User:Michael Bard/Destinies

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Destinies

Author: Michael Bard

by Michael Bard

Chapter 1

Cesar Martinez aboard the Yellow Rose, near Sol

Cesar Martinez hated jumps, they terrified him. He tried to ignore the countdown his implanted AI whispered into his mind. Part of him wanted to order Fremin to cancel it, but he knew from experience that not knowing was even worse.

He felt the tickle of Henry’s sonar along his side and sculled around and looked down at him as the uplifted killer whale watched.

Have we left, jumped to the sea?
Shall we see the sun and the waves?

Henry’s voice echoed oddly through the tank and Cesar heard the hiss as the creature exhaled through one of the twin air hoses that was required to keep bubbles from clogging up the water as the ship was in freefall.

With a flip of her tail Margaret pushed herself against her mate and gently ran a fin along his side.

Cesar had no trouble translating his thoughts into the pidgin language that had been developed between humans and the uplifted killer whales. The hardest part was translating concepts like time that were foreign to their society.

How long? I don't know it yet
Soon we jump, and soon we land
Soon we reach new sea and sky.

Five minutes Cesar, Fremin broke in. Onboard O2 rated for 18.53 hours... mark.

Cesar swam down to the mated pair with clean strokes of his rubber flippered feet, and ran his naked hand along Henry’s soft rubbery hide. He’d worked with this pair for years, and now they were on their way to Atlantis. The idea was to seed the species there, herds grown from sperm and egg and raised by Henry and Margaret.

The voice of the ship’s commander broke into his sensorium: “Cesar, we’ve received an update from the Mercury weather station. They’ve detected Corporate raiders jumping in. Message delay is eighteen seconds. I’m going to jump as soon as possible.”

“Thanks Captain.”

Neither message was spoken aloud, they were all in his head, induced signals that were identical to those which would have come from his ears which had been surgically modified ten years ago to be flush with his naked skull. It’d made sense given the amount of time he spent in the water.

I’ve just received an updated jump schedule from the ship’s computer. Fifty-five seconds… mark. Fremin’s voice did nothing for Cesar’s fluttering stomach.

Somehow the whales sensed his nervousness. They both pressed their flukes against him, somehow carefully keeping their air hoses untangled. Margaret’s exhalation hose hissed and a pair of tiny crystal spheres escaped and clung to the soft rubber collar that rested against the flesh around her blowhole.

Cesar sighed, debating again why he hadn’t just had gills implanted. The O2 tank that replaced one of his lungs was awkward to fill, and he always felt it as a cold hardness in his chest. The real reason was probably his fear of drowning -- it terrified him.

I’m receiving voice feed from the bridge. Should I relay it? Fremin asked.

Go ahead. It’d be better then just thinking about the countdown.

Margaret pressed her head gently between his legs, her blubber warm and smooth on his flesh. She was nervous too, they all were. He felt the cold rubber of her air hose slide along his back.

“--jump flash! Definitely in range--"

“Bearing?”

“Twenty degrees off our bow. Radar bounce shows distance at 3.2 light sec-- jump flash!”

Cesar hated feeling like cargo. In the wars it’d been different.

“Time till jump?”

“Eighteen point three seconds, mark.”

“Isabella, look for their exit -- likely they’ve picked us for today’s weapons practice. Plot best jump for Atlantis with continual update. Arnard? Are the engines prepped for jump?”

Sensations and memories quivered down his spine. Memories of being on the bridge, of commanding a strike ship. The tension, the horrors… at least he’d been able to do something. Now he could only wait as his mind bounced from memory to memory in panicked randomness.

“Aye captain. They're ready.”

He’d hated the war, and he’d hated the corporations and their casual disregard for human rights. But, he hated being a passenger on a freighter even more. In the interests of cost, a freighter’s capacitors could hold just enough for an interstellar jump. Military ships with their oversized capacitors could make five or six micro jumps to reposition and still have enough stored energy for a long distance jump.

“Jump flash -- directly in front-- dear god, missile launch!”

The jump count reached eight seconds before seeming to slow. With his legs he gently squeezed Margaret’s sides, reaching over and running his fingers along Henry’s flank.

“Impact ti--?”

“Radar bounce -- one second! We’re--"

“All hands brace! Jump!”

The countdown was at two seconds.

A dull boom shuddered through the ship, echoed through the water. Not a jump. And then the jerk that was.


Although a jump takes a couple of days or less per light year to an observer in our space, depending upon the jumpspace entered, to the travelers in jumpspace it’s almost instantaneous.

Almost.

Only an instant passed to Cesar until the ship jerked and suddenly punched back into normal space.


Even through the water, Cesar could hear the ship scream its death. Everything shook and shuddered, the water heaved against the sides of the container and the top hatch burst open spraying globs of water out to splat against the cargo hold walls and shatter into a thousand drifting droplets.

For a moment Cesar didn't know what was happening, grabbing one of Henry's pectorals and kicking to steady himself. The two orcas clicked and whistled to each other, holding themselves steady and watching Cesar.

Cesar, Fremin broke in, I’ve lost all feed from the bridge. Voice, telemetry, everything! Who’d have thought an AI could sound scared?

Cesar looked around, blinking over the hard contacts in his eyes, finally finding the side of the tank with the hatch. It was open, and the water around it appeared to be agitated, rolling.

Or was it boiling?

Fremin--? Cesar asked.

Henry pulled himself loose and ran his beak along Cesar's side as he sang:

Something is wrong, something bad
Not myself, not my great mate
Neither of us can get life
Instead it tugs, it burns us
What's happening to our world?

Cesar kicked to stay in place, and gently held each of their beaks as he looked at the bubbling surface.

Boiling.

He sang a response:

Something bad is happening
I must go, will be back here
Be safe, all of you hunt well
I will never leave the herd

With that, Cesar pushed the pair away and slowly swam to the hatch. He could feel his one lung getting saturated with waste CO2, and he'd have to surface soon anyway to exhale it. He couldn't do it in the tank, at least as long as it was in freefall.

A long low inanimate groan of pain, of metal failing, echoed around him. The orcas followed below, but he motioned them back.

Fremin, any luck with the ship, anybody?

No luck-- but my range is limited

Cesar stopped his motion with his hands just below what was now the surface.

Fremin, stand by on the nerves on from my left hand.

This has to be a vacuum, you don't need to make sure.

You know I do. If they could breathe, I'd wait--

Yea.

Cesar shoved his bare hand through the cool bubbling liquid, the sudden action breaking the surface tension. He could feel the water vapourising around his palm. And he felt the dulled pain of his cells bursting.

He yanked his hand back down.

Crap.

Crap. Fremin agreed.

Leaning down, Cesar begin pull off his flippers. I'm going to have to go for my suit.

I know. Good thing your medical is paid up.

Ha ha.

Leave the water slow, you should pull a layer of liquid with you -- it'll give you a bit of protection, for a while anyway.

I'll get there as best I can. When I hit the wall, I'll open my eyes briefly. Code 872C -- you have full visual access.

I'll be fast. The hard contacts should give you some protection.

Henry, come below me now.
I must use you to leave here.
To find a way to save us.

Feeling the slick rubbery skin tickling his soles, Cesar pushed himself down with his hands, pressing his feet against the orca. Looking up, he aimed for his suit as best he could. It'd been stored in the hold due to both space, and the requirement it be as accessible as possible. He spent almost all of his time here.

Graceful, and slow, he pushed away from Henry, forcing his way through the bubbling surface as he closed his eyes. A bulge of water grew upward with him. Passing through the hatch, he floated, his teardrop shaped liquid cocoon bubbling and boiling all around him.

The distance wasn't far as the tank filled almost the entirety of the hold. They would have just used it, but it was easier to move the entire tank -- whales and water -- into the landing shuttle. He felt his outstretched fingers touch metal and opened his eyes for a second before pinching them shut again. His mouth gaped wide, and he felt the CO2 rich air being sucked out, to bubble through what was left of his watery cocoon. To flow within it onto the wall before the liquid boiled away into nothingness.

Handhold above left, Fremin directed.

Cesar reached out and grabbed it, beginning to feel burning patches on his feet and legs.

Up and right -- you should be able to feel the suit now.

Cesar grasped the arm of his suit. This would have been a lot harder without the O2 from his internal tank.

You need to turn around and back--

I know that! Now let me concentrate.

Cesar turned around, knowing that the chest of the suit was open like a clamshell. Wiggling his legs in, he ignored the plumbing attachments and wiggled in his arms. Then it took just seconds to pull the helmet down and seal the front. Pressure hissed around him and the suit went taut. He coughed blood out of his lung, splattering it against the front of the helmet.

"--sar Martinez, please respond! Cesar Martinez, please respond!"

It's the ship's AI.

Shut up and let me talk.

"This is Cesar Martinez--" His voice was raw and course, and he coughed as tried to inhale.

"Heard and received. What is your status?"

Cesar opened his eyes -- his vision was a bit blurred but clearing. He could feel the suit pressing against his burned skin and swallowed a pair of pain pills. Fremin could use the help. Breathing was getting easier.

"I'm uninjured except for skin and possible eye damage. Am in suit in hold two." He checked his HUD. "I show about a week's worth of oxygen in suit, and--"

18.41 hours.

"--18.4 hours on implant. No visible damage to hold, but environment is in vacuum. Henry and Margaret have no oxygen; they've got about five minutes before they need to breathe."

Cesar could hear the desperation, and relief, in the ship's AI's voice. "Understood, Captain. What sensors I have left show their O2 tank ruptured and empty. Unknown why emergency valve hasn't closed in their umbilicals. It's may have only partially closed. Ship is in decaying orbit around hypermass. Insufficient referents or external sensors to ID location. Central section of ship all that remains intact. Entire crew dead. Running on emergencies only. What are your orders?"

Orders? What--? Well, he'd been a captain during the war. And he was -- he pushed the pain away -- senior officer still onboard.

"Keep scanning for survivors. Absolute priority is to restore O2 to the orcas."

"No known way to achieve second objective. First objective is purposeless. You must make provision to save yourself."

He's right Cesar. We have to do something -- we're spiralling into a black hole--

"Ship, you have your orders. I will not leave the orcas to die alone."

"Captain, there are large objects in this orbit with us. We are closing on one. Collision is likely. You have to make provisions for your own--"

Cesar shut off the radio, almost breaking the switch.

Cesar, he's right. There's nothing--

Just shut up! Just shut the fucking hell up!

Cesar pushed off the wall and back to the tank, grabbing the rim of the hatch and holding on, though the breeze of water vapour was trying to push him away. The tank level was noticeably lower now, and he could see Henry and Margaret looking up at him. They were swimming back and forth, mouths opening and closing.

Cesar, what can you do for them?

Pulling himself in, he shoved himself into the water. With the orcas rubbing against his suit, he reached over and, bracing himself, pulled out first Margaret's umbilical, and then Henry's, releasing puffs of blood into the water. As he did so, he sang:

I sorrow for the hunters
For the life is now gone
I will stay with my herdmates
I will be here for you all

Cesar, this is madness! Turn the radio on, what if something is about to hit us?

Cesar let go for a moment, and twisted and pulled the glove off his left hand. With his naked flesh he gently rubbed first one flank, and then the other.

Together the orca's replied, exhaling some bubbles that hung and danced around them.

The hunters share your sorrow
We face our fate together
Eternal is the hunting
And forever--

The mass the ship's AI had warned of intersected the remains of the ship. It was massive. Whether a rogue moon or asteroid, another fragment of the ship, a piece of another ship -- it didn't really matter. With a scream of agony the object hit the freighter, it's force twisting and tearing metal as it ploughed through. It tore into the plastic of the tank, ripping the seams apart as tonnes of water and whale, along with one man, were flung away from the dying hulk.

Somehow Cesar managed to cling to one of the orcas, he never knew which. They tumbled through the naked heavens, his naked hand holding the sentient as it screamed and writhed in its death against him.

Cesar, jump now! Now! Don't let the memory of them die!

But--

Jump you bastard. Jump! With all your strength jump!

Cesar did, his body betraying his mind. Twisting around, he kicked away from the screaming corpse with all his strength as the heavens spun around him.

Cesar, listen--!

I let them die alone!

Yes-- yes you did. Shut the fuck up and listen!

Why?

Because you may yet survive to remember them. Let their death mean something!

I-- Cesar couldn't see through his tears, couldn't breathe through the sobs that wracked him as his system switched back to his internal O2.

Take the antirads right-- right now.

I--

Jus-- Just do it! Now!

Somehow Cesar swallowed a pair of pills.

I don have much time. The rads are hellish. My circuits are dying.

You can't die!

The universe doesn't believe that. Turn your beacon on. Not your left hand, it's useless. Beacon put the suit in emergency mode.

Cesar fumbled at his side and flicked the switch.

The suit reacted, first playing a reassuring beeping in Cesar's ears to show that the becon was transmitting, and then changing the protocols of its AI to make the survival of its passenger at any cost, including said passenger's instructions, its priority. The wrist seal from which Cesar had removed the glove expanded, bladders inflating, pressing into Cesar's arm and cutting off the hand as painkillers flooded into his system from injectors in the backpack. There was still pain, and that finally pushed aside Cesar's sorrow.

What-- what are you doing?

Trying to keep you sore ass alive. That kick move us to better orbit. I think.

You think?

Radiation here hell. Killing me. Killing you eventually.

You can't die!

I am. May live you.

Fremin--

Fremin's voice was slow, hesitant. Daisy-- daisy-- give me your answer true--

Stop it!

Traditional las-- las words.

Fremin?

What happen I die?

Fremin, you won't die!

Silence.

Fremin?

Silence.

Fremin?

Cesar lost it, sobbing, yelling, screaming, his voice getting weaker and weaker. Even with all his genetic enhancements, even with all the drugs and medical nanites doing what they could to keep him alive, and killing each one by one as the radiation corrupted its programming, Cesar grew weaker and weaker. He vomited, emptying what little was in his stomach against his faceplate.

Through it he watched, watched a cylinder of light, red on the outside changing to a harsher and harsher blue towards the middle. Sparks of blue light shifted and twirled as the stars spun round and round and round.

And as the eons passed.

Chapter 2

Nerianne, aboard the Dancer's Eye, approaching the Drinker of Light

“We can’t do it.”

“Alleseign, you heard our orders. You’re the one who pulled the signal out of the gravitic distortion. You’re the one who had the plan.”

Alleseign turned, deftly pushing himself around in the freefall as they moved closer to the Drinker. “Whatever it is can wait. To catch it we’d have to reach its energy state, and that would make the rescue take over two years.”

Wrinkling her nose at an odd scent in the air, she just nodded. “I know. That’s why we’re here and the rest of the crew isn’t. Plot the course.”

“Do you want me to go outside too, oh Running Stallion?”

She sniffed again. By the Seeders he was! “Alleseign, you have your orders. Seeder only knows why this artifact has gone undiscovered this long. And I’ll go outside -- you need to pilot.”

“As you wish. Plotting jump now.”

“Than you.” She turned from the heavily shielded emergency bridge, pushing herself off and down the corridor towards the airlock. The ship felt empty and hollow, with only the two of them most of the space was wasted, but the prize was worth it. She knew it, her father knew it, and Alleseign knew it. He was just nervous because it was his time. Likely he should have remained behind, but she guessed that he couldn’t bring himself to abandon her. Her mane bouncing off her back, she grabbed a handle and pulled herself down and to the entrance to airlock three.

“Nerianne, we’re going to jump in five minutes. Can you be ready by then?” His voice echoed through the ship.

“Affirmative on that Alleseign. I’m getting armoured now. Let me know at one minute.”

“Got that. Four minutes, fifty seconds.”

A normal space suit was simple to get in to, a coat of tight metallic cloth, a backpack, and a helmet. But where she was going was anywhere but normal. They’d brought a suit of heavy combat armour, she wasn’t even sure if that would be enough, and it hung there in its rack, open like a clam, and waiting for her to climb in. It wasn’t so much a space suit as a small armoured vehicle, built with four armoured legs and two armoured arms ending in thick metal gloves. Deftly she stripped, pulling off her sticky slippers and shipsuit and tossing them into a locker and latching it shut. Then she pulled herself around and backed into the armour, feeling fibrous tentacles wrap around her tail and pull it into the slot, and then pull her in so that she lay in the suit in an almost fetal position. Hydraulics hissed and the front sealed shut as fleurocarbons flowed in and she forced herself to blow out her air in a final gurgle before pulling in the liquid. It felt like home, but her body didn’t like it, and the drills she’d taken before embarking on this trip were all that made her able to go through with it. The suit sealed around her and thousands of sensors pressed themselves against her flesh and into her ears and nose and throat, still leaving enough room for her to breathe. Optical fibres pressed against the surface of her eyes which were held open, electrical impulses suppressing the blink reflex. For an instant she was blind and deaf, suspended in a warm cocoon of nothingness, but then the suit linked with her and she felt her surroundings, saw a 360 degree display scrunched to fit her limited visual sensorium.

Pickups on the inside and outside of her throat felt movement and translated it into words over the radio: “I’m in.”

“Acknowledged. Jump in two minutes, 38 seconds.”

“Moving to the airlock.” Like a robot, the armoured machine walked out of its cubicle, the four hooves clanking on the metal deck through their magnetic tips, the sound echoing down the corridors. It may have sounded slow and awkward, but inside it felt like just another body although there was the slightest of delays between the impulse to make an action and the actual occurrence of the action. After a few steps it began to feel normal. Reaching out with her hand, she pressed the open code into the panel, overriding the jump warning, and the door hissed open. “Proceeding in now.”

“Acknowledged. One minute, 40 seconds. Don’t leave until I give the word.”

“Don’t worry, I won’t. The last thing I want is to be shredded all over jumpspace.” She barely fit in the lock as this was an exploratory craft, not an assault transport, but practice made perfect and she pulled the tail of the suit out of the way as the inner door hissed shut. “Evacuating lock now. Ready for EVA in 50 seconds, awaiting your permission.”

“Acknowledged. One minute. I hope this is worth it.”

“It will be. I know it.”

He snorted, “We’ll see.” He paused. “Thirty seconds.”

With a deftness hard to believe given the mass of the armour, she extended the base of her legs and locked them to the grill of the airlock floor via hooks on each leg. With each arm she grabbed handles on either side and locked the servomechanisms to prevent any motion. “Braced. Ready for jump.”

“Acknowledged. Ten seconds… three… two… one…”

The ship jerked but Nerianne remained in place. An instant passed and it jerked again as they re-entered normal space.

“Position within expected error, calculating microjump. Microjump in three…two…one…”

The ship jerked again, moving from jump0 to jump1, and then back again.

“Course within acceptable parameters for recovery. Clear for EVA.”

“Good job, I’m opening outer airlock now.” She unlocked her four hooves from the floor and her arms from their static position, and entered the code to open the outer door, overriding the radiation warning. The grinding of the massive hatch in motion transmitted itself through the floor and into her armour, as the remaining slight pressure of air puffed away. The pumps were never perfect. “Attaching cable and proceeding out.” She pulled out an armoured steel cable from the back of the suit and locked it to the hook on the upper wall. Only when it was secure, did she begin making her way out, always making sure at least three hooves of the suit maintained contact with the ship.

Outside the familiar stars were gone. All that was left was a hellish glare, a blue point towards the bow of the ship fading to a deep red towards the rear. Even with the suit’s enhancement, her visual sensorium was reduced to a tight cylinder, the colour spectrum within it changing as she focused at different points. The simulations had been close, but not quite right. Moving her right hand, she touched controls on her left and a targeting display appeared over the crushed starfield. She began walking along the exterior of the hull towards the bow, focusing on every motion. The starfield was weird, distorted, barely comprehensible, and without the target overlay it would have been hopeless. In her ears she heard the rising whine of the radiation warning, and colour distorted status displays indicated progressive damage to the sensitive equipment that made up the suit’s tail. Even this armour wasn’t designed for the environment she was in, but it would keep her alive long enough. Halfway towards the bow she stopped, locking the four hooves of the suit to the hull of her ship, wincing as the claws dug into the metal. “I’m in position.”

“I’m having difficulty pulling exact targeting data from the radiation storm. I don’t think we’re going to be able to afford a second pass at this.”

“Got you. Preparing for intercept.” The original plan had been for a remote low-thrust rocket to be launched to make the actual rendezvous, but the radiation and space/time distortion had made control too uncertain. She’d have to go herself, and adjust her course manually. “Feed me what you have.” Her targeting display flickered, moved slightly, and then steadied except for a gradual motion as their relative vectors changed. “Still getting the signal.”

“Barely through the radiation. I don’t know how we picked it up the first time, must have been a fluke calm in the Eater.”

“Possibly. Suit systems are locked on target. Preparing to detach.”

“Acknowledged. Don’t take risks, whatever it is, it isn’t worth your life.”

“We’ll see.” Overlaid data at the lower edge of her vision warned of cumulative radiation damage, nothing critical for a few hours, but the complex sensors were being pulled in for their protection. Wrapping both suit arms around the suit chest to minimize their affect on her center of mass, she unlocked the suit’s hooves and kneeled the back legs so that she was pointing towards the target. “Preparing to detach.” She set the suit’s jets to a .1G thrust for 5 seconds and initiated the countdown. “Detaching in three…two…one…” Gas was released from the rear body of the suit along its adjusted axis of mass and she accelerated into the void towards the Eater, the cable extending out behind her. If she got too close the cable would snap like a piece of weed, but their course had been plotted to stay as far away from that break point as possible. Her distorted vision spun like a drunken fish, but the targeting display remained steady, and eventually changed into an outline of the target object.

“You$$*()97 teen s%^&900.” Apparently the radiation and magnetic field was too strong for a clear signal to get through, even along the safety cable. Enough. She had to concentrate.

The target object grew, changing into a non-rotating apparently sentient form with five limbs, one noticeably shorter than the others. How long had it been here? Radar estimated distance at 150 hands, but the error ratio was high -- the radiation and gravitic distortions were playing hell with the system. A beep indicated that the sensor systems in the tail were fully retracted and the outer view dimmed, filled with static for a second, and then went sharp. As the distance counted down, and she initiated a 4 second .1G thrust to decelerate. The onboard timer indicated that the Dancer’s Eye was at its perihelion to the Drinker. The distance counted down… 15… 10… The object was mapped on her visual sensorium, though static still scattered through her vision. The target appeared to have been a pale gray, now dirty and pitted; bits of the cloth outer layer had torn away revealing a silvery inner layer. Lights were active on the large rectangular object on one side of the object, and more were lit within a transparent plate over the smaller extrusion. Five… one… She twisted the suit and grabbed the object with her hands and all four feet, the extending claws tearing into the cloth and into the inner silver layer. Inside the transparent dome lights flickered and she could see a shape.

It couldn’t be! A Seeder?

No time to think. Releasing one hand from the object, the Seeder, she punched controls with slight finger movements. Small jets activated and rotated the suit around until she was once again facing the ship. Pulling back by the cable had always been a backup plan as she didn’t want to put any stress on it. Displays flashed, radiation was getting thicker and she had an estimated 30 minutes before the genetic damage would increase to a point where it would begin to degrade her functions. The Seeder had to be dead, nothing could have survived.

But then it moved.

By the Creator! It was a miracle!

Unfortunately it was also a miracle that could result in her death. If the Seeder shifted whilst they were under thrust, they could go off course, snap the cable, and then they’d both die. Draping herself over the form of the suited Seeder, she made sure that each of the suit’s legs held one of the limbs of the Seeder. A few test thrusts with attitudinal jets allowed the onboard computer to get readings on the new mass distribution and reorient the main jets. She stopped, facing the Dancer’s Eye, and initiated a five second count down to a 6 second .1G burst. The Seeder remained still, her limbs locked around it, as the thrust initiated and they began to return to the ship.

Onboard radar recorded the changes in relative vectors and she realized that the gravity of the Drinker was pulling her further away. Running out of time she cancelled the burn, and upped the thrust to 1G and the duration to 10 seconds. In a normal situation she wouldn’t have enough fuel to decelerate, but the Drinker should do that for her. Starting the countdown she braced herself and then the main engines activated. The distance between her and the ship began to decrease, but not enough. Ten seconds passed. She had no choice and prepared for another 8 second burn at 1G which would consume the rest of the onboard fuel. She braced and the burn began. She winced as the radiation warning turned red, informing her that she had less than 10 minutes of safe exposure time remaining.

She was approaching the ship, but not fast enough! Before the burn ended, calculations displayed in her visual sensorium confirmed that the hole still had her. She’d have to depend on the cable. For an instant she thought about dropping the Seeder, but then realized that she couldn’t. What this being could tell her was too important. Far too important! As the burn ended, she initiated the routine to begin winding in the cable, its tension whipping her around as magnetic and static forces moved along it. At first she kept the rate of rewind low, decreasing the load on the cable slowly to minimize the chance of a catastrophic failure. The exterior radiation was falling, and she felt the Drinker pulling on her, trying to tear the Seeder from her grip, but she locked the suit’s legs around it. The cable tightened, the sound of its stress barely audible within the cocoon of the suit. The Drinker was receding, the radiation dropping-- On board radar beeped, warning that she was almost at the hull of her ship. Stopping the cable, she pulled herself around by gently pulling on the cable until the suit’s legs were almost touching the hull. Carefully holding on to the Seeder she released the suit’s hind legs and stretched out the left one until it touched the hull. The claws dug into the metal.

The cable snapped. It twisted and spun away from the ship, accelerating into the hole, and she barely had time to cut it from her suit as it accelerated away.

She could release the Seeder. Throw it away and push herself towards her ship until all four of the suit’s legs could grip. She could, but she wouldn’t. Radiation was still falling and she had time. It wasn’t safe to wait until the ship moved further from the Drinker as matter around the hole could force Alleseign to make a course correction. Moving one arm slowly, she entered overrides and vented a portion of the suit’s liquid O2 through the manoeuvring jet system. It pushed her against the hull just enough for the suit’s other leg to get a grip. With her air still whispering out she moved the Seeder so that she was holding it in her arms, then stretched out with the suit’s fore legs until they clunked against the Dancer’s Eye’s hull.

She’d made it.

Turning off the O2 drain, and then moving as quickly as she dared, she made her way along the hull and into the airlock, transferring the suited Seeder into one hand whilst grabbing one of the handles along the interior of the lock with her other. Bending over sh she'd fit, she crawled into the airlock and initiated the cycle to close it. A warning buzzed; she realized that the end of the safety cable was still hooked and extending out the door. Checking her back and making sure she and the Seeder were safely in, she keyed in the override and the door slid shut, severing the cable. Air began to hiss in and when the pressures were matched, the inner door opened.

“Alleseign, I’m in.”

“Preparing microjump. Are you all right?”

“Barely. Prep med.”

“What’s wrong?”

“The artifact appears to be a space suited Seeder and it may still be alive.”

“What?!”

“Just do it!”

“Whatever you say. I’ll meet you there after jump. Jump in 5 seconds--"

Nerianne braced herself as the ship jerked back into jumpspace, and then back into normal space a safe distance from the Drinker and more reasonable velocity.

“Jump complete. Beginning anti-radiation protocols. I’ll see you in med.”

Nerianne manoeuvred the suit back into its storage locker, hoses and connections clicked into place to begin recharging. When all was ready she let the Seeder drift and initiated the desuiting. The clam shell opened as she gagged out the breathing fluid in bubbles which bobbled through the free fall before splashing off the opposite wall -- local air circulation had been modified to pull the liquid out of the air, so the bubbles weren’t a threat to the ship. Unlike a usual EVA, the exterior of the suit was warm to the touch. The Seeder hadn't drifted far, and she grabbed it. Getting dressed could wait. Grabbing a sampling drill from a locker, she proceeded to medical.

Alleseign was already there, and had prepped one of the Regrowth tanks. “Nerianne, are you all--“ The scent of his time was thick in the air.

“I don’t have time for this now -- help me with this.” Letting the Seeder drift, she used the sampling drill to carefully drill through the helmet and sample the air. A bit higher in oxygen and CO2 than their own, but it shouldn't have problem with their atmospheric mix. Pulling the drill out, it the hole with a quick-drying resin. It didn't take long for Nerianne to find the clamps to release the Seeder's helmet.

“What are you doing? It’s dead.”

“I don’t think it is.” The helmet came off. A quick glance revealed no obvious way to get the suit off, and there wasn't time for caution. Holding her hand to its face she thought she felt the movement of air. “I think it’s alive.”

“Impossible!”

“Finish tank prep anyway!”

“As you, wish Running Stallion.”

Pushing herself off the wall, she drifted over to the tank and pushed in the suited Seeder and then sealed the top with the exterior control panel. Automatic systems pumped nanite-satuated oxygenated liquid into the tank, and pumped the air out.

Alleseign drifted beside her. “It’s not going to work.”

“If it’s alive, we have to try.”

“How can it be? Creator knows how long it’s been there -- the radiation almost killed you -- I dumped the suit log when you were in the lock.”

“I don’t care!”

“Your religion isn’t worth your life. It’s dead, get used to it.”

Nerianne turned away and looked into the Rejuv tank, now full of liquid. Already the nanites were dissolving the suit revealing the burned and scarred flesh. Looking down, she read the display of massive and irrecoverable radiation damage.

“Readouts seem to indicate it’s a male,” Alleseign called out from the main monitor.

“Are the nanites having any trouble?”

“What the…? It’s like they know what to do. Holy… this thing has nanites in it’s brain… how can… By the Herd, our nanites are interfacing with the creature’s nanites and downloading data. How can that been happening? I’m getting a readout -- data indicates that the creature’s brain is intact but everything else is junk. Seems the native nanites have been failing due to radiation damage for some time.”

“So it is alive.”

“But not for long. By the Pilgusez, how are the nanites interfacing?”

“We did discover the Rejuv tech in a Seeder site -- this just confirms that our body is a Seeder.”

“Possibly… The interior nanites are too damaged for a native reading, we’ll need to use one of our own templates.”

“Use yours.”

“Mine?”

“It’s the only male we have on board. Who’d have though we’d need any others?”

“Initiating… nanites accepting data, repairs beginning.”

Nerianne held onto the tank, looking down and watching. She knew that everything except the nervous system was being dissolved away, even though noting was visible yet.

“I hope you know what you’re doing.”

Chapter 3

Cesar Martinez, aboard the Dancer's Eye' He woke up comfortable and in no pain. There were no signs of radiation sickness, no pain from pulled and abused muscles from the tidal forces. But he was still floating…

Slowly he opened his eyes.

He was looking up at a blurred surface behind which he could see a dim brownish form. And he could see something in front of his eyes -- something long and tan -- yet, somehow, he knew it was himself.

He flicked his tail behind him, feeling the resistance of whatever he was floating in.

His mind came further awake.

Tail?

Tail?!!!!

He shoved his hands behind him and started pushing himself up into a sitting position, shoving his tail painfully against the bottom of wherever he was. This made his newly extended head hit some kind of panel that sealed him in. All he could do was stare, stare at the wavery brownish forms, fighting to force down panic. For whatever weird reason they looked like horses. He felt heavy liquid passing up and down his windpipe, in and out of his chest as it worked at pushing the mass in and out.

He was drowning!

He screamed, silently, liquid gushing out, and began banging at the top of his coffin. What were they doing? Why were they killing him? He kicked and screamed, full of panic and terror.

“Nerianne! He’s awake!”

“By the Seeders! He’s not ready. Bring me a sedative.”

Cesar felt something begin to cloud the water as he sucked it into his body. He had to get out, he had too-- His limbs grew sluggish and his sight wavered and fell into darkness as his body settled to stillness. Except for his breathing the liquid in and out. In and out.


Not believing he was still alive, he jerked awake.

It had to have been a dream. It had to have. It had to! Unless...

No. He refused to believe that he was dead. And if he was, then why did he see horses?

Fremin. You there Fremin?

Silence.

Fremin?

Silence.

Cesar shoved back the terror that was rising in him. He needed more information, If all he had was his senses, then he'd use them.

Closing his eyes to concentrate, he felt his body. The mass of the liquid in his throat, if it hadn’t been a delusion, was gone. Thank God! Just air. He shuddered at the memory of the liquid. Still shaking, he ran one hand along his body, up and down. All he could find were two arms and legs. They seemed normal enough, but they were covered in hair. He could feel the hairs tugging at his skin as his hand moved so it was part of him.

His breathing quickened.

He was floating, likely in freefall. There was a net imprisoning, or just holding him, in place. It was snug, but not tight, not binding.

Letting his arm relax, he concentrated on sounds. He could feel his ears move, hear the sounds change and focus. It wasn't possible. It wasn't! But it was. He didn't move them, didn't twist them. He didn't!

He gasped through his nostrils.

No! No terror! Not now.

Listening he could hear the faint were of a fan over his gasping.

No, he didn't twist his ears. He didn't.

Then he tried to move his tail, and succeeded. He didn’t have a tail, he knew he didn’t have a tail. But he did. Panic would achieve nothing, he had to be calm. Calm. Think. He moved his tail a little and stopped. There it was, he could no longer deny what he was feeling. A tail. And ears. And his head felt odd. Heavy. Long.

