war, was in ascendancy, snarling
  3460. at them from his position at the peak of the triangle directly
  3461. opposite him. Along side him the effigies of Chith'as' Tre and
  3462. Hirol, gods of storms and fire took their unaccustomed places.
  3463. The altar in the centre of the room was marked with dark stains
  3464. and streaks, still glistening wet.
  3465. Lingering scents of fear and pain rent the air like
  3466. screams. Sekher froze. All the nightmares, the warnings, of
  3467. what happened to those who violated the priests' sanctuaries
  3468. came flooding back, leaving him trembling. His fear mixed with
  3469. that of the females, even Nersi, her leg now coated in blood.
  3470. The creature simply walked out into the room, touched
  3471. the drying blood on the altar, then turned and stared at them,
  3472. questioning.
  3473. A low murmuring sounded from one of the paired
  3474. arches flanking the war god. A hooded figure in grey robes drew
  3475. aside the curtains across the right archway and moved to stand
  3476. below the mask of Phast.
  3477. There was a pounding on the door behind them.
  3478. Unperturbed the priest continued chanting his
  3479. mantras, lifting his head to focus on the creature. The hood fell
  3480. back. He was old, his mane frizzled and nearly white. Still the
  3481. creature continued to stand before the altar like a target for a
  3482. bow, seemingly puzzled by the unarmed old Trenalbi before it.
  3483. The priest raised his arm and the creature half-raised the
  3484. cylinder it had taken from its pouch.
  3485. There were multiple flat cracks like the snapping of a
  3486. dozen whips. From the walls of the room jagged flashes of blue-
  3487. white lightning clawed out at the creature, outlining it in a
  3488. momentary nimbus of sparks and power which faded in the blink
  3489. on an eye.
  3490. The creature looked startled, swinging its arm around.
  3491. A stream of fire erupted from the rod in the creature's
  3492. hand, washing over the Phast's mask, down, engulfing the priest
  3493. who exploded into flame, staggered forward waving his arms
  3494. frantically. Fur burned with a vengeance. Eyeballs burst into
  3495. steam and flame ate into the body, erupting from the mouth as a
  3496. visible scream. The smell of burning flesh was overpowering,
  3497. starting Sekher's mouth to watering.
  3498. The creature stood unharmed by the priest's assault,
  3499. looking - if Sekher could read its expression - surprised at the
  3500. dying priest. It let the cylinder drop to the floor and glanced back
  3501. at the other Trenalbi.
  3502. The twisted corpse on the floor still burned, smoking
  3503. and steaming, looking like a charred log only vaguely Trenalbi
  3504. shaped. Blackened skin and fur burned reluctantly, bubbled as
  3505. fat hissed and spat. Sekher and Chaiili gave it a cautious berth as
  3506. they half-carried Nersi around it.
  3507. Behind the curtains, the arches both opened into the
  3508. same hallway. At one end this terminated in a room with little in
  3509. it: some stark wooden benches and chests, but the other ended in
  3510. another stairway, going up.
  3511. "But this is the top level!" Chaiila stated, confused.
  3512. "Where's this go?"
  3513. "Only one way to find out," Sekher said. "We can't stay
  3514. around here."
  3515. These stairs were broader than the others they'd
  3516. ascended in their flight. They were also newer: the stones still
  3517. bore the distinct marks of masons' chisels. It was awkward
  3518. hauling Nersi up those steps double-time, strung between them
  3519. leaving a trail of blood. The creature trailed behind them,
  3520. glancing back over its shoulder. There was little doubt that the
  3521. Rim troops were now in the temple, right on their tail.
  3522. And when this stair ran out? What then?
  3523. Sekher's hand drifted to the hilt of his sword. Good, he
  3524. still had that, but would...could he use it?
  3525. He reached the top gasping. Nersi was yelping each time
  3526. her foot touched the floor and she was beginning to weigh upon
  3527. his shoulders like a wet shen. "Get back," Sekher snarled to
  3528. the females, in no mood for argument. Chaiila hauled Nersi
  3529. through the small doorway and Sekher watched it close, then
  3530. drew his sword and turned to face stairs. At least he'd take a few
  3531. of them with him.
  3532. His creature stood there beside him, also gasping.
  3533. "Sorry about this," Sekher nervously laughed. "Could
  3534. have had some time to find out just what you are."
  3535. Already voices and rattling equipment.
  3536. He grinned at the creature, clutching tighter to the hilt of
  3537. his sword. It grinned back at him, then held up a single
  3538. cylinder, stripped yellow and black. It twisted the top, starting a
  3539. flashing red light, then dashed down the stairs.
  3540. "Hai!" Sekher yelled, but it was already out of sight.
  3541. Seconds later, it was back, sans cylinder. Sekher had
  3542. time to squall in surprise as it grabbed him, hurling him away
  3543. from the stair.
  3544. The blast that roared up the staircase was almost a
  3545. palpable force, bringing a could of dust and small ricocheting
  3546. debris that rattled against his armour.
  3547. Sekher found himself on the floor, a heavy weight on
  3548. his back and a layer of dust coating his mouth. He coughed, spat,
  3549. and raised his head. A deep growl beside his ear echoed his
  3550. own sentiments. "Hai! You said it!" he agreed as the creature
  3551. dragged itself off his legs and dug in an ear with a finger.
  3552. Sekher's ears wilted in awe at the extent of the damage.
  3553. That little piece of metal had destroyed and blocked a section of
  3554. stair and effectively added another window in the three-span
  3555. thick walls of this tower. He could see that was what it was now, a
  3556. single tower with the rest of the palace spread out below. The
  3557. battlements on the roof were swarming with soldiery as the first
  3558. tinges of the Lightbringer tainted the darkness.
  3559. "Well, they're not going to get through that in a hurry!"
  3560. he snorted to himself, regarding the rubble. "Now we just starve
  3561. to death."
  3562. Gods! What was better? Locked in an underground cell,
  3563. or in a tower? Either way you bit it, they weren't going anywhere.
  3564. A bleak thought. Sekher snarled, startling his creature,
  3565. then headed back up the stairs, slapping loose clouds of
  3566. powdered masonry from his scratched hide. He pounded on the
  3567. door: "Chaiila! It's me! Open up!"
  3568. A bolt scraped on the other side, then the door swung
  3569. aside and Chaiila was staring at him, at the grey coating
  3570. covering him. "By my Mother, what happened?! That noise..."
  3571. "That thing again,"Sekher said, jerking a thumb at the
  3572. creature behind him as he pushed past her, then stopped and
  3573. blinked in surprise.
  3574. A strange room. Not little. The floor was carpeted, the
  3575. walls panelled in expensive-looking timbers, and over those were
  3576. hung tapestries. Not the usual scenes of hunting, battle, and
  3577. geometric designs, rather these were maps. Maps of the known
  3578. lands, maps of the sky, even charts of the seafarers, plotting
  3579. known currents and winds within the bounds of the Teeth.
  3580. There were shelves with over a dozen books along with
  3581. countless other trinkets. Ornately carved, almost to the point of
  3582. gaudiness, a cabinet of burnished dark Splitwood filled a
  3583. corner, stained glass fragments in the doors protecting the top
  3584. shelves. Before another door in the wall to his left, opening
  3585. onto a broad balcony, was a well-worn desk, covered with a
  3586. blotter, a neat stack of parchments, inkwells, a small rack of reed
  3587. pens, a small waterclock, and other paraphernalia. A good-sized
  3588. whitewashed adobe fireplace still held the remains of a fire, wood
  3589. in a stack beside it.
  3590. Nersi was laid out on a pelt spread across a bed in a
  3591. curtained niche opposite the balcony door. Her eyes were closed
  3592. as she hissed breath through clenched teeth. The crossbow bolt
  3593. was half buried in her upper thigh, the orange and white
  3594. fletchings poking out. Blood: it was still trickling through the
  3595. matted fur, not as much now as before. Her eyes opened as
  3596. Chaiila sat down beside her head, caressing her facial fur.
  3597. "How're you feeling, cousin?" Chaiila asked, unable to hide her
  3598. anxiety.
  3599. Nersi grinned: "How'd you feel with a lump of wood
  3600. through your leg? Sweet mother, it hurts!"
  3601. Chaiila looked distressed and patted Nersi's shoulder.
  3602. "I know, I know," she said.
  3603. "Huh! I got myself into it. My choice."
  3604. Sekher felt useless, like a crippled limb. A Trenalbi who'd
  3605. undoubtedly saved his life now may have to lose a leg because
  3606. of him. And to cap it all, she was female. Gods! He was supposed
  3607. to protect them!
  3608. "Gods! I'm sorry," was all he could say.
  3609. Chaiila turned, teeth showing. "Leave us cub," was all
  3610. she said, an edge on her tongue.
  3611. Stung, Sekher retreated to the far side of the room. He
  3612. caught a parting murmur from Nersi: "...not his fault..."
  3613. Perhaps it helped a little.
  3614. Well, first thing. He twisted around and grabbed at
  3615. the false tail, snapping the threads as he yanked it off. His own
  3616. pitiful remnant was slimy wet with fats and other bodily juices. He
  3617. wiped it as clean as he could on an expensive-looking
  3618. tapestry.
  3619. Then he perched himself on the edge of the desk,
  3620. ruminating while unfastening various superfluous pieces of
  3621. ironmongery strapped about his person and letting them fall in a
  3622. clattering heap. Purple morninglight was saturating the sky,
  3623. seeping through the balcony door. There was an impossible
  3624. silhouette out there: A tall, thin, angular figure standing at the
  3625. balcony's parapet. The rising Lightbringer struck glinting
  3626. highlights from the white clothing...armour, whatever that be-
  3627. damned stuff was.
  3629. Huh! An inexperienced young warrior, two females,
  3630. and a monster of dubious civility attempting to flee the heart of
  3631. the Ch'sty Rim. Why had they bothered. Over there Chaiila was
  3632. hunched over her cousin, voices low. She hadn't followed him
  3633. from K'streth, had she? No, he was incidental. She'd said
  3634. something about some other reason for being here. Apparently
  3635. that hadn't been successful, so she'd taken second best (third?
  3636. fourth? She didn't appear overly infatuated with the idea of his
  3637. company).
  3638. Sekher hissed in frustration, anger, and stabbed at a sheaf of
  3639. parchment, forgetting his claws had been cropped. He picked it up
  3640. by hand, read it: some obscure prayer to gods of knowledge and
  3641. understanding. He tossed it aside, watched it sideslip down, miss
  3642. the desk, and plane to the floor like a falling leaf.
  3643. Priests: that one had had power, an immense gift, yet
  3644. his creature(dare he call it that?) had shrugged off the anger of
  3645. lightning like rain from a roadcoat. Also, there was that guard
  3646. who'd betrayed them. What had he been screaming? It had killed
  3647. a priest?
  3648. Two priests dead?
  3649. But why had it languished in the dungeons with him?
  3650. Why had those guards been able to subdue it, beat it senseless?
  3651. And how in the unnamed hells had it been able to kill a priest
  3652. while strapped down?!
  3653. Gods! The unanswered questions!
  3654. Sekher shook his head, then loosened the neck guard on
  3655. his armour to rub at where the metal was chafing his bare skin.
  3656. How long would it take his fur to grow? He picked up the
  3657. waterclock and peered into the complex workings where a
  3658. steady drip of water moved a tiny model of the Lightbringer on its
  3659. path. Another gadget, a simple glass bulb with four small vanes
  3660. inside, the faces of each painted black or white. As the room
  3661. lightened the vanes began to rotate. Sekher poked at it, but the
  3662. vanes continued to turn. Well, he wasn't going to mess with
  3663. that. Priest wizadry wasn't something for an uninitiated neophyte
  3664. to fool around with.
  3665. He glanced a couple of requisition forms and noticed
  3666. some items were a great deal more expensive out here. Gods!
  3667. A bodyweight of incense required a transfer of fifteen silver rods
  3668. from the palace treasury to the priesthood's. Interesting.
  3669. Sekher swept a couple more such ledgers aside,
  3670. uncovering a small grey slab, about the size of his palm. Curious,
  3671. he picked it up, turning it over. It was solid, but not heavy. A
  3672. strange material: not wood, not metal. One face was decorated
  3673. with narrow blue lines forming patterns of circles, rectangles, and
  3674. squares. Along one edge was a little flap concealing little silvery
  3675. nubs and tens of tiny holes. A puzzle.
  3676. He yelped when a hairless pale arm shot past his
  3677. shoulder to grab the slab. "Hai!" he turned. "What do you..."
  3678. But the creature was gripping the little grey box in both
  3679. hands. It looked up at him with eyes gleaming, grabbed his
  3680. shoulder and shook him, roaring, shaking him so Sekher's teeth
  3681. rattled, waving the box under his nose.
  3682. Then stopped when a sword tip pricked at the skin under
  3683. its jaw.
  3684. "Tame is it?" Chaiila snarled in a voice as cold as the
  3685. winds off the Ramparts. "Cub, we have gone to a lot of trouble to
  3686. get you this far, now I am not going to have you torn apart by
  3687. some monster from a nightmare; sending or not. Do I kill it?"
  3688. It was frozen, storm-grey eyes in a dirt-streaked face
  3689. locked on him. Those eyes moved, flickered as Sekher reached
  3690. out to take the little box from its unresisting fingers. One quick
  3691. stab and an unknown variable would be removed from the picture.
  3692. "No." Sekher put the box back down on the desk
  3693. between them. "No, don't. It's saved our hides and if it wanted me
  3694. dead it could have been done with it long before this."
  3695. Chaiila hesitated, then gave a resigned twitch of her
  3696. ears and pulled her sword away. A bead of redness appeared
  3697. where the tip had dimpled the skin, grew, then trickled
  3698. downwards. The creature clutched its prize tight and drew back
  3699. several steps, looking from Chaiila to Sekher with startled eyes.
  3700. "Huh!" Chaiila spat. "Very well, cub. Be it on your head.
  3701. Now you can help me."
  3702. "How?"
  3703. The dark furred female sheathed her sword in one
  3704. smooth motion, eyeing Sekher. The rectangular horizontal slits of
  3705. her pupils were large, dark, stretching across her exquisite
  3706. golden eyes. "Nersi," she said. "We're going to have to get that
  3707. arrow out."
  3708. "Oh, Gods!" Sekher groaned.
  3709. Nersi grimaced as they approached. "Just make it
  3710. quick, alright?"
  3711. "Your desire, cousin," Chaiila reassured her with a pat
  3712. on the shoulder.
  3713. Sekher's duty would be to restrain Nersi's arms, to hold
  3714. her down. Both Nersi and Chaiila insisted that Chaiila be the one
  3715. to remove the bolt. Sekher wasn't about to argue. He
  3716. awkwardly clambered astride her so he was looking down upon
  3717. her face. Scared face, he saw. Her eyes were wide and she was
  3718. almost panting. Her scent was a spicy smell in the air, tangy and
  3719. fresh.
  3720. "Here," Chaiila passed him a strip of leather, doubled
  3721. over to make a thick pad. "She may need this."
  3722. He swallowed and turned down to Nersi. She plucked
  3723. the biting cloth out of his hand but paused with it near her
  3724. mouth. "You know, she said with what was almost a smile,
  3725. "you really do look peculiar with no fur." Then she popped the
  3726. thong into her mouth and spread her arms above her head.
  3727. Sekher took hold, leaning his weight forward. Her fur was
  3728. warm, coarse against his palms.
  3729. And he knew the semibeat Chaiila began.
  3730. Nersi went swordsteel rigid, her eyes exploding wide as
  3731. she strained against Sekher's grip with such force as to almost
  3732. unseat him. He steadied himself but the first spasm was over. She
  3733. was trembling, shivering, her eyes staring through him. Every so
  3734. often a noise would escape her, a small sound, but nevertheless
  3735. painful to hear.
  3736. Behind his back Sekher heard Chaiila's panting, her
  3737. cursing, then the gasp of triumph. Nersi almost jerked off the
  3738. bed, her eyes so wide as to near burst from of their sockets.
  3739. Then she fell lax, sucking air and whimpering behind the biting
  3740. rag. He heard the sounds of tearing cloth as Chaiila made more
  3741. bandages to strap the wound closed with.
  3742. Gently Sekher lifted the sodden, well-chewed strip of
  3743. leather from the female's mouth. She mewled and turned stunned,
  3744. half-focused eyes on him."Calm,"he murmured."It's alright. It's
  3745. over."
  3746. Yet he waited until Chaiila completed bandaging the leg.
  3747. A blood-soaked hand touched his
  3748. shoulder."Done,"the dark female told him. When he tried to
  3749. stand, Sekher found his limbs trembling. Chaiila had done a
  3750. good job: the wound was well wrapped, but still...Sekher had
  3751. known of many die from wounds magnitudes smaller than this.
  3752. The festering...Gods! He shuddered, tried not to think of it.
  3753. A rumbling voice, dropping out of hearing from sound
  3754. to feeling. The creature caught his arm again, this time gentle,
  3755. helping him lean against the ornate Splitwood cabinet, proffered
  3756. the silvery flask. Gratefully Sekher drank. "Thanks," he said,
  3757. wiping his mouth on his arm, "I needed that."
  3758. It growled in acknowledgment, then hesitantly moved
  3759. over to where Chaiila was sitting at the foot of the bed, watching
  3760. over her cousin. She looked up, saw it coming, and had her
  3761. sword out and levelled in a heartbeat. The creature recoiled
  3762. from the stained point.
  3763. "Put that away, Chaiila," Sekher wearily admonished her.
  3764. "It's only trying to help."
  3765. "What's that?" she asked suspiciously, eyeing the flask.
  3766. "Water," Sekher said, watching her with some
  3767. amusement. "Huh, it's safe. I've been drinking it."
  3768. The creature held the flask out and pointed at Nersi. "All
  3769. right!" Chaiila snarled. "I'll do it. Here!" She stuck her hand out
  3770. and the creature faltered, then surrendered the silvery flask.
  3771. Nersi growled as Chaiila propped her up with pillows and lifted
  3772. raised the skin to her mouth. She drank greedily, licked her lips.
  3773. "That's good," she sighed, then relaxed, sinking into Drift.
  3774. Chaiila stroked her cousin's neck, watching her for a while.
  3775. She sniffed the flask, poked the silvery skin, then drank.
  3776. Her eyes widened at the first mouthful.
  3777. "A little," Sekher said. "I don't know how much is in
  3778. there." Chaiila blinked at the flask as if it had just spoken to her,
  3779. then tossed it back to the creature. It awkwardly caught it.
  3780. "Thanks," Chaiila said, dipping her head in embarrassment. Storm
  3781. cloud grey eyes watched her warily.
  3783. --\o/--
  3786. Sekher cautiously peered over the side of the balcony.
  3787. The battlements below were still filled with warriors, archers,
  3788. although he was not certain a normal bow had the range.
  3789. However he saw several light arbalests being set up, aimed at the
  3790. tower. They saw him as well, bows were leveled and voices rose
  3791. in alarm, but nobody fired. He drew back within the sanctuary
  3792. of the doorway. "Why do they wait?"
  3793. Chaiila shuddered and blinked out of her Drift. "Huh?"
  3794. "Down there." Sekher twitched his tail toward the door.
  3795. "All that weaponry, and they sit on their tails. I haven't even
  3796. heard anyone trying to clear that debris off the stairs."
  3797. Chaiila snorted and settled back in the low, stocky
  3798. chair behind the desk, her feet up on the blotter, right crossed
  3799. over left. "Doesn't surprise me. The High Windbreakers are
  3800. probably deliberating just what in the unnamed hells to do with
  3801. us. Huh! Our own pet daemon." She barked a laugh. "If it is a
  3802. daemon. Hai! Is it male or female?"
  3803. "I've no idea," Sekher said, looking over at the thing
  3804. where it was poking through the books on the shelves, selecting
  3805. some and almost seeming to read them, except it was holding
  3806. them upside down.
  3807. "Huh! How'd you two get thrown in the same box
  3808. anyway?"
  3809. Sekher scowled, then related the situation that had
  3810. brought them together. She listened attentively, chuckling a
  3811. couple of times while she lounged back. She'd stripped away
  3812. almost all her Rim armour, down to the breastplate and chamois
  3813. breeches. Her tail was wound around to her front and she
  3814. absently preened at the twitching black and grey ringed tip while
  3815. following Sekher's words.
  3816. "An interesting life you lead, cub," she said when he was
  3817. done. The creature had stumbled across an illustration in the text
  3818. it was leafing through and righted the book. It was an amusing,
  3819. yet somewhat disturbing sight, a parody of a Trenalbi reading.
  3820. "Where do you suppose it came from?"
  3821. "I don't know. We were in the middle of the plains when
  3822. they caught it. I didn't even see how it happened."
  3823. "It's a weird mix. It bleeds like any other mortal creature,
  3824. and what god would send something like that? It doesn't have
  3825. the characteristics of any deity I can think of."
  3826. "It manifests fire," Sekher said thoughtfully.
  3827. "And also water," Chaiila pointed out. "And thunder.
  3828. And death."
  3829. "I think that may be accidental."
  3830. Chaiila looked surprised: "Explain."
  3831. "Look at it. Often it seems confused, terrified, like it
  3832. doesn't know what's going on. It doesn't understand us, and
  3833. sometimes I believe it doesn't even hear us."
  3834. "Great," Chaiila muttered. "What do we do when it
  3835. gets hungry?"
  3836. "It's got some food."
  3837. "Really?" Chaiila looked interested. "Could you get it
  3838. to share?"
  3839. "I don't know,"Sekher confessed, rubbing at his
  3840. arm."And do you really think it'll be necessary? I reckon that
  3841. long before we're hungry enough to need it they'll either have
  3842. that debris cleared away, have scaled the outside of the tower, or
  3843. knocked or burnt it down around our ears."
  3844. The dark female stretched, the fur on her tail
  3845. bristling."Perhaps, but I think the very fact that they're taking so
  3846. long to come to a head means someone is reluctant to damage
  3847. one of us,"she stared past Sekher's shoulder to where the lanky,
  3848. naked-skinned creature was examining the tooling on an
  3849. engraved letter pouch."Or they're reassessing what they're up
  3850. against."
  3851. "I've been doing that from the day I saw it."
  3852. The creature tired of the bookshelf and ambled over to
  3853. poke around the splitwood cabinet. It examined an iron
  3854. candlestick, apparently more interested in the bluebark sap candle
  3855. than in the ironmongery inself.
  3856. "Oth'c ne'thirin te ne'lirin," Chaiila recited.
  3857. "What?"
  3858. "An ancient tongue. Used by the warrior castes of
  3859. the Hub," she replied. "I think it means 'what you don't know,
  3860. don't trust'."
  3861. "Huh! That kind of thinking won't make you many
  3862. friends."
  3863. "Could keep you alive though. Now, any ideas on how
  3864. we're going to get out of here?"
  3865. "Hai! That's my line," he grinned, then sobered. "In a
  3866. tower in the middle of a copulating castle, surrounded by
  3867. soldiers and seige engines, with a wounded female and
  3868. something from a dramatist's nightmare. Wait till it's dark, scale
  3869. down the walls with ropes?"
  3870. "Ropes of what?" She twitched her tail. "And they'd
  3871. doubtless see us and have us for target practice."
  3872. "Huh! Well then, short of flying out, I'm out of ideas.
  3873. What about you?"
  3874. "I've tried," she hissed. "I couldn't come up with
  3875. anything either."
  3876. Sekher moved behind her chair, to stand in the doorway.
  3877. the city was spread out below him, wisps of smoke curling up
  3878. from chimneys, steep rooftops of slate-grey and black tile. There
  3879. were the indistinct blots of Trenalbi going about their
  3880. business, oblivious to what was happening in the palace. The
  3881. She'ng river sparkled blue in the morning light, the green fields
  3882. along its banks fading into burnished gold the further they drew
  3883. from the water so the horizon was a line of copper grasses. Far
  3884. in the distance the dark blue thunderheads of a plains storm
  3885. roiled lazily: one of those storms that flashed out of nowhere,
  3886. drenched a Trenalbi, then vanished again.
  3887. The air was still cool, the morning breeze chill. Against
  3888. Sekher's bare skin it was like nothing he'd ever felt before and he
  3889. didn't know whether he liked it or not, then decided it wasn't
  3890. something he cared for.
  3891. That priest had a couple of spare cloaks and Sekher
  3892. only hesitated an instant before taking one. Chaiila lounged back
  3893. in the chair, watching him in vague amusement, then yawned,
  3894. curling her grey tongue. "That looks even weirder" she said.
  3895. "What?"
  3896. "You in that robe," she smiled. "Without your fur...Gods!
  3897. You should see yourself!"
  3898. And Sekher's skin broke out in countless tiny bumps as
  3899. his nonexistant fur tried to bristle in indignation. He'd opened his
  3900. mouth to snap back a reply when he was forestalled by a
  3901. resounding yelp from the creature.
  3902. It had opened the top doors of the cabinet, the
  3903. stainedglass doors, and now was clutching something that
  3904. resembled a piece of forearm armour, but for the colour: that light
  3905. grey with red and blue designs.
  3906. Chaiila's chair legs had hit the floor with a loud thump as
  3907. the chair tipped forward. "What's it got now?" Chaiila asked
  3908. suspiciously..
  3909. It stabbed with a finger at the thing, examined it, then
  3910. yelped again, brandishing it before the Trenalbi and baring its
  3911. teeth in a grin.
  3912. Both Sekher's and Chaiila went for their swords.
  3913. The creature's eyes widened and it took a step
  3914. backwards, hands coming up while it shook its head. Then it
  3915. feverishly fiddled with the device, slipping it onto its left
  3916. forearm, adjusting something so it locked in place.
  3917. "So it's a piece of armour," Chaiila muttered warily, not
  3918. sounding completely convinced. "Is that so important?"
  3919. The creature stabbed at the piece of armour with a
  3920. forefinger as if it were trying to punch holes in it. A hum
  3921. sounded in the air and the creature growled at its own arm.
  3922. Sekher was more than mildly surprised when the arm
  3923. growled back.
  3924. "Gods!" Chaiila stumbled backwards, tripped against
  3925. the chair, and sat down heavily.
  3926. "What's going on?" Nersi called groggily from the bed.
  3927. "N...nothing," Chaiila swallowed hard. "Don't trouble
  3928. yourself cousin."
  3929. And Sekher was gaping.
  3930. The air above the creatures left forearm blurred,
  3931. darkened, and strings of tiny green creatures began filling the
  3932. space in neat rows. Lines and grids appeared, spinning about
  3933. each other in a complicated dance. A small globe, covered
  3934. with lines, solidified into a blue, green, and white ball,
  3935. spinning in blackness. All the time the piece of armour hummed
  3936. and rumbled sporadically, seemingly echoing the creature's own
  3937. noises.
  3938. Rapidly the ball changed, seeming to leap towards
  3939. Sekher.
  3940. The image became a square like a window, a picture of
  3941. a dark circle; Like looking down into a bowl half filled with
  3942. green, brown, and bronze paint, the other half with blue.
  3943. Veins, glittering blue, crossed the green patches, running into
  3944. the larger blue mass.
  3945. "A map!" Chaiila whispered. "Gods! That's a map of all
  3946. the demesnes."
  3947. Sekher looked again. A map, yes, but unlike any he'd
  3948. ever seen before. The view zoomed in again, the central tundras
  3949. marked out. A red circle appeared in the savanna, a green dotted
  3950. line tracing a path eastwards, then abruptly turning red and
  3951. veering south to terminate in a flashing point.
  3952. "That was where they found it," Sekher breathed. "That
  3953. place where the line changes colour."
  3954. "And that's Jai'stra," Chaiila said.
  3955. And there was another line, a flashing white line
  3956. curving out from the circle, turning to follow the red one. The
  3957. image flickered yet again. There was a black shape,
  3958. obviously representing Jai'stra, harbouring the tip of the red line.
  3959. The white line was approaching: slowly, steadily.
  3960. "Then what's that?" Sekher asked, pointing.
  3961. Chaiila looked at him and Sekher could smell her fear.
  3963. --\o/--
  3966. It was cool that morning, the wind cold against his nose
  3967. and hands, toying with the edges of his cloak. Chenuk flexed
  3968. his fingers then curled them around the grip of the crossbow,
  3969. the wood and metal a comforting weight in his arms.
  3970. The first rays of the Lightbringer had tinted the walls of
  3971. the tower pink, slowly lightening as the bright orb rose above
  3972. the Ramparts and began its daily passage across the sky. There
  3973. had been a few glimpses of the renegades on the balcony, a
  3974. couple of the demon. Pending orders, nobody fired, but a hush
  3975. had descended amongst the troops as they stared at it. It scanned
  3976. the horizon, then looked at them before retreating inside again.
  3977. The second time it was doing something to its arm, again looking
  3978. to the horizon.
  3979. "I wonder if they're still alive in there," the trooper next
  3980. to him had muttered. The query had percolated through the
  3981. ranks. Dozens of gory descriptions of what may have happened
  3982. to the northern plains Trenalbi arose.
  3983. Chenuk shuddered. He'd been involved in the chase
  3984. through the temple, the royal guards behind them making sure the
  3985. regulars didn't falter. The third trooper ahead of him on the stairs
  3986. had been crushed when the roof came down on him. Chenuk had
  3987. gotten off lightly with bad bruising and ringing ears from the
  3988. blast that kicked him backwards down the stairs.
  3989. Scorched his face fur also.
  3990. The gaping wound in the side of the tower was still
  3991. there, a hole three times Chenuk's height, choked with debris.
  3992. Against the sky it was a jagged gouge out of the otherwise
  3993. vertical walls of the tower. It stood like a single finger above the
  3994. palace roof, higher even than the watch and semaphore towers.
  3995. He didn't know why the priests had ordered it built, they had
  3996. their own inscrutable reasons, he didn't really care.
  3997. "What is that thing?" the trooper beside him hissed.
  3998. "Where'd it come from?"
  3999. "We found it in the central plains," Chenuk replied
  4000. without thinking.
  4001. "You were there?" The other's ears perked up in
  4002. interest. "How'd you catch it?"
  4003. "Just stuck it in a cage," Chenuk replied.
  4004. "That's all?" the soldier was disbelieving. "It does that,"
  4005. he pointed at the hole in the tower, "and it just lets you stick it in
  4006. a cage? Didn't it also kill a priest?"
  4007. "Two," Chenuk corrected.
  4008. "Two?!" The trooper stared at him.
  4009. "Uh-huh," Chenuk flicked his tail. "That thing,
  4010. whatever it is, it isn't an animal. I tell you, some of the stuff it had
  4011. with it..."
  4012. "You two!" A captain roared at them, making all the
  4013. warriors within earshot snap to attention. "Shut it!"
  4014. Chenuk licked his chops and turned his eyes back to
  4015. the tower. His palms were sticky, sweaty. Mother! He'd storm the
  4016. Hub alone if so ordered, but by the Gods, they'd have to find
  4017. someone else to tackle that tower! If it were down to him he'd
  4018. burn the place and have done with it.
  4019. Of course it wasn't left to him.
  4020. There was a disturbance around the stair to the
  4021. rampart. Royal guards were pushing up, forming a cordon
  4022. around the Trenalbi in colour-splashed regalia, armour too
  4023. ornate to be practical.
  4024. "This stinks," that warrior beside Chenuk hissed.
  4025. Chenuk said nothing, but his own tail twitched in annoyance.
  4026. And he groaned inwardly when the messenger,
  4027. glittering in his ceremonial armour of office, halted at the peak
  4028. of the tower's shadow and hailed the occupants.
  4029. The silence of the dead cloaked the rooftop. The
  4030. distant sounds of the town, cries of birds, came loud. Then there
  4031. was a Trenalbi on the balcony, hanging back to keep archers
  4032. from getting a clear shot. It was that male from the cage, Chenuk
  4033. saw, although without his fur and no longer wearing his stolen
  4034. armour, instead wrapped in a robe. The skin of his furless head
  4035. was grey, like the stone of the walls. Briefly Chenuk wondered if
  4036. his own looked like that and fervently hoped it didn't.
  4037. "Sekher Che," the messenger called. The male in the
  4038. tower shifted warily and the intermediary continued: "I
  4039. bear an ultimatum from the High Lord and the Holy Council.
  4040. You are willing to hear me out."
  4041. Above them the fugitive male conferred with someone
  4042. behind him, then turned to shout, "Go ahead! I don't have
  4043. anything better to do."
  4044. The messenger scowled, then replied, "His Highest has
  4045. been most exceedingly generous and offers these terms. You
  4046. many accept or reject them as you see fit.
  4047. "You and your companions will be granted your lives,
  4048. supplies, and safe passage to the border of your choosing. In
  4049. return you will surrender the creature into our hands. Alive. It will
  4050. be unarmed and rendered harmless."
  4051. "And how would you suggest we do that?" the northern
  4052. Trenalbi retorted. Chenuk would have sworn he detected
  4053. amusement in that statement.
  4054. "That's up to you," the messenger replied stiffly.
  4055. "And if we decline?"
  4056. "You will watch your associates flayed and impaled
  4057. above the palace gates. You yourself will be treated to some time
  4058. in our lower dungeons, from where I can assure you, you will not
  4059. emerge a whole male. Then you will join your friends."
  4060. "Sounds like real fun."
  4061. "I'm so glad you think so," the official smiled icily, then
  4062. bared his teeth. "So what is your answer?"
  4063. "Hai! Don't we get some time to talk it over?"
  4064. "What's to talk about? You drop that thing out here and
  4065. you go free; Or you end up sitting on a spike. Your choice."
  4066. "I...We can't!" the bald male was looking flustered,
  4067. scared. "It'll tear us apart! We can wait for it to drift...we might
  4068. have a chance."
  4069. "You have until Pan tomorrow. Then all deals are off.
  4070. We come and get you."
  4071. Chenuk frowned as he watched the Royal guard bustle
  4072. the messenger back down into the protective depths of the
  4073. palace, then he looked to the tower. No. He didn't like this.
  4075. --\o/--
  4078. "So now what?"
  4079. An exhausted Sekher slumped down in the desk chair.
  4080. "Gods. I don't know."
  4081. Chaiila glanced surreptitiously at the creature. It was
  4082. huddled in a corner, creating incomprehensible sorcery in vivid
  4083. colours that burned in naked air above its wrist. "I think we
  4084. could take it. It bleeds. If we hit it together, hard enough..."
  4085. "No,"Sekher stopped her before she went any further.
  4086. It gnawed at him. That was an idea he had entertained;
  4087. seriously, but he couldn't sell his creature out like that. "No, we
  4088. can't. We owe it."
  4089. "Owe it?!" She barked incredulously. "And just what do
  4090. we owe it? If that thing hadn't been along they wouldn't have
  4091. spotted us in the first place! Good riddance I say!"
  4092. "Hai! It helped me!" Sekher protested. "I won't betray
  4093. it. Besides, would you really want to deliver something with
  4094. that kind of power into their hands?"
  4095. "Power?" she gave a peculiar little half-smile. "If it's so
  4096. omnipotent, then why doesn't it just spirit us out of here," she
  4097. clapped her hands, "like that? Huh? Its power does seem a
  4098. little. . . limited, does it not?"
  4099. "Perhaps," Sekher's lips pulled back from his teeth as
  4100. he grinned at her, "but that thing was friendly to me. It helped me.
  4101. I owe it." Then he surprised himself by hissing, with more passion
  4102. than he believed he felt, "I'm not going to hand it over."
  4104. Perhaps surprise flickered in the female's hard eyes, also
  4105. intrigue: maybe. Then she lashed her tail around and
  4106. commenced preening it. "You seem to have stuck a claw in its
  4107. interests." She was silent a time, then: "I should tell you that
  4108. they would doubtless kill us even if we were to surrender the
  4109. creature."
  4110. Sekher had entertained that possibility. "At least they
  4111. can't make me into a cushion," he muttered, inspecting his furless
  4112. arm. Was there stubble? He wasn't sure. So, if he died, would
  4113. his spirit be doomed to wander the aether bald?
  4114. "They can wait," Chaiila snorted, not improving his
  4115. spirits.
  4116. "What of you?" Sekher asked. "They don't seem to
  4117. know you're female. Would they..."
  4118. "They would," she confirmed. "They have. . .
  4119. specialists for females." Her tail twitched so violently it almost
  4120. escaped her hands. For a split semibeat she was transparent as
  4121. crystal: afraid. Light from the door behind Sekher slanted dully
  4122. over his shoulder, making her horizontal pupils flick to small
  4123. squares. Then the window was shut and she hung her head.
  4124. "Che," she said. "I fear I must ask a boon of you."
  4125. He dipped his own head. "If it be in my power."
  4126. She heaved a breath, glanced over her shoulder and
  4127. lowered her voice, "If I should be unable, please, see to it
  4128. that Nersi. . . that they cannot take her."
  4129. Sekher's guts twisted, clutching him in confusion. "I. . .
  4130. I. . . Is it our right. . . "
  4131. "Please." It hurt her to beg him like this, he saw. "Please,
  4132. Sekher. She would never last in their hands, and she would suffer
  4133. terribly. It is right. It is the only way."
  4134. Beyond her, Nersi was motionless on the bed, eyes
  4135. focused on that here-not-here of Drift, the white of her nictating
  4136. membrane half-extruded. Maybe she was hearing them, but
  4137. somehow Sekher though otherwise. Small she looked: frail,
  4138. vulnerable, and Sekher's ears wilted as he realised Chaiila was
  4139. right.
  4140. Pained, he closed his eyes and gestured assent. No
  4141. words. Chaiila also had no need of them.
  4142. And there was the faint scent of salt, old clothing, a
  4143. presence at his shoulder. Storm-grey eyes met his as he looked
  4144. up, furrows in the smooth brow. As white as ever its apparel was,
  4145. but its skin was dusty, a streak of blood there, the matted fur a
  4146. dirty brown, tangled.
  4147. Was it aware of what they'd been discussing? If so,
  4148. there was no glimmer of anything comprehensible behind those
  4149. round pupils. Chaiila was bristling slightly, not even trying to
  4150. conceal her unease around the thing. It shifted uncomfortably,
  4151. rumbled softly to her and pointed a finger at Nersi, took a
  4152. hesitant step towards her then turned, as if seeking
  4153. confirmation. Again it gestured at the Drift-bound female.
  4154. "It wants to go to..."
  4155. "I know what it wants!" Chaiila snapped Sekher off.
  4156. "Why? What does it want WITH her?!"
  4157. "Why don't you see?" Sekher suggested.
  4158. Chaiila glared at him, abruptly whipped about and faced
  4159. the creature, then swept an arm to usher it through to her
  4160. cousin. The instant the creature was abreast her it froze with a
  4161. swordtip at its throat.
  4162. "Perhaps it can't talk," Chaiila hissed, "but this it will
  4163. understand." Then she leaned forward to growl at the
  4164. creature, "Harm her, hurt her, and I carve you another mouth."
  4165. She lowered the sword point but not her guard and stepped
  4166. aside to let it past.
  4167. Understandably cautious it sidled past her to sit at
  4168. Nersi's feet. Chaiila leaned against the wall, arms crossed with
  4169. naked sword dangling, watching it. Slowly it pulled aside the
  4170. coverlet and bared her legs. The bandages, once clean white and
  4171. yellow; lively, bright colours, were crusted and stained with rust-
  4172. brown. The creature gently lifted her leg and began to remove
  4173. them.
  4174. Chaiila shifted undecidedly, gripping her sword.
  4175. The bandages were tossed aside. Beneath them, the
  4176. wound was swollen red and white, half scabbed, a pale fluid
  4177. welling out. The creature sucked air in through its teeth. Its
  4178. clawless fingers gently explored the puncture, working out the
  4179. sepsis. Nersi mewled and shifted, finally starting to focus on
  4180. what was leaning over her and Chaiila moved to sit at her
  4181. shoulder, to keep her calm.
  4182. "What's going on? What's it doing?" Nersi was wide
  4183. eyed, trembling under her cousin's hand.
  4184. "Calm," Chaiila soothed. "It's trying to help." She
  4185. stroked Nersi's shoulder and Sekher could almost hear her
  4186. adding,'I hope'.
  4187. Nersi panted and watched the creature.
  4188. Once more it adjusted something on the face of the
  4189. device strapped to its left forearm, and aimed it at the wound. For
  4190. a hearbeat it held it steady, then Nersi yelped in sudden pain, "It
  4191. burns!"
  4192. Chaiila rounded with a snarl, but the creature had
  4193. already lowered its arm and was inspecting the wound. Still an
  4194. angry red, it was, but the swelling had subsided, the dark fluid
  4195. seeping out coloured to clean blood. From another pouch the
  4196. creature produced that small grey slab and touched it in a certain
  4197. sequence. It slid open, produced a small mirror-lined draw on
  4198. which a droplet of blood was smeared, then closed again.
  4199. Seemingly satisfied, the creature tore a blanket and again waved
  4200. its arm over the strips. Nersi tensed as it touched her leg and
  4201. patted her calf, making its noises all the while until she relaxed
  4202. enough for it to wrap the bandages. For a final time it passed its
  4203. forearm over the limb and with a gentle stroke of her fur stepped
  4204. away.
  4205. Chaiila examined the medical work, then grudgingly
  4206. admitted it was quite satisfactory. "How does it feel?" she asked
  4207. Nersi.
  4208. "Ah...Hurts a little. Not as much as before."
  4209. "Huh!" Chaiila's head went back. She was eyeing her
  4210. cousin suspiciously, as if she didn't want to hear that.
  4211. "You worry too much," Nersi laughed, plucking half-
  4212. heartedly at the furs she lay on.
  4213. Chaiila's ears lowered. "With something like that around,
  4214. how can I not?"
  4215. "No, you couldn't, could you," Nersi smiled, then licked
  4216. her lips, a gleam in her eyes. "Is there any water?"
  4217. And Chaiila flinched, then spat and turned to where
  4218. the creature had taken its place in its corner, watching them.
  4219. "Hai, you have water."
  4220. It stared at her.
  4221. "You know, water," she mimed drinking.
  4222. It cocked its head to one side. One side of its mouth
  4223. twitched and Sekher himself fought back a smile.
  4224. "Water," Chaiila repeated, starting to sound a little
  4225. annoyed. "Come on you ugly, mange-ridden lump of shen
  4226. shit! Water!" she snarled, then went for her sword.
  4227. "Hai! Stop!" Nersi cried out in alarm, then in
  4228. reproachful tones said, "You always were too quick with that
  4229. thing. Try having a little more respect."
  4230. "What?" Chaiila looked offended. "To that?"
  4231. Nersi gave a weary smile and while miming, said softly
  4232. to the creature, "Please, may I drink?"
  4233. Immediately it rose and went to her side, producing
  4234. the water flask. Chaiila gaped then huffed in indignation and
  4235. disgust.
  4236. "Hah!" Sekher barked. "I don't think it loves you,
  4237. Chaiila."
  4238. "The feeling's mutual," she snorted. "Pet monsters.
  4239. Gods, I don't know; things are just getting too weird." She
  4240. sucked air, dropped her rear on the desk and began wiping
  4241. down her sword blade with a rag. It was a habit, Sekher guessed.
  4242. "Nervous?" he asked.
  4243. She gave him a look that singed his tail. "I'm waiting to
  4244. die!" she said in level tones, then snarled, "What do you think!"
  4245. "Sorry."
  4246. "Haaaa...No." She raked claws through her muzzle fur,
  4247. down her throat, and stared glumly at her cousin, sitting up in
  4248. bed examining the creature's hands and fur. "I'm nervous."
  4249. She grinned: "I don't think I've ever been so nervous."
  4250. "K'streth," Sekher murmured.
  4251. "What?" Her eyes narrowed. Then: "Huh, right. Perhaps
  4252. I have. I never did get a chance to thank you for that, did I."
  4253. "I think you just did."
  4254. "Yeah, well. . . I guess I just postponed it," she sighed.
  4255. "I'm grateful," Sekher said. "It beats rotting in a cell. I'll
  4256. maybe get a chance to take a few of them with me." He studied
  4257. her anew, noting how she averted her eyes. "You didn't come all
  4258. this way just for me, did you."
  4259. She swallowed. "Did you know someone by the
  4260. name of Twistfur?"
  4261. Oh Gods, oh Gods.
  4262. And she caught the expression on his face. "He was my
  4263. sire. My true-sire. I know it's not usual, but we'd always stayed
  4264. in contact. My true-mother left me at the creche and that was
  4265. that. But he always came to see me. I. . . I think I was closer to
  4266. him than anyone else. I saw his squad get you away, then later
  4267. heard that Rim troops'd captured a Tsuba Highborn. I followed
  4268. you. I found out what happened."
  4269. "He. . . " Sekher croaked, swallowed. "He stopped the
  4270. arrow that would have got me. I'm sorry."
  4271. "It..." she trailed off and turned away from him. Sekher
  4272. caught a glimpse of her nose: wet, as were the scent-spots on her
  4273. cheeks, leaking her grief.
  4274. The irreparable loss of her town, her home. To have held
  4275. it so long, bottling it with bravado. She deserved this release.
  4276. Nersi gently pushed the creature aside and left it
  4277. standing there, looking confused, whilst she welcomed Chaiila
  4278. with gentle touches and soft words. They curled up together
  4279. in a lose embrace, Chaiila's muzzle buried under Nersi's chin.
  4280. There was soft murmuring, comforting, then they were quiet and
  4281. slowly their breathing slowed, synchronised, as they slipped into
  4282. Drift.
  4283. Sekher pitied her, also felt a twinge of jealousy. To be
  4284. able to huddle up with other bodies, sharing warmth, protection,
  4285. comfort, reassurance.
  4286. He sighed and readjusted his cloak, trying to block a
  4287. lonely draught.
  4289. --\o/--
  4292. The movement alerted something inside him. A part of
  4293. him, not a consciousness, registered possible danger, increased
  4294. his heartbeat, respiration, pulled his self out of Drift.
  4295. Sekher blinked, shaking his head, the nictating
  4296. membrane pulling back and clearing his vision. "Huh? What..."
  4297. A cool hand clamped over his mouth, silencing him.
  4298. The odours of salt and drying hay were strong in his nostrils. It
  4299. was still dark, a dying glow of embers in the fireplace. The sparse
  4300. rudy glow flickered on a alien silhouette leaning over him, flat
  4301. planes and bone structure accentuated by drastic shadow. It
  4302. anxiously glanced toward the balcony before lifting its hand.
  4303. Sekher breathed deeply, forcing himself to relax, to
  4304. draw his claws in again. Ai, but his muscles were stiff from
  4305. sitting in the chair. Before him the creature crouched down,
  4306. lowering itself to his level. It rumbled softly, pointing towards
  4307. the female and nudging Sekher to get him moving.