Oh God! The dream was real! His body shook, his ears pulled against his head. No! Calm! Panic later when he could afford to.

Then he had it. The Corporate Worlds! He'd heard rumours-- Only they’d do something like this. Well, they wouldn't take him quietly.

He opened his eyes and looked around, though it was probably too late to hide the fact that he was awake.

He was secured to a sleeping net of some kind in a small room painted a light green. It was dimly lit with an overhead light that seemed strangely reddish. Laying still, he moved only his eyes… they could suddenly see an awful lot. Too much. With a bulge in the middle of his vision. Calm. Think. At first he was looking straight ahead, he decided to call that up, and had a cone of depth perception. But then he realized that he could also see off to the sides, and to his left, hanging on to a strap and curled up asleep was one of the horses he remembered seeing.

But it wasn't really a horse. Yes, it was coloured a dark brown and covered with hair. Yes, it had a black tail and mane, and its legs, two of them, each of which seemed to have a second knee, darkened towards the bottom -- and it looked like they ended in hooves. The hooves seemed to be partially covered in some kind of slipper which looked like it had a sticky sole -- like the slippers spacers wore, like he'd worn during the war. Calm. Think. He closed his eyes for a second. Correction. Had worn. Slowly he opened them again and turned his head to look at the horse more closely. Yes, it had a long tail, but it looked like it had been styled and braided. And its chest was more human than horse, although it was hard to tell as the creature was wearing blue-green seamless shorts and shirt. There was even some kind of insignia in the top right -- it looked to be some dark figure peering up at the stars.

The arms were strangely human-like, but they ended in short and stubby fingers. Like the rest of the body, the arms were entirely covered in hair. However, the hands seemed to be of bare skin which was almost black. But it was the head that was the most unusual. From the back the skull looked like a horse, with the ears on top and a black mane, again styled and braided, hanging in the air. But then, as the head stretched forward, it became completely alien. You could see that it could have come from a horse, but it had been squeezed inward so that the head was maybe half the length of a horse's head. The eyes were more centered, although they were still somewhat to the side, and, like the hands, the head was bare. Again its skin was almost black.

It couldn't be the Corporate Worlds -- they might make him an animal, but not this weird combination. It could be a new alien race, but then why the incredible similarity to a horse? It didn't make sense. And why was he suddenly one of them? Could his life as he remembered it be a delusion? Calm. Think.

Then the creature seemed to notice him. He watched as it uncurled from its nap, stretching backwards, almost like a cat, stretching and bending so that its tail actually touched the back of its head. It turned to face him, and stared at him with eyes that were entirely midnight darkness, but still seemed to glitter with humour.

"So you're awake."

He understood it. He knew, absolutely, that it wasn't speaking Anglish, but still he understood it clearly. And it wasn't a translation -- its neighs and whinnies matched the movement of its lips and mouth.

Its neighs and whinnies.

Calm. Think. His breathing quickened more and his vision narrowed to a forward focus.

"You are, aren't you? And you can understand me?" The voice sounded concerned, and female.

He could. Why could he? Calm. Think. He could feel his limbs begin tingling and tried to force his breathing to slow but his body wouldn’t obey. All he could see was her head, everything around it was a blur fading to black. Calm. Think. This had to be real, he had to at least plan as though it were. He had to escape, and now was not the time. Calm. Think. He breathing began to slow a bit, but not enough, his vision remained tightly focused. Focused as she easily twisted around until her slippers gripped the wall. She pushed off towards him.

"You moved, so you must be awake." Then her voice quieted. "Maybe the language didn't take..." She called out loudly, "Alleseign -- you better get down here. I think he's awake!"

Calm. Think. They seemed to think they'd taught him their language. Could this be a simulation? If so, why? Yet it seemed too real. The elastic pressure of the net on his body was too immediate, the tingling in his limbs and blood. Calm. Think. He had to be calm! Okay, he understood them. Something about language taking? Did it go both ways? Calm. Think. One way to find out: "I can understand you." And it was their language -- he knew it was their language.

"Alleseign - he's talking!" By then she'd reached him and had grabbed part of the netting to stop as her momentum rocked them slightly back and forth. She pulled herself down and looked at him. "How are you feeling?"

His focus flashed around, from her face to her neck to her arms… For an instant he saw her hands sharply -- there were three fingers and a thumb -- they were short, but thin, and looked quite dexterous. And then he knew that his hand was the same. His focus moved, bounced around, then centred on one of her hands. How did he know she was a she?! Calm. Think. Calm… He watched as she reached one of her hands and felt his face where it stuck out below his eyes. The hand was warm, almost hot, but soft and comforting. Immediately he began to feel calmer. Why? Think! By the Great Emptiness think! He could smell chemicals, and something like rubber.

"Are you still awake?" she asked quietly.

He could feel his ears twist to focus on the voice. No! Concentrate on speech, ignore the rest. "Yes... It's just, well..."

"Different?"

If they were corporate he couldn’t tell them anything. Calm. Think. General answers. "I’ve never felt like this before."

"I know how you feel -- I've gone through body regrowths before."

"Body regrowths?" Was that the current term for hijacking his mind into a new body? Calm. Think. His breathing was now slow, steady. Why? "What did you do to me?"

She turned away, he could smell that she was apologetic. "I'm sorry -- this must be very new to you."

How did he know that she was apologetic? "Very."

At that point he heard the scraping of metal on metal. Turning his head slightly, he saw the hatch being opened by another horse creature. It was a pale cream, almost white, with a thin black tail and mane. Its feet, no hooves, what he could see of them, appeared a creamy white, and its mane was thick and heavy, scattering in all directions except where its length mixed into its silky tail. It spoke: "Nerianne, how is he?"

He knew it was a he, and an angry he. A male that he hated, hated with a passion. A male that he wanted to gore with hoof and teeth. His calmness fled.

Nerianne turned her head almost all the way around to look at the male. Her neck was longer than a human's would have been, but not by a great deal. Indeed, her movements possessed a grace, a fragility that cried out for his protection. "He's awake and conscious," she began, "but confused." Beyond his control, his head moved and he focused his tunnel vision on the male.

Calm, think! He had no idea what was going on. Why was he so angry? Calm. Think. Get answers. Somehow he forced his eyes back to the female. "What do you mean by a body regrowth? What in the heavens did you do to me?"

"Quiet. We did the best we could," the man, who did she call for…? Alleseign. His rival. He turned his head and glared at the other. At his casual demeanor. He’d learn in blood!

His woman was quick to respond. "Oh be quiet, how would you feel if you suddenly awoke as a Taylian?"

His rival remained silent as his mate turned to face him. "I'm sorry about the change but we had no choice."

Calm. Think. What was happening to him? "No choice?" It was almost a scream.

"We're an expedition sent here to survey and monitor the Drinker of Light you were spiralling towards. When we dropped out of jumpspace we picked up your signal." His focus spun back to settle upon her wondrous smiling face. "It took us months to figure out how to pull you out."

Somehow he knew that she, that his mate, was hiding something. Hiding? Mate? Calm. Think! It was all going to fast for him! Concentrate on the conversation. "That long?"

"Probably a fraction of a second to you."

His rival moved, and instantly Cesar focused on him to the exclusion of all else. Alleseign slowly pushed himself towards him, rotating around, not daring to touch the netting entrapping him. He snorted at his rival in disdain. Uncaring, Alleseign touched his slippers attached to Cesar's conceptual ceiling so that he was looking down. If only this net wasn’t here! Alleseign’s voice was almost a growl, a challenge for herd dominance: "I didn't want to, but she overruled me."

Herd dominance? The herd was his! If not for this net… Calm. Think. "But why am I like this?" He screamed it out.

"We had no choice," his mate responded. "We recovered you by jumping and punching out at close to your velocity on a parabolic curve that would allow us to recover you, then jumping back in and then out a safe distance away at a more normal velocity. When we recovered you, you were almost dead."

Dead? He should be! But what if he wasn't? And why was he so angry at one, and so in love -- was that the right word? -- with the other. Calm. Think. His vision widened, and he turned and looked at the chestnut furred woman. "Dead?"

"Don’t worry, it wasn't your equipment, it was the environment. The tidal forces had almost torn you apart, and your cellular structure was heavily damaged by the radiation. We had no choice if we wanted to save you."

It was all an excuse! It had to be… Yet, why was she telling the truth? Why did he know she was telling the truth. Calm. Think. His rival was near. No! Ignore that. Get more information. "What, exactly, did you do?"

"Simple -- it's common practice in cases like yours. We suspended you in an oxygenated nutrient solution and had nanobots consume your flesh and repair your nervous system. If it wasn't for their ability for the ones you had, it still would have been too late." She sighed. "The only programs we had to rebuild a new body were in our own pattern -- we had no way to generate a new program from what remained of your body, and your body was so damaged that we couldn’t wait." Her voice was a melody in his ears.

His rival snorted and turned away, launching himself back towards the entrance. "He looks fine -- I'll be on the Deck of the Heavens." Somehow his tone made the poetic name sound like a curse. Go! She’s mine! he thought as Alleseign fled.

Sighing, Nerianne twisted her body and watched his rival go, still holding onto Cesar’s netting with one hand. The hatch slammed shut, and she turned back to face him. "I have to apologize for him -- normally he’s quite accommodating -- but now..."

His rival had fled. Good. As the door closed, Cesar’s mind began to clear. What was going on? If they were corporate, their actions made no sense. Calm. Think. Get more information. "What is so special about now?"

"You wouldn't know, would you? Of course not," she muttered to herself. "It's simple. Alleseign and I were looking at becoming herdmates -- he joined my crew so we could see about our compatibility." She smiled wryly. "It didn't work out, and he hasn't accepted it. And, of course, it's his time. Anyway, the computer's best guess was that you were male, and so I decided it would be psychologically safer if we minimized your change and left you male. Of course, the only male program we had was based on Alleseign, and we had to use it. The nanobots made the necessary modifications to your nervous structure and brain, and programmed language and basic motor control into you. Don’t worry, you’re not his clone. We were able to program in a slight variance. Genetically, you’re more Alleseign’s brother. At this time, to him, you seem a threat to his herd."

My herd. Calm. Think. How was that possible? He’d never heard of anything like it. His nanites, what did she mean his nanites? The ones from the suit, when Fremin-- when it'd been put in survival mode. But what was this Nerianne talking about? He’d never heard of ones as adaptable as she claimed. Cesar frowned. "But..."

"Of course we both know you aren't, but the hormones and instincts can be a bit much at the best of times, and Alleseign has never appreciated competition."

Great, he was trapped in the middle of a domestic squabble. He’d always fled back to his work when his R&R got him into conflicts like this. Now he couldn't. But she was his woman! She was… Could it be hormones? Could it be programming. She was a stranger, corporate. An enemy. He had to remember that! Their squabble, even if it was real, was the least of his worries.

"Don't worry about it -- he can't control his scent just as you can't control yours, which is just setting you two off. In a few weeks his Time will be over and we can all relax."

"Time?"

"Of course -- that’s when he's ready to mate. It's considered proper to tell a prospective herdmate before the trial period, but Alleseign didn't bother. It's one of the reasons I ended up refusing him. And now, here you are."

"I apologize." Calm. Think. Tell them nothing. He tried to shrug, but his woman, no she, the enemy, didn’t react. "So now what do I do?"

"Well, you need rest and you need food -- a regrowth can be trying at first, particularly a first one."

He’d heard rumours about all kinds of perversities created by the Corporate States, but this didn’t seem to fit. And there was her casual acceptance, her belief in it… How did he know that she believed in it? Nothing was making sense. Calm. Think. Get information. "You mean they're common?"

"Not as common as we'd like, but available. What better way to live and grow and adapt?"

Was it an alien race? Someone other than the Alfar? That made no sense, but the level of technology being described here was starting to rule out the Corporate Worlds. He whistled, or tried to -- it sounded more like he was blubbering his lips. “What have I gotten myself into?”

"Well, for now, sunmeal. I'll help you out -- yes, I know you were probably a Voyager through Heaven, but not in this body." She started unwrapping him, every touch of her warm velvety fingers filling him with calmness and satisfaction.

Reaching up, he grasped her arm and saw that his arm was a pale cream, fading towards black at his hand. They had to be an unknown alien race. "Have you ever seen any others of my kind?"

She remained still, sighed, and then looked deeply into his eyes. "No, never, at least in the flesh. There are legends, artifacts, statues, but they're very old. I think you may be one of the Seeders -- it's why I rescued you."

"Seeders?" What'd happened? Calm. Think. Though the mantra was just from habit as her touch kept him calm. "How long do you think I was out there?"

"In orbit? We don't know. Thousands of years. Maybe hundreds of thousands. Given Seeder artefact dating, almost certainly the later."

"How long?!" He had to know. Was humanity still alive? Had the Alfar, the Corporate States, destroyed them? Calm. Think. He had to know.

"I don't know. We don't know how long you were in orbit, the radiation, the heat, the x-rays, it's all screwed up all the ways we have of dating you. And, we're not sure what your tau was. When we picked you up, we know, but how much did it change as you spiralled in? It would have increased--"

Thousands? Hundreds of thousands? Anything could have happened. Everybody he knew would be dead. Dead like Henry and Margaret. Dead like Fremin. He was all alone. All alone… If she wasn’t lying, and he knew that she wasn’t, then it really didn’t matter anymore if they were from the Corporate Worlds. They couldn't be. But, how did he know she was telling the truth? Why did he believe her? Calm. Think. "You said something about Seeders?"

"Yes. There are many races in the region of the galaxy we've explored, and all of them share a strange discontinuity in their evolution that occurred around 350,000 years ago. The common belief, supported by the common type of artefacts that are found everywhere, is that an ancient race created us. Our, well mine and now your, race, for example, is only distantly related to anything on our homeworld. In fact we've found closer genetic relations on worlds other than our own. The only logical conclusion is that somebody created us."

Could it have been the Corporate Worlds? Why? "Created you?"

"Yes. On other worlds we’ve found animals very similar to ourselves, but they’re mindless herbivores with no manipulation. There are no reasonable theories that would explain how they could evolve into us. All other races have the same experience."

He turned his head and looked at her. Somehow he knew. "You want to know what happened."

Passion, no, a desperate need, filled her voice. "Yes."

Calm. Think. He believed her, but why? Conditioning? What is she was lying, what if it was all a lie. Calm. Think. Pretend to believe. Pretend to share her goals. That would give him more time to figure out what was really going on. "My race seems to be dead, long gone. You have legends of people like me, and of being created, with proof. On my homeworld there is, was, significant evidence for a direct evolutionary line." He started waving his tail in agitation. "We both want to know what happened." He wasn't lying, he knew that. He wanted to know. And he knew she knew he wasn’t. Did he have no control over his body? Why did he want to know? He'd always wondered what was humanity's destiny. Now it seemed to have left him behind.

She turned away, embarassed. He couldn't see any colour changes, but somehow he just knew. Why? "Yes -- it's a hobby of mine, a second life. I want to know -- it's why I risked my ship to recover you."

Did he want to know? Had humanity destroyed itself? Were some still around? Calm. Think. Bond with her. "I'm glad you did." He reached over and helped her finish undoing the webbing, and for the first time he clearly saw himself. And he realized that, unlike the others, he was naked. He covered his chest with his hands and blushed -- although he didn't really blush. But he knew that she knew that he was. How?

Nerianne stopped and turned to look at him. "Is something wrong?"

Calm. Think. "I'm...well," he paused gathering his words. "I'm not wearing anything."

She was confused. How did he know? "So?"

"But you and Alleseign are wearing those clothes..."

Her eyes brightened. "Oh -- you must be like the Angleire -- they have what I call a nofur taboo."

Nofur? He slowly removed his arms and looked down. Before his eyes he saw that there really wasn't anything there. His lower body and crotch were covered in fur, and he knew that his organ was hidden away beneath a fold of skin. He could feel it. Calm. Think. There didn't seem to be anything to hide. Maybe she was right -- why was he embarrassed? "Are the Angleire covered in fur like you, well we, are?"

She wrinkled her eyes for a moment. "Not really, and you weren't either. And their reproductive system is uncovered, like yours was..." She paused and then looked up and called out, "Computer -- add a note to my personal file -- check to see if there is a correlation between races with open reproductive systems and nofur taboos, and those with concealed systems and no nofur taboo."

"Acknowledged."

Nerianne turned back and finished unbinding him. "Are you ready to go?"

Cesar had spent much of his life in free fall, and was proud of his ability. And, for some reason, he wanted, needed, to impress her. Trying to show off, he quickly curled up and spun around to face her -- or at least he tried to. That was then he remembered that now he had a tail, and extra knees…ankles?… high on his lower leg. His body began rotating rapidly, uncontrolled, the room spun and spun--

Nerianne grabbed him and snickered. "I did warn you -- you have to spend some time learning about your new form."

He let her steady him as she was still holding on to the netting. His head stopped spinning. Calm. Think. "You're right -- I forgot. I think I was just trying to impress you.”

She smiled. "You have -- I don't know of many other males who would admit they were wrong, and then let a woman help them."

He smiled back and let her help him across the room.

Chapter 4

Alleseign, aboard the Dancer's Eye'

By the Herd, but that creature had no control!

It was with relief that Alleseign closed the hatch to medical and gulped down lungfulls of pheromone free air. He knew it was because the creature had never been a Windrunner before; he understood it was all new to him. But… How could Nerianne survive in there? His shipsuit was damp with the sweat he’d generated trying to keep control. And he still wasn't sure how he'd managed that. Well, if she wanted to be alone with that-- thing, she could! He had work to do.

A deep part of him whispered that it was jealousy speaking. Jealousy making him hate the survivor. Jealousy-- He shoved those thoughts aside. Nerianne was his!

Alleseign rotated his body around and lightly touching his slippered hooves to the wall, pushed off, and made his way along the axis corridor of the ship. He’d never liked the plan from the time Mesinanne had proposed it, but orders were orders. With deft movements he moved through an open hatch -- did Nerianne have no respect for the dangers of vacuum? -- closing it behind him before proceeding on. Too soon he arrived at the entrance to the Deck of Heavens.

The room was dimly lit with reddish-yellow lights, bare and empty. Or at least it was until Alleseign spoke: “Computer, display mapped space with Windrunner space as one border, and the Drinker the other. Flag empires by colour code. Display only systems known or suspected to be inhabited. Also, notify me when Nerianne approaches this room.”

Normally he'd want her here, alone, with him. And he knew that she wanted it to, even if she hadn't realized it. Not now. Not while she was infatuated with that thing.

With that, the lights flicked off and complex machinery filled the room with a holographic projection of the surrounding space. Most stars were not shown, but the few that were contained either inhabited worlds, or known bases and/or military installations. Windrider space was coloured brown. It was small and so very far away. Between it and the Drinker were displayed clusters of different colours, each in a rough sphere, each bordered by a region of darkness representing either useless stars, or destroyed and gutted worlds and colonies.

“Computer, add suspected Runner class worlds detected optically within 20 light years of the Drinker.”

Lights flickered and the image shrank, the Drinker moving slightly inwards. Additional dots, each green outlined in blue, appeared in a scattering around the Drinker, most on the far side of it from known space. None were within 10 light years.

“Computer, estimate Seeder object signal detection radius based on strength measurements from his recovery, and examination of his suit.”

A tiny orange sphere appeared where the Drinker had been. It was barely detectable.

“Computer, increase radius of signal detection radius by order of magnitude.”

The orange sphere grew a bit. It still made no sense!

He had to be missing something. He was distracted. If only Nerianne was here.

Maybe he needed more information. Maybe data from the Array-- “Computer, add suspected alien empires. Include data locked in file Sanseign. Access code 331.”

It took a noticeable amount of time before the projection changed. More dim irregular spheres of colour appeared, this time on both sides of the Drinker. None were anywhere near the modified signal detection radius.

“Computer, add theoretical jump lines joining all suspected inhabited systems within 50 light years of the Drinker.”

The map shrunk again as a web of red-yellow lines appeared, and none went near the orange sphere.

Carefully Alleseign pushed himself down until the slippers stuck to what would have been the floor of the room if the ship was spinning. He walked around, looking for clues, looking for patterns. Nothing. With each step, each of his hooves stuck slightly and then schtipping off as he lifted it to walk. He ended at the Drinker. Nothing! "Increase the signal detection radius by an order of magnitude." Still nothing. "Another order." Nothing, absolutely nothing came anywhere near the Drinker. Rubbing his chin with one hand, he scratched the tough skin. Mesinanne had showed him all this, in greater detail. It was why he’d believed nobody else had detected the signal. Still, the fact rubbed Alleseign the wrong way. It smelled like a fly above the grass. But it couldn’t be.

“Computer, list all known or suspected visits to the Drinker, other than our own.”

“Working." White text appeared hanging in the midst of the room with details as the computer summarized. "Only one -- information indicates that the Omgadi sent an expedition 482 years ago. They reported nothing out of the ordinary but the crew was dispersed. Evidence suggests they were killed.” Damn Mesianne, may his precious Seeders return and gut him. Mesianne had told him about that expedition, and he suspected that they’d found something. He guessed that Mesianne had somehow gotten that information, and that was why he’d set up this expedition. Alleseign had thought it flew then, and had thought it flew when the signal was detected. However, if freak conditions had let them pick up the signal, likely the Omgadi hadn’t. But if the Omgadi hadn’t, then why had the crew been killed? Questions, but no answers. Damn them all! Especially Mesianne.

Did Nerianne know about this? He'd been told not to mention it to her. But Mesianne was her father--

There were no answers to those questions, but there had to be answers to his original ones. Why had the so-called Seeder been here in the first place? If it even was a Seeder. “Computer, remove colour codes, display all stars around the Drinker as they would have been 350,000 years past. Flag systems containing worlds suspected to be Runner class at that time.”

The room flickered, and minutes passed before the stars flickered and danced into unfamiliar patterns. A number were flagged with dim blue circles, but they were few. A handful compared to those known today. And, as expected, none were near the Drinker.

“Computer, flag systems in which Seeder artifacts were discovered, or are believed to have been discovered.”

Silver circles appeared around a number of stars, including ten of the systems with suspected Runner class worlds. There were patterns, denser clouds in denser groups of stars that were now scattered. But still, nothing near the Drinker. But, that wasn’t too surprising as the stellar disaster that had created it had drenched all space around it with life-destroying radiation.

He wondered if dear, sweet, Nerianne had a more complete artefact list stored away.

“Computer, draw all possible jump routes joining all mapped Seeder artifact locations.”

After a minute or so the room was crisscrossed with a fine web of red-yellow lines, though nowhere near as dense as in current space. And, again, nothing passed within the orange sphere of modified signal range around the Drinker. Could the Seeders have missed--

“Nerianne appears to be on her way here with one other, identity unknown, though physiognomy near mirror of your own.”

“Computer cancel map, copy it into file Sanseign and then seal. Access code 331.”

The starmap vanished and the room returned to its original dim lighting, though it seemed bright after the darkness of space. Just in time as the door hissed open and Alleseign knew he should have given more specific instructions -- the computer only informed him when Nerianne was here as that was the only way it could be certain. Damn her and it!

That was when he realized that, though he'd thought he was calm, all this time he'd been filling the room with his own pheromones…

Chapter 5

Eeysarmarnees, aboard the Dancer's Eye'

Eeysarmarnees watched as Nerianne opened the hatch. Offering a hand, he took it, and she helped him along a blue painted corridor, down a blue painted shaft and into a common room. He made sure to close the hatches she opened behind them though somehow he sensed that she wasn’t concerned. Other things dominated his mind. He was alive, and there really wasn’t anything to complain about given that the alternative was death. There were even other advantages to having a new life, and leaving behind all the complications of his old one. And, he’d often wondered where Humanity would go, and since they now had gone, he could find out where.

But the cost-- Fremin, Henry, Margaret-- Everybody he knew-- He'd mourn later. Right now he had to survive. To pretend he bought their story.

After shoving him into the common room, Nerianne entered, grabbed a handle, and faced him. Without thinking about it he’d actually controlled his arms enough to catch onto one of the handles provided, and not fly helplessly across the room. "You smell happier," she said.

"Smell?"

She smiled. "Looks like another interesting difference between furred and non-furred races. Of course you wouldn't know. Our emotional states, happiness, sadness, embarrassment, we show them by releasing pheromones. For stronger emotions there are some physical signs, like the way you've pulled your tail down almost between your legs."

He could scent his embarrassment, and tried to relax his tail to its normal position behind him. Would he ever get used to having it?

"There's little really hidden from others; your scent always shows how you feel. I know of some other races that can, what's the phrase, fly above the grass while running in it."

He just looked at her, not understanding.

She must have recognized his confusion from his scent, as she answered with, "Say one thing and mean another."

Cesar nodded. "Fly above the grass while running in it." He hadn't mean to say that...

She smiled, then frowned. "You're confused..."

"Sorry. That's, well, it’s not what I meant to say. We, well my race, had a word for it. I tried to say it, but-- that came out instead."

"It's the language."

"Huh?"

"While your body was being grown, other nanobots taught you our language in dreams. They aren't very smart so they tend to create a literal translation of terms."

Literal translation… Ideally language was a minimal effort information exchange, but it never seemed that way. The pidgin developed to sing to the Orca had tried to achieve that goal, but had failed miserably. "Let me try again." Pulling down his ears, he thought of the word lie in Anglish, how it sounded, how it was enunciated. "Iegheey." -- it was sort of a high pitched neigh with an accent. He grinned. "That didn't come out quite right."

"I’ve never heard that combination of sounds before. Oh well, enough language lessons. Are you ready to try swimming solo?"

Swimming? "I hope so."

"Then go over to that table and I'll get something to eat."

He nodded. And then, somehow, he knew she was perplexed. How? Her smell?

"Why do you always move your head like that?" she asked.

"Oh. It's a signal we, I, had to indicate yes. We’d nod our heads."

"Oh? How'd you chose that method of indication?"

He scratched at the base of an ear. Or, where an ear would have been before moving his hand up to the new location. "Well, actually I'm not sure. We just do it. I don’t know why… maybe it was originally a silent signal of some sort..."

"For hunting?"

"Umm… possibly."

“I’ve heard of some other races which -- look, now you've distracted me. Just make your way to the table. Don't worry -- everything’s bolted down. I'll be there in a minute."

He started to nod but stopped himself and said, "Ok," or at least the word that the nanobots had taught him had the same meaning. Waving, she gracefully propelled herself across to the far end of the room. Then it was his turn. The room had a greenish-yellow floor, considering the floor as what the tables and chairs were attached too, with darker green walls and a pale blue ceiling painted with pristine white clouds. The tables looked like wood, were shaped as though made of wood, but it was easy to tell that they weren’t. Enough delays. Calm. Turning to face the table she’d indicated, rotating himself by his grip on the handle, he gently pushed off, letting go of the handle. When he'd been in the navy, he wouldn't have needed a grip, but after so long working with the Orcas-- and the new body-- he wasn't taking chances. Given all that, his course wasn't bad, he was rotating a bit. At least he was close enough to his planned course that he could catch hold of the chair as he reached it.

Of course his body kept going and banged off the side of the table, which hurt. Really hurt.

"You all right?"

Holding tight, he turned and looked at Nerianne who was standing on the ceiling holding some tubes and bottles. He shook his head and snorted -- some things never changed. "Just fine."

"No, you're hurt."

"How..." The pheromones. Had to be. "Not badly -- I think I'll be all right."

"Let me look at it anyway -- you're body's new and sensitive."

As he held still, she pushed herself off the ceiling and spun around to land on the floor so that she could look at his leg. As she lightly touched it, he couldn't help but grimace.

"Oh don't worry -- it's only a bruise. Bigger then it'd normally be, but nothing to worry about."

"Thanks."

"Nothing to it. Can you hold yourself there?"

Looking towards his hooves, he frowned, but then he took his good leg and wrapped his upper knee around the bar holding the chair to the floor, pulling himself down so he could. This meant that he was at right angles to her, but that didn’t bother him. "Well, how’s this?"

"Indeed you were a Voyager through Heaven."

Voyager through Heaven? Given what she was, given the freefall, given that he had a clue, she must mean a spacer. What to say-- Better to hide his military service? But, it was years ago. The Corporate Worlds had to know of it. The only thing they might want was the Orcas-- "Well, I was a Herd Stallion." He'd meant to say captain. Where's that come from?

She wrinkled her face, muzzle. "A Herd Stallion? What happened to the rest of your crew?"

Crew-- He swallowed, the entire crew of the Yellow Rose, the ship he'd been on, were dead. Or so the illusion had shown. He had to pretend to believe it. But, they weren't his crew. He'd been a passenger. He remembered his last mission during the war. A strike against a Corporate Tender, before it could recover and refuel its Battleriders. The bastard had kept one in reserve-- He'd only had a single crew member -- she ran the engineering and systems whilst he flew and fired. A Corporate missile had crippled them and taken her out. "She's dead." It was the truth, or at least a truth--

She looked at him. "But you're a Herd Stallion. What about the rest?"

"The rest? But, there was only the one--"

"But...” She paused. “I think Herd Stallion is what the language forced on you. You had crew?"

"Umm, yes."

"That means you would have been a Running Stallion, like I am."

"Okay, so what is a Herd Stallion then?"

"The leader of a large ship, far above both of us in rank and honour."

Cesar suddenly realized what had happened. "That explains it."

"What?"

"Well, we had a convention. The Stallion of any ship, no matter what their actual rank, was accorded the term you call Herd Stallion as a point of respect. It was tradition from before we went into space." He could scent her confusion, but it was quickly masked. He wondered if she knew that he hadn't answered the question she'd actually asked--

" I wonder how many other differences we'll run into?"

"Likely all kinds. Well, I see that you have something for my Sunmeal?" Sunmeal? He'd wanted to say lunch.

She passed him a tube of food and a plastic container of some kind of liquid. He grasped one in each arm. The liquid looked similar to what he was used to -- just a plastic nozzle you put in your mouth and sucked on. Trying it, he found that it was some kind of flavoured liquid -- nothing he'd had before, but still good. He looked at the tube of food. There was a nozzle, but it was sealed with a thick film. Turning the package over he saw that a handled plastic wire was attached -- to punch open the nozzle?

"The food's easy," Nerianne began. "You just punch a hole with the grassstick provided, you wait while it heats itself, then you just squeeze it out."

"We had something similar, but a different way of opening it."

She smiled and popped hers open. Trying to emulate her, he carefully pulled out the stick and pushed it against the nozzle -- it wouldn't go until he had provided a fair amount of force. Without warning, the container popped and he smelled meat cooking.

Meat? Couldn't be. He wondered how long he should wait.

"It should be ready now," Nerianne called, just before she put the open end of hers in her mouth.

Well fine then. Putting the nozzle in his mouth, he squeezed, just a little bit. Something oozed out onto his tongue. It was a paste, nice and hot. In it there were seeds of some kind along with pieces of fruit, and, definitely, a chunk of meat. He rolled the meat on his tongue -- it tasted exactly like salmon. Exactly like salmon. After swallowing, he turned to look at her. "Um, there's meat here."

She swallowed before answering. "Of course."

"But Windrunners are herbivores--"

"Some choose to be, but you don't have to. Or were you...?"

"No, wait, that didn't come out right. Windrunners? Is that what you call yourselves?"

"That's the name for our race."

Closing his eyes, he remembered the Anglish word for what she, they, resembled. Concentrating on its remembered sounds, he tried to say it: “Erererorseey".

She just stared at him. The shock in her scent struck him like an Orca's tail.

"What? That's what you resemble, and, well, on my world they were herbivores."

The light sparkled off her eyes. “No, no, it’s not that! It’s the name -- say it again."

"Ererorsei." This time he was able to cut off the high-pitched neigh at the end, but the h still came out as a snort.

Her awe filled the air. "Your race were the Seeders…" she whispered.

"Huh?"

"We have ancient writings. Legends, stories. The oldest ones use that word for our race."

He looked at her. "That makes no sense-- but, it has to-- what happened?" What happened to my race?

"I don't know. Nobody knows, not fur sure anyway."

"You have to know! You call me a Seeder, whatever that is. You said my body looked like them. What are Seeders? What happened to my race?"

"Nobody knows. Seeders are what we call those who created us. Some looked like you, but there were other forms. The legends we have say they, you, left so we could grow until you’d come and welcome us amongst you. Or so the belief goes."

He leaned forward. "How do you know I'm a Seeder? You've found records, remains?"

"Yes…"

"What kind?"

“Bits, fragments. Metal structures, satellites and abandoned craft. All abandoned, dead."

"You've never found any cities?"

She thought. "Lots, but each almost completely destroyed. Wind, air, time, war-- we don't know--"

"There's got to be something! Maybe you aren't looking in the right places."

Her eyes lit up, the scent of her hope filled the air. "What do you mean?"

"Well, I know the stars my race lived on. Show me the stars, and I should recognize them. Point out where things were." He shook his head to try and force down his eagerness. He was beginning to believe this! He could show her some things, but not everything."

"In the Deck of the Heavens we can project the stars and play their motions."

"Motions?"

"The Seeders left us over 350,000 years ago."