  4308. Chaiila's and Nersi's rousing queries were the
  4309. same as Sekher's, cut off at the same point when he urged
  4310. them to silence. Chaiila had reached for her sword, alarm
  4311. blossoming across her face when she realised it was not by her
  4312. side. "What's going on?" she hissed.
  4313. "Ask that," he whispered, jerking a thumb toward the
  4314. creature. It was standing just inside the balcony door with the
  4315. armour on its left forearm glowing softly. Every so often it
  4316. would glance out the door as if looking for something.
  4317. Chaiila and Nersi both gave Sekher questioning glances.
  4318. He spread his hands in a shrug.
  4319. Cloud was low that night, a light mist in the air, cool
  4320. against Sekher's muzzle. Through the dampness Sekher could
  4321. see the blurred red glows of braziers, eclipsed at odd intervals as
  4322. Rim warriors moved in front of them. They were still down there.
  4323. Huh! Perhaps they'd gone home for the night...Of course
  4324. they were still down there!
  4325. Yet there was no sign that anything untoward
  4326. was transpiring. It was as quiet as a twelve week gone
  4327. corpse.
  4328. He turned back to the creature. "What're you up to?"
  4329. he murmured.
  4330. It twitched, looked up from its work and grinned at
  4331. Sekher. They were small, square teeth that Sekher found difficult
  4332. to be threatened by; nevertheless he decided to take the better
  4333. part of valour and stepped back. It shook its head, then
  4334. touched its forearm.
  4335. Without a flicker its brilliant white clothing changed to a
  4336. pitch black. Sekher gaped wordlessly. Chaiila muttered a hasty
  4337. warding mantra, grabbing her sword from the desk.
  4338. A dark shape against the night fog it stepped out onto
  4339. the balcony, hugging the curve of the tower wall to further
  4340. confound any eyes that might be looking. Long fingers flickered,
  4341. seemingly caressing its left wrist, and it growled.
  4342. A line of red light snapped into existence, a reed-thin bar
  4343. of red light spearing towards the balcony, originating somewhere
  4344. in the foggy distance. At times that thread of light looked solid
  4345. enough to touch, at other moments it faded, vanished,
  4346. reappeared with the drifting clouds.
  4347. "Gods,"Sekher whispered, awed.
  4348. The beam shifted smoothly until it had pinpointed a spot
  4349. on the wall several spans to the left of the door. Hurriedly the
  4350. creature retreated back into the room, closing the balcony door,
  4351. ushering the recalcitrant Trenalbi to the far side of the room
  4352. where they huddled around Nersi, agitated and confused.
  4353. "What's going on?"she hissed, wild-eyed. Tendons on
  4354. her arms stood out as she clenched her leg, trying to get up.
  4355. Chaiila, pressed her back again, grasped her cousin's hand and
  4356. glanced at the creature, awaiting its next move. It growled at its
  4357. lower cannon, which duly growled back. Outside, beyond the
  4358. thick tower walls, came a faint howling, a roar that within a
  4359. heartbeat grew to a crescendo then a powerful impact, the
  4360. amplified sound of swordstrike on stone, shook the tower,
  4361. jolting showers of mortar and the dust of ages loose. A
  4362. penetrating whine, a screech of metal biting against rock, set
  4363. Sekher's teeth on edge as something on the other side of the wall
  4364. tried to claw its way through.
  4365. Then there was silence.
  4366. A decabeat later; distant shouting.
  4367. Six strides and the creature was across the room,
  4368. pulling the door open. It glanced out then frantically beckoned to
  4369. Sekher and Chaiila. Chaiila balked.
  4370. "Come on!" Sekher hissed, tugging her arm. Reluctantly
  4371. she came.
  4372. The mist was a godsend, but still they stayed low,
  4373. hidden from Rim eyes and weapons by the balcony parapet.
  4374. Imbedded in the solid stone of the wall to the left of the door was
  4375. what could only be the source of the noise.
  4376. A stubby cylinder, as long as Sekher's arm and half as
  4377. wide, pressing against the tower like a bloodsucker on a
  4378. herdbeast. The front end was slightly crumpled, four armatures
  4379. spaced around its circumference splayed out, drill-bits on the end
  4380. bored deep into stone. With a sharp Thum-Thummp the thing
  4381. split lengthways, two halves of something that wasn't metal
  4382. rattling to the ground. The inside of the thing was a glittering
  4383. array of compressed struts and reinforcing braces, black boxes
  4384. and cylinders, all packed into the tiny space. For what purpose
  4385. Sekher couldn't begin to guess.
  4386. Then the creature detached a piece of the thing, a
  4387. small rectangular assembly of metal that it pulled out...and left
  4388. hanging seemingly in midair.
  4389. Sekher stared, not entirely surprised. There'd been to
  4390. much strangeness for him not to be inured to some extent. He
  4391. blinked, peered closely, and finally noticed the thread running
  4392. from the back of the cylinder and off into the darkness, a minute
  4393. thing, no thicker than a strand of fur. The condensation beading
  4394. on it gave it a mercurial sheen.
  4395. From the device hanging from the thread the
  4396. creature unraveled a black strap, adjusted its length until it was a
  4397. long loop, long enough to loop under a Trenalbi's shoulders, as
  4398. the creature showed it wished to do.
  4399. Chaiila understood then.
  4400. "No!"She backed away."Not a chance! On that?!
  4401. Sekher, it's demented!"
  4402. It stepped forward to offer her the loop and she
  4403. snarled, teeth bared and ears flattening back, drawing her sword
  4404. in a gleaming arc. She struck, aiming for its head.
  4405. The creature desperately flung up an arm, ducking. The
  4406. sword glanced off its arm, making the beast gasp, staggering it to
  4407. one knee. Chaiila gave tongue to another yowl and swung
  4408. around for another strike and Sekher was unable to say exactly
  4409. what she was aiming for, the creature or the thread, but it was the
  4410. thread she hit...
  4411. And the blade was sliced in two. Chaiila stared in shock
  4412. at the ruined stump she was holding. The commotion she raised
  4413. had set off something amongst the Rim troops, already milling
  4414. in confusion from the creature's sorcery. More lights flared,
  4415. torches and lanterns, orders were shouted, then came the sharp
  4416. snap of arbalests.
  4417. A bronze-tipped bolt as long as Sekher's leg caromed off
  4418. the top of the balcony parapet into the tower wall, striking a
  4419. shower of sparks and just missing Sekher who belatedly ducked.
  4420. Smaller projectiles rattled off the rock.
  4421. Faster than Sekher would have believed possible in
  4422. something with its bulk the creature seized Chaiila's arm,
  4423. disarming her with a twist of its wrist, then snarled at Sekher,
  4424. gesturing curtly.
  4425. Sekher pressed himself against Chaiila, looking into
  4426. her panicked eyes. The strap settled around both of them,
  4427. Sekher hooked it under his arms, around he and Chaiila.
  4428. Then it touched its wrist armour.
  4429. A distant cough, from far out in the fog, growing to a
  4430. rumble, a roar, then a scream like the fury of the wind. From the
  4431. distant night streaks of fire appeared, arrowing down onto the
  4432. palace rooftop. Gouts of flame and smoke billowed. Explosions
  4433. thumped, hammering the air with a pressure that was more than a
  4434. sound.
  4435. Screams sounded. Pain and terror and something not
  4436. quite Trenalbi. Blue fire belched skywards from the temple as
  4437. priests tried to defend against an attack they couldn't see.
  4438. The creature slapped Sekher's shoulder and assisted
  4439. the shaking Chaiila over the side of the balcony railing. Then with
  4440. a lurch the solid stone dropped away and they were hanging by
  4441. a thread, the tower falling away behind them, fading into the mists
  4442. as they gathered speed. Chaiila twisted and kicked,
  4443. screamed,"NERSI!"
  4444. Sekher fought to still her, afraid she would dislodge
  4445. them, afraid she would draw the attention of the Ch'sty Rim
  4446. soldiery.
  4447. Although they seemed to have troubles of their
  4448. own. Below them, a brilliant green line lanced arrow-straight
  4449. from the mists to flicker across the battlements, vanish in
  4450. drifting cloud, then flash into sight again. Violent fires burned
  4451. across the rooftop, pyres of sparks and flames where seige
  4452. engines had been, gaping wounds blasted in the roof and walls,
  4453. also billowing flames and smoke, other places seemingly melted.
  4454. The figures of Rim warriors were everywhere, so many sprawled
  4455. unmoving.
  4456. Then they were over the town: far below and dark.
  4457. Chaiila was digging claws into his hide as she clung
  4458. to him. "Nersi," she whimpered.
  4459. Sekher clutched her tighter as they picked up speed, the
  4460. wet wind howling around them setting them spinning first this
  4461. way, then that; like a plumb bob on a line. The hum from the
  4462. assembly clipped to the thread grew.
  4463. Gods! How fast were they going? More importantly,
  4464. how were they going to stop?
  4465. Then the river was behind them, the water lost in
  4466. darkness, when the ground came up out of the mists. Fields, the
  4467. top of grain, blurred past ten body lengths below their dangling
  4468. feet. If they hit anything at this speed...
  4469. But the ground dropped away again as the thread
  4470. began to curve gently upwards, and as they climbed they
  4471. slowed, more than the incline should account for. There was a
  4472. braking mechanism somewhere on the thing Sekher guessed. Or
  4473. else it was magic.
  4474. The ground reappeared again, the flank of a hill, much
  4475. slower this time: the speed of a fast shen, running speed, then
  4476. walking.
  4477. "Ready?" Sekher asked Chaiila. She grimaced in return.
  4478. Without warning, from the fog ahead, an angry beam of
  4479. green light snapped past them, making both Trenalbi duck
  4480. instinctively. Then a pale shape materialised from the darkness
  4481. and banks of clouds before them: Much, much taller than a
  4482. Trenalbi, many long legs raising it high off the ground, bulky
  4483. body, glittering dark eyes set in a small head that pivoted to stare
  4484. at them as they inched to a halt and dangled from the thread
  4485. attached to it.
  4487. --\o/--
  4490. Someone, somewhere, was screaming, elsewhere
  4491. another whimpering in fear and pain.
  4492. Chenuk huddled behind the crenelle, still stunned by
  4493. the explosions that decabeats before had rocked the rooftop,
  4494. shattering light catapults and ballista...and Trenalbi. Warriors ran
  4495. about in confused circles, some firing crossbow bolts at
  4496. phantoms in the mist. Many more were of the same mind as
  4497. Chenuk: stay down, keep your hide intact.
  4498. Fires made the area a chaotic scene of strobing orange
  4499. light and jet blackness while smoke burned at eyes and nostrils.
  4500. There were holes where the roof had collapsed into levels below,
  4501. some burning.
  4502. Chenuk clutched the remains of his crossbow, ruined
  4503. when that green finger of light raked the battlements. He had
  4504. begun to poke his head up to fire at the balcony when a green
  4505. flash sliced through horns, bridle, and stock, the taut
  4506. bowstring and fragments of bow whipping back to gouge his arm.
  4507. Beside him...
  4508. Chenuk shook uncontrollably when he glanced at the
  4509. lump sprawled on the wet flagstones beside him.
  4510. Beside him the warrior had been raising his bow to his
  4511. shoulder when the green light brushed across him. His head
  4512. exploded into red-tinted steam and bone fragments. The
  4513. twitching body dropped like a sack of grain, the head above the
  4514. lower jaw...gone.
  4515. He tore his eyes away. Something warm, moist was
  4516. soaking the fur on both sides of Chenuk's face. Absently he
  4517. reached up and brought his hand away red. His ears, Huh! He
  4518. wanted to chitter insanely. His ears, his glorious tufted ears were
  4519. gone, charred and bleeding stumps all that remained.
  4520. Chenuk glanced up at the tower, the clouds of moisture
  4521. and smoke parting in time to allow him a glimpse of something
  4522. dark and silent gliding past overhead, gone before he could
  4523. open his mouth.
  4525. --\o/--
  4528. The thread hummed and vibrated almost imperceptibly
  4529. as another harness appeared from the darkness, slowing,
  4530. stopping before it bumped Sekher and Chaiila.
  4531. Nersi had both arms wrapped around the creature's
  4532. neck, claws out and hanging on for dear life, but her eyes were
  4533. bright and she was grinning with excitement. Despite the pain she
  4534. must be feeling, enjoying herself?!
  4535. The creature reached up to snap a red toggle and the
  4536. straps expanded, lowering the pair to the ground and
  4537. shrugging the harness off. Nersi was limping badly, leaning on
  4538. the creature's arm for support. A most unlikely pair.
  4539. "Oh, gods!" Chaiila groaned in disgust.
  4540. Nersi halted - drawing the creature up short - and looked
  4541. up at them, flashing a small smile. "You coming down or you
  4542. just admiring the view? Pull that little red thing."
  4543. Sekher craned upwards to do so. There was a metallic
  4544. crack, a whirring, and the straps relaxed to dump them on the
  4545. ground. Sekher stumbled as his unsteady legs betrayed him. That
  4546. ride had ruffled his metaphorical fur more than he could ever
  4547. admit.
  4548. Chaiila took possession of Nersi, snarling at the creature until it
  4549. backed off, fussing over her cousin who protested she was fine.
  4550. Then she saw the pale behemoth looming over them on the crest
  4551. of the hill.
  4552. "By the gods...What..."
  4553. "Beats me," Chaiila admitted and tugged at her cousin's
  4554. arm, pulling her the other way. "Come on, let's leave a trail."
  4555. "Huh!" Nersi balked and hung her head, touching
  4556. her bandage. "With this leg I won't make it, only slow you
  4557. down. They'd catch us before we made a kilospan."
  4558. She was right, Sekher knew. The Ch'sty Rim law would
  4559. track them and either capture or kill them. Capture: back where
  4560. they started. Death: perhaps preferable.
  4561. A pale hand touched his shoulder. He turned to see
  4562. the creature regarding him quizzically. "What do you want?" he
  4563. snapped. It tugged at his arm, pointing to Chaiila and Nersi, then
  4564. at the motionless thing at the top of the hill. Sekher's ears wilted.
  4565. "Gods!" Nersi spat in exasperation. "It saved our lives.
  4566. I don't think it intends to eat us now!" And she shocked Chaiila
  4567. by twisting out of her grasp and lurching away to be steadied by
  4568. a wiry black-clad arm hooked about her waist. The creature
  4569. rumbled at her and delicately escorted her up the remaining slope.
  4570. Sekher sighed and followed, with Chaiila behind him
  4571. mumbling curses and wards all the way.
  4572. The thing was big; far bulkier than a wagon, with six
  4573. legs thicker than a trenalbi and a chunky body. Its head - if that
  4574. was what it was - was a cylindrical affair situated halfway down
  4575. its length. It moved to track them as they approached and Sekher
  4576. was instantly struck by the similarity to the insides of the thing
  4577. imbedded in the tower wall: struts and metal and glass and other
  4578. materials.
  4579. Then he saw there were wheels on the ends of its legs.
  4580. "Wheels?" Chaiila saw them also. "Since when does hellspawn
  4581. have wheels?"
  4582. And since when were demons made from metal?
  4583. The creature took Nersi right up to the thing, neither of
  4584. them reaching the underbelly, and opened a small door in its
  4585. right foreleg, touching glowing squares in a brisk sequence.
  4586. Promptly, like a Hetre kneeling for mounting, the wheeled thing
  4587. lowered itself with ponderous grace, stopping when its belly was
  4588. brushing the grass. A latticework of bars clanked and hinged
  4589. upwards like great jaws.
  4590. Nersi was hesitant about approaching that, but she did
  4591. so, looked inside, then laughed and turned to the other two
  4592. Trenalbi hovering what they hoped was a safe distance back.
  4593. "Come on!" she called. "I think we've got a ride!"
  4594. "Huh?" Chaiila and Sekher traded wondering looks.
  4595. There were a pair of what could only be seats in the
  4596. front of the thing. Granted they were strange-looking things:
  4597. black, covered with something glossy and soft-appearing,
  4598. without apertures for tails, but they were unmistakably seats.
  4599. Arrayed before them were a series of glassy squares
  4600. and a few glowing lights of various colours. To the right of
  4601. each position was a strangely-wrought protuberance, a little
  4602. like someone's twisted idea of a sword hilt. The creature helped
  4603. Nersi get settled into the left seat, squirming to find a position
  4604. where her tail was tolerably comfortable. Behind the seats was a
  4605. small space, cluttered with small coloured cylinders, box-like
  4606. things, and other incomprehensible knik-knacks. These the
  4607. creature swept aside like so much rubbish and folded a small
  4608. padded ledge down from the back wall.
  4609. "Come on!" Nersi urged them again. "It's not dark
  4610. forever!" Sekher squeezed in behind the seats, followed in short
  4611. order by Chaiila. She pressed against him in the confined space,
  4612. fur brushing against his bare arm. He shivered convulsively and
  4613. only then understood just how cold he was with night dampness
  4614. soaking through his cloak.
  4615. The seat before him creaked as the creature settled into
  4616. it. If this was a wagon, where were the draught beasts? Who
  4617. had brought it here? Surely it could not have been left standing
  4618. where it was, conspicuous from the town walls.
  4619. Above him the latticework of thick bars that constituted
  4620. the broad canopy swung down to lock in place with a click. Not
  4621. made to keep anything in or out, simply to protect the inhabitants
  4622. of the cabin in case of a roll. Around the lip, above a board
  4623. studded with coloured squares, circles, and other patterns was a
  4624. shield of a glass of a quality that surpassed anything Sekher had
  4625. ever seen before.
  4626. The creature was hidden from his sight in its seat
  4627. directly before him, but Sekher saw its hand touching squares on
  4628. the arm of its chair. More lights flicked to life. With an ease
  4629. borne of long familiarity it tapped lights. Images flared in the
  4630. glass plates: lines and curves, pictures, a map like the one
  4631. conjured by the creature. Then it took a firm grip on the stick with
  4632. its right hand, accompanied by a low hum pervading the very
  4633. framework of the vehicle.
  4634. Everything lurched and Sekher was pressed back where
  4635. he sat. Heavy wheels spun, tearing clods of dirt loose, then
  4636. gripped as the vehicle slewed about and left Jai'stra behind.
  4637. It accelerated, the body lowering to hug the ground, legs rising
  4638. and falling with every dip and mound so instead of rattling his
  4639. teeth like seeds in a rattle the ride was little worse than a boat in a
  4640. light swell.
  4641. But so much faster!
  4642. Crushed grain blurred under the wheels and slowly the
  4643. mists began to thin, turning into a thin cloud cover. White-
  4644. blue Daughter-lit horizon and plains wheeled as the vehicle
  4645. executed a gradual turn and passed through a hole torn in a
  4646. rickety wooden fence and the seemingly endless expanse of the
  4647. plains was before them.
  4648. "I think I'm going to be sick," Chaiila moaned.
  4650. --\o/--
  4653. "They're WHAT?!"
  4654. "Gone, Sir," the guard repeated miserably.
  4655. "That I heard," the officer hissed, then howled, "What I
  4656. want to know is HOW! WHERE?!"
  4657. The guard ducked his head and flinched away. "We
  4658. don't know Sir," he confessed. "They're just...gone."
  4659. The officer stared at the subordinate in fury, then
  4660. dismissed him with a cuff of the ears that drew blood. Still
  4661. fuming the officer turned and saw Chenuk watching. "What do
  4662. you want!"
  4663. "Watchkeeper Nerfith, Sir," Chenuk ducked his head
  4664. and the officer started visibly at the ruin of Chenuk's ears.
  4665. Clotting blood from his ears tugged at his head fur, but the pain
  4666. had subsided to a vague sting. "Sir, I'm Chenuk ser Kifeny. I
  4667. was transferred to your command. Told to report to you for
  4668. orders."
  4669. "Another," Nerfith groaned. "Alright, Chenuk, who was
  4670. your old commander? Why the shift?"
  4671. "Hekira, Sir. He was over there," Chenuk nodded
  4672. towards a large smoking hole in the wall and part of the rooftop.
  4673. They were still digging bodies out of the rubble.
  4674. "Huh, pity. He was a good warrior."
  4675. "Yes Sir."
  4676. "Your battlegroup?"
  4677. Chenuk twitched, the tattered remains of his ears aching.
  4678. He swallowed and finally replied, "Some of them are still...alive."
  4679. Nerfith just stared, trying not to show his shock. Just a
  4680. few motley fugitives and they'd lost one battlegroup at the
  4681. least.
  4682. He was spared the ignominy of gaping like a wordless
  4683. fool when another soot-streaked trooper stopped and saluted
  4684. the Watchkeeper. "Sir, we've found something on the tower...We
  4685. don't know what it is."
  4686. "The unknown is something I've just about had enough
  4687. of," the officer sighed."Very well. Chetik..."
  4688. "Chenuk, Sir."
  4689. "Whatever...Chenuk, follow."
  4690. They'd scaled the tower with ladders and entered
  4691. through the hole. There'd been nobody there. Nor had there
  4692. been anyone or anything in the room at the top, which the
  4693. priests had allowed them to enter only after performing arcane
  4694. rituals to remove demonic wards. The whole tower had been
  4695. deserted.
  4696. However, imbedded in the tower wall just outside the
  4697. balcony door was a peculiar object that hadn't been included
  4698. by the architects. There were guards in the tower room and a
  4699. couple more on the balcony itself. All had their fur on end and a
  4700. reek of fear about them. Chenuk smelt it and his own pulse picked
  4701. up.
  4702. "You haven't touched it?"the Watchkeeper asked.
  4703. "No Sir,"one of the duty guards responded."It's just as
  4704. we found it."
  4705. "Have the priests had a look at it?"
  4706. A few of the guards exchanged glances. Their
  4707. spokesman twitched his tail uncomfortably."Ah...They decided to
  4708. make their examinations from a distance for the present."
  4709. Chenuk bit back a protest. If the priests were too scared
  4710. to poke their noses around, what in the hells was HE doing
  4711. here?! Gods, he groaned to himself, I don't get paid enough for
  4712. this kind of thing.
  4713. Nerfith scratched at his armour, adjusting his tail in its
  4714. sheath up the back of the plastron."So, has it done anything?"he
  4715. asked."Moved, prophesied, sung? Anything?"
  4716. "Uh, nosir."
  4717. The watchkeeper snorted and stepped out onto the
  4718. balcony. He took some time to lean on the railing and stare out
  4719. into the fog before nonchalantly strolling around to examine the
  4720. thing. Chenuk followed, noting that Nerfith's sword hand was
  4721. twitching, flexing restlessly Light was beginning to touch the
  4722. clouds on the horizon, turning the edges of the clouds molten
  4723. silver. Morning already. Chenuk blinked at the Pan; finally, after
  4724. a night that had seemed to drag on forever.
  4725. The thing stuck into the wall was metal. At least, most
  4726. of it seemed to be. There was that watery wave of reflections -
  4727. pink, purple and scarlet in the morninglight, much like the
  4728. ripples on a blade of the finest quality steel. Other parts were of a
  4729. flimsy-seeming white substance that Chenuk knew he'd seen
  4730. before. In fact he'd worn it on his head. The nose of the thing
  4731. was crumpled where it had impacted with the stonework, but the
  4732. stone had yielded also. Mortar had crumbled and several blocks
  4733. had been pushed out of alignment.
  4734. "Gods, it must have hit with the force of a battering
  4735. ram,"Nerfith pointed out.
  4736. Four small arms were splayed out, their tips drilled into
  4737. the masonry. That was how the thing clung with such tenacity.
  4738. "Sir, how could this have helped them escape?"Chenuk
  4739. asked.
  4740. The Watchkeeper's ears flagged his own ignorance.
  4741. Chenuk looked closer. Whatever it was, its skeletal
  4742. framework was filled with small boxes and strange constructions
  4743. of metal. In the end protruding from the wall there was a
  4744. recessed cavity.
  4745. "What's this?"Nerfith stooped to pick something up
  4746. from the floor."Looks like a sword blade. What'd you think?"
  4747. "Ah, yes Sir. Cheap bronze job. Standard issue. It
  4748. looks like it snapped."
  4749. The officer scrutinised the broken blade and gave a
  4750. noncommital,"Humph."
  4751. "Watchkeeper!"a courier popped out onto the balcony
  4752. and handed over a scroll."Message Sir!"
  4753. "Thanks."The officer passed the fragment of blade to
  4754. Chenuk, took the scroll and popped the seal with a claw,"wait
  4755. over there,"he ordered the messenger with a distracted toss of
  4756. his head. If the courier had done so, he'd have gone over the edge
  4757. of the balcony. Instead he chose to retire to the tower room.
  4758. Chenuk stepped aside to let the officer pace on the
  4759. narrow parapet. Why would a priest have a balcony constructed
  4760. anyway? He'd heard that Kanr, the priest who'd made this
  4761. tower his domicile, had been a little eccentric, even for the
  4762. priesthood. Always peering at the night sky and trying to
  4763. postulate ridiculous theories about the Well of Heaven. Huh! No
  4764. doubt he'd used this balcony to stare at the night sky. Powerful
  4765. he'd been too, very powerful, but always reluctant to fight. Still,
  4766. he'd met his match in the last place he expected, right in his own
  4767. sanctum.
  4768. A slight movement on the device stuck to the wall
  4769. caught Chenuk's eye. Intrigued, he cocked his head to one side to
  4770. closer inspect it. From the recess at the rear of the thing hung a
  4771. tiny thread, scarcely more than a black shadow a couple of spans
  4772. long. Chenuk batted at it, then caught it in his left hand. It was
  4773. so light he couldn't even feel it. He snorted in abrupt anger at
  4774. this thing that had so thoroughly disrupted his life and yanked
  4775. the thread to snap it off.
  4776. A brief flash of pain up his arm. Chenuk looked down
  4777. in confusion, at first not understanding what he saw. Then he
  4778. started chittering and whimpering in shock.
  4779. Nerfith looked up from his dispatch:"What's...Hells!
  4780. Guards!"he yelled for help as he grabbed Chenuk's hand and
  4781. saw the damage for himself."Gods, youngling! What happened?!"
  4782. "T...That,"Chenuk hissed, then yelped at
  4783. pain."That string...It went right through..."
  4784. "Death on a doorstep! You've been losing too many
  4785. body parts this night,"Nerfith muttered as he strapped the
  4786. tourniquet in place and tightened it.
  4787. Chenuk chittered in agony, his good hand extruding
  4788. claws and flailing at the air."Haaii!"
  4789. "Calm, you'll live."
  4790. "North."
  4791. "What?"The Watchkeeper's ears perked up and he
  4792. readjusted his position the better to see the trooper's face.
  4793. "North,"Chenuk repeated."They went north. Where we
  4794. found it."
  4795. Nerfith digested that information while more guards
  4796. appeared, staring at Chenuk's maimed hand. "Hnnn!"the soldier
  4797. clenched his teeth as the guards helped him too his feet and
  4798. threw his arms over their shoulders. He was muttering as they
  4799. carried him off, snarling:"I'm going to find that hairless,
  4800. motherless, demon-spawned bastard,"he snarled to nobody in
  4801. particular."I'm going to find it, and I'm going to tear it apart and
  4802. feed it to itself. Deformed, furless offspring of a shen. Demon.
  4803. Sorcery..."
  4804. Nerfith watched him leave with wilted ears. He beckoned
  4805. to a lieutenant.
  4806. "Sir?"
  4807. "I want to find out some more about that Trenalbi.
  4808. What assignments he's had in the past. Was he with the convoy
  4809. that found that thing? where they found it, stuff like that. See
  4810. what you can uncover."
  4811. "Yessir."
  4812. "And get a message to the signalers."
  4814. --\o/--
  4817. Sekher squinted into the wind whipping around his head
  4818. and ears, nostrils working hard. Standing on the pillion bench in
  4819. the daemon's conveyance, steadying himself with a hand
  4820. clenching the framework enclosing the cabin, he had an excellent
  4821. view. The air was cool and fresh, just beginning to warm after the
  4822. night but still chilly against bare flesh. Hazy purple horizons, the
  4823. norm on these rolling prairies, stretched away in all directions.
  4824. The low, tough scratch-bush and golden grasses would
  4825. continue to carpet the grounds until another river valley
  4826. where more hospitable and colourful flora could grow. To the
  4827. west, the orb of the Lightbringer was only a few degrees above
  4828. the hazy teeth of the Ramparts. How far had they travelled in the
  4829. past couple of hours? Certainly far further than any mounted
  4830. Trenalbi could manage in a day.
  4831. He took another deep draught of the morning air and
  4832. ducked back down into the shelter offered by the cabin.
  4833. "Morning and waking,"he cheerfully greeted Chaiila who was
  4834. curled in on herself on the bench. She lifted her head, the
  4835. white eyelid sliding back as she raised from Drift.
  4836. "Burn in eternal agony, male,"she hissed.
  4837. "Glad to see you're feeling better,"he returned.
  4838. "Huhnnn,"she groaned, rubbing at muzzle and eyes."I don't
  4839. understand how you can stand this. It's not...natural to travel
  4840. this fast!"
  4841. Sekher flagged amusement at her embarrassment and
  4842. Chaiila bridled. She was a proud one, this female, and she wore
  4843. that pride like a prized and polished suit of armour; she didn't like
  4844. to get it scratched.
  4845. Nersi was in Drift, slumped in the front seat with her
  4846. head lolling on her shoulder. Beside her the creature was bent
  4847. over a tray on its lap, a scatter of tiny parts spread out on it. A
  4848. small door had been opened in a cluster of devices on a panel
  4849. before it revealing perplexing tangles of coloured cables and
  4850. small black cubes locked into latticeworks. The creature's
  4851. armband also lay in fragments while deft long-fingered hands
  4852. shifted pieces around as if trying to solve a complex puzzle.
  4853. "Uh,"Chaiila tugged at his tail."Sekher, who's
  4854. controlling this thing?"
  4855. Nersi in Drift. The creature...doing whatever it was
  4856. doing...
  4857. "Don't ask,"Sekher replied and sat back heavily. He
  4858. automatically tried to rub down the fur on his face but his hands
  4859. only brushed against a coarse stubble. Hai, better than nothing.
  4860. Wagons that drove themselves...what next?
  4861. The plains continued to scroll past as the wide, barrel-
  4862. like wheels hummed through the grasses with a sound like water
  4863. against a boat's hull. A family of startled Burrowrunners bolted
  4864. through the grass ahead and vanished into their holes.
  4865. Occasionally there was a judder as some obstruction was struck.
  4866. At that speed any normal wagon would've been shaken to pieces
  4867. long before then.
  4868. Sekher touched the cage framework over his head.
  4869. Metal. Steel. The whole thing was made of metal of various types,
  4870. much of it unknown to the Trenalbi. Gods, there was a fortune in
  4871. the stuff here! Even so, it had a battered and scarred look that
  4872. suggested it had seen better days. Paint had been scratched and
  4873. chipped and in one particular spot Sekher noticed the metal bars -
  4874. as thick as his arm - were bent as if some huge weight had fallen
  4875. on it. If those bars hadn't been there anyone in either seat
  4876. would've been pounded flatter than a biscuit.
  4877. Chaiila had picked up a bulky cylinder with rounded
  4878. ends from among the clutter on the floor and was turning it over.
  4879. When it hissed loudly she dropped it, stared at it as if it had
  4880. insulted her.
  4881. "So," Sekher began after a time of awkward silence,
  4882. "where do we go from here?"
  4883. Chaiila looked up from cautiously prodding the cylinder
  4884. with a toe claw, looked up. "From here? Well, I'd suggest we get
  4885. clear of the Ch'sty Rim domain first before we make any set
  4886. plans."
  4887. Sekher snorted. "Clear? What're they going to do now?
  4888. Send infantry running after us? There's no way they're going to
  4889. catch us now."
  4890. "No?" she growled. "Take a look over there."
  4891. Sekher followed her finger.
  4892. On the horizon the squat shape of a tower was visible.
  4893. Too far away to make out exact details, but the spindly branches
  4894. of the heliograph arms were quite distinct, their reflective
  4895. surfaces flashing as they snapped open and shut.
  4897. --\o/--
  4900. "So, where are they?"
  4901. Kissaki's voice was level and calm, dangerously so.
  4902. Watchkeeper Nerfith swallowed hard. "Ahh, I was
  4903. informed they were northbound, Sir. We've received messages
  4904. from relay posts twenty six to thirty five reading they'd sighted
  4905. the fugitives heading north at...uh," Nerfith licked his lips,
  4906. "about one hundred kilopaces a unit."
  4907. That shook the Lord. Kissaki went rigid in his chair, his
  4908. pupils dilating into black pentagons. "One hundred?"
  4909. "At their best estimate, Sir."
  4910. "Oath!" Kissaki pushed his chair back from the
  4911. polished darkstone desk and stood. Here, in Kissaki's private
  4912. offices, was a world where none but the highest ranking were
  4913. permitted to enter. These rooms were not of the imposing scale of
  4914. the audience chambers, intended to awe and intimidate. Instead
  4915. they were of a more functional scale, easily heated and a great
  4916. deal more comfortable than that draughty hall.
  4917. The Watchkeeper wasn't the only other soul in the
  4918. room. So silent and still that it was easy to overlook him a member
  4919. of the Priesthood sat brooding in a grotesquely carved highback
  4920. chair of dark wood. A sienna-furred hand propped his chin while
  4921. amber eyes glinted from the shadow of his hood as he stared at
  4922. the other two, watching every move.
  4923. Kissaki pulled a scroll case from its rack in the desk and
  4924. popped the end caps off, sliding the lacquered scroll out and
  4925. spreading it out with a jewel-encrusted astrolabe and statuette of
  4926. Psaht to weight it down. "What were those relay stations?
  4927. Twenty six to thirty five?"
  4928. "Yessir."
  4929. The Lord pored over the map, tracing a route with a
  4930. silvertipped claw while a growl hovered in his throat. "North..."
  4931. Then the claw stabbed down and he shot a burning glare
  4932. at Nerfith: "Send orders to mobilize the garrisons at Chertuk and
  4933. Red Ford. Move cavalry to heard them to Split Forks where
  4934. infantry can meet them with ballista and arbalests.
  4935. "Also get three royal battlegroups mounted and moving
  4936. with cages and handlers to bring it back!" His voice rasped again
  4937. when he snarled, "I WANT that creature! Any way possible, do
  4938. you hear me!"
  4939. "Yessir!" Nerfith barked again. "The others,Sir...?"
  4940. "The others..." Kissaki pondered for a couple of beats,
  4941. then said, "Kill them."
  4942. "Is that wise?" the priest said softly.
  4943. If he'd howled at the top of his voice he couldn't have
  4944. made a greater impact. Kissaki stared at him, blinking slowly.
  4945. "And why do you say that?" he finally asked.
  4946. "It would seem to me that they hold some kind of sway
  4947. over the creature." That voice was calm and unflappable. "It
  4948. has protected them so far. Perhaps they could be used to
  4949. persuade it to," he raised a hand and made vague, suggestive
  4950. motions, "work with us."
  4951. Kissaki considered, then said, "No. Kill them." It was
  4952. the final stamp on their death warrants.
  4953. The priest didn't object. He just watched as the
  4954. Watchkeeper bowed low as he backed for the door, twisting his
  4955. head to expose white-tufted guard fur on his throat. The Lord
  4956. was seething and Nerfith wasn't about to be the overly-cocky
  4957. subordinate who had his rank, not to mention his hide, slashed.
  4958. He felt the eyes of the guards outside following him as
  4959. he let the door swing shut behind him. Within minutes the
  4960. orders were transcripted and sealed and messengers were were
  4961. dispatched, racing to the signal stations. Alone now in his
  4962. cramped little cubby of an office he threw down the stylus and
  4963. rubbed at his hand. Two garrisons; at least twenty battlegroups
  4964. and cavalry. There was no doubt that they would be able to
  4965. intercept the fugitives, but it would take skill and cunning and
  4966. not a little luck to close the jaws and trap the prey between them.
  4968. --\o/--
  4971. "Sir?"
  4972. "Who...?" Nerfith turned, not breaking stride. The
  4973. trooper hurried to catch up with him, gasping heavily. The
  4974. Watchkeeper knew this male with his bandaged arm and ears.
  4975. "Chenuk?"
  4976. "Yessir." The trooper sucked air, then half-collapsed
  4977. against a corridor wall.
  4978. "Oath!" the officer exclaimed. "The priests didn't let
  4979. you out, did they?"
  4980. "Not exactly, Sir," Chenuk coughed, clenched the claws
  4981. of his good hand into the stone walls as another wave of
  4982. dizziness sent his head reeling.
  4983. "You should be in the temple! Look! I don't take to
  4984. my warriors killing themselves off by stupidity and running
  4985. around like that's the most fool thing I've seen!"
  4986. "I'm fine, Sir," Chenuk protested, cradling his injured
  4987. arm with its bulky wrappings. Somewhere within that misshapen
  4988. lump of bandages, healing clay, and mosses was his right hand,
  4989. missing three fingers. Some Priesthood at the Hub may have had
  4990. a shadow of a chance of saving the digits, but while the Ch'sty
  4991. priests were good, they weren't that good.
  4992. "You don't look it. Gods! Have you seen yourself?! You
  4993. look as if you've been chewed up and spat out!" He hissed and
  4994. scowled at the trooper. "What do you want, anyway?"
  4995. Chenuk nervously hung his head. "Sir, has there been
  4996. news about the. . . about the fugitives?"
  4997. The Watchkeeper blinked in disbelief. "You hunted me
  4998. down just for that?! Youngling, I think you've got your priorities
  4999. in a tangle."
  5000. "I don't..." Chenuk began to defend himself, then
  5001. bowed to his commander. "Yessir."
  5002. "Huh!" Nerfith slipped a finger under a strap on a
  5003. cannon to scratch while he stared at Chenuk. "Take my
  5004. advice," he said. "Forget about that thing. You're going to get
  5005. yourself killed chasing after something like that."
  5006. Chenuk's fur began to bristle, his ruff billowing up
  5007. around his neck. "Sir, it killed my section. Wiped them out. It's
  5008. maimed me for life!" He stopped and took control of his anger
  5009. before speaking again. "You never saw what it did to the priest,
  5010. did you. It took his mind!"
  5011. "I saw," Nerfith said. "I saw. He's babbling about
  5012. skies filled with stars."
  5013. "You see?! It's too dangerous! And what if it decides
  5014. to help the northerners? Gods! We had it cornered and it still
  5015. walked away. Can we leave it running loose?!"
  5016. "But it ran. It was afraid of us. We captured it once..."
  5017. "We were lucky!" Chenuk insisted, brandishing his
  5018. clawed fingers before his new commander. "The Gods were on our
  5019. side once. Who can say what they'll do next time. Do you have
  5020. any idea what that thing can do?! It had a helmet that let it see
  5021. through walls! If it was prepared for us..."
  5022. "I think you're overestimating this thing, soldier,"
  5023. Nerfith growled, reminding Chenuk of their relative ranks. His
  5024. fur flattened and he stepped away. "Anyway, we'll soon know."
  5025. "What?"Chenuk's pupils snapped to startled black
  5026. squares.
  5027. "They've been spotted," Nerfith explained. "There're at
  5028. least twenty battlegroups and several more cavalry units moving
  5029. in on them. We'll see just what we're up against."
  5030. "Huh!" Chenuk rubbed his injured arm. "Twenty
  5031. battlegroups, Sir?"
  5032. "Yes,"Nerfith grinned reassuringly."Enough to tear
  5033. a garrison to shreds."
  5034. Chenuk grinned also, but if he had been able, his ears
  5035. would have been plastered back. Enough to shred a garrison,
  5036. yeah. But is it enough?
  5038. --\o/--
  5041. Even to Sekher's untrained ear the grinding and
  5042. grating sounds from the left centre wheel sounded wrong. When
  5043. that noise turned to a permeating shuddering felt through the
  5044. huge vehicle's body he was convinced that something was amiss.
  5045. Finally the creature snarled, slammed a fist against the
  5046. framework above its head, and the vehicle slowed so abruptly that
  5047. the Drifting Chaiila was tumbled to the floor.
  5048. Seen by the light of day the exterior of the vehicle was
  5049. even more battered than the interior. The underbelly was scored
  5050. and scarred, the matt white paint scratched away to bare shining
  5051. metal. Slung beneath the nose was a cluster of glass lenses, some
  5052. the size of Sekher's head. The rear of the thing was a vertical face
  5053. with what may have been doors set in it. There were more of the
  5054. lenses there also, more set into the stubby extrusion of metals
  5055. perched atop the vehicle.
  5056. The creature was buried beneath the complex joint where
  5057. the troubled wheel attached to the leg, only its legs and waist
  5058. protruding. Metallic clanking sounds, occasionally punctuated
  5059. by a frustrated snarl, sounded from under the narrow space and
  5060. every so often it would throw out a gleaming metal tool and grope
  5061. after another one.
  5062. Leaning against the left front wheel Sekher watched
  5063. the hairless hand fumbling after another tool. It latched onto
  5064. something resembling a bottle with a handle, drew it out of
  5065. sight. The whining noises that followed laid Sekher's ears back.
  5066. Some strange sight they must be: a six legged
  5067. contraption that more resembled some outlandish animal than a
  5068. vehicle sitting in the middle of the heat-browned grasslands. He
  5069. looked out over the gently rolling hills with their ever-shifting
  5070. kaleidoscoping of light and shades of gold as clouds scudded
  5071. across the face of the lightbringer. Gods, the plains were restful
  5072. to his eyes. How could anyone tolerate living in the mountains?
  5073. All those vertical lines...
  5074. "Think it can fix it?" Chaiila vaulted up to squat on the
  5075. wheel beside him. She curiously fingered the patterns worked into
  5076. the surface.
  5077. "Ask it," Sekher shrugged. "I've no idea."
  5078. "Huh," Chaiila cocked her head at the creature's legs.
  5079. "We should've grabbed some shen. They don't fall apart."
  5080. Sekher yipped his amusement. "True...but I doubt we
  5081. would have made it very far."
  5082. There was another clatter from beneath the vehicle, a
  5083. loud yelp, and the creature hauled itself out shaking its hand
  5084. and growling. Chaiila smirked. The creature glanced at both
  5085. the Trenalbi, rumbled at them, then stuck a tool into a receptacle
  5086. in the wheel housing, gave it a sharp twist and lifted away a panel.
  5087. For a heartbeat it stared, then gave a bellowing roar that rang
  5088. across the plains. Reaching into the hole it tore out a handful of
  5089. scratchbush and hurled it aside, then another, and another. The
  5090. tough, wiry strands of the plants were pulped and torn.
  5091. Sekher ventured a peek into the hole. Inside a
  5092. complex network of curved metal plates surrounded what could
  5093. have been an axle wrapped around with thick cables. And the
  5094. whole assembly was jammed solid with scratchbush.
  5096. --\o/--
  5099. Sekher crouched low in the grass behind the crest of
  5100. the hill, nostrtils working as he tasted the scent of the Longrazers
  5101. being wafted down to him on the breeze. It was a sizable herd,
  5102. the females and young encircled by the males. The patriarch
  5103. circled the herd, cropping at the grasses, pausing to raise its
  5104. head and test the wind. Slowly Sekher surveyed the
  5105. surrounding land. Where was...Ah, there!
  5106. Chaiila's dark fur was very visible against the gold of the
  5107. grasslands as she circled wide of the herd, moving upwind.
  5108. Sekher's tail lashed and his leg muscles bunched as he readied
  5109. himself.
  5110. Chaiila was up, moving slowly at first, then breaking into
  5111. a sprint. Squeals of alarm rose from the herd and immediately they
  5112. began to move, the females running from the threat while the
  5113. males fell in behind them. The patriarch lowered his triple horns
  5114. and charged at Chaiila who dodged and circled to head off the
  5115. rest of the herd and drive them towards Sekher.
  5116. As the herd passed the foot of the hill he kicked off, felt
  5117. grass and earth slipping beneath his feet. He stumbled and caught
  5118. himself by going to all fours, silently cursing his lack of claws as
  5119. he angled himself to intercept the herd. Already they were
  5120. reacting to his abrupt appearance, swerving away, but he had a
  5121. calf singled out. The breath was burning in his chest, his
  5122. muscles singing in exhilaration as he dodged a female who feinted
  5123. at him, eyes rolling. His feet skittered but again he caught
  5124. himself, threw himself forward. The calf was separated from the
  5125. herd, dodging wildly as it sought an opening to rejoin its
  5126. kindred. And Sekher felt his legs begin to fail and saw the calf
  5127. begin to pull away until it made a mistake and turned the wrong
  5128. way.
  5129. Sekher hit it hard and felt the rough bristles of its hide
  5130. scouring his own furless skin. It stumbled as he caught its neck,
  5131. his clawless fingers slipping, then it was free again and he only
  5132. just managed to catch its tail, dodged its kick, then tackle it and
  5133. bring it to the ground. A blunt-clawed hoof hit him in the
  5134. stomach, knocking the breath out of his body. He twisted and
  5135. was on its back, the nape of its neck between his jaws and the
  5136. taste of its sweat bitter in his mouth. He bit, hard, the muscles in
  5137. his jaws and neck bunching and flexing.
  5138. There was a crackling snapping sound. Blood flowed
  5139. hot and tangy. The calf thrashed for a while then was still.
  5140. Slowly Sekher disengaged his teeth, licked his muzzle
  5141. clean of blood, then sank back panting hard.
  5142. Chaiila was lazing nearby, sprawled in the warmth of
  5143. the Lightbringer. "You could have put a claw in there," he
  5144. said, levelling a finger at her.
  5145. "Clumsy," she criticized. "You almost lost it there."
  5146. "Like to see you do better," he growled.
  5147. "Sure," she yawned and rolled. "When we get to the
  5148. forests I'll show you some real hunting. At least we've got some
  5149. food now."
  5150. Sekher eyes the carcass, already beginning to salivate
  5151. at the thought of warm flesh. "Huh! It's been a long time."
  5152. "Prison food's not what it used to be, eh?" She flicked
  5153. a smile at him and Sekher became overwhelmingly aware of her. . .
  5154. her something. He felt a pang, a lurch, like fear, yet like nothing
  5155. he'd ever felt before. It left him gaping and confused.
  5156. "You alright?" Chaiila was staring at him warily, as if
  5157. she expected him to come at her.
  5158. "Ah. . . Yah," he blinked and rubbed his eyes. "Just
  5159. worn out. Let's get this cleaned out and carted back."
  5160. Chaiila gave him another glance before producing a knife
  5161. and setting down to skinning and gutting the calf.
  5162. It was an awkward weight to juggle between them, but
  5163. the two Trenalbi managed to haul the choicest parts of a carcass
  5164. that must have weighed as much as the pair of them the not-
  5165. soinconsiderable distance back to the creature's vehicle.
  5166. Nersi was at the creature's side, watching over its
  5167. shoulder as it cleared scratchbush from the works of the vehicle.
  5168. From somewhere it had cobbled together a crutch to take the
  5169. weight off her gamy leg. She turned at their hail and tapped the
  5170. creature's shoulder. It jumped, banging its head on the lip of the
  5171. hatch it was half-buried in.
  5172. "Looks like it's almost finished," Chaiila observed.
  5173. Sekher swallowed his mouthful. "About time. I wonder if
  5174. that happens often." He took another bite of liver. Gods, raw and
  5175. still warm as it went down his throat. He hadn't tasted anything
  5176. so good in. . . it seemed like eternity.
  5177. "It's not much for a daemon, is it?"
  5178. "How's that?"
  5179. "Your creature. Daemon, whatever. Look at it! It's
  5180. clumsy. It bangs its head, it makes mistakes. It's more like a
  5181. hideously deformed Trenalbi than a Godsend." She punctuated
  5182. that by tearing a chunk from her liver and masticating noisily.
  5183. "I had noticed," Sekher reluctantly admitted.
  5184. Chaiila chuckled. "Hmmm...It must be tough to discover
  5185. your ironbearing earth is just coloured clay."
  5186. "Huh! It saved our tails."
  5187. She glanced pointedly at his shaved member. "Well,
  5188. most of them anyway."
  5189. With a sniff he hitched up the strap that supported
  5190. the haunches strung about his neck and pretended to ignore that
  5191. cut to his shaved pride.
  5192. Nersi had come to meet them halfway, hop-swinging on
  5193. her single crutch. "Hai!" she greeted them with a smile that turned
  5194. to a glistening grin at the scent of the meat. "The mighty
  5195. hunters return. Not a bad catch I see."
  5196. Chaiila frowned. "You sure you should be walking on
  5197. that leg?"
  5198. Nersi's ears twitched. "Perhaps I should walk on my
  5199. hands?"
  5200. "Nersi!"
  5201. "Sorry," she grinned again. "Don't worry. It's fine.
  5202. That thing replaced the bandage. I can hardly feel it. Say, you
  5203. going to eat all that?"
  5204. Chaiila snorted and tossed her cousin the remnants of
  5205. the liver. Nersi adroitly plucked it from the air. "Thanks." She took
  5206. a eager bite.
  5207. "You know," she continued from around a noisy
  5208. mouthful. "We should find something to call it."
  5209. "Call what?" Sekher asked. They began moving back
  5210. to the vehicle, slowly; mindful of Nersi's handicap.
  5211. "Your creature," she said, pointing with her free hand
  5212. still clutching a gobbet of meat. "We can't just keep calling it
  5213. 'Your Creature'."
  5214. "Alright," Sekher said. "Any suggestions?"
  5215. Nersi lowered her eyes: "I had thought, Seth'Nai."
  5216. "Pale Walker," Chaiila mused, then laughed in delight.
  5217. "How apt."
  5218. Sekher thought about it. "Sounds good to me."
  5219. Nersi's ears flicked and she called to the creature who
  5220. awaited them. "Hai! They like it! You've got a name, Seth'Nai!"
  5221. And Seth'Nai cocked its head to one side and blinked at
  5222. her, then without taking its eyes from them slammed the hatch
  5223. over the complex workings it'd been cleaning out. Sekher
  5224. realised it wasn't as much staring at them as at the burden they
  5225. carried. "Hungry?" he asked, and tossed it the remainder of the
  5226. liver. It caught the dripping chunk of flesh, stared at it for a
  5227. second, then gave a yelp and dropped it, shaking its hands as
  5228. though burnt.
  5229. The Trenalbi stared in confusion.
  5230. "Is there something wrong with the meat?" Nersi asked.
  5231. "Didn't taste out of the ordinary," Chaiila responded,
  5232. licking her bloodstained muzzle.
  5233. The creature was wide-eyed, its eyes flicking from the
  5234. meat to the Trenalbi.
  5235. "I don't think it likes meat," observed Sekher.
  5236. "Huh!" Chaiila scooped up the dropped piece of kidney,
  5237. shook it off, then offered it again. "I think you're right, Che," she
  5238. said as the creature flinched away again. "Your Gods' - shaved
  5239. monster's a plant eater!" Her barking laughter rang across the
  5240. veldts.
  5243. --\o/--
  5246. Well, whatever Seth'Nai did to the wheels worked. . . for
  5247. about forty kilopaces before the grating noises turned to sparks
  5248. and smoke.
  5249. The creature had taken one look at the damage and
  5250. slammed the hatch on it in disgust, not even attempting to repair
  5251. it. Perhaps it couldn't, Sekher pondered. So, even this Seth'Nai
  5252. had its limits.
  5253. It couldn't fix it, but the vehicle still had five spares. The
  5254. entire wheel was drawn up on its leg and tucked out of the way.
  5255. The loss of a single wheel didn't appear to hinder it, but the other
  5256. wheels still complained and it wasn't too much longer before the
  5257. right front wheel screamed and died.
  5258. "One more to go," Chaiila grumbled as that wheel was
  5259. tucked up to join the other." I for one don't want to see if thing
  5260. can manage on three legs. I think I'd prefer to walk.
  5261. "And you," she continued, studying Sekher, "are
  5262. starting to look like a boiled Ballfruit."
  5263. Sekher scratched uncomfortably with the stubs of his
  5264. claws. He itched. All exposed skin was red and tender, especially
  5265. around the shoulders and neck. He could feel the hard nubs of
  5266. fur beginning to sprout through, but it was slow! so slow! And
  5267. still his skin felt as though it were burning.
  5268. So he'd stripped off his chafing armour and cloak and
  5269. scratched until even his clawless fingers drew blood. When
  5270. Seth'Nai noticed his condition he produced a hooded poncho
  5271. made from some flexible silvery substance that could almost have
  5272. been called cloth, save that it had no weave whatsoever. It was
  5273. as light as air and chafed his hide not the slightest. Of course he
  5274. still itched, but beneath the cool caress of the poncho it was
  5275. tolerable.
  5276. When the fourth wheel expired Chaiila did indeed learn
  5277. that the vehicle could cope on three. Not very effectively: their
  5278. speed was more than halved, but still they made far better time
  5279. than they possibly could have done walking.
  5281. --\o/--
  5284. At first the Red River valley was a blemish across the
  5285. nearflat horizon to the north, growing clearer and more defined
  5286. as they approached. The terrain slowly changed, the rolling hills
  5287. giving way to coarser arroyo and gullies, steeper and higher
  5288. hills and ridges, broken by the passage of water, whilst the low
  5289. grasses and coarse Scratchbush surrendered to Spiralleaf
  5290. bushes, Arrowstems, Scellerian trees and other flora unable to
  5291. compete with the Scratchbush when it came to thriving in drier
  5292. environs. Stonewood trees marched along ridgetops, their
  5293. extensive roots matting the cliff where rock had sheered away in
  5294. a slip. The thick undergrowth was alive with small animals,
  5295. insects, and flyers of every description.
  5296. Sekher started as a Meneri skitered away through the
  5297. bush. it was all to easy to imagine one saw the gleam of metal as
  5298. Rim troops lurked in ambush. That could be awkward. Progress
  5299. through this rough land was slow and if there was a trail they
  5300. hadn't found it, instead making their way cross-country, skirting
  5301. large obstacles, crushing smaller ones.
  5302. And - as Chaiila observed - leaving a trail obvious
  5303. enough for a blind, mentally-deficient cripple to follow.
  5304. There was a lurch and Sekher reflexively grabbed for
  5305. a handhold, bouncing against the restraining straps
  5306. the cre...Seth'Nai had made them don. Like some six-
  5307. legged behemoth the vehicle was using its damaged wheels as
  5308. feet to step down into a tributary. Water churned as Seth'Nai
  5309. turned the vehicle and guided it downstream.
  5310. "You're sure this is the Red River?" he asked Chaiila.
  5311. "Of course! We came this way when we followed you.
  5312. Further east though, to avoid the Rim patrols. I think this way is
  5313. a little faster - you don't have to cross the Munsk and Plague
  5314. rivers as well - but we do come pretty close to some garrison
  5315. towns."
  5316. "How close is 'close'?"
  5317. "Not less than twenty kilopaces. We can be there and
  5318. gone before they get a glimpse of us."
  5319. "You'd better pray it's so," Sekher muttered. "There is
  5320. a crossing?"
  5321. "Uh-huh. At this time of year there is, an easy one. Split
  5322. Forks I believe it's called. There are the ruins of an old town
  5323. around here somewhere, named after the forks. Some of the
  5324. Trenalbi around here say they're inhabited by ghosts and
  5325. demons. We should stop off and let your friend up front go
  5326. visit its relations."
  5327. She laughed then, her barks ringing among the trees.
  5328. Sekher snorted, grabbing for another handhold as the
  5329. vehicle stepped down a small waterfall. In a flurry of leaves and
  5330. wings, flyers exploded from the crest of a hill, making Sekher
  5331. glance up.
  5332. He froze, horror melting across his face.
  5333. "Oh, Gods, no!" he croaked, then: "DOWN!"
  5334. He lunged for Chaiila's arm and tried to pull her to the
  5335. floor and the straps stuck and held her back and he was fumbling
  5336. with the release when the archers on the hill fired and there was a
  5337. searing pain across his cheek and quarrels clattered into the
  5338. cabin.
  5339. The vehicle surged forward, the three operative
  5340. wheels scrabbling for a purchase on the stream bed, spraying
  5341. showers of water everywhere. Low branches whipped against
  5342. the cabin framework, breaking off with loud retorts, showering
  5343. them with a debris of leaves and sticks. Ahead another group of
  5344. Rim troopers appeared, scattering as the behemoth tore through
  5345. their group, but still a couple loosed shots. Seth'Nai gave a grunt
  5346. as a bolt struck it square in the chest, failing to penetrate the tunic
  5347. but evidently scaring the fur off the creature.
  5348. Howls of rage faded behind them.
  5349. "Gods!" Sekher gasped. "Gods! How...Where'd they
  5350. come from?!"
  5351. "They were waiting," Chaiila snarled, rubbernecking
  5352. wildly, her sword in hand for all the good it would do her. "I think
  5353. we've lost them though."
  5354. "Mother, they KNEW!" Sekher howled.
  5355. "Their thrice-cursed heliographs," said Chaiila, glancing
  5356. at him, then blurted, "Che! You've been hit!"
  5357. "Huh?" He touched his cheek, inspected fingers stained
  5358. dark purple. "Oh...Just a scratch."
  5359. She was about to speak when the trees around them
  5360. rapidly thinned to low scrub, then even that vanished into a
  5361. panorama of open space and cloud-stippled azure skies. Before
  5362. them stretched the river flood plain: kilopaces across, it was a vast
  5363. stretch of rock-strewn ground which in the flood seasons
  5364. would be underwater. Now, in the heat of the dry season, it
  5365. was a baren expanse of river-carried stones, cracked, dotted
  5366. with the miniature plateaus of beached islands. The river at its
  5367. current level was a ribbon of polished steel glittering in the glare
  5368. of the Lightbringer.
  5369. For a second the vehicle was airborne, plunging over a
  5370. short drop down to the dried riverbed and impacting in
  5371. fragments of pulverised rock and metallic screams as damaged
  5372. systems were taxed to the limit. The Trenalbi were bounced
  5373. against their straps like seeds in a rattle, Sekher's teeth clattering
  5374. in his head. Then they were accelerating across the flood
  5375. plain, pulverised rock rising in a cloud behind them.
  5376. Sekher stuck his head out, squinting into the wind and
  5377. dust and twisting to see behind them. From the receding treeline,
  5378. like a tide flowing between rocks, Soldiers were emerging,
  5379. several squads of light cavalry and infantry.
  5380. But there they stopped, lining up along the bank, not
  5381. making any effort to pursue. Waiting, as if reluctant to pursue.
  5382. But fear had nothing to do with their recalcitrance. It
  5383. was the creature who saw them first, then Nersi. Her whimper
  5384. drew the attention of the other Trenalbi and they also looked
  5385. forward.
  5386. Beyond the river was a solid wall of soldiery,
  5387. completely blockading the ford. Water glittered like molten silver,
  5388. churned to spray by the hooves of shen as battlegroup after
  5389. battlegroup of heavy cavalry crossed the river to form skirmish
  5390. lines. Light seige engines and field artillery bulked behind the
  5391. infantry, crews crouched at their weapons.
  5392. "This," Chaiila pronounced, "does NOT look good."
  5393. "You have a gift for understatement," Sekher snarled
  5394. back, shouting above the noise of the wind as the vehicle
  5395. slewed, scattering rocks the size of skulls before halting.
  5396. Frantically Seth'Nai looked around.
  5397. "We can still run!" Sekher growled, his skin breaking
  5398. out in tiny bumps as nonexistant fur attempted to bristle. "We can
  5399. run!"
  5400. "How far?" Chaiila quietly asked. "That wheel isn't
  5401. going to last."
  5402. For pounding heartbeats they were silent, able to
  5403. hear distant battlecries, clashing of swords upon shields, the
  5404. harvesting of courage. They couldn't run. The vehicle wouldn't
  5405. last. On foot they wouldn't make it a hundred paces before
  5406. outriders ran them down. Perhaps Seth'nai could get away, but on
  5407. foot against so many battlegroups? Sekher had seen it bleed, so
  5408. could it die?
  5409. What about its weapons, the ones it had used against
  5410. the palace? Why didn't it use those? Sekher kept expecting his
  5411. creature to do something, anything, to pull some trick out of the
  5412. ether to save their hides.
  5413. But it sagged, slumped and stared at the ranks of the
  5414. Rim soldiery.
  5415. "Hai," Sekher leaned forward to touch it and it flinched
  5416. at his hand on its arm. Those impossible stone-grey eyes met
  5417. Sekher's and the young male knew: Gods, it's as scared as the
  5418. rest of us! It in turn gently touched Nersi's shoulder, smoothing
  5419. the tangled fur, then it returned to its little lights and squares,
  5420. growling at its wrist as though arguing with a piece of
  5421. ironmongery.
  5422. "Hai! We just SIT here?!" protested Chaiila. "What's
  5423. it DOING?!"
  5424. Whatever it was doing, it was doing it hastily. Pale
  5425. fingers flew across grids of tiny squares while it kept up a
  5426. continuous rumbling in a pattern that locked and interlocked
  5427. with similar noises from the machine. WAS it talking? Was
  5428. there another creature in the machine? Barely pausing in its
  5429. work it reached down to pull out a worn blue floppy bag of an
  5430. odd tubular design that it tossed back to Sekher. Solid-seeming
  5431. metal at his side slid aside, revealing stacks of boxes and packets
  5432. and indefinable objects of a multitude of materials and designs.
  5433. "Fill it?" Sekher asked, shaking the bag. The creature made no
  5434. sign that it had heard, once again running a forefinger across
  5435. lights with growing speed. Sekher hissed and began
  5436. shovelling handfulls of paraphernalia into the carrysack.
  5437. With a whine the vehicle came back to life, turning in a
  5438. cloud of dust and moving slowly toward the river and Rim
  5439. ambush. Hidden mechanisms hissed and the cabin lowered,
  5440. the canopy clanged and swung partway open. Seth'Nai snapped
  5441. its harness, gesturing frantically to the Trenalbi until they
  5442. followed suit, then it caught Nersi, all but threw her out, and
  5443. jumped after her.
  5444. Sekher glanced at Chaiila - stunned - then clutched the
  5445. bag to his chest and scrambled to follow.
  5446. He hit the ground hard, rolled, and ducked his head,
  5447. trying to burrow into the dirt and rocks as the massive,
  5448. scarred underbelly of the vehicle rumbled overhead, wheels on
  5449. either side kicking out slivers of smashed stones that stung
  5450. against Sekher's skin. Then it was past and he looked around.
  5451. Chaiila. . . yes, she'd followed and was even now picking herself
  5452. up. The creature was on its feet, helping Nersi whose leg had
  5453. gone again. He grabbed the bag and scrambled to his feet.
  5454. "I'm going to rip its throat out with my teeth!" Chaiila
  5455. snarled to Sekher, spitting rock dust. Together they half-ran
  5456. half-limped to where the creature was beckoning them, urging
  5457. them to follow.
  5458. Already the vehicle was halfway to the river, throwing
  5459. up a cloud of dust. Sekher could hear it venting a wailing cry,
  5460. red and orange lights strobing on its upper deck. The Rim troops
  5461. were hesitating, their ranks beginning to falter as the mass of
  5462. white metal bore down upon them. Ahead was the creature,
  5463. leading them, half-carrying Nersi. On the river bank the Rim
  5464. troops were still hesitating, unsure what to do in the light of
  5465. their quarry abruptly running back toward them. Slowly their
  5466. cavalry moved forward, their shen picking their way down the
  5467. eroded riverbank onto the floodplain.
  5468. Seth'Nai stumbled, then changed tack, angling for a pile
  5469. of boulders - massive water-torn things the height of two
  5470. Trenalbi that would form a tiny island unto themselves when
  5471. the floodwaters submerged this plain. That, Sekher thought
  5472. in disbelief, was where it planned to make a final stand?!
  5473. Nevertheless he followed, stones punishing against his
  5474. tough foot pads, the silvery cloak of daemonthread threatening
  5475. to tangle his legs, the breath rushing in his lungs. Around the far
  5476. side of the rock it led them, throwing anxious glances at the
  5477. approaching Rim cavalry and motioning frantically with its hands.
  5478. "Now! You furless freak!" Chaiila snarled at it,
  5479. breathless. "I have about had enough! Nersi! Are you alright?"
  5480. she knelt by her cousin.
  5481. With a growl the creature seized Sekher, throwing him
  5482. down, then caught at Chaiila. She snarled and twisted and
  5483. slashed and the creature cried out as parallel red lines crossed a
  5484. cheek, then it bodily flung itself at her. Again her claws caught
  5485. it, drawing more blood before its weight bore her to the ground,
  5486. atop Sekher and Nersi with an impact that knocked the breath
  5487. from Sekher's lungs. Chaiila struggled, the creature swung a fist
  5488. that rocked her head back, shutting her jaw with a hollow 'clop'
  5489. and spread itself out, trying to cover the Trenalbi with...
  5490. The world flared white.
  5491. A light to beggar the Lightbringer washed across
  5492. the landscape. For the briefest instant the world was a
  5493. bleached tapestry. A wave of heat seared Sekher's face, lungs,
  5494. skin, causing him to cry out, fling an arm across his face. That cry
  5495. tried to turn to a scream when a sound, a solid wall of sound
  5496. smashed into him, tearing away his breath, catching him up,
  5497. hurling him in a wave of fire - glimpses of trees bursting in flame
  5498. - then an impact that...
  5500. --\o/--
  5503. He ached.
  5504. He hurt.
  5505. There was a dull, warm taste in his mouth.
  5506. He moved an arm, clenched a hand: pain.
  5507. "Gods."
  5508. It wasn't really a coherent word. Rather it was a croak,
  5509. barely audible.
  5510. "Che! Hai! Che, you alright?"
  5511. Hands touched him, fluttering and uncertain. He
  5512. groaned again and spat blood before cracking an eye open.
  5513. Chaiila was looming over him. "So," he rasped, "We dead?"
  5514. "What?" she was momentarily taken aback, then
  5515. laughed, "No. Oh Gods no!"
  5516. "Oh," he grimaced. "I feel like it."
  5517. He tried moving then. Muscles protested as he sat,
  5518. but nothing seemed broken. His cloak was gone and it was a
  5519. while before he realised he was laying on it. The stubble of his
  5520. fur was curled, as though by heat, some of it crumbling away as
  5521. he brushed a hand across his stomach. His skin burned
  5522. anew. Chaiila's face was swollen, an eye almost shut, also her pelt
  5523. was curled and crisped at the edges. They were both covered
  5524. with a fine sprinkling of dust and dirt and pale ash.
  5525. "Copulation! What happened? That light...Where's
  5526. Nersi? The Rimmers..."
  5527. "Calm," Chaiila interrupted. "Nersi's fine. She's over
  5528. there, seeing to your. . . daemon."
  5529. "My. . . " Sekher turned to see Nersi beside a prone
  5530. figure in white, then he saw what lay around them and gaped in
  5531. dumb shock.
  5532. Trees were still burning, throwing a pall of smoke high
  5533. into the air to mingle with the cloud that lay over the whole river
  5534. valley. Tumbled lumps, still smoking, were all that remained of
  5535. rim troopers, while here and there wandered stunned and burned
  5536. shen, whining in pain. Somehow Sekher found his feet and
  5537. stumbled over to their protecting boulders. The scene beyond
  5538. was beyond comprehension.
  5539. The river was damned, slowly filling a circular lake three
  5540. hundred paces across. Around that the ground was scorched
  5541. black. There was hardly enough left of the Rim ambush to make
  5542. charred lumps on the ground. Smoke rose in stately columns from
  5543. the seige engines. Sekher could see a few survivors moving, a
  5544. very few. If there were more they had since departed.
  5545. The Red river was running true to color.
  5546. Already carrion hunters were appearing on the
  5547. scene. Graceful black and red-crested Spearflyers were
  5548. circling overhead, twisting in the air as they wound spirals lower
  5549. and lower to the burnt carcasses strewn along the river. Their
  5550. clacking and screaming arguments often exploding in a flurry of
  5551. fur and torn wing membranes.
  5552. An area of over a kilopace in radius. Destroyed.
  5553. Levelled. Annihilated.
  5554. Sekher collapsed against the cool granite, not willing to
  5555. believe what his eyes had just seen.
  5556. "You were right," said Chaiila softly. "It is a demon."
  5557. Seth'Nai, their daemon, was sprawled in a loose tangle of limbs,
  5558. unmoving. Whatever it had loosed upon the Rim forces wasn't
  5559. selective. Nersi sat beside it, touching the head with its long
  5560. strands of fur.
  5561. "It's alive?" asked Sekher.
  5562. "I...think so," she replied uncertainly. "Its. . . pulse is
  5563. hard to find."
  5564. Sekher knelt and put his muzzle near the creature's face.
  5565. He could feel breath against his nose. So, it WAS still alive. He
  5566. sat back and studied it. The scratches down its cheek were caked
  5567. with dirt and scarlet blood was smeared across its features.
  5569. Nersi dabbed at the blood with a scrap of cloth, exercising a
  5570. tenderness that disturbed Sekher. "You're too rash, cousin," she
  5571. admonished Chaiila. "It was trying to help you."
  5572. "How was I to know," grumbled Chaiila. "It. . . it
  5573. TOUCHED me!" She sounded - Sekher marvelled - almost
  5574. insulted.
  5575. "It saved your tail," Nersi corrected.
  5576. "Huh!" was the dark female's reply. "I don't suppose you
  5577. want to leave it?"
  5578. Nersi glared.
  5579. "Just a thought," Chaiila hastily reassured her
  5580. cousin. "Anyhows, we're on foot now. . . with a wounded
  5581. daemon to boot. I suggest we perhaps start moving
  5582. downstream, find somewhere to 'borrow' some shen. First
  5583. though," she sighed, "we try to get THIS sorted out."
  5584. In its effort to shield them the creature had taken the
  5585. brunt of the blast. Nearly ten bodylengths it had been hurled,
  5586. bouncing off rocks not doing it the least of good. While Chaiila
  5587. went off to see if she could scavenge some weapons, supplies, or
  5588. even transport, Sekher and Nersi settled Seth'Nai out and did
  5589. their best to check for broken. . . whatever it had. The creature's
  5590. garments hampered their efforts, but there was no apparent way
  5591. to remove them. The limbs felt strange, the joints. . . wrong, but
  5592. as best they could determine there was nothing broken. Nersi
  5593. produced a torn black cloak that they wrapped the creature in.
  5594. The Lightbringer was gone beyond the distant
  5595. Ramparts, the Daughters high in the night sky casting bluish
  5596. light across the landscape. Three of the Guards moved in their
  5597. slow, stately climb almost directly above them. On the assent; it
  5598. was still early. Was that where his creature had come from? The
  5599. Guards? It made sense of a sort, he supposed.
  5600. To the north the Hole, the bottom of the Well, was a
  5601. vast disk of white specks that shimmered and twinkled, numbers
  5602. too great to count in three days. The spirits of those who had
  5603. passed. There would be a few hundred more lights there this
  5604. night, Sekher mused.
  5605. A cloud drifted across the Hole and Sekher sighed,
  5606. his breath glittering in the air. Gods but the temperature dropped
  5607. at night on the plains! He pulled the smooth folds of his cloak
  5608. closer and lolled his head to look at the pale face of the
  5609. creature, pale like the faces of the daughters.
  5610. "Nersi,"he said as they both watched the pale
  5611. features,"Why did you do this? Come with Chaiila? You aren't
  5612. Small Guard, are you."
  5613. She scratched her neck, then gave a rueful smile and
  5614. began grooming the tip of her tail."No, not me. When we
  5615. evacuated the city I came with her. She was sworn to look after
  5616. me, an honourbond, but she also had to find you. I came along to
  5617. help her. To tell the truth, I was looking forward to meeting the
  5618. male who got her so..."
  5619. Sekher cocked his head, puzzled.
  5620. "Who saved her life," Nersi finished rather lamely,
  5621. ears drooping. In the awkward silence that followed she
  5622. dampened a cloth with saliva and dabbed at the blood drying
  5623. on the creature's face. It stirred, recoiled from the female's
  5624. touch with a yelp, eyes snapping wide open and fingers
  5625. clenching into fists.
  5626. "Calm! Calm!" Nersi urged, patting its arm. And calm it
  5627. did, blinking at her and Sekher while its breathing slowed.
  5628. "Good, good. It's alright," Nersi crooned.
  5629. "Gods," Sekher spat in disbelief. "It totally destroys a
  5630. few hundred troops and rearranges part of a river, and you treat
  5631. it like a lap-pet!"
  5632. "Try kindness," she growled back at him. "Perhaps it
  5633. can understand that."
  5634. "Understand what?"
  5635. Chaiila stepped into their mids with an armfull of sharp
  5636. edges and other clutter. She glanced at the creature. "Oh, awake
  5637. now, is it. Here," she dumped the assorted ironmongery on the
  5638. rocks with a racket that sounded like a suit of armour falling
  5639. down a staircase. "Take your pick. It's like a noble's armoury out
  5640. there."
  5641. "You went a little...over the top, didn't you?" Sekher
  5642. observed, eyeing the pile. Chaiila had scrounged everything from
  5643. bronze swords down to little daggers and bladebreakers.
  5644. She gave a negligent toss of her hand. "Take what you
  5645. can use. We chuck the rest. There's enough stuff lying around
  5646. out there to equip an army."
  5647. "It was," Nersi reminded her.
  5648. "Huh! Well, some of it was was melted anyhow. Bows
  5649. were ruined."
  5650. "Any food?" Sekher asked.
  5651. She grinned, running her tongue over
  5652. sharp teeth: "Plenty."From a piece of scorched cloak
  5653. doubling as a sack she pulled pieces of shen haunch.
  5654. "Tough," she confessed, "and overdone, but scrape off the
  5655. char and underneath they'll be fine."
  5656. "Shen. . . meat!" Nersi bit each word off, then spat it
  5657. out. "That stuff is. . . Gods, even the Wharf Taverns didn't stock
  5658. that!"
  5659. "It's edible," Chaiila said. "And we don't have time to
  5660. be hunting down a five-course banquet. Someone's going to
  5661. come to see what happened. Can your Seth'Nai travel?"
  5662. The creature in question had produced its water flask,
  5663. drank deeply, then passed it on to Nersi and Sekher. After a
  5664. moments deliberation it tossed it at Chaiila and clambered to its
  5665. feet; somewhat unsteadily. She glanced once at the flask.
  5666. "Thanks. I'm not thirsty."
  5667. When she threw it back, it was harder than need be.
  5668. Seth'Nai caught it against its chest then tucked it away into
  5669. the concealed pocket on its side; slowly and deliberately, as
  5670. though hurting. Sekher wondered whether perhaps it had come
  5671. out of that blast worse than he had.
  5672. "It can walk," he said. "I don't know how far..."
  5673. "Doesn't matter. We can find a settlement and buy
  5674. some transport."
  5675. "You've got money?"
  5676. Chaiila hefted a bulging pouch that hung from her belt.
  5677. It rattled when she shook it. "Have now."
  5678. "You looted..."
  5679. "Their bodies were ash," Chaiila stilled Nersi's
  5680. outburst. "They had no need of it. I suggest you take what you
  5681. think you may need, and we'll get moving."
  5682. Sekher picked up a leaf-shaped shortsword. It was a
  5683. simple weapon, standard issue, but it was steel, with half-way
  5684. decent heft. He sighed, wishing for the superb craftsmanship and
  5685. balance of his Sher'ae blade, but that was gone forever. To
  5686. supplement the shortsword, instead of a shield, he took a
  5687. small bladebreaker; also steel. Nersi took a second
  5688. shortsword while Chaiila had already found her weapon: a long,
  5689. straight, wellforged steel cavalry blade - doubtless officer issue -
  5690. settled across her back in its harness.
  5691. "Hai,Che!" she called. "You going to wear that?" she
  5692. asked, eyeing the silver poncho.
  5693. He looked down. The moonlight made the material flare
  5694. icy blue. "A bit conspicuous, huh?"
  5695. "Like shit in a soupbowl." She tossed him the battered
  5696. old cloak Seth'Nai had been using for a blanket."Try that."
  5697. The coarse weave promised to chafe, so he donned it
  5698. over the daemoncloth. It wasn't too hot: the wind still wound up
  5699. under his clothing, crawling across his naked skin with cold
  5700. tendrils. He shuddered and shook his head. To be naked-skined
  5701. all the time, how could anyone live like that. He cast a sidelong
  5702. glance at Seth'Nai and inwardly hissed in disbelief.
  5703. So much power in such an ugly shell. The paths of the
  5704. Gods are twisted indeed.
  5705. And when Chaiila wanted to head east...
  5706. "Haahhrrrr!" Chaiila snarled, her ruff whipping about as
  5707. she tossed her head, baring teeth at the creature that blocked
  5708. her path. It hastily backed off and she swung her attentions to
  5709. the other trenalbi: "CHE! What does it want!"
  5710. "I don't think it wants us to go east," he said, half
  5711. amused at the thing's efforts to stop the stubborn female. It
  5712. continually caught at her arm, was shaken off and forced to turn
  5713. to the other Trenalbi before returning to her.
  5714. "Well, where would it have us go?" Chaiila demanded.
  5715. "West, I think," Nersi said. She got the things attention
  5716. and pointed West. It bobbed its head furiously and tugged at
  5717. her hand.
  5718. Chaiila went very quiet, sucking air in a low hiss,
  5719. Without another word she spun about and continued east.
  5720. Seth'Nai caught her arm again.
  5721. "GET AWAY FROM ME!" Chaiila howled and a dagger
  5722. was in her hand.
  5723. For a second the creature stared, then its face
  5724. darkened, lips drew back from small, square teeth and it roared
  5725. back. Smoothly it sank into a crouch, right side toward the
  5726. female, arms up at odd angles.
  5727. "Chaiila! Don't!" Nersi urged her cousin.
  5728. But Chaiila's head went back, ears lowered as she
  5729. recognised a challenge. Not male to male, nor female to female. .
  5730. . it was female to an unknown. At first she hesitated, then moved
  5731. forward in a gracefull standard Rain opening: jab, jab, claw, spin
  5732. kick.
  5733. Which the creature all blocked just as effortlessly.
  5734. Chaiila hesitated then floated into more patterns: Light, Wind,
  5735. Thunder, and Storm. All the the creature somehow batted aside
  5736. before redirecting Chaiila's blade, seizing her arm, and twisting.
  5737. She howled in pain. The dagger spun away in a glitter of
  5738. moonlight on metal to clatter on riverbed rock. Chaiila twisted
  5739. free and tried to dart past to recover the weapon. The creature
  5740. caught her by the ruff and hooked a leg behind her knee. She
  5741. yelped as she fell, landed hard on the rocky grund, then was
  5742. lying staring up at the creature's grinning face, its hand poised
  5743. above her throat. Sekher could see both were panting, the puffs
  5744. of breath mingling then dissipating in the night air.
  5745. It wouldn't kill her? would it?
  5746. "Chaiila!" Nersi called. "Don't be a fool."
  5747. Slowly, Chaiila closed her eyes and laid her head back,
  5748. exposing her neck. After tense heartbeats the creature lowered
  5749. its hand and smoothed patches of her rumpled fur before
  5750. standing; somewhat stiffly and with a hand pressed against its
  5751. side. Chaiila stared up at it, then let out a deep breath and sat
  5752. up: "Alright, alright. We go west."
  5753. -
  5754. --\o/--
  5755. -
  5758. Morninglight found the skies as grey as stone, a carpet
  5759. of mist spread across the landscape. Through this the river cut a
  5760. clean path. A flight of Broadwings skimmed the surface of the
  5761. water. Low hills crested with trees poked from the fog like
  5762. islands and a village - just a cluster of huts really - floated in the
  5763. white carpet, smoke from early fires trickling from chimneys.
  5764. Sekher gave the scene a last look, then turned his back
  5765. and pushed his way further back into the copse. The females
  5766. and Seth'Nai awaited him. Both females were wearing the best
  5767. cloaks and carrying the bags, trying to look as much like
  5768. legitimate travellers as possible. Chaiila was chewing on a strip of
  5769. shen. She swallowed hard when she saw Sekher. "Well, we're
  5770. ready."
  5771. He eyed the pair of them. Two females, travelling
  5772. alone. That may bring a few questions. He hoped Chaiila was
  5773. capable of some verbal fencing.
  5774. "You sure you want to go?"he asked.
  5775. Chaiila snorted and hitched the daemon's carrybag
  5776. across her back. If asked, it was a. . . well an article of
  5777. northern craftsmanship. They produced some exotic weaving.
  5778. "Well, Che. You and your friend there could go, but
  5779. don't you think a shaved male and something from a torturer's
  5780. nightmare may attract. . . attention?"
  5781. "I know, I know!" he growled, batting at her arm."Go
  5782. on, get moving."
  5783. She grinned at him, then slashed her own hand, her
  5784. claws scratching lightly across Sekher's chest. He shivered as a
  5785. shock ran through him, his skin pebbling as his fur tried to
  5786. stand upright. Nersi made a choked sound.
  5787. "Come on," Chaiila beckoned her cousin, and flashed
  5788. Sekher a final grin as they vanished into the bushes. The creature
  5789. started to follow them then hesitated.
  5790. "No," Sekher told it. "We wait."
  5791. It stared at him, after the females, then back at him, but
  5792. when Sekher flopped down in a patch of morning sun it
  5793. awkwardly lowered itself to sit nearby. Sekher paid it little heed:
  5794. he was still twitching from that feeling her claws raised. He
  5795. didn't understand it.
  5796. It scared him.
  5798. --\o/--
  5801. The guards snapped to attention and held the door
  5802. open for him as he strode into the corridor. Apprehensive, Nerfith
  5803. ignored them as he patted smoothed the pleats in his kilt, then
  5804. entered Kissaki's offices.
  5805. There were already Trenalbi waiting. He recognized
  5806. the priest: the high-ranking one who had been here when
  5807. Kissaki ordered the fugitives intercepted, the liason to the
  5808. Temple. Nerfith was tempted to ask if the priest knew what this
  5809. was about, then decided that Kissaki would reveal all.
  5810. Possibly the Lord wanted a progress report on the
  5811. reconstruction of the palace roof. Then why get a report from a
  5812. scribe? And why would that involve a priest?
  5813. No, something more drastic. He strongly suspected it
  5814. was to do with the fugitives who'd wreaked so much havoc
  5815. those nights ago.
  5816. Nerfith's speculations were dispelled when another
  5817. door opened and Kissaki stepped through. Immediately the
  5818. officer stiffened and stood before the Lord's desk whilst he
  5819. seated himself. The priests didn't budge.
  5820. Inwardly the Watchkeper groaned the instant he saw
  5821. Kissaki. It was in his gait, his posture: something was ill in the
  5822. world. Slowly and deliberately he settled behind the massive
  5823. darkstone desk, slipping his tail into the slot splitting the back of
  5824. the chair. Then he took up a well-used scratchstick and
  5825. proceeded to hone his claws as he spoke:
  5826. "There is a problem. A serious one.
  5827. "Our fugitives. . . they destroyed the battlegroups."
  5828. Nerfith wasn't sure he'd heard correctly: "Destroyed...?"
  5829. "Destroyed, decimated, wiped out," Kissaki elucidated.
  5830. "Forty one survivors have been found: The commanders and
  5831. priests, twenty two infantry and fifteen cavalry."
  5832. "From twenty battlegroups..." Nerfith felt ill. His troops,
  5833. his responsibility.
  5834. "Forty one," Kissaki repeated. There was a crack as
  5835. the scratchstick snapped in two. "They all told the same tale:
  5836. Something like a giant wagon without shen charged into the
  5837. greatest congregation of troops and exploded into a wave of fire
  5838. that immolated everything it touched. It was only their distance
  5839. from the explosion that saved them.
  5840. "The nearest signaltowers reported a distant thunder
  5841. and seeing a strange cloud hanging over the area. Guards
  5842. were dispatched from the nearest towns. They reported a new
  5843. lake and the whole valley strewn with bodies."
  5844. The priest sat still, his underlids flicking white across
  5845. his eyes the only sign that he was actually alive. Gods shave
  5846. him! Didn't he have any feelings at all?
  5847. "The..." Nerfith choked on his words, swallowed hard
  5848. and tried again: "The northeners, Sir?"
  5849. The High Lord hissed. "We don't know exactly. Some
  5850. soldiers say they saw them running before the explosion, so we're
  5851. going to keep looking. Notices and heralds will be distributed to
  5852. all towns."
  5853. "And what do you intend to do if you find them?"
  5854. Again the priest startle Nerfith. He'd almost forgotten
  5855. he was there. Irritated, he promised himself that wouldn't happen
  5856. again while the priest continued:
  5857. "Would you lose an entire town if you did manage to
  5858. capture it?"
  5859. "You would suggest something?" Kissaki asked.
  5860. The priest bowed his head. His greasy ingratiation irked
  5861. the Watchkeeper and he clenched his hands to hide the claws
  5862. that slipped from his fingertips.
  5863. "Chasing after this thing with an army...I do not believe
  5864. that that is the way to go about this. There are individuals who
  5865. specialise in this sort of thing."
  5866. Kissaki looked thoughtful. "Bounty hunters?"
  5867. "Why not? I think it's been proved that brute force
  5868. wasn't successful. A few well-motivated individuals can move
  5869. faster and more unobtrusively than a battlegroup, find our
  5870. fugitives, then concoct some scheme by which to be done of
  5871. them. If nothing else, they can alert us and track them until we
  5872. are able to muster more...capable forces."
  5873. Kissaki was silent, bobbing his head as he absorbed
  5874. this, then he asked, "Do you believe the Temple could handle
  5875. this creature?"
  5876. "That is not for me to say with any degree of certainty,"
  5877. the Priest replied. "But doubtless we couldn't do worse than
  5878. the bumbling of the military." With this he looked directly at
  5879. Nerfith and blinked slowly. "There are Masters at the Hub who
  5880. have power comprable to this thing's."
  5881. "Sir, Kanr was quite formidable," Kissaki reminded him,
  5882. "yet it went through him like a razored blade."
  5883. "True, Sir, but Kanr had no idea what he was up
  5884. against," the priest pointed out. "Nor did the troops you sent
  5885. after them. Now we have some inkling."
  5886. "Huh," Kissaki began grooming the fur on his wrist in
  5887. an abstracted sort of way. "I assume you already have hunters
  5888. in mind."
  5889. "We have a list of possibles, Sir."
  5890. "Very good. I will want to see it. Wachkeeper."
  5891. "Milord?" Nerfith bowed his head.
  5892. "Send orders to the command holding the K'streth
  5893. Plain lands. Tell him to leave a suitably equipped occupying force,
  5894. but I want the battle divisions ready to move in a day, all of them,
  5895. with seige artillery."
  5896. One day! thought Nerfith, It's not possible! But he was
  5897. careful to keep that thought from showing as he said, "Yessir.
  5898. That can be done. May I ask where they are to be moved to?"
  5899. Kissi snarled. "We march on Tsuba. I want that town
  5900. RAZED!"
  5903. --\o/--
  5910. Godsend
  5911. PT II
  5913. Oh, I have slipped the surly bonds of earth
  5914. and danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings
  5915. . Sunward I've climbed, and joined the tumbling mirth
  5916. Of sun-split clouds - and done a hundred things
  5917. You have not yet dreamed of - wheeled and
  5918. soared and swung.
  5919. Chased the shouting wing along, and flung
  5920. my eager craft through footless halls of air.
  5921. Up the long, delirious, burning blue
  5922. I've topped the windswept heights with easy grace
  5923. Where never lark, or even eagle flew.
  5924. And, while with silent, lifting mind I've trod
  5925. The high untrespassed sanctity of space
  5926. Put out my hand, and touched the face of God.
  5927. High Flight
  5928. John Gillespie Magee, Jr.
  5929. The wind picked up after midday. Gradually - without
  5930. haste - the light drizzle turned to a steady downpour, rattling
  5931. through Needletip leaves and pattering to the ground. Swollen
  5932. grey clouds cloaked the heavens, leaving the lands below
  5933. bathed in a sallow light.
  5934. The village had vanished into sheets of rain and except
  5935. for a few dozen paces of hillside, nothing else was visible. Sekher
  5936. wiped moisture from his muzzle and ducked back under the
  5937. meagre cover his crude lean-to offered. There was nothing to do
  5938. now but wait. Awkwardly he settled down and leaned back
  5939. against the tree, relaxing, letting his breathing slow.
  5940. Water trickled through the matted boughs of the roof,
  5941. running straight off the silvery material of his poncho. When he
  5942. blinked it was automatic - a reflex flicking his translucent
  5943. nictitating membrane out as a droplet of water touched his eye -
  5944. yet he saw nothing.
  5945. In Drift the world was an amorphous blur. His body
  5946. would watch for him, would breath for him, could even walk for
  5947. him while his mind slowed, rested, methodically ticking over. So in
  5948. a sense it wasn't Sekher who sat there. He was far away, floating
  5949. in a warm dark, drifting through remote memories:
  5950. . . . the hot metallic taste of fresh meat.
  5951. . . . his eldest brother riding beside him as they left the
  5952. palace. A guard leaning againt his spear and enjoying the midday
  5953. heat tipped his helmet back and saluted casually. The streets
  5954. were unpaved, the buildings small. . .
  5955. . . . shabby. The unyielding stone walls of K'streth
  5956. and Ch'sty, their bustling streets. . .
  5957. . . . two cubs ran across the street to tumble in a whirl
  5958. of gangling limbs, dust, and laughter before racing off.
  5959. "It's going to be empty around here without you,"
  5960. Methlin said, leaning forward on his saddle horn and watching
  5961. Sekher.
  5962. "Huh, you'll find something to keep you busy,"
  5963. Sekher answered.
  5964. "Perhaps," his brother flagged amusement. "And I'm
  5965. sure you're going to. Outsiders have some strange ways."
  5966. "So I've been told. I thought that's what I'm going to
  5967. see. Come on, they've taught me everything my head can hold
  5968. about court etiquette and protocol."
  5969. Methlin barked in outright laughter causing guards
  5970. and retainers to glance at them. "Diplomacy!" he grinned.
  5971. "Brother, you're still young. There are a things in creation
  5972. besides the stuffiness of court life."
  5973. Sekher blinked. "You have something particular in
  5974. mind?"
  5975. Methlin reached over to clap Sekher's arm. "Hah! Get
  5976. out of the palaces! See the towns! How they live. You can learn
  5977. more from some of those places than books could ever teach
  5978. you."
  5979. Sekher cocked his head; interested.
  5980. "Try the taverns in Taiska. They brew a hot, spiced
  5981. ale that'll set your tail straight. Also their Untiy Houses. . . but
  5982. perhaps you'll find out about those for yourself."
  5983. "What?" Sekher blinked at hi sibling. "I've tried to drag
  5984. more than that out of you a thousand times. Now you talk about
  5985. Unity Houses? Why now?"
  5986. "Give you a chance to find out for yourself," Methlin
  5987. grinned. "You're old enough."
  5988. At the town gates they passed a slow trickle of
  5989. peasants. "Remember," grinned Methlin; then: "Fare well,
  5990. brother."
  5991. "Thanks," Sekher replied and reigned his shen about.
  5992. "One more thing: Ware the outland females. They've
  5993. probably got strange ideas."
  5994. Sekher barked his own laughter.
  5995. . . . Chaiila knelt: winded, panting, with a gleam in her
  5996. eye and sun in her fur. . .
  5997. . . . a pale face and grey eyes watched. . .
  5998. He pulled out of drift, the face still hung before him.
  5999. Seth'Nai was outside the shelter looking even more peculiar than
  6000. ever with a tight hood waterproof hood enclosing its head,
  6001. shedding water as if it were oiled. Odd, but the daemon was
  6002. fascinated with the rain. Water ran in rivulets from its clothing as
  6003. it crawled under the shelter and propped its back against the tree
  6004. the lean-to was built against. The hood retracted into the collar
  6005. when removed and Seth'Nai ran its hands through the patch of
  6006. fur atop its head. The fur stuck back and Seth'Nai looked at its
  6007. hands, growled, then wiped them against its legs.
  6008. "So, they're not back yet," Sekher yawned. The daemon
  6009. looked startled. "Taking their time, aren't they?"
  6010. The creature's mouth turned up, baring square teeth,
  6011. then it shrugged and began to fiddle with the device strapped
  6012. to its forearm. A wondrous power, Sekher mused, to be able to
  6013. produced glowing shapes that danced in midair, although exactly
  6014. what use it may be was beyond him.
  6016. --\o/--
  6018. After the rains the air was cool and fresh. Moisture
  6019. beaded on foliage; glittering, transient jewels. The ground
  6020. underfoot was soggy, with mud pushing between Sekher's toes.
  6021. Clouds of tiny insects hummed and swarmed. He growled in
  6022. irritation as one buzzed in his ear. Of course they didn't seem to
  6023. bother his daemon in the least; Sekher watched, somewhat
  6024. annoyed, as the bugs bent deliberate arcs to avoid it.