He felt the bottom of his world collapse from beneath him. "Three hundred and fifty thousand--"

"Or longer. We have time now, we'll find out. Eat first -- your body needs it."

Maybe he could find out what the Corporate Worlds knew-- If this was a plot. It was becoming more and more elaborate-- He shrugged, or tried to, to get it behind him. It was obvious she had no idea what a shrug meant. "You're right. A few more minutes won't matter." He finished his meal, no warm instead of piping hot.


The meal was filling, much more than he'd expected such a small tube. He couldn't argue with his stomach though. With Nerianne leading, and helping, he made his way out of the common room. He caught himself at the door, but still banged one hoof against the frame with a clack that vibrated up his leg. The impact felt odd. He could feel it, but it wasn't like his leg. The closest he could compare it to was using a sensation dulled waldo. Travel would be far easier if he had some sticky slippers. Like Nerianne had. "Uhh, where can I get some shoes like those?" he asked, pointing to her hooves.

“I'll try and get a pair for you tomorrow."

“Thanks.”

Together they proceeded in silence, she leading the way down a corridor and past a shaft that led downward. Or at least he classified it as a shaft as possessed ladder rungs. "Why don't you spin your ship to simulate gravity? It seems designed for it."

"It is."

"Um...?"

"I prefer it this way.” She laughed, the scent of her joy seeming to brighten the painted metal. “It brings me back memories of my youth." Turning, she led him down another passageway.

A memory? Of her youth? "Were you born in space? In a habitat I mean."

Pulling her ears against her head, he could tell from her scent that she was laughing. "No." She stopped in front of another hatch, "We're here.”

Cesar barely managed to catch himself on one of the handles that were placed at regular intervals along the corridor. The twin clomp of his hooves hitting the wall echoed up and down along the passage.

“I'll go first, in case Alleseign is still present -- putting you two together in the same room is just asking for trouble."

He nodded, remembering. "Ok." Holding tight to the handle on the wall, he watched her open the hatch and go in. He could feel his hair rising -- his rival was here! No! Calm. Think! Think about other things. Three hundred fifty thousand years. Three and a half thousand centuries. Even though that was probably in the years of her home world, and that scale it really didn't matter. So what if it was only four hundred thousand, or six hundred thousand? It was just too much. And now he was trapped here, in the future, in a completely new world. No! It was a trick. A Corporate trick!

But why? And-- And he was starting to believe that this was all real.

His rival was here. His rival!

On their own, his ears pulled against his head, their tightness stabbing him with pain. His tail rose high over his back. His rival was here! He wouldn’t-- No! Calm. Think! His rival, no Alleseign, was here, jumping out of the Deck of the Heavens. His rival turned and gave him a warning whiney. He neighed back, and snorted. No! She was-- Calm, Think! Alleseign jumped off and vanished down the corridor. Cesar felt his muscles begin to relax.

Nerianne popped her head out into the passageway. "You can come in now. Do your best to control yourself -- Alleseign isn't taking this well, and his pheromones are all over the place. I've turned the ventilation up as high as it can go, and had the computer add some freshener, but it's still edgy in here."

Cesar nodded, and taking a deep breath, jumped off the wall. This time his orientation was better. He had no rotation at all -- the old skill was coming back. Rival? Here? He looked around wildly, his body tumbling out of control. It was the room. His ears, which had loosened their tension, pulled tighter against his head than ever. His tail was up so far that it hurt. His tongue licked his nose so that he could find the intruder. Find the one who threatened his mate! Muscles tensing for action, he couldn't help but grit his teeth and let out a low, warning neigh. Where was he? Where was his rival? His mare was holding his arm. She was in danger! Grabbing her, he pulled her tight against him, so tight that she began to struggle. It didn’t matter. She was his!

By the Great Emptiness, what was he doing? Calm. Think! He was a civilized being! Think! Closing his eyes, he breathed in through his mouth and out through his nostrils. Again, and again, and again, it began to help. Only a little. Where was the enem-- No! Calm. Think. There was no threat! With an effort of will he loosened his grip on her… His mate! No! Struggling against his body, he gave a sudden convulsive action and threw her from him. He refused to act like this! Calm. Think. Wrapping his arms around his legs, he held them tightly, refusing to let his hands do things do things he’d eventually regret. He was a civilized being! He had a mind. Calm! Think! He would not let this body take control -- he would not!

Nerianne spoke, "Are you alright?"

He couldn't face her, not after what he’d done. But his mate… It was just this body! Calm. Think. Gritting his teeth, he closed his eyes. Calm. Think. Regardless, she deserved an answer. Leaving his eyes closed he hissed a response: "I'm sorry. By the Great Emptiness, I’m sorry. I-- I don't know what happened -- I've never done anything like this before. Never!"

She touched his arm.

"Don't!"

She didn't let go. "Don't worry, Alleseign’s pheromones are clearing from the room. I don't blame you -- you had no idea. It was him -- he must have been pumping them out -- I've never heard or scented anything like it!"

"Thank the Seeders for that." He had meant to thank God.

"You didn't lick your nostrils did you? It makes it more sensitive."

"Uhh I did. As soon as I entered, I did."

"That stallion is cruel. He knew your new body was still sensitive, yet he kept this room sealed."

Cesar could feel his head starting to clear. Calm. Think. "Well, maybe he did it so that his pheromones wouldn't get out."

"No. I don't believe it. It's his way of getting back at me."

He loosened his arms from around his thighs. With weird contortions he cancelled his rotation. "Well, if he was like that, why would you even want to be his herdmate? He has to be something better to earn your interest. He was trying to protect us."

Pulling herself along his arm, she clasped his stretched out face in both her hands, and gave him a small lick. "That's the nicest thing I've ever heard. He's your rival--"

"And he's a stallion. He wouldn't hate me so."

Sighing, she let go, giving a light push to the side of his head so that she started to turn around. "Maybe you're right… still we came here for a reason. Computer! Let there be the heavens!"

The room darkened, and filled with a projection of stars. A three dimensional sea that was the best simulation of the heavens that he’d ever seen, even though each sun was vastly enlarged so that its spectral type could be seen. "I… I'm impressed."

"This is a vessel designed to chart and map the heavens -- it has the equipment for this."

He didn't know what to say.

"Do you recognize any of this?"

Stretching out a hoof, he just touched it to the floor, arresting his motion. It seemed to work better if he didn't think about it. With his other hoof he touched the floor, pushing himself off with a slight movement at his ankle, and then gently pushing away from the handle. It worked, and he ended up with a slow spin in addition to a slight upwards motion. Around him the heavens slowly spun. He recognized, off to one side, the baleful red whirlpool that had to be the black hold. It had a blue-giant companion. Cygnus X-1? Could be. And it was the closest to Sol that he knew of. But, that was all he recognized. The patterns meant nothing; none of the other stars were familiar. He pointed down towards what he was assuming was Cygnus X-1. What was it she'd called it? "Is that the Drinker of Light where you found me?"

"Quite perceptive.” The scent of her humour drifted around him. “Besides, it's the only drinker shown."

"You have a poetic name for it. Umm, we named it after a swan, from the constellation it was in." Assuming his label was right, of course. Interesting that swan had come out right.

"Do you recognize anything else?"

"Well, the stars I know have to be here--. But the patterns are all wrong."

"Well then, let's fix that. Computer. Begin moving the stars towards their position 350,000 years in the past at a rate of a thousand years a second."

The star field began swirling and twisting, and the lights moved and danced, a seemingly random pattern of motion now clear and sharp without the near c optical distortion. It was a beautiful, saintly dance, but as seconds, and then minutes, passed, he began to feel old and alone. So very alone.

Just before he'd reach the ceiling, he moved one arm up whilst moving one leg to counter the motion. It wasn’t quite right though -- his legs were longer, he hadn't completely still himself. A light touch with a hand stopped him. He twisted his arm to give him a slight rotation as he watched, watched as, gradually, things began to become familiar. And then the movement, the graceful dance, stopped. He frowned. "This isn't right--"

"The 350,000 years is our best guess for when our race is created. You could be older."

He shuddered.

"Computer, resume moving the stars, same time rate, further into the past.

The dance continued, and the patterns grew more and more familiar. He began to recognize things-- "Stop!"

"Computer, halt program, hold image."

The stars stopped and glowed, still in their patterns. Patterns he recognized. Or could see forming. "Further back."

"Computer resume, same rate."

A bit more-- "Stop!"

"Computer, halt program, hold image."

This was it, or close. He recognized patterns, signs, the stars of colonies. There was Hapson's Hope so far away from Cygnus X-1, and back towards home. At least now he knew that it was Cygnus he was at, not some other black hole. He traced his planned jump back. Back to Sol, back to Earth. Back to home.

He had it! Reaching up, he touched the ceiling to stop his rotation. "That's it!"

Lightly he pushed off from the ceiling and fell through the stars towards home. Sol. Earth. His birthplace. He crouched, his knees and ankles quietly absorbing the impact, so that he was motionless and looking at home. At Sol. At Earth.

"There," he whispered, pointing at the little yellow sun where he’d been born.

"Computer! Highlight the system that...," she paused, "our guest is pointing at."

The star enlarged and expanded, as the rest of the room stretched and faded away. Planets appeared, grew, artificially large to allow him to see them within the display. Shapes became familiar, jewels of home, familiar lights. He recognized Saturn with its rings, Jupiter with its spot. The view continued to grow, he could see the inner planets. He could see-- No, it wasn’t there! Where was Earth? Where...?

He jerked away and kicked off the floor as something touched his arm.

It was just Nerianne. She grabbed him and her mass and momentum slowed his rise. "Sorry. I just realized that I've never asked for your name."

"My name?" he whispered, watching home slowly drift away, even though it wasn't there. He could see Mercury. He could see a blasted, airless rock where Venus had been. And then there were three asteroid fields. No Earth, no Mars. They were gone; Earth was gone--

"What shall I call you?" Her voice was a whisper, and he could scent her concern, but he wasn't paying attention. Earth was gone.

"Eeysar," he answered, not even thinking about the pronunciation, not even realizing that the c sound had been replaced by a high-pitched neigh.

"Eeysar, what is it? You smell ready to flee."

"It's gone. All gone. Gone…"

"What? Are you sure it’s the right system?"

He looked as he drifted away. Looked at the outer planets, the giants. Jupiter was there, the same stripes in its atmosphere, the same red spot. No other planet he knew of had rings just like Saturn’s, and those were the rings of Saturn. It had to be Saturn. And beyond it was Uranus in its robin-egg blue rolling along its orbit, and the white splotched see blue of Neptune all alone. The view stopped zooming and he could make out the moons around the giants. He saw Io, but Europa and Ganymede were gone. Titan was gone. Gone like Earth...

He shook his head as he drifted away. He couldn't go home, home was rubble like his life. Destroyed. He shook his head to throw tears away from his eyes. How could this happen?! His mouth was dry as he spoke: "This is it. It has to be. The outer planets match. But the inner planets..." He sighed. "The first asteroid belt was my world." He whispered, his voice barely audible, "Earth..."

"Computer!" Nerianne called out, "What do we have on this system?"

"There is abundant information as it is close to Hearsh. Currently there are no settlements, but the astronomic calculations by Baleigh suggest that the first and second asteroid belts are of recent occurrence - only 400 to 500 hundred thousand years old."

“Earth…”

"So there could have been planets there?"

"Affirmative."

"Have there been Seeder artifacts found in that system?"

"Negative."

Sudden hope filled him. A desperate hope, a hope that fought though his logical denials. Maybe this was wrong! Maybe their data was wrong! Fremin? Then he remembered that Fremin was gone. Everything was gone. Gone! Calm. Think. Ask. "How well surveyed has the system been, other than visually?"

"Computer! Answer Eeysar's question."

"Very little. It was well documented by visual observation long before we left our world. It has been visited only once."

Cesar choked back a sob. Calm. Think. A visitation would certainly have confirmed the gross reality of this simulation. "Well, it would be hard to find anything there." The ceiling pressed into his mane and he reached up to stop his slow movement, his body beginning a slow tumble. "Computer, what information do you have on the nearest system to this one?"

"Computer! You are commanded to answer all of Eeysar’s questions."

"Acknowledged." Then the hologram changed to show Sol's nearest neighbour, Alpha Centauri, and its companion stars and worlds. It was definitely the Alpha Centauri system just as he remembered it. But then he noticed that the second planet, which he remembered as a venusian world, looked like a terrestrial world. There was no way that could have happened naturally in 500,000 years, but it could have been done artificially. There’d been talk depending on the success of Venus-- He snorted. All this did was confirm that he'd found Earth. And Earth was destroyed.

“Can you show the star map again, but only for a sphere stretching from the-- the first system, to about 20 light years away?” The stars twisted into unfamiliar patterns. "Same time period as when the first system was displayed." The stars returned to their familiar patterns.

Cesar floated there, moving his gaze along from yellow star to yellow star. From Sol to Alpha Centauri. From Alpha Centauri down and around until he found Zeta Draconis. And finally from Zeta Draconis the short distance to Ellis. Ellis. Pushing himself down from the ceiling, he landed on the floor and pointed. “Computer, what information do you have on this system. Current information for current date.”

The band of stars vanished to show another solar system, this time Ellis. He looked at the planets, saw the closest one, and then looked for the next one.

It was there. The second world around Ellis -- Atlantis. He’d been there, been on his way there, and it still existed! "Uh… the second planet around the primary star -- what information do you have?"

The projection changed again, and this time a brilliant blue-white world sheathed in white clouds filled the room. "Calis Orineigh II, commonly called Saleneigh's Folly, was first colonized by an expedition led by Saleneigh of the Calnus Herd in the year 1412 AA. His colony survived for almost a century before being destroyed by a series of tropical storms over a decade. Another colony, this time of aquatics, was planted in 1874 AA and still remains. It--"

"Enough." It was Nerianne. "Computer, what artifacts of the Seeders have been found here?"

Cesar scented that she already knew, that she knew this world very well -- so why was she asking?

"There have been a number found on the islands that make up the only land surface. The largest is the Galanath object which was found on the largest island along the equator, believed to be the base for a grass-stalk that would have stretched from the surface to orbit."

Grass-stalk? Of course, beanstalk! "Well, there was one--" Cesar whispered.

"A number of pieces of wreckage have been found orbiting various planets within the system, and on its moon, but all were in a very poor state of preservation. A still mobile piece of an articulated machine was found in the ocean depths. However, no signs of cities of buildings have been found other than around the grass-stalk."

"No, there wouldn't be--" he muttered.

"Why not?" Nerianne asked.

Cesar turned to face her. "We colonized this world with an aquatic subspecies of our own. They never built any cities, other than around the grass-stalk for trade after the Company War. But there was one site where they built structures for teaching and record storage on the ocean floor. Computer, can we see an expanded view of the land surface?"

“Executing.”

Cesar watched as the clouds vanished, and the globe expanded to fill almost half the room so that the islands were easily recognizable. But the surface wasn’t the blue-green he remembered -- almost a third of the planet was covered in ice. “Computer, is there an ice age?”

“Yes. An Ice Age began approximately 15,000 years ago. The glacial coverage is still increasing.”

“Computer, begin rotating the map.”

“Acknowledged.”

Nerianne was silent as Cesar watched the globe rotate slowly. Five rotations went by. “Do you recognize anything?”

“Not really. The islands seem roughly the same but…”

She turned away. “Computer. When my guest halted the backwards star extrapolation, how much time had passed?"

"Five hundred thousand years, to the nearest thousand."

Five hundred thousand years? Cesar would have fallen if he hadn't been in freefall.

"Can you extrapolate the surface appearance 500,000 years ago?”

Five hundred thousand-- Cesar struggled for some kind of control. After all, what difference between 350,000 and 500,000?

“Affirmative. Accuracy will be approximately 98%.”

“Why?” she demanded.

“Adjustment of water level and the minor continental drift is not complex. The exact outline of the islands can only be estimated using chaos theory. It will not be exact.”

“Understood. Execute.”

“Executing.”

The globe flickered as the ice vanished and the oceans rose, and as the islands moved slightly across the surface. The image kept rotating.

“Hey, that’s it!” Cesar shouted.

“You’ve found it?”

“No, but I recognize the outlines. It’ll rotate back around in a minute.” He paused. “There!”

“Computer -- stop rotation.”

The image stopped rotating.

Pushing himself off the ceiling, Cesar landed on one side of the projection. As long as he didn't think about it, he had no trouble getting around. He pointed to a section of shallow sea just off one of the larger islands. "It was there, but it was deeper than you what you indicate -- there was a river that ended at the coast and they built the city there. I think it was because they liked the current."

“Computer, why is there no river there?”

“There is limited geologic information on the portions of land covered in ice. There is no evidence on file of a river being present at that location.”

Nodding, Nerianne continued, "Computer, flag that position, and restore the planet to its current appearance."

The image flickered and changed. One spot was marked with a green circle, but it was now in a shallow sea as the water levels had fallen with the expanding glaciation, and where once its climate had been temperate, it was now arctic. Ice flows could be seen drifting away from where the glaciers halted at the water’s edge.

"That's why they never found anything. There's no reason to go there, so far from the equator," Nerianne said.

"Well, that is where we have to go to find the answers."

She nodded. "Answers both of us want." She paused, considering something. "Eeysar, there is one thing you said that I found odd."

"Oh?"

"Is Sar your herd name, or..."

"Uh, what do you mean, herd name?"

"The name of those who bore and raised you."

Parents? "You mean my mare and stallion?" That wasn't what he wanted to say, but it did serve.

"Of course, what else would I mean?"

"It's the language again. Well, my herd name, I guess, would be Marnees." Cesar found that he couldn't pronounce the t at all, and the rest was slurred.

"Then I apologize. To us, your name would be Eeysarmarnees. The herd name is always tacked onto the end."

He was in their world now. And their world was now his world. "Well then Eeysarmarnees it is."

Chapter 6

Mesianne, on the Windrunner homeworld

Singalanne, beloved of Mesianne Mother of Nerianne 1882-2014

He stood alone, robed in fur heavy fur, the cold winter win blowing a soft white dust that swirled around his thick black mane. With each breath, a cloud of moisture billowed around his head and turned the clear gravestone he’d brushed off into a faded blur of soft curves.

Eighty-seven years now.

“I’m sorry, but it was necessary. I wish-- I wish I could have told you. I wish I could have lessened the betrayal. I just couldn't. The cost of failure was too high.”

He could feel the tears freezing on his face as he remembered. Remembered watching the recording. His agents transformed into Tilgans, transformed back into aquatic-adapted Windrunners, swam into her home on Saleneigh's Folly. He watched them slit her throat, wide ugly cuts. Her blood spewed into the water staining everything red even before police burst in and gunned them down.

And Nerianne in the corner, watching, the blood being pulled in and pushed out from her gills.

All he could see was her tiny face, barely five then. See her watching a world that betrayed her, and not understanding why. A detached part of him wondered if the date and time was right, if simultaneity could exist from one star system to another.

He’d killed her this date eighty-seven years ago. And he would do it again to protect his herd. To protect his race. He shuddered at that thought, feeling the weight on his soul, the horror of his ugly damnation. And there would be more. As long as it took, however long it took to ensure his herd's dominance, and through it his race's safety, he would continue. Continue to do whatever it took.

Only then could he kill himself in the most horrific way imaginable, and only begin to pay back what he owed.

Kneeling in the snow, he let his great coat drape around his form like a black shroud, as the blowing snow cloaked him in mystery and anonymity. He lay the bundle of glimmerblooms on the stone and bowed his head.

In his mind he saw Nerrianne's face hating him.

His phone rang. By the Seeder, who--? Only certain people had this number, and none of them would call them unless it was important. Calming his mind, he pulled the phone out. “Mesinanne.”

“Code 73a Complete. No problems.”

“Understood.” Waiting for the click from the other end, he hung up. Then he slipped the phone back into his pocket.

He closed his eyes sighed. It was done, the last of the crew of the Dancer’s Eye was dead. There had been no complications. No complications meant that none of them had talked about what they’d found. Or at least none had talked that his agents had been able to find. Odds are that the signal they detected wasn’t worth it, but it’s possible that it was. He’d had to kill his wife to keep Seeder tech out of the hands of others, and he’d kill his daughter if that was what it took to save the Windrunners.

With a sigh he pushed himself back onto his hooves with his cane, turning away. Another year passed. He didn’t really need the cane, but it had been part of him for so long before the mastery of the regrowth Seeder tech that he’d never given it up. With his left hand he wiped the frozen tears from beneath his eyes and turned and started down the windswept hill towards his car.

Why wasn’t it running?

His mind had just begun to process that thought when he heard the whine of an energy weapon from behind the car. Just enough warning to give him time to begin to turn. Which was just enough to keep his head from being blown off by the shot. With the regrowth tech only a head shot mattered anymore. Instead, the shot took off his right arm at the shoulder. Classified Seeder Tech implants cut off the pain and his vision was clear as he rolled. There was no cover, just a few drifts of snow. No help at all.

His roll ended with him flat on the ground. Yanking his cane around, another distant rising whine gave him warning of more shots coming. He kept rolling. and the shot only took off his leg at the ankle.

Flipping open the head of the cane, he activated the linkage to more classified Seeder Tech. Optical implants scanned the car finding a dim heat signature behind the far passenger door. Locking that in as the target, he fired the nanite-guided smart-missile that was hidden in the bottom of his cane. It roared off and upwards, and then angled down. The distant whine started again. He started rolling. Silence. A roar of sound and heat and fire as the missile impacted and shattered the side of the car, and the would be assassin. He could dimly see his agents in the distance running towards what was left of the wannabe killer.

Only then did he let blood loss drag him into unconsciousness.


He woke up in a hospital room, his tail handing down through a slot in the bed and onto the floor. Tubes stretched out of his body, and armed guards stood at the door. Turning his head, he focused his eyes on the head of his security standing beside the bed. “What happened?”

“It was the car guard. He killed the driver and was going for you.”

“Why didn’t you stop him?”

“Before you got him, we fired numerous rounds into his back, but the interior of his body was somehow armoured in an unknown plastic. Very thin, flexible, undetectable unless you knew what you were looking for.”

“I want the body analyzed. I want a complete record of his movements. I--"

“Already done.”

“Seighnalla, how long have I been out?”

“Four days. The blood loss was extensive -- they're prepping the tank now.”

“Good.” He had standing orders that no regrowth was to be undergone until he was conscious. Any such action required his personal okay, unless reviving would kill him. “What did you find?”

“Searching the guard’s apartment, we found some residue which genetic tests confirmed was the actual guard. The one who replaced him was a regrowth.”

Mesinanne nodded.

“Forensics puts the time of death between five and six days ago. We’ve backtracked the replacement to a black market shop and are going through the records now. There’s not much, and everybody involved in the procedure are dead.”

“Expected. I want--"

“A full genetic readout of scraps from the body has positively IDed three species-crossing regrowths, with incomplete evidence of at least four more.”

Mesinanne nodded -- his standing order for a full genetic tracing had been obeyed, even with the cost and time involved. Not standard police procedure. “Have you found the original species yet?”

“Forensics believes is was Windrunner.”

He sighed. “Seeders.”

“Best guess is that he was originally from the Andeila herd. That's extremely uncertain though. And, if true, not much help.”

Mesinanne nodded. The Andeila herd was huge, and much of it was lower class that lived in the urban slums. Lots of hatred there due to the denial of the immortality granted by the regrowth technology. “I want a full report on him.”

“It’s being worked on, but I doubt we can get much more. What we’ve found so far suggests that he ran with a gang. Which suggests that somebody paid him.”

“Do what you can. Has Nerianne came back yet?”

“We’ve heard nothing.”

“Do what you can. And don’t worry, you did what you could.”

Seighnalla’s scent told Mesinanne that she didn’t believe that. “I’m running traces on all other personal staff to look for any other plants.”

“Good. I confirm that I’m ready for regrowth.”

“Confirmed, boss.”

As Seighnalla walked out, he lay back and tried to relax. He needed to know who was behind this. Did somebody find out about the Drinker artifact. Did Seighnalla needed to know? And what if they knew of the Array--?

A doctor came in and injected something into the IV. Mesinanne fell into unconsciousness, his mind still pondering who could know.

Chapter 7

Eesarmanrees aboard the Dancer's Eye'

The Dancer’s Eye, remained near Cygnus X-1 for two more weeks taking its readings and measurements. The ship was curiously empty, with unused quarters for another fifteen people. It seemed that recent changes had been made that allowed most of the functions to be computer controlled. It could even be flown by one person. Even allowing for the unused quarters, the interior seemed small compared to the size of the ship. Eeysarmarnees was told that was because most of the space was taken up with complex observation and measurement equipment.

During those weeks he got use to his new body, exercising vigorously to strengthen his muscles. And to learn to master them. He spent even more time with Nerianne. Their companionship approached, and then became, friendship. Eeysarmarnees needed to be with somebody, anybody, and Alleseign wasn’t a viable option. He'd never been alone before, having always had Fremin with him. Often he'd cry himself to sleep when he tried asking Fremin for a bit of information, or an opinion.

But, he didn't spend more and more time with Nerianne just because she was his only option. There was an attraction, and Nerianne seemed to share it to.

What time Eeysarmarnees had left, was spent either learning to read his new language, or in the Deck of the Heavens playing with the star maps, trying to figure out what had happened. Nerianne had given him some computer access, although not to any of the ship’s primary functions. He identified what he thought were some of the Corporate Worlds systems, but every possible habitable planet around those primaries had been destroyed. What few Alfar worlds he could locate were intact. Some of the systems he identified contained Seeder artefacts; some did not.

What was odd was that the system didn't matter. Almost every artefact seemed to be from a single culture.

None of that helped him get used to the culture he was now a part of. One week after he'd awakened in this new world, Eeysarmarnees was unable to sleep. Groggy, grumpy, hair and mane pointing every which way, he dragged himself to the Deck of the Heavens. Even though he was coming to believe this reality was real, not a Corporate trap, the fact that Earth was apparently destroyed refused to be accepted. He knew it was, but he also knew that it was still there, waiting for him. But-- Like a traveler feeling his eyes drawn to a bus crash, Eeysarmarnees was drawn to look at the Sol system. He'd magnified Saturn's moon Titan, or what was left of it. Its atmosphere was gone, and the surface was almost completely smooth, like it had been sandblasted and polished. Eeysarmarnees couldn’t even comprehend what it would take to do that kind of damage.

He was so involved, or so close to sleep, that he didn’t notice the door open, didn't notice Alleseign come in. At least not until the pheromones hit him.

Eeysarmarnees screamed, a high pitched neigh. Then he snorted, a deep bullish sound that went from his pulled back ears to his raised tail. His body was out of the control he'd won, ready to fight for what was its in the ways from before sentience evolved. Phermones pumped out of it to show the enemy the true depth of Eesarmarnees' desire, need, strength and will.

This would all have been well and good, except that Eeysarmarnees wasn't standing in a field, scraping the soil. He was in freefall in the middle of a large room. Even though he flailed with his hooves, pedalled with his hands, screamed and neighed, he just floated there. Helpless.

Alleseign started in control of himself. He’d just closed the door when he realized who was in the room. But it was too late. Alleseign's phermones were clouded deep around him, and the air currents soon made sure Alleseign's were draped over Eeysarmarnees, and vice versa. Circling around and around the room, they just intensified the reaction. Alleseign saw Eeysarmarnees as a rival, nothing more. Alleseign, too, pulled his ears close to his skull, and let out a high pitched neigh followed by a deep snort to answer the challenge.

But Alleseign wasn’t trapped away from surfaces, he was at the door. It took his enraged body only a second to crouch down, using his sticky slippers to hold the wall, and then leap across the room.

Eeysarmarnees was no stranger to zero-g combat, but he had no momentum, and no way to get it. He did his best, but his new body betrayed him. He knew the basics of human freefall combat. But what about his muzzle? His tail? His longer legs? To him, his primary weapons were his hands and legs, but that was human reaction. Alleseign, like all Windrunners, fought primarily with his legs and hooves and teeth. Eeysarmarnees tried to block him, but Alleseign was able to force two strong kicks against Eeysarmarnees’ chest and send him tumbling away. Alleseign had trained, and he used his hormonal rage, where Eeysarmarnees was being used by his.

Eeysarmarnees was sent tumbling, the breath knocked out of him, but he was too enraged to think. More through luck than skill, he managed to get his tumbling mostly under control, and land, hooves first, on one of the walls so that his sticky slippers would stick. He spun his head around, still snorting his rage, and saw Alleseign drifting towards another wall. Kicking off, he aimed only for his rival. He managed to get a few solid punches on Alleseign's neck and muzzle, before spun around and kicked Eeysarmarnees three times in the head, each time drawing blood.

Alleseign screamed. Screamed out his horror. When he reached a wall, he spun around and kicked, back to the door as Eeysarmarnees tried to find a way to reach him. Alleseign yanked the door open and fled through it, slowing only long enough to seal it behind him.


Half an hour later, Eeysarmarnees was curled into a ball, screaming from frustrated rage and pain. That was when Nerianne entered. Most of the pheromones were gone, but Eeysarmarnees was in shock from the sensory overload. She approached him carefully.

“Eeysarmarnees?”

Silence, and then and quick and low-toned snort of fear and pain.

She let herself float towards him, trying to make her body pump out its own pheromones to try and convince him that he’d won. It may have worked as Eeysarmarnees uncurled to face her when she was only a short distance away.

“Nerianne?” He shook his head and gave a short snort to clear the blood from his nose. “Please go away.” The blood and mucous slowly drifted through the room until they were sucked into a ventilation fan.

“No. I’m here for you.” And her pheromones revealed that she really was.

“Please go - I don’t know what I’ll do to you.” By now she almost upon him; he tried to push himself away but had nothing to push against. He did make sure to rotate so that his hooves were opposite her, and he clenched his arms around his legs and curled up so that only his head and tail stretched out from a ball of creamy fur - the tail pointing away for Nerianne, and the head pointing towards.

Then she was there, lightly touching his face to stop her advance. He shivered. “I’m here,” she whispered. “You’ve won me - I’m yours.” Eeeysarmarnees could tell that it wasn't the full truth. In fact, he knew it wasn't. Alleseign had left because he'd wanted to, not because of anything Eeysarmarnees had done.

“No, I don’t deserve you. I failed!” He wanted to shove her away, but didn’t trust himself enough to free his hands and kept them gripping his legs tightly.

“No, you didn’t fail me,” she whispered. “I’m here, and he’s gone.”

Eeysarmarnees could feel the tension starting to flow from his body. He couldn’t help but snap: “Why should you care? I’m not really your race. Or,” and his voice turned bitter, “do you just want to bask in my glory because my race created yours, or will, or did, or…”

Nerianne remained silent as the scent of Eeysarmarnees’ truthfulness filtered through the room.

Eeysarmarnees could scent that Nerianne didn't really believe him, could scent that she wanted to because she respected, and feared, him. It was the realization of that fear that finally broke through the last shreds of his hormonal rage. He let go his legs and stretched, and then gently pushed Nerianne away so that he could land on a wall and stick there, looking at her. Why would she fear him? It wasn’t because of his loss of control. Why-- then he knew. “I’m not one of those who created you,” he finally whispered.

Nerianne sighed, letting out a long and deep nicker of anguish and pain. “I know. But, I’ve wondered about them for so long…”

“I can’t help you. I don’t know any more that you do.”

“But you do, you…” Her words rose towards end, and then she quashed her eagerness, ending in a whisper, “…must.”

“Must what? Your engineering and technical knowledge is a little ahead of what I knew. And your biological skills, nobody had anything like them, except maybe the Corporate Worlds.”

“But you’re them, their greatness is in you!”

“Greatness? My race rose from its birth on the seed of war. War after war against itself. First herd against herd, and then nation against nation, and finally nation against corporation. We bombed our own kind with fission and fusion weapons. We sent dreams to found new worlds on other stars, and then the corporations followed and enslaved them. And the corporations betrayed us -- they said all the colonies had failed. Out amongst the stars they fought each other for wealth and power, caring nothing for glory or greatness.” His words turned more and more bitter. “And then, finally, by accident, we found out what was really going on, and then the corporations crushed us. They would have finished us off except for the Alferer”. He had meant to say Alfar, but his new body had ended the Standard word in a drawn out nasal snort. “They beat on the corporations until we could build our own more advanced ships and fight back. And then the corporations convinced the Alferer to attack us. Yes, we set one alien race to attack ourselves.” He laughed. “So much for our greatness.” And then he turned his head away, and looked at the projection of the asteroids where Earth had once been.

Nerianne remained silent for a while before she spoke. Her voice was shaking, but she forced clarity into her answer. “And you think we’re any better?”

Eeysarmarnees turned to face her.

“You think we live in peaceful herds, don’t you? Peaceful and happy and co-operative. Well, we’re nothing of the sort. Our greatherds fought each other, as did our nations. We dropped fission and fusion weapons just like you did, just like all the other races as they struggled to grow. We still have our herds and greatherds and alliances. But we’re worse. Far worse!”

“How?” Eeysarmarnees’ voice was quiet and disbelieving, as were his pheromones.