  6025. Four shen in single file were moving up the slope the
  6026. hill, two bearing riders, the others saddleless, but fitted with
  6027. blankets and cargo slings. They had left the hamlet and circled to
  6028. the far side of the hill before beginning their ascent, threading
  6029. their way through rocks and scrub to the wood straddling the
  6030. crest. A few paces short they dismounted to lead their mounts
  6031. the rest of the way into the trees.
  6032. "Any trouble?" Sekher called as they passed.
  6033. "Smooth," Chaiila replied with a grin as they passed.
  6034. Sekher paused and watched for a few more beats to make
  6035. sure they hadn't been followed or observed, then followed.
  6036. The four shen weren't the specially bred animals used
  6037. by cavalry, rather they were the sturdy, stocky breed farmers
  6038. preferred, bred for hauling ploughs and wagons. Three females
  6039. and a gelding; all scruffy and past their prime, but sufficient
  6040. for their needs. Both Nersi and Chaiila looked rested, their
  6041. coats well-groomed. Nersi had a clean set of wraps on her leg and
  6042. a new crutch made from fresh-cut wood that she was removing
  6043. from one of the pack animals.
  6044. "I'm glad you came back," Sekher told Chaiila as she
  6045. worked at the harness of her own animal.
  6046. Chaiila grinned: "You thought we wouldn't?"
  6047. "I had my doubts," Sekher confessed.
  6048. "You wound me,"Chaiila laughed and turned back to
  6049. regard the animals. "Not such bad beasts, huh?"
  6050. "Yeah." Sekher took up a hoof and inspected the
  6051. underside. It wasn't as worn as he'd feared, so the animals
  6052. hadn't been driven too hard. He dropped the hoof again. "So,
  6053. what else?"
  6054. "Food," she said, hefting a sack. "Also some clothing
  6055. and blankets."
  6056. "Food?" Sekher's eyes lit up.
  6057. Chaiila's twitched a smile and she dipped into the sack
  6058. and pulled out a small loaf, tossed it to Sekher who snatched
  6059. it from the air. By the Gods! Still warm! His stomach snarled as
  6060. he tore into it with a will. "Blessed Gods! I needed that."
  6061. "It shows," Chaiila remarked and jabbed a digit to
  6062. where Seth'Nai was trying to examine shen that shied whenever
  6063. the creature went near it: "You think your creature could do
  6064. with something? Hai!"
  6065. Seth'Nai caught the scone she tossed and sniffed at it,
  6066. then tore it apart with its blunt fingers and examined the
  6067. fragments. Carefully it placed a piece in its mouth, chewed,
  6068. swallowed, and bared its teeth at them. It polished off the rest of
  6069. the scone in short order.
  6070. "I think it likes it," Chaiila observed dryly.
  6071. "A," Sekher stared. That was the first normal food he
  6072. had ever seen it eat. Why? He shook his head; that was
  6073. something to figure out later. For now. . . "Any money left?"
  6074. "A little," Chaiila jingled the purse on her belt. "It'll last
  6075. us for a while. I doubt we'll be doing much spending.
  6076. The clothes they'd purchased were scruffy, torn,
  6077. and slightly odiferous, but they were much less conspicuous
  6078. than Rim armour and the silver poncho Sekher was wearing. He
  6079. swore as he struggled into them and laced the seams: they
  6080. were a little small, and they were inhabited. Well, there was
  6081. nothing to be done about that. Travelling anywhere one picked
  6082. up passengers. It was a fact of life.
  6083. There were no spare saddles for the extra shen. Two
  6084. females on their own was unusual enough, but if they'd asked
  6085. for four sets of tack. . . now that would have raised a few
  6086. suspicions. The blankets they'd obtained would have to suffice.
  6087. The shen turned skitish whenever Seth'Nai
  6088. approached, kicking out with their blunt claws. It was the next
  6089. day, after an uncomfortable night, that they were able to break
  6090. one of the females enough to tolerate its presence.
  6091. It was then they discovered it couldn't ride.
  6092. "I do not believe this!" Chaiila groaned, sinking her
  6093. claws into the bark of a tree, looking as if she were about to start
  6094. pounding her head against the trunk.
  6095. Glumly Sekher watched as Nersi coaxed the creature
  6096. through the signals that would tell its shen to move, stop, turn.
  6097. In a way it was amusing, that hulking, pale figure so lost on the
  6098. back of a beast, but also every moment they delayed meant time
  6099. for trackers to pick up their trail. That wasn't so amusing.
  6100. It did learn quickly, however. It wasn't too long before
  6101. it had the basics and Nersi limped over with her crutch to say, "I
  6102. think it's going to be able to manage. I got the stirrup length right
  6103. as well, at least it shouldn't fall off again."
  6104. "Alright," Chaiila sighed. "Then we go. It can work out
  6105. the finer points on the way."
  6108. --\o/--
  6111. Shen were infinitely slower than the daemon's transport.
  6112. The ride left the base of the tail aching and sore. Windblown
  6113. dust whipped into your nostrils and eyes and ears while
  6114. insects tormented you and heat beat down on shoulders and
  6115. neck. But Sekher understood shen, he knew what they were,
  6116. he was comfortable with them. Also, they didn't fall apart or
  6117. explode at inopportune moments.
  6118. They moved in a general northerly direction, skirting
  6119. towns as they found them, avoiding the main roads and a couple
  6120. of times detouring some distance where towns controlled a
  6121. bridge or ford to find a place to cross.
  6122. Methodically the shen picked their way through lush
  6123. gallery forests where streams and pools turned the land to brief
  6124. belts of brilliant green, then across rolling prairies of golden
  6125. grasses. All regions boasted their share of dangers. The biota
  6126. concealed predators and poisons; sometimes the predators rode
  6127. shen and fast, lean Mrakers, the poisons were on the blades of
  6128. swords and tips of quarrels.
  6129. Sekher drifted as they rode, they all did, but lightly,
  6130. barely dipping out of full reality, always with at least one part of
  6131. their awareness watching the horizon. It was not as refreshing as
  6132. sinking deeper, but over a long period it had the same effect.
  6133. So they rode in single file, one shen placidly following another
  6134. while the Trenalbi took it in turns to guide them. Night followed
  6135. day, for two days. They ate in the saddle, pausing only to relieve
  6136. themselves.
  6137. Sekher blinked himself out of drift to find himself at the
  6138. rear, following the others. Ahead of him Seth'Nai's shen was
  6139. plodding quietly along its way, its tufted tail swatting at
  6140. insects while the daemon slumped motionless and silent in the
  6141. saddle. It wasn't riding very well, Sekher noted, rocking
  6142. awkwardly with the shen's rolling gait. Further up the two
  6143. females were riding abreast, talking quietly. He yawned and
  6144. fished in his saddlebag for a piece of smoked meat, looking
  6145. around while he chewed.
  6146. They were off the plains again, following yet another of
  6147. the small river valleys with its gallery forest that divided the
  6148. prairies a little like spokes on a wheel. . . or perhaps more like
  6149. branches radiating from a central trunk. The trees were old ones,
  6150. tall ones, their trunks as thick as his torso and the shade they
  6151. cast was a welcome relief from the alternating stifling heat and
  6152. biting winds on the plains. High up in their canopies flyers
  6153. leapt from branch to branch, chittering and squeaking at the
  6154. intruders below.
  6155. They were harmless, but their excitement could attract
  6156. the attentions of something that would be willing to have a go at
  6157. even three. . . four dangerous opponents.
  6158. Sekher snarled, then slapped at a bloodsucker that
  6159. had alighted on his neck. They were near water, in fact he could
  6160. hear it. The stream was only a few paces wide, the water flowing
  6161. fast and shallow across a pebbly bed. The shen hesitated on the
  6162. bank before stepping down into water that barely covered their
  6163. anklespurs and easily crossed to the spit of fine sand on the
  6164. other side. They left deep prints in the sand, then lurched up a
  6165. shelf perhaps ten spans high.
  6166. Seth'Nai slipped sideways, then fell from its saddle,
  6167. hitting the bank and sprawling face-down in the sand.
  6168. Sekher yanked back on the reigns: "HAI! STOP!"
  6169. Seth'Nai stirred and rolled over as he touched its back.
  6170. For the first time in a long while he saw its face, really looked,
  6171. and was shocked. There were large dark patches under the eyes,
  6172. skin was drawn taut across bones, and the scraggly fur sprouting
  6173. from the angular chin had grown much thicker, becoming a
  6174. mane encircling the head.
  6175. "Huhnnn," Chaiila was at Sekher's shoulder. "It don't
  6176. look so good."
  6177. "Gods shave you!" Nersi scrambled over - a half-limping
  6178. gait - to the creature's side, kneeling with her damaged leg
  6179. outstretched. "Don't just stand there," she snarled and put an
  6180. arm around the creature's shoulder to help it sit upright. It blinked
  6181. at her, seeming dazed. "What's wrong with it?!" she demanded.
  6182. "I don't know," Sekher protested with a shrug. "It
  6183. just. . . turned toes up and fell off!"
  6184. "So it can't ride worth a square wheel!" Chaiila spat.
  6185. "We could always tie it into the saddle."
  6186. "Not a bad idea," Sekher agreed. "You want to be the
  6187. one to do it?"
  6188. She grinned and snapped at him even as he ducked
  6189. away. Still glaring, she growled, then stretched and looked
  6190. around. "Well, while we're here, we may as well make the best of
  6191. it. My teeth are swimming."
  6192. They left Nersi tending Seth'Nai. The shen were hobbled
  6193. and left to strip a brightbush while the Trenalbi tended to bodily
  6194. demands. Sekher finished, filled the hole in, then lifted his tail
  6195. and bent to void his scent-glands against a tree. The scent would
  6196. fade in a couple of days, and the pressure had been
  6197. uncomfortable. One advantage of a hairless hide, he reflected as
  6198. he cleaned himself in the stream, one didn't have to worry about
  6199. shit sticking to the fur.
  6200. But it was cold.
  6201. Nersi was waiting anxiously for them, fidgeting. "It's not
  6202. moving!" she began as soon as Sekher came up to her, there
  6203. was almost panic in her voice. "It's just lying there. It just closed
  6204. its eyes. . . "
  6205. Sekher crouched by the motionless figure. No, not dead:
  6206. the chest was moving, there was breath whistling through its
  6207. mouth and nostrils, the closed eyelids flickered. "I think it's
  6208. alright," he said hesitantly. "I've seen it like this before. It stays
  6209. like this for some time. . . "
  6210. It struck him then.
  6211. "Oh, Gods!" He rocked back, nearly falling over with
  6212. the realization: "Oh Gods. It. . . it doesn't Drift!"
  6213. "What?" Nersi's confusion was plain on her face.
  6214. "But everything Drifts. Surely. . . "
  6215. "No, THIS is its drift. Completely gone."
  6216. "But," Nersi stared at the recumbent form, "it's so.
  6217. . . helpless."
  6218. "Now what's wrong?" Chaiila was readjusting her kilt as
  6219. she returned. She cast a critical eye at the creature. "Is it
  6220. alright?"
  6221. "Sekher thinks so," said Nersi. "He was saying that
  6222. it. . . uh. . . doesn't drift."
  6223. "Huh?" Chaiila blinked. "Come on, everything has to
  6224. drift." Sekher sighed, then tried to explain it again. "Look, I was
  6225. shut in a cage with this thing for weeks and it didn't seem to drift
  6226. once, but it did this a lot. It'd just curl up and close its eyes and
  6227. stay like that for ages. All night. I don't know. Perhaps I'm
  6228. wrong, but it's either wide awake, or like that. . . Nothing like
  6229. drift."
  6230. Chaiila scratched at a square ear, then patted Sekher's
  6231. arm. "I guess we have to take your word on this, Che. If that's
  6232. true, I would say it's been riding without a rest at all for the past
  6233. two days." For once she looked at Seth'Nai with something
  6234. besides distaste. "I suppose we could all do with a decent break.
  6235. Any objections to spending the night here?"
  6236. Nersi had none. Sekher had wanted to return to Che as
  6237. soon as possible, but the aching in his tail persuaded him that
  6238. a night out of the saddle may not be such a bad idea. The shen
  6239. needed a break. They could rest up, perhaps hunt some fresh
  6240. food. And this was a good a place as any they were likely to find.
  6243. --\o/--
  6245. The fire was small, the dry wood burning clean. The
  6246. Trenalbi gathered around in the pool of warmth and flickering
  6247. light, watching insects describing complex patterns around the
  6248. flames before burning in tiny flashes of fire. Chaiila had made
  6249. good her earlier promise about hunting and now the carcass of a
  6250. burrower was sizzling and popping on a spit. On the very fringes
  6251. of the illumination Seth'Nai lay, silent but for the rasping of its
  6252. breath.
  6253. Nersi finished spreading the blanket over the limp alien
  6254. body and gave the face a final pat. Stealing a glance, Sekher saw
  6255. Chaiila's dark-furred face and ears twitch into a despairing look,
  6256. then crack into a forced smile when Nersi rejoined them.
  6257. "Cousin, do you have to do that?"
  6258. "Do what?"
  6259. Chaiila made a vague geture. "Touch it like that. It's
  6260. not. . . right."
  6261. Nersi looked both surprised and hurt. "Why? It's got
  6262. soft fur, and it's not going to hurt us. Look at it; it's so
  6263. vulnerable."
  6264. "Yeah," Chaiila's eyes instead dropped to watch the fire.
  6265. "I know, but. . . Look, you're right; I worry too much. I'm sorry,
  6266. just forget it."
  6267. "Huhnnn," growled Nersi softly. "Chaiila, I like
  6268. Seth'Nai. It's friendly. It's gentle, and it's very intelligent."
  6269. "It didn't know how to ride. . . "
  6270. "Do you have any idea how to do ANY of the things it
  6271. did to get us out of Jai'stra?" Nersi asked. "Just because it
  6272. can't ride. . . What use would a. . . whatever-it-is have for riding
  6273. anyway?" She used her sword to turn the carcass on the spit
  6274. over, then tore off a hind leg. "Ahh! Hot!" She juggled the meat a
  6275. couple of times, then bit into it.
  6276. Sekher waited for the females to get their food, then
  6277. helped himself to remains. A little overdone, he judged as he
  6278. picked at the white flesh and watched the females as they huddled
  6279. together, conversing in low voices. Chaiila was meticulously
  6280. grooming Nersi's ruff, exploring and combing with her fingers,
  6281. smoothing her pelt down with long, languid strokes of her tongue.
  6282. There was something Chaiila had said. Nersi had
  6283. misunderstood: Chaiila didn't fear the creature, it was the
  6284. familiarity with which Nersi handled that made her hackles raise.
  6285. Perhaps she was overprotective, but Sekher too had seen the
  6286. fascination with which Nersi watched the thing and he could
  6287. sympathise with Chaiila's uncertainties. He considered it a
  6288. friend, in the same way he would bestow his affections upon a
  6289. favourite pet, but still it was an unpredictable thing.
  6291. He sighed, stood, and walked over to the creature. For
  6292. a time he simply stood over it, watching. Its face was still, the
  6293. mouth slightly open and - despite the fire - breath forming
  6294. almost-invisible clouds in the night air. On its cheek the
  6295. scratches Chaiila had scored still glared an angry red against the
  6296. pale skin. It gave a low moan and twitched then fell still again.
  6297. You saved my life. Why do I fear you?
  6298. For that he didn't have an answer. His ears laid back and
  6299. he returned to the warmth of the banked fire where he curled up
  6300. in a blanket and watched the warm lump where the females lay
  6301. huddled together.
  6303. --\o/--
  6305. The lumpy, grey slowburn-gum candles flickered in
  6306. the draught that kept the atmosphere cold and damp, throwing a
  6307. dim pool of light across the face of the warped desk and
  6308. dancing shadows on the stone walls. It made the yellowed
  6309. manuscripts difficult to see, even more so to read.
  6310. Chenuk growled in irritation and hitched his cloak a little
  6311. tighter then turned another page in the weighty book. The
  6312. delicate line drawings wavered in the unsteady light, but it was
  6313. clear enough for him to be certain this wasn't the one he was
  6314. looking for. His hand ached again, a throb that made his whole
  6315. arm convulse, the thumb and ruined stumps of fingers beneath
  6316. their bandages clenching in a parody of a fist. Chenuk tucked it
  6317. against his side and used his left arm to turn the page.
  6318. A cub in the squared grey-and-green tunic of an
  6319. acolyte pushed through the door curtain, staggering under an
  6320. armful of the heavy tomes. "These are the last, sir," he said.
  6321. "Leave them there," Chenuk waved abstractly at the
  6322. piles of mildewed old books still to be searched already atop the
  6323. desk. The ones he had finished with littered the floor. The cub
  6324. sighed to himself and collected another armful on his way out.
  6325. And Chenuk resumed rifling through the untold scores
  6326. of pages. Another illustration caught his eye and he paused to
  6327. examine it. There was a vague resemblance to a Trenalbi, but
  6328. judging by the scale of the agonised Trenalbi it was carefully
  6329. dismembering with a sickle-like talon, it was much larger. Fleshy
  6330. webs joined waist to wrist. Its fur was patchy, but it had fur.
  6331. No, that wasn't it either. More pages flipped by.
  6332. "Any success?"
  6333. "Who. . . ?" Chenuk nearly fell off his stool twisting
  6334. around. "Oh. . . Sir!"
  6335. "Don't bother saluting." Watchkeeper Nerfith let the
  6336. curtain fall back into place and stepped inside. He stooped to
  6337. pick up a book from where it lay open and spine-up on the
  6338. floor and examined the cover. "'Searches in Distances', Huh!
  6339. These are valuable, you know. I think the Priests would resent
  6340. you using them as rugs. Well, any luck so far?"
  6341. "No sir," a dejected Chenuk said. "There're still more to
  6342. go, though." He patted a pile on the desk before him, but he
  6343. didn't harbour much hope.
  6344. "So I see,"said Nerfith, then awkwardly snuffled and
  6345. Chenuk saw his ears were back. He set the book aside, unease
  6346. gnawing at his insides. Officers didn't make social calls. For
  6347. the Watchkeeper to have personally hunted him down in the
  6348. bowels of the temple, he must have something to say. By the
  6349. amount of hedging the officer was doing, it couldn't be good.
  6350. "Soldier, how is your hand?"he asked.
  6351. Ah, the crux. The stumps of Chenuk's own ears
  6352. twitched and despite his efforts, the faint stink of fear tinged
  6353. the air. Slowly he raised the bandaged limb. "Most of the pain's
  6354. gone."
  6355. "But you can't hold a sword, can you."
  6356. "Ah, sir. . . I can use. . . "
  6357. "Can you."
  6358. "No."
  6359. There was a heavy silence. Wind moaned along the
  6360. corridor outside, carrying the remote sounds of priests chanting.
  6361. "Look, Chenuk," Nerfith sighed again. "You may be new, but
  6362. you're one of my battlegroup, so I reckoned I should be the
  6363. one to tell you. . . face to face."
  6364. "Sir," Chenuk stood, knowing what was coming next.
  6365. "The army. . . it is not that place for. . . for one with
  6366. injuries like yours. I have been authorized to give you some
  6367. money to help you on your way. Also this," he fished under his
  6368. cloak and popped the seal on a scroll canister hanging from his
  6369. belt. He pulled out a cream-coloured scroll. "This is a
  6370. recommendation bearing Kissaki's personal seal. It will help you
  6371. find employment."
  6372. Numbly Chenuk took the scroll. It was almost weightless
  6373. in his hand while his soul weighed like lead. He looked up at the
  6374. Watchkeeper. "There is nothing I can do? There's no appeal?"
  6375. Nerfith didn't meet his eyes."I did try. All the
  6376. channels. . . You will have to return your sword. Your kit is
  6377. already packed."
  6378. Sekher stroked the scroll. His life. . . gone. Soldiering
  6379. was all he knew. He could read. . . a little; about as good as his
  6380. writing, and the best that could be said for that was that it was
  6381. almost legible. There were plenty of labouring jobs available -
  6382. especially with so many males gone to fight - for able-bodied
  6383. Trenalbi. He swallowed."Serving in the army. . . it's my life. .
  6384. . Shave me! Who will take on a cripple?!"
  6385. The Watchkeeper flagged helplessness and turned to
  6386. leave.
  6387. "Sir! Please!"
  6388. Nerfith stopped and hung his head, then half-turned
  6389. back to Chenuk and hissed softly. "There's the Watch. They are
  6390. often so desperate for a good Trenalbi that they'll overlook
  6391. certain. . . difficulties."
  6392. Then the curtain fell back into place and he was gone.
  6393. Chenuk sat back and stared at a cold wall for a long
  6394. time. When he threw back his head his howl rang through the
  6395. corridors beneath the temple and his claws punched through the
  6396. cover of an ancient leather and silver bound tome.
  6397. "I. . . will. . . find. . . YOU!"
  6399. --\o/--
  6401. Sekher groaned as toe claws poked at the small of his
  6402. back. "You're on the morning meal duty, male," came Chaiila's
  6403. voice.
  6404. "Uhhhnnn," he groaned, rolled and flicked back his
  6405. third eyelid. Her ankle leapt to sharper focus. A very nice ankle,
  6406. he thought drowsily.
  6407. Then that ankle kicked him again.
  6408. "Hai!"
  6409. "Come on, rocks-for-bones. Move it! I've got the wood,
  6410. you can do he rest." The foot drew back again.
  6411. "Alright! Alright!"Sekher yipped, scrambling to his
  6412. feet."Shaved slave driver!"
  6413. "YOU'RE calling me shaved!" Chaiila laughed at that.
  6414. Through the gently swaying boughs of trees a
  6415. cloudless, azure sky was visible, heralding the beginning of a
  6416. hot, clear day. Sekher scowled. Miserable weather to be riding in.
  6417. The skin on his hands and muzzle was already peeling and sore.
  6418. Huh! He scratched at an itch in his crotch. So, how was
  6419. his daemon this morning?
  6420. Gone.
  6421. He did a doubletake. The blanket was still there, but
  6422. Seth'Nai, and its bag, were gone. As was Nersi.
  6423. "CHAIILA!"
  6424. She was engaged tending to the Shens' tack, tugging
  6425. on a cinch with a great deal of grunting and muttering. Annoyed,
  6426. she didn't turn at his call, just growled, "What?!"
  6427. "Where's the creature?!"
  6428. "No idea," she grunted. "Got up earlier. Didn't seem any
  6429. the worse for wear. Went for a walk, came back and got its bag,
  6430. then went out again."
  6431. "You didn't try and stop it?"
  6432. "What for?"
  6433. "And where's Nersi?"
  6434. "Nersi, she's. . . " Chaiila trailed off and forgot about the
  6435. cinch strap. She turned on the spot, looking around, then cupped
  6436. hands to her mouth and screamed, "NERSI!"
  6437. Her call rang from the trees, startling fliers. Something
  6438. in the distance howled back, but there was no answering call.
  6439. Chaiila snarled, her tail bristling and ruff flattening, then pulled
  6440. her sheathed sword from her shen's pack and buckled it on.
  6441. "Alright. You go downstream. I'll search upstream. If you find. . .
  6442. "
  6443. "What's going on!?" A breathless and dripping Nersi
  6444. limped into the camp. "What's all the shouting about?"
  6445. "Gods!" Chaiila wailed. "Where've you BEEN!"
  6446. Nersi shook herself. She was soaking wet and droplets
  6447. went flying until she finished and stroked fur back into place
  6448. with her hands as she said, "With Seth'Nai. Over that way.
  6449. Ahh, there's something I think you should see."
  6450. "You're alright?" Chaiila asked, catching her cousin's
  6451. arm. "Your leg. . . "
  6452. "I'm FINE," Nersi growled, then shrugged Chaiila's hand
  6453. off and started off upstream. "You coming?" she asked.
  6454. Sekher glanced at Chaiila, shrugged, then started after
  6455. her. It wasn't very far. Easily within earshot. Sekher felt
  6456. annoyed they hadn't found it; it was certainly a desirable
  6457. campsite. Above a small clearing the stream cascaded down a
  6458. series of massive stone steps to fall into a deep, broad pool
  6459. lined with raw rock worn smooth by the water. The rays of the
  6460. Lightbringer were already on the rocks, rasing small ripples of
  6461. heat and warming several basking lizards. Fliers skimmed the air,
  6462. pursuing insects. Plants grown green and lush with the
  6463. abundance of water spread across the pool, shading it.
  6464. In the pool a pale shape moved underwater, languidly
  6465. flowing from one end of the pool to the other, turning and going
  6466. back again.
  6467. "It. . . swims?" Sekher asked Nersi. A foolish question;
  6468. the evidence was there before his eyes.
  6469. "Oh, yes," she smiled. "Very well. He was teaching me."
  6470. "He?"
  6471. "I think so,"she said.
  6472. With a spray of water and a gasp of breath the
  6473. creature broke the surface, steadily treading water. It wiped aside
  6474. the water running down into its eyes and blinked at the three
  6475. Trenalbi gathered on the banks, watching it. Nersi beckoned to
  6476. it, making coaxing sounds and it stared back, then growled and
  6477. swam forward into shallow water and stood up.
  6478. Sekher stared.
  6479. "Gods!" Chaiila spat.
  6480. Perhaps 'he' was a reasonable assumption,
  6481. although that. . . arrangement was nothing like a male Trenalbi.
  6482. The fleshy organ didn't tuck away into a sheath the way a normal
  6483. male's did and to have something like that dangling out all the
  6484. time didn't look comfortable. That must be the reason it wore
  6485. clothes, that and the fact it was, for all practical purposes,
  6486. hairless. It. . . he had body fur. Well. . . patches of it and quite
  6487. heavy in localised places. The hairless hide was light bronze-
  6488. brown and slick with water, accentuating strange muscles
  6489. flowing under the skin. A large patch of the skin, about the size of
  6490. Sekher's hand, down the creature's left side was discoloured by
  6491. what looked like a large bruise. It probably was; that explained its
  6492. stiffness.
  6493. A strange body. Sekher's eyes couldn't find it attractive,
  6494. nor most likely any of the others, but it fitted; it worked. There
  6495. was a symmetry there that gave it a grace of sorts.
  6496. "What are those things on its chest?" Chaiila asked.
  6497. "Nipples, I think," Sekher replied uncertainly. But if it
  6498. was male, how could it have. . .
  6499. "Breasts? Up there? And what about that?" she pointed
  6500. at the organ between its legs. "And that hole in its stomach? Is
  6501. that a pouch?"
  6502. "How should I know?" said Sekher. "There are some
  6503. animals that don't have pouches, aren't there? Some trappers
  6504. brought some in once. The females had teats on the outside, all
  6505. along their torsos. The babies are born fully formed. They don't
  6506. pouch."
  6507. "Sounds disgusting," Chaiila grimaced with distaste.
  6508. "Then maybe those teats are vestigial; like your pouch."
  6509. Sekher scratched his ear. Vestigial, that would make
  6510. sense. Still, the thing was more confusing naked than it had
  6511. been clothed. "What say we call it male?"
  6512. Chaiila tipped her head to one side. "Might as well. To
  6513. think of that as female. . . " she trailed off and spat air.
  6514. Seth'Nai rolled his eyes, looked down at. . . himself?
  6515. growled something at them, then fell back into the pool with a
  6516. splash that sent waves lapping at the banks. A gentle kick and
  6517. he drifted back into the water.
  6518. "It likes water, doesn't it," growled Chaiila.
  6519. Nersi glanced at Chaiila, then said, "You could do with
  6520. a wash yourself."
  6521. "What?"
  6522. "You don't exactly smell like a rainfall, you know,"
  6523. Nersi grinned, then cuffed her cousin's arm. "Come on! Live
  6524. a little!" Before Chaiila had a chance to pontificate, she had her
  6525. breeches off and was splashing into the water.
  6526. "Nersi!"
  6527. "Come on in," Nersi laughed. "You'll love it!" She floated
  6528. on her back and awkwardly kicked out into the pool. Seth'Nai
  6529. glided up alongside and put his arms beneath her to steady her.
  6530. "Hai!" Chaiila snarled, anxiously pacing the pool like a
  6531. caged beast. "Gods, Nersi. Don't do this!. . . Che! What're you
  6532. doing!?"
  6533. "What does it look like," Sekher growled as he fumbled
  6534. with the lacings of his scruffy clothing. He threw the jerkin aside
  6535. and kicked the trousers off. "I'm dirty, dusty, and itching from the
  6536. Gods-blasted blood suckers in those clothes. This is the first
  6537. chance in I-don't-know-how-long I've had to get some of this
  6538. filth off and I'm not going to miss it."
  6539. With that he turned his back and gingerly walked out
  6540. until the water was up to his waist, then crouched down, pinched
  6541. his nostrils shut, and dunked his head. He surfaced again
  6542. coughing and sputtering and shaking water from his ears.
  6543. "It's not so bad once you're in, ah?" Nersi was floating
  6544. on her back, lazily waving her hands against the current.
  6545. "Hai, Chaiila!" called Sekher. "If you're not going to
  6546. join us, why don't you go and bring the shen over here."
  6547. And Chaiila turned to him and slowly bared her teeth.
  6548. "Male, you can get them yourself, then you can. . . "
  6549. Sekher wasn't really sure that what she suggested next
  6550. was was physically possible.
  6552. --\o/--
  6554. A pair of small Hitherdarts twisted and spiralled in the air
  6555. above the pool, dodging through overhanging leaves as they
  6556. pursued and snapped at insects. Sekher lazily bared teeth at
  6557. them, then flicked an ear and rolled over. The Lightbringer was
  6558. warm against his skin, as was the dark rock, while the spray
  6559. raised by the waterfall was a cool mist in the air, shot through by
  6560. a rainbow of colours.
  6561. He squinted and glanced over at where Chaiila was
  6562. perched on a sunlit rock, her fur almost blending in with the
  6563. darkness of the stone. She had stripped down to breeches, but
  6564. disdained to swim. She looked hot, also tense; sitting with ears
  6565. twitching uneasily as she watched Seth'Nai and Nersi.
  6566. The mismatched pair were further downstream by the
  6567. pool, Nersi leaning back, her damaged leg stretched out before
  6568. her, the bandages pulled back to expose the wound to the
  6569. sunlight. Seth'Nai's idea. He was sitting beside Nersi, wearing the
  6570. silver poncho he had cobbled together for Sekher and practising
  6571. skipping pebbles across the pool. He was improving, Sekher
  6572. noted as a series of seven ripples appeared in succession across
  6573. the water. A Hitherdart dived upon one of the ripples, mistaking
  6574. it for an insect or small fish. As he watched, Nersi took up one
  6575. of Seth'Nai's hands and manipulated the fingers, exploring their
  6576. flexibility.
  6577. Sekher watched the pair, then watched Chaiila staring
  6578. at them with such ill-concealed apprehension and he had to smirk
  6579. to himself. It was probably for the best that Seth'Nai had -
  6580. however unwittingly - donned the poncho. It concealed that
  6581. strange body - especially the maleness - transforming it into
  6582. something more androgynous. Certainly Chaiila was nervous
  6583. enough of its differences without it having to advertise. Down
  6584. at his feet Seth'Nai had left his water flask lying in the stream
  6585. after drinking from it. Now, why drink from that when there was a
  6586. whole damned stream of water running beneath his nose?
  6587. He snorted and scratched at the itching across his
  6588. chest. Gods burned fur itched madly growing in. Still, there was a
  6589. good stubble there now, although the skin was still very
  6590. visible. Seth'Nai had as much fur as he.
  6591. Ai, hells. . . What was he going to do with the creature?
  6592. His lips twitched in an uncertain grin. They could trust
  6593. it. . . him, see where he was leading them. Or was that perhaps too
  6594. trusting? His head lolled to the side and he caught a glimpse of
  6595. white: Seth'Nai's clothing had been rinsed in the stream then
  6596. spread out on the rock close by, split down the seams and left
  6597. splayed out to dry, spread-eagled like a flayed white hide. It was
  6598. as obscurely confusing as the rest of the creature's devices,
  6599. Sekher decided, crouching down beside the clothing, all manner
  6600. of curious tubing and lumps tucked away under the fabric. There
  6601. were no visible clasps or closures, and there was an arrangement
  6602. of devices and tubes in the crotch of the breeches that
  6603. looked. . . extremely uncomfortable.
  6604. Sekher decided he wasn't about to try them on and
  6605. turned his attentions to the foot coverings. Peculiars cups with
  6606. a tough base. Now Sekher could see them he saw that the feet
  6607. were another place where Seth'Nai differed radically from Trenalbi:
  6608. long and broad and bulky with five stubby digits and a bulbous
  6609. heel, the creature's feet were nothing like the four clawed toes a
  6610. Trenalbi walked upon.
  6611. "Interesting?"
  6612. "Huh?" he blinked, looking up to meet Chaiila's eyes.
  6613. She grinned and moved to crouch down a little closer,
  6614. tucking her tail in close: "Anything interesting?" she repeated.
  6615. Sekher dropped the foot covering. "Not really. Needs to
  6616. wash his feet though."
  6617. Chaiila growled softly, shaking her head and poking at
  6618. the clothing. "It really wears all this stuff?"
  6619. Sekher barked, saying, "I can tell you from experience, it
  6620. gets very cold without fur."
  6621. "I'll take your word for it," Chaiila smiled, grinning
  6622. slightly, baring her teeth. It was one of those flashbacks, as
  6623. vivid as if in drift, Sekher remembered the first time he'd seen her:
  6624. the fire and smoke, the darkness, she lifted off her helmet and
  6625. grinned at him.
  6626. "Sekher?"
  6627. She was watching him with head cocked to one side.
  6628. "You have beautiful teeth," he said, and instantly felt
  6629. like a prize fool.
  6630. "What?" Now Chaiila looked confused.
  6631. Sekher's ears went back in distress as he tried to meet
  6632. her eyes and failed dismally: "You are. . . you are the most
  6633. beautiful female I've ever seen," he choked out.
  6634. "Seen a few in your time, ah?" she retorted guardedly,
  6635. tail thrashing.
  6636. Sekher hung his head and rubbed at the sparse stubble
  6637. on his arm. Was he really expecting to get somewhere with
  6638. this? A young male, barely out of cubhood and threadbare as
  6639. an old rug. . . Gods, why bother?
  6640. "Hai, Che," she reached out to tap his knee lightly,
  6641. drawing back after touching. "Thank you."
  6642. He looked up, startled.
  6643. The gold eyes burned in that soot-grey face, glinting
  6644. with amusement."I have seen more adroit approaches," she said.
  6645. "But you are sincere. I'm sorry if I was. . . sharp. Nersi tells me
  6646. it's a habit I've got to break."
  6647. She stood then and came over to Sekher. He flinched as
  6648. she stroked his head, giving him the briefest of groomings."I like
  6649. you too, Sekher Che,"she murmured in his ear, then raked her
  6650. claws down his side and left him sitting there, staring while she
  6651. smoothly crossed the rocks to the water's edge. Her breeches
  6652. came off, her tail bristling and dancing as she stepped down into
  6653. the water.
  6654. Sekher shook his head. What in the hells just
  6655. happened? He was. . . then she. . . Gods, don't try to understand
  6656. females.
  6657. Downstream Nersi hastily turned away but not before
  6658. Sekher saw the smile. Seth'Nai caught his eye and twisted his
  6659. mouth up at the corners, baring teeth. His next gesture left
  6660. Sekher puzzled: just what did a raised thumb mean?
  6662. --\o/--
  6664. His breath was misting in the early morning chill as he
  6665. slung his meagre kit across the shen's back behind the saddle
  6666. then laboured to secure the straps, snarling softly. His ruined
  6667. hand flexed stiffly behind its bandages, sending a surge of pain
  6668. up his arm. After a final check of the tack he gritted his teeth and
  6669. swung himself up into the worn leather saddle, draping himself
  6670. stomach-down across it then swinging his leg over to bring
  6671. himself upright.
  6672. Just above the walls two of the Daughters hung in the
  6673. clear sky, dark blue above, fading to dusty gold in the west where
  6674. the Lightbringer was still low in the clear heavens, leaving the
  6675. lower courtyard in shadow whilst the upper stone reaches of the
  6676. palace were bathed in early light and warmth. There were Treanlbi
  6677. stirring, as there had been throughout the night; another troop
  6678. convey leaving the city, menials scurrying to load equipment. A
  6679. squad of elite cavalry clattered in through the gateway in double
  6680. file, penants fluttering from their spears tucked upright behind
  6681. their saddles, eyes alertly scanning their surroundings from
  6682. beneath flared helmet rims.
  6683. Chenuk ducked his head and reined his shen out of the
  6684. way of the armoured cavalry beasts. They passed him without a
  6685. second glance. Of course. A single crippled male in patched
  6686. brown riding cloak and breeches with the orange seal of his
  6687. pass displayed prominently on his shoulder riding a messenger
  6688. shen way past its prime. There wasn't a lot to look at.
  6689. "Chenuk!" there was a trooper running to head him off.
  6690. "Hai! Chenuk! Gods burn it! Wait!"
  6691. The shen's claws scraping on stones as the ex-
  6692. trooper reigned back and leaned on the saddle-brace as the other
  6693. jogged up.
  6694. Chenuk knew this Trenalbi; had known him for some
  6695. time. They'd been in the same battlegroup through several
  6696. campaigns. That had ended that night on the roof of the palace,
  6697. that night when the sky opened, fire rained and his
  6698. battlegroup was slaughtered. Who remained? A few.
  6699. "Lire."
  6700. "Chenuk," the other removed his helm, running fingers
  6701. through his ruff. "Copulation! We heard you were out. You're
  6702. really leaving, aren't you."
  6703. "Not a lot for me here, ah?"
  6704. "That bad?"
  6705. Chenuk raised the bandaged stump of his hand to the
  6706. remains of his ears, his scarred face. "I lose a few pieces and they
  6707. give me my marching orders. Huhhnn, what do they need with
  6708. another useless mouth."
  6709. "Chenuk, even wrong-handed you could still outfight
  6710. most."
  6711. "Thanks,"Chanuk's tail twitched. "Wrong-handed
  6712. perhaps; one handed. . . forget it. No, they can't use me."
  6713. "You have plans?"
  6714. "Yah," he started the shen moving again at a slow walk.
  6715. Lire paced along side.
  6716. "Nothing here?"
  6717. "No, nothing here." Chenuk rubbed at his hand.
  6718. "Perhaps the Hub. . . perhaps not. I don't know. I've a debt to
  6719. settle."
  6720. Lire's eyes glanced down at the hand resting on the front
  6721. of the saddle. "A debt? Something to do with that?"
  6722. Chenuk stared back at him. Lire's fur crawled. This
  6723. Chenuk had changed. . . The lack of ears? It left him unreadable,
  6724. cold. Maybe it was something else.
  6725. "Perhaps," Chenuk replied, not offering any more.
  6726. There was an awkward pause, then Lire chittered
  6727. softly. "Well, wherever you go, may the Gods smile on you. Also,
  6728. there is this," Lire fumbled at his belt then handed across a small
  6729. purse made from a piece of old cloth tied with a leather thong.
  6730. Chenuk felt the weight, the clatter of silver inside.
  6731. "You'll need it," Lire said.
  6732. "I. . . Thank you," Chenuk said and reached down to
  6733. clasp wrists with Lire. "Thank them also."
  6734. "They know," Lire grinned. "If you really want to
  6735. impress them, find it. Bring back an ear."
  6736. "I'll do that," Chenuk acknowledged, then clawed his
  6737. Shen forward, leaving Lire staring after him until a cavalcade of
  6738. heavy goods wagons rolled between them.
  6739. He took it slowly through the town, although the main
  6740. street wasn't nearly as crowded as it was before the wars. The
  6741. fighting had taken a lot of the able-bodied. The remaining were
  6742. older males, cripples, and those with skills that made them too
  6743. valuable to conscript and ship off. There were the few females in
  6744. their veils and robes with their own contingents of small guard,
  6745. over in the male sector to procure goods unavailable on their
  6746. side of the Wall.
  6747. None paid any attention to him.
  6748. The guards at the gate gave the seal on his shoulder
  6749. a cursory once-over then waved him on. Chenuk started across
  6750. the bridge, letting the placid shen have its head while he sat
  6751. staring at the horizon. Halfway across he tore the seal from his
  6752. shoulder and casually tossed it over the railing. He didn't look
  6753. back as the piece of parchment fluttered down to be carried away
  6754. by the river.
  6756. --\o/--
  6758. Sekher groaned and rubbed at the base of his tail as
  6759. he settled down into the curve of a sandbank.
  6760. "Hard day, ah?" Chaiila asked, crouching down beside
  6761. him.
  6762. "Huhnnn," Sekher growled. "Tell it to my tail."
  6763. Chaiila chittered softly and sank down, curling her tail
  6764. around.
  6765. It had been a hot, hard day's riding, but it was behind
  6766. them now, with only a few more to go. It was slow, taking longer
  6767. than it had taken the Ch'sty Rim troops to cart him south. They
  6768. were still forced to skirt the towns and villages and find their
  6769. own river crossings. Now with the Lightbringer burning low in
  6770. the clouds to the east the temperature was dropping. They'd
  6771. found a sheltered hollow in the midst of a small copse, a tiny
  6772. ground-fed spring overhung by the interlocking branches and
  6773. long leaves of Watertails. A pack of Nichir had been reluctant
  6774. to surrender their territory, but a few jabs from swords had
  6775. persuaded them to move out.
  6776. Now a small fire burned beside the spring with their
  6777. meagre bedrolls spread out around; three thin sheets to go
  6778. round. Nersi was sitting cross-legged by the fire, talking softly to
  6779. Seth'Nai as she showed the creature how to set meat out on a
  6780. stone slab to cook. The creature was beside her, also cross-
  6781. legged in an absurd caricature of a Trenalbi, glancing from her
  6782. hands to her face as if he were actually following her words.
  6783. Occasionally he'd interrupt with a growl or rumble of his own.
  6784. Sekher stretched his legs out - feeling the muscles
  6785. trembling. "At least we've got an excuse to rest up every
  6786. night," he said with a nod toward Seth'Nai.
  6787. Chaiila looked toward the creature, then at
  6788. Sekher,"You're not worried that he's slowing us down?"
  6789. He hesitated. "Is there such a hurry?"
  6790. Chaiila sighed and nibbled at a claw, then said, "Che,
  6791. walk with me."
  6792. Nersi looked up as they left but said nothing.
  6793. The night sky overhead was clear and dark blue. The
  6794. rolling hills of the plains were split between the gold of the
  6795. twilight and the black of shadow as the Lightbringer sank ever
  6796. lower on the horizon. Somewhere over there was the Hub, then
  6797. the sea, then beyond the realms to where the Lightbringer retired
  6798. each night as all the Daughters came out to dance their ways
  6799. across the heavens.
  6800. Amongst this two Trenalbi wandered through the
  6801. seas of scratchbush and grasses.
  6802. "Sekher, you know where Che stands?"
  6803. He wrinkled his muzzle in puzzlement. "Of course."
  6804. "Tell me."
  6805. "In the centre plains, on the Darktonight River."
  6806. "And the kingdoms around it?"
  6807. "K'streth, Taiska, and Fhel," he promptly responded.
  6808. "Ch'sty, Taiska, and Fhel,"Chaiila corrected.
  6809. "No," his eyes widened in shock. "Not so soon. There
  6810. were treaties. . . "
  6811. Chaiila barked, her laughter cold and harsh in the
  6812. remote air and there wasn't a glitter of amusement in her eye.
  6813. "Treaties, water in your hands. When the knife was to the stone
  6814. the other parties let the Ch'sty rim stall them with bluffs and
  6815. promises until. . . " she spread her hands as though flicking chaff
  6816. to the wind. "I doubt that what is left of K'streth holdings will
  6817. last another half-year."
  6818. Sekher huddled deeper into his cloak. "Che. . .
  6819. they wouldn't. . . "
  6820. "Sekher," she touched his arm. "You have made some
  6821. very powerful enemies. Your clan shares them with you and you
  6822. know as well as I that Che cannot afford enemies."
  6823. "I know," he groaned, "I know. . . but surely they would.
  6824. . . "
  6825. "Would what?" Chaiila stopped to watch Sekher.
  6826. He also halted, rubbing his claws against his throat as
  6827. the shock of what he was thinking sank in. "We can offer. . . they
  6828. would be willing to bargain."
  6829. "Your Seth'Nai?"Chaiila asked.
  6830. Sekher crouched down where he stood, wrapping his
  6831. arms about himself and unable to answer.
  6832. She stood behind him and with one hand reached
  6833. down to caress an ear. Gently, she said, "Sekher, I think the time
  6834. for compromise is past."
  6835. When he turned to look up at her, it was with a wild look,
  6836. a hope so anxious it almost hurt her to see it. "If we hurry, we
  6837. can. . . "
  6838. She stopped him with a hand on his muzzle. "We can
  6839. what? ah?" she asked. "We can get there in time to charge in and
  6840. slay the evil Rim Priests and Lords and carry the day to triumph
  6841. for Che. Ah?
  6842. "Sekher, please, think."
  6843. When Chaiila felt him sag she knew that he had thought,
  6844. and that he had understood. It was a feeling she could
  6845. sympathise with; that feeling of utter helplessness. She had felt
  6846. that as she watched her home burn, watch her friends and clan
  6847. fight and die. It was possible that was a reason she had gone
  6848. after the male in the first place: just to have something into
  6849. which to channel her frustration, some way she could strike
  6850. back at the amorphous entity that was the Ch'sty Rim.
  6851. She stroked the stubble on his scalp: "You understand?"
  6852. He growled softly, then flinched as though just
  6853. realising their proximity and her hands on his head. Standing, he
  6854. withdrew from her touch to retreat. Alone on the gentle incline of
  6855. the eastern face of a monticule with the final flaring of the sun
  6856. behind him. She clasped her hands together before her and
  6857. watched him
  6858. "I understand," he said. "It hurts."
  6859. "I know."
  6860. "Gods, Chaiila!" he bared teeth at the purple sky, his
  6861. breath steaming, "I want to do something! I want to hurt THEM!"
  6862. "If you want to hurt them," Chaiila suggested, "the best
  6863. you could do is not get yourself killed."
  6864. He growled, feeling his entire spine twitch as his tail
  6865. slashed at the air.
  6866. Chaiila hissed. "Calm."
  6867. "Calm?! You try losing. . . " He remebered who he was
  6868. talking to then. She knew what he was feeling. How had she
  6869. coped? "Sorry," he growled.
  6870. "I think you need to work it out. It'll help you think."
  6871. "What?"Sekher stared at her."You've got a suggestion?"
  6872. "Sparring,"she shrugged."Teth'Ai? Third movement? I
  6873. assume you know a little about it."
  6874. Sekher growled - long and deep - as he turned away,
  6875. then spun, bringing his foot sweeping around in a arc intended
  6876. to disembowel had he used claws.
  6877. Chaiila yipped, but caught his foot between crossed
  6878. forearms and twisted. He jumped, spinning in the air, his other
  6879. leg kicking out to jar her arm when it struck. The dark female's
  6880. mouth gaped in a bark and she dropped back, crouching with
  6881. her arms spread.
  6882. Grasses and bush rustled beneath their feet as they
  6883. circled, warily, slowly, like spiralling scavangers, their
  6884. shadows stretching long.
  6885. Sekher struck again, still on the offensive and angry.
  6886. taking his frustrations out on the figure before him. The heels of
  6887. his hands moved in a series of hammer blows that struck only air
  6888. as Chaiila slipped aside with a fluid shift of her hips then slashed
  6889. both hands in a Snowflake that batted his blows aside and
  6890. stroked the fur of his belly.
  6891. Then she grunted as his foot raked down her thigh.
  6892. Tails lashing, they circled again.
  6893. When he struck, she blocked. Her blows he parried
  6894. smoothly, turning them into an attack that forced her back. The
  6895. power of her Lightning he blocked with the smooth shifting of
  6896. Breeze. His hands slapped against the fur of her forearms, their
  6897. low growls lost on the breeze.
  6898. Sekher was gasping when they separated again. His left
  6899. wrist was throbbing where he'd taxed it too far. He sucked air,
  6900. flicking nictitating membranes across his eyes. . .
  6901. . . . Chaiila struck him low, batting his arms aside and
  6902. hooking a leg behind his knees. He dropped like a startled rock,
  6903. twisting and grabbing a handful of fur. Chaiila yelped and went
  6904. down with him in a tangle of limbs that rolled snarling and
  6905. barking down the hill to end in broadleaf bush.
  6906. Sekher shook his head and raised himself on his
  6907. arms. Beneath him Chaiila sputtered and spat a couple of
  6908. scratchbush leaves from her mouth, then grinned and said,
  6909. "You're better than I thought."
  6910. "Huh. Where did you learn your routines?"
  6911. "Small Guard. We're well trained."Then she reached up
  6912. to touch his ear. "You know, even furless you're better than
  6913. many."
  6914. He froze, staring down at her. She smiled back and there
  6915. was a scent in the air: subtle, unobtrusive, unfamiliar. Sekher's
  6916. nostrils flared and his sinuses tingled with a shock similar to the
  6917. times he had touched metal and a spark flashed, but this time the
  6918. spark was behind his eyes.
  6919. He yipped in surprise, blinked at her with nostrils wide.
  6920. There was a silence.
  6921. "I think. . . " he finally began. "I think we'd better start
  6922. back. . . "
  6923. He rolled off her, then tried to stand, staggering and
  6924. going to his knees. What. . . ?
  6925. Chaiila's hand was on his shoulder. He snarled and
  6926. lashed out; she evaded with ease, standing back and. . . waiting?
  6927. His head was swimming with the blood pounding in his ears, then
  6928. he keeled over completely with coarse grass pressing against the
  6929. side of his face. He tried to move, twitched helplessly with
  6930. muscles turned to water.
  6931. And Chaiila's hands touched him again, rolling him
  6932. over onto his back. He looked up at her face silhouetted against
  6933. the dusk, her eyes wide and staring like small amber lamps in
  6934. the twilight.
  6935. "What. . . "he croaked. "haiila?"
  6936. She moved closer and the smell was stronger,
  6937. overpowering when she nuzzled his neck, murmuring, "Calm."
  6938. How could he? His heart pounded in slow pulses, yet
  6939. he couldn't move.
  6940. Claws ran over him, gently raking, raising uncountable
  6941. tiny bumps as his fur tried to stand up like needles. Other parts
  6942. of him were responding also, the feeling in his crotch that
  6943. seemed to also burn in his mind. Then her hands were fumbling
  6944. with the belt of his kilt.
  6945. "Chaiila," he gasped again.
  6946. She caressed his face, then stood to shuck her breeches.
  6947. He saw everything, felt more than he ever though
  6948. possible. The daughters danced behind Chaiila's black form as
  6949. she moved over him, lowering herself.
  6950. He howled at the heat that raged through his loins,
  6951. then through every fibre of his body.
  6953. --\o/--
  6955. The Burrower meat was browned and crisped with
  6956. spitting fats.
  6957. Nersi used two sticks to flip it over, taking care not to
  6958. knock it from the flat rock into the embers. Beside her, Seth'Nai sat
  6959. with the device from his arm opened, a multitude of fragments
  6960. spread on a cloth on his lap. He paused in his fiddling to watch
  6961. her hands working.
  6962. She noticed his fascinated gaze. "You've never done
  6963. this before, ah?" she asked.
  6964. He looked up at her. Gods, she wondered, you're no
  6965. animal, but why can't you speak?
  6966. "Here," she offered, passing him the sticks. "I'll show
  6967. you." His pale hands were warm against hers as she showed him
  6968. how to hold the sticks between the fingers of one hand and pick
  6969. up the meat with them. He caught on quickly, but still fumbled.
  6970. "You need practice," she grinned.
  6971. He rumbled and bared teeth at her. Nersi flinched
  6972. involuntarily. However it was something he did often, seemingly
  6973. without intending menace.
  6974. "Don't worry," she assured him. "You'll smooth it out."
  6975. He blinked at her.
  6976. "Never mind," she hissed. "Pass that branch. . . Look,
  6977. rot it, that branch over there," she pointed. "Pass it to me."
  6978. Seth'Nai looked from her outstretched hand to the
  6979. branch, then reached to pick it up and broke it in half with a
  6980. single flex of his arms before handing the pieces over.
  6981. "Gratitude," Nersi said.
  6982. He watched her stoke the fire, the flames licking around
  6983. the dark wood. Flickering light made shadows in the small grove
  6984. dance and shimmer in the twilight, throwing the planes of
  6985. Seth'Nai's face into strange relief. His long-fingered hands
  6986. worked delicately at the pieces in his lap.
  6987. Chaiila and Sekher had been gone for some time now. It
  6988. was getting dark, and night was not the time to be wandering
  6989. around the plains unarmed.
  6990. Talking, ah? She smiled to herself.
  6991. The Lightbringer was all but gone, the sky still aglow
  6992. with azure and the hard silver disks of the Daughters. Beneath
  6993. the boughs in the small copse the light was pushed aside by
  6994. gloom. Seth'Nai paused in his work to dip into his peculiar bag
  6995. and produce a small white tube about the length of a hand that
  6996. he propped on a nearby rock. Nersi fell back with a squeak of
  6997. alarm when it sprang to glaring life.
  6998. Panting hard, she stared from the glowing light to the
  6999. creature. Its teeth were bared and this time she had no doubts of
  7000. its amusement. Deliberately he touched the tube with his bare
  7001. hand and gripped it so the light showed red through the flesh. He
  7002. withdrew the hand and held it up, waggled the fingers, unscathed.
  7003. Nersi coughed, embarrassed at her overreaction. "ai,
  7004. alright, so you startled me. Don't DO that!"
  7005. The tube didn't bite. It just sat there, glowing. In fact,
  7006. Seth'Nai showed her how to work it and thereafter she sat there
  7007. for some time twisting the top, dimming and brightening the tube
  7008. while watching the meat sizzling. Seth'Nai continued fitting the
  7009. final pieces to his device.
  7010. When the howl rang out, Nersi jumped and stared out
  7011. into the evening as the familiar wail rang across the grasslands,
  7012. sending a tingle down her spine and tail. It was about time they. . .
  7013. "Hai!"
  7014. She yelped as Seth'Nai leapt to his feet and was gone
  7015. from the firelight, she could hear him crashing through the
  7016. undergrowth.
  7017. "No! Wait! Godsdammit! WAIT!"
  7018. Her leg almost gave out as she stood and chased after
  7019. him, stumbling through the dark trunks. The howl sounded again,
  7020. giving her a beacon to follow. Seth'Nai's white form was climbing
  7021. a low hill. She gave chase, her leg aching abominably and
  7022. slowing her, yet she still caught up with him.
  7023. "Gods! Will you stop!"
  7024. Just as they reached the crest.
  7025. There was still enough sun. The two Trenalbi
  7026. amongst grasses on the slope below them, clothing scattered
  7027. carelessly. Sekher lay sprawled upon his back, twitching
  7028. spasmodically, mouth working silently. Dark fur engulfed his
  7029. hips where Chaiila straddled him, rocking, her head back, eyes
  7030. closed, and mouth gaping.
  7031. Nersi sighed and looked up at Seth'Nai, standing tall
  7032. and pale beside her with his own mouth hanging open. "Seen
  7033. enough?"
  7034. Of course he didn't reply. As happened so often he
  7035. seemed not to hear her. Unsure, she plucked at his sleeve. "Come
  7036. on,"she coaxed when he looked at her,"We'll leave them to finish,
  7037. ah?"
  7038. When she took his arm - oh, so carefully - to lead him
  7039. back to camp: he followed like a Shen on a rein.
  7040. The meat was burnt.
  7042. --\o/--
  7044. Warm, soft fur surrounded him. On his back, his head
  7045. resting upon a dark lap. Hands stroked at his face and neck,
  7046. circling like a gentle breeze. There was the strong scent of
  7047. crushed grass and tingleweed, the endless darkness above, the
  7048. silver light of the Daughters in his eyes, the echoing traces of a
  7049. lust in his muzzle. . .
  7050. "Che?"
  7051. Darker fur bent over him, amber eyes peering down into
  7052. his face. "Che, you there?"
  7053. He closed his eyes again. Still his limbs felt like stone,
  7054. moved like rusty armour. He gave up the effort and lay there,
  7055. panting.
  7056. "How're you feeling?"
  7057. He bared teeth, remembering the feelings: the
  7058. helplessness, the piercing pleasure from his groin, confusion. . .
  7059. "I. . . I don't know," he finally grated.
  7060. "Your first time," the voice was soft. Sekher could feel
  7061. her breath. When he opened his eyes her face was barely a span
  7062. from his own, her lap still warm under his head. "It's always the
  7063. hardest for you."
  7064. He licked his lips. "I don't understand. . . What. . . "
  7065. "You were never told, were you," she interrupted, her
  7066. voice a soft hum. "A small town. . . They never told you."
  7067. It was true: they hadn't. The Unity Homes along the
  7068. Wall were places cublin and youths were not permitted. Males
  7069. came and went through the doors watched by Small Guard. He
  7070. had seen the lights through the high, barred windows, heard
  7071. the music and singing, the howls, but knew nothing of what
  7072. happened inside. His brother had warned him. . . had he known?
  7073. Then he had to ask: "Why did you do it?"
  7074. Chaiila looked surprised. "Because I like you. You're a
  7075. fine male: healthy, bright. . . If your seed takes, I know it will be
  7076. a promising cub."
  7077. "Oh," he said, trying to think. "And where would you
  7078. pouch it?" he asked. "Our towns. . . "
  7079. She smiled and touched his nose pad. "The female
  7080. quarters in any town would accept it. They would take care of the
  7081. hosting and the creche."
  7082. "Oh," he said again, for lack of anything else. There
  7083. was silence for a time.
  7084. The prevailing westerly breeze blowing over the plains
  7085. had cooled with the going of the Lightbringer and now chilled
  7086. with its touch. Chaiila's fur fluffed out, her ruff raising around her
  7087. neck and atop her head, trapping her warmth. Sekher shuddered.
  7088. Chaiila felt it: "You're freezing! Gods! I forgot! Can you
  7089. walk yet? Alright. . . Here, I'll help."
  7090. The fire, even the pale features of Seth'Nai, were
  7091. welcome, familiar sights after such strangeness. Nersi and the
  7092. creature looked up as Sekher lurched into the camp with an arm
  7093. strung about Chaiila's shoulders. They both stopped and stared
  7094. with shock at the small tube glowing with strong light. It was
  7095. only when Seth'Nai arose and moved to take Sekher from Chaiila
  7096. that the dark female cuffed him aside and lowered her burden
  7097. beside the fire. Whatever had happened to him was wearing off,
  7098. now he was strong enough to sit himself up while Chaiila
  7099. draped a cloak about him.
  7100. "Thanks," murmured Sekher.
  7101. Nersi leaned over toward Chaiila to mutter an aside, "Is
  7102. he all right?"
  7103. "Yes, thank you." Sekher looked up, right at her. "He's
  7104. fine." Chaiila was late to muffle a bark.
  7105. "Excuse me," grumbled Nersi. "It's just that. . . His first
  7106. time, right? I'm surprised he could put one foot in front of the
  7107. other."
  7108. Sekher's ears went down.
  7109. "Sorry," Nersi hastened to placate him. "I wasn't
  7110. thinking." She passed him a stick on which chunks of bite-sized
  7111. chunks of meat had been skewered. "You're going to be hungry.
  7112. This should help."
  7113. "Thanks." He took it and, methodically, began working
  7114. his way along the stick.
  7115. Chaiila had been staring at the light-tube. "What IS
  7116. that thing," she asked Nersi.
  7117. Her cousin shrugged. "A torch of some kind. Not
  7118. dangerous, it seems."
  7119. "Seth'Nai?"
  7120. "Yah."
  7121. "Figures."
  7122. Sekher smiled to himself at that. Even if they didn't
  7123. realise it, they were becoming inured to the creature's strange
  7124. ways: Anything peculiar happens these days, blame it on
  7125. Seth'Nai. That one bore enough strange in his hairless hide to
  7126. satisfy any adventurous spirit.
  7127. "What's the matter with him anyway?" Chaiila asked
  7128. Nersi with a curious glance at the creature. "He keeps staring at
  7129. me."
  7130. "He heard the howls," Nersi explained, looking
  7131. pensive. "I think he thought you were in trouble. . . Anyway, he
  7132. saw. Who knows what he's thinking."
  7133. "Not what a normal male would, I hope," Chaiila grinned.
  7134. Nersi's ears flicked. "A Trenalbi male would have been out of his
  7135. howling mind at the first scent of you. Him. . . Well, he's
  7136. probably got about as much interest in your affairs as a stick."
  7137. Sekher coughed and when the females looked at him
  7138. asked, "Is it always. . . like that?"
  7139. Chaiila ducked her head, flicked her tail around and
  7140. began grooming the tip. "Your first time. . . it was like being hit
  7141. by a house, ah? Now you know why some use copulation as a
  7142. curse." She grinned as she said that, then grew serious. "You
  7143. should know it grows easier. Next time, if you can find a next
  7144. time, it won't be so. . . traumatic for you, but you will always be
  7145. slow and as weak as a cublin."
  7146. The light of fire and magic threw strange shadows across
  7147. her face as she spoke. "Also, remember the Unity Homes. They're
  7148. there for a reason, as are the Small Guard and the Walls. Where
  7149. there is mating madness, there is also fighting. Go there if you
  7150. wish to mate, for whatever reason, but be prepared to fight. And
  7151. obey their rules. Always!"
  7152. "Rules? What?"
  7153. She shrugged. "They always change from town to city.
  7154. They share the same roots, but details change. Usually
  7155. nothing drastic: Behave, Listen, Obey."
  7156. "Huh," Sekher rubbed at his face. "And why be
  7157. prepared to fight?"
  7158. "That," she grinned, "is something you'll have to learn
  7159. for yourself. Now rest up and get some food in you." She
  7160. stood, stretched, and yawned. "I'm going to wash off."
  7161. "Watch where you step," Nersi warned.
  7162. "You're starting to sound like Chaiila," Sekher pointed
  7163. out.
  7164. "Ah, shave you," Chaiila spat with a grin.
  7165. Sekher returned the grin and took another mouthful of
  7166. rich meat, watching her gather up a cloak and blanket and move
  7167. off into the bushes and darkness toward the sound of running
  7168. water.
  7169. Nersi glanced at him then away again.
  7170. The fire crackled away industriously as wet wood
  7171. popped and spat. Seth'Nai was sitting cross-legged at the
  7172. periphery of the light, toying with the thing strapped to his wrist,
  7173. occasionally glancing up at them. Sekher concentrated upon
  7174. eating. She had been right: he was starving.
  7175. "You enjoyed yourself this night?" inquired Nersi.
  7176. "Huh?"Sekher looked up with juices dribbling down his chin.
  7177. "Oh. . . Oh, yes . . .sure."
  7178. "You don't sound so sure," Nersi smiled.
  7179. Sekher wiped his muzzle with a sweep of his forearm
  7180. and considered. "It was. . . unexpected."
  7181. Nersi sighed."She didn't mean to scare you like that."
  7182. "Huh?" Sekher looked shocked. He was almost
  7183. convincing; almost, but not quite.
  7184. "Don't, Sekher," she warned him. "I can see it and smell
  7185. it. She had your ruff on end, didn't she."
  7186. Sekher's hand moved to run across the back of his
  7187. neck before he remembered, so instead he hugged his arms
  7188. around his chest. "Hai, she surprised me."
  7189. Nersi snorted. "Did she now? Don't worry about it,"
  7190. she assuaged the male. "She does things like that, like chasing
  7191. off after a male who was probably dead. Impulsive." Nersi sighed
  7192. and shifted to stretch her sore leg out before her, pressing
  7193. against the bandage. That run after Seth'Nai had left it aching.
  7194. Would it ever be the same?. . .
  7195. "She could have said something," said Sekher.
  7196. "It doesn't work like that," Nersi tried to explain, then
  7197. shrugged helplessly. "She probably didn't know either. It can
  7198. just. . . happen."
  7199. Sekher was just staring at her. "I don't understand,"
  7200. he replied, still sounding defensive.
  7201. "Sekher, she chose you. As I said, she's impulsive and
  7202. can be blunt to the point of callousness, but she's a thrifty one
  7203. when it comes to dealing out emotions. You're the only male I've
  7204. ever seen her get so. . . close to. She certainly never meant to
  7205. scare you away."
  7206. "Huh! Yeah, well if that's how she shows affection. . . "
  7207. Sekher grunted and tipped his ears. "It's like an affectionate
  7208. shen: a friendship that could crush you!"
  7209. Nersi chuckled and Sekher took another mouthful,
  7210. chewing thoughtfully.
  7211. When Chaiila returned her fur was still damp. She
  7212. looked around the other Trenalbi's faces, as if well aware that they
  7213. had talked about her during her absence. It was a look that
  7214. Sekher found himself unable to meet. So instead he turned his
  7215. back on the pair and found a hollow among Scellerian tree roots
  7216. where he hunkered down and pulled his blanket close. Several
  7217. deep breaths and he felt his heartbeat slowing, his nictitating
  7218. membranes drawing across his eyes.
  7219. "Sekher," said Chaiila's voice.
  7220. "Huh?" he snapped back to awareness to look across
  7221. the campfire to where the females were beginning to drift.
  7222. "What?"
  7223. They both blinked at him. "What?" asked Chaiila.
  7224. "You said something."
  7225. They looked at each other. "Ahh. . . No."
  7226. "Sekher," said Nersi's voice, but Nersi hadn't spoken.
  7227. As one their heads turned toward Seth'Nai. He ducked
  7228. his head and growled, the sound followed almost immediately
  7229. by coherent words from his wrist, a jumble of words and voices:
  7230. his own, Chaiila's, Nersi's: "Sekher. Chaiila. Nersi," He looked
  7231. from one to the other as it spoke their names. "Can't. Talk help I
  7232. you."
  7233. A branch in the fire popped and hissed.
  7234. "Huh!" Sekher finally choked out. "It's been quite a
  7235. night, huh?"
  7237. --\o/--
  7239. Standing unobtrusively at the back of the room with
  7240. another advisor and that priest, Nerfith watched, the striped tip of
  7241. his tail twitching almost imperceptibly.
  7242. The two males standing standing so casually before
  7243. Kissaki's desk were the source of his distaste, their cloaks
  7244. sweeping the floor, armour lacquered black against the elements.
  7245. One towering, massively built, the flesh beneath his fur layered
  7246. with slabs of muscle and scars, the other a nondescript fawn-
  7247. furred slender male with notched, black-tipped ears and almost
  7248. delicate hands
  7249. automatically searching for the hilt of a sword he was forbidden
  7250. to carry this close to the High Lord. Bounty Hunters! Nerfith's lip
  7251. spasmed in distaste.
  7252. The smaller one was the voice of the pair, and he used
  7253. his words well. It had surprised Nerfith, noticing that this
  7254. lowlife's words echoed a trace of a higher teaching. He failed to
  7255. quite place the accent, but it seemed to be eastern, maybe one of
  7256. the towns further in toward the hub; perhaps a highborn who'd
  7257. lost his standing due to clan feud. It happened.
  7258. And at the moment he was addressing the High Lord.
  7259. "If I hadn't seen the damage for myself I might have
  7260. some trouble believing this," he said with a slight grin. "And
  7261. they. . . overcome twenty battlegroups?"
  7262. Kissaki stared at him with his ears laying back into the
  7263. dark fur of his ruff. "You have been given all the details we have
  7264. seen fit to give you. There are four fugitives, two of them
  7265. possibly female Trenalbi, one shaved male of noble birth, and
  7266. something else. We do not know what it is, but it is the
  7267. dangerous one. It is the one we want. The others, all I want is
  7268. their hides."
  7269. The Hunter laid his head to one side."Four. That's quite
  7270. a contract."
  7271. "For which you are being paid quite adequately,"
  7272. Kissaki hissed. "You are good, I know that, but not uniquely
  7273. so." He emphasized that word 'uniquely'.
  7274. The other smiled. If he had been making a bid for more
  7275. cash, the look in the High Lord's eyes stalled him and he wisely
  7276. passed the opportunity by with a casual wave of his hand. "Of
  7277. course, High One. May I ask what resources will be at our
  7278. disposal?"
  7279. Kissaki stared at the pair, then gestured curtly toward
  7280. the Priest who stepped forward with a rustle of robes and
  7281. acknowledge the High Lord, "Sire," then produced a scroll case
  7282. from within his sleeve and turned to address the Hunters. "This
  7283. document is signed and marked with the Council's seals. It details
  7284. your assignment and will ensure the cooperation of the
  7285. Priesthood across the world, also giving you limited credit for
  7286. purchase of Temple goods."
  7287. The Hunter took the black leather case, hefted it, then
  7288. hooked it to his belt.
  7289. "Watchkeeper," Kissaki waved Nerfith.
  7290. "Sire," he bowed stiffly as he stepped forward. "Sir, are
  7291. you sure. . . "
  7292. Kissaki growled, deep and long, shutting Nerfith's
  7293. mouth instantly. "You've had your chance, Watchkeeper," he
  7294. snarled. "You lost it. Now get on with it!"
  7295. "Yessir," Nerfith succeeded in keeping his ears from
  7296. wilting; barely. The Hunter was casually waiting, not bothering
  7297. to hide the amused expression plastered across his face. He
  7298. took the scroll case with a poor parody of a salute. Nerfith let his
  7299. lips part to flash a glimpse of white teeth before handing the
  7300. scroll case he carried over. "This is signed and sealed with the
  7301. Royal crest. It'll make sure you have the full cooperation of any
  7302. Lord in the Ch'sty demesnes. It also requires that any garrison or
  7303. other military body aid you in any way, provided it is relevant
  7304. to your duty. Understand?"
  7305. "Yessir," the Hunter smiled.
  7306. Kissaki spoke again. "Now you know what is required,
  7307. start moving. Watchkeeper, accompany them and see they have
  7308. whatever they need." He paused. "Any questions?"
  7309. "One." This time it was the large one that spoke. "This
  7310. thing you want us to return. . . Ah, just what condition do you
  7311. want it in?"
  7312. "Alive," the High Lord replied. "As long as it is in a
  7313. condition we can work with."
  7314. "Understood." The tall Hunter bowed. "Alright Sire,
  7315. you will have your creature."
  7316. Once outside Kissaki's private offices their weapons
  7317. were returned. Nerfith watched as the small Hunter sheathed his
  7318. rapier and slung a flail-blade from his belt. His partner slung the
  7319. long wooden tube of a heavy darter over his shoulder and took
  7320. up a two-handed sword. Steel, as Nerfith had noted earlier.
  7321. "How can you afford steel?" he asked.
  7322. The smaller one grinned. "Hai, Watchkeeper. Just
  7323. because you can't do your job, doesn't mean we aren't capable
  7324. of handling ours. We get by."
  7325. Nerfith's ears and ruff went tight against his skull.
  7326. "Alright," he hissed. "Take your documents to the
  7327. quartermaster. Get what you need, then get your mangy hides out
  7328. of my town!"
  7330. --\o/--
  7332. "Day not many I/we travel/go."
  7333. Seth'Nai was improving rapidly. His syntax was
  7334. indescribably terrible, but his vocabulary was increasing at a
  7335. phenomenal rate. It seemed he never forgot anything he heard; or
  7336. rather the device on his forearm didn't. He had also settled upon a
  7337. voice to use. Now, instead of repeating words in a mangled
  7338. collection of Sekher's, Chaiila's, and Nersi's voices, he had -
  7339. with Nersi's patient assitance - chosen male tones that Chaiila had
  7340. grudgingly admitted sounded more pleasant than the creature's
  7341. features.
  7342. "You mean it is not far?"
  7343. Nersi was speaking slowly to Seth'Nai, and even so there
  7344. was a pause before he tried to respond. He growled and words
  7345. came from his wrist: "Yes. Far not."
  7346. "No, no. It is not far," Nersi corrected him.
  7347. Seth'Nai looked confused. He touched the speaking
  7348. bracelet and the next time he made noises the device didn't speak.
  7349. Sekher stroked the worn leather of the reigns between
  7350. his finger pads. The Shen grunted and tossed its head slighty,
  7351. feeling for any slack. Sekher tightened his grip. When he touched
  7352. claws to its flanks it obediently stepped up its placid pace to
  7353. move alongside Nersi and whickered at her mount.
  7354. "He's learning," Sekher said.
  7355. "Hmmm?" The breeze toyed with Nersi's ruff as she
  7356. turned to squint at him. "Huh! Ya, he's learning all right." She
  7357. glanced at the creature. "He's trying to ask questions now, but
  7358. he still doesn't know enough to answer."
  7359. "You mean, What is he?"
  7360. "How'd you guess,"she barked a laugh. The sound was
  7361. echoed by the creature. Both Trenalbi stared.
  7362. "Sekher," the creature acknowledged him, then asked,
  7363. "Means what?" Again it sounded a laugh.
  7364. "Ah," Nersi looked at Sekher, "How do you explain
  7365. that?"
  7366. Seth'Nai waited, his shen plodding along.
  7367. Nersi scratched her neck. "A Laugh. . . Like a smile," she
  7368. began.
  7369. "Smile?" Seth'Nai asked.
  7370. "Smile," Nersi repeated. "Ah, means happy/amusement."
  7371. "Understand!" Seth'Nai bobbed his head. "Smile big
  7372. laugh is."
  7373. "Yes," Nersi smiled her approval and Seth'Nai bared
  7374. his teeth. The female turned to Sekher and said, "Well I learned
  7375. something: that's his smile."
  7376. "Showing teeth?" Sekher twitched in surprise. "That's
  7377. perverse!"
  7378. "I know," Nersi agreed. "Strange."
  7379. Sekher scratched at his nose where sun-reddened skin
  7380. was peeling, then leaned forward in his saddle so he could see
  7381. the creature clearly. "Hai! Seth'Nai."
  7382. The pale eyes and face turned to watch him.
  7383. "Where are you from?" Sekher asked. "Ah? Where. . .
  7384. You. . . From? Up there?"
  7385. Both he and Nersi saw it. When he pointed at the sky
  7386. the creature flinched violently, staring at him with wide grey eyes.
  7387. Then he kicked his shen and moved ahead to ride by himself.
  7388. Nersi blinked at the creatures back, then turned to
  7389. Sekher. "Do you really think it comes from. . . " she pointed up.
  7390. "I don't know," Sekher admitted. "One thing though: I
  7391. reckon he understands a lot more than he lets on." He shifted
  7392. on his saddle as his tail twitched. "I think it might be a good idea
  7393. to be careful what we say around him."
  7395. --\o/--
  7397. The small group spent the following night sheltering
  7398. among the collapsed and overgrown ruins of a long-forgotten
  7399. Trenalbi settlement while a storm flashed and thundered outside.
  7400. Chaiila had been fortunate enough to stumble across the
  7401. remains of a garden from where she dug up several tongueroot
  7402. tubers. When cleaned and baked the roots took on the flavour of
  7403. spiced bread.
  7404. Yet still Seth'Nai refused to eat them, claiming he, "Not
  7405. can eat."
  7406. So much for him being a grass-grazer.
  7407. Morning found the storm abated, yet the sky still
  7408. overcast and despite the best efforts of the Lightbringer, a
  7409. persistent slow drizzle soaked cloaks, trickled down necks and
  7410. kept the ground beneath shens' hooves soggy. It was, Sekher
  7411. thought, a thoroughly unenviable way to travel.
  7412. The rain, as did all things, passed. The Lightbringer
  7413. continued on its path. Another night passed. . .
  7415. --\o/--
  7417. The western Ramparts were visible on the horizon, like
  7418. a distant, hazy grey line stretching from one side of the
  7419. grasslands to the other. From here to that distant line lay the
  7420. rolling expanses of the green-gold sunlit central plains. It was in
  7421. places like this that you could look around and convince
  7422. yourself that there wasn't a city, a town, a village, or a house in
  7423. the entire world.
  7424. Sekher settled back in his saddle, rocking with the
  7425. shen's gait. It was starting to worry him: the further they
  7426. travelled westward, the further from Che they went. He was well
  7427. aware that the Chy'sty troops would be watching all borders
  7428. for them, especially for a shaved male travelling with a daemon,
  7429. but still he had to get back. Still, Seth'Nai had been leading them
  7430. for the past couple of days. The path they followed was a
  7431. convoluted one, sometimes moving west, then leading north
  7432. again, always avoiding any sign of Trenalbi. He seemed to
  7433. have some destination, but too much further and they'd have
  7434. their backs to the Ramparts.
  7435. He flicked the stub of a claw along his forearm, pleased
  7436. at the down-like new fur that was growing there. Still like a cub's
  7437. pelt, but it was growing. Give it time. Cracking a jaw-breaking
  7438. yawn he flicked an ear toward where Chaiila was talking with
  7439. Seth'Nai. They were riding a slight distance from the other two
  7440. and keeping their voices low, so Sekher was unable to hear
  7441. exactly what was being said. Chaiila sounded. . . embarrassed?
  7442. Seth'Nai. . . Well, Seth'Nai seemed to be getting grasp on the
  7443. concept of grammar; now some of the things he said almost
  7444. made sense.
  7445. Almost.
  7446. Sekher shrugged at the absurdity of it all and let himself
  7447. slip down into drift, letting the memories of the past insinuate
  7448. themselves from the depths of his mind. . .
  7449. . . . the book flying across the room in a flutter of
  7450. pages before striking the wall. "I don't want to do this," he
  7451. scowled petulantly. "It's boring!"
  7452. The Teacher sighed wearily and hauled himself to his
  7453. feet to retrieve the valuable book. His grey furred hands calmly
  7454. dusted it off and set it back on the claw-scarred desk before
  7455. Sekher. "Youngling, you have to."
  7456. "Why!" Sekher sulked.
  7457. "You know why." The Teacher returned to his chair,
  7458. lowering his age-worn body carefully. . .
  7459. . . . Sekher cocked his head to look up at the bulky
  7460. stranger who bustled around the dusty library, sorting out the
  7461. precious collection of books and parchments. "Where's
  7462. Teacher?" he demanded.
  7463. The male stopped what he was doing and smiled a
  7464. careful smile at Sekher. It didn't fool him, Teacher had taught him
  7465. too well for that. "I'm Teacher now, cub," this new male
  7466. explained. "Old Hiler won't be coming any more."
  7467. "Why?" Sekher didn't understand. "Doesn't he like me
  7468. anymore?"
  7469. "Yes, of course he does. . . You know he has been ill. . . "
  7470. Sekher stood watching the sparks from the funeral pyre
  7471. spiralling upwards to join the specks in the Well. He found it
  7472. difficult to understand what was happening. He saw his sire on
  7473. the far side of the flames, his head bowed and ears low, a small
  7474. length of blue cloth in his hands, like the one Sekher was
  7475. wearing, a gift from his Teacher. And Sekher watched as his sire
  7476. approached the fire and threw the cloth into. . .
  7477. . . . he heard a strange cry. Looking out through the bars
  7478. of the cage he saw. . .
  7479. Sekher snapped from drift with a sudden intake of breath
  7480. and looked wildly around, not quite able to believe his eyes.
  7481. Their shen were now plodding along a rutted track alongside a
  7482. small pool fed by rivulets of water still remaining from the last
  7483. rains. Eroded banks rose above them to their right, tufts of
  7484. grass and scratchbush sprouting at their rims. The track was
  7485. worn, obviously used and littered with rocks tumbled from the
  7486. banks around them. He knew this place!
  7487. Seth'Nai halted his shen and swung down from its back,
  7488. then began poking around the debris at the bottom of the
  7489. embankments. Sekher dismounted also and trotted after the
  7490. creature. "Wait! Hai!" Seth'Nai looked around as Sekher
  7491. slapped his shoulder. "Why'd you bring us back here, ah?!"
  7492. "Che!"
  7493. Sekher turned at the shout, leaving Seth'Nai with his
  7494. mouth hanging open. Chaiila was glaring at him, her ears back.
  7495. "You know where we are? Why don't you share it with us!"
  7496. "I don't know!" he protested. "I mean, I know this is
  7497. where the Chy'sty caught him, but I don't know. . . "
  7498. "They caught him here?" Nersi looked around with a
  7499. puzzled expression. "What was he doing in such a Gods forsaken
  7500. place?"
  7501. "Visiting relatives?" Chaiila suggested, then scowled.
  7502. "Male, did we come all this was just for this?!"
  7503. Sekher shrugged, then looked at Seth'Nai: "Well? Why
  7504. did you come here? Why. . . are..we. . . here?!"
  7505. The angular shoulders heaved. "I come. Look."
  7506. "Look?" Sekher blinked. "At what? For what?!"
  7507. Seth'Nai made a meaningless little gesture with his
  7508. hands, then ran those fingers through his head fur. It had grown,
  7509. Sekher had noticed, along with the face fur. He stared at
  7510. Sekher, studying him, then looked around the weather-worn little
  7511. valley. "Different now, ah?" the creature asked Sekher. "Afraid
  7512. not. No. . . " he moved his hands in a square shape over his
  7513. head then drew lines in front of his face.
  7514. "Cage," Sekher supplied.
  7515. "Cage," the other said, bobbing his head. "No cage."
  7516. "But why here?!" Sekher demanded.
  7517. Storm-grey eyes met his. "Stop here, not long. Go.
  7518. Not. . . far."
  7519. "We've got further to go?" Sekher exclaimed. "How
  7520. far?!"
  7521. The creature's shoulders heaved again, then he returned
  7522. to poking through dirt and rocks, tumbled scrub. The two
  7523. females dismounted, stretching to ease out the kinks and aches
  7524. left from the long ride. Sekher turned to them to ask, "Answer
  7525. your question?"
  7526. "In a roundabout sort of way; yes," growled Chaiila
  7527. in exasperation. "Why is it impossible to get a straight answer
  7528. from that thing?"
  7529. "Why don't you ask him?" Sekher suggested.
  7530. She didn't even bother to look at him. "Unfunny, Che."
  7531. Seth'Nai kicked a couple more rocks aside, finding only a
  7532. scuttler that blinked up at him, then scuttled off in a flash of
  7533. green scales. Then Seth'Nai turned to peer into the murky water
  7534. and for a few beats Sekher thought it planned to go wading
  7535. around in there, but the creature growled something that the
  7536. device on his wrist garbled as, "¨¨¨¨¨¨¨ it! Done. We go?"
  7537. Chaiila looked up from where she was sitting, chin on
  7538. hand. "Why?" she snorted as she rose to her feet. "What can
  7539. possibly beat this place for sheer excitement?"
  7540. Sekher wasn't sorry to leave that place. It called back too
  7541. many uncomfortable memories. He shuddered, then nudged the
  7542. shen and moved up alongside Seth'Nai whose mouth twitched as
  7543. he bared teeth. "Not far."
  7544. "Not far. Right," Sekher sighed, then cocked his head to
  7545. one side to ask, "How did they catch you?"
  7546. "They ¨¨¨¨¨¨¨ me. I fool. I fall," Seth'Nai pointed at one of
  7547. the cliff tops and indicated a bouncing path down the nearly
  7548. sheer face. "¨¨¨¨¨¨¨ in cage. You looking at me."
  7549. "Seth'Nai, what ARE you?"
  7550. The creature turned away and scratched at his ear. For a
  7551. few beats Sekher believed he wouldn't reply, then the voice said,
  7552. "You wait. I show you. You wait."
  7554. --\o/--
  7556. So Sekher waited.
  7557. They left the trail behind and struck out in a westerly
  7558. direction. That pathetic little trace of civilization vanished into
  7559. the grasses and left the grasslands to the scattered herds of
  7560. Longrazers that drifted across it on their yearly migration,
  7561. Hitherdarts perched on the backs occasionally taking to the air
  7562. to peruse among the swarms of insects. In the sky above the
  7563. clouds shared the azure emptiness with the remote specks that
  7564. were Broadwings, searching the grasslands for their next meal.
  7565. Sekher shifted awkwardly on his mount. With only two
  7566. saddles for the shen they had to take it in shifts, and at this
  7567. moment was his turn to use one of the worn coarse-weave
  7568. blankets in lieu of a saddle. It wasn't a very satisfactory
  7569. substitute.
  7570. He stole a surreptitious glance across at Chaiila to see
  7571. how she was doing. Drifting? No, just staring off into the
  7572. middle distance, one hand absently stroking her abdomen.
  7573. Thinking. About what? Sekher wondered.
  7574. That night?
  7575. And he wondered also, not for the first time. Had his
  7576. seed taken? Was she going to bear? Gods! He, Sekher Che,
  7577. siring cubs. . . the concept was. . . not an idea he'd ever harboured
  7578. before. How long would it be before she knew for sure? He
  7579. glanced at her again and wondered if she would let him be with
  7580. her for the pouching. Male or female? Pray for male. How
  7581. different would life be knowing there was a small part of him living
  7582. on in the world?
  7583. Perhaps he may even get around to meeting them some
  7584. day. Huh. If, if, if. There was no way to be certain and it was a
  7585. sure waste of time to worry over something that may never be.
  7586. When the time was right surely Chaiila would. . .
  7587. "GODS!"
  7588. He almost fell off his shen in shock at Nersi's scream.
  7589. "What are you. . . " Chaiila began, then gasped, "Oh,
  7590. shave it! Not again!"
  7591. From their left, moving fast up the flank of a rolling hill
  7592. to meet them. It was a low, blocky thing that was all angled
  7593. planes, about the size of a shen, a mottled yellow-brown that
  7594. blurred into the grasses and scrub behind it. Six blackrimmed
  7595. wheels sent clods of earth flying as it sped over the rough
  7596. ground, the only noise it made was the crackling of crushed
  7597. foliage. It slowed as it approached, a turret on its top deck
  7598. rotating to keep several dark slots pointed their way. About
  7599. fifteen paces away it stopped, waiting.
  7600. "Another one," Chaiila growled, hauling her shen back
  7601. to huddle with the other two Trenalbi. "How many of them are
  7602. there? Where're they coming from?!"
  7603. "It looked like it was waiting for us," said Nersi, staring
  7604. at it with pupils huge and square. "One beat it wasn't there, the
  7605. next it. . . I only saw it when it started moving. It looked like a
  7606. rock."
  7607. Seth'Nai was watching their reaction with another
  7608. confoundedly opaque expression. He bared his teeth then
  7609. reigned his shen around to ride back to them. "Is alright. Is
  7610. friend," he assured them with another flash of teeth. As if
  7611. THAT would reassure. . .
  7612. "Cousin," Chaiila started as Nersi nudged her shen
  7613. toward the thing. "Careful. . . "
  7614. Nersi rode close. The turret on the thing turned to track
  7615. her as she leaned forward and tapped it with a claw, then she
  7616. looked at Seth'Nai. "Metal. Machine?"
  7617. "No understand," he said.
  7618. "Like that?" she pointed at his wrist. "Tool. Machine."
  7619. "Like this," he held up his arm. "Yes. Like this. "He
  7620. tapped the thing on his wrist and the next time he spoke his
  7621. voice boomed out of the wheeled thing. "Like this. All one. All
  7622. same. Joined."
  7623. Nersi jerked back in alarm.
  7624. "Sorry," Seth'Nai's voice sounded again, at more
  7625. normal levels and from the right place.
  7626. Nersi's lip twitched to flash teeth and this time it was
  7627. Seth'Nai who appeared discomforted. "Not far now,ah?" she said.
  7628. "No. Not far,"he replied then turned his shen around and
  7629. set off again. The machine waited.
  7630. The Trenalbi hesitated, then Nersi followed Seth'Nai,
  7631. then Sekher followed her tracks. There was another pause
  7632. before he heard a muttered curse, then the snort as Chaiila clawed
  7633. her shen into motion. With a crackling of scratchbush beneath
  7634. wheels, the machine rolled after them.
  7636. --\o/--
  7638. Atop a broad, windswept hilltop littered with twisted
  7639. scratchbush and weather-worn rocks Seth'Nai stopped his shen
  7640. then threw back his head and let out a howl that set Sekher's skin
  7641. to crawling and caused his mount to balk.
  7642. "That's it," moaned Chaiila, spreading her arms as if
  7643. appealing to the Gods. "It's gone mad!"
  7644. "Huh! Well something's got him excited," said Nersi.
  7645. "Anyone curious?"
  7646. Seth'Nai was waiting for them, his face contorted in a
  7647. grin fit to petrify cubs. As the Trenalbi approached he waved his
  7648. arm in a broad sweep as if offering to them the land that lay ahead.
  7649. They stopped and stared, squinting, at a distant
  7650. shape squatting on a hill.
  7651. "So, what is it?" Chaiila asked.
  7652. "Can't really tell," confessed Sekher. "Looks like a hut
  7653. of some kind. . . To far to see."
  7654. "Seth'Nai," called Nersi. "Is that it?"
  7655. The creature looked at her and the grin wavered,
  7656. then vanished. "Yes. Go there. Please. Not you. . . you do not be
  7657. afraid. Not hurt you. No afraid." He stretched out a hand to her,
  7658. "Please, trust?"
  7659. Nersi glanced at Sekher, then Chaiila, then nudged her
  7660. shen forward and touched the outstretched hand. "All right.
  7661. Trust." Seth'Nai's pale digits closed around her hand, squeezed,
  7662. then released her. Without further ado he awkwardly reigned his
  7663. shen around and started it trotting toward the far-off structure.
  7664. The Trenalbi exchanged glances and set off after him.
  7665. It was Chaiila that noticed they were being watched.
  7666. "Over there," she pointed at a bush. Something small
  7667. and many-legged scuttled for the cover of shadows. "Also,
  7668. have you noticed anything strange about that broadwing?"
  7669. Sekher looked up at the circling flyer. "No. . . It has been
  7670. up there a long time, ah?"
  7671. "Yeah, they don't usually hang around one place like
  7672. that unless there's something dying, then there's plenty more than
  7673. one of the greedy bastards. . . Look! There!"
  7674. Sekher snapped his head around in time to see a
  7675. small, silver thing scuttling through the grass on six jointed
  7676. legs. Small glassy eyes stared back at him then it was gone
  7677. behind a rock.
  7678. "Ka!" Chaiila was coughing in distaste. "What in all the
  7679. hells was THAT?!"
  7680. "Another of Seth'Nai's toys?" Sekher suggested. "He's
  7681. got eyes everywhere."
  7682. "Huh!" Chaiila was still staring at the spot where the
  7683. thing had disappeared. "Do you you think that's why he was
  7684. telling us not to be scared?"
  7685. "Uh. . . " Sekher wasn't watching her. "No."
  7686. "No?"
  7687. "No. Huhn. . . I think THAT'S why." Sekher pointed
  7688. ahead, noticing without a great deal of surprise that his finger was
  7689. trembling.
  7690. Chaiila looked and her ruff went flat.
  7691. The structure they'd seen earlier wasn't a hut. It was
  7692. simply the top of something bigger.
  7693. Much bigger.
  7694. Not quite the size of a garrison stronghold, although
  7695. coming close, it nestled in a trail of torn, churned earth. A
  7696. nearby hill had had its crest violently removed and scattered
  7697. around the construction. Cliff-like walls of a white material
  7698. etched with peculiar markings rose a sheer forty paces into the
  7699. sky. Its flat apex was topped by a ridge running from one tapered
  7700. end to the flared other and bristling with peculiar projections.
  7701. That ridge rose above the hilltops. That was what they'd seen.
  7702. "A hut of some kind." Chaiila braked, then began
  7703. chittering. "A hutttttt. . . "
  7704. She was chittering still as Seth'Nai led them down
  7705. toward the edifice. Only as its shadow fell over them did she fall
  7706. silent. It was there that Seth'Nai dismounted and bade them do he
  7707. same. None of the Trenalbi spoke as they followed suit,
  7708. mutely unloading the weary, nervous shen of cargo and tack,
  7709. then hobbling them and setting them free to graze. They
  7710. continued on foot.
  7711. Sekher could feel his ears stuck firm to his skull, his tail
  7712. as rigid as a moss-covered stick. It loomed. . . it towered above
  7713. them. The torn earth around them was littered with tracks of all
  7714. kinds, flattened where heavy wheels had rolled. As they moved
  7715. closer Sekher was able to see the whole structure was raised off
  7716. the ground on four huge constructions of struts and beams that
  7717. vanished into slots in the underbelly. The area was alive, was
  7718. seething, with scurrying shapes, some tiny, multilegged things,
  7719. others large wheeled things the size of wagons, others with no
  7720. means of support visible at all. Metal glinted and clanked and
  7721. grated among the shadows as the things darted about their tasks.
  7722. Trails of twisted cables and wisps of smoke came from dark
  7723. tunnels bored into the ground. A large wheeled vehicle would
  7724. approach a hole, line itself up, then roll down into the tunnel and
  7725. out of sight. Away in the distance there were metallic clashing
  7726. noises. Periodically a high screeching sound could be heard
  7727. accompanied by a shower of sparks from the far end of the
  7728. edifice.