“Sure, you convinced an alien race to attack your own, but have you ever committed genocide on another race? Helped in the obliteration of an entire intelligent species?”

He would have disbelieved her, but he could scent her truth.

“Just over a century ago, we, along with the Taylians and the Angleires, were attacked by a species that called itself the Pilgusez. They were carnivores, and experts at ‘flying above the grass while running in it’. They kept us from realizing their aims until it was almost too late. They hid their hunger well, with their kind blue eyes, their long furred ears they held high above their heads, and their tiny puff of a tail. Within their feet and hands were their claws, and within their mouths were their sharp, pointy teeth.” She shuddered. “And they had each of our races fighting the other, attacking ships, and bombing worlds. But, thank the Seeders, we finally realized what was going on. We found the farms where our races were being grown-- as food! And then we struck back. Together we killed their ships, and bombed their worlds. At the end, when only their homeworld was left, and they begged for mercy, it was us Windrunners who took ships just barely out of jumpspace and rammed their world again and again at near light speed.” She glared at him, anger and hatred filling her eyes and the air. “They threatened our herds and our greatherds. And so we kept ramming until we shattered their world!”

Eeysarmarnees didn’t know what to say.

Nerianne’s momentum allowed her to reach a wall and she twisted so that her sticky slippers stuck to it. She turned to face him, bitterness now filling her voice. “That's our greatness and nobility. All of the races now have hidden ships, ready to make Windrunner Attacks on other worlds. Nobody trusting anybody else. Think of that when you compare what you are now to what you once were.”

Before Eeysarmarnees could say anything, she pushed herself to the door, yanked it open, and slammed it behind her.

He curled up, but this time in fear. He’d pictured the Windrunners as peaceful herds of friends and talkers, unable to lie. But he hadn’t realized what passions the pheromones that forced the truth could foster. It seemed that no race could gain the stars without horror.

Eeysarmarnees floated there, amongst the ruins of his home. He’d dreamed of the future, of its glory and honour. He’d been thinking that it had to have been some kind of natural disaster that had destroyed his home. Now he knew -- it was war. War and struggle and hatred.

Returning to his quarters, he tried to sleep, but couldn’t. Tossing and turning he remembered the orcas, remembered Fremin, remembered the teaming billions on Earth. Then he saw alien ships flash out of jumpspace, with far better control than anything he'd known of. Their energy state was so great that they were lines, not ships. Lines that impacted the surface of the Earth. Again and again until it shattered into a trillion pieces, and a billion screaming souls.

He finally asked the computer for drugs so he could get some sleep.


A loud buzzing awoke Eeysarmarnees, still sore and stiff, still in his bloodied shipsuit. The buzzing to enter stopped, and the door was opened.

It was Nerianne. She was there, looking rumpled and unkempt, her mane and tail unbraided. As she pushed herself into his quarters, Eeysarmarnees noticed she was carrying a bag of some sort marked with a pair of entwined snakes.

It couldn’t be…

Nerianne arrived at the corner he’d curled up in to sleep, strapping only his arm to a wall. He struggled to wakefulness, blinking sleep from his eyes. All he could do was watch as she opened the bag, pulled out a cloth and drenched it in some kind of liquid. Then she was upon him, using the cloth to wipe at his blood-clotted wounds.

“It was doomed to happen eventually,” she said, in a calm, quiet voice.

Eeysarmarnees winced, and whimpered, as she rubbed some liquid on a particularly deep wound.

“My fight with Alleseign?”

She stopped and turned away, letting out a low nicker. “No, the shattering of our dreams.”

Then Eeysarmarnees knew. “Our misunderstandings about each other.”

“Yea. I glorified your race, and you glorified mine. And now we both know that the truth is as primal and bloody as what went on between you and Alleseign.” She smiled. “He apologizes you know.”

“Of course. It’s not his fault. It’s yo..our biology.”

“Is it? Isn’t it more than that?”

What could she mean? Was it the savagery of all their races? “You don’t really believe that, do you? That it’s the nature of intelligence to war?”

“Isn’t it?” She was bitter and she filled the room with the scent of betrayal, the betrayal of her dreams. “Your race are all bloody savages; my race are all bloody savages. And all the other races are bloody savages!”

Reaching out, he clasped her arms. He wanted to protect her, to hold her, and he didn’t know how much of that was pheromones, and how much was what he truly wanted. But, did it matter? “I remember an old story.” Interesting -- they had a word that meant fiction. Well, not quite. Its meaning was more like a fiction to reveal a truth. “On it, an ererman,” he’d been trying to say human, but the closest he could get to ‘h’ was a deep throated snort, “was being confronted by an alien after a particularly bloodthirsty order. “And he said that all races can grow and evolve. All races can say that they ‘simply will not kill, today’. That’s it.”

“So simple? Just ‘we shall not kill today’?”

“And why not? Isn’t that what the mind is for? We had our art and literature, sculptures dreams and music.” And then he felt a tear fill his eye -- he'd never hear any it again. No Mozart, Tchaikovsky, Sibelius. No more stories sung by the orcas-- He shook his head to clear it. “Doesn’t your race have its own explorers and dreamers, its own creators?”

Her answer was just barely audible, “Yes.”

“And do you kill now?”

She stared at him. “How can you ask that after what Alleseign tried to do to you?”

“But he didn’t kill me.”

“Because you stopped him.”

Eeysarmarnees pulled her close, so that her face was just inches from his own. “At the end he knew what he was doing. He, bound up in his hormonal rage, realized what was happening. And he forced himself to leave. He said, to himself, that he would not kill today. And he left.”

“How do you know? He called me last night from his quarters and said he was sorry, and apologized, but I didn’t believe him. He wanted me to pass his sorrow on to you.”

“And why shouldn’t he? Is it his fault he’s trapped in his time, on a ship with a woman he wanted to mate with, and with a rival that's nearly his clone? And yet, when I was fighting him, when I was pumping out my own pheromones of rage and hatred, he still realized what was happening. He was still able to force his body to respond to his mind and leave.”

“Why should I care?! He went in and attacked you!”

Eeysarmarnees roughly shook her. “You must care, because that's the greatness in your race, and mine. It’s that our minds rule over our bodies. That’s how we can rise above the horror, and above the war.” He pushed her and watched her float away. “After you left I looked at my homeworld again. It was shattered, destroyed. I’d hoped it was an accident, a catastrophe, but now I know it wasn’t. It was like the story you told me. It was because of war. My own race destroyed itself in war.”

“You can’t believe that.” She had reached a wall and landed, looking at him.

“Why not? A natural disaster could, maybe, destroy a single world. But shatter two in the same system. And blow off the atmosphere of more. Even the moons of the outer gas giants show signs of disaster. It can’t be something from the sun, because then the inner planets would be worse, but Mercury, the first planet, is virtually untouched. It can’t be a shockwave from outside the system, because the outermost gas giants are untouched, even though their moons are devastated.”

She glared at him. “Then why should we bother?”

That was when Eesarmarnees decided that this reality was real. Not an illusion created by the Corporate Worlds. It was real and he wanted to save it. Unwrapping the strap from his hand, he pushed off towards her. “Because I don’t want it to happen to us.”

“Why? After what we’ve done to you? Transformed you, beaten--”

And then he was upon her and he grabbed her arms again. “You saved my life. You saved my body the only way you could. And I’ve told you that Alleseign stopped himself.” He stopped and looked straight into her eyes. “I couldn’t stop it. He had to.”

“Alleseign stopped himself--” Her pheromones revealed her doubt.

“Yes he did. I, one of the Seeders you revere so much, couldn’t, but he did.” He let go of her arms, but stayed nearby. “I’m going to find out what happened, how my race destroyed itself. And then I am going to stay alive to make sure it doesn’t happen to you.”

“But why?”

“Because Alleseign stopped himself from killing me. That is your greatness.” Eeysarmarnees was silent, just floating there, waiting for Nerianne to answer.

She turned away and looked down towards one of the walls. She was silent for a long time before she answered. “And yet you forgave him.”

He sighed. “Yes, but forgiveness is easy. I’m calm, in control. I know what happened. I understand.”

“I couldn’t forgive him.”

He couldn’t believe it. “But why? You know why he did it. You know that he stopped himself. You know that he forced his body to listen to his mind.”

“But he was there in the first place!”

“It was an accident. It’s nobody’s fault.”

She pushed off and embraced him.

Pulling his head back, he looked into her eyes. “Why?” he whispered.

“Because you can forgive. He couldn’t, I can’t. We destroyed the Pilgusez. You would have let them live.”

“Would I?” He wasn’t sure.

“Yes.”

“I don’t know if I could ha--”

“Shh.” Tears were in her eyes. “You’ve given new life to my dreams. Just hold me.” She stopped, and whispered, “Just hold me.”

Eeysarmarnees didn’t know what else to do, so he did.

It felt right.

Chapter 8

Alleseign, aboard the Dancer's Eye'

Alleseign jumped out, almost slamming into the far wall. His body was soaked with sweat, even with the material of his shipsuit whisking it away from his hide. Licking a drop of blood from his nostrils, whether his or Eeysarmarnees' he couldn't tell, Alleseign fled..

Damn Nerianne, damn Eeysarmarnees, damn Mesianne, damn himself!

He had to go somewhere-- the gym-- Faster than sane, he jumped from wall to floor to wall. He could feel the hormones pumping through his body, driven by ancient needs. Driven by his needs.

Damn everything!

He knew he'd never been the brightest on the block. Not stupid by any stretch, but not on Nerianne's level. And not on this Eesarmarnees' level either.

He reached the gymnasium far too soon for his taste, or need. It was empty, but that was expected. The light panels clicked on and he typed in the codes to set up a sparring dummy. He didn't trust his voice to the recognition software.

The dummy flickered and holos projected overtop creating Eeysarmarnees. Even though he knew, even though it was scentless, just the vision destroyed what small control he had. With an incoherent scream he shot across the room and into the dummy, biting and kicking and punching, letting the rage and hatred burn its way out of him.


He floated there, watching the image, panting. He was bruised, battered, bleeding -- the dummy had reactive movements so it was a bit more of a fight. The room was filled with his stench, but not of his Time. Instead it was his sweat, and his exhaustion. Nothing more.

Looking at the dummy, he let a lopsided grin fill his muzzle one of the arms bent at a wrong angle. At least he'd done something.

It didn't matter though. Nerianne hated him. And he couldn't blame her. He'd known it was almost his Time, but he'd figured the months alone with her would be perfect. He loved her. Loved her still. And his own greed had driven her away. His own damned greed and arrogance!

Peeling off his soaked shipsuit, yanking off the slippers, he tossed them away and pushed himself towards one of the shower stalls. He sealed the door and entered his code for his personal settings. And then he dialed the temperature way down. Pulling the mouthpiece and hose from the wall, he bit down on it and started the shower. Water poured on him as a fan beneath the grilled floor sucked the water out.

Then, and only then, did he let his sorrow at his loss pour out of him.


Alleseign had returned to his quarters. Clean, dry, mane and tail neatly combed. The only signs were bruises over his body, a long ragged scar on his muzzle, and a chip out of one hoof. The room was bare, just some pictures, a window looking out at the Drinker, and an ornate Hersh gameboard which he was strapped in front of. It was covered in pieces, stallions, mares, fillies, in two colours, and Alleseign was starring at it. In one hand he held a carved wooden filly, of the colour being played by the ship's computer, and he was spinning it around and around with his fingers.

The computer moved a mare to claim the last grazing area and then he reached over to move the corresponding physical piece. He couldn't say why, but he needed physical pieces to play with.

It was odd. His skill in the game was far higher than his mind would suggest. It was all patterns. He upgraded one of his fillies to a mare and waited for the computer to take the gift and complete its over extension.

What was he going to do?

Not in the game, that was obvious. In his life.

He'd taken a gamble with Nerianne. Sure, he'd stacked things in his favour, but then the rules had changed, and he'd lost. He'd lost her forever.

It was easier to force the pain back. A little easier.

Mesianne, had told him what to do, what she liked. He wasn't going to be impressed with the interloper screwing up his plan. And he was not someone you wanted angry at you.

Alleseign had come to space to get away from the core worlds. Ever since that damn Seeder Regrowth tech had been found a century ago, the clock had been ticking. He'd taken the dirty little jobs Mesianne had offered him out of school. He'd graduated to monitoring the array. And watching Nerianne.

Mesianne definitely wouldn't let him go easily.

Alleseign had always planned to stay in the space service until his retirement, then immigrate to Saleneigh's Folly and take the regrowth there, regain his youth. A lot of people emigrated to the various colonies for just that reason.

They couldn't afford immortality off the shelf.

Sure, he knew intellectually that not everybody could have it. There simply wasn't enough room. That didn't stop the emotions, the envy--

The computer beeped and he watched its stallion take the mare he'd just created into its herd. Stupid computer. It was all over now. He moved half of a herd into the largest space controlled by the computer. Then he started taking pieces off, from both sides, as the mares starved.

He'd have to flee the Dancer's Eye as soon as they got back. Go into hiding, change ID. Set up the blackmail material he'd collected and tell Mesianne to leave him alone. Or else.

Beeping again, the computer moved its stallion into the space he'd just moved the herd into. He swapped his mare's for mare's of the computer's colour as the stallion claimed them.

His escape plan, his emigration, probably wouldn't work. But he had few options.

For now-- for now he could try and make up for his error.

He'd just be on the ship, supportive, helpful. He'd try to tell Eeysarmarnees about the mess he was falling into.

He moved his stallion and accompanying herd against the enemy main herd and claimed it. He had barely enough mares to allow him to claim all of the enemy. Most of the mares died, starving as the meadow could only support so much. But it didn't matter. That move had cut off the computer's stallion from most of its territory, and he claimed all the herds that were left isolated. It also allowed a legal path through his herds for his castles and queen to threaten the computer's stallion.

"Your stallion is threatened."

The computer resigned.

Chapter 9

Eeysarmarnees, aboard the Dancer's Eye'

For the rest of their time at the Drinker of Light, Nerianne was almost always with Eeysarmarnees. And he didn’t know what to do. To him it seemed a kind of hero worship, but maybe it was something more. She even helped him learn to read the Windrunner’s language. After another week, when Alleseign’s heat had passed, he would talk to him when Nerianne was sleeping. Eeysarmarnees learned that the Windrunners had a strategy game a little like chess, although the pieces and rules and board size were different. Alleseign started teaching it to him. They were playing one night, a few days before they were due to leave the Drinker of Light, and were talking about the universe and how both their races had known that it would eventually grow and fade to become a constant sea of dust at a constant temperature.

Then, Alleseign said: “I think she loves you.”

Eeysarmarnees just stared at his near twin. He was still nervous around him, but refused to let pheromones rule his life, and had spent nights talking to Alleseign to learn more about what he’d become.

Alleseign moved a footwarrior to reveal the Seeder. “Your mare is threatened.”

Eeysarmarnees didn’t hear him. After a long silence he asked, “Why do you think she loves me?”

Alleseign snorted. “It’s obvious. We came out here together to see if we loved each other. But then I found out that she was a member of one of the Seeder greatherds.”

“Seeder greatherds?”

“There are a number of them. Her’s thinks that eventually the Seeders will return and raise their followers to greatness in their footsteps.”

Oh dear God. “You aren’t serious, are you?” But he knew it was the truth - pheromones don’t lie.

“An odd question… When I found out, I decided I wanted no part of her. Sure, the Seeders created us, but probably for their own reasons. And they’re long gone, except for you of course.”

“But I don’t know what they did.”

“But she can’t believe that. To her, you’re testing her, seeing if she’s worthy.”

“No.”

“Oh, and your mare will join my herd in three moves.”

“Don’t change the subject.”

He shrugged. “Fine. Has she told you what’ll happen when we jump home?”

“Not really.”

“There’ll be chaos. There are greatherds who’ll want to kill you. Others, like hers, will want to worship you. The King Stallions will want to use you.” He snickered. “Of course they’re just as likely to kill you to keep the chaos from spreading.”

“I think you’re mistaken.” That’s not what he’d wanted to say. He didn’t believe Alleseign. But, if you couldn’t lie…

“Sniff the air - you know I’m telling the truth. But then, why wouldn’t they want to kill you? Here you are, a ghost from the past, and a threat to the world they’ve built. If you’re here to raise them up, they lose power. If you’re here to enslave them, they lose power. And if you don’t do anything, they lose power because a lot of the Windrunners will follow you.”

And Eeysarmarnees could see it, after all it was easier to just sweep something under the grass. But he wouldn’t let Nerianne be devastated that way. “Then I’ll just have to make myself too valuable to be killed.”

“Are you going to take your move?”

Eeysarmarnees sighed. Fine. He moved his stallion to defend his mare. “I’ve already found one site of a Seeder city - I’ll just have to offer to find more.”

Alleseign moved his castle. “Your mare is threatened,” he said formally. Then he looked Eeysarmarnees in the eyes. “They might go for that - but they’ll have to keep you secret, which means that can’t ever let you out into public.”

“Why?”

“Remember our pheromones. Eventually somebody will casually ask you about the Seeders and they will scent the truth no matter what you say. You’ll have to tell the truth. Your move.”

Eeysarmarnees sighed and moved his mare behind his stallion. “And what do you suggest?”

Alleseign smiled. “Actually, Nerianne’s probably already figured out a solution. Given her background, it’s obvious.” He moved his seeder and captured Eeysarmarnees’ stallion. “You mare has joined my herd,” he said formally.

Checkmate. “What do you mean?”

Alleseign turned and pushed off towards the door. Once he reached it he turned and said, “You’ll see. It’s probably what she had in mind all the time.” He snorted. “And to think I wanted her to be my herdmate.” And then he was gone.

Eeysarmarnees just stared after him. He kept forgetting about the damn pheromones. And now he knew that Nerienne worshipped him as the second coming.

All he could do was shake his head.


Eeysarmarnees returned to his quarters and then just floated there, his right hand wrapped around a strap, unable to sleep. What was going to happen to him?

And what was he going to do about Nerianne? He was starting to care for her, and had thought that she was starting to care for him. But now he knew that it was just worship. And the more he thought about it, the more it seemed to him that killing him would be the safest thing for everybody to do.

What was he going to do?

All night he floated there, those thoughts circling around and around in his head.


He was half asleep when he was jarred into a semi-wakefulness by the buzz to his quarters.

It was Nerienne. He knew it was Nerienne - she always came to wake him up so that they could have breakfast and talk before she went to her duties, and he went to his studies.

Nerienne buzzed again. Somehow it seemed louder, even though it wasn’t.

Eeysarmarnees sighed. "Enter."

Nerienne pulled the door open and floated in, pulling it shut behind her. Then she deftly pushed off the wall and came towards him. Her mane and tail, for some reason both were loose this morning, flowed behind her.

All he could do was stare, hopelessly, trying to hide how he felt, but knowing that his pheromones betrayed him.

She stopped beside him, neatly twisting around so that her sticky slippers secured her. Then, for a moment, she just looked at him, her eyes large and black and somehow looking innocent. Finally, sadly, she asked, "What's wrong?"

"Noth..." he started, but then stopped as he could scent that she didn't believe him, and that he didn't believe himself.

"Was it Alleseign?"

How did...? "No." He sighed. "At least not really."

"Do you believe what he told you?"

"How...?" He shook his head, strands of his mane flinging over into his eyes. Then he sighed. "What choice do I have?"

A small grin crept onto her face. "Pheromones don't lie. But they only reveal what the person believes. If I said that one plus one was three, and if I absolutely believed it, then I would smell of telling the truth."

Slowly he nodded - that made sense. "Then what is the truth?"

"My truth?"

"It's all you can tell me."

"I know what happened because when I went to the common room late last night, the scent of your fear still hung heavy. I played back the recordings to see what had happened."

Eeysarmarnees looked at her, his body filling the air with a mixture of hope and disbelief. What Alleseign had said made too much sense and explained too much about Nerienne. But...

She sighed. "We have a saying - the truth kicks with three hooves. There is my truth, your truth, and the actual truth."

Eeysarmarnees just waited.

Nerianne reached over and lightly clasped his lower arm. "Yes, I believe that the Seeders made us as their children and will someday return to welcome us amongst them. Yes, I believe that you are of the race of the Seeders."

Eeysarmarnees licked his nose to catch all of the scents. Her body scented strongly of truth and meaning, along with a hint of embarrassment and fear.

"And yes, that probably coloured my reactions to you, at first."

At first?

"But not anymore. I know that you’re not one of those who created us - your distant descendents did." She stopped and swallowed and turned away. "But there is a part of me who believes and hopes that you are one, even though I know you’re not."

And then the scent of her embarrassment and fear overwhelmed all else.

She turned away and pushed off to leave.

"Wait..."

Nerianne twisted around to face him, keeping her feet ready to land her on the wall.

"I have my own truth. I'm lonely, and have been for most of my life. You brought gladness into it, and hope. Maybe I pushed too hard." He stopped and waited and Nerianne lightly landed on the far wall, her hooves making a muffled clack through her slippers. Eeysarmarnees leaned forward, still gripping the strap. "But what is going to happen to me?"

Nerianne looked him in the eye. "I don't know. My uncle is the chief Stallion of the world we're going to jump to. He’s also one who waits for the Seeders to return. I'm hoping that he can get us to Saleneigh's Folly and hide us there, and then we can find out what is there and find out the truth."

"How will he get us there?"

She smiled. "Easy, I was born there." And she laughed.

Eeysarmarnees couldn't help but smile with her. "And then?"

"I don't know. The greatherd that waits for the Seeders to return is quite large and powerful. We can keep your secret amongst us."

"For the rest of my life?"

"Until we join the Seeders."

"What?!"

She pushed off the wall and flew over to join him. "You've missed it, haven't you. As your body wears out, we can grow you a new one. As your brain wears out, the nanobots can repair and replace the cells a few at a time." She smiled. "They're doing it to us both right now."

What?! There were machines rebuilding his brain? Right now?!

She reached him and grabbed his arm to stop, and then licked him on the side of his jaw. "It's perfectly safe now that they’ve had time to figure out how you’re built. After all, have you noticed anything wrong?"

“Yes!” and he smelled of the truth.

“Exactly what have you noticed?”

“Well…” Then he paused and thought. He’d noticed his new body, and his new senses. He’d felt new muscles and limbs. But his mind… Had he really noticed anything? His eyes squinted and he realized he hadn’t and his truth changed. “No,” he said in a low tone.

"Well then, shall we go and have dawnmeal?"

He shrugged. "Why not?"


Two days later Eeysarmarnees was in his cabin, holding a strap nervously as he waited for the jump. For the first time in 20 subjective years he would jump as a passenger, and not as crew. And then the lurch came.

Finally, for the first time in 500,000 years, Eeysarmarnees jumped back into jumpspace.


For Eeysarmarnees it was only a moment, but likely significantly more time had passed in realspace. How much depended on what level of jumpspace the ship had jumped to - he had no way…

“Computer. What level of jumpspace did we jump through?”

Silence.

What was going on? He’d had access before.

“Computer. How long in realspace did our jump take?”

Silence.

“Computer, where is Nerianne?”

Silence.

He’d been locked out! But how completely? All the questions he’d asked could conceivably be wanted to be kept away from him. “Computer, what is my name?”

Silence.

So he’d been locked out entirely. He spun around and pushed himself off to the door and tried to open it.

It was locked too.

What the hell? Ok, stop and think.

They had jumped to one of the Windrunner’s systems. How far that jump was, and how far they had traveled from Cygnus X-1 he had no way of knowing. Normally a ship would tend to jump back into realspace a fair distance form its destination for safety - a long jump could result in small errors having a large effect. Of course, if the Windrunners had better computers and more finely tuned engines… He had no way to know. Fine, the next step would be one or more microjumps over a short distance in the system to change the ship’s speed and direction to a desired course, and to get within whatever distance of a world was allowed by their regulations. Which meant it was likely a microjump would…

The ship lurched and then was quiet again. A microjump. Then it lurched again, and again, and a third time.

Then he heard Nerianne’s voice through the intercom system: “All hands, prepare for spin. Ship will spin to half a standard G beginning in 15 seconds.” Although she didn’t mean seconds as he knew them, somehow he knew how long she meant. “All hands prepare for spin.”

Eeysarmarnees looked around the room and oriented himself. The door would be in one wall, and the hooks that were around were oriented to indicate the ceiling. He pushed himself off what would soon become a wall and, twisting around in the air, landed on the floor. He was just in time as he felt the rotation begin, and then felt his body grow heavy and unwieldy. He tried to stay standing, but quickly fell to his hands and upper knees for safety - he would have to learn a whole new set of reflexes. Then his weight stopped increasing.

It wasn’t too bad. Of course, he had no way to compare this to what he use to know as a standard G, but he was fairly sure he could stand up. So he did. It was awkward, and painful on his hooves as all of his angular momentum pressed his weight down on them, but he was doing it.

He was doing it!

But then he scented a whiff of something in the air. What…

His head grew light and his eyes rolled upward, and then all his knees and ankles collapsed and he tumbled to the floor unconscious.

Chapter 10

Nerianne, aboard the Dancer's Eye, in her quarters

Nerianne drifted in her sparse quarters, unable to sleep, her mind wandering. The only furniture was a bed, currently folded up against the wall, a dresser built into another wall, a few holos, and a closed closet of clothes. A mirror sat against one wall, and a window looked out upon the naked stars. She was kept from drifting around only by a loose strap around one ankle.

She loved freefall, and all the memories it awoke. Looking at the holo of her family, or at least what was her official family, the one who'd adopted her, she smiled. It had been too long since she'd been home. She missed them so, missed the freedom so. And, she just knew Eeysarmarnees would love it--

But would he? And why was that so important to her?

Reaching over, she turned the wall fan up. It still wasn't home, but it felt a bit more like it, and maybe it would help her sleep.

What was it about the Seeder, about Eeysarmarnees? She started poking at that thought in her mind.

She'd thought she'd had something with Alleseign. When he'd first come aboard for this special trip, she'd known his time was coming. It hadn't bother here then. In fact, it had kind of excited her. Even though she'd known that she could never trust him in the long run.

Then Eeysarmarnees had come along. The sleek handsomness of Alleseign, and the resolved mystery of answers. Things she'd always wanted, dreamed, of knowing. And then she'd found out he didn't know. Didn't have the answers. Once she might have lashed out, but he was so alone. Abandoned. In need of somebody, anybody.

She couldn't abandon him. She refused to abandon him like her father had abandoned her.

He was like a gift from the Seeders.

Giggles burst from her. A gift. From the Seeders-- Oh my! She shook her head to get them silenced. Even here where nobody could see her, she didn't, couldn't put down her shell.

Always in charge. Always strong. Always like her father.

Seeder! Her father, what was he going to do? He'd sent the ship in the belief they'd find Seedertech. They had, but what survived Eeysarmarnees' ordeal was more primitive than what they already had. Except for the nanites, which they couldn't yet duplicate. But, they'd been destroyed by the radiation. And, Eeysarmarnees wasn't an engineer. He couldn't help with tech, but his memories! Historians would kill for five minutes with him.

And, then there'd be war between the sects. Even hers. Were the Seeders waiting to welcome the Windrunners, the other races, up amongst them?

She just didn't know anymore--

Which brought her back to Eeysarmarnees.

He was here, on the ship.

They could jump away from the known worlds. But, they couldn't survive forever. Eventually they'd need food, supplies, and she refused to bet on the slim chance of them finding the right planet with the right combinations. They could jump out at a high energy state, near c, and just outlive the current civilization. But then, they'd all be in Eeysarmarnees' boat, and still have the issue of supplies.

And it wouldn’t be fair to Alleseign.

Or, for that matter, her father-- He deserved it, but he also needed her as a reminder of the cost of the path he'd taken.

Oh, father-- Don't think about him.

Eeysarmarnees was everything Alleseign wasn't. He thought things through before acting. He observed things. He had a brain and used it.

She trusted him.

And she couldn't recall having trusted anybody since her mother--

She thrust that image away!

Nerianne could understand the stakes her father played for. Could intellectually understand why he did the things he did.

But she'd never forgive him.

And she wanted to so badly.

Wanted to let him just be her father. To draw from his strength.

But it would never be.

Now Eeysarmarnees -- he was innocent. Almost naive, but that only because he was still learning.

Everybody else she knew always had reasons. A hidden agenda. Pat of her wondered if Alleseign knew who her father was, and if he'd been planning to use her to get to him.

But-- Alleseign's recent behaviour-- He was showing a new side. A better side. A side she could almost respect. If Eeysarmarnees hadn't come, things might have been different.

Oh Eeysarmarnees! What am I going to do with you?

She shook her head. This wasn't getting her anywhere, her mind was just spinning in circles.

Untying herself, she pushed herself over to the dresser. She opened the bottom drawer, and opened a locked box in the bottom of said drawer with her thumbprint.

And pulled out Uncle Wiggy.

He was a worn plush in the form of a furred blue beast. He had a pair of tangled horns, both legs were flippered, and he had some kind of soft rubber-covered tail with flukes at its end. In many cases the fur had been worn off, holes had been patched. And, Uncle Wiggy was heavy, neutrally buoyant. But, for her, he weighed just right!

Uncle Wiggy had been a gift from her father, before he'd-- Uncle Wiggy had kept her sane through the funeral, through fosterage by the Great Herd, through adoption. Over the years and decades she'd needed him less and less. He was a sign of weakness.

But, when her moods were darkest, when nothing else was there, Uncle Wiggy was. He was always there for her. Utterly trustworthy, full of secrets he'd never tell anyone else.

She hugged him tight. Tonight she needed him.

Making her way back to the strap, she secured herself for sleep, and curled up around Uncle Wiggy, hugging him to her chest.

Happy, protected, she fell into sleep.

Chapter 11

Eeysarmarnees, aboard the Dancer's Eye in his quarters

Eeysarmarnees returned to his quarters and just floated there, a strap wrapped around his wrist, unable to sleep. What was going to happen to him?

And what was he going to do about Nerianne? He was starting to care for her, and had thought that she was starting to care for him. Was it just worship? The more he thought about it, the more it seemed that killing him would be the safest thing. For everybody.

What was he going to do?

All night he floated there, the same thoughts circling around and around in his head. Sometime late, very late, he drifted off.


A shrill buzz jarred him into a semi-wakefulness. Somebody was at his door. It was probably Nerianne. She always came to wake him up so they could have breakfast and talk before she went to her duties, and he to his.

Another buzz. Somehow it seemed louder, even though it wasn’t.

Eeysarmarnees sighed. "Enter."

Nerienne pulled the door open and floated in, pulling it shut behind her. Deftly pushing off the wall, she came towards him. Her mane and tail, for some reason both were loose this morning, flowed behind her.

She looked about as awake as he did.

All he could do was watch, trying to hide how he felt, but knowing that his pheromones were betraying him.

Arriving beside him, she neatly twisted around so that her sticky slippers secured her. She just looked at him, her eyes large and black and somehow looking innocent. Although her scent-- it seemed that she was uncertain about something. She asked, "What's wrong?"

"Noth..." he started, then stopped as he could scent that she didn't believe him, and that he didn't believe himself.

"Was it Alleseign?"

"No." He sighed. "At least not really."

"Do you believe what he told you?"

"How...?" He shook his head, strands of his mane flinging over his eyes. He sighed. "What choice do I have?"

A small grin crept onto her face. "Pheromones don't lie. But they only reveal what the person believes. If I said that one plus one was three, and if I absolutely believed it, then I would smell of telling the truth."

He nodded -- that made sense. "Then what is the truth?"

"My truth?"

"It's all you can tell me."

"I know what happened because I went to the common room this morning. The scent of your fear still hung heavy. So I played back the recordings to see what had happened."

Eeysarmarnees looked at her, his body filling the air with a mixture of hope and disbelief. What Alleseign had said made too much sense and explained too much about Nerienne. And yet--

She sighed. "We have a saying -- the truth kicks with three hooves. There is my truth, your truth, and the actual truth."

Eeysarmarnees waited.

Nerianne reached over and held his lower arm. "Yes, I believe that the Seeders made us as their children and that they will someday return to welcome us amongst them. Yes, I believe that you are of one of the races of the Seeders."

Eeysarmarnees licked his nose to catch all of the scents. Her body smelled strongly of truth and meaning, along with a hint of embarrassment and fear. Was she hiding something?

"And yes, that probably coloured my reactions to you, at first."

At first?

"But not anymore. I know that you’re not one of those who created us - your distant descendents did." She stopped and swallowed and turned away. "But there is a part of me who believes and hopes that you are one, even though I know you’re not."

And then the scent of her embarrassment and fear overwhelmed all else.

She turned, pushed off to leave.

"Wait..."

Nerianne twisted around, keeping her hooves ready to land her on the wall beside the door.

"I have my own truth. I'm-- lonely, and have been for most of my life. You brought hope into it-- And maybe-- Maybe I pushed too hard." He stopped and waited and Nerianne lightly landed on the far wall, her hooves making a muffled clack through her slippers. Eeysarmarnees leaned forward, still held by the strap. "But what's going to happen to me?"