  7729. The Trenalbi had fallen into shocked, absolute,
  7730. silence, staring upwards with square eyes as they moved
  7731. beneath that incredible mass. Sekher cringed as a wheeled
  7732. monstrosity of battered metal rolled towards him then smoothly
  7733. detoured around to continue on its way. Chaiila yipped and
  7734. skipped into the air as a scuttling silver thing on legs skittered
  7735. underfoot. Nersi was staying close by Seth'Nai with one hand
  7736. clutching almost unconsciously at his arm as he strode arrow-
  7737. straight through the madness.
  7738. Between the massive front legs a thick ramp led down
  7739. from a door in the underbelly of the behemoth. The opening was
  7740. easily the size of a peasant's small cottage and flanked by odd
  7741. symbols, black and yellow stripes, and flashing lights. The
  7742. ramp was metal, solid metal, and cold against Sekher's toes as
  7743. they started up. At the top a vehicle with four solid jointed legs,
  7744. flashing red lights, and a cluster of powerful arms was standing
  7745. motionless. As soon as they were out of the way it clattered down
  7746. the ramp.
  7747. Sekher was beginning to feel ill. Too much strangeness!
  7748. Too fast!
  7749. And this chamber!
  7750. There was metal. Everywhere metal! Gods! There wasn't
  7751. this much hard steel in the world! It glittered, it clattered.
  7752. Flashing red and orange lights reflected from polished surfaces
  7753. and spills of liquid. The floor was a mesh of metal grids that
  7754. were uncomfortable to stand on. Above, the ceiling was hidden
  7755. behind convolutions and clusters of tubes and beams and
  7756. stranger things. Walls were dark, broken faces of shadowy
  7757. alcoves and dazzling lights, dark metal glistening with
  7758. condensation, clusters of small glass squares blinking green
  7759. lights. Small machines with six legs scuttled across the floor,
  7760. walls and ceiling with equal facility. The air was heavy with the
  7761. tangy scent one smelled before a storm, along with other less-
  7762. definable scents and also the faint, underlying spice of Trenalbi
  7763. fear. Booming noises reverberated as larger devices manoeuvered.
  7764. Sparks flew as brilliant lights flared in the distance.
  7765. At Sekher's side, Chaiila's eyes were eclipsed by the
  7766. milkiness of her nictitating eyelid. Her lips moved soundlessly
  7767. and she walked as if in drift, clutching her saddlebag and
  7768. stumbling occasionally on the awkward footing. With nowhere
  7769. else to go, the Trenalbi followed Seth'Nai as he led them through
  7770. the dim confusion to a section of wall that, at a touch from his
  7771. hand, slid aside in a spill of cool, clean white light.
  7772. The noise was abruptly cut off as the door closed
  7773. behind them. There was a small room with white walls and floor
  7774. and another door in the far wall. Beyond was an octagonal
  7775. corridor and more metal, more of that accursed grillwork on the
  7776. floor. No noise, save for a soft, pervading hum. The light
  7777. coming from rectangular panels set along the ceiling and walls
  7778. was bright and even, with none of the flickering or smoking so
  7779. characteristic of oil or wood.
  7780. Another metal door - incredibly thick - slid aside with a
  7781. high whine as they approached and they entered a room with
  7782. several more similar doors around its periphery. The walls were
  7783. covered with what looked like small cupboard doors and nets
  7784. clamped pieces of what could be either machinery or art or junk
  7785. to the floor. Seth'Nai slapped his hand against a glowing
  7786. triangle beside a door and after a pause the door hissed and slid
  7787. back into the wall. The room beyond was small, and with no
  7788. apparent exit. It resembled a cell. Seth'Nai stepped in and
  7789. looked back at the reluctant Trenalbi. "Come," he said, beckoning.
  7790. "Uh-uh," Chaiila took three steps backward. "No. . . I'm
  7791. not going in there!"
  7792. Seth'Nai's forehead wrinkled. "Please. Come."
  7793. "No." This time it was Nersi who spoke against him.
  7794. "Seth'Nai, not until you tell us: What IS this place!?"
  7795. Seth'Nai blinked and rubbed at his chin. "Is ¨¨¨¨¨¨¨."
  7796. The words sputtered into incoherence. "Is my home," he said
  7797. again. "I am ¨¨¨¨¨¨¨. Come, I show you."
  7798. None of the Trenalbi moved.
  7799. "Nersi?" Seth'Nai appealed. "Please, is safe."
  7800. She hugged the saddlebags she was carrying close to
  7801. her chest, her claws scoring the leather, then uttered a strangled
  7802. sound and stepped forward to stand beside the creature. She
  7803. flinched as Seth'Nai laid a hand among the fur on her shoulder
  7804. while they waited.
  7805. Sekher looked at Chaiila. "You really want to wait
  7806. around here?"
  7807. Chaiila's ears went back and she huddled close by
  7808. Sekher's side as he walked across the threshold. Seth'Nai's mouth
  7809. twisted up and he tapped a symbol on the wall. The doors
  7810. thumped shut, they jumped then abruptly Sekher staggered. It
  7811. was as if someone had dropped a weight on his shoulders and to
  7812. judge by Nersi and Chaiilas' startled yelps they felt it too. As
  7813. quickly as the feeling came it turned, like his guts were floating,
  7814. then he staggered as they dropped back into place. The doors
  7815. opened and the Trenalbi, all three, leapt out, the fear-stink
  7816. pouring out after them.
  7817. Seth'Nai shook his head and picked up the bags the
  7818. Trenalbi had dropped before joining them.
  7819. This wasn't where they'd entered. . . !
  7820. What?!
  7821. Sekher stared, trying to understand. The room was
  7822. gone, as was the bare metal and noise. This was a corridor,
  7823. octagonal like the others, but the wall were a clean white, washed
  7824. with bright light. The discomfort underfoot was gone, the
  7825. metal grids replaced by a beige floor covering softer than sand.
  7826. The air. . .
  7827. And Sekher inhaled deeply, curling his tongue to taste
  7828. the scent the better. It was. . . strange. Fresher, for certain, but
  7829. also laced with unfamiliar traces that told him nothing.
  7830. It was less intimidating than the scenes they'd seen
  7831. just beats earlier, but all these changes, one after the other. . .
  7832. "All right?" Seth'Nai asked, touching his arm.
  7833. Sekher sucked a lungful of air and shook his head to
  7834. clear it. "I think so."
  7835. "You be fine," Seth'Nai assured him. "Come."
  7836. The floor covering was warm underfoot. Along the
  7837. corridor walls were floor to ceiling white rectangles that could
  7838. have been doors. Spaced along between them were pictures of
  7839. things that made no sense to Sekher: brilliant balls of light
  7840. beyond a desolate rock landscape; forests with strange
  7841. plants and multicoloured creatures flying; a ball of blue and
  7842. white and green suspended against black. . . There was simply no
  7843. time to study them.
  7844. And the room the corridor opened out into was enough
  7845. to take his mind off such things.
  7846. There was bright light, a room with a sunken section in
  7847. the middle in which large cushions embellished with exotic,
  7848. almost alien, designs were set. Boxes of what looked like glass
  7849. were set around the rim of the sunken area, with dew beading
  7850. on their inner faces. Sekher moved closer and saw a tiny bush,
  7851. no. . . tree, set amidst immaculately kept sand.
  7852. It was no plant he had ever heard of.
  7853. Chaiila was staring at the windows situated around the
  7854. room. Huge strips of glass from the floor to the ceiling, then
  7855. Sekher realised that beyond the windows, instead of the
  7856. plains, mountains and valleys surrounded them, the view was as
  7857. if they were atop a high peak. Pictures again? No, they couldn't
  7858. be; there were distant flyers riding the skies.
  7859. There was a motion in the corner of his eye. He jumped
  7860. again and shied back as one of the many-legged things scuttled
  7861. up to him and just stood there, its glassy eyes locked on him.
  7862. Another of the things approached the females who hastily backed
  7863. away. "Ah, give bags," Seth'Nai told them. By now Sekher
  7864. was certain the grin it gave at times like this bespoke
  7865. amusement. Gods burn it!
  7866. He stepped forward and handed over the weight of the
  7867. saddle and tack, then unslung the bag. The forelegs came up and
  7868. the feet seemed to. . . reform, parts slipping and realigning,
  7869. turning into pincers that took the burden that was easily the same
  7870. size as its carapace. Without a sound the things turned and
  7871. scuttled off down another corridor.
  7872. "Please," Seth'Nai waved a hand toward the cushions,
  7873. "sit."
  7874. An intimidated procession of Trenalbi moved across to
  7875. sit. Their surprised yelps sounded as one as the cushions moved
  7876. and shifted under them. They sat motionless, hardly daring to
  7877. move while Seth'Nai left them and returned a few beats later
  7878. bearing a tray with four glasses on it. He passed one to each of
  7879. the Trenalbi, who cautiously sniffed them then looked at him.
  7880. He took a sip then noticed their stares. "Just water,"
  7881. he assured.
  7882. Sekher plucked up the courage first. The glass was made
  7883. of something that wasn't glass. It rattled against his teeth and
  7884. the water tasted like. . . water. He stared at the cup, somewhat
  7885. surprised at this mundanity.
  7886. "Seth'Nai," Nersi leaned forward, holding her drink
  7887. between her knees in shaking hands. "What. . . what is this. . .
  7888. place?"
  7889. The creature took another drink before answering.
  7890. "My home," he said. "I come here. . . couple day before I see you,
  7891. Sekher. I not know Trenalbi here. Mistake."
  7892. "But this place! The metal! Where. . . ?" Nersi's mouth
  7893. opened and closed as she tried to give voice to the logjam of
  7894. questions.
  7895. "I am a ¨¨¨¨¨¨¨." He frowned as his words were garbled.
  7896. "What I do. I. . . dig. I find metal."
  7897. "Miner," Sekher provided automatically, then shrugged
  7898. when the females looked at him.
  7899. "Yes, miner," Seth'Nai bobbed his head. "I have
  7900. accident, have to come here, then find Trenalbi. Not . . . not what
  7901. I wanted to do. Now I have to stay. Not able to leave for. . . two
  7902. around Lightbringer."
  7903. "Two around lightbringer?" Nersi puzzled.
  7904. "Two years," Chaiila provided.
  7905. "Two years, yes," Seth'Nai agreed.
  7906. "Seth'Nai," Sekher leaned forward, his muzzle wrinkled.
  7907. "You came a couple of days before you met me. How can you
  7908. build all this," he swept an arm, "in just two days?!"
  7909. Seth'Nai mulled that over, then shook his head. "Not
  7910. make. I come in this."
  7911. The Trenalbi exchanged glances.
  7912. "From where?" Sekher asked.
  7913. Seth'Nai stared at him.
  7914. "BURN YOU!" Sekher howled. "Tell us! You drag us
  7915. halfway across the Gods-spawned world, you owe us an
  7916. explanation! I asked you before and you turned you tail: are you
  7917. from the sky?!"
  7918. Seth'Nai stared, his throat bobbed. He growled
  7919. something, then said, very softly, "Yes."
  7920. There was silence.
  7921. "Are you a God?" Chaiila asked.
  7922. Seth'Nai blinked. "What is a 'God'?"
  7923. They looked at one another. What WAS a God?
  7924. "Uh," Nersi scratched a ear, "a Creator. One of the
  7925. Balance, the essence, the all. They are everywhere. They build
  7926. the world, all life, the Lightbringer."
  7927. Seth'Nai looked at one of the windows and growled
  7928. something. There was an answering growl from nowhere and
  7929. the window vanished, to be replaced by a smooth blackness on
  7930. which lines of peculiar green symbols appeared. For a few beats
  7931. Seth'Nai studied these, then said, "No. I am no God."
  7932. "Then WHAT?!"
  7933. He hung his head and the whole strange body heaved.
  7934. Then, with a peculiar grimace he met Sekher's gaze with stone-
  7935. grey eyes. "I am human," he said. That word, it was a sound
  7936. never intended for normal mouths: low and moaning. "Like
  7937. you are Trenalbi, I am human. I come from. . . ah, I think you
  7938. call the Hole."
  7939. They stared.
  7940. "There," Seth'Nai grinned. "I have just broken all ¨¨¨¨¨¨¨
  7941. in the book telling you."
  7942. "This. . . " Sekher choked, "Can you prove this?"
  7943. Seth'Nai's other voice rumbled.
  7944. The light dimmed, the windows vanishing, until only a
  7945. minute glow lit the room.
  7946. In the blackness a blue-white crescent swam into sight. Slowly it
  7947. moved toward them, rotating until the appeared to hang above it
  7948. as it slowly rolled below them.
  7949. There were gasps from the Trenalbi as a rim of fire flared
  7950. over the horizon and a brilliant white orb climbed above them.
  7951. Below, white swirled and circled across blue, then the blue
  7952. turned to browns and greens.
  7953. The view tilted and the horizon shifted and began
  7954. climbing the screen. Gradually the blackness began to fade to
  7955. blue, to black, then back to blue. The whiteness reappeared,
  7956. this time directly before them in a solid mass that ripped toward
  7957. them in an eyeblink and parted. . .
  7958. Clouds. . .
  7959. The land below. . .
  7960. Sekher watched, spellbound. He saw the world, the
  7961. circle of mountains upon the face of that giant ball. Beyond
  7962. the Ramparts. . . lands only dreamed of. It was as it had been back
  7963. in the tower, the air above Seth'Nai's wrist shimmering with that
  7964. blue-white ball. . .
  7965. This.
  7966. The sea, glinting like grey metal under the sun, flashing
  7967. by too fast to follow, then land again, then the nightbound
  7968. Ramparts. If the world was that big, yet appeared small on the
  7969. face of the ball, and they had just circled it, then how FAST. . . ?!
  7970. Clouds. This time black, threatening, and they were in
  7971. them. Lightning flared, dazzling them. They were slowing, circling
  7972. and dropping from the clouds and the ground was huge, coming
  7973. up everywhere, a hill.
  7974. Instinctively Sekher threw his arms up and the lights
  7975. came on.
  7976. Chaiila started chittering and gasping uncontrollably.
  7977. Seth'Nai moved toward her, "She is all right?"
  7978. "KEEP AWAY!" Chaiila yowled at him.
  7979. A shaking Sekher touched the creature's arm. Seth'Nai
  7980. turned toward him, his eyes. . . confused? "I am sorry," he said.
  7981. "I didn't know. . . "
  7982. "Please," Sekher said. "Just leave her for a while."
  7983. The pale head bobbed. "For Chaiila and Nersi. There is a
  7984. room to rest and wash. Another for you."
  7985. Sekher tipped his head to the side. "That would be
  7986. appreciated."
  7987. The room was back down the corridor they'd entered
  7988. by. Seth'Nai demonstrated how to open the door. Inside was a
  7989. short corridor, just a couple of paces long where he touched a
  7990. glowing square and the lights came on. As with the rest of
  7991. Seth'Nai's domicile the room was odd, with angled walls panelled
  7992. with a dark wood with a peculiar grain. Hanging plants nestled in
  7993. recessed niches while above what looked like a chair and a desk
  7994. of some black material, a wide window looked out over jagged
  7995. mountains. Set at right angles to each other in the corners to the
  7996. left of the door, two beds were set into alcoves in the wall.
  7997. Shelves enclosed by a faint shimmering on another wall
  7998. supported a multitude of small object. Spots of light from no
  7999. discernible source were cast on the walls, illuminating the
  8000. room in a comfortable light.
  8001. Seth'Nai pointed at another door opposite. "Water in
  8002. there," he said. "To wash. I show you how to use. . . "
  8003. "Not now," Sekher stopped him. "Thank you, but can
  8004. we rest now?"
  8005. Seth'Nai blinked at him, then bobbed his head. "I
  8006. understand. I go. If you have questions, just ask."
  8007. "Ask who?"
  8008. "Just ask." Seth'Nai waved an arm, "¨¨¨¨¨¨¨ will answer."
  8009. "Oh," Sekher's ears wilted in confusion as Seth'Nai
  8010. turned and left the room. The door made a hissing sound as it
  8011. closed behind him. Sekher waited a few beats, then went to the
  8012. door and pressed his hands against the pad in the wall. The
  8013. door obligingly whipped open almost too fast to see. He waited
  8014. and it shut again.
  8015. Chaiila slumped on the edge of one of the beds,
  8016. staring across the room at the window beyond which the
  8017. mountains rose like jagged teeth to sink into the underbellies of
  8018. clouds. Nersi had opened the other door and was poking around
  8019. in the next room.
  8020. Sekher sat down on the other bunk without speaking.
  8021. Nersi's small bag of belongings had been set there.
  8022. "Che?"
  8023. Chaiila was regarding him with wide eyes. "How can you
  8024. be so calm! How can you. . . Che, what's wrong with me?!"
  8025. "Wrong? Chaiila, I'm as scared as you , we all are, you
  8026. can smell it! There's nothing wrong with you. Chaiila, you
  8027. smoothtalked your way into one of the most heavily guarded
  8028. places in the world, then practically walked out again. You've
  8029. weathered things that would have most Trenalbi shedding."
  8030. "It has," she sighed glumly, reaching up to pull several
  8031. strands of fur from her ruff. "That. . . picture he showed us. . .
  8032. That was the world, wasn't it. He does come from the sky."
  8033. Sekher's ears twitched. "Yah, but he is no god."
  8034. From the adjacent room came the sudden sound of
  8035. running water and an insulted yowl. Nersi emerged, dripping wet.
  8036. "I think I just found the bath," she said sheepishly as she wrung
  8037. her cloak out.
  8038. Sekher caught his tail to stop it lashing and moved
  8039. across to the desk while Nersi tried to dry herself. The chair
  8040. would be uncomfortable; there was no provision for a tail. The
  8041. desk was a featureless slab of something that wasn't stone or
  8042. wood or metal. He leaned on it to examine the window behind it.
  8043. "Does this view change too?"
  8044. "Yes," said the desk.
  8045. A bodylength from a standing start. In retrospect it
  8046. wasn't a bad jump, but then a severe shock can be a great
  8047. motivator. This was going beyond a joke, the thought spun
  8048. through his head as he crouched panting hard; too many things
  8049. were starting to speak.
  8050. It had been Seth'Nai's voice, but he was nowhere to
  8051. be seen."
  8052. Who said that!" Sekher snarled. "Seth'Nai?!"
  8053. "No."
  8054. "WHO?"
  8055. "I am ¨¨¨¨¨¨¨ ten-tens and five. Made thinking machine
  8056. ¨¨¨¨¨¨¨ at ¨¨¨¨¨¨¨. . . "
  8057. "SHUT IT!" Sekher yowled.
  8058. The voice stopped.
  8059. "Now," he was trembling again, dammit all to the
  8060. deepest hells, "you are not Seth'Nai."
  8061. "Correct."
  8062. "What was that you said. . . machine?"
  8063. "Correct."
  8064. Sekher's mind whirled helplessly. A. . . machine?
  8065. Talking to him? No. A machine was a water-clock, an arbalest, a
  8066. wagon. They didn't talk, they didn't think.
  8067. Yet all those devices down below were working by
  8068. themselves, with no guiding hand.
  8069. He sank down on the chair, rubbing at the bristles on
  8070. his face. Well, Seth'Nai had said to ask questions. . .
  8071. "Do you have a name?"
  8072. "To say your way may be 'first-female'. Or cooking tool."
  8073. He frowned. "You're female?"
  8074. "Not male or female. Just a name."
  8075. He thought about it and supposed it made sense. "So. . .
  8076. First, can you change the picture?"
  8077. "Yes. To what?"
  8078. "Show us a town."
  8079. "I cannot do that," the machine replied.
  8080. "What? Why?"
  8081. "I am forbidden."
  8082. Sekher's lip began to curl in a snarl and he glanced
  8083. around at the other Trenalbi. Nersi had backed away and was
  8084. watching warily, but with interest. Chaiila. . .
  8085. Chaiila was curled in a ball up on the bunk, ears
  8086. plastered flat, hands locked across her eyes.
  8087. "Gods burn it. . . Show something restful; water,
  8088. plains, something flat! Then shut it!" He spat the words, heedless
  8089. of the result as he turned to Chaiila. Behind him the window
  8090. flickered and they were looking out across a golden savannah,
  8091. distant herds moving against a backdrop of purple cloud, the rain
  8092. below nearly a solid column supporting them. The air in the room
  8093. also seemed to change: he could almost smell rain and freshness.
  8094. Chaiila flinched as he touched her shoulder. Her
  8095. muscles felt like darter springs. "Chaiila? It's alright. You're safe.
  8096. Ah? Come on, nothing's going to hurt you."
  8097. She made a small sound.
  8098. Slowly Sekher began ruffling the fur on her shoulder
  8099. with his fingertips, carefully preening through it, then tongueing
  8100. it smooth, tasting the dust, the dirt, her scent as he cleaned her
  8101. slowly, the ancient way, then grooming again with his fingers and
  8102. stubby claws. . .
  8103. She rolled over and wrapped her arms around his
  8104. neck, burying her muzzle against his chest. She didn't speak,
  8105. didn't moved, neither did he; they just lay there, taking their
  8106. comfort from the other's heartbeat.
  8108. --\o/--
  8110. Grooming.
  8111. Nersi watched the pair huddled together on the
  8112. bunk, Sekher's hands and teeth working at knots in Chaiila's dark
  8113. ruff, feeling a peculiar wave of envy wash over her. She shook her
  8114. head and smiled at the absurdity of it. Envy, huh! This Sekher
  8115. was probably the best thing to happen to her for a long time and
  8116. he had done a remarkable job in reassuring her. Amusing to
  8117. think that only a couple of days ago he had never so much as
  8118. touched a female before.
  8119. She scratched at her still-damp arm, then looked at the
  8120. window where rain was spattering soundlessly against the pane.
  8121. For a few beats she stared, then left the others to their
  8122. togetherness.
  8123. The corridor was empty when she stuck her head out,
  8124. no sign of Seth'Nai or anything else. There were other doors in
  8125. the hall. She approached the next one down the corridor and
  8126. touched the red triangle in the centre. Nothing happened. She
  8127. frowned; did that mean she had done something wrong? or was it
  8128. locked?
  8129. She ran a finger over the smooth material the door was
  8130. made of, thinking. Then she moved to the door opposite the
  8131. room Chaiila and Sekher occupied. This time the portal slid
  8132. aside at her touch, the sound and smell of water wafting out.
  8133. Another strange room. Well, in general appearance it
  8134. was similar to the other one, with the bed and window, but it
  8135. differed in details. The floor covering was a different color, a light
  8136. brown. The shelves were filled with an impressive number of
  8137. books, enough to rival a royal library. The adjoining room was
  8138. filled with misty clouds of steam that refused to cross the
  8139. threshold.
  8140. Cautiously, nervously, Nersi stepped inside, her feet
  8141. soundless on the floor covering, tracing fingertips along the
  8142. wall. She breathed out in awe at the books on their shelves,
  8143. tucked safely away behind glass: So many, and with such a
  8144. worn and ancient air about them. Seth'Nai's bag was tossed on
  8145. one of the beds alongside a pile of clothing that would suit only
  8146. something like that creature.
  8147. A familiar low rumbling sounded above the running
  8148. water. Nersi cocked her head, turning to regard the door to
  8149. the adjoining steam-filled room curiously. What WAS he doing
  8150. in there?
  8151. Her third eyelid flicked out and briefly blurred her vision
  8152. when she stepped through the door. She stopped to orientate
  8153. herself, squinting through the murk. The white room was similar,
  8154. not identical, but similar to the one in the other room. There was
  8155. a small chamber like the one in which she had inadvertently
  8156. drenched herself, Seth'Nai was standing beneath the shower of
  8157. water, his back to her and face upturned to one of the jets.
  8158. She studied him curiously. He really was different
  8159. without clothing, and by the Gods, not having a tail looked
  8160. strange. When he reached up to wipe water away from eyes you
  8161. could see exactly how the muscles moved under that fragile hide.
  8162. Then Seth'Nai turned and recoiled with a loud bark. "Uh.
  8163. . . Hello," said Nersi.
  8164. He sagged, leaning against a wall of the cubical, then
  8165. glared and growled at her.
  8166. "Oh, I startled you, ah?" she fought back a muzzle-
  8167. twitching smile. "Sorry."
  8168. He blinked at her with droplets of water running down
  8169. his pale face, and she realised he couldn't understand her.
  8170. Without his little device he was as deaf and dumb as the day she
  8171. had met him. She remembered that; seeing him like an apparition
  8172. through the smoke in the dungeon. Now, she was seeing him
  8173. blurred through steam and there was none of that fear that had
  8174. flooded through her. Almost hairless hide slick with water. He. . .
  8175. He was he. . . she was jolted with shock and disbelief as she felt
  8176. the stirrings deep within her, scents barely perceptible tinged the
  8177. air.
  8178. She looked away in a wave of embarrassment.
  8179. "Ah, sorry," she mumbled again, abruptly anxious to be
  8180. away and clumsy in her haste. Her claws didn't help, catching in
  8181. piece of clothing left on the smooth floor, tangling around her
  8182. feet, skidding out from under her and sending her over
  8183. backwards into pouring water and a pair of smooth hands
  8184. catching her under her arms before she had a chance to hit.
  8185. "Gods burned clumsy fool," she berrated herself while
  8186. sitting on the floor with water pouring down, soaking her and
  8187. pooling around her and a weird male kneeling over her. She
  8188. looked up into the grinning face of Seth'Nai. "That wasn't the
  8189. most graceful thing you've ever seen, ah? Almost as bad as you.
  8190. Thank the Pantheon you can't understand me."
  8191. Still, she took the hand he offered and clambered to
  8192. her feet to look down at herself in a mixture of disgust and
  8193. amusement: fur sopping wet, her breeks soaked, both dripping
  8194. trails of mud that swirled away down grills in the floor. That
  8195. wave of emotion earlier, that had abated. . . .Ah, well, at least the
  8196. water was warm. Wonderfully warm. She closed her eyes and
  8197. sighed as the stream pulsed on her head, caressing her as she had
  8198. never known water could.
  8199. A few beats later Seth'Nai was helping her balance
  8200. while she struggled out of grimy clothes that seemed to have
  8201. grown to her. He threw them from the cubicle then helped her get
  8202. clean.
  8203. "Who would think to make water do this?" Her
  8204. rhetorical question was unanswered and she kept tapping a claw
  8205. against the small grid of squares marked with little pictures. Each
  8206. one made the water come from different directions. A
  8207. horizontal bar with a blue-to-red gradient let her change the
  8208. pressure and temperature.
  8209. "Hot or cold water," she grinned and changed the
  8210. water to hot pulsating needles that struck her from head to toe.
  8211. "Gods, that feels good. . . Higher. . . No lower, down there. . . "
  8212. Seth'Nai rumbled something and moved the brush to
  8213. scrub the spot between her shoulders where she pointed with her
  8214. tail. The dirt was long gone down the drain and what with the
  8215. grooming and the hot water, the knots in her muscles were going
  8216. the same way. He took some time to examine the still-healing
  8217. wound on her leg that still gave her twinges of pain when
  8218. pressed. When she hissed in sudden pain he just patted her flank
  8219. and left it.
  8220. There were strangely scented liquids and soaps that
  8221. Seth'Nai assisted in rubbing into her pelt, his fingers lingering
  8222. and swirling through her fur. When rinsed out she smelled odd
  8223. and her skin tingled, but her pelt felt. . . clean.
  8224. Drying off was no ordeal. Nersi flinched when the the
  8225. jets of water turned to blasts of hot air that buffeted her,
  8226. insinuating itself beneath her fur in warm waves. She closed her
  8227. eyes and let the wind wash around her. "You know," she
  8228. sighed, "I think I could get used to this."
  8229. Seth'Nai dried off a lot faster than she did. He left,
  8230. taking her trail-stained clothing with him, returning shortly after
  8231. with others that he left outside the cubicle for her.
  8232. Nersi's fur was gleaming, her ruff puffed out in glorious
  8233. golden disarray when she stepped from the booth. She picked
  8234. up the clothes Seth'Nai had procured and examined them
  8235. curiously; a pair of long breeches and a jerkin, both of unusual
  8236. make and texture. She discarded the jerkin and tried the
  8237. breeches. They were of a copper color that was almost metallic,
  8238. with black angular markings down the legs and around the waist.
  8239. Stretchable bands around the hips and legs stretched and held
  8240. them in place as well as any belt could. The slot in the back
  8241. wasn't fitted with clasps as with normal breeks, so she had to
  8242. spend a short while threading her tail through.
  8243. Seth'Nai looked up when she stepped out into the main
  8244. room. He was sitting at the desk, wearing a loose-fitting, one-
  8245. piece white garment that appeared to be breeches and jerkin in
  8246. one. "Look better," he greeted her. His talk-device was once again
  8247. strapped to his wrist.
  8248. "Thanks," she replied. "Ah, there's something else I
  8249. wanted to ask. . . "
  8250. Seth'Nai listened, then his speaker barked a laugh. He
  8251. took her back into the washing room and showed her the facilities
  8252. she needed, then left, shutting the door behind him.
  8253. It was an awkward and new experience. Still, she
  8254. finished her business without misshap, touched the square
  8255. Seth'Nai had shown her, then nearly hit the roof when warm
  8256. water squirted up to clean her.
  8257. When she finished she found Seth'Nai lounging back in
  8258. the chair, his heels planted up on the black desk. He was
  8259. avidly studying the window which now displayed a
  8260. bewildering assortment of lines, symbols; a crosshatched-
  8261. missmash of colors and shapes.
  8262. "What is that?" Nersi asked.
  8263. He looked up at her, then waved at the window and
  8264. said, "A map. See." The lines filled in, becoming a view of the
  8265. building they were in. As she watched it began rotating and
  8266. spinning, showing every side.
  8267. "First, ¨¨¨¨¨¨¨," commanded Seth'Nai. The image dissolved
  8268. from a solid mass to a mess of lines again, then seemed to
  8269. whip towards them and they were twisting and turning through
  8270. corridors inside. Then the image solidified and Nersi saw a tiny,
  8271. dark tunnel where a metal device wielded a brilliant blue flame
  8272. that struck gouts of spark when it struck the wall. Seth'Nai
  8273. spoke again and the picture flickered. Nersi found she was
  8274. looking into a room where a Trenalbi and a peculiar creature were
  8275. watching a window where a Trenalbi. . .
  8276. Nersi shook her head and grimaced in shock. Hells, that
  8277. WAS her! She wheeled, trying to find the eyes watching her. In
  8278. the window the other figures copied her, down into infinity.
  8279. She pointed at the desk, "What IS that?"
  8280. His forehead furrowed. "Is a ¨¨¨¨¨¨¨. . . A part of the
  8281. machine that runs," he made a gesture with his hands,
  8282. "everything."
  8283. "Like in the other room?" Nersi asked.
  8284. "Yes. Same thing."
  8285. "Does this also talk?"
  8286. "Talk?" Seth'Nai blinked at her, then grinned. "You
  8287. have already met First?"
  8288. "Yah. . . What is it?"
  8289. Seth'Nai sighed and leaned back. "Hard to explain. First
  8290. is not a ¨¨¨¨¨¨¨; is only machine, a tool. It knows more than both of
  8291. us together, but it cannot. . . feel. It only ¨¨¨¨¨¨¨ think. You say
  8292. something to it, it will do as you say. It can make only ¨¨¨¨¨¨¨
  8293. ¨¨¨¨¨¨¨." He scratched his chin, the corners of his mouth twisting
  8294. down. "Burn it, I do not have the words to tell you."
  8295. That brought to mind another thing Nersi had been
  8296. wondering about: "You are talking much better suddenly."
  8297. His shoulders heaved and he moved his arm to show
  8298. her the device strapped to his wrist. "This is a machine like First,
  8299. but much smaller. By itself it know only few words and
  8300. makes mistakes, but when it is close enough to talk to First, it
  8301. works better, no?"
  8302. Nersi wasn't sure she understood that. All she grasped
  8303. was that they had to be close to work. "But why do you need it
  8304. to talk?"
  8305. Seth'Nai looked startled. "Without it, you cannot hear me
  8306. and I cannot hear you. Your speaking is too. . . high for me to
  8307. hear." He grinned, "I see your mouth move, but nothing comes
  8308. out."
  8309. Nersi blinked. "And why did it take so long for you to let
  8310. us know you COULD speak? Why didn't you say something
  8311. back in the Ch'sty rim?"
  8312. His head shook from side to side. "I could not. I had
  8313. to. . . change this," he tapped the band around his forearm, "so
  8314. it could hear you."
  8315. "Oh," Nersi said, not entirely understanding that
  8316. either. It was all stretching her capabilities to absorb. She licked
  8317. her lips nervously. "You must have powerful priests to work such
  8318. sorcery."
  8319. Seth'Nai grimaced at his wrist, then looked at her. "I
  8320. didn't understand that. What do you mean by 'sorcery'?"
  8321. She clicked her claws together whilst gathering her
  8322. thoughts before explaining it.
  8323. He listened, his forehead furrowed. "No! No, not
  8324. sorcery. There is no. . . magic."
  8325. Huh, the way he said that. One would almost think he
  8326. was denying magic existed at all!
  8327. "It is just a machine," he continued. "We make it with
  8328. our hands and what is up here," he tapped his head. "There is no
  8329. magic or gods involved."
  8330. "We?" Nersi asked. "How many of you are there?"
  8331. His shoulders heaved. "I am not sure. Many. Very
  8332. many."
  8333. She cocked her head to one side. "Can you tell me
  8334. about them? What is it like where you come from?"
  8335. He looked back at her, then dropped his feet and
  8336. leaned forward in the chair, hands dangling between his knees.
  8337. "Nersi, I came here by accident. Things. . . happened. I have done
  8338. many things I am not allowed to. Just having you here. . . "
  8339. Her ears wilted. "I don't understand."
  8340. "No, you wouldn't," he said softly. "The ¨¨¨¨¨¨¨ is a big
  8341. place. We have never met anything like your kind, but we
  8342. had. . . rules to follow if we did. I have broken a lot of those
  8343. rules."
  8344. "Rules?"
  8345. He waved a hand. "There were plans for the ways our
  8346. kinds were to meet. Had to be. What happen if we just walk in
  8347. and say 'hello'? ah? I think it may cause some trouble."
  8348. "To say the least," Nersi agreed, then the realisation of
  8349. what he was saying hit her. She stepped back in shock and
  8350. sudden fear. "But you brought us here! You are telling me this!
  8351. W. . . what are you going to do with us?!"
  8352. Seth'Nai stood then, looming over her while his eyes
  8353. locked with her's. "What I am going to do," he said, "is ask you,
  8354. and your friends, to give me your word and keep your silence."
  8355. Then he reached out and lightly rubbed the downy fur on her
  8356. muzzle.
  8357. Nersi's hand rose to touch the ruffled spot in her fur
  8358. while she warily watched Seth'Nai.
  8359. His mouth twitched again. "Nersi, I don't know how you
  8360. keep going, but I've got to ¨¨¨¨¨¨¨. That didn't translate, did it?
  8361. Never mind. . . Well, I cannot answer your questions now, but
  8362. there is something that may help. First can show you a. . . moving
  8363. picture that tells about my kind. Are you interested?"
  8364. "Uh. . . yes," answered Nersi nervously.
  8365. "¨¨¨¨¨¨¨," Seth'Nai bobbed his head and tapped at the
  8366. desk. Burning green patterns flared within the dark surface and
  8367. his pale blunt-clawed fingers flashed across them. "All right.
  8368. Is yours. If you have more questions, ask First. It will answer
  8369. as. . . simple. . . as it can. ¨¨¨¨¨¨? Just tell it when you are ready.
  8370. Good night."
  8371. Leaving her standing he rose and ambled across the
  8372. room, where he stripped off his clothing and hung the garments
  8373. in a concealed recess at the head of the bunk, then he
  8374. practically fell into the bed.
  8375. "Why do you have to do that all the time?" Nersi asked
  8376. after him.
  8377. Seth'Nai rolled over and blinked at her. "Do what?"
  8378. "Do that." Nersi gestured uncertainly at the beds. Two
  8379. beds in one room was certainly a luxury and waste of space that
  8380. would seldom be incorporated into Trenalbi architecture. "Go
  8381. unconscious all the time."
  8382. He rolled onto his back and grinned at the ceiling of the
  8383. alcove. "It is the way I am. I wonder why you never ¨¨¨¨¨¨¨. It
  8384. seems impossible to me."
  8385. "But drifting is. . . normal," Nersi pointed out.
  8386. "To you. . . " He shook his head slightly and closed
  8387. his eyes. "Have First show you. That should explain."
  8388. Nersi stared as his breathing slowed and deepened.
  8389. What kind of a life was it to spend half of it in an unconscious
  8390. stupor? She hissed, then turned to the desk. Alright. "Ah, First?"
  8391. "Yes?" the disembodied voice sounded. "Are you
  8392. ready?"
  8393. "No," she said, "but whatever you're going to do, do it."
  8394. Lights dimmed and the mirror, cleared, fading to a black so deep
  8395. Nersi felt she could fall into it. Tiny white specks gleamed steel-
  8396. hard in the blackness. Slowly, a curved expanse of bluewhite
  8397. rose into view. With a jolt Nersi realised it wasn't the view of the
  8398. world that Seth'Nai had earlier shown them: the brown shapes
  8399. were different and. . . and there was only a single daughter, a huge
  8400. silver crescent rising beyond the curve.
  8401. With all the ponderous, inexorable grace of clouds
  8402. drifting over the plains that orb rolled beneath her, growing
  8403. larger, filling the window, the brown curve of land directly ahead.
  8404. Faded to black.
  8405. The light rose on broad savannahs speckled with
  8406. outlandish plants. The sky was a cobalt blue, the Lightbringer
  8407. swollen and yellow. The carcass of a utterly unfamiliar animal lay
  8408. in the grasses while a number of squat, four-legged animals that
  8409. bore a disturbing resemblance to Trenalbi tore at it with powerful
  8410. jaws.
  8411. Then something disturbed the predators at their
  8412. feeding.
  8413. They began pacing around the carcass, snarling at
  8414. something out of Nersi's field of view.
  8415. Dark shapes appeared in the picture, screeching and
  8416. scampering forward, retreating as a predator rushed them, then
  8417. milling forward again. A predator turned, distracted for a
  8418. second, and intruder dashed forward, knobbled white clubs rising
  8419. and falling on the creature's flanks. It yelped and limped off, its
  8420. tail tucked. Other beasts managed to snatch a few mouthfuls
  8421. before also being driven away.
  8422. Dark-furred creatures shuffled forward to gather around
  8423. the carcass, tearing at the flesh, screeching and squabbling.
  8424. Females and young hovered around the peripheries, occasionally
  8425. diving in for a scrap.
  8426. First's voice came as a shock:
  8427. "Terra, long ago, long before there were writings or
  8428. even talking. There were many different types of animals:
  8429. giant predators, fast and strong, grass-eaters either huge and
  8430. armoured or small and swift, but there was one creature, small
  8431. and hairy that was different from the others in one, important
  8432. way - it moved on two legs instead of four, leaving its hands
  8433. free to gather food."
  8434. One of the animals filled the screen, rearing up on its
  8435. hind legs and seemingly staring back at her with dark eyes. Its
  8436. hands. . . forepaws? clasped a bone. Nersi flinched as it
  8437. brandished the bone above its head. Gods, that face. . . a small
  8438. muzzle and nose, the round ears. She'd seen something vaguely
  8439. like that before.
  8440. It was lying in the bed behind her.
  8441. The scene faded on the group dragging the carcass
  8442. away.
  8443. "It was much later they learned to use their hands to
  8444. hold other things. Bones from dead animals were used as
  8445. weapons for hunting, then, still later, a ¨¨¨¨¨¨¨ human learned to
  8446. break stones to make a sharp edge that could cut food."
  8447. Another view appeared: a rocky arroyo with a group of
  8448. the dark haired creatures gathered around the carcass of a
  8449. longlegged furry animal. These were slightly different, being
  8450. taller, far less hirstute and with features that resembled
  8451. Seth'Nai even more. One of them was using a sharpened rock to
  8452. sever a leg from the body.
  8453. "With stone tools early humans were able to make use of
  8454. new lands that were colder and less ¨¨¨¨¨¨¨ than the ¨¨¨¨¨¨¨
  8455. warmlands where they had originated. They learned to work
  8456. together to survive and the small groups they lived in became
  8457. larger. They learned to tame fire."
  8458. Another view: a narrow cave with a smoky fire
  8459. sputtering in the opening. Again another group of the
  8460. creatures. . . the humans. . . were different. Their fur was thickest
  8461. in patches on the head and groin, elsewhere it was thin and
  8462. limited. The ones with the visible sex organs were male, then
  8463. the others must be females. Gods, strange. . . Still, even the
  8464. males looked different from Seth'Nai: their skin blacker, the
  8465. features coarser.
  8466. First continued to herald the changes as they appeared
  8467. in the window.
  8468. Crude huts of animal skins clustered around a fire.
  8469. Dusty cubs scrambled and tussled in the dust. Females ground
  8470. food between rocks.
  8471. A river where boats made from carved trees bobbed in
  8472. the current.
  8473. A male squatted before clay tablets, laboriously
  8474. etching wedge-shaped markings.
  8475. Later, cold plains: a string of the creatures wrapped in
  8476. heavy furs and mounted on animals moved across the wind-
  8477. blasted landscape towing their possesions in crude wagons.
  8478. Nersi stared spellbound at the pictures, watching
  8479. thousands of years unfolding before her. Seth'Nai's kind, from a
  8480. beginning as simple animals, slowly growing, as a cub grows.
  8481. There were towns, then cities. Buildings of white
  8482. stone rising on verdant hillsides beside a glittering ocean.
  8483. Roads stretched across the countryside. Strange looking ships
  8484. set sail from ports to vanish over the horizon, unfettered by the
  8485. lethal and unnavigable reefs that so restrained the Hub ports.
  8486. Empires rose and fell across the continent, kingdoms so vast the
  8487. World could be lost in them. From their ruins others would rise,
  8488. only to disintergrate again.
  8489. Castles rose over the landscape. The towns were
  8490. masses of narrow houses surrounded by high walls, the narrow
  8491. streets within congested and so uncomfortably familiar; like a
  8492. Trenalbi city.
  8493. There were wars. Mounted and armoured warriors and
  8494. filthy foot-troopers fighting in muddy fields.
  8495. A new continent was discovered. Settlements grew, then
  8496. split away.
  8497. More fighting.
  8498. The cities grew. Huge smokestacks belched fumes.
  8499. Machines growled and pounded. Incomprehensible amounts of
  8500. metal pouring from mines into smelters and founderies.
  8501. The images and eras passed. Nersi had questions, but
  8502. she restrianed them, always wanting to see what happened next.
  8503. Ships crossed the waters between continents. Cities
  8504. grew and spread.
  8505. Giant cylindrical flying devices wallowed into the skies
  8506. and crossed oceans, their shadows covering towns. She saw one
  8507. crash, enveloped in flames that engulfed it in a beat while
  8508. humans milled in panic.
  8509. Vehicles on the ground moved without animals. Still
  8510. the cities spread.
  8511. A war. Battlefields where humans fought from holes in
  8512. the ground, ranks of troops taking turns to advance on their
  8513. enemies to be mown down without a chance. Explosions churned
  8514. the dirt to mud. Mobile fortresses lumbered across torn
  8515. landscapes while in the skies above flying devices looped and
  8516. spun and burned.
  8517. There was peace again, then war again. Weapons
  8518. more fearsome, different machines, flying machines in numbers
  8519. that turned the sky dark. Cities were levelled.
  8520. Guarded gates were opened on horrors. They weren't
  8521. Trenalbi, but still Nersi felt ill when she saw the living skeletons,
  8522. the stacked piles of alien corpses. If they weren't gods, then
  8523. surely there were some who were demons.
  8524. Peace again.
  8525. Cities grew. Towers reaching for the skies. Machines
  8526. flying around the world. She saw twisting infants being birthed
  8527. and felt a sick sympathy for the female. Vehicles filled the roads.
  8528. Another war in a jungle: A major power being humiliated.
  8529. Then a tower of white and black being held by metal arms that
  8530. dropped away as flame and smoke blossomed around the base.
  8531. Ponderously, it rose on a column of fire, faster, arrowing into the
  8532. sky.
  8533. A bulky white figure like a cubs stuffed toy bounced
  8534. across a grey landscape to plant a flag of red, white, and blue. In
  8535. the black sky behind it a blue and white globe rose.
  8536. They went even further.
  8537. Their cities spread above their planet. They built
  8538. cylinders and sprawling, fragile-looking constructions in the
  8539. blackness where they lived and produced things impossible
  8540. on the surface of the world below. In time huge vessels plied
  8541. the darkness to neighbouring worlds where cities were built
  8542. underground: tunnels and caverns of metal and rock as they
  8543. began to change the red deserts on the surface to suit them.
  8544. More of the floating cities began to appear high above it.
  8545. When the change came, it was abrupt.
  8546. A single, metallic vessel, like a glittering fish in the
  8547. darkness, riding atop a lance of blue-white flame before it
  8548. rippled, then vanished. Distance was no longer a barrier.
  8549. Like migrating Longrazers others followed it, spreading
  8550. out from their world and Lightbringer, bound for the distant
  8551. points of light in their sky. There they found other Lightbringers,
  8552. and worlds of unbearable heat and cold, giants of gas, balls of
  8553. rock, but nothing like the one they had left behind.
  8554. So they built new ones.
  8555. The cities they had built above their own world were
  8556. dwarfed by these vast structures. They used machines to build
  8557. them, and other machines to build more machines. Devices
  8558. sought out rocks floating in the emptiness and stripped them
  8559. of their metal. The Daughters dancing around massive worlds of
  8560. gas and winds were cracked into fragments and melted by titanic
  8561. mirrors.
  8562. Their homeworld tried to spread its influence over the
  8563. new worlds they were building. Vast, ominous vessels of metal
  8564. and stone drifted into the shadow of these cities. Sometimes
  8565. there was fighting, and new Lightbringers would be born as a city
  8566. or a vessel died.
  8567. Still, like ripples on an infinite pond, they continued to
  8568. spread. Whatever their council on their homeworld was like, it
  8569. realised there was no way a single world could police that kind of
  8570. territory. It finally, however reluctantly, conceded to
  8571. acknowledge the new territories' independence.
  8572. The centuries that followed saw them spreading across
  8573. the skies. It awed Nersi to see just much territory they controlled,
  8574. and in all that vastness, in all the time these humans had spent
  8575. searching, her own glittering world locked away in its secluded
  8576. corner of creation, was the only other speck of life they had
  8577. found.
  8578. Nersi sat and stared at the window as it faded to
  8579. darkness for the last time. Her world, everything she had been
  8580. taught and had taken for granted; in a matter of a couple of hours
  8581. a machine had successfully desiccated it. The Gods, she knew
  8582. they were there. The magic and powers of the Priests, they were
  8583. something that could not be denied. Was it possible that these
  8584. humans never had gods in the first place? or that their deities had
  8585. foresaken them?
  8586. Or that they no longer needed them?
  8587. Burn it! There were others better suited for this kind of
  8588. thing: scholars who would be only too willing to delve into the
  8589. intrigues and paradoxes of theological debates. It was
  8590. something she had been taught not to think about.
  8591. She rubbed her temples with her fingertips: hard.
  8592. There was something else. . .
  8593. "First, humans are aggresive. . . I mean, they have fought
  8594. a lot of wars, right?"
  8595. "Yes."
  8596. Her ruff twitched."Do they still fight wars?"
  8597. "Large wars are no longer fought: they proved to be
  8598. too expensive for all involved. Small battles between provinces
  8599. are fought, but such actions are rare and limited."
  8600. "Would they. . . " Nersi anxiously began to speak, then
  8601. lowered her head. "Forget it."
  8602. First said nothing.
  8603. "I'd like to rest now,"Nersi said."Think things over. . .
  8604. can I ask you some questions later?"
  8605. "I am always ¨¨¨¨¨¨¨ to answer questions,"the machine
  8606. replied.
  8607. Nersi bowed her head to the black desk, then stood
  8608. and worked the stiffness out of her back and cramped tail
  8609. muscles. Behind her the window shimmered and turned into a
  8610. mirror, the green lines in the desktop fading away.
  8611. Seth'Nai was unconscious. She stood for a time, just
  8612. watching his face. He twitched and growled something then
  8613. settled again. Did he see anything in his drift? Was it
  8614. just. . . nothingness? Perhaps that was the price they paid for
  8615. rejecting their gods: they lost the time the gods gave them for
  8616. contemplation.
  8617. She sighed - loud in the stillness of the room - and
  8618. turned to the other bed, letting the copper breeches fall to the
  8619. floor, stepping out of them. The bed was soft and already warm,
  8620. but she lay there, an empty feeling nagging at her.
  8621. Seth'Nai stirred slightly when she slipped into the bed
  8622. beside him, but that was all. She huddled up against his back,
  8623. his hairless hide exuding a gentle warmth and feeling incredibly
  8624. soft against her fingertips as she stroked his ribs. Gently she
  8625. breathed against his shoulder, inhaling the green freshness of
  8626. water, the transient tingle of salt. He rumbled faintly when she
  8627. licked the nape of his neck, then there was a vague, indefinable
  8628. sensation of well-being glowing deep inside her as she tucked her
  8629. head against him and settled into drift.
  8631. --\o/--
  8633. "Che?"
  8634. "Huhhnnn?"
  8635. Sekher reluctantly rose from his drift, luxuriating in the
  8636. warm, spent feeling that enveloped him. Other sensations made
  8637. themselves known as he drew his faculties back to himself. Gods,
  8638. he was starving!
  8639. Chaiila leaned over him, nipping at his neck with sharp
  8640. teeth. "Hai, Che. Come on."
  8641. He blinked at her. "What?"
  8642. "Feeling better?"
  8643. Sekher had a brief flash of Chaiila straddling him, his
  8644. muscles turned to water. He raised an arm and flicked her ear.
  8645. "Yes. . . Hungry though."
  8646. "Huh," Chaiila tweaked his ears in return. It was
  8647. common courtesy for the female to have some food ready for the
  8648. male when he recovered. "I wish I had something," she
  8649. apologized.
  8650. "What about you," he asked.
  8651. "Me? I'm hungry too. . . "
  8652. "Not that. Stop thinking about your belly, will you?"
  8653. he mock-growled, then fell serious, stroking her pelt with the
  8654. barest touches. "How are you feeling?"
  8655. She fell silent, taking stock of her emotions and
  8656. surroundings. Rain was falling on the plains beyond the window,
  8657. fat drops spattering soundlessly on the glass. The lighting
  8658. seemed dimmer and whiter than it had been before. Restful.
  8659. "Better," she said at length. "The way I acted. . . I don't know
  8660. what. . . Sorry."
  8661. "Don't worry about it," said Sekher. "Too strange, too
  8662. much, too quick, ah?"
  8663. "Yeah," she nodded, then cocked her head. "Where's
  8664. Nersi?"
  8665. The lights slowly came up when they left the bunk.
  8666. Their clothes were gone, as were their weapons and the rest of
  8667. their equipment. And Nersi wasn't in the room, nor in the
  8668. adjoining washing room. Chaiila's claws were out as she stalked
  8669. toward the door.
  8670. It hissed open.
  8671. "Morning and waking," Nersi cheerfully greeted them
  8672. as she swept into the room with an armload of multicoloured
  8673. cloth. Carefully cleaned and groomed, her fur practically glowing
  8674. and decked out in ankle-long, metallic-copper-coloured breeks
  8675. decorated with angular black patterns, she grinned at them.
  8676. "Enjoy yourselves?"
  8677. "Quite," Chaiila said amicably, then exploded: "And
  8678. where the damnation were YOU?!"
  8679. Nersi stared at her, one ear wilting slowly, then she
  8680. said, "With Seth'Nai. Come on; you two were busy. Anyway, I've
  8681. got clothes for you, and there's food waiting."
  8682. "Our weapons. . . " Chaiila began.
  8683. Nersi snorted and went to open a locker at the head of
  8684. a bed. Their equipment was neatly stacked within, swords
  8685. hanging from hooks.
  8686. "I wouldn't worry about the weapons," Nersi grinned.
  8687. "They wouldn't be much use here anyway. And our cloths are
  8688. being cleaned. I brought these for the meantime," she tossed the
  8689. clothes on the rumpled bed and looked the pair up and down.
  8690. "But I think perhaps you'd like to wash up first."
  8691. Now THAT was an experience. Even Chaiila smiled and
  8692. barked a laugh of pleasure as they shared the hot streams of
  8693. water. Then she leaned against him, half-drifting while the hot air
  8694. buffeted them. She was impressive after, her dark fur polished to
  8695. a glory that had Sekher staring.
  8696. The breeches were comfortable, if slightly overlarge,
  8697. and with odd color schemes. The pair Sekher took were a deep
  8698. grey with blue and yellow patches of shades Sekher had never
  8699. seen before. There was a matching jerkin that Sekher
  8700. curiously examined, then pulled on. Chaiila received a pair of
  8701. breeks made from a strong, fine-woven blue material with seams
  8702. accented by brown stitching and a real belt with a cunningly
  8703. designed buckle.
  8704. "Not too bad," she admitted, cocking a hip. "The built-in
  8705. pouches are a good idea."
  8706. "Ah, Nersi," Sekher caught the younger
  8707. female's attention. "Were you saying something about food?"
  8708. They could smell it as soon as they stepped out the
  8709. door. Immediately, Sekher's mouth began watering. He licked up a
  8710. thread of drool dangling from his lips.
  8711. The room at the end of the corridor was unchanged,
  8712. save for the mist that now wreathed the peaks. The aroma was
  8713. coming from an adjacent room, accompanied by bright lights, a
  8714. rattling and clattering, and a familiar rumbling. It was a room
  8715. colored in white and grey, with flat benchtops, machines
  8716. scattered around the walls, and a table set in an alcove. The
  8717. scent of food brought the air to life while Seth'Nai buslted
  8718. around at one of the worktops, placing containers into a
  8719. cupboard. He looked around when they entered and his
  8720. mouth twisted up, "Sekher, Chaiila. Rest well?"
  8721. "Very well," Sekher replied, then saw the spread on
  8722. the table. He stared. A thread of saliva dripped from his jaw.
  8723. Seth'Nai bared teeth."Go. Eat."
  8724. It was a meal like none Sekher had ever dreamed of,
  8725. his hunger lending an edge to his appreciation. There were
  8726. longrazer steaks and ribs, still warm and dripping. Bowls of
  8727. Bluespeck Berries and Breadroot. Also there were stranger dishes:
  8728. stacks of round, flat cakes with a rich syrup; small, crescent
  8729. shaped pasties; buns topped with sparkling icing that tasted like
  8730. sweet ice. There were pitchers of water, a tangy orange liquid,
  8731. also a hot, brown liquid that Sekher tried and choked on the first
  8732. few mouthfuls, yet after that, it went down smoothly.
  8733. Seth'Nai used peculiar utensils to devoured something
  8734. that resembled eggs along with sausages and rashers of a
  8735. strong-smelling reddish meat.
  8736. Chaiila noticed that: "You do eat meat!"
  8737. Seth'Nai looked up, then back down at his plate. "Yes."
  8738. He seemed puzzled.
  8739. "Then why didn't you eat earlier?"
  8740. "Oh," His fingertips absently stroked the device on
  8741. his wrist. "There are. . . metals in your food that are dangerous to
  8742. me. If I eat too much, especially meat, I will die: slowly."
  8743. Nersi looked dubiously at the food she was eating.
  8744. "What about your food. Is it safe for us?"
  8745. "Some of it. All this," he waved his hand at the table,
  8746. "is safe for you. But eating meat could be very dangerous."
  8747. Sekher stopped wondering what that meat Seth'Nai was
  8748. eating tasted like. "Ah, how dangerous?"
  8749. "Lethal."
  8750. Chaiila was still eyeing her meal uncertainly.
  8751. "THAT is safe," Seth'Nai reassured her.
  8752. "How can you be so sure," she grumbled.
  8753. "Well, if you die, then I was wrong, ah?" his eyes
  8754. glittered and he took another mouthful of food.
  8755. "Gods!" Chaiila hissed, yet continued eating as though
  8756. trying to prove a point.
  8757. When they were through and done, a machine scurried
  8758. from its niche to begin cleaning up after them.
  8759. It was Nersi who took it upon herself to show the
  8760. other Trenalbi how to use the facilities in the wash room. The
  8761. devices were new and uncomfortable for Sekher, giving rise to
  8762. the idea that Seth'Nai may be different in ways not immediately
  8763. obvious.
  8764. Nersi was standing at the desk, quietly contemplating
  8765. the plains visible in the window. She blinked when Sekher
  8766. emerged and tipped her head toward the grasses, "That's where
  8767. they come from."
  8768. "Who?"
  8769. "Seth'Nai and his kind." She touched the wound on her
  8770. leg and sat down in the chair. "Last night he showed me a. . . I
  8771. guess you could call it a story. It showed their history, from
  8772. their earliest memories."
  8773. Sekher wasn't quite following this. "Their?"
  8774. "Their," she confirmed. "Sekher, there are a lot of them.
  8775. You wouldn't believe how many. And they aren't Gods either;
  8776. they're bone and blood, like you or I."
  8777. She gestured again to the window, "That's where they
  8778. come from. Their world. Look at the animals."
  8779. Sure enough, there in the distance there was a herd of
  8780. things that weren't of the world.
  8781. "Oh," said Sekher. And it had looked so like home.
  8782. "They've got cities that float in the sky, huge numbers
  8783. of them. . . " she stopped there, her hands twitching. "Perhaps
  8784. you should see for yourself. First?"
  8785. "Yes?"
  8786. The quiet, disembodied tones startled Sekher. The voice
  8787. had changed and now sounded slightly. . . female?
  8788. "First," Nersi continued in businesslike tones that
  8789. suggested she was carrying out a normal conversation, "ah, that
  8790. story I saw last night, do you know what I mean?"
  8791. "That was ¨¨¨¨¨¨¨ name ¨¨¨¨¨¨¨: a general history for
  8792. children."
  8793. "Oh," Nersi's ears wilted in embarrassment. "Oh well,
  8794. can you show it again?"
  8795. "Yes."
  8796. It was then Chaiila came out of the washroom. She
  8797. looked around in suspicion: "It's that damned voice again.
  8798. What's going on?"
  8799. "You interested in knowing what Seth'Nai is?" asked
  8800. Nersi with a smile.
  8801. Chaiila stared at her, taken aback. "You know?"
  8802. "I know," Nersi confirmed, "He showed me last night.
  8803. You're interested?"
  8804. "Yah."
  8805. "Have a seat," Nersi motioned the carpet beside her
  8806. and Chaiila slowly sat, tucking her legs beneath her. "First,
  8807. lights down."
  8808. The lights dimmed and in the light from the window
  8809. Sekher saw the dark-furred female glance sharply at her cousin.
  8810. Nersi never noticed. "All right, First, show the story."
  8811. The plains in the window faded to blackness. . .
  8813. --\o/--
  8816. Sekher followed the bobbing bead of green light as it
  8817. led him through the noisy metal corridors with their
  8818. uncomfortable grillwork floors. A heavy door prominently marked
  8819. with black and yellow diagonal stripping slid open and closed
  8820. as he passed through. There were metallic servants
  8821. everywhere, numbers of every different size and shape: from
  8822. large boxes that rolled through the corridors on wheels to tiny
  8823. things that scurried among the machinery in the walls. He
  8824. snorted as the smell of scorched metal assailed his nostrils.
  8825. The guiding speck of light turned to dart through
  8826. another doorway into one of those big, dimly lit rooms filled
  8827. to overflowing with bins and storage lockers, parts of
  8828. machinery. A deep growling accompanied a pair of legs
  8829. protruding from a crawlspace beneath a mass of pipes colored
  8830. grotesque orange. Sekher squatted down beside the legs. "Hai!"
  8831. No response.
  8832. There was a metal bar lying atop a handy box. Sekher
  8833. took it up, hefted it, then pounded on the pipes. The howl from
  8834. beneath was almost drowned by the clangs.
  8835. Seth'Nai was out like a projectile from a darter, glaring at
  8836. Sekher while stabbing at the translator on his wrist. "What the
  8837. ¨¨¨¨¨¨¨ you think you're doing?! I almost had the little ¨¨¨¨¨¨¨!"
  8838. Sekher stood, looking down at the pale face. "Seth'Nai,
  8839. can we talk?"
  8840. Seth'Nai sat, his grey eyes flicking from Sekher's face to
  8841. the metal bar he was holding. He swallowed."¨¨¨¨¨¨¨, alright."
  8842. The bar clattered when Sekher dropped it and
  8843. cautiously found a place to lean against a piece of metal ."I saw
  8844. that story you showed Nersi. We all did."
  8845. "Ah," Seth'Nai nodded. "You were supposed to."
  8846. "I have a few questions."
  8847. The round head bobbed. "I will answer if I can."
  8848. "That story. . . it was true?"
  8849. "Yes."
  8850. "Then your people are powerful. You said you aren't a
  8851. God, but some of those things your people do. . . " he shrugged.
  8852. "And they are warlike, aren't they." It wasn't really a question.
  8853. "Warlike?"
  8854. "They fight."
  8855. "Ah. . . " Seth'Nai understood. "I have to say we do
  8856. fight."
  8857. "And our world is the only one like it you have found."
  8858. "Yes."
  8859. "Then you could destroy us. What chance would we
  8860. have if you wanted to take it?"
  8861. "None."
  8862. Sekher stared.
  8863. Seth'Nai sighed and settled himself. "Sekher, your world
  8864. is beautiful, but it is not only valuable for that. It is you. Your
  8865. kind. All Trenalbi.
  8866. "Until now my kind has been alone. We have looked for
  8867. a long time, and now we have found someone we can talk to, do
  8868. you really think we would destroy them?"
  8869. Sekher thought.
  8870. "God," Seth'Nai shook his head, "I'm not the one to
  8871. be speaking for my kind. Anyway, there're agreements and rules
  8872. about what we would do if we found. . . something like your kind.
  8873. They say we stay away and watch from a distance."
  8874. "Studying us," Sekher said with distaste.
  8875. "Sort of. . . Yes, studying you. We would stay away,
  8876. until we could understand each other."
  8877. "You haven't," Sekher observed.
  8878. "No." Seth'Nai rubbed his narrow nose and twitched
  8879. his mouth. "I told you, I have been a bad ¨¨¨¨¨¨¨."
  8880. "A what?. . . Never mind. Why would they stay away?
  8881. You could teach us so much. Your machines. . . and your metal. . .
  8882. Any demesnes would pay a fortune for such knowledge."
  8883. Seth'Nai hesitated. "There's more than that. If we
  8884. gave you. . . things that made you live longer, stopped diseases,
  8885. and made sure cubs didn't die at birth. Would you be grateful?"
  8886. Sekher stared."Of course! Who wouldn't be?"
  8887. "Would you still be grateful when you couldn't grow
  8888. enough to feed them all? When they started fighting over the
  8889. land? When your cities became so crowded that the smell became
  8890. ¨¨¨¨¨¨¨ and Trenalbi were dying in the streets?"
  8891. "Oh."
  8892. "If we gave you machines. How would you fix them
  8893. when they break?"
  8894. "Then you could teach us."
  8895. "Yes, but that takes a long time. And to teach
  8896. everyone. . . "Seth'Nai shook his head. "You saw our story.
  8897. We learned all this ourselves, like cubs growing up."
  8898. "You are comparing us to cubs?"
  8899. "You said it, not I."
  8900. Sekher opened and closed his mouth a few times.
  8901. "Imagine if your people suddenly learned the world
  8902. was round, not flat. If they learned they lived on a ball of rock
  8903. going around another ball of fire."
  8904. "Huh, wouldn't that make the priests' fur stand on end."
  8905. "Priests?" Seth'Nai's forehead furrowed. "They were the
  8906. ones wearing long clothes?" his hands described patterns that
  8907. could be a priest's robes.
  8908. "Yes."
  8909. "Do you know anything about their machines? Like the
  8910. ¨¨¨¨¨¨¨ coil?"
  8911. Sekher's ears went back. "Huh? Machines? What
  8912. machines?"
  8913. And Seth'Nai flinched back. Sekher had known him long
  8914. enough to think he could read the creature; the emotions were in
  8915. the eyes, not the ears, and that particular look meant he was
  8916. surprised.
  8917. "You do not know? The ones that made the lighting I
  8918. was attacked with."
  8919. "Machines?" Sekher was still confused. "They didn't
  8920. use any machines. They're Priests, they don't need them."
  8921. Seth'Nai's mouth opened, then closed again. Now he
  8922. was the one who looked perplexed. "No. There had a ¨¨¨¨¨¨¨ in
  8923. there. That's the only way you could ¨¨¨¨¨¨¨ power like that. Is
  8924. that how they stay in control, by making a few sparks fly?"
  8925. "No," said Sekher, not understanding where this debate
  8926. was leading. "Some of them make fire. Some of them move things.
  8927. Some heal or see far or talk without saying." His ears flagged
  8928. helplessness. "There are too many Gifts."
  8929. "What is that word 'Gifts'?"
  8930. "Uhhnnn. . . A present, a gift. Something that is given,
  8931. out of goodwill."
  8932. "A gift," Seth'Nai echoed, his forehead wrinkled. "Ah. . .
  8933. Gifts from whom?"
  8934. "The Gods, of course," Sekher sniffed.
  8935. "Of course," Seth'Nai rubbed a hand across his scalp.
  8936. "Of course, the Gods."
  8937. Sekher frowned at that. "You don't believe me."
  8938. "Believe you. . . " There was a sound that the
  8939. translator rendered as a Trenalbi laugh, but Sekher felt it
  8940. couldn't be expressed so simply. "Sekher, I have always
  8941. understood that there are no Gods."
  8942. "No Gods?" Sekher grinned. "Perhaps yours' rejected
  8943. you, but not ours. Look at the Priests and the temple; how can
  8944. you not believe?"
  8945. "I will believe it when I see it," Seth'Nai retorted.
  8946. "What about you?"
  8947. "What about me?"
  8948. "The fact that you're here," Sekher said smugly.
  8949. Seth'Nai stared. "What the ¨¨¨¨¨¨¨ has that got to do with
  8950. anything. It was an accident; just an accident. It could have
  8951. happened to anyone."
  8952. And Sekher grinned. "Anyone? Your kind spends
  8953. centuries searching, then just as I need help, your 'accident'
  8954. sends you here. What would you call that?"
  8955. "¨¨¨¨¨¨¨!" Seth'Nai answered instantly. "Chance!
  8956. Nothing more. Sekher, gods are just something I cannot believe
  8957. in. I have never seen anything I haven't been able to explain."
  8958. "Then you haven't seen a priest."
  8959. "You. . . " Seth'Nai began to say, then stopped cold and
  8960. shook his head, saying quietly, "I should not be talking about
  8961. this."
  8962. "Your rules?"Sekher inquired.
  8963. The other didn't answer.
  8964. Yah, his rules, Sekher thought glumy. How was this
  8965. happening? He had thought this creature a godsend, now, he
  8966. was being told there were no Gods. There must be, the Gifts of
  8967. the Priests were certainly genuine enough. But suppose. . .
  8968. Suppose Seth'Nai was right.
  8969. No. The end of their Gods; the ramifications of that
  8970. could. . . would! tear his world apart. Sekher bit at a claw, then
  8971. spat in disgust. How could it be true?
  8972. Was this what Seth'Nai had meant when he said his
  8973. people had a policy about not talking to other people they might
  8974. find? He was right! If his kind suddenly appeared, refuting
  8975. everything Trenalbi believed, with the ability to support what
  8976. they claimed. . .
  8977. They had planned for that?
  8978. Seth'Nai casually leaning back against the pipes, his
  8979. arms folded, watching Sekher who shook his head and blinked
  8980. at the outsider and asked, "Why'd you bring us here anyway?"
  8981. An expression that meant nothing to Sekher: "I wanted
  8982. to learn more about you."
  8983. "More about us?" Sekher was suspicious about that.
  8984. "Such as?"
  8985. "Your speech. What you are. How you live. . . things like
  8986. that. I really don't know anything about you." He paused then,
  8987. eyeing Sekher curiously. "Such as; what were you doing in that
  8988. cage in the first place?"
  8989. "Ah," Sekher flashed the other a white grin that made
  8990. him flinch visibly. "Do you have to know that?"
  8991. "I was curious. First I thought you were a. . . a. . . one
  8992. who does wrong. . . "
  8993. "Criminal," Sekher growled, then relented and wrapped
  8994. his arms around himself, dredging up the memories. "No, that
  8995. I'm not. . . At least outside the Ch'Sty lands I'm not.
  8996. "My full name is Sekher Che Meas, youngest son. My
  8997. home is. . . was the Che holding to the north. Not a big place in
  8998. any eyes. . . "
  8999. Give Seth'Nai credit where it was due; those ears may
  9000. have been absurdly small, but he was still a good listener.
  9002. --\o/--
  9004. Chaiila was trembling visibly. Her ruff, all her fur
  9005. bristled and her claws were unsheathed. Fear or anger? Sekher
  9006. wondered. A little of both most likely.
  9007. Beyond the transparent screen was a brightly lit white
  9008. room, about seven paces by seven, featureless save for the table
  9009. in the middle.
  9010. Nersi lay naked on the table, her unconscious eyes
  9011. staring up at the ceiling without seeing it while an arch of
  9012. otherwordly materials covered her lower body and the puckered
  9013. wound on her leg. Occasionally she would twitch or her jaw
  9014. spasm soundlessly behind the window.
  9015. "Gods, I hate this," Chaiila moaned and asked, "Is
  9016. she all right?" for the hundredth time.
  9017. Seth'Nai cast a practiced eye over glowing pictures of
  9018. Nersi's body. "She's fine. Don't worry, nothing's going to
  9019. happen to her."
  9020. The standard reply Sekher noted. He looked at the
  9021. pictures again. Huh! Sekher suspected Seth'Nai was doing more
  9022. than healing her leg; to him it looked like he was mapping her
  9023. insides. Studying her. Learning about them, as he had told Sekher.
  9024. There was little talking from then on. They watched
  9025. over her: Chaiila fidgiting, Sekher standing close by her side,
  9026. Seth'Nai watching his machines, peculiar light washing across
  9027. his face and turning it into something from nightmares.
  9028. An hour later it was over. Seth'Nai moved the still
  9029. unconscious Nersi back to her quarters and clipped a small
  9030. bracelet to her wrist. There was a furless strip around her
  9031. thigh; where the torn and angry red wound had been there was
  9032. now only a mere pucker in her flesh. She stirred groggily and
  9033. mouthed meaningless noises. Chaiila was instantly at her side,
  9034. touching and reassuring until she fell silent, into a rest far deeper
  9035. than any Drift.
  9036. "Is that normal?" whispered Sekher to the human.
  9037. "With your kind, I think so."
  9038. Sekher grabbed his arm and hauled him out into the
  9039. corridor. "Think?" he hissed.
  9040. The grey eyes flickered. "I did the best I could. It
  9041. seemed to go well, but you are different. . . "
  9042. "What? What's that got to do with it?"
  9043. "Medicines for me could kill you," the other answered.
  9044. Sekher blinked, swallowed. "Like your food, you mean."
  9045. "Same."
  9046. "Gods!" Sekher glanced toward the closed door.
  9047. "Look, just don't let Chaiila know about that, alright? She would
  9048. rip your face off."
  9049. Seth'Nai grinned. Those marks from last time were still
  9050. pale reminders on his cheeks.
  9052. --\o/--
  9054. There was nothing.
  9055. It scared her.
  9056. Her.
  9057. Her? Who was her? She?
  9058. Oh. Of course.
  9059. It was gradually coming back. Slowly - like ice
  9060. dissolving under a flame - thoughts and memories began to stir.
  9061. There was a glimmer of the light of reason after so. . . long? there
  9062. wasn't any way to measure the time she had been sunk in a
  9063. blackness; that hole deeper than drift, the utter depths where
  9064. nothing stirred. Oblivion. Death. . .
  9065. She snapped to awareness with a strangled cry and
  9066. lay panting hard.
  9067. The room was silent and still. On the other bunk two
  9068. Trenalbi lay tangled in each other's limbs. Chaiila twitched and
  9069. shuddered and burrowed deeper into the Che's side, hiding her
  9070. head.
  9071. Nersi lay quietly, just staring at the softly glowing
  9072. panels above her. That coldness still lingered, a touch of the
  9073. darkness inside. She needed warmth, familiar company.
  9074. Che's head lolled her way when she swung out of the
  9075. bed, but she was familiar enough that her movement didn't trip his
  9076. drift as made her uneasy way to the door. She still limped, albeit
  9077. more through habit than necessity. It was after she'd left the room
  9078. that she realised the pain in her leg was gone. The pale line that
  9079. remained merely tingled when she touched it.
  9080. It was almost completely black in Seth'Nai's room. He
  9081. stirred when she slid into the bed beside him. When she moved
  9082. to huddle up to the warmth of his back he growled something,
  9083. then yelped and twisted around, face to face in the darkness. She
  9084. grinned.
  9085. "Nersi?" He wasn't wearing his translator. She could
  9086. feel his body vibrate with the depth of his voice, the words she
  9087. could understand coming from a small shelf above the bed.
  9088. "A," she murmured.
  9089. "After last time I thought I said. . . "
  9090. "I know," she broke in. "I was lonely."
  9091. "Lonely?"
  9092. "Alone. By myself. I needed to be with someone."
  9093. The translator made a sound that could have been 'oh',
  9094. then said, "I understand. Lonely."
  9095. Nersi shifted and carefully touched his shoulder. He
  9096. flinched. "Do you always drift alone?"
  9097. "Uh, usually."
  9098. "It doesn't hurt?"
  9099. "Hurt?" He looked confused. "Like pain? Hurt?"
  9100. "Ai."
  9101. "I don't understand that."
  9102. "Seth'Nai," she stroked his ribs, "a Trenalbi can go mad
  9103. if left alone for a long time. That doesn't happen to your
  9104. kind?"
  9105. "No." He lay back to stare up at the roof. "No, that's
  9106. why I like my job. I like being alone."
  9107. That stung her. She peered at his face, indistinct in the
  9108. darkness. "You want me to go?"
  9109. His head turned her way, yet she knew he couldn't see
  9110. her at all. Not in this light. "No. No, not now."
  9111. His hand touched her arm and his fingers moved
  9112. through her fur, just touching.
  9113. "My leg," she said, feeling his fingers on her arm,
  9114. watching the pale shadows moving. Darkness, the great
  9115. equalizer. "I wanted to thank you."
  9116. "It. . . is not neccesary," he said. She touched his face
  9117. and felt his mouth twisted in his smile.
  9118. They lay there for a time, just close.
  9119. Her hand on his chest could feel his warmth, solidity,
  9120. the slow drubbing of a heartbeat beneath muscle she had never
  9121. felt before, ribs feeling completely unlike her own. . . and her
  9122. hand moved, down, touching him in that coarse fur between his
  9123. legs and his whole body stiffened with a jolt of breath. Then he
  9124. caught her hand and moved it away.
  9125. "Nersi, no."
  9126. "Hnnn?" She made a small sound, confusion at his
  9127. rejection. Why? he was responding, doing something, she
  9128. could smell his scent changing, becoming heavier, while her
  9129. own loins tingled.
  9130. "Nersi, we can't. I would hurt you."
  9131. "No. . . " she began.
  9132. "Yes! I wish I could, but I would hurt you very badly,
  9133. Nersi. We're just too different." He caressed the side of her
  9134. face. "Understand?"
  9135. She didn't. Not really.
  9136. Until she touched him again. Yes, he was responding,
  9137. but the differences. . .
  9138. "Oh," she said, understanding. Gods and Demons! Their
  9139. females took that?!
  9140. There was another silence before she leaned over and
  9141. gently lapped at Seth'Nai's neck, tasting the slight salt. "Ah, well.
  9142. Not your fault."
  9143. "Thanks. . . I think," he replied.
  9144. She grinned and nipped at him and for a while the talk
  9145. wandered around their differences. His kind wasn't like Trenalbi;
  9146. the females, they birthed fully formed young. She had seen the
  9147. pictures, but even so it shocked Nersi to hear this, even more so
  9148. to find it caused pain. Those were nipples on his chest, in the
  9149. same location as human females', but useless for him. The dimple
  9150. in his midriff was another peculiarity and she still wasn't sure she
  9151. understood his explanation. When she let him, his fingers were
  9152. gentle against the sensitive skin around the nipples in her pouch.
  9153. "Feels strange," he said.
  9154. "Ah, from you that's irony."
  9155. "Nersi?"
  9156. "Huh?"
  9157. "May I ask you something?"
  9158. "Sure."
  9159. "Your towns. . . why are they split into male and
  9160. female sections?
  9161. She blinked, taken aback at the naivete of the
  9162. question. "Uh. . . because they have to be, of course. Aren't
  9163. yours'?"
  9164. "No."
  9165. "Oh, Gods. That figures. . . You mean males and
  9166. females are. . . together all the time?"
  9167. "Yes."
  9168. "Then how do you get anything done?"
  9169. "What?" He pulled away and propped himself up with
  9170. one elbow, looking down on her. "I don't understand."
  9171. She sighed. "You are different. Look, when a woman
  9172. is wanting. . . when she wants to mate, she scents. We can't help
  9173. it, and the males, they smell it and it twists them crazy. They'll
  9174. fight for a female, then when they get close to her and she is
  9175. ready the scent flattens them. It's like their muscles turn to
  9176. string; They can hardly move."
  9177. "Sekher and Chaiila," he muttered.
  9178. "Yah. You had me worried, running after them like
  9179. that. Males generally don't get on well when there's a mating
  9180. going on. But you see what it'd be like if we were integrated; a
  9181. riot at the smell of a scenting female."
  9182. "I. . . see,"came the response after a couple of
  9183. beats."Then the female sections are really different towns?"
  9184. "No. . . They are under the dominion of the High Lord.
  9185. Male, almost always. There is a female Medium who acts as
  9186. an intermediary between the Lord and the Sister Group, also
  9187. the Guilds of both sexes have their own Pleaders who negotiate
  9188. trade among the quarters; cloth for metal, embelished tools for
  9189. rare foods and so forth."
  9190. This time there was a longer silence. "I didn't
  9191. understand much of that," he finally confessed. "It is all one
  9192. town, but the two sides only talk to each other through special
  9193. Trenalbi? Like they are ¨¨¨¨¨¨¨ different?"
  9194. Nersi mulled that over, then said, "There was a word I
  9195. didn't understand, but yes, sort of like that." She felt him
  9196. shifting, moving a little closer to her. Perhaps he liked her
  9197. warmth.
  9198. "Then how. . . how do you choose your mates?"
  9199. She grinned and stretched, then began trying to explain
  9200. the unity houses. From there the talk drifted off at tangents,
  9201. Seth'Nai asking about the most inconsequential things, and
  9202. listening with fascination to her replies.
  9203. And when she grew tired he was the one who made her
  9204. stop. Nersi listened to his breathing slowing. Several times his
  9205. legs twitched as the muscles relaxed. Finally he was gone, as
  9206. helpless as a cub. With a final grin she set a hand on his chest
  9207. and settled down into the stillness of drift with his heavy scent
  9208. like a blanket around her.
  9210. --\o/--
  9212. "Gods burn it! He did! I can SMELL him on you!"
  9213. "Cousin! We didn't mate! We can't! He. . . "
  9214. Chaiila wasn't sounding too pleased Sekher noticed.
  9215. Finding Nersi and Seth'Nai curled up together had not set her day
  9216. off to a good start. After dragging her cousin out of there her
  9217. initial shock had rapidly turned to anger and heedless of where
  9218. they were, she still wanted to go and rattle Seth'Nai's teeth.
  9219. "Dammit! I saw! He was all over you. He was. . . he was naked! by
  9220. the gods!"
  9221. "Listen to me!"
  9222. Sekher sighed and let the door slide closed.
  9223. Seth'Nai was in the common room at the end of the
  9224. corridor. He was still wearing the ridiculous-looking fluffy robe
  9225. he'd thrown on when Chaiila stormed into his quarters and
  9226. literally howled him out of it. Now he had one of the glass cases
  9227. open and was kneeling before it, meticulously clipping away
  9228. at the branches of a twisted little bush. Sekher watched this
  9229. ceremony.
  9230. "She's really got her fur in a knot at you, you know,"
  9231. he finally said
  9232. Seth'Nai settled back and studied the bush.
  9233. "Nothing happened."
  9234. Sekher grinned in amusement. "That's exactly what
  9235. Nersi's saying."
  9236. Seth'Nai's flat face turned to stared up at him. "Then
  9237. why don't you believe her?"
  9238. "I do," Sekher said then crouched down on his
  9239. haunches. "Chaiila probably does too. It's just that you and
  9240. Nersi. . . uh. . . " he hunted for words. "Drifting together. . .
  9241. Chaiila's scared of you. She doesn't understand you."
  9242. "And you do?"
  9243. Sekher blinked, nonplussed."Ah, well. . . good point."
  9244. The other bared teeth and carefully snipped a few of
  9245. the miniature leaves from the tiny tree, click, snick. Sekher
  9246. watched the ritual, fidgiting uneasily. How was he going to put
  9247. this? And he already had a good idea what the answer would be.
  9248. "Can you help us?"
  9249. He cringed. The way that blurted out. . . that wasn't what
  9250. he'd planned.
  9251. Seth'Nai's hand froze, then carefully set the clippers
  9252. aside."Help you?"
  9253. "I told you,"Sekher tried to explain."I told you about
  9254. the Ch'sty Rim. . . our homes. Chaiila and Nersi lost theirs';
  9255. under Kissaki's claws. My land. . . I don't know what's happened
  9256. to it."
  9257. The other looked away.
  9258. "Ah. . . you. . . "Sekher licked his lips."You've got so
  9259. much power. Can you help us?"
  9260. "No."
  9261. Just that. Flat and straight. Seth'Nai gathered up the
  9262. tools in a small pouch and stood to leave.
  9263. "Hai! Wait!" Sekher scrambled after him, through to
  9264. the galley. He stopped in the doorway: "Why?"
  9265. The human's pale, long-fingered hands worked at a
  9266. cupboard latch, then froze and he leaned his head against the
  9267. white wall. "Sekher. . . " He sighed and moved across the width
  9268. of the galley to prop himself against the edge of the table."I
  9269. wish I could, but it's impossible. I have already done far too much
  9270. I am not supposed to. I can probably justify what I did against
  9271. Kissaki, but interfering with your wars. . . it is out of the
  9272. question." He rubbed at his face.
  9273. Sekher stared. "People are dying."
  9274. "Sekher!" Seth'Nai's hand clenched, then pounded
  9275. against the tabletop. "Don't! There is nothing I can do."
  9276. "Then what ARE you going to do?!" Sekher snarled.
  9277. "Just sit here until the Ch'Sty Rim troops find you and lay seige
  9278. to you?"
  9279. The human's lips pressed into a straight line. "And what
  9280. am I supposed to do? A?"
  9281. "Fight them!"
  9282. He nodded. "A. How? I am not a fighter. This is a
  9283. mining ship. It is damaged."
  9284. "All the machines. . . "
  9285. "Are for work. They are not ¨¨¨¨¨¨¨ to fight. They cannot
  9286. and will not. There is simply not enough power left to do
  9287. anything that would help you. And the Rim will not find me. As
  9288. soon as the repairs are finished I have to use what's left to
  9289. leave."
  9290. Sekher's short fur stood bolt upright. "You are going
  9291. home?!"
  9292. "I can't do that. I just have to get the ship away from
  9293. here. It is not exactly inconspicuous, and someone's going to see
  9294. it and report. Then. . . " His head shook from side to side. Sekher
  9295. had thought that meant 'no', but apparently it could mean more
  9296. than that.
  9297. "Then where are you going?"
  9298. "Wherever I can. The other side of the mountains.
  9299. Somewhere."
  9300. "There is no way to change your mind?"
  9301. Again the head shook. "Please, Sekher."
  9302. His tail dragged on the floor behind as he turned and
  9303. left to tell the others. Behind him the human slumped, then drove
  9304. a fist into the wall.
  9305. "Gods ¨¨¨¨¨¨¨ it!"
  9307. --\o/--
  9309. The trio of shen picked their way through the
  9310. charred skeletons of incinerated trees at the edge of the river
  9311. plain. Green buds were only just beginning to force their way
  9312. from the blackness. These plants were used to fire. Lightning-
  9313. struck blazes weren't a rare occurance on the plains, but always
  9314. the trees grew back. The two riders hauled their animals to a halt
  9315. at the very edge of the riverbed, smelling the carnage before they
  9316. saw it: a ripe stench hanging on the breeze. There were blackened
  9317. Trenalbi corpses and skeletons scattered among the rocks and
  9318. wood; just bone, metal, and tatters of rotting flesh rejected or
  9319. missed by scavengers.
  9320. The larger Hunter chittered: impressed.
  9321. His smaller companion glanced down at a half-
  9322. decayed skull. It grinned back at him: "You still think they're
  9323. paying us enough, Travi?"
  9324. "Huh!" Travi's head turned on his massive shoulders
  9325. and he settled his heavy darter in its saddle holster, dark-
  9326. brown roadcoat shifting. "All right, so the illigit cheaped us. We
  9327. still do the job?"
  9328. Yenitira scowled. They had a reputation: anyone,
  9329. anywhere. They had never missed a target, and he wasn't about to
  9330. start. Not for anyone, not for this. The scent was still there.
  9331. "Yah, we still do it."
  9332. The shen picked their way down the bank to the
  9333. riverbed, hooves clattering on the rocks. There were more
  9334. corpses here, both Trenalbi and shen, scattered like chaff.
  9335. Yenitira noticed the fur on the bodies, the front burnt away,
  9336. the back only slightly singed. There were only a few where it was
  9337. the other way around. So whatever had happened to them had
  9338. happened quickly.
  9339. There was a crater, now a circular pond, on the edge of
  9340. the river. The ground crunched under their feet as the Hunters
  9341. dismounted. Glass. The sand was crusted with a thin film of
  9342. blackened, cracked glass.
  9343. "Perhaps they killed themselves off," Travi suggested.
  9344. "Perhaps." Yenitira eyes lost their focus as he looked
  9345. around. "Perhaps, but I doubt it."
  9346. "You still feel them?"
  9347. "A."
  9348. There was a pile of boulders, large enough to form a
  9349. small island when the river filled its banks during the rains.
  9350. There was a small pile of weapons tucked undisturbed under one
  9351. edge of the rock. This place had gained a bad reputation for a
  9352. good reason, so the dead were left to their peace. If there had
  9353. been tracks the weather had erased them days ago, yet it was here
  9354. that Yenitira went to stand, letting his hat fall back on its strap,
  9355. head turning from side to side with nostrils working as if he
  9356. could scent them. Travi crouched nearby, watching his partner
  9357. and
  9358. holding the shen.
  9359. "They were here?" he asked.
  9360. Traces, not scents, but more like colors he could smell
  9361. in his head, each distinct and unique. He KNEW, knew without a
  9362. doubt they had been here. There was that one trace that was
  9363. unlike anything he'd ever encountered. It. . . felt, for lack of a
  9364. better word, disquieting. If he was to describe it, it would be a
  9365. bluegreen sense, not the shifting orange sensations of a trenalbi.
  9366. He stood and stared westwards. "That way. Ah. . . Fourteen days.
  9367. On foot."
  9368. Travi brought the shen over and they mounted up.
  9369. Yenitira settled his hat and roadcoat and stared westwards,
  9370. towards the invisible Ramparts. West, huh? Very well. They had
  9371. never lost one yet, but this one was like nothing else he'd ever
  9372. sensed.
  9373. This one was going to be very interesting.
  9375. --\o/--
  9377. Chaiila was inspecting the shen, going over them a span
  9378. at a time. Sekher lounged back in the warmth of the Lightbringer
  9379. and watched through slitted eyes as she examined hooves and
  9380. claws and teeth. Fussy. Always wanting to be sure. He grinned
  9381. and rolled back in the grass. Gods, but it was a pleasure to feel the
  9382. breeze again.
  9383. The castle-sized bulk of the human's vessel was a
  9384. scorched white cliff behind them with metallic shapes scuttling
  9385. around in the shadows beneath it. Whatever they had been
  9386. doing around the rear of the vessel appeared to be nearing
  9387. completion and now esoteric equipment was being carted back up
  9388. the underside ramp on battered and tough-looking machines.
  9389. He blinked when he saw Seth'Nai and Nersi emerge from
  9390. the shadows near a piece of machinery, engaged in
  9391. animated conversation. At least Nersi was; Seth'Nai seemed
  9392. unable to meet her eyes. Abruptly he put aside the bundle he
  9393. was carrying and set hands on her shoulders and hugged her
  9394. close, touching her forehead with his lips. When he released her
  9395. she stared at him, then cast a worried glance towards the other
  9396. Trenalbi.
  9397. Sekher hastily looked away. Chaiila, thankfully, hadn't
  9398. seen that, and Gods strike him down if HE had.
  9399. Grass rustled under Nersi's feet. "He said he was sorry. . .
  9400. "
  9401. "But he won't help us," Sekher finished for her. "Yah,
  9402. I figured." Yah. The same as yesterday.
  9403. "He spoke about it last night. He really did seem sorry. I
  9404. think he. . . "
  9405. He what? Sekher wondered. "You were with him again,
  9406. a?"
  9407. Nersi cast a glance across to where a stone-faced
  9408. Chaiila was arranging gear on the shen. She knew where her
  9409. cousin had spent her evenings, and now she had given up trying
  9410. to stop it. She would be rid of Seth'Nai soon enough. They were
  9411. leaving.
  9412. And you, Nersi, Sekher thought, How do you feel
  9413. about leaving him?
  9414. And Seth'Nai. . . He had never asked what he thought of
  9415. Nersi, but there was that parting gesture; disturbingly intimate.
  9416. How far have you gone? You're denying it, but. . .
  9417. Nersi shook her head as though clearing her own
  9418. thoughts from her mind and went to see to her own mount.
  9419. No; There were some things that weren't meant to be.
  9421. --\o/--
  9423. "I've got your weapons," said Seth'Nai as he rummaged
  9424. through his bag. "Ah, here."
  9425. The Trenalbi took the swords he handed them and it
  9426. wasn't a heartbeat before Chaiila snapped, "Hai, these aren't our
  9427. blades!"
  9428. "I'm giving them to you," Seth'Nai replied, "So they're
  9429. yours."
  9430. Sekher examined his. Chaiila was right: it wasn't his old
  9431. weapon, the one taken from the Rim troops. This one was new,
  9432. so new he'd never seen one quite like it before. Excellent weight
  9433. and balance with a grip that seemed to melt into his hand. The
  9434. crossguard was pierced and engraved with intricate patterns of
  9435. interlacing curls and loops in a design that brought images of
  9436. clouds to mind. A simple disk was used for the pommel, carved to
  9437. resemble a stylised Lightbringer: a Trenalbi face with flames
  9438. around it. Overly fancy perhaps, but it still had a good heft to it.
  9439. The blade. . .
  9440. Gods, the blade!
  9441. Lighter than any Sekher had ever wielded. It gleamed as
  9442. he withdrew it from the darkwood, silver-bound scabbard. The
  9443. metal carried a slight, blueish matt tint and was utterly smooth;
  9444. without a single rune, marking, or other embellishment. Sekher
  9445. squinted to see what kind of an edge it carried. It just seemed to
  9446. fuzz out of vision.
  9447. Chaiila sniffed at hers. "Doesn't seem very impressive."
  9448. Seth'Nai grinned and reached back into his bag, pulling out a
  9449. bronze sword. He held it upright with a two-handed grip. "Try
  9450. it."
  9451. "What?" Chaiila looked confused.
  9452. "Swing at this."
  9453. She did so. There was a sharp clang, then the top half
  9454. of the sword Seth'Nai held spun to the ground.
  9455. Chaiila stared at her sword with newfound respect.
  9456. Seth'Nai grinned. "You won't be able to break it, and it
  9457. will never need sharpening or cleaning. Just make sure you
  9458. always use these sheaths and don't touch the edges. It will go
  9459. though your fingers a lot easier than metal."
  9460. Sekher moved his hand and carefully sheathed the
  9461. sword. "Also, there are these." Seth'Nai produced a trio of
  9462. circlets of gold metal with a strip of green stone around the
  9463. circumference. He passed them to the Trenalbi.
  9464. There were fine inscriptions on the metal, the same
  9465. marks that decorated Seth'Nai's machines, while the raised strip
  9466. of stone around the equator of the circlet was of a deep, beautiful
  9467. green and unbroken save for a small, silver disk set into it.