Nerianne looked him in the eye. He didn't need to see her fear, he could see it. "I-- don't know. I was sent by one of the Great Stallions. I'm hoping I can convince him to Saleneigh's Folly and hide us there. Then we can find out what is there and find out the truth."

"How will he get us there?"

She smiled. "For a Great Stallion, easy. Cover is easy too -- I was born there." And she laughed. From her scent, she'd reached a decision. Maybe--

Eeysarmarnees couldn't help but smile with her. "And then?"

"I don't know. The sect that waits for the Seeders to return is quite large and powerful. We can keep your secret amongst us."

"For the rest of my life?"

"Until we join the Seeders."

"What?!"

She pushed off the wall and flew over to join him. "You've missed it, haven't you. As your body wears out, we can grow you a new one. As your brain wears out, the nanobots that perform the regrowth repair and replace the damaged cells." She smiled.

What? They'd changed his brain? Fremin? Still nothing-- had they repaired him, or killed him?

She reached him and grabbed his arm to stop, and then licked him on the side of his jaw. "It's perfectly safe now that they’ve had time to figure out how you’re built. After all, have you noticed anything wrong?"

“Yes!” and he smelled of the truth.

“Exactly what have you noticed?”

“Well…” Then he paused and thought. He’d noticed his new body, and his new senses. He’d felt new muscles and limbs. But his mind-- Had he really noticed anything? His eyes squinted. Nothing to his mind, just to his closest friend. But, he'd died around the Drinker. Maybe-- Would she use it if it wasn't safe? His truth changed. “No--” he said in a low tone.

"Well then, shall we go and have dawnmeal?"

He shrugged. "Why not?"

Chapter 12

Mesianne, in his office aboard Hearsh Station in orbit around Windrunner homeworld

Mesianne hadn't been in orbit in decades. Too dangerous. Too many things that could be sabotaged. This time he'd sent up three decoys -- cloned, non-sentient bodies. One hadn't made it.

Still, he had, and that was what mattered.

Closing the door behind him, he looked around his office. It had been-- what? Nineteen years since he'd been here. And nothing had changed. The same glitterwood desk and calfskin padded chair, the same thick red carpet, the same paneled walls, the same flat picture of himself and wife and daughter. One entire wall appeared to be a window overlooking a stationary globe of Hearsh. The Homeworld. Even now, overpopulated, polluted, used and worn, it looked like a precious blue and green gem, glorious and perfect.

Of course, it wasn't real. That would be far too dangerous, not to mention that it would move as the station spun. The image was a thin, for depth, hologram, transmitted from cameras in stationary orbits.

A light flashed into existence and then faded away. Another ship coming home.

He made his way, hooves soundless on the thick carpet, his cane thudding which each step, across and behind his desk. There he lowered himself onto the padded chair, threading his tail through the slot. It was old and comfortable, and creaked slightly under his weight. With a gently tap he leaned his cane in the slot in his desk.

For a while he watched the holo. Watching the world, watching his world, for his Greatherd was the largest and the most powerful.

A soft chime went off, he pressed the button on the intercom on his desk. "Nerianne is here, sir."

"Send her in. We're not to be disturbed as long as she's with me."

"Even for case--"

"Even if a Windrunner Attack is launched on Hearsh." His people had introduced the tactic against the Pilgusez. Now all races lived in a state of Mutually Assured Destruction.

"Understood, sir."

Releasing the button, the intercom clicked off. He leaned backward and waited. At least his daughter had had the presence of mind to gas the damn supposed Seeder, and was keeping him sedated and fed intravenously. The only sign of Mesianne's nervousness was his tail whipping back and forth. The door clicked open and Nerianne walked in.

He watched her stop when she saw him. Then she raised her head, and strode forward. Her walk was awkward, it'd been a long time since she'd been out of freefall.

"Pull up a chair, daughter, it's been a long time." He looked at her, neatly groomed, glaring at him with hatred. She hadn't changed out of her uniform, had ignored the gift of the latest styles he'd sent her. Wore just her shipsuit and insignia.

She stopped in front of his desk and glared some more. But he could scent her nervousness, and her fear. "What are you going to do with Eesarmarnees?"

He raised an eyebrow.

"--the Seeder, Great Stallion?"

He sighed. "Can't we just be father and daughter, even for a minute?"

"My father died when you killed Singalanne."

"I've told you it was necess--"

"And you've told me why. But, you didn't have to! Just like you didn't have to kill my entire crew! Yes, I got the newsdump. All, all killed within a week of my departure. All murdered. And, now Alleseign gone, vanished! I'm not a fool, Great Stallion."

He sighed. "Would you rather be dead too?"

"You could try honesty for a change. You could have told Singalanne why. You could have changed her, hidden her and me. You could have waited until I was asleep!"

"Daught--"

"Never call me that!" She hated him through tear streaked eyes

"--Nerianne, I couldn't control them that fine. You know that when you shove away your emotions and think about it. Do you think I liked doing what I had to do?!"

"You've never even told me what Seeder-damned tech you were trying to protect!"

He turned away. Nobody could know of the Array. He'd pieced together fragments of starmaps, worked backwards through time, and had sent Singalanne on the ship that found it, that cracked its code. It had records of all jump traffic in this section of the galaxy for the past 500,000 years. All of it. And it was still monitoring. With it he knew where the ships of every race were, of every competing Great Herd. If anybody, anybody knew about it, they could confuse their schedules, make his prize nearly useless. "You don't need to know."

"I don't? Your own daughter? If you can't trust me, who do you trust? What does it have to do with the survey missions you send me on once a year. Different regions, but all within a certain fixed area."

Mesianne wiped all emotion from his muzzle, his eyes. But she could smell his confirmation.

Her voice turned bitter. "Are you going to kill me now?"

"Nerianne, if anybody even suspected the truth, all the Great Herds would align to kill me. They'd try far harder than they are now." If they knew that he knew of all their secret meetings, their rendezvous, their hidden colonies, their secret listening posts, their secret fleets--

"Then tell them. Share with them."

His voice was bitter. "I can't."

"Why? Why?"

"To save our race. If they knew, the secret would get out." Right now everybody knew everybody else had secret supply posts and colonies, secret stockpiles of suicide ships designed explicitly for Windrunner Attacks. But, if they even suspected that the Windrunner's knew where all of them were, could eliminate all of them at will, they'd have no choice but to attack.

"So?"

"I-- I can't tell you."

He could see her ears relax slightly, she knew that he believed that utterly. That he believed the price he'd paid, the damnation he lived under, were worth the cost. Some days he wished he'd never found the thing-- But then somebody else would have--

"And, even if the instant your ship had jumped home I'd let every Great Herd send representatives to examine it, and your Seeder, to know that it has no tech we don't already have, to examine it and you and the Dancer's Eye, they still would believe I wasn't hiding something! If I'd known you'd find nothing worthwhile, I'd never have sent you!"

"You'd have let Eesarmarnees die?"

"For the safety of our race, I'd do anything." He turned away. "You should know that by now."

"Fine! Then just let us go. Nobody knows. Create an identity for him--"

Spinning around on the chair, he stared at her in shock and disbelief that she could be so naïve. "And what if he's not what he says he is? What if he knows things we need to know? What if what ended the Seeder civilization comes and ends ours?"

"That's impossible! They created us and left--"

"How do you know that? Are you willing to risk the survival of our race on that?"

This time she was the one who turned away.

"Nerianne, I'll talk--"

"Torture!"

"I will examine him. Only when I'm satisfied--"

"You'll never be satisfied!"

She was right. But, he had to try. Maybe--

"Great Stallion, if you kill him, if you hurt him, I'll never speak to you again. Ever!"

"That's your choice."

For a moment they each glared at the other, she towering over him. Each knew the other would never back down. If only Nerianne could see--

Snorting, she turned and stalked out, yanking the door open and slamming it shut behind her.

He waited, made sure she was gone. Only then did he let the grief fill him, the tears fill his eyes.

The intercom chimed. And chimed again. He grabbed his cane and raised it to smash the damn thing, but then forced calm. He could never let anybody see him like this. If anybody knew what they could do to him through is daughter, if anybody knew that she was his daughter, she'd be free for about thirty seconds. If that.

A third chime, this time he pressed the button. "Sir, Allesiegn has been located."

Mesianne shook his head. It was a foregone effort, though noble, but also foredoomed. "Take him to Team A. Complete isolation. His mind is unimportant, but they must make absolute sure they get all information out of him. All records of any material he has secreted. Have a clone let lose -- one with permanent violent dementia. Make sure the police take him down with at least one head shot after he's started killing." He swallowed. "When they have their report, and all information has been destroyed, have Team A killed."

The only sound was breathing as he held down the button waiting for a response. It came: "Sir-- Yes, sir."

He released the intercom and silence fell. He'd keep the race safe. No matter the cost. No matter what, and how long, it took.

Chapter 13

Eeysarmarnees, somewhere

Eeysarmarnees awakened, his stomach growling its hunger, and his swollen tongue hanging loosely from his jaw. He was sore and stiff, his left arm stung at the wrist, and the fact that the ship was under a higher simulated gravity didn’t help. A moan slipped through his muzzle as he tried to open his eyes which felt glued shut.

“You’re awake.”

It was a new voice. Straining his muscles, Eeysarmarnees managed to lift his head and chest off the floor so he could see who was speaking.

It was a male, fur and mane and tail all night black, and he was wearing what looked like pants and a shirt, both a dark blue. Eeysarmarnees couldn’t see any kind of insignia. The male’s hooves were a polished ivory, and his mane and tail were tightly braided, with multi-coloured beads worked into the braiding. One hand held a cane which rested on the floor. He radiated power, and confidence, and arrogance. And his eyes-- his eyes glistened with age.

There was a splat and a scrape as a bag of some kind of liquid landed on the floor, skidding to a stop in front of Eeysarmarnees.

“Drink,” the male said.

Eeysarmarnees twisted his aching body around until he was on his side facing the stranger. He fumbled for the bag, it felt like some kid of rubbery plastic, managed to grab and pull it towards him. Putting it to his mouth, he bit open the nozzle and squeezed its contents, water as it turned out, onto his parched tongue. In a few seconds the entire bag was drained and Eeysarmarnees shoved it away.

“Now you can answer my questions,” the stranger said.

“What happened?”

“You state that you’re one of the Seeders, who was trapped orbiting a Drinker of Light for 500,000 years.” The stench of the male’s utter disbelief filled the room.

Eeysarmarnees clenched his eyes shut, and could feel his heart beating faster and faster. Something had gone wrong. He was here, but what had happened to Nerianne. Licking his lips to try and think, he remembered the curse of his pheromones. All he could tell was the absolute truth. His truth, “From what I’ve been told it has been 500,000 years, and that it’s possible the descendants of my race created yours.”

The stranger laughed, a sick false laughter. “What a convenient story. Because of a scientific expedition we find a survivor from the distant past and save him. And he expects us to just welcome him into our greatherd with open arms.”

“I’ll have to take your word on that -- I wouldn’t know.”

“Of course you wouldn’t." His disbelief was obvious from his tone, as well as his scent. “Convince me.”

He prayed Nerianne was all right. Swallowing, he licked his lips, and then answered: “How? You must have seen the spacesuit I was found in. And you must have seen the condition they found me in--"

“Oh yes, I’ve seen all that. Just grow a new body based on the appearance of one of the Seeders, and then drop a volunteer where he would be shortly found.” Leaning down, he stared at Eeysarmarnees. “How were you going to report?”

What? “Who in the Great Emptiness would I report to? I don’t know what happened to my race any more than you do!”

The stranger shook his head. “Well, you were certainly well briefed -- you even believe what you’re saying. Was it a posthypnotic suggestion? But, of course, you wouldn’t know--”

He thinks I’m a spy-- It seems that the Pilgusez were not the only enemy of the Windrunners. “Then ask me something that nobody of any of the races that now exist could know.” Eeysarmarnees stared, daring the black horse to come up with something. Bracing his arms on the floor, he tried to push himself up--

“If you stand, I will increase the ship’s rotation until you can’t. And that might hurt you. I suggest you remain lying down -- it’s safer that way.”

Eeysarmarnees let himself slump to the floor, still glaring at his tormentor. “Show me some of the artefacts that you’ve found - I can probably identify them.”

“You can try -- I, of course, have no way of knowing that your identifications are accurate. But, they should be amusing. Computer! Display artefact Seeder1.”

The room darkened and a holographic image appeared in the air in front of Eeysarmarnees. It looked like a piece of metal of some kind, blackened and pitted with age, apparently torn off of something. There was no writing or other identifying marks.

“I have no idea. It could be a hull plate or something else.”

The stranger let the scent of his amusement fill the room. “Oh, very good! Somebody thought through this very well -- of course there’s no way to know what a scrap of metal is for, unless you want to concoct some magical story to fool the innocent.” He looked down and his black eyes drilled into Eeysarmarnees’. “I am in no way an innocent.”

Eeysarmarnees pushed himself back, flicking his ears in fear. “I-- I didn’t think so.”

The stranger smiled. “Then let us continue this charade. Computer! Display artefact Seeder2.”

This time a much larger object was shown. It looked like a piece of a starship, likely the front quarter. The cylindrical structure was intact, but the rear three quarters were torn off -- apparently by an explosion. The jagged pieces of metal at the rear of the fragment were blown outward. Eeysarmarnees looked closer and then, suddenly, recognized an intact jump projector on the front of the cylinder. And that told him what the jagged, battered hull was. It was a UN ship from the early stages of the Company War. Likely it had been gutted by a Corporation Ship. Given the direction of the impact damage, likely a missile had penetrated the hull, and then detonated, splitting the ship. As the image of the artefact slowly rotated, Eeysarmarnees checked the other three jump projector locations but saw only broken stubs. He remembered finding the gutted remnants of a supply ship near Saturn that had looked exactly the same. He'd been young then, and that had been his first encounter with the reality of war. He'd learned that his instructor who'd said you could vomit in a suit was--

“You seem to be taking a long time. Might it help refresh your wondrous memory if I told you this was recovered about twenty light years from what you claim is your home system.”

That made sense -- the ship had probably been destroyed near Earth. “I recognize it.”

“Then enlighten me.”

“It’s the front section of a UN warship. Probably hit by a missile from a Corporate Ship and then destroyed in the fusion explosion. It must have drifted into space until you found it. How'd you find it anyway?”

“It drifted in to the system containing Beeyner’s World. It was bordered and examined.” He smiled. “Of course, that was an easy one, although your description of why it was destroyed is certainly amusing. Computer! Display artefact Seeder3.”

The image changed to show a much smaller object which was then magnified. It was a featureless silver sphere with a bar projecting from it. As the object rotated, Eeysarmarnees saw that the sphere had some kind of impression on it -- the impression of a five fingered human hand. Other than that, the object was featureless. Even the bar ended in a mirrored surface, like it had been cut and polished. There was no evidence of any kind of wires or other objects to connect the bar or sphere to anything else.

Eeysarmarnees frowned, “I don’t know. Guessing from the hand, it may be a control stick or interface of some kind. I've never seen anything like it.”

“Interesting. Yet the interface matches the shape of the hand you had when you were found.”

“I’ve noticed, but I never encountered, or even heard, of anything like that. It may have been a secret government or Corporate Worlds project, or from the time of my descendents.”

“You really are clever.”

“I am?”

“This artefact has inspired some of the most interesting speculations. It was found on our homeworld, and many think it was part of what originally created us. I expected you to have some created story about it, but not knowing is actually far more diabolically clever.”

“I’m not a spy!”

“You are, and nothing you’ve said has affected my belief. You've one more chance.”

The image changed again, this time showing a static image of a metal plate of some kind that had once had writing. It was aged and worn, and the writing was almost gone. Yet it looked familiar-- Then he recognized some of the letters, and then the plaque. It was the dedication at the base of the beanstalk from the colony around Ellis, Atlantis.

Now, what was it Nerianne had called a beanstalk? “That was a plaque at the base of the grass-stalk on the,” what was the name Nerianne had used? Oh well… “colony I identified. I don’t know the exact wording and names, but it listed our name for the world, Atlantis, along with a dedication to peace and prosperity, and then a list of the engineers and designers.”

“You can’t quote it from memory? Surely a grass-stalk was a famous and monumental thing.”

“The stupid thing was built almost two hundred years ago, or at least two hundred years before I was born. The first one built on Mars was famous, the second one on Earth more so as it was far more complex design wise. The Atlantis one was a footnote to most of us. I guess it would have been more famous if you were born on Atlantis, but I was born on Earth.”

“Ah Earth, the world you claim to come from that is now so conveniently destroyed. Such a clever story. And-- a story that means nothing!”

Eeysarmarnees snorted. Given typical government paranoia, all his identifications meant nothing -- they either knew what the things were, and hence any spy would know, or they didn’t, and hence any story could not be proved one way or another. “Fine. Then check the spot I pointed out on that colony of yours and find the ruins. You must have gravity waves you can project down so that you can check the reflections for irregularities.”

For the first time the stranger's scent changed. Something-- a hint-- shock? That was interesting--

“We’re already checking.” He turned to leave, leaning on his cane. “Don’t bother getting up.” The stranger, using an ornately carved black cane, walked to the hatch, the cane clacking a counterpoint to his hooves. He was there, the hatch was opened, and then the stranger was gone. With a dull clunk the hatch sealed. Eeysarmarnees waited a minute or two, and tried to get up. The air scented-- odd, and he thumped to the floor, all strength draining out of him. In moments he lost consciousness.


Eeysarmarnees awoke, still hungry, and again thirsty. He was still alone. Beside him, though, there were five tubes of food, and two tubes of water. Leaning forward, he ate and drank. Then he tried to stand.

He was lighter again -- was it back to the half G that Nerianne’s voice had mentioned? He couldn't be sure. Snorting, he whipped his tail back and forth as he staggered to his hooves. At least he could stand, which didn't help much.

Here he was, trapped in an empty room, a prisoner. Or was he--? “Computer, if you can answer me, acknowledge immediately.”

Silence.

Still a prisoner.

With nothing better to do, he began to teach himself to walk. He had lots of time to practice. Hours passed and the room echoed with the clop clop of his attempted steps, and the thump of his collapses. Again and again he got back up. As time passed he could walk further and further, with a more steady sound. His movement was slow, but at least he stayed upright.

He was almost happy at that, although his stomach again protested its emptiness. His strength suddenly left him, and he just had time to begin a curse as he crumpled to the floor and faded into unconsciousness.


He awoke, to the sight of more food and water, and the sight of an otherwise empty room. Shrugging his shoulders, he ate and drank, and then resumed practicing his walk.

Until a new problem arose -- he had to use the washroom -- and the room was empty of all furnishings. Not even a hole in the floor. He snorted in annoyance, and then in pleasure as he had a thought. Let it be their problem. Walking over to the door, he pulled down his jumpsuit and let loose with urine, and stools. He couldn’t clean himself, or his quarters. They'd have to. Besides, somebody might not look where they were going-- He could always hope.

Eeysarmarnees smiled.

Chapter 14

Nerianne, outside of Mesianne's office aboard Hearsh Station in orbit around Windrunner homeworld

Nerianne stood there, surrounded by opulence. She'd done her best to make herself stunning, but the waiting, the hours of waiting after the weeks of worry--

Was this love?

When they'd arrived, when her father had stolen Eeysarmarnees, her meeting with Mesianne had been ritual. Ritual to fight him where she could. Well, not fight, maybe try to save a little of his soul.

But now--

She missed Eeysarmarnees. Missed talking to him. Missed the scent of his body. But, how could this be love? She'd only known him a month.

And yet--

"He'll see you now, Running Stallion."

Nerianne smoothed her dress, feeling like a featherblind tree in autumn. She'd never done it before, ever, but here she was wearing the dress her father had give her.

She felt like a fool, and knew that she looked like an idiot. Her hooves were polished to a high gloss, her mane and tail were braided into complex patterns, with red and blue ribbons interwoven. The dress she was wearing was of some kind of metallic fabric, glistening black and silver, with ribbons and dangling strings in all the colours of the rainbow.

She looked like an idiot, even though the salon she'd gone to had sworn it was the latest style.

With dark resolve on her muzzle, she strode across the carpet, ribbons trailing, and paced through the door the secretary was holding for her. Once inside, she stopped and grinned in her mind.

The effect was everything she'd hoped.

Before her eyes, for the first time in her life, her father just stared. Speechless.

It was minutes before he spoke. "You look like your mother you know."

"No! Just no! Don't speak her name! Don't even think of her!

"I loved her. I still do--"

Years of pent up hatred, angry, resentment, shoved their way out. "You never loved her! Like everybody else, she was just a tool, like I'm just a tool. She stalked over to the picture of her mother he had on the wall. "And this? How dare you have this! You don't deserve this!" With that, she stretched out her arms, material tearing. "Every time I see this, it's a mockery. A ridicule." She ripped it off the wall, and took a half step back, leaving one knee bare as the dress artfully fell to either side. "Every time I've seen this, I've wanted to--" With that, glassed front down, she snapped the frame in two over her knee.

Silicon shattered, shards tumbling and falling to the carpet in the half G. Pieces cut the dress, cut her, and blood dripped.

Screaming, she ripped the picture again and again, shredding it into ever smaller pieces, knowing in her mind that this was her father, the killer, the murderer. Not the smiling face, the warm helping hand, things that forgotten parts of her heart ached for.

Nerianne stopped, watching the shards of picture flutter to the floor around her.

"Nerianne?"

"Oh father!" she shouted sobbing. "Why'd you have to leave me?"

"Nerianne-- I--"

She looked up at his blurred face, the scent of his concern filling her nostrils. "I--" She didn't say anymore, just fled into his forgotten embrace and sobbed decades of pain and loneliness out on his shoulder.

She'd almost cried herself out when her father softly asked, "You were here about Eeysarmarnees--"

Nerianne shoved her father away and stood. She swallowed. Her heart beat a little faster. Her voice was calm, controlled. "What's going to happen to him?"

"He's too dangerous to live."

The fragile truce they'd finally formed finished shattering into nothingness. "In what possible way is he a danger? He'd never hurt anybody."

"He doesn't matter. His existence matters!"

"His existence? His existence should be shared--"

"We've been through this!"

She relaxed a little. "I'll grant you that. But," she swallowed, "if you kill him, I'll--"

"You'll what?"

"I'll--" What was she going to do? What could she do? It's not like she had much to bargain with-- or did she? "I'll make you have to kill me." Nerianne shivered. She couldn't believe she'd said that.

"You're serious--"

She licked her nostrils-- Seeder, she was serious! It seemed her body had decided, even if she hadn't.

Mesianne narrowed his eyes and looked at her. Really looked. "What do you suggest?"

"That site he gave you on Saleneight's Folly. Send us there--"

"And you'll search alone? What about the Glistening Hunters? What if he isn't what you think he is? He could have a deeply hidden personality keyed to come out under certain conditions. Too dangerous."

"There's got to be a way. I won't let you kill him."

"Well, give me a Seeder damned solution."

They stared at each other, nostrils to nostrils.

"What if there were more?" Nerianne asked.

"More just means more who can let the secret out."

"Why do they have to know? And--" she hated saying this, but she knew that sometimes such things were necessary, "--what about making them expendable?" Her muzzle felt dirty as she spoke it, but the Seeder was more important! It was what he knew that counted.

Really.

"How many, daughter?" For once there was a tinge of respect in his voice and scent.

She was ashamed at the part of her that leapt at his praise. "Let me think-- five?"

"Five corpses ripped from your soul."

"You don't have to kill them!"

"How much death is the Seeder's life worth to you?"

She glared, and bit back a retort. Her father was right. This is what it all came down to. How much was Eeeysarmarnees worth. And yet, how many died trying to save a colt caught in an icy current? It wasn't the same -- they made the choice. And yet-- "What do you think is a minimum?"

"The minimum is zero. I'm including you and he in that number. However, hypothetically, two. Backup. Extra weapons. Easy to eliminate. Use an out of favour professor and one student. Minimal equipment."

"Two?" She swallowed. "Fine. Two. Basic equipment."

"And if he's not what he says he is?"

"How can he have lied--" Her blood turned cold and her stomach curdled in revulsion at the thought of what could be changed. "Impossible. We supplied the body!"

His voice was cold. "There are other ways."

"He's telling the truth! And, if not, I will deal with him. Quickly, and permanently."

"The others too?:

"The others too."

"Fine. Let me think about it."

She stared. "Think? But--"

"I never said anything about agreeing to your proposal. I simply asked you to offer me one."

"Bu--" Then she realized he was right.

Walking back behind his desk, he sat down. "You've bought him extra days. Now go. I'll inform you."

"I can see--?"

"No! You can't. He'll be kept sedated. If he has to die, it'll be quick and painless. You've bought him that."

"I--" She stood up straight and proud. "Fine. I'll await your decision."

"It won't take long. Go-- go and get some sleep." He motioned at her torn clothing. "Do you need anything to cover--?"

"No." She turned to leave.

"It looked nice on you. Thank you for wearing it. It didn't affect my decision."

Nerianne just snorted in reply, turned the rest of the way, and walked out, head held high. She refused to give him any satisfaction. The secretary simply looked away as she passed, and she pointedly ignored the whispers and comments from those she passed. She reached the Spacer's Hostel without anything more.

Even though her scent gave away a hint of her terror, she calmly clopped through the lobby and up the stairs, preferring not to risk the elevator. Unlocking her room's door with a key from her wallet, she used the last of her control to walk in and lock the door behind her. The door clicked shut, and she almost crumpled to the floor, shaking like a wind-blown leaf. Only the wall kept her from falling.

Seeders, what had she done?

Traded two lives for a living Seeder.

Be honest. Traded two lives for yourself and your happiness.

Was she worth it? Was he worth it?

Had it even worked?

Had it?

Chapter 15

Eeysarmarnees, somewhere

He was knocked out and awakened seven more times. Each time his waste had been cleaned up, the stench cleared from the air, and new food and water was supplied. Eeysarmarnees didn’t bother trying to escape as he had no where else to go. But, he did get fairly proficient at motion, and could actually jog around the room with some semblance of grace. That took only three awake periods, and then Eeysarmarnees grew bored. All he could do was pace around and brood, or nap.

And think.

Think about what had happened. About Alleseign’s warning that Nerianne probably had it all planned out. And about Nerianne. Everything suggested that she’d set him up, but why hadn’t her pheromones given her away? And he couldn’t believe it of her. He just couldn’t.

But he had nothing else to do but think about it, and the evidence pointed to the one conclusion. The more he thought about it, the more certain he became, and the more angry.

On his eighth awakening there was no food or drink.

Why?

Leaping to his hooves, he looked at the door. Instead of food, there was Nerianne. She was standing there, all clean and neat, in a pristine ship’s jumpsuit.

Eeysarmarnees was speechless. There she was, nice and clean and neat, and he was dirty and foul. It wasn’t his fault, but still-- And he was pissed. Full of a week worth of anger. Letting out a loud high pitched neigh, he felt his ears pull against his skull, and his tail raise high. Though his body quivered with the effort, he manged not to gallop towards her.

“Speak,” he spit out.

“I’m sorry--” Her voice was barely above a whisper.

He laughed. He couldn’t help but laugh. Nothing she could say would mean anything. Hell, he didn’t even know whether to believe the things she’d told him. The lies, the pheromones. It might be true for him, but for any other Windrunner?

She sighed. “You’re right to be angry.” She started walking towards him.

He noticed that the braids in her mane and tail were partially undone, and her eyes looked slightly reddish. She certainly smelled of regret. Eeysarmarnees waited as she walked across the floor, her hooves in her slippers making soft clonk noises, and then an almost inaudible tearing as the sticky sole was torn from the floor.

She stopped in front of him. Crouching down on her knees, she bowed her head before him, her braided mane falling forward and framing her muzzle. “Please forgive me.”

For a second he just stared. Forgive?! “You've got to be joking.” Somehow his voice remained steady.

She looked up, and he saw that she was crying. “I didn’t know what the Great Stallion would do.”

“Of course not! You didn’t gas me once we arrived. You didn’t leave me prisoner here in my own shit for a week. You didn’t, your Great Stallion did. You were only obeying orders

“You’re right,” she whispered, her voice barely audible. “I gassed you. I gave you a moment to get on the floor, and then I gassed you.”

“Why?”

“Because it gave you your best chance for survival.”

“What?!”

“We weren’t the first expedition. The one which detected you was. Then it returned and my Great Stallion sent my expedition in secret to recover you.”

That made no sense. “Then what about Alleseign and his time? Why I was given a new body that was almost a clone of his?”

“We expected to find you healthy, it never occurred to us that you’d be almost dead. Alleseign wanted to let you die, but I did the only thing I could to save you!”

“You didn’t answer my first question.”

“As I told you, Alleseign came along to see if I wanted to be his herdmate. But he never told me that it was his time. I wish he had. I wish--"

Her pheromones told him she was hiding something. “What happened to Alleseign.”

“My Great Stallion killed him.”

“What?” Eeysarmarnees jumped on her, shoving her to the floor with a loud thud, his hands pinning her arms to the floor.

“It wasn’t me! It was my Great Stallion -- he,” her voice began to shake, “didn’t trust him to keep your presence secret. So he eliminated him. Like he eliminated the rest of my crew of the first expedition.”

“And you had nothing to do with it. It was a complete surprise to you.”

“Yes-- No. I suspected he would, but I couldn't make myself believe it. I hoped he wouldn't--Can’t you scent the truth of what I’m saying?”

“How do I know that means anything? How do I know anything you’ve told me isn’t a ‘flying above the grass while running in it’? How do I know you aren’t controlling your pheromones right now, weaving a net to control me?”

"Impossible! Nobody would do that!”

“Fat chance! With all your vaunted technology, your ability to create and grow new bodies, what’s to stop you from simply growing a body that can control its pheromones?” He realized there were more possiblities. "Or maybe you went the other way and created me so that only I couldn’t!”

“No!” she screamed, and somehow threw him off. Leaping back onto her hooves far faster than he could, she turned and fled to the door. But, at the door, she stopped. She turned around as he slowly picked himself off the floor. “It wouldn’t be done. It’s wrong, it’s immoral, it’s against the Seeders!”

“Or so you say. No matter how ingrained it is in your culture, if it's ingrained, people would do it for the power they could get.”

“No -- you’re wrong. Wrong!” Yanking the door open, she fled, slamming it behind her.

Pushing himself up onto his hooves, he took a few steps forward, and then stopped. Now what? What could he believe? If this was a ship sent solely to recover him, then everything was suspect. The computer could be programmed with false information. They could all be lying, hoping the story they told about the pheromones would make him believe. But why? If he was a spy, then he'd know the truth about the pheromones. But he wasn’t. so he didn’t. Was it a test? A test to see from his reaction if he knew the truth about the Windrunners or not, to see if he was really a Seeder. But, if he was a Seeder, one of those who'd created the Windrunners, of course he would know the truth. So why the deception?

He made his way to the closed door. What the hell could he do? Either Nerianne was telling the truth about the pheromones, or she wasn’t. He had to decide one way or the other to try and make sense of anything else. He had to chose one to make a base so that he could figure out what was going on, and how to stay alive.

Was she telling the truth, or not?

Then he heard it. Faint, but there. Sobbing. Sobbing that tore at his heart with its sadness and despair.

Twisting the handle, he wasn't surprised that it opened. He pushed open the door to see Nerianne in the corridor. Crying.

He had no rational reason, but he believed her. In his heart he did. His rational side said that her pain was too real to be an act, but he knew that was just wishful thinking. In his gut he believed her, and that was what counted.

Stepping over the door rim, it took only a few steps to reach her. His hoofsteps echoed above her sobs. She showed no sign of hearing him. Reaching her, he kneeled down and began brushing her mane with his hand.

He continued like that for a while, until she turned and looked up at him, eyes still wet. Wrapping her arms around his chest, she pulled him tight, burying her face in his dirty, matted fur, and sobbed.

He reached his arms around her and gently rocked her back and forth.


Sometime later, she stood up, lifting him up with her. Turning, she walked off, clasping only his hand to lead him on. Somehow he knew what she wanted. At her quarters she walked in, but he let his hand slip out of hers. He watched as she made her way over to her hammock, and stopped and turned, looking at him, when she realized he had let go. This wasn’t a fling on a station he’d never visit again. It wasn’t a paid night of pleasure.

He couldn’t do it.

But his body wouldn't let him say no.

So he just stood.

For a while she just looked at him, until asking, “Why? I await you my stallion. I await to bind myself to you.”

“It’s not right, not this way.”

“Why? It’s all I deserve for the way I used you. And you’re the one who followed me.”

He turned away, not willing to face her. “I followed you because you needed me. But not for this. By the Great Emptiness, it’s not right!”

“It--,” she paused before whispering, “It’s wrong this way. You’d be taking advantage of my despair.”

“I wish, by God how I wish! I’m so lonely, so old," his voice cracked, "and alone among strangers.”

Eeysarmarnees turned and fled. Fled through corridors and up into the core of the ship, feeling lighter and lighter. He needed somebody, anybody, to hold him, to show him he was still alive. He missed Fremin so! All his fears and pain, all his anguish and terror. Everything he'd kept bottled up since that last jump from Earth burst out.

He wanted to go home!

He was in the core of the ship, floating there, watching the walls of the central corridor rotating around him. Vision blurred from tears, he pulled himself forward and reached the hatch that led to the bridge. It opened. He wasn't thinking, or caring, and didn’t notice the lack of locks or alarms. He just needed to be there, to be home.

The bridge was familiar, but oh so very different. Like on Alfar ships the bridge extended out from the main cylinder of the ship, and, like an Alfar ship, the bridge was a dome of transparency surrounding him in the stars. He stared at their brilliance, joined with the light of fusion drives from other craft and shuttles. On one side a circular space station was hanging in space, slowly rotating, and on the other was a brilliant, clouded, blue-green globe swirled in wreaths of white cloud. He gave himself a rotation and stared at the world, as the blues and greens and whites shone onto his features.

But it wasn’t Earth. It wasn’t home.

It wasn’t!

And he couldn’t stop staring, staring at it, hanging there, laughing. Laughing at him.

All around him he could hear the mocking laughter of the universe.


“Eeysarmarnees?” he heard from behind him.

He ignored it, his eyes swallowed in the alien world shining before him.

He felt a hand on his back, and then on his arm, slowly pulling to turn him away from it.

It was Nerianne.

“You weren’t supposed to see this.” She sounded, and smelled, much calmer.

“It doesn’t matter. Everything, everybody is gone. Gone so long that they're only legends--”

“We’re here, I’m here. You--”

“I can do nothing! I’m a relic of the past, from the so distant past that I don’t know the answers that everybody wants to hear.” Whipping his arms down, he broke her grip. He grabbed her, clenching his hands on her arms, painfully tight. “They abandoned me! They left me there to rot and age! They left me behind while they went on to their glories!” He started sobbing. “They let Henry and Margaret die. They let Fremin die. They left me behind--”

“Nerianne kept her voice low. “No, they didn’t.”

“How do you know? How, by all the burnt grass, do you know?” He screamed out his rage in a high-pitched neigh that hurt his ears even though he'd instinctively pulled them against his skull. His voice changed to a whisper, “I can’t even use my own curses anymore -- all that' s left are yours.” Tears filled his eyes. “Even that's been taken from me.” His voice rose to a scream. “Everything’s been taken from me!”

Nerianne yanked one hand loose and slapped him, hard, the smack of her palm echoing across the bridge. “They didn’t abandon you. They gave you a gift of time to see the seeds they created, and to teach those seeds.”

“We weren’t gods!” he screamed.

“No you weren’t! You were just another race, like us. You struggled and fought, like us. And then you created us.” She paused and it was her voice that rose to an anguished scream. “It was your entire race that abandoned me! And it wasn’t just me, it was my entire race!” Her voice lowered to a more normal tone. “You think you’re the only one, don’t you? You think you were the one betrayed. How do you think my entire race feels, knowing that it was created, and then abandoned? Finding more and more physical proof that they were abandoned! All my life, for my race's entire history, we’ve known that we were thrown away by our creators. All the races have known that. I want to know why!”

Eeysarmarnees didn’t know what to say, but he believed her. They’d all been betrayed by his race, by whatever had happened to them. He wanted to know. He wanted to find them and throw his existence in their face. “Then let’s find them and tell them.”

She smiled, a feral, grim smile. “That’s why I came. We’re leaving for Saleneigh's Folly in a few hours. Sonic probes have found evidence of structures where you said they would be. We’re going to go there and dig them out. We’re going to find out what happened.” She turned him around to face away from the world and out to the stars. “We’re going to find out why they abandoned us.”

“And then we’re going to go and tell them.”

“Yes.”

Together they grinned, for a moment joined in their shared hatred.

Joined in their hatred for those who'd left them behind.


Supplies had been loaded while Eeysarmarnees had been imprisoned. They only had a few hours -- Windrunner ships were efficient enough to not bother diving into the sun to make entering Jumpspace easier. There was just enough time Jump for Eeysarmarnees to clean, to get the dirt and crap showered off with Nerianne's help. His fur brushed and his mane and tail styled. She was always there, helping. But the help wasn't important. Eeysarmarnees needed her company. He needed to be near someone whom he believed cared more than anything else. He needed to smile. Part of him was afraid she was falling in love, trying to make him happy, and part of him was afraid that she wasn’t, that she was just being kind.

Eeysarmarnees didn't know which he wanted.

And then, they were both on the bridge for the countdown, for permission, and then Jumped.

Chapter 16

Mesianne in his office abouard Hearsh Station in orbit around Windrunner homeworld

He sat in his office, alone. The lights were off, the only illumination came from the holo that filled one wall. It was different now. The globe of Hearsh filled only the lower quarter. What could be seen of it consisted of glistening blue oceans, and the swirling white clouds.

Mesianne hoped he'd done the right thing, the proper thing. He hoped he'd done it for the right reasons, not because it was his daughter who asked.

Sitting at his desk, he watched the ship centred on the holo as it orbited about the homeworld. His daughter's ship. He would have preferred to watch it live through a window, or even through the faceplate of a suit. But, not only would that drive his security nuts, it would draw unwanted notice to this minor Running Stallion. The kind of notice that would likely result in her kidnapping, or death, to get at him. Before his birth, mares had been treated with respect, and combat had still been honour and ritual. Not anymore.

It'd taken him a while to figure out the answer. And yet, it was so obvious he should have seen it before. He trusted his daughter, utterly, but the cost of her failure could be so high!

Manipulating controls, he zoomed in on the Dancer's Eye. Her basic design was typical -- a long tapered cylinder narrowed and pointed at each end. The muzzle was stubby, but the tail and the conventional drive swept far back, keeping the drive energies away from the crew and passengers. Sweeping outwards from the primary hull, surrounding the control bubble in the muzzle, along with the same fine arched structure that pointed off towards the drive, were the Jump Projectors that would allow the ship to kick its way into the various levels of Jumpspace.

Mesianne had sent a fast courier with his instructions to Saleneigh's Folly three days ago. Its cargo was updated code for the regrowth tanks, particular those that his daughter and the expedition would be using. The new code would scan for the genetic tracers of the archeological team, the so-called Seeder, his daughter, and modify the program. Oh, nothing harmful in the normal scheme. Just a few add-ons. Trackers, a bomb for the Seeder--

He switched the intercom to listen to selected Hearsh Control transmissions.

"--Eye, we read your programmed jump departure for t-minus eighteen seconds, mark. Defenses are cleared for your location at that time."

"Achnowledged Control." It was Nerianne's voice. "All systems show green, no delays in the count."

"Understood. We'll be monitoring for problems. Your abort code is A26."

"Code understood and on the board. Onboard systems at one hundred percent. Count at t-minus nine seconds, mark."

"Count synced. Have a good trip."

"Thanks Control. I read four-- three-- two-- one-- Jump!"

On the holo was a flash, bright, filling a third of the image it was so close. The Dancer's Eye, the centre, vanished.

"Jump success. Defense for point confirmed active."

Mesianne switched off the intercom. Darkness crept into his office as the jump flash faded.

He sighed. It was out of his hands now. Restoring the holo to its usual image, he whispered: "May the Seeders guard you, Nerianne. Stay safe."

Chapter 17

Professor Bealansey, office at Haven's Reef University on Saleneighs' Folly

He floated in his office, staring at the priority flimsy he'd received from the courier ship that'd arrived in orbit an hour ago:

You are hereby directed to proceed to Chalahn's Reef by 10df, 38th of Harnash. Bring one assistant. This is a technoarcheological initial survey based on information from an untrustworthy source named "Eeysarmarnees". Guarding him will be Runing Stallion Nerianne. All equipment will be supplied. This is coded Level Red.

Great Stallion Mesianne

Seeder damn him! Didn't Mesianne realize he had lectures? Meetings? Things that were important to the future of the Windrunner race?

Mesianne probably knew and didn't care.

Bealansey just shook his head, his bleached mane waving in the water. Though, if this find turned out to be real-- The bastard would probably confiscate everything.

He tossed the flimsy into the shredder which ground it up, the only sign of its demise a few bubbles with blurped out and began their way up to the surface. Pressing the intercom button, he buzzed his secretary. His voice was nasal, hollow, but then everybody's was as air oscillated between two chambers, the sound working its way out through bone, and then through his gaping mouth, his nostrils, and his gills.

"Analath, cancel all my appointments and lectures. A-- ah-- personal matter has come--"

"You won't have a job when you get back."

"It's a Red."

"Oh."

"I'll be gone until further notice."

"The dean's really going to hate that--"

"I hate it, but neither of us got any choice." Bealansey scratched an ear -- he needed an assistant. Ah hah! If they found nothing, he'd get some work out of her. Otherwise, he'd rub her muzzle in the truth. Damn upstart mares-- "Oh, and can you get a hold of-- what's her name--?"

"Parthantharness?"

"That's her. Get a hold of her and send her up here. She's coming too, same conditions, same code."

"She'll love that--"

"That's the joy of it. Let me know when she's on her way."

"Understood. Enjoy yourself. Too bad you'll never be able to tell me about it." The secretary clicked off.

Now, what should I take? Everything supplied -- right. Bealansey dug out a rugged traveling datapad and plugged it in to the main net. Let's see-- standard reference, details of-- the bastard didn't tell me where. Fine. Assume this planet, just grab everything--


There was a knock, but he'd been expecting it. "Enter."

The door was pushed open, the sudden water movement sending the peek-a-boo fish zipping back into the potted flailleaf growth in the corner. He watched Parthantharness swim in. She was a deep tan, with black markings and tail, and black mane and he could scent her nervousness. "Well, come on. I haven't got all day."

"I was told you needed me for an extended period, Professor."

"You got that right." Bloody uppity mare. They all should have been put in their places long ago. "We're going on a long trip. Exploratory dig. Can't tell you the destination or duration--"

"My classes--"

"Don't you worry about your classes. This one's a Red--"

"Red?"

"Don't they teach you anything, filly. Highest classification, from Mesianne himself. Everything's supplied. And you tell no one any details. Ever. You got that?" He watched her ears flick in annoyance. He'd have to get a stick somewhere in case he needed to beat some more sense into her.

Watching questions flicker behind her eyes, he smelled her anger at memories of him showing her the error of his way. She'd deserved it, and he had the legal right. He hadn't done it unreasonable hard, or an unreasonable number of times. Damn liberals--

"Professor, where can I store my possessions, keep my research files--?"

"I've told the Dean. Your files will be archived and locked. When you turn in your key, the University will pack and store your possessions."

"By my friends--?"

"A technoarcheologist has no friends. With a Red you tell them nothing when you get back. Family emergency."

"But--"

"Family emergency."

She glared at him, gills flaring. He just passively watched and waited until her ears lowered in defeat. Good. "I'll be ready, Professor. When and where?"

"Here, dawn tomorrow." She could afford to wait a bit. "Now, don't dawdle!"

"I won't." She was still smelling of annoyance, abstinence, and was that a bit of eagerness?

It didn't matter. He'd have time to beat it out of her. At least one mare would learn her place.

Chapter 18

Eeyssarmarnees, aboard the Dancer's Eye, Saleneigh's Folly system

And then, in an instant to them, they were there.

They arrived fairly close to the primary, on the order of three hundred million miles out. A few microjumps later their velocity was mostly dumped and they were only a few hours deceleration away from orbit.

"Is this as close as you can jump?" Eeysarmarnees asked.

"Oh no! This is as close as I'm allowed to jump."

"Oh?"

"Inhabited planets have interdiction zones, the size of it dependent on the importance of the planet, and the money invested in orbital defenses. It's the only way to have a hope of stopping a Windrunner Attack."

"Windrunner Attack?"

"When a ship jumps out at very close to c and hits a target planet. I told you about that--"

"Right, you did."

"Governments won't do it because every race has hidden military bases which will avenge the destroyed world on whoever did it. But, terrorists can do it, and a single ship can do a great amount of damage. Anything that jumps in inside the interdiction zone is immediately targeted by everything. It's automatic -- no other way to do it."

Eeysarmarnees opened his muzzle to say something, but then let it close. There hadn't been accuracy anything like that for him, and hence no such problem. "We had something like that when we were limited to a single world. I'm still not sure how we ever survived it as a race."

"We Windrunners will survive, one way--"

"Saleneigh's Folly control calling Dancer's Eye. Please respond. Repeating--"

"They must have IDed our beacon," Nerianne said. "Saleneigh's Folly, this is the Dancer's Eye, Running Stallion Nerianne in command. Please confirm that defences will let us through."

She held his hand as they waited for their message to reach the planet, and their response to reach them. "Welcome back Nerianne. You're cleared for approach, course sent into your systems. A courier came through yesterday -- everything's prepped for you. We're already prepping a shuttle to take you down to Chalahn's Reef. Make a standard approach, we read the required decal as 0.6 G. Do onboard systems agree?"

Nerianne checked some readings. "On board systems confirm. Beginning decel burn and course adjustment."

"Understood. Welcome back."

"Thanks."

With that Nerianne spun the ship around, stopped her spin, and began a 0.6G decel burn after pushing Eeysarmarnees down to what became the floor of the deck. Like human ships of his time, the Dancer's Eye" was designed primarily for spin gravity, but had minimal facilities for movement through the ship whilst under acceleration. She let the computers set the exact approach vector.

"Well, come along then Eeysarmarnees."

"Where? Shouldn't I pack--"

"Silly, you don't have anything to pack. I don't either. Trust me. But, I could use your help shutting things down for long term orbit, giving the automatics control, securing systems, that kind of thing."

"But I don't know your--"

"Don't worry, just do what I tell you and it'll all be fine."


Following her around, Eeysarmarnees watched, more than helped, as she secured doors, made sure everything was properly stored, and sealed everything that could be damaged by vacuum in the proper containers in preparation. Evacuating all the air and reducing internal pressure to zero was the best way to clean out the vermin that inevitably seemed to get aboard.

It was all done well before final approach and orbital insertion, so Eeysarmarnees followed her back to the bridge and sat, helpless, watching her oversee the final approach and decal. He had so many questions, but didn't want to bother her in case something went wrong. And when they were in orbit, she set the countdown to evacuating the air and opening the locks, and then dragged him down to the main airlock were the shuttle was about to dock.

It was only when they were standing there, waiting, that Eeysarmarnees was able to get some of his questions answered: "What's going to happen?"

"The shuttle will dock and take us down to Chalahn's Reef, the settlement nearest the archaeological site. We’ll go the medical facilities there and go through our regrowth. Then they’ll probably send us to the dig while our new bodies are still being grown."

"Regrowth?"

"Exactly. You wouldn't want to be stuck as a land creature on a water world would you? Think of all the things you couldn't see. There's so..."

Eeysarmarnees held his hands out between them. "Wait a minute. Don't you have artificial support devices?"

"Of course, but who in the name of the Seeders would want to use them? Stuck in some massive metal suit, full of the stink of your own fear, while others dance around you." Then she paused and frowned. "You're afraid, aren't you?"

"A little." Even he could smell the lie.

She shook her head. "It's nothing to worry about - I've been through it more times than I can count. Nobody's ever died during a regrowth in the last fifty years."

"And what happened to the last guy that did die?"

"He’d suffered severe radiation damage during a war, and the nanobots couldn't repair his nervous system properly. We enhanced the nanobots to get around that problem about thirty years ago."

"Thirty years ago--"

"Oh come on, it'll be fine. I'd take some time off to show you around, but we won't really be capable--"

"Hold it -- what do you mean not capable?"

"The normal body form for Saleneigh's Folly is fully aquatic. Your rear body is merged into a single tail, and you awaken with both lungs and gills. That form only works in warm water though. In the arctic water--"

"Arctic water? As in freezing? With ice?"

"Of course. You saw that when you pointed the spot out."

"But--"

"Don't worry. As I was saying, the problem with a gilled form in arctic water is that the body loses heat too fast to the water. The metabolism can be slowed down, but we’re stuck with the brain and a warm-blooded system. There's no real way to do it. So we'll just be airbreathers."

"But we're working in--"

"Yes. We'll just have to hold our breaths."

"Wha--"

At that moment, relayed over the intercom, was the voice of the shuttle pilot. "Dancer’s Eye, this is shuttle Warmwind requesting approach instructions."

"Computer. Relay my responses."

"Acknowledged."

"Warmwind, you’re cleared for docking at airlock one. Dancer's Eye is in orbit and without rotation and waiting for you. Our computer will send you the exact co-ordinates and approach vectors as you request them."

There was just a low hiss of static for just over a second until the response. "Dancer's Eye, your instructions are received. I estimate contact any moment now."

"Acknowledged. Maeneylanne, I wait for you to welcome me home."

There was a sound of laughter over the speaker.

"Welcome you home?" Eeysarmarnees asked.

"It's nothing--"

A clang echoed from the far side of the hatch, and then a shock that reverberated through the hull. A moment of silence until another message was relayed.

“You can board when ready sister, I’ve kept the passenger area dry.”

Sister?

She turned to him. “Told you that you had nothing to worry about.” Pulling the lock open, she yanked herself in and through it.

Before Eeysarmarnees could follow, she already had the outer hatch open and was opening the hatch of the shuttle. He closed the inner hatch behind him and followed her through into the shuttle, closing each of the other two hatches as he passed through.

The inside of the shuttle was much different from anything that Eeysarmarnees had seen before. There were a few seats, but rather than being padded they were a bare plastic of some sort. The rest of the passenger area of the shuttle consisted of what looked like cradles for large snakes, or fish. Something knocked from the front of the shuttle, and Eeysarmarnees turned to look.

Before him was a transparent window, and behind it another Windrunner, or what seemed at first to be one. His head and neck looked normal, although his hide was a dun colour that faded into the creamy coloured flesh of his face. His mane was hanging loose, a cloud of white suspended around his face, and he had his mouth hanging open. It was then that Eeysarmarnees noticed the gills that were opening and closing on the male's neck.

“Eeysarmarnees, meet my brother Maeneylanne. He’d greet you, but you probably wouldn’t appreciate it right now.”

Eeysarmarnees forced some semblance of calm into his stunned body. Pushing off from the back of the shuttle, he grabbed a hand hold that was placed by the window.

Maeneylanne’s voice was odd. It didn’t come from his mouth as his lips just hung open, motionless. And it echoed and reverberated oddly - it reminded him of whalesong from when he had been held up on Atlantis waiting for repairs. But what was even stranger than the sound, was the tone. It sounded emotionless, like a computer, even though the pitch did change. And then he had it - it was the lack of pheromones he was scenting. “So you’re Nerianne's boyfriend?”

Eeysarmarnees blinked, and Nerianne giggled.

“Aren’t you going to say something?” she asked.

Eeysarmarnees shook his head and flicked his ears and tail. “Sorry. Hello.”

A disembodied chuckle echoed around the shuttle.

Eeysarmarnees glared for a second, and then smiled. “I have to apologize, I’m not used to any of this yet. Your appearance-- well it took me by surprise.”

“Then let’s answer all your unasked questions. Come and take a look - I’m not shy.” Maeneylanne’s face vanished from the window.

Eeysarmarnees pulled himself over and looked as Nerianne’s brother reappeared, this time floating sideways just on the other side of the window. As he’d already seen, other than the gills, the head and neck were the roughly the same as Nerianne's, but there the similarities ended. The neck faded into a shorter, and more rounded body, which still had the arms and bare hands, although the arms were roughly two thirds the length of hers. From there the body tapered into horizontal flukes, like a whales. The horse’s tail that Eeysarmarnees had was absent, and the legs were replaced by long tapering body that was first covered with thin fur, but that faded to a mottled leather finish by the time his eyes reached the twin blades of the tailfin. Then, with a flash of movement, Maeneylanne was facing the window once again.

“Still afraid?” Nerianne asked.

“Well, I--" Eeysarmarnees stopped and collected his thoughts. “We’re not going to become like him, are we?” He shuddered at the thought of sucking water down-- so close to drowning--

“Not exactly. We’ll be similar, although we’ll have a thick fatty skin. We won’t have gills, but will have larger lungs, along with a different circulatory system. I'd guess we'll be able to hold our breath for half an hour or so.”

“Not even long enough for a good romp,” snorted the pilot.

Eeysarmarnees had new questions: “I’ve been told that you can breathe air in addition to water. So why all the extra work to move the mass of water up into orbit?”

“Well--” Nerianne began.

“Simple. Because we like it this way,” her brother finished.

“Ok, why?”

“Simple. Yes, we can breathe air, but find it dry and uncomfortable. Plus there is the extreme lack of mobility -- we aren’t very good on land. Fuel is a cheap price to pay for comfort.”

Eeysarmarnees remembered some of the high class passenger shuttles he’d been on, with their carved wood and fine carpets. “We had the same--” Eeysarmarnees couldn’t continue, all he could do was turn away, clenching his eyes and shaking his head to try and force some control. It was too close to drowning.

“Well strap in and let’s get going,” Maeneylanne said.

Eeysarmarnees felt Nerianne’s soft hand pushing him into one of the plastic seats and strapping him down. She sat beside him, just holding his hand, squeezing it gently from time to time. Turning to face her, Eeysarmarnees forced a smile, a smile they both knew was faked.

“Thank you,” Eeysarmarnees said.

Nerianne started to say something, but there was a clang and a rattle through the shuttle as it disengaged its lock. Then a moment of near silence as control jets pushed them away from the Dancer’s Eye and altered the shuttles orientation. With a roar that shook the entire craft, the main engines fired for almost fifteen seconds, decelerating them out of orbit, making too much noise for Eeysarmarnees and Nerianne to converse. Then silence.

“You needed a friend.”

“I’m glad you’re here.”

“Oh, stop getting all mushy back there!”

“Out of curiosity, how does he speak?” Eeysarmarnees asked.

“The same way we will. We’ll have two lungs and will be able to pass air back and fourth between them to make vocalizations.”

“And what about our pheromones?”

Nerianne started to pull away, but then she forced herself to stop. “I’m sorry, I keep forgetting that you’re not one of us. We couldn’t live without the scents and the smells of our emotions. Didn’t Maeneylanne sound odd to you? Don’t worry, we’ll still have them. Nobody would ever give them up - if that was the choice then Saleneigh's Folly would never have been colonized.”

Eeysarmarnees knew she spoke what she believed was the truth, but he couldn’t believe it. Yet, he wondered, were there human traits that would never be given up. How many Africans would have their skin changed to white if they could? He didn’t think he'd have changed his skin colour -- and it would have helped him in his career. His career and Hen-- No! Don't think about it.

He looked down into Nerianne’s eyes. “Tell me of your world.”

So she did. As the shuttle entered the atmosphere, and bounced and creaked, as first the scramjet engines howled as they caught at the atmosphere, and then the ramjet engines, and finally the jet engines as the shuttle decelerated to subsonic speeds, he listened to Nerianne speak. He listened to her tell of swimming across coral reefs, of chasing fish with members of her herd as they hunted for fun. Of dancing solemnly in the rays of sunlight, or moonlight, that shone down from the surface. Of swimming and playing and laughter and joy -- something Eeysarmarnees feared he'd never know again.

She stopped, and Eeysarmarnees realized that they'd landed. The ship was silent and Nerianne waited as Eeysarmarnees unstrapped himself and walked over to one of the windows in the side. It looked out into the depths of a sunlit green-blue sea, with shafts of brightness shooting down into the depths. As he watched, he idly wondered if they had landed on a platform which had lowered, or if they had landed in the sea and brought themselves here under their own power.

Somehow it didn’t really matter.

Nerianne touched him on his shoulder and he turned around to face her, catching Maeneylanne out of his side vision, swimming by the window. “They’ve attached a walkway for us to the hospital and evacuated a path for us. However, they don’t want to keep it dry for long -- we need to get going.”

Nodding, Eeysarmarnees followed her out the hatch and through a short transparent tube, its surfaces still dripping with water, into a stone-lined passageway that went into a jagged coral cliff. Unlike human installations, the walls weren’t painted. Instead, they were decorated with tile mosaics of aquatic Windrunners dancing and playing and working. A short walk, their hooves clopping and splashing in pools of water, took them to the end of the air filled portion where two massive glass coffins, connected to wires and monitoring devices, lay on the floor. Between them was one of the aquatic Windrunners laying on some kind of motorized cart, his lungs labouring to breathe. He was a medium brown, dappled with splotches of white, with a black mane, and black tail and flukes.

“Please hurry up and climb in -- this is very uncomfortable.”

Nerianne turned and licked Eeysarmarnees lightly on his muzzle, and then climbed into one. His heart thumping in his chest, his ears wiggling every which way, Eeysarmarnees forced himself to climb into the other. From one eye he watched the aquatic Windrunner close Nerianne's coffin and then reach over and close his. Gas of some kind began to hiss in, and the last thing he saw was the aquatic Windrunner securing latches on his lid as he felt liquid filling his coffin--

Chapter 19

Parthantharnee, on the ocean floor of Saleneigh's Folly

Grabbing some air, she swam back down, grabbing a crossbar from the bottom, and then swimming up a bit to secure it to the growing framework. She and Professor Bealansey had been here for almost a day, the other two had been dropped with the last of the supplies and should be coming out of the regrowth any time now.

Giggling at the thought, she realized that she should probably be thanking the Professor. She'd never have been able to afford a regrowth, and her new body was free from the still healing bruises she'd had from her last disagreement with the good Professor. A part of her wanted to actually say thank you, but she was going to have enough trouble avoiding another corrective discipline. The momentary joy just wasn't worth the price.

If Professor Bealansey hadn't been the foremost authority on Seeder sites on Saleneigh's Folly, she'd have fled him a year ago. Probably, she could get enough of the board on her side because of that beating, but it would be tight. She pitied the poor woman still in the tank. At least Professor Bealansey had uses for herself.

Damn the Professor anyway! It was his way, or the wrong way, period. The symbol meant technological development, nothing else. Seeder, even if an actual Seeder came down from the heavens and told him that it meant something else, he'd tell the Seeder that the Seeder was in error.

She just hoped that she'd be the one to find something that proved him wrong. Serve him right.

As long as nothing such was discovered here. She wouldn't put it past him to dest--

Once more, the water echoed with the distant song of the Glistening Hunters. A few bubbles glurped from her nostrils as her hands slipped to the reassuring weight of the rifle over her shoulders. Its comforting touch slowed her heartbeat to something approaching normal.

Why wasn't there more security here? Was secrecy worth their lives?

Snorthing, she let out some more air. Their deaths would certainly keep things secret. She imagined bombs on the transports that'd delivered them and their equipment here. When they were too far away for it to be heard, the mastermind would press his button, and the bombs would detonate, destroying the transports and all those witnesses.

She laughed out loud. Things like that only happened in holothrillers. Like a Great Stallion would do anything like that. Or let anybody below him do so. Hah!

"Parthantharness!" The Professor's voice was faint in the distance.

Seeders! What now? She looked at the bar she was just ready to begin securing-- No time. Shoving the bolt through, she pocketed the nut and sped off towards the Professor. At least she'd just breathed.

It didn't take her long to get over and down to where he was moving some rocks by hand. She had no idea why, but he must. Were they really going to find something? Could she make the greatest discovery in history?

"Parthantharness, guard me from those blasted Glistening Hunters."

"What--?" How dare he deprive her of participating in the true discovery!

"It's your place to do the work I got no time for. Do what you're told!"

Somehow she managed to force down her rage. She knew that he could smell it, but he wasn't paying enough attention to care. If only that male-- what was his name? Oh right, Nerianne. If only he'd put the Professor in his place. But Nerianne was probably just as old school--

In the distance the Hunters sang, and Parthantharnee gripped her rifle tight, trying to watch every direction.

Chapter 20

Eeysarmarnees, Chalahn's Reef, Saleneigh's Folly

He awoke lying comfortably on his stomach, feeling warm and weighty and lethargic. Opening his eyes, he looked around.

Eeysarmarnees was lying on the floor of a small dome, dimly lit by an overhead light. It was empty, except for a pool of green water as smooth as glass a few feet away. The smell of salt drenched his nostrils. From the sides of his vision he could see that he was still in the glass coffin, although the lid was open and the front vertical panel had been lowered. Stretching out one of his arms, he turned to look at it.

His hands looked the same as they still had three fingers and a thumb. But his arms were noticeably shorter, and much fatter. Remembering the sensitivity of his last new body, he pushed himself up on his arms and turned around to look at his legs and tail.

And he had only a tail, or was it a single leg?

Like before, his colour was still a creamy white, and his mane was still black, but his old tail was gone. Instead, his body, which looked curiously fat and featureless, tapered down to vertical flukes. The, well his, flukes were a bare leathery flesh and a pale white in colour, with irregular splotches of dark gray that continued up into his body. Gradually fading out the further up one went.

There was a splash and he felt his ears flick towards the sound, even before his head turned around to look at the pool. There was Nerianne's head bobbing in the water.

"Well come on, no sense laying around, the water's fine." She threw something at him. It plunked into his chest and thunked to the floor.

His head snapped down and he stared at an irregularly shaped piece of partially transparent, partially milky, bluish crystal. Picking it up with one hand, he examined it. It was wet, and didn't feel cold. But its wetness made it slippery and he dropped it. When it landed it cracked and split in half.

He recognized it as ice.

"Well?"

Eeysarmarnees swallowed. "How long have you been up?"

"Not long. Freefall is close to this, but never the same."

He could scent her joy.

"We don't have all day. You need to get moving."

Sighing, he let out a long, mournful whoosh from his lungs, which he realized were much more voluminous than they use to be.

A tinkle of water and a thump, and Nerianne was lying on the floor near him. Like him, she had a tail and flukes, but her hide was a dark brown fading to a black tail. Her black mane hung wetly, clinging to her back. She reminded him of a huge, fat, walrus.

But a grinning one.

He sighed again, the same whoosh from his massive lungs. "So what do I do?"

"Simple. You crawl over to the exit, take a deep breath and dive in."

"But what about the pressure, the air, the water--?" At least he didn't have to breathe, and drown, in the stuff.

She laughed, her laughter bouncing off the walls of the dome and making the whole chamber tinkle in amusement, "Your body will handle it. Just take a deep breath and jump in." Inhaling a whoosh of air, she pushed herself back, and vanished into the water.

What choice did he have? After all, it was just like breathing off the tank that once replaced one of his lungs. Really it was-- Eeysarmarnees pulled himself across the floor, pulling with his arms, and humping his tail to push. It was slow, and he could feel the metal floor scraping his chest, but it didn't hurt. Then he was at the edge. Swallowing hard, he shoved his right hand into the water, ready to yank it out again.

The water was fine. It felt cool, but not cold.

Maybe this would work after all.

Inhaling and exhaling a couple of times, he built up his nerve. He had no technology to depend on, no insulation to protect him against the cold British Columbia waters. And this water was far colder. Inhaling as much as he could hold, inhaling until his lungs felt like they would burst, he humped his tail and pushed himself into the hole with a massive splash.

He felt his nostrils seal shut, felt his ears snug themselves against his head, burying themselves in his mane, and felt his eyes close, even though he could still see. He could feel his heart slow its beating and the water grow more comfortable. And then he was there, in the water, his mouth clamped shut, slowly rising up past the plastic dome he’d been in. He felt a movement of water, felt a sensation of joy and humour, all along his sides, and then Nerianne was hovering in front of him.

"So what do you think?"

Eeysarmarnees tried to speak, but his lungs were bursting and he couldn't do a thing. All he could do was clench his lips tight together.

Nerianne opened her mouth and laughed, but no air came out. "Silly. You have to let some air out to speak. And you better do it soon or your lungs may suffer an embolism as you rise."

He'd never had to worry about embolisms before-- Before he could stop it, his mouth opened and bubbles of air rolled out from between and jaws, and through and nostrils which clamped shut again. The pain in his lungs was gone and he’d stopped rising. He felt some kind of flap, like a hard tongue but different, in his throat close.

"Wha...?" And he spoke, in a whistling low-pitched tone, as his massive lungs quivered and passed air back and fourth. His mouth was still hanging open.

"That's better, isn't it?"

And it was. The icy water felt fine. His vision was clear and sharp, and he felt no need to breathe. "How long can we hold our breaths?"

She was thoughtful for a moment. "That depends on conditions and exertion. Almost never less than twenty minutes, more usually thirty or forty."

Somehow he knew how long those minutes were. It must have been taught to him by the nanobots, like the language.

Putting her hands against her sides, she stared at him. "Now stop floating there like a log. I want to introduce you to the others."

How? He felt his body and felt his tail; he could even feel fine water currents on his flukes. Doing what he'd done so many times before, he tried kicking his legs, now tail. He was thrust forward, but his body spun and twisted round and round.

Flicking her tail, Nerianne fled his path, and grabbed his arm in passing. He let her orient him. She laughed. "Well, it's a start. You have to give short, quick flicks of your tail in both ways for straight motion. Remember that you only have one tail replacing both your legs -- think about kicking both together. Emphasizing a movement either up or down will turn you in that direction. Rotating your tail to a different angle will allow you to turn and change your pitch."

"Oooookaaaay."

"Just do it slowly, in pairs of short flicks. For now I'll guide us." She let go and swam underneath so that she was facing up at him and grinned. "It's easy -- you'll get the hang of it in no time."

Sure. Even he could scent his disbelief as she laughed.

Then, holding his hands,, swimming beneath him, she guided him down as they both flicked their tails. He felt slow, clumsy, awkward, but he could feel the water on his flukes, and he began to get a bit of a feel for how hard and how fast to move his tail. And the whole time he could smell Nerianne's amusement as she pulled him with her through the green sunlit water into the depths. He was learning fast, likely some knowledge given him to go along with this body.

He'd master this world yet!

Chapter 21

Parthantharnee, on the ocean floor at Saleneigh's Folly, guarding the excavation site

"Hey!"

Professor Bealansey kept working as Parthantharnee spun around. There were two new Windrunners swimming towards them. One, a chestnut, had an air-rifle slung over his shoulder. That had to be Running Stallion Nerianne. The other, the cream, had to be that-- she scratched one ear as she tried to remember-- right, Eeysarmarnees.

An odd name, he must be from another race given the name, and the awkwardness of his swim-- she squinted. Yup, the stranger was a male. Turning a bit, she looked at Nerianne-- Parthantharnee squinted and--

By the Seeder! Running Stallion Nerianne was a mare! A great glurp of bubbles escaped from her mouth in her shock. Oh boy, was Professor Bealansey ever in for an awakening! She rubbed her hands together in anticipation.

"Pay attention, Parthantharnee, this is too important for wildlife threats to distra--"

Parthantharnee wasn't sure whether to warn the Professor, or just watch, when Running Stallion Nerianne took it out of her hands.

"Professor-- Bealansey?"

"Not now!"

Nerianne snorted as Parthantharness giggled. "Professor, I'm talking to you!"

Professor Bealansey sighed, and let the rock he was holding clunk to the bottom. Spinning around, he turned to face Eeysarmarnees. "Running Stallion, would you mind keeping the informant under control until I'm done here? My work--"

As Eeeysarmarnees looked, and smelled, embarrassed, Nerianne spoke again. "Professor Bealansey, I would appreciate your looking at me when I'm talking to you."

The Professor snorted in annoyance and turned to look at whom he thought was Eeeysarmarnees. "Fine! What the Seeders is so important? Apparently, Eeysarmarnees, your information may have some actual basis."

Eeeysarmarnees answered first, "I'm Eeeysarmarnees, and--"

He was drowned out by Nerianne. "Professor Bealansey! I don't know what you're thinking, if you're thinking, but I am Running Stallion Nerianne! And, I expect you to listen when I talk to you."

Parthantharnee was starting to feel the need to breathe, but she wasn't going to miss this for anything!

"But--" the Professor started.

"You could try using that brain I'd heard you'd been born with. You knew who was coming, right?"

Professor Bealansey nodded.

"My name is not secret. You could have looked it up."

Parthantharnee giggled.

"I didn't have tim--"

Nerianne nodded. "Granted, but you do have eyes. Do you not?"

"Of course!"

"You might have noticed that I have a rifle, and that he," she pointed at Eeeysarmarnees, "does not. If, of course, you have eyes" She paused, and clasped the sides of her muzzle, and filled her face with a mixture of surprise and amazement as her scent of sarcasm and annoyance filled the water. "But, you do have eyes! You said so yourself!"

Parthantharnee heard somebody snicker. Cocking her head, she saw that it was Eeeysarmarnees. He noticed her and winked. Giggling, she winked back. To calm a bit of the need in her chest, Parthantharnee let out a few blurps of bubbles. She'd have to surface, and soon. Hopefully, Nerianne would hurry up.

Professor Bealansy frowned, and narrowed his eyes. "How do I know you really are Running Stallion Nerianne?"

"What?" Nerianne paddled a few strokes back using her arms.

"How do I know that you aren't really Eeeysarmarnees, that you didn't overpower the real Running Stallion, and are trying to escape?"

Nerianne, at least Parthantharnee hoped it was Nerianne, burst out laughing. Parthantharnee could see, and smell, that Eeeysarmarnees was now nervous.

"Hah!" Professor Bealansey shouted, glancing around for his air-rifle which had been abandoned on the ocean floor a fair distance away. "How are you going to convince me now?"

"By-- by the," she lost control and laughed, and then fought it back, "Seeders. If I was what you say, why-- why would I come here instead of--" more laughter burst out and she shoved it down, "just escaping?" She struggled for control. "And, and d-- do I," more giggles burst out, "smell like-- like I'm lying"

Parthantharnee saw that Eeysarmarnees looked pained, and smelled worried, but Nerianne's line was priceless. Parthantharnee burst out laughing, the last of her air bubbling out.

Seeder!

No more time! She fought for the surface now so far away, kicking and paddling for her life as Nerianne's laughter faded below. Behind her, Eeeysarmarnees awkwardly swam after. Just in time, her head broke through the choppy surface and she sucked in deep lungfulls of life giving air.

She shouldn't have waited so long, but it had been so worth it!

Chapter 22

Eeysarmarnees just below the surface of Saleniegh's Folly's ocean

He couldn't believe what he was hearing from the so-called Professor, and given Nerianne's attitude, she wasn't having any of it. She'd gotten so involved that she hadn't noticed the difficulties the other had gotten into and didn't notice when the girl had fled for the surface. Eeysarmarnees struggled after her to make sure she was all right.

His head broke the surface. The waves were huge, maybe a metre, maybe two, and he almost got a lung full of water when he inhaled. Something in his throat stopped it. His second, a little desperate, attempt was better, and he got the air he needed. Because of the waves, he couldn't see the Windrunner, and ducked under. It wasn't hard to spot her tan colour, darker than his, under the surface. He managed to pop up beside her. "Are you all right?"

She looked at him, and blinked. "I'm-- I'll be fine. You know, I just couldn't miss that. Professor Bealansey has been so asking for it!"

"Given his attitude, I'm not surprised." Eeysarmarnees looked around, with his muzzle and eye placement he couldn't help but do so. The sky was a pale grey, with wisps of white cloud strung across the heavens. It was either morning or afternoon, as the sun was about a third of the way up. It, at least, looked like what he remembered.

She sighed. "I just wish it was less common."

Less common?

"Come on, we'd better be getting back down. The Professor is probably looking for me to give me so more work, or a tongue lashing. You'd better come to." With that, she inhaled a great lungful of air, and ducked under.

Eeysarmarnees followed suit.

"He's not that bad, you know," the girl continued.

Eeysarmarnees nodded.

"Ah! There they are! Follow along, I'll keep it slow -- I can tell you're still getting used to this."

Eeysarmarnees nodded, and followed after her, somehow managing to keep up.

The dig wasn't too deep, the water a dim green, and everything could be seen even with the poor light that got this deep. Nerianne and Professor Bealansey were still there. And, from the sound of it, the discussion was less heated. As he got closer, Eeysarmarnees could see that the Professor was almost a pure white, with gray splotches on his neck and tail, and with a creamy-beige mane. Like Nerianne and the girl, he had a rifle slung around his neck.

"There you are. Eeysarmarnees, meet Professor Bealansey."

The Professor just grunted.

She turned to the girl. "And you must be Parthantharnee. Running Stallion Nerianne, pleased to greet you. I take it you've met Eeysarmanees?"

He could smell the girl's, Parthantharnee's, nervousness as she just nodded.

"Now that we've all met, why don't you tell us what you've found, Professor?"

"In a minute." With that, he turned away and swam upward.

"I'd better follow him, besides air would be useful. Don't stray far you two." With that, Nerianne swam upward after him.

"So, Eeysarmarnees, you want to go and see what the Professor was doing?" She didn't wait for an answer, but was already swimming downward. He kicked his tail hard and soon caught up-- and went sailing by, unable to stop.

Somehow Parthantharnee caught up and grabbed him. "Are you all right?"

"Fine. I'm just not use to any of this yet."

"Definitely a newcomer. Let me hold on and guide you. Last thing either of us want to do is disturb the site."

"Umm-- sure."

Eeysarmarnees kicked gently with his tail, and let Parthantharnee pull him downward. They stopped just above a slight depression in the bottom. Rocks had been pulled out and piled alongside, and the partially silted bottom seemed made up of a smooth sheet of metal or plastic.

"By the Seeder!" Parthantharnee whispered.

"What?"

"Almost certainly artificial construction. No way to be sure until more is uncov--"

"Parthantharnee, you get away from that! If you've disturbed the site, I'll beat you to the bone, you got that?"

"I-- yes Professor. I've touched nothing.” Parthantharnee kicked backward, somehow not raising any silt, and dragged Eeysarmarnees backward with her.

The Professor passed by them, Nerianne following, and let himself drift around the cleared area. "Hmph! Looks like I got back just in time. No harm done. Parthantharnee, you go and get that frame finished and bring it over here. Umm-- Eeysarmarnees, you go with her. She needs guidance."

Parthantharnee snorted in response. "Come on then. There's not much we can do until more is uncovered."

Eeysarmarnees looked up at Nerianne. She nodded. "Go with her. You don't have enough control yet, you need practice." She turned. "Parthantharnee, you keep an eye on him! If anything happens to him, you don't want to ever let me catch you."

This time Parthantharnee nodded, and scented of respect and duty. "I'll do my best. We've heard the song of Glistening Hunters, so there seems to be a herd somewhere nearby. If you--"

"You fire, and I'll be there before you can blink. Eeysarmarnees, you be careful. Don't worry too much about the Glistening Hunters, they rarely attack Windrunners. Now go, I want to see what we've found here."

"Nerianne--" Eeysarmarnees began.

"I've been told it's not far. You'll be safe."

Eeysarmarnees sighed. "As you wish. Parthantharnee, lead on."

Parthantharnee turned and began swimming, and Eeeysarmarnee followed. For a few minutes they swam in silence before Eeysarmarnees asked, "Is there something between you and Bealansey?"

"No, well yes. If he wasn't the expert on technoarcheology on Saleneigh's Folly, I'd drop him like a rock. Instead, he's my advisor. Everything has to be done his way. Always his--" Parthantharnee fell silent.

Eeysarmarnees waited a minute for her to continue, but it became obvious she wouldn't. "What do you mean?"

She ignored him, and pointed in the distance. "There! Once we get it complete, we can move it over and really start uncovering the site!" She sped up, and he struggled to keep pace.

Ahead of them, in the dim green light, was a metal framework. Tanks were hooked to it, and some black panels were folded up. Boxes lay on the bottom, partially covered in disturbed silt, and more bars could be seen sticking out.

"Oh good!" She grabbed a completed bit of frame and stopped, and pulled something out of a pouch around her waist. As he closed, he watched her screw it on, and then pull out some kind of wrench to tighten it. "You just bring up more bars as I need them. They're interchangeable. There's a box of nuts and bolts over there," she pointed to another box, "just bring a few up each time."

"Umm--"

"It's simple mindless work. As long as you stay nearby, you can practice your swimming. Can you grab me another bar?" Turning, she smiled at him sweetly. "Oh, and if you need air, you don't need to surface." She swam over to a tank strapped to the framework and pulled a mouthpiece and hose attached to it from some kind of clip that had held it against the frame. Putting it in her mouth, she exhaled a stream of roaring bubbles, inhaled, exhaled, and inhaled. Removing the mouthpiece and clipping it back on, she said, "Just use these."

"Sure--"

He looked at her.

"The bar?" She pointed.

"Oh, right." Swimming down, he grabbed one from the indicated box. It didn't feel like metal, more like some kind of plastic. "This one?"

"Sure. They're all identical."

"Okay." He swam over and looked for the bolts and nuts she mentioned. He felt-- cast aside by Nerianne. Put away, now that he was no longer useful. And, he could see Parthantharnee working, and the rifle slung over her shoulder. They all had rifles. All of them, except him. If that wasn't a message, then he was an Alfar.

His thoughts were interrupted as a sound burst through the water, surrounding them, caressing their skins with its power. It was odd, a deep haunting noise. It went silent, but he could feel with his body that it had just gone below what he could hear, and then it resumed. It was familiar, a little, but it wasn't right. The tones were wrong, the pattern he was hearing was wrong. He didn't know what it was.

So he asked. "Parthantharnee--?"

She'd stopped working, and was floating there, holding her rifle tightly.

"What was that?"

"The song of the Glistening Hunters."

Chapter 23

Nerianne searching for Eeysarmarnees, Saleneigh's Folly technoarcheological dig

Two weeks had passed. Two weeks of Eeysarmarnees avoiding her. Almost sulking. And now he'd gone off somewhere.

With the aid of his implanted beacon, and the tracker she had, it didn't take Nerianne long to find where he'd swam off to. After all, he hadn't gone very far. Kicking hard with her tail, she pushed her head high above the deep blue of the waves, and saw that it was indeed him. At least his colour was distinctive. She fell back under, let herself sink even further by blurping out all her air, and kicked hard. Bursting from the water, she thumped onto the snow tickled ice, and sucked in a deep breath.

"Eeysarmarnees?" He didn't smell happy.

He turned, and cocked his head, looking at her. "Oh. Hello." He waved an arm towards the west. "The sunsets are as I remember." She looked up at the sky painted reds and golds, bracketed by yellow-glowing clouds. The single moon could clearly be seen.

"You've been here before?"

"Right here? On this world, sure. I think, anyway. Not that it matters anymore."

"Are you all right?"

His voice turned bitter, his scent filled with resentment. "Given that I'm fated to be eaten by those Glistening Hunters, as I'm the only one unprotected," he motioned to the rifle Nerianne had over her shoulders. "I'm perfectly fine."

"I'm sorry-- It's better than--" She turned away.

"Better than what?"

"Better than being dead."

"Who was that bastard anyway? The one who gave me the third degree?"

"Third degree?"

"The Inquisition, the questions, the torture-- what the Seeder word do you use?"

"I-- we--," she turned away and lowered her muzzle. "That was my father."

"Your father?"

"Yea--"

"What right does your father have to do that?"

Turning, she glared at him. "He has the right because he is the Great Stallion!"

"Which tells me nothing."

"He is the Great Stallion of the largest of the Great Herds. You said that you were a Running Stallion over, what, two?" She spat the last out as he nodded. "How did it feel knowing that two lives were your responsibility. My crew is normally fifteen. Their lives were my responsibility." She forced down the pain, knowing that they were all dead. "He, my father is responsible for billions! He keeps the race alive! Who are you to question him?"

"A dictator. Figures."

"You don't know us! Any Windrunner can replace my father. They just have to assassinate him." She shook her head to clear it. She'd come to talk to Eeysarmarnees, not-- "I-- I'm sorry. It's our way. You may disagree with his methods. Sometimes I do. But, unlike the Pilgusez, the Winderunners still exist as a race."

"I--"

She sighed. "Let's try this again. The sunset is beautiful."

"It-- I--" He lowered his head. "I remember watching them at home." His scent turned bitter. "Not that I ever will again."

She turned to watch the colours as they darkened and purpled. "I remember sneaking out of the orphanage. I, and a bunch of others. Oh, we thought we could only breathe water then -- a trick to keep us away from the dangerous surface. We'd take rubber hoses we kept hidden away and stick them in our mouths. Poking our heads up, we'd suck water up the hoses and through our gills as we watched. It was such a rare treat as we could almost never get away. But, the colours, the glorious colours! They made it all worthwhile."

"Orphanage? But your father is still alive--"

Turning, she looked into his eyes. "You must never tell anybody that I am his daughter. He left me for my protection." She fought down the pain of the other reason. "For his protection. You must promise!"

"Nerianne, I can't. I just-- can't."

"I trust you." She could smell his embarrassment. It seemed he still cared for her, at least a little.

He turned away and looked at the show. "A sunset is always changing, yet eternal. Each is unique, but, as ages pass, they're always there, day after day. I think we take them for granted."

"I do, now. After I'd undergone my first regrowth into the base, air breathing, Windrunner form-- when I went to the Academy on Hearsh, I'd watch the sunset over the cliff above the Athanar Valley every night. I--," she looked back at the setting star," I don't know when I stopped."

He looked at her. He definitely still felt something. "You said something about this, for me, being better than being dead."

At least his mind was still sharp. She swallowed. "You're alive because I begged my father not to kill you. The only reason he didn't was because the gravity scan you suggested found some irregularities."

"Scanning should have been standard procedure."

"Why? How would we know? We find the remnants you, the Seeders, left behind. We take them apart, figure out what they were designed for, and build more for that purpose. Eventually somebody works out why they work, years or centuries later. How were we supposed to know?"

"But--"

"You had jumpdrive. Why did it work? Explain to me the physics behind it." She didn't need his answer, his scent told her everything she needed to know. "You can't, can you?"

"I-- no."

"It always seems so easy until you actually work through it, doesn't it?" She turned to watch the fading sun.

The sky was almost black, the only light the glowing yellow-orange orb of the moon. The ocean glittered, its choppy surface a glittering field of stars backlit by the fading glow of the sun on the far side of the horizon. A few clouds glowed from beneath, pointing towards it, saluting the fallen star. Nearby, something breached the surface, and more somethings. The whistles of the Glistening Hunters echoed across the waves."

"We'd better get back," she said.

"Nerianne, what are the Glistening Hunters?"

"Well, I haven't seen any since my youth. There aren't any near the equator anymore. When we first came to this world, not me of course, we Windrunners, they ruled the seas."

"And so you drove them away from the places you wanted."

"Of course! They attacked us, consumed those of use they could. We couldn't talk to them. What choice did we have?"

"I wonder how hard you tried."

More whistles, and hisses of creatures breaching and breathing, echoed across the waves.

"We did what we had to! Even now, they're still used to scare foals and get them to behave."

"Nerianne, what do these Glistening Hunters look like?"

What? Why did he want to know that? And, why did he smell so eager to find out? "Well, remember, I haven't seen them in a long time-- They're black, white bellies. Irregular white splotches along the body. A huge triangular dorsal fin sticking up. Horizontal flukes like ours. They're air breathers too."

Eeysarmarnees just stared, scenting of disbelief and desperately suppressed hope.

She looked at him. "Why do you ask?"

He turned away. "Nothing. I was just wondering."

Almost a flying above the grass while running in it. Almost. Cocking her head, she looked at him. "Just-- wondering?"

He looked, and smelled, like he wanted to tell her. Wanted--

She thought about pushing it. But-- they had a truce. Fragile, but a truce. She knew what he wasn't telling wasn't going to hurt her. She couldn't say how she knew, but she did.

It was dark. Stars scattered across the sky, the glowing green-blue-purple curtains of the magnetic lights danced and grumbled in the northern sky.

"Nerianne, we should probably get going. They'll be worried."

"We should."

With that, they both took deep breaths and plopped into the water. The camp wasn't far, and it was easy to find from the brilliant light glowing from the top of the sleeping dome.

Chapter 24

Eeysarmarnees, Saleniegh's Folly technoarceology site

After his conversation with Nerianne, Eeysarmarnees had a lot to think about. He'd have been surprised if Orca had never been brought to this world, even after his failure. But, half a million years? Could they have survived that long? And, if they did, had they fallen back into their pre-uplift state. And, if they had kept their intelligence, did they remember the common language? He could recognize their songs now, having realized that the distortion was simply because his new hearing range was different. So obvious, yet so subtle.

He decided he had nothing to lose. Although he believed that Nerianne didn't wish to hurt him, given the possible stakes -- his life, potentially her entire race -- he couldn't afford to trust her. The stakes were just too high. If the Orcas remembered the common language, if he could communicate with them, he believed he could trust them.

He searched for a few days, never going far. They were around, but they never came near. Some nights he missed, he couldn't always ditch Nerianne. There was a song, short and simple. Not even in the shared language. It meant simply help me. Even if they'd forgotten everything else, he hoped they remembered that. So, after the sun set, when he went out to do his business, he sang that short simple song, over and over again, for a few minutes. The singing didn't take long, and he had the perfect excuse to be alone. Now, if the orcas remembered, they'd come. He hoped.

A week passed, another. More and more of the construction found was unearthed, along with other things. The structure, a dome, was smooth, polished, covered in worn reliefs of aquatic humans swimming and dancing. There was nothing else. Just decoration. Eeysarmarnees had no idea -- it must have been built after he'd jumped. Around the site there were some coins, or tokens, scattered in the silt uncovered on the third day. One side was smooth, the other always the same three part symbol: the left corner symbol was a five-fingered Human hand, the right corner symbol was a four fingered Alfar hand, and the top symbol was what looked like a circuit of some kind. Pointing it out, Nerianne told him that it was often found.

Professor Bealansey just piled the coins, or tokens, out of the way. They were common and of no interest, he said.

Other things were found when he and Parthantharnee were sent elsewhere whilst Bealansey and Nerianne examined the latest portions of the dome uncovered. Statues and mosaics, some of aquatic Humans, some of Alfar, and some of featureless creatures that Eeysarmarnees knew were androids -- what else could they be? They just screamed made to him. Here and there they found depictions of eight and ten limbed bony, spiky monsters being destroyed by Human and Alfar troops. Other forms were sometimes shown fighting the things, the Orcas more often than any other. To Eeysarmarnees, they looked like war memorials.. Was it some kind of threat that had united the enemies, the Humans and the Alfar? But then, what of the Corporate Worlds? What had happened to Earth?

He wanted to talk about it, about his theories, but he had nobody he could trust. So, Eeysarmarnees just stayed quiet and thought, and worried, and more and more paranoid.


Eeysarmarnees was helping Parthantharnee move the digging rig that he'd helped assemble the first few days. The procedure was simple -- some of the air in the tanks was bled into bags to lighten the rig; the solar panel that powered the system to break the water apart to collect oxygen was reeled back down and secured; and then the frame physically pushed to the new location. It was big and awkward, but movable. Once it was moved, the air would be pumped back into the tanks so that the rig sunk into the bottom, and the solar panel would be redeployed on the surface. As to the rig, all it really was, was a framework to hold onto whilst one kicked their tail like mad to blow away the silt and gravel.

While the others were off looking at some items that had been uncovered, Eeysarmarnees was left alone with Parthantharnee. She was young, and might let things out that Nerianne or Bealansy never world. So he popped the big question: “What do you think happened to the Seeders?”

Parthantharnee stopped kicking to push the rig and took a breath of air. Turning, she looked at Eeysarmarnees. “What do you mean?”

He could scent that she knew what he meant. When they'd first met, she'd started to tell him. But not a word since. Well, today he'd get some answers, for what they were worth. “To the Seeders. As I recall, you implied you-- disagreed with the Professor.”

“We don’t really know. The most common belief is that they created us, and then they left. One day they'll return to welcome us amongst them.” Parthantharnee’s scent showed how little she believed that.

“Is that the approved belief that Bealansey taught you?”

“It's the correct belief.”

“That's not what I asked. I asked what you think.”

Parthantharnee turned away, grabbing the bar and kicking hard so that it moved just above the bottom.

“You started telling me once. I don't believe that either -- I have my own theories. The figure that Bealansey refuses to talk about--”

"You have a belief, that's certain. So, what is it?"

“I asked for yours first.”

Parthantharnee stopped swimming and pulled herself back over to Eeysarmanees. On the way she grabbed a mouthpiece and offered it. Eeysarmarnees took a couple of breaths and then clamped it back to the frame, waiting for her answer.

“You won’t mention this to Professor Bealansey, will you?”

“No.” The truth of his statement filled the water.

Parthantharnee continued in a whisper. “And here I thought it was common knowledge, common across all races. Well, amongst the Windrunners, there are three camps of belief about the Seeders, three camps that cross the boundaries of the greatherds. One camp believes that they left us tests, to see if we could find what they'd left and learn from it. They see the third figure as a symbol for knowledge and skill -- a symbol of mechanical and electrical devices. This group is the majority of those who investigate the past, and a high percentage of almost all other professions. They search and find relics, learn how those devices work, and thus advance our knowledge. Professor Bealansey is of that camp.”

Eeysarmarnees nodded.

“The second camp believes that the Seeders abandoned us, as punishment for a sin long forgotten. They forgo technology and live as primitives. They think that we’ll be punished for our audacity in trying to learn what the Seeders knew. Artefacts are treated by them as holy places, and they make pilgrimages to them. The Galanath object is a major site on this world for the tribes that exist here, on the fringes of civilization.”

The base of the beanstalk. “And what of you?”

“The third camp believes that the Seeders left us to grow and learn on our own, until we were worthy for them to return. What they left behind were either accidents or tests. We were the largest group until our race mastered space travel. Then we started finding more and more artefacts that gave us new and better technology. We learned new materials construction methods, the jumpspace drive, computer control and navigation systems, the regrowth technology, and lots more. With this the first camp took over.”

“You’ve found all your technology?”

“Not all, but almost all. Too few perform experiments to try and understand what we find as most effort is concentrated on discovery. Wars have been fought over artefacts, or even the rumours of artefacts. And that’s between different races. Amongst ourselves, it’s almost as competitive as each greatherd tries to gain an advantage. It’s never in the open, but it’s just as bloody. Great Stallion Mesianne has been the most successful in discovering, and sharing, found archeotech”

“You still haven’t answered my question.”

“I have. Professor Bealansey believes the symbol is one of knowledge. Two races co-operating in the pursuit of technology -- the circuit. He has to believe that. Otherwise the main proof that the artefacts are gifts for us to find would come into question. If the third figure represents artificial life, or created intelligence, then that is the goal of our race. Of all our races. We are going down the wrong path, copying, not understanding. If, we must create an intelligence before the Seeders will return to welcome us amongst them, then our present course precludes that ever happening. With the regrowth tech, maybe I'll be alive to see that day--”

“Do you believe that?” Her scent said that she did.

“I think so, at least more than the belief that everything we find is a test. No matter what the Professor says, or how often he beats me. Even though it is his right.”

“The third race we've found statues of. The one that seems to be equal with the Erermans and Alferer. Do you think it's an artificial, mechanical, sentient?" There was no word for android or robot in the Windrunner tongue. She began to answer, but he didn't let her. "No, not what you're told to believe, but what you believe.”

“Sometimes I think so, but other times I think it might just be a symbol that unites them.”

“Why the symbol of a machine?”

“Because they were united-- united because they were the first two technological species?”

“That can’t be true.”

“Why not?”

“The Alferer and the Erermans fought when they first met. There was no hope for peace”

“You sound sure-- How do you know that?”

“We-- they were. So why would just being a technological species unite them? It doesn't seem to have happened here. When they met, both had starships and jumpspace drives. In fact the Alferer had been in space for a much longer time.”

Parthantharnee cocked her head and looked at him. "I've never heard that before. Yet, you smell certain."

For a moment Eeysarmarnees debated telling her the truth, but why would she believe him? "I am."

Parthantharnee grabbed the bar and started steadily swimming to push the structure to its next location. “We’d better get on our way before they notice. Professor Bealansey is not forgiving.” He scented a tinge of fear from her.

Eeysarmarnees started to nod until he remembered. “True. But you aren’t done yet, are you?”

Parthartharnee grinned. “You’re quite perceptive, but then you were a Running Stallion, weren’t you?”

“Did Nerianne tell you that?”

Parthantharnee nodded, and then turned away, swimming harder.

Why was she so cut with the answer? What harm was there in Nerianne telling her things. Unless she wasn't supposed to know what she'd been told-- But why? How many secrets were the, were Nerianne keeping from him? Was he just being paranoid? But then, she'd never told him anything about other worlds, about her race, about this division of beliefs about the Seeders. Why wo--?

“To continue with what I was saying,” Parthantharnee broke into his thoughts, “we’ve found other images of that spiky-bony race you didn’t recognize. They look to us like a great enemy. Once, about 160 years ago, the Jandameer found the remains of some kind of organic ship when it drifted into one of their colony systems. From what they told all the other races, the ship contained living creatures that fit the depictions you saw. These creatures overwhelmed the boarding party and almost took over the discovering ship. Fortunately, someone was able to self-destruct the vessel and thus destroy both. The Jandameer claim to have passed on this information as the threat was so great if anymore were found.”

“How'd they know this, to pass it on?”

“The Jandameer were receiving telemetry from the ship until its destruction. The fact that they were completely open with the information is what makes it so disturbing. Nobody is completely open about items they find.”

“Interesting--” And it fit with the war that Eeysarmarnees was beginning to think occurred. Was it possible that a common enemy had united the two races? But then why the third symbol? A symbol of their commonality as Bealansey believed?

“We’re almost--" Parthantharnee began, and then she screamed.

Spinning around, Eeysarmarnees saw what she was staring at, and rejoiced, and wanted to scream. It was an Orca, or a very close relative. The form was smaller than he remembered, sleeker, but the colouration was the same. The bulging head was the same as the uplifted variant, though it blended into the body more.

As it opened its mouth, Eeysarmarnees watched the dim sunlight from the surface glitter off its razor teeth, and off the Glistening Hunter's, the Orca's, shiny black and white skin. Was it hungry? The beating of its heart was loud in his ears.

Chapter 25

Parthantharnee with Eeysarmarnees, Saleneigh's Folly technoarcheological site

She stared, hypnotized, helpless, into the face of horror, of death. The shining blackness of the Glistening Hunter stared back. If not for the strap holding it, her rifle would have sunk to the bottom, vanishing in the muck and silt. She was dead. Utterly and completely dead, and she couldn't move a muscle to save her life.

She was so dead. It was probably better that way as Eeysarmarnees was dead too. And what Running Stallion Nerianne would do to her--

And she still couldn't move.

Even when Eeysarmarnees started singing.

Singing? If that's what he was doing, it was the oddest song she'd ever heard. It was almost--

She stared as Eeysarmarnees stopped, and the Glistening Hunter released some bubbles from the top of its head. They haloed in the light that shone down on him. Then, it sang the same kind of song. Same but different. Eeysarmarnees sang something back, the Glistening Hunter glurped out more bubbles, and then it vanished. Eeysarmarnees just hung there, glowing in the bright sunlight from the surface, watching where the Glistening Hunter had gone.

And the water was filled with the scent of Eeysarmarnees' happiness.

He turned to her, the light around him fading. "We'd better get back to work; they will be waiting, worried."

His speech had the same cadence as what he sang.

She starred, jaw open, mind working. How could he know what he knew? About the Alferer and the Ererman being at war. And he was so certain-- And he knew where these ruins were. And he could talk to the Glistening Hunters--

How could she have been so blind?

"You're a Seeder--" she whispered.

"No! Well, yes, of one of their races, but--"

"The Seeders have returned!"

"Parthantharnee! No! I'm not--"

"But you are, you have to be! Who else--?"

"Okay, yes, I participated in the Orah Uplift Project. Those you call the Glistening Hunters. But--"

"What do you wish, Great Stallion?"

He stared at her, emotions sweeping across his muzzle. Then he slapped her, though the impact was muted by the water. "I'm not your Great Stallion, you are not my servant!"

"But you are! You said--"

"Stop. Just-- stop. Stop and listen. I was born half a million years ago. Half a million years ago my ship had an accident, I was lost and forgotten, suspended, until Nerianne found me, and saved me. I didn't create your race! And I don't know who did! And, I don't know what happened to mine--"

"But--"

"I'm just a normal sentient, like you. I am not a Seeder in the sense you mean."

"But you--" She paused, realization sinking in. "Running Stallion Nerianne knows?"

He sighed. "Yes, she does. I told you, she saved me."

"Running Stallion Nerianne saved a Seeder--"

"I told you, I'm not--" She saw him look at her, recognize her devotion. He deflated a little. "Fine. I'm a Seeder. I'm amongst you."

She could sense doubt, but he was a Seeder! He could control his scent. "Yes!"

"But! No one-- no-one must know."

"I'll keep it secret, Great--"

"I! Am! Not! Your! Great! Stallion! I'm not--"

She lowered her voice. "As you wish-- Eeysarmarnees." The Seeders had returned to her! Her dreams had come true. A Seeder! What he would do to Professor Bealansey-- Parthantharnee almost wiggled in pleasure at the thought.

"Professor Bealansey doesn't know. And you aren't going to tell him."

"As you wish." When he deigned to tell Professor Bealansey the truth-- she'd be there! Or, the look on the Professor's muzzle!

"And Nerianne must not know that you know."

She nodded. "We're safe now. Nothing can hurt us!"

The Seeder snorted out some bubbles. "Parthantharnee, you have to treat me the same as you did before. You have to act as though the Glistening Hunters are a deadly threat."

"I will!"

"Parthantharnee, don't make me make the Glistening Hunters a deadly threat."

From his scent, she could tell that he meant it. Nervous, she swallowed. "I-- I'll try and--" From the distance Professor Bealansey's voice roared out: "Parthantharnee! Get your behind over here. And bring that Eeysarmarnees with you. Get a move on, mare. We've found an entrance!"

As if she wasn't electrified enough, now she was going to be at would could be the discovery of the century, with a Seeder! Now she wanted the discovery to explain everything. The Seeder would never let Professor Bealansey stand in the way of the truth. And the look on his face when his muzzle was rubbed in it--!

"Parthantharnee--" the Seeder began.

"Parthantharnee! Get over here!"

"We'd better get going," the Seeder said.

She could hardly wait! "Let's go then-- Eeysarmarnees."

And they went, Eeysarmarnees leading, Parthantharnee respectfully behind.

Chapter 26

Eeysarmarnees, Saleneigh's Folly technoarcheolgical site

He'd never have made it if Parthantharnee hadn't guided him to the central part of the dig. That, and Professor Bealansey's booming voice. It didn't take long until they were there. In the past month a lot of the dome had been uncovered. The thing was huge. But, other than the designs, there were no entrances, no windows, nothing.

But now-- Now an entrance had appeared. Not at the bottom, not half buried in the silt, but almost at the top. It was round, almost organic in its look. There was no door, no buttons, no controls, just a hole where none had existed before. No sign of any damage to the material, no bulges where the matter of the door might have gone. Just a hole.

Eeysarmarnee almost swam into it, but Parthantharnee grabbed his tail and he stopped. Too much was flowing through Eeysarmarnees' mind. The orca who'd come hadn't remembered the language, or it had changed. There were other versions, there was an elder coming that he'd be taken too. And some that spoke the older forms. Soon now.

Soon he'd be free of all these Windrunners, of the betrayals and fears and lack of knowledge, and have some time to think and, maybe, work things out. Work things out about Nerianne. And, maybe, the orcas might remember what had happened. After all, they'd lived through it as a race.

"By the Seeders--" Parthantharnee began, and then Eeysarmarnees scented her embarrassment. She wasn't very good at hiding things.

"It just appeared, maybe five minutes ago. One instant it wasn't, the next it was," said Nerianne.

Five minutes-- close to when he's sang to the Orca--

"There must be something almost uncovered that's been triggered. Or, it had to charge up from sunlight and it just reached a critical level," added Professor Bealansey.

"When are we going in?" burst out Parthantharnee.

"You are not going in. This is a job for experts. You'd just break something," Professor Bealansey said.

"But we have a Se--" She stopped when Eeysarmarnees glared at her.

Nerianne cocked her head and looked at the filly. She knew that something was up. Eeysarmarnees sighed.

Professor Bealansey reached into a pouch strapped around his waist and pulled out a fat wand. Doing something to it, a light burst out its end. Then he swam up to the entrance where he shone it in, and then moved it around. "Humph!" In he went.

Nerianne motioned them all still, and Eeysarmarnees peered into through the entrance as best he could. The darkness inside was lit only by the dim light from the surface, and the beam of the Professor's light as he moved it around. Eeysarmarnees couldn't make out any details. A minute passed, a second. And then the Professor swam out, shining the light right into Eeysarmarnees' eyes for a moment.

Eeysarmarnees blinked to clear them.

Parthantharnee burst out with: "What?"

"Empty. Must've been looted. Valueless."

A tomb? No way this could be a tomb! The Atlanteans he'd known valued knowledge and art. Death to them was private, an ending that returned one to the ecosystem. They used to drop the bodies into the deep abysses to return their husk to the world as the soul had moved on.

Parthantharnee looked at Eeysarmarnees, and so did Nerianne.

Eeysarmarnees prayed the Orca would wait for nightfall -- it already looked like he'd explained too much.

Nerianne broke the silence. "Eeysarmarnees, why don't you go in and take a look?"

"What?" grumped the Professor. "He'll damage whatever of value is in there."

"Professor Bealansey," Nerianne began, "he's the one who provided the information that lead us here. Maybe he'll see something you overlooked. Besides, you said it was empty and valueless."

"Hmph! Fine. On your head be it."

Parthantharnee beamed.

Nerianne pulled out a light from her pouch and handed it to Eeysarmarnees. "You turn it on and off by pressing here," she said, showing him the touch-sensitive spot.

Eeysarmarnees took it. And he'd believed she'd trusted him. Nerianne, and her rifle, and her pouch full of supplies. The same type of pouch all the rest of them had. All of them except him. Trying to keep his annoyance from his muzzle, he was betrayed by his scent. He was even starting to wonder if everything had been a lie. Maybe only his scent revealed his feelings.

Taking the light, he pushed past Bealansey and shone it through the hole. The inside, what he could see, was indeed empty. It was spherical in shape, made of the same featureless white material as the outside. But there were no decorations, no art. Just the smooth surface. Shining the light to the very bottom, he couldn't see any sign of silt or other debris. It was pristine, as clean and shiny as the day it'd been built.

"Just don't touch anything," Professor Bealansey said.

Eeysarmarnees figured he didn't need to breathe for another ten minutes or so, so he had plenty of time. Shining the light ahead of him, he swam in, careful not to touch the edges of the hole.

The flashlight dimmed and went out.

Eeysarmarnees spun around. At least the entrance was easy to find from the outside light. He wasn't trapped. The room, all of it, dimmed. Even the darkness grew darker. He could still see the entrance, still see the light there, but it was dimmed. It didn't look like it was closing, or that something was partially blocking it, it just looked to be kept out of the room, except when he looked at it.

"It's recognized the Seeder!" screamed out Parthantharnee from outside.

Crap--

"Nerianne--?" Eeysarmarnees began.

A voice filled the chamber. It should have boomed, but it was easy on his ears. "Sarring Nerianne-- gatee und."

A part of him watched as Professor Bealansey swam in, followed by the others, but most of him was thinking about what was said. It was odd, gibberish, except for Nerianne's name. And yet-- familiar. Assume it was speaking a form of Anglish derived from that of his time. Words change over time, even in a culture with electronic records. For the first time in months he dredged up Anglish from his mind and tried to speak it. "Wha are ou?"

"Wuds nonized. Ty gain," boomed from all around as the others watched.

How to convince it? He wished it knew the Windrunner language. Maybe a date-- "Ererman, oo, ree nine oar." That was the best he could do for human, 2394.

"Wuds nonized. Ty gain."

"What is it?" Parthantharnee whispered.

"Ocessin." The tone changed, became more nasal, softer. "Language identified. Windrunner. No record on Nerianne found. Please try again."

Eeysarmarnees didn't know what to say. He could, maybe, conceive of whatever this was working out a language after it heard only a handful of words. But, how could it know the name of his new race? He couldn't think of any nice reason why.

"Eeysarmarnees, what is this?" Nerianne asked. "How does it know about us?"

"The Seeders are watching us! Waiting!" Parthantharnee answered.

Professor Bealansy had no comment.

"Whatever you are," Nerianne began, her voice loud and clear. "What are you? How do you know of us Windrunners?"

Silence.

Eeysarmarnees had even more disturbing thoughts. The curious part of him made him ask, "How do you know about the Windrunners?"

"System monitoring and recording local events as per last command. Data gained from satellite and communication records stored for retrieval when requested."

"Maybe this place was left running--?" Nerianne whispered.

Eeysarmarnees needed more. "Why do you respond only to me?"

"System locked to respond only to Unity racial members. Specifically prohibited from responding to child races unless commanded. Command lock not updated as of last data transmission."

Last transmission? "How long ago was the last transmission, local years?"

"Seven years, three months, eight days, four hours, twenty one minutes, thirty-seven point three seconds, standard units."

There was a long silence in the room.

Eeysarmarnees scratched the base of an ear. His kind, or their descendants, were still around. Or, were they? Maybe it was obeying forgotten orders, sending unread data to an empty site where no-one existed anymore to receive. He needed more answers. Maybe he should start with the simple questions-- "What happened to the Corporate Worlds?"

"Processing--" The room turned black and the entrance vanished. It filled with a starmap, realistic and glowing in velvet. Eeysarmarnees recognized the patterns from his time. The scene changed, zooming down into the small cluster that made up the Corporate Worlds as he remembered them. "Corporate Worlds. Enclave of company dominated cultures destroyed before Unity. Worlds were attacked by the race colloquially known as The Plague." The map zoomed in on one world after another in rapid succession as ships fought against some kind of organic things, great tentacled and spined monstrosities. They seemed countless, each destroying the fleets, then consuming the world to breed more and more of themselves.

Eeysarmarnees asked another question: "What is Unity?"

The glowing holo vanished. "Unity is name given to great galactic culture formed to defeat The Plague. AI systems of both Humans and Alfar recognized that all were doomed unless both races joined forces. They--"

"Lies! Lies set up by our enemies." Before anybody could react, he armed his rifle and aimed it upward. Pulling the trigger, a stream of needle-like spines of hard material torn off a solid crystal inside the rifle burst out. They flashed across the room, and pinged against the dome.

he voice went silent, and the lighting returned to normal.

"What the Emptiness have you done?" shouted out Nerianne.

Parthantharnee just laughed and pointed at the Professor.

"These are lies! I'm canceling the dig now. This place will be destroyed. I'll not allow our enemies to corrupt us with their planted false data."

"What?" screamed out Parthantharnee. "You just refuse to admit the truth!" She pointed at Eeysarmarnees. "He's a Seeder and you never knew it. Now he reveals the truth and you deny it!"

"Shut up, mare! I knew I should have--"

And then the entrance burst larger and larger, far larger than it had been. And Orcas swam in. One, two, three--

Nerianne turned. Parthantharnee laughed. Eeysarmarnee hoped.

And Professor Bealansey raised his rifle and opened fire. More needles flew out, digging into the first orca. Blood stained the water and the orca screamed, nearly cut in half. Clicking and whistling filled the room and, before anybody could react, the other two swarmed Professor Bealansey. The firing stopped, and the water stained red.

Parthantharnee's laughter died.

Eeysarmarnees saw Nerianne raising her rifle-- "Stop! Everybody stop! Don't shoot them!" And then, as he swam towards Nerianne to stop her physically if he had to, Eeysarmarnees sang:

I welcome and greet the hunters
And wish them joy in all the hunts
And ask to sing and tell of all
The hunts that once were and were told

To his memory it wasn't bad.

The two surviving Orcas swam towards him, staring to circle. The largest, old, scarred in its dorsal fin, sang.

We’ve told the tale, over again
And sang all the stories again
But now we sing and hunt as one
Our other hunters all gone now
And then came the others, a few
And then more and more and some more
But though they hunt, they’re not hunters
But prey that hunts back, in silence
But you are like them, but you sing
Like the hunters of old now gone

"What are you doing?" Nerianne screamed. "They're killers!"

Eeysarmarnees forced his mind out of the whale song. "They only killed what attacked; now shut up and let me sing."

In the background he heard Parthantharnee sobbing, "They killed him-- ate--"

Eeysarmarnees forced his mind back into the pidgin tongue, the whale song. What had they said-- Think! The Orcas knew that the Humans had gone, and that strangers had come. Hunters where what they called friends, members of the pods, and prey were everything else. Apparently, the strangers, the Windrunners, hunted them, and they hunted the Windrunners. Well, they didn’t seem angry, though it was hard to tell. But now it was his turn to ask, but how to word it? Then he had it:

Although I don’t look like it now
Once long ago I was not this
I was one of the hunters old
I went and hunted but came lost
Now I have come to hunt once more
To join with the hunters to hunt
To remember the tales old
Asking and singing and dreaming
And seeking all the tales told
To sing and to learn what once was
To sing and to learn what happened
To the hunters that hunted once
With you and your hunters now gone

The whale that had spoken before responded:

We remember the hunters old
We remember those that they joined
Those that they brought and we sang to
Together we sang and hunted
But then one season they all fled.
They sang to us to swim with them
As we once helped them hunt the sky
To save us all from The Eaters
They and us and all those they made.
But we sang to stay, swim and hunt
And they left us alone to hunt
But they left us a song to sing
In case we decided to go
A place we can go and can sing
And call them back to us again.

Eesarymarnees didn’t know what to sing. The Orcas definitely remembered the Humans leaving. Could those that they had brought be the Alfar? And what were The Eaters? The Plague that had destroyed the Corporate Worlds? And the last suggested they could call his descendents back. He had to go there!

Can we swim all us together
Hunters and hunters together
Swimming and singing to this place?

"What are you saying?" Nerianne asked. She'd swam up beside him, and he hadn't noticed.

The scarred orca sang again:

We remember the hunters old
We welcome you to join our hunt
And thank you for the prey you bring

For a second Eeysarmarnees was confused. And then it clicked. They meant Nerianne! For an instant the thought tempted him, revenge, but he thrust it aside. She didn't deserve it. But, he needed truths. And he needed her alone. He turned and faced her. "Nerianne, they'll take us; to where we can find answers; take us where the Seeders are."

"What? But they killed--"

"Bealansey shot them first; choose now because I'm going."

"I--" He saw her glance at Parthantharnee sobbing in the corner. It was like the killing of Professor Bealansey had broken her.

"What about Parthantharnee?" Eeysarmarnees asked. He wanted to help, but he didn't know how. And he didn't have time. She was too young. But, she didn't deserve death.

"What about her? You want to feed her to the Glistening Hunters too?"

He shook his head to clear it of the whale song. "Nerianne, I have to do this. We can take her to the dome where we sleep-- Isn't there a beacon or something for pickup?"

"There is--"

"I have to go. And you have to choose. Right now."

"I--" She looked at him, at the whales. They were still circling. "Why? The answers are here!"

Eeysarmarnees could feel the need to breathe beginning. "Are they? How do we know the Professor didn't destroy the system I was talking to? And, the Orah can take us to meet the Seeders, meet my kind! I have to go."

He could see and smell Nerianne thinking, considering. "I'll go with you. As long as we take her to the dome first."

"Grab her. Be fast." What to tell the Orcas though--? Turning, he sang.

This hunter does not bring prey here
She is hunter not prey that hunts
She is my mate, my love, my tail
Together we seek the hunters.

Not the truth-- or was it? It didn't matter -- it was something that would force the Orcas to accept her. He hoped.

There was silence, and then the circling slowed down. After a long pause, the same orca sang its reply:

I sorrow that mate I threaten
I understand the hunter old
And welcome this prey that hunts us
This prey that is prey no longer
But a hunter that hunts with us.

Thank God it'd worked! "Nerianne, grab Parthantharnee. We go now!"

Chapter 27

Emilthera, Emergency Response Team leader, Saleneigh's Folly technoarcheology site

He'd always hated the exposure suits, but there simply wasn't enough population in these waters to make a full time conversion worth it. The damn thing itched, the breathing water it supplied was too warm, and the damn bubbles sublimated onto his gills made him want to sneeze. "You see anything?" he asked his partner, Armanth.

"Nothing. If not for the beacon, I'd say it was a false alarm."

"It'd better not be! I-- Seeder! Look over there!" Emilthera pointed at a glistening white dome of material, covered in patterns. Together they swam over to, and then around it. There was no opening, no sign of there having ever been one.

"Crap! Sensors are picking up traces of blood in the water."

Emilthera stopped and looked at his partner. Emilthera was medical, his partner carried the heavy equipment. In these parts you could never be too paranoid. "Any ID?"

"Running-- it's a mixture. DNA shows Glistening Hunter, and-- Windrunner. System reads out as-- Bealansey. From the University."

"At least somebody got one. Sure there's just the two?"

"All that the sniffer can find."

"Great-- I have a bad feeling about this place--"

"Me too."

"Any luck on the beacon? I thought the damn things were supposed to be absolutely directional."

"They are-- Something's fragged about this one--" He floated in place, turned slowly around and then pointed. "This way, I think--"

"Think you're right-- I see one of the Class Five habidomes over that way."

The two swam hard and fast. The 'copter they'd brought had been stripped for fuel to make it this far and back. The sensor equipment on the damn thing was about the only thing left, and even it was a fraction of what it should be. After all, the location was known, or so they thought. It didn't take them long to reach the dome and swim through the entrance underneath. Their two heads poked up, water rolling off and dripping out of their gills. Emilthera sucked warm water though a tube -- more comfortable then breathing air. "Anybody here?" he asked, looking around.

His only answer was a whimper, and he saw a Windrunner curled up in the corner, shivering. "Any idea who?" he whispered to his partner as he slowly made his way over. "It's all right now-- I'm here to help--"

"Colouration suggests Parthantharnee. Grad student. Age fifteen."

Emilthera sighed and stopped right before her, the tip of his suited tail hanging into the water. "Visually she looks alright. No signs of physical trauma."

"I found the beacon-- thing's been turned on-- internal log showed it activated by-- Running Stallion Nerianne. Some bastard's screwed up the directional -- really crude job."

"Whoever the hell she is-- Parthantharnee-- I'm Emergency Response. I'm here to help." He sucked more water. "What--"

"He-s dead-- Dead!" she whimpered. Turning, she looked at him, eyes unfocused. "The Seeder, the false Seeder!"

He slowly moved an arm towards her, palm down, and let his scent waft across her nostrils. "The-- He's gone now. Everything's all right--"

Her eyes snapped into focus. "It's not! It's not! The Glistening Hunter, the Orah, ate the Professor! I said things-- but I never meant it!"

Pulling off the glove, he placed his arm on her shoulder, slowly, not threatening, and he felt her flesh quiver at touch. "Just relax. We'll take care of it."

She grasped his shoulders, fingers crushing into his flesh. "You don't understand! They follow him!"

"Who? Who follows who?"

"The Glistening Hunters, the Orah-- He controls them! He told them to eat the Professor! And-- and I believed he was a Seeder--"

Emilthera ran his fingers lightly over her, checking her for any signs of injury. No bruises, no broken bones. "No signs of physical trauma. Temperature feels normal. I don't think anything is wrong with her. Parthantharnee?' He gently moved her head to face him. "We need your help. We need to find out what happened here."

"What happened? What happened? They ate the Professor right in front of me! Bloody chunks everywhere! I need to clean-- clean it off, off!"

Slowly wrapping his arms around her, he gently rocked her back and forth. "It'll be all right-- all right--"

"It won't be! We're doomed! The Pilgusez have returned amongst us! He-- he took Running Stallion Nerianne. Took her with the Orah!"

"There-- there--" He sucked more water and spoke into the radio. "Emergency Response Thunder Five. One team member alive, in extreme shock. No immediate physical injuries. One other confirmed dead. Two missing, believed dead. Evidence suggests Windrunner eater Glistening Hunter."

The radio crackled as the signal went to the 'coptor, was beamed to orbiting satellites, and the response came back following the reverse path. "Read you-- Do you need assistance."

"Negative at this time. Suggest--"

"Seeder--" Armanth said. "Just got more info download. This whole damn expedition is a Red."

"Seeder--" Left hand never knows what the right hand is doing.

Another voice broke in on the circuit. Its tone was harsh, guttural. "This is now under military control. Mesianne's orders. Karnak Act now enforced. All information sealed. We will deal with the Windrunner killer and the missing two."

"I-- understood. Will stay here and care for the survivor."

"Good job."

Shaking his head and watching his partner do the same out of the corner of his eye, Emilthera rocked the filly back and forth as she sobbed against him.

He had a bad feeling about this--

Chapter 28

Eeysarmarnees with Nerianne and an Orca pod, near the Saleneigh's Folly technoarcheological site

With the Orca surrounding them, Eeysarmarnees swam with Nerianne. They'd just left the dome they slept in. Parthantharnee was there -- Nerianne had to move her as she just screamed whenever Eeysarmarnees came near. The emergency beacon had also been sabotaged, or so Nerianne claimed. She smelled of the truth, but he didn't know if that meant anything anymore.

Great Hunters I swim with here
My mate and I, we must rest
With the ice, on the surface
Can you wait and protect us?

The scarred Orca didn't take long to respond.

The Hunter that has returned
Returned to us through ages
We will wait, but not too long
All of the hunters gather
For the wondrous Parting Place

"What are you saying to them?" Nerianne asked.

"I just asked for a rest stop; they won't wait for very long."

The pod arced towards the surface, and Eeysarmarnees went with them, turning to watch Nerianne follow. Her rifle was still over her shoulder, and it slowed her down. But she was still more skilled than he was, and it was easy for her to keep up.

They breached the surface, and Eeysarmarnees breathed. The air was cold, even for his new body. The sky was dim, covered in streaks of cloud, and a harsh wind was blowing. Taking a great gulp of air, he ducked under and waited for Nerianne..

He had to know. He could die, but he had to know.

With a gurgle of water, Nerianne breached. She breathed, and then sank down just below the choppy surface facing him. Her rifle was still strapped over her shoulders, and it thudded against her flesh. Around them, the Orcas breached, squeaking and clicking, and blowing plumes of water that the wind ripped away. More had joined the group, and all circled, protecting them. Waiting. Ready.

"We shouldn't be resting," Nerianne said. "I'm not sure how long until somebody comes."

Eeysarmarnees looked at her. Looked at her face. He tried to ignore her scent, to see what she meant through other means. "Nerianne, hand me the rifle."

"What? But why?"

He thought about pushing it, about saying the Orca didn't trust her. But that was a lie, and she would know, no matter what the truth of the Windrunner pheromones was. He snorted, a trickle of bubbles glurping from one of his nostrils. "I should be asking why."

There was a long pause as an ice sheet crackled somewhere on the surface. Nerianne's scent changed, from confusion to shame to confusion to question. "Why what?"

"Why the tracker? Why the weapons? You had them, I didn't. Were they for use against me?"

"I-- no-- well, not their main use. The guns were for defence against the Glistening Hunters--"

"Orah."

"Orah." She turned away. "But, they were also for use against you." The scent of her shame filled the water. "In case you weren't what you believed you were."

"Is that what your Great Stallion, your father, told you?"

"Yes."

He spit out his reply, releasing bubbles into the water: "And that's why I'm here, isn't it? Not because of the Seeders, or the possible technoarcheology, but to keep me safely hidden, safely controlled. A test to force out the truth that I'm a spy for somebody else."

She spun around, her mane clouding her face in darkness. "And why not! You could be. How could we know?"

"And this whole dig was just a fly above the grass while running in it wasn't it." He didn't ask, he just stated it.

"No-- yes--" She paddled a short distance away before continuing. "My father doesn't believe you, and he could be right. Even you have to admit that possibility. I believe you, I always have. But we couldn't take the risk of letting you free. We couldn't take the risk of people knowing about you. My father was right, it could be disastrous."

"Why? I don't know any technology you don't already have!"

"You don't understand, do you? We can't lie. If you were a spy, then you'd know who and what to ask. Cleverly worded questions force us to give out information -- even if we say nothing. Even worse would be if people knew what you were! You saw what Professor Bealansey was going to do! Parthantharnee found out, she believed you. And look where it got her!"

He sank a bit, thinking -- what she said was her truth, and it made sense to him. It agreed with what Alleseign had told him. Agreed with what Parthantharnee had told him. He just hoped she'd recover.

"Father would have killed you if I hadn't begged."

Begged?

"I convinced him to check here to see if there were any ruins. He wanted an alternative to just killing you, but he couldn't find one that had an acceptable level of risk compared to the possible gains. So, I made one for him. Bringing you here, finding what we could find. He told me that you were my responsibility. But I wasn't worried because I know you."

"Why the rifles?"

"Because I could be wrong!" With strong kicks she burst through the water until she was right in front of him, burying her muzzle in his mane. He could feel the sobs wracking her body. "He trusted me to deal with you if the risks outweighed the gain. I will not betray him and the race. And, and-- you have-- all that was-- was good in Alleseign, and-- and so much more--"

He wrapped his arms around her and held her against him.

"And all that-- that was wrong about him, you have right."

The water was filled with scent of her truth. And love, and sorrow. But how? She'd only known him for a few months!

"And I can't-- can't-- can't live without-- without you!" And then her body shook so hard that she couldn't speak any more.

Without him? How could she love him? He was a stranger, a Seeder. And yet-- How much had she loved Alleseign? She’d wanted him for her mate, but his personality and inconsiderate nature about his time had driven her away. And now she was saying she was in love with him, with Eeysarmarnees.

He could feel a warmth in his soul at the thought. He'd never felt like that when he'd had sex, but then they were all paid companions. Well, most. Years ago, during the war, there'd been a few that had meant more. When he feared he'd go out and never come back. But, even they'd never made him feel like this. How could he love her after such a short time? How much of Alleseign was in the mind, and how much in the body? Could his body lover her? He shook his head. Did it really matter? By the Emptiness his scent was feeding these thoughts! How good an actor was she? Was this all lies, an attempt to manipulate him further? With a force of will he shoved it all away, and looked at everything coldly and analytically.

"Nerianne, give me the gun." His voice was cold and harsh, but it had to be as that was the only way he could do what had to be done. She’d either been telling the truth about the Windrunners and their ability to lie, or she hadn’t. All the things he’d seen and scented in the past few months from the others supported that statement. They'd never lied, even about the rifles. But then, almost all his information had come through Nerianne. He had to decide if Nerianne was a lie, or a truth. If she’d always been telling the truth, then everybody had been telling their own truth and he could trust her, he could obey his body that cried out in love. But, if she’d been lying, creating a clever simulation of the Windrunners to fool him, briefing and controlling all the others in the dig, then he couldn't. He couldn't afford to. The Orcas had an escape -- he had to get to it. That way he could find out. And, he could go home to his own kind.

He remembered Parthantharnee and their conversation about the three factions. He could see that coming from a race that knew it was created, and found lots of evidence and technical knowledge to support that fact. He just couldn't see Parthantharnee being enough of an actor to consistently fool him in all the time they’d spent together in the last few months. But with the body regrowth, they could all be thousand year old geniuses.

Not for the first time he wished Fremin was here. Somebody to bounce ideas off of, to reassure him that he was right to trust her.

Or not.

But he was alone. So alone for the first time in his life. And, the more he picked at it, the more he realized that he couldn't know for sure.

Which simplified things. It all came down to whether she was worth the risk of bringing her along. He had to hope that his descendents could tell him the truth. Or, that they would take the two of them, the Orcas, so far away that it didn't matter.

He wanted to trust her, he burned to trust her, but he just couldn't.

Nerianne was floating in front of him, watching him. Reading his scent. And, in her hands, was the rifle. His if he wanted it. Reaching for it, he took its cold reality in his hands--

--and realized that it didn't matter. He had the power here, she didn't. If she kept the rifle, and used it, the Orcas would tear her apart. Giving it to him was either a gesture of trust and love, or, in the cold reality of power, meaningless.

He let go and watched it sink into the depths.

Her scent changed, becoming one of confusion. "Why?"

"You know very well why. Drop everything. The tracker. All your equipment. Now."

In silence she did, and he watched it all sink and vanish. That took care of the tracker, at least her tracker. But, it didn't take care of whatever was broadcasting from him.

"How far can I be tracked?"

"I--" He smelled her struggling not to cry, though the tears were invisible in the water. She was resigned, but had a tiny sliver of hope. "It's standard to equip isolated expeditions with individual trackers, all members. Usual distance is 200 kilometres, though it varies depending on conditions. I would have one, like that. Yours could be different."

She hadn't said kilometres but he somehow knew the distance she meant. It had to be the nanobots.

"When they reach the camp, find Parthantharnee, find us gone, what are they going to do?"

"I-- I don't know. It depends what my father told them to. In the cold reality I'd expect them to have orders to find you and kill you."

"I presume they have means-- aircraft, powered submersibles?"

"I don't know! It depends. If he wants to keep his options open, he'll start the hunt with small groups in the hope of finding you and recovering you. Limited equipment to preserve secrecy. If he feels it's safer to have you dead, then he'll go right to military craft. I-- I expect he'd go with the later."

"Even at the risk of your life?"

"Eeysarmarnees, to preserve the race, he considers me expendable. He considers himself expendable. It'll be military aircraft."

How far away was this Parting Place? It was unlikely to be close. It could be days, maybe weeks. The military aircraft of Earth could reach any point on the planet within hours. The ones the Windrunners had would be limited by the atmosphere, but they certainly wouldn't be slower-- or would they? It depended on what kind of tech they had. He had no way of knowing.

The cold analytical part of him warned him that watching Nerianne was time and effort he couldn't afford to assign to her. Best to kill her now. The rest of him shoved that aside. There had to be a different way!

Of course, if she did find a way to kill him, would the Orca actually do anything? To them, Nerianne was a hunter, one of them. And, he wasn't sure he could convince them otherwise-- the language just wasn't flexible enough. So much simpler to just kill her-- But he couldn't!

One thing at a time-- tracker first. That was the immediate problem. But-- wait-- maybe there was a way to see if Nerianne was telling at least the partial truth.

As he'd thought, it seemed that the reality of her situation was sinking in. She'd been looking around, more and more, at the circling Orcas. And her scent was tinged more and more with terror. "What are the-- Orah?"

Eeysarmarnees couldn't help but let out some bubbles. He wished he could tell them his fears about her honesty, but the understanding between him and the Orcas just wasn't there -- the common language couldn't sing it. "These Orah were brought from my world as companions to the colonists. They aren't intelligent like we are, but are intelligent in their own way. Long ago they were friends to my kind, and they’ve remembered those times and welcomed me, and now you, among them."

"But we hunt them--"

"They don't mind. To them it's the way of things."

"But--"

"They're different. Even though we uplifted them, they aren't intelligent like us, or maybe they aren't at all, or maybe they’re much smarter. I don't know. From what they told me, my descendents asked the Orah to come with them, but the Orah decided to stay. They were given a place they could go, and a signal they could send, so that the Seeders would come and take them away with them."

"They can call the Seeders? Why are we waiting here then?"

"They'll do it for me, for memories of times shared long ago."

"How can you trust these beasts?"

"How can I trust you?"

Her mouth hung open.

Turning away, he sang:

This hunter fears for his mate
She hunts, but hunts not too well
She may be sick, I cannot see
Can you check and sing her inside
To see if she is sick injured
So I can help my mate be well?

The scarred Orca replied:

I sorrow with you for your mate
I will seek, we will sing her
Together we pray she be well.

Eeysarmarnees responded:

I ask if the hunters here
Could sing my insides also
What she has, I may have too
I ask, hunter to hunter.

He shook his head to clear the whalesong so he could speak to Nerianne. Her terrof was flooding the water. There were close to twenty crowding around them, floating motionless in the water.

"Nerianne?" He couldn't not scent her terror.

"Y-- yes?"

"Are you all right?"

"I'm not sure." Turning, she looked at him, her eyes burrowing into his. "They're going to eat me-- I know they are. I'm telling the truth!"

"They're not going to consume you." As he said the last he could smell his pheromones in the water showing a hint of falsity at that statement. He sighed, a low moan, and let a few bubbles trickle out through his nose. "Stop and listen. It's not like that. They won’t eat you, or even hurt you, unless I tell them to." Another hint of falsity. "And as long as you’ve been truthful, I won't tell them to."

"But I've always--"

"Shut up and listen to what I ask, and answer carefully, and truthfully."

"But--" he glared at her. "Yes."

"Do they have any way of tracking you? Any kind of beacon or tracer?"

"Like-- like I said, they should--"

Swimming over, he grabbed her arm. "That isn't good enough! I need a yes or no answer. I need to know whether or not I can trust you!"

She started to speak until she saw his eyes. Her mouth closed as he looked at her. Her desperation filled the water. "I should have one. I know you have one. But nothing else!"

"So, there should be a beacon, one in each of us. Nothing else?"

She looked away. "Yes."

Switching back to whalesong, Eeysarmarnees sang:

My mate and I are now ready
For you to sing for our sickness
So come and sing what's within us
And pray that there's nothing you find

The Orcas crowded closer and Nerianne started to back away. Eyesarmarnees grabbed her and hissed, "You leave and they'll eat you; stay and wait and, if truthful; nothing will happen to you."

Shivering, she stopped; fumbling around she grabbed his hand. "I-- I trust you."

One Orca began rubbing its beak along her neck, her chest, and down along her tail. Another did the same to him. He could feel the sonar rumbling inside him, shaking his bones. A sound he felt, but couldn't hear.

In a moment the Orca were done and backed away. They talked amongst themselves, and then the scarred one sang to Eeysarmarnees:

This hunter sorrows for you
For your mate has it in her
And you have it in you twice.

Chapter 29

Nerianne, somewhere near the Saleneigh's Folly technoarcheological site

She'd never been so terrified in her life. The brave starship captain, gone; the quivering little filly all that was left. Too many childhood nightmares, too many scary stories. All twisted up and buried in side her and wailing just below the surface. When the Glistening Hunter finished rubbing its beak against her and moved away, she fled to the surface, screaming out all her air in clouds of bubbles that followed her up.

It helped-- a bit. Enough that she was back under by Eeysarmarnees as he-- talked to the Hunters.

She could smell his anger, his resentment, as he turned to her. "They say that you have one thing; and that I've got two things." He shook his head. "Nerianne, I have a broadcasting device, you apparently do also. What is the second one in me?"

"Second one? What second one?"

"The second device inside me." His voice was colder than the ice on the surface.

"I don't know! Smell my truth."

"If it's all a lie, then your scent means nothing."

"What? Impossible!"

"I only know what you told me. If you lied from the first, then everything's a lie." Turning, he resumed singing to the whales.

How could he believe the pheromones meant nothing? It was impossible. Utterly impossible. Was he mad? A small part of her whispered, he has only our word on the pheromones. She ignored it.

"The Orah say that the things; two can both be bitten out; the other in me cannot." Snorting out some bubbles, he popped to the surface, grabbed a breath, and swam back down. "I think that one device, one in each of us, is near the surface of our skin, just in front of our flukes