  9468. "What do we do with these?"inquired Sekher.
  9469. "Put them on your wrists. Just pull them and they'll
  9470. open." Sekher tried and it did. It clicked shut on his wrist,
  9471. snugly. With a lurch of apprehension he tried removing it. It
  9472. popped open again as easily as it had gone on. He hissed air
  9473. through his teeth and replaced it.
  9474. "Only you can open them," Seth Nai told them. "And
  9475. they've got their uses. Point that dot at the sword and squeeze
  9476. the bracelet with your other hand."
  9477. Nersi tried it. There was a hissing sound and a curl of
  9478. smoke rose from the ground beside the broken sword blade.
  9479. She moved her arm and bronze spurted into nearly invisible flame
  9480. and a flare of molten metal as she cut the blade in half. Sekher and
  9481. Chaiila tried it; quartering the halves.
  9482. "It does not go far," Seth'Nai said, "and will only work
  9483. for a short time before it has to be ¨¨¨¨¨¨¨. . . the power replaced.
  9484. Just leave it in strong light light for a while. They would make
  9485. good fire lighters. You can probably find other uses."
  9486. He had other parting gifts. There were pieces of
  9487. clothing, breeks and cloaks that looked perfectly normal, but
  9488. these produced their own warmth. There were pouches that
  9489. kept food fresh, canteens like Seth'Nai's, and purses filled with
  9490. silver and gold.
  9491. "I'm sorry that's all I can do," Seth'Nai apologised.
  9492. "A, so are we," Chaiila retorted, then looked slightly
  9493. guilty and reluctantly added, "But thanks."
  9494. "You're welcome. Good luck," Seth'Nai said, then
  9495. took Sekher's hand in a firm grip and clapped his shoulder with
  9496. the other. He went around the females and did the same.
  9497. Astonishingly Chaiila tolerated it. Sekher would have been less
  9498. surprised to see the Lightbringer go out.
  9499. "Gods smile on you," the human wished them.
  9500. "Thought you didn't believe," Sekher grinned.
  9501. "Sometimes I hope I'm wrong."
  9502. "Perhaps we'll see you again?" Nersi said, making it
  9503. sound more like a hope.
  9504. "Perhaps." The human stared at her, swallowed. Then
  9505. said, "Go on; get out of here. I hate long farewells."
  9507. --\o/--
  9509. Hours later and the Trenalbi noticed the faint second
  9510. shadow that began to appear before them. As one they turned to
  9511. look back in the direction from which they had come.
  9512. Another Lightbringer was rising into the heavens. A
  9513. pale speck rising on a ball of white light. It seemed to hang in the
  9514. sky a short time, pulsing like a heartbeat against the azure
  9515. backdrop. A faint rumble like faraway thunder rolled across the
  9516. plains. The light flared, moving. Slowly, then more swiftly the
  9517. light began to recede, shrinking with the increasing distance
  9518. until it vanished over the Ramparts to the west, faint trails of
  9519. white cloud marking its departure.
  9520. Thunder faded to a growl, then died.
  9521. Fliers hauled their way into the sky, shrilling in fright.
  9522. "So, he's really gone."
  9523. Nersi was still staring at the mountains where high wisps
  9524. of vapour were slowly dissolving. "I'm going to miss him,"
  9525. she murmured.
  9526. "Don't." Chaiila's voice sounded distressed, taut.
  9527. "Please, don't. He's gone home. Where he belongs."
  9528. "No," Sekher murmured.
  9529. "A?" Chaiila looked startled. "You know something we
  9530. don't."
  9531. "He hasn't gone home. He said he couldn't. Not at the
  9532. moment. Just away from Trenalbi. He's still over there
  9533. somewhere." He hissed meditatively and cocked his head as the
  9534. final remains of vapour trails were dissipated. "He might turn up
  9535. again, somewhere."
  9536. Snow on distant mountaintops sparkled; grey and white.
  9537. Like pale eyes. Sekher grinned:
  9538. "You never know."
  9540. --\o/--
  9542. "You're really going back there."
  9543. "I have to. It's my home, it's my. . . "
  9544. "Gods male! Don't say it! Dying's got nothing to do
  9545. with your duty." Chaiila bore an agonised look, understanding
  9546. what he was going through yet knowing what awaited him.
  9547. "Sekher, there's nothing you can do!"
  9548. He touched the hilt of the sword at his waist; he had
  9549. no illusions. "Don't tell me! I have to be sure. I can't just run
  9550. without even seeing."
  9551. "But if they find you. . . "
  9552. "I know." He swallowed hard. "Gods, but I know."
  9553. Nothing either of the females could say would change
  9554. his mind. They had all known this had to come, this moment they
  9555. went their own ways. Now it was here and they stood atop a
  9556. wind-blown knoll under dull skies as they made their farewells.
  9557. "Then where are you going?"
  9558. Chaiila frowned and looked at her cousin, then at the
  9559. clouds: "Can't say for certain. North; then perhaps down-river
  9560. towards the Hub. If we find a place we like that'll take us. . .
  9561. well, we'll hang our blades there a time." Then she touched her
  9562. stomach and smiled at him. "And there'll be a stop at a Creche
  9563. along the way."
  9564. They moved together for a final time, arms around
  9565. the other: "You'll take care," Sekher told her.
  9566. Her ears twitched. "A. You also, male."
  9567. He touched her mouth with a finger, then moved it
  9568. down, to her stomach. Chaiila flinched and trembled in pleasure
  9569. when he touched the hot flesh of her pouch. "I would. . . enjoy
  9570. meeting you again."
  9571. "A." A single sylable. She laid her hand over his. "As
  9572. you said before: you never know."
  9573. Later:
  9574. Riding eastwards, Sekher twisted in his saddle, finally
  9575. succumbing to the impulse. Perhaps he imagined the pair of
  9576. specks on the distant northern skyline. Then again, perhaps not.
  9578. --\o/--
  9580. Days passed by; long days and cold nights alone on
  9581. the plains, deliberately avoiding other Trenalbi. Once a group of
  9582. soldiers had spotted him as he turned away from their their
  9583. patrol. Their interest turned to suspicion by his avoidance, they
  9584. pursued him for a whole day until he lost them in the tangles of a
  9585. gallery forest. It was the only thing he could do: although his fur
  9586. was growing back it was still sparse and his ruff was blatantly
  9587. patchy, crying out 'criminal!' to all and sundry.
  9588. Yet he continued west, following the sun, after a few
  9589. days angling northwards until he reached the Marshlands river.
  9590. He was another two days searching for a spot to ford it, but once
  9591. across was on the borders of the Che Plains domains.
  9592. The roads were filled with refugees, fleeing. Rim
  9593. soldiery was everywhere: troopers and cavalry, wagon trains
  9594. carrying troops and supplies.
  9595. Smoke hung in palls over gutted towns and villages.
  9596. Carrion hunters fought and squabbled in streets paved
  9597. with bloated corpses.
  9598. And Tsuba?
  9599. Sekher could see the smoke long before the walls came
  9600. into sight. He urged his already-exhausted shen into a gallop,
  9601. reigning up as he crested a hill. The gatehouses were toppled,
  9602. the walls in ruins. Beyond, the buildings were blackened
  9603. skeletons and ruins where guards watched as slave force
  9604. struggled to demolish them. Outlying farm buildings were being
  9605. ploughed under and already the palace, without a chance of
  9606. withstanding a seige, was a pile of rubble, some of the walls
  9607. looking half melted due to the Rim priests.
  9608. And outside the walls a forest of gibbets festooned
  9609. with tattered bodies. There were soldiers milling around a cluster
  9610. of impaling spikes where a struggling figure was raised, then
  9611. lowered. The distant screams rose rapidly to insane heights
  9612. before dying.
  9613. The stench of mortality was faint, but everywhere.
  9614. Rim troops swarmed like a plague. Their tents and
  9615. pavilions and weapons of war surrounded the town. All the time
  9616. patrols and convoys were coming in or setting off to more
  9617. remote corners of Che.
  9618. None of which had escaped Kissaki's revenge, Sekher
  9619. knew.
  9620. He howled in pain and loss and the shen shrilled as
  9621. he yanked it around. He rode hard, not knowing or caring where
  9622. he was going.
  9623. Damn you, Chaiila! You'd been right! Damn your eyes
  9624. for being right!
  9625. He hunched down in the saddle, burying the still-blunt
  9626. tips of his claws into its tough hide, urging the shen on across
  9627. fields where farm buildings and peasants huts lay in ruins, cattle
  9628. gone and crops burnt to ash.
  9629. Why so much?! Burn them! Why'd they gone so far?
  9630. His people were never any threat to the Ch'sty Rim. This was
  9631. simply retaliation for what he and his companions had done to
  9632. Kissaki's troops? What kind of a mind would do that! What kind
  9633. of a mind could. . . Sekher clenched his teeth and howled.
  9634. The shen ran until it was spent, and then some,
  9635. ultimately staggering to a standstill and collapsing to its knees.
  9636. Sekher kicked and swiped at its hide, cursing as he tried to get
  9637. it moving again. He dropped from the saddle and hauled on
  9638. the bridle. It rolled its eyes back at him.
  9639. "Rot you! GODS BURN YOU ALL!" he screamed at the
  9640. sky.
  9641. The twisted leaves and interlaced branches of
  9642. Wovenboughs bobbed and nodded back at him. The small
  9643. grove of trees was peaceful, far from the smoke and violence.
  9644. He stood panting hard, then yowled and drew his sword,
  9645. wielding it like a bat as he swung. The steel slid through a trunk
  9646. as thick as his leg with no more resistance than if it had been fog.
  9647. The tree stood, seemingly untouched. Until the wind caught in
  9648. the branches and it slowly toppled.
  9649. He stood there, shaking violently, then dropped to his
  9650. knees and snuffled and choked uncontrollably; weeping.
  9652. --\o/--
  9654. The fire flickered like a beacon in the darkness. The Rim
  9655. patrol had built their campfire in the lee of the burnt-out
  9656. farmhouse. Several of them were crouched around it, their
  9657. shadows creating lopsided spokes in the warm-orange disc of
  9658. light, their low voices carrying as a subdued susurration.
  9659. Away in the darkness shen whickered and stirred.
  9660. Sekher licked his lips and snarled silently. Grain rustled
  9661. almost inaudibly as he inched closer, his sheathed sword
  9662. clenched in a death-grip. His nostrils widened as he sniffed the
  9663. air; there was food and drink, also blood. That was old. There
  9664. was no scent of alarm.
  9665. Closer.
  9666. The shen chirred and stamped.
  9667. "What's wrong with 'em?" a voice voice asked.
  9668. "Don't know." One of the troopers by the fire rose to
  9669. his feet, staring out towards the shen.
  9670. "A! Perhaps a Che guard?"
  9671. There was laughter at that.
  9672. "Or worse, a Burrowrunner!"
  9673. Laughter barked out again. The one who had stood had
  9674. moved towards the shen, then glanced Sekher's way and
  9675. hesitated. Sekher saw the silhouette of the Rim trooper's head
  9676. cock and he took a couple of steps forward:
  9677. "Hai! There's. . . GODS!"
  9678. Sekher launched himself forward, his blade leaving
  9679. the sheath with a hiss. The Rim trooper stumbled back a step, but
  9680. his hand was only beginning to move for his own blade when the
  9681. alien steel swept through his neck, nearly severing his head.
  9682. Blood fountained in a dark spray, knocking the head back on the
  9683. spine as the body collapsed in a clatter of armour.
  9684. "ATTACK!" The others were screaming, scrambling to
  9685. their feet while drawing swords.
  9686. They couldn't know how many there were, Sekher
  9687. knew. Another died before he could get up, falling face-down in
  9688. the fire in a cloud of rising sparks. His fur caught and the stink of
  9689. roasting meat filled the air.
  9690. Another trooper. Armour of scale mail. His sword up
  9691. to block. Sekher swung wildly and his opponent stared in shock
  9692. as his sword was reduced to a useless stump. He was still
  9693. staring when Sekher's blade came back and eviscerated him
  9694. through the armour. He went down clutching at his own entrails.
  9695. Two more. Sekher struck at another sword and this time
  9696. felt an impact. That blade had been steel. That warrior howled
  9697. in sudden terror and staggered back, throwing up his arms to
  9698. ward off the sword. The alien blade would sever steel; it found
  9699. flesh posed little difficulty. The Rim warrior staggered, then
  9700. stared down at his arm twitching on the ground while his own
  9701. blood was black in the moonlight as it soaked his side.
  9702. Uttering horrified squeals he staggered off into the grain.
  9703. More Trenalbi spilled from the farmhouse with
  9704. weapons in their hands. The remaining Rim soldier backing away
  9705. from Sekher was screaming, "KILL HIM! KILL HIM!" Then
  9706. Sekher's slender blade thrust forward through his breastplate
  9707. and ribs and the heart behind. The Rimmer stared, then
  9708. coughed blood and scrabbled at the sword. That final act lost
  9709. him several fingers.
  9710. The body in the fire was burning brightly now. The fur
  9711. and cloth blazing in a twisted bonfire that sizzled and stank.
  9712. More Trenalbi appeared in the light.
  9713. More of them!
  9714. The sword slid out again and Sekher crouched to face
  9715. the new opponents. Three. . . four of them. No matter. . .
  9716. They melted back from his charge. Sekher tried again,
  9717. swinging at another dark warrior who danced back from his blade.
  9718. Again and again, then something wrapped around his ankles and
  9719. he cried out as his feet were yanked out from under him and
  9720. abruptly claws were tearing at his skin as hands grabbed him,
  9721. an arm curling around his neck. Sekher lashed out madly,
  9722. snarling as he drove an elbow into an unprotected gut. The
  9723. warrior holding him in the hammerlock dropped away with a
  9724. choked grunt and Sekher managed to break away but that chain
  9725. dropped him again. he twisted around and chopped at the
  9726. links to be rewarded by a metallic rattle as a chain was severed.
  9727. Shouts of surprise and the warriors dropped back.
  9728. Sekher swung wildly and one-handed, trying to keep
  9729. them at bay as he hopped around working the chain loose,
  9730. finally kicking it off and finding himself staring at the recurved
  9731. tines of a heavy crossbow held in the grasp of a very
  9732. competent looking male.
  9733. Wearing a heavy roadcoat.
  9734. Panting hard Sekher blinked and looked around. He
  9735. was surrounded, but none of them were dressed in Rim
  9736. armour. Mismatched armour and weaponry; all looking very used.
  9737. "You're Wanderers!" he heaved between breaths.
  9738. There were other weapons out by now. By the firelight
  9739. Sekher could see two of them bore small darters, doubtlessly
  9740. poisoned. There were grins. The one carrying the crossbow drew
  9741. his head back a fraction. "A. And who in all the hells are you?"
  9742. Sekher looked around at the weapons and warriors.
  9743. Four of them, but they were Wanderers; they knew what
  9744. they were doing. "Ser. Ser Kysi." He lied and glanced down at
  9745. the bodies of the Rim troopers, then back at the Wanderer
  9746. bearing the crossbow. "Youre with them?"
  9747. The other lowered the crossbow and studied him for a
  9748. few beats before saying, "Were with them. Looks like our
  9749. contract's done."
  9750. "Contract!" Sekher snarled. "That's what you call it?!
  9751. Try murder for size! I saw what's happening at Tsuba!"
  9752. The other bared his teeth in return. "We had nothing to
  9753. do with that lot. Kissaki pays well, but we've got our honour.
  9754. Now, speaking of murder, that's an interesting blade you
  9755. have there." He nudged a fragment of steel sword with a toe. "I've
  9756. never seen one that slices good steel before. Where'd you pick it
  9757. up?"
  9758. Sekher tightened his grip.
  9759. "Kenner, see: he's been shaved," one of the others
  9760. pointed out.
  9761. "A, I noticed," Kenner replied. "That where? You steal
  9762. it? Perhaps it comes from the Temple?" He grinned and gestured
  9763. with the crossbow, "Tell me, youngling: What's to stop me
  9764. skewering you here?"
  9765. "I don't know," Sekher said even as his hand found the
  9766. bracelet's stud, then Kenner howled and clutched at his arm as
  9767. flame flicked across his fur and sparks flew from the crossbow.
  9768. The lefthand crosspiece was cut in two, the tension snapping it
  9769. back with a whiplash that just missed the Wanderer's face as he
  9770. dropped the weapon.
  9771. The others had reacted in confusion: freezing in place
  9772. or flinging their arms up at the flash. Anyway, whatever they did,
  9773. it gave Sekher time to lay his sword at Kenner's throat. The
  9774. Wanderer struggled briefly until he felt the edge cut through
  9775. his hide and spots of blood bead on his fur. There was a
  9776. blackrimmed gash burned through the Wanderer's shoulder and
  9777. Sekher could feel his heart racing as he scrambled around
  9778. behind the Wanderer with his sword still at his throat and
  9779. hissed in his ear, "How about this for starters."
  9780. The others shifted in dismay at this turn of event. "He's
  9781. Godburned GIFTED!" one of the others hissed.
  9782. "Drop the weapons," Sekher growled. "Drop them! Tell
  9783. them!"
  9784. "A," Kenner gestured to his companions. "Do it."
  9785. There was hesitation, then they did it.
  9786. "All right," Sekher gasped. Gods, he was tired. "Now, I
  9787. don't have an argument with you. . . "
  9788. "Sekher Che."
  9789. "What?!" He started. Kenner made a choking noise as
  9790. the blade bit a little deeper and a whiff of fear reached
  9791. Sekher's nostrils. Gods knew his own was strong enough to be
  9792. smelt all around the campsite. He looked to see who'd spoken.
  9793. "Sekher Che." A wanderer in leather kilt and cuirass
  9794. worn atop a tunic stepped forward to stare at him. "He matches
  9795. the descriptions. The Rimmers are baying for him. I heard he
  9796. destroyed half the palace at Jai'stra, along with about thirty
  9797. battlegroups. That's why they came down on Che so hard."
  9798. Sekher growled.
  9799. "That true?"Kenner choked out. "You got a reason to
  9800. be. . . " He cut off with a gasp as Sekher twitched the sword. It
  9801. would be less than a fingerbreadth before the blade cut arteries.
  9802. "I don't have any argument with you," Sekher hissed
  9803. to the group. "Now, just move back. I'm taking your friend here for
  9804. a walk."
  9805. There were low growls.
  9806. "When I'm away he'll be released."
  9807. Sekher eased up on the sword a little; enough to let
  9808. the Wanderer walk, then directed him off into the darkness, away
  9809. from the fire and his shen. He'd circle around later.
  9810. "You got nerve, youngling," Kenner grated. "Either that
  9811. or a deathwish."
  9812. "Huh!" Panting hard, Sekher glanced back at the
  9813. campsite, he could see them through the trees. Still there;
  9814. They hadn't followed.
  9815. "You're good, but you didn't kill off thirty battlegroups."
  9816. Sekher grinned. "Nah, it was only twenty. And it wasn't
  9817. me who killed them."
  9818. "Who then?"
  9819. "Keep going."
  9820. Kenner stumbled a little. The burn on his arm was
  9821. beginning to bleed. "All right. I wouldn't mind meeting him."
  9822. "We went different ways."
  9823. "A."
  9824. "Here," Sekher stopped the other and moved away.
  9825. "Now; Get down, bite the dirt."
  9826. Kenner lowered to a crouch and hesitated. "You know
  9827. we can track you down easily enough if we want to."
  9828. That made Sekher pause. "I told you I've got no
  9829. problems with Wanderers. I could have killed you earlier. I could
  9830. kill you now. . . "
  9831. "But you aren't going to,"Kenner finished."Look, you're
  9832. Che. Che is gone; no more. Where you going now? Aski says the
  9833. Rimmers are looking for you. He usually knows what he's talking
  9834. about."
  9835. Sekher stared at the Wanderer. "What in the hells are
  9836. you talking about?!"
  9837. "Where do you think WE come from?!" Kenner
  9838. demanded. "Most of us are clanless or outcasts. Sekher. . . Ser. . .
  9839. whatever you want to be called, don't you just want to talk about
  9840. it?"
  9841. "About. . . " Sekher stepped back in confusion, then the
  9842. light dawned. "You are asking me to JOIN you?!"
  9843. "A."
  9844. Sekher stared.
  9845. "Youngling, you look like a good fighter, but I don't
  9846. see you as the sort who's going to survive on his own. I'm
  9847. offering you a chance here. You willing to talk about it?"
  9848. Sekher realised he was still staring. He looked at the
  9849. sword in his hand, then at Kenner: "Uh. . . "
  9850. "You have my word nothing will happen to you if you
  9851. agree to talk."
  9852. What?! This was not what Sekher had been
  9853. expecting. Wanderers. . . how the hells did one handle this?! The
  9854. fine tip of the sword wavered, then lowered. "All right," he said
  9855. in a small voice.
  9856. "Excellent." Kenner grinned at him, then called out,
  9857. "Right! He's going to talk!"
  9858. "Great!" someone shouted back. "And is he going to
  9859. put that sword away too?"
  9860. Sekher stared out into the darkness and saw nothing but
  9861. the outlines of trees and bushes. Grudgingly, he slipped the
  9862. sword back into the sheath.
  9863. Undergrowth rustled slightly and two other
  9864. Wanderers materialised from the darkness, the darters in their
  9865. hands not quite pointed at him.
  9867. --\o/--
  9869. "Drink?"
  9870. Sekher stared at the wineskin but made no move to take
  9871. it. The Wanderer chuckled and took a sip himself and offered it
  9872. again.
  9873. "Thanks," Sekher said. It was wine; not very good
  9874. wine - bitter and with an undertone of the skin's own leather - but
  9875. wine nevertheless. He drank, wiped a forearm across his mouth
  9876. and passed it back. Still, he couldn't feel comfortable here. Why
  9877. the hells did they want him?
  9878. Altruism was something he didn't entirely trust.
  9879. Two of the Wanderers, two named Diksi and Veydiu,
  9880. had drawn the short straws. They were out disposing of the
  9881. Rim bodies. Kenner was grimacing as the one called Aski
  9882. wrapped a poultice around the burn on his arm. He was older,
  9883. considerably older than Sekher, with touches of silver creeping
  9884. into his ruff. More heavily built, with the worn fur and callouses
  9885. on his hands that betrayed long familiarity with a sword. The
  9886. scorch mark was an angry black and red streak against the
  9887. bronzed fur of a highlander. "Ah!" his heavy face wrinkled at
  9888. sudden pain.
  9889. "Hold still," Aski growled. He was a slightly built
  9890. Trenalbi, with a most unusual roadcoat: It seemed to be lined
  9891. completely with pouches. All the medicines and dressing Aski
  9892. was using came from his coat.
  9893. "Easy for you to speak!" Kenner muttered. "You know,
  9894. Che. . .
  9895. "Kysi. Ser Kysi."
  9896. "Probably a good idea," Kenner grinned. "Alright then,
  9897. Ser Kysi it is. As I was saying: you're pretty good with a sword,
  9898. but not quite good enough to fight your way out of Jai'stra.
  9899. How'd you do it?"
  9900. "I told you, that wasn't my doing."
  9901. "A. Your friend. He's a better swordsman, is he? Good
  9902. enough to take on thirty. . . "
  9903. "Twenty."
  9904. "Twenty battlegroups. I would really like to meet such
  9905. a virtuoso with a sword. Who is he?"
  9906. "A daemon."
  9907. The Wanderers stared, then Aski coughed. "You did
  9908. say a daemon?"
  9909. "A. That's right."
  9910. They exchanged glances. "Look, if you don't want to tell
  9911. us, that's your business."
  9912. "Then how would you explain this?" Sekher asked,
  9913. patting the alien sword's sheath.
  9914. "I don't know," Kenner confessed, then pointed at the
  9915. sword, "May I?"
  9916. Sekher didn't move.
  9917. "You have my word you will get it back. I am quite
  9918. satisfied with my own blade, thank you."
  9919. The youth scowled, then handed it over. The Wanderer
  9920. examined the craftmanship closely, turning both sword and
  9921. sheath over in his hands. He used a claw to trace out the
  9922. stylised lightbringer on the pommel.
  9923. "Don't touch the blade," Sekher warned. "It'll take
  9924. your finger off before you know it."
  9925. "A." Kenner acknowledged the warning. "I've never
  9926. seen work like this before. Aski? Your opinion?"
  9927. Aski took the sword and squinted at it, then produced a
  9928. small bundle of black cloth from the depths of his coat and
  9929. unwrapped a small glass disk. He squinted at the sword through
  9930. it.
  9931. Sekher's curiosity was piqued. "What's that?"
  9932. "Some gadget he picked up from some of his
  9933. associates," Kenner replied. "Makes small things look bigger."
  9934. That might have been astonishing. Might have been. Once; a
  9935. few moons ago. Now Sekher had seen things that made tricks
  9936. such as that resemble cublin games. Kenner may have noticed his
  9937. lack of surprise, but he didn't comment.
  9938. Aski concluded his scrutiny. "This is new to me. It's
  9939. not steel. . . and the craftmanship; I've seen work that's more
  9940. intricate and fiddly, but nothing like this style." He hissed and
  9941. passed the sword back, "It's a new one to me. This daemon
  9942. you're talking about: tell us more about it."
  9943. And Sekher hesitated, looking from Wanderer to
  9944. Wanderer. "You worked for the Ch'sty Rim. You start asking
  9945. questions. . . " He took a deep breath, "How the hells do I know
  9946. you won't turn me over."
  9947. "Sek. . . Ser," Kenner leaned forward. "Do you know
  9948. anything about Wanderers?"
  9949. "A little. You're mercenary. You work for whoever pays. .
  9950. . "
  9951. "Huh!" Kenner scratched his muzzle. "You know what
  9952. you've been told, and that's not a whole lot. Look, we're an old
  9953. affiliate, almost as old as the Priesthood. You could say we're
  9954. almost a clan in ourselves, and we look after our own."
  9955. "Then why me?" Sekher asked. "We draw blood trying
  9956. to kill each other, then you go and ask me to join you. Why
  9957. should I?"
  9958. "You need us more than we need you," Kenner
  9959. grinned. "Trust me, youngling, I've got a good sense about these
  9960. things."
  9961. "True," Aski agreed.
  9962. "Yeah, thanks. Anyway, the way you go charging
  9963. around attacking Rim soldiers, you're not going to last long
  9964. doing that."
  9965. "I think I did alright."
  9966. "They were conscripts. If they'd been a bevy of royal
  9967. guards or veterans you'd be walking with your ancestors.
  9968. Listen, youngling: you're own your own. You've lost your entire
  9969. clan. Where else are you going to go?
  9970. "We all saw you fighting, and I reckon you've got
  9971. promise. You had a good teacher, whoever it was showed you
  9972. the spit and polish approach, not a foot wrong, but no
  9973. imagination. Clanless and inexperienced, I doubt you'd last long.
  9974. I'm just offering you a chance to live."
  9975. Clanless. Those were cold words. Sekher shuddered
  9976. and drew his kness up, hugging them as he looked to the pale
  9977. orbs of the daughters swinging through the night sky. How
  9978. could he be sure this was the truth? There was always the
  9979. chance that Kenner was lying, simply intending to hand Sekher
  9980. over to Rim forces at the first opportune moment. But. . . he
  9981. seemed sincere enough, and he was - Sekher considered -
  9982. probably right: He'd never been outside Che before; what did he
  9983. know of the world? How could he last? was he sure he wanted
  9984. to? What was there ahead? Nothing but more running. Home
  9985. was something he no longer had. . .
  9986. Yet there was Chaiila. There was a female who had
  9987. marked him as her own and carried his seed. That was something
  9988. to aim for.
  9989. Slowly he clenched and unclenched his fist, watching
  9990. the stubs of his claws sliding in and out of his fingertips. Why
  9991. weren't they growing back? "All right," he said, not looking at the
  9992. Wanderers. "Alright. I understand. Well, you wanted to know."
  9993. So Sekher told his tale, from the K'streth campaign
  9994. onwards to this moment. However, it was a carefully edited
  9995. version: He made no mention of Seth'Nai's origins and people,
  9996. nor his metal vessel. He never named Chaiila or Nersi, or even
  9997. mentioned their sex. In fact if Sekher had heard this story from
  9998. someone else's mouth, he'd have never recognised it as part of
  9999. his own life.
  10000. Still, Kenner and Aski listened, quietly. There were
  10001. doubts, Sekher could see that, but they kept their questions. . . at
  10002. least until he'd finished.
  10003. "And did this daemon also have something to do with
  10004. your Gift?" Aski asked.
  10005. "A."
  10006. Kenner glanced at Aski. The slight Wanderer rubbed
  10007. his jaw. "Huh! I've heard of Trenalbi finding themselves Gifted
  10008. as they grow older, but I've never heard of anyone actually
  10009. meeting his benefactor."
  10010. "But it didn't do anything to help my people,"
  10011. Sekher growled.
  10012. Kenner touched the bandages on his arm and
  10013. grinned. "I wouldn't complain. It doesn't seem that useless. That
  10014. was an excellent crossbow you ruined."
  10015. "But he could have. . . he could have stopped them."
  10016. Sekher turned to stare in the direction of Tsuba. . . what
  10017. remained of Tsuba. Blood scented metallic as his nostrils flared.
  10018. "Youngling," Kenner spoke, his words slow and
  10019. measured. "Look, that's behind you. It's gone. What can you
  10020. hope to do? one against the Ch'sty, a hero appearing to save
  10021. the clan. . . Kysi, don't make a fool of yourself."
  10022. Sekher started to snarl, caught himself. Wasn't that
  10023. what he'd been told before? Rush in and carry the day
  10024. to triumph. . . That time by a female. Huh, perhaps it was some
  10025. advice he could take. He sagged. "A."
  10026. There were voices approaching, the other two
  10027. Wanderers returning from disposing of the Rim corpses. Kenner
  10028. glanced in that direction. "All right. You've got a shen
  10029. somewhere. Yes? Well, you may as well bring it in then get some
  10030. rest. We leave at first light."
  10031. "Where?"
  10032. Kenner shrugged."Well, for starters we get out of
  10033. Rim territory, then. . . Well, the world's a big place."
  10034. A, Sekher thought to himself, bigger than you can
  10035. imagine. Alright, for now he'd trust them. Fool that he was. . .
  10037. --\o/--
  10039. Could they trust him?
  10040. He was a strange one, that youngling. What else could
  10041. he be? Charging a Rim patrol; his sword; that Gift. . . What
  10042. about that story of meeting a daemon. . . Huh! He seemed all
  10043. right, but there was perhaps that chance that he wasn't entirely
  10044. sane. It wouldn't be altogether surprising, after losing his clan,
  10045. his entire land, then going through a term in the dungeons in
  10046. Jai'stra. That sort of ordeal would be enough to loosen anyone's
  10047. hold.
  10048. Kenner touched his burn wound. Then again there was
  10049. that. That and the sword did corroborate his story. The
  10050. youngling had shown skill with his blade; also restraint. He had
  10051. known when to stop, when to listen, and when to talk. There was
  10052. something there he could work with.
  10053. Huh! Kenner shifted the reigns and squinted into
  10054. the windblown dust. The Che youth was riding before him,
  10055. hunched down into a cloak that seemed far too thin to offer
  10056. much protection against the westerly - straight off the Ramparts.
  10057. It had been a long time since he had had an apprentice. The last
  10058. one, now he had been quite good, but still foolhardy and unable
  10059. to hold his liquor. The last Kenner had heard he had gotten
  10060. himself killed in a tavern brawl. A tavern brawl for godsakes!
  10061. Still, he'd been the same way himself. Once. How long
  10062. ago? Gods! That long? He shuddered. Growing old was
  10063. something he'd never liked thinking about. It just snuck up on
  10064. you, never giving you a chance to face it. Worst of all, there
  10065. would come a time he would be too old for this kind of travelling,
  10066. but the thought of being relegated to rotting in the confines of a
  10067. town, freezing to death slowly in an attic somewhere, that
  10068. brought a bad taste to the mouth. He coughed quietly in disgust.
  10069. Yet, there was still time. He had a couple of decades left.
  10070. Eventually, he would find something more dignified.
  10071. For now. . . there was some teaching to be done.
  10073. --\o/--
  10075. Elsewhere:
  10076. The river was a sparkling blue ribbon along the green
  10077. floor of the alpine valley, almost metallic as it glittered in patches
  10078. of sunlight pushing through the clouds. On either side the
  10079. mountains rose: forest rising to rock climbing higher to
  10080. snowbound peaks that buried their heads in a ceiling of shifting
  10081. clouds.
  10082. Animals moved in that valley. There were the small
  10083. herbivores and scavengers and hunters scuttling in
  10084. the undergrowth, hiding from the larger predators who
  10085. occasioned down from the heights. There were things analogous
  10086. to fish in the river. Christo only knew how they came to be
  10087. there; perhaps through an underground channel. Perhaps
  10088. they'd been there since the mountains raised themselves from the
  10089. oceans.
  10090. From a distance none of that was apparent. There was
  10091. just the mountain valley.
  10092. Hayes perched himself upon a sun-warmed outcropping
  10093. of red rock high in the northern end of the valley and just
  10094. watched it all. Before him the sheer drop fell away for more than
  10095. seventy metres. Beyond that, behind him, all around, the sea of
  10096. dark green twisted leaves of countless trees rustled in the
  10097. shifting air. The brilliant yellow, work-scarred metal frame of
  10098. the loading waldo waiting beneath a nearby tree didn't fit here at
  10099. all. Nevertheless, no matter how motionless the machine may
  10100. have appeared, the sensor cluster inside the chassis cage never
  10101. ceased its survey of the surroundings.
  10102. This place was so different from the vast openess of
  10103. the plains; so much greener and. . . vertical. Hayes had never
  10104. seen so many trees in one place in all his life. There were
  10105. some agrohabs that had parks set aside, several hundred square
  10106. kays of 'wild' terran flora and fauna. One could find a high spot
  10107. and watch it spreading out along the curve of the horizon until
  10108. the green vanished beyond the blue of the projected 'sky'. But
  10109. they couldn't compete with this.
  10110. And there were no natives here.
  10111. That was something Hayes had made absolutely sure of.
  10112. Drones had scoured the valley from end to end. Thermal, IR,
  10113. Kirlian, EMR, ECG, enhancement, contrast, seismic. . . none of
  10114. the sensors had uncovered anything, either natives nor their
  10115. artifacts. If they had been hiding, there would have been some
  10116. trace.
  10117. There was little doubt that if there had been
  10118. something intelligent here, it would have seen him arrive. A black
  10119. scar, seven-hundred metres long, was burned into the
  10120. mountainside where trees had been vaporised by plasma. This
  10121. landing had been better than the last, but still the module had
  10122. taken damage. At the moment it was further up the
  10123. moutainside, perched drunkenly on damaged landing jacks and
  10124. looming over the trees like a gigantic white glacier.
  10125. The flight had been little more than a hop, but getting
  10126. that mass airborne had taken power. A lot of power. The
  10127. superconducting accelerators for the Aggies chewed through
  10128. megawatts while the plasma engines did the same to reserves of
  10129. both solid and ionised fuel. Running systems like that from a
  10130. single PCU was like trying to run a firehose from a bathtub.
  10131. "9.056 percent remaining before reaction mass is
  10132. insufficient to sustain PCU core. Shutdown will be initialised at .26
  10133. percent."
  10134. Hayes sighed helplessly and pinched the bridge of his
  10135. nose. "How long?"
  10136. The vaguely gorrila-shaped machine couldn't shrug.
  10137. "At minimum consumption, a estimated minimum of thirteen
  10138. months."
  10139. "Burn it! And with repairs?"
  10140. "Four months. And I do not have the onboard facilities
  10141. to fully repair the number three and seven extensors in landing
  10142. jack three or realign structural bulkheads in the starboard
  10143. services pods. Lifesupport filter units 69 percent operational.
  10144. Rebreather service pods damaged. . . "
  10145. Hayes propped his chin in his hands and listened
  10146. morosely. The list went on.
  10147. Jeet! But that last hop had been necessary! What else
  10148. was he supposed to do? Sit around and wait for those fuzznuts to
  10149. catch up to him? Then what? Sit around and wait while they tried
  10150. to crack his shell. They wouldn't even have anything able to
  10151. breech the outer hull! Hordes of them trying to burn him out
  10152. while their bogus priests pulled their parlour tricks. What then?
  10153. Perhaps turn one of the module's KK cannon on them? A burn
  10154. from the engines?
  10155. He raked his fingers through his hair. Who'd have
  10156. believed it? The first terra type world; inhabited! To beat that,
  10157. by things that looked more like two-legged hairy wolves than
  10158. people. He'd never thought to scan for a pre-industrial society
  10159. without even the most basic filament lighting, their small towns
  10160. built from stone and wood, not much agriculture for a primarily
  10161. carniverous species. They ate their meat raw, RAW for Christo's
  10162. sake! Go out and kill something and eat it while it was still warm!
  10163. Eating a meal with them was something you wouldn't forget
  10164. quickly. When they stood close you tended to remember that,
  10165. especially when they chose to grin.
  10166. And it was stranger yet that he found he had come to
  10167. call some of the friends. He still wasn't sure of their real names,
  10168. he could only hear them as a squeaking and trilling tickling the
  10169. upper edges of his hearing. Their language was pronounceable if
  10170. lowered into a range audible to humans, but he'd been making do
  10171. entirely with software and electronics, splicing code-crackers
  10172. and translation lexicons and algorithms together in an operating
  10173. shell. It worked, and the software learned a great deal faster than
  10174. he could and never forgot, but there were times he felt the
  10175. machine didn't really convey what he was really trying to say.
  10176. Such as that night he'd woken up to find a hairy body in
  10177. his bed.
  10178. That still confused him. They had talked, but what she
  10179. had wanted. . . it was also what he had wanted. And that was
  10180. physically impossible. He had liked her, she had been openly
  10181. friendly. The talks they'd had told him so much about their
  10182. society and the natives themselves; the Trenalbi.
  10183. She had been related to the other feamle in some way,
  10184. the dark one with the volatile temper. What did he think of her?
  10185. Hayes wasn't too sure. As first impressions went, she came
  10186. across as abrasive as a sandblaster. She was stubborn, vicious,
  10187. touchy, and intolerant, but she'd managed to trick her way into a
  10188. frigging castle, she was perhaps overly protective of Nersi, and
  10189. her affection and trust for Sekher was obvious enough. Perhaps
  10190. it took some searching, but there was enough there to like.
  10191. And then there was Sekher, that other one he called
  10192. friend, the one who'd scared him spitless in the cage, also the
  10193. first who'd begun to treat him as something more than an animal.
  10194. He wasn't the convict Hayes had first thought him. A political
  10195. prisoner, Nersi had told him. The son of the king of one of the
  10196. dozens of small provinces the crater was fragmented into, to be
  10197. used as a hostage in the coming war.
  10198. Murphy, but he'd had a good run, Hayes sighed.
  10199. Contact with pre-industrial cultures prohibited and he'd gone so
  10200. far as to detonate a PCU, killing hundreds of them. Sekher's
  10201. appeal for help was something he'd hoped would never come,
  10202. but it did, and when it came, there was nothing he could do but
  10203. refuse. Things had already gone too far.
  10204. Hayes picked up a fallen stick and twirled it idly
  10205. between his fingers. Shit! He hoped Sekher would make it home
  10206. all right. There was nothing he could have done for him. He
  10207. swung the stick, then began breaking small pieces off and
  10208. flicking them away, watching as they spun away over the cliff.
  10209. Now, he was following regs, and where did that get him? A
  10210. damaged ship on its last ergs.
  10211. Another piece sailed down.
  10212. Now? Power was ebbing all the time. His lifesupport
  10213. relied on that, food and atmosphere recycling, also the
  10214. maintenance systems, computer, comms. After lifesupport went
  10215. he'd be onto ratcakes; maintenance down and the servo's would
  10216. run on batteries for a time, then grind to a halt. Pan. . . the
  10217. computer had fission power cells capable of keeping the
  10218. system up for centuries, but the scanners and auxilieries that
  10219. gave the system its power would be crippled. The gravitic links
  10220. with the main body of the miner would fail. Before that
  10221. happened he'd have to upload a copy OS, control systems, and
  10222. relevant addresses to a tempcore in the mainship. Once
  10223. communications were reduced to the timelag and distortion of
  10224. old-style EM pulses, it would be the only way the mainship
  10225. and factories out in the belts could continue their work on
  10226. replacement modules. When maintenance died the servos would
  10227. stop; any damage in the module or equipment would have to be
  10228. repaired by hand. Not easy. The human body wasn't designed
  10229. to squeez into conduits ten centimetres across.
  10230. He flicked another twig over the edge. Was there a
  10231. way around this? With the juice left, there was no way to build
  10232. another reactor. Sia! but he couldn't even depend on solar
  10233. panels. What?
  10234. "First, what have you got on supplementary energy
  10235. sources? Something that can be used downside. Non-emitting,
  10236. passive, non-polluting."
  10237. "Searching. . . Entries found under library, historical:
  10238. Hydroelectric, fossil-fuels including natural gas, windpower,
  10239. tidal power, geothermal, and solar. Is there a particular item you
  10240. had in mind?"
  10241. "Ah. . . What would be most effective in this sort
  10242. of environment?"
  10243. "More geographical data is required before an
  10244. accurate recommendation can be made. On existing information
  10245. possible suggestions are windpowered generators, solar
  10246. collectors, hydroelectric and possibly geothermal."
  10247. "Hydro, huh?" Hayes gazed thoughtfully at the
  10248. river."What would that take?"
  10249. "A full survey of the watercourse to find a suitable site.
  10250. The resources involved depend upon the location. An estimate
  10251. based on optimum conditions downloaded to matrix now."
  10252. Hayes flicked the matrix display on and scanned the
  10253. listing on the projected screen. Murphy! Most likely types
  10254. looked to be either the arch or butress dam. Core samples for
  10255. soil analysis. Steel and plascrete into the kilotonnes. Servos
  10256. and heavy waldos by the dozen. Construction of a cofferdam,
  10257. high capacity pumps. . . Perhaps that could be circumvented.
  10258. Provided the current wasn't too powerful plascrete and
  10259. compressed rock could be worked underwater. That would mean
  10260. ensuring the machinery was waterproof. Then there were the
  10261. spillways, generators. . .
  10262. And in damming the river, what would that do to the
  10263. valley? Put that on hold for the time.
  10264. There were more problems with windpower. Namely,
  10265. finding enough square acerage where windmills could be
  10266. erected.
  10267. Geothermal power, now that had possibilities. There were
  10268. hot springs in the valley. They had a source. Perhaps that could
  10269. be harnessed. Steam turbines were ancient, but they produced
  10270. power. For a long time Hayes sat muttering to himself and staring
  10271. into the middle distance, completely lost in thought. When the
  10272. inspiration came, he could have kicked himself for not having
  10273. though of it earlier.
  10274. "Dammit! First, what about the exchangers in the PCU!"
  10275. The AI hesitated, then did its best to answer,"Thirty
  10276. two Cromwell carbon-rhenium exchange envelopes each
  10277. generating. . . "
  10278. He waved that aside as he scrambled to his feet and
  10279. began pacing on the rock. "Yeah! I know all that! You know
  10280. what temperatures they can take?"
  10281. "Recommended operating temperature is 1500 c, but
  10282. they can withstand temperatures up to approximately 3700 c."
  10283. "So suppose you were to use a, say. . . R-19 worm, fit it
  10284. with the exchangers, then bore down through the crust until you
  10285. hit magma. How would that compare with the PCU?"
  10286. "Theoretically, the idea is feasible. However, there
  10287. could be technical difficulties aside from the heat. Pressure and
  10288. moving rock might cause damage. If enough magma congealed
  10289. around the exchangers it could degrade performance and cause
  10290. damage."
  10291. Hayes shrugged. "Shielding and reduced friction
  10292. treatments should do it. The grounds not going to move that
  10293. much in a year. It's been done before on Terra. Check the
  10294. references, then get to work."
  10295. "Acknowledged," the AI responded.
  10296. Hayes turned to watch the valley again. A trio of the
  10297. featherless alien birds were circling the treetops like miniature
  10298. aircraft. If they were calling it was in the auditory range of
  10299. everything else on this world, he couldn't hear them. Christo, if he
  10300. screwed up and turned this mountain into a volcano quite a few
  10301. people were going to be blowing blood vessels.
  10302. Hah! What did one volcano matter; he already had
  10303. enough on record to get the 'crats and contact specialists ripping
  10304. their hair. He'd be lucky if they contented themselves with
  10305. dumping his licence, slamming him in some forsaken refinery
  10306. orbiting an iceball somewhere and melting down the key. Again,
  10307. HAH! Grinning, he kicked at a stone, sending it clattering down
  10308. the cliff.
  10310. --\o/--
  10312. Pale walls of sand-colored stone encircled the town.
  10313. Behind it, the sluggish brown snake of the Mestrie river wound
  10314. through the plains, the colors of the crop fields along its banks
  10315. like a crazypatch blanket in earthen tones. Dust hung in choking
  10316. clouds above the road as a steady supply of wagons, shen, and
  10317. Trenalbi on foot braved the summer heat. The bright colors of
  10318. their clothes and the tassles of their animals and wagons were
  10319. travelstained but still stood out cheerfully against the golden
  10320. sienna of sun-bleached grasses. Festival time; outlying farms
  10321. journeying to town to sell their wares, socialize and join the
  10322. festivities.
  10323. Tenada. Not a large town; an outpost at the peripheries
  10324. of the Soli Clan holdings, a realm itself at the western edge of the
  10325. world, several kingdoms removed from Ch'sty lands.
  10326. Perhaps here.
  10327. Chenuk hitched up his carrybag and started walking
  10328. down to the road. His shen was gone, sold. Now a sword hung
  10329. from his hip. It wasn't much: bronze, no embelishments, but it
  10330. was almost all his silver. His food was gone, he hadn't been able
  10331. to catch anything over the past couple of days. The coppers in
  10332. his purse would buy a modest meal this night, but no more. He
  10333. would spend the night. . . somewhere; a disused attic, under
  10334. the walls, somewhere.
  10335. Festival time. Would there be work here? Perhaps the
  10336. Watch would be desperate enough to take him on. He had been
  10337. practising - wrong handed he could make himself look
  10338. dangerous with the sword, but was it enough?
  10339. His stomach growled. With a sigh he hitched his bag
  10340. again and wondered if someone would offer him a ride.
  10343. --\o/--
  10346. To be continued
  10350. eventually...
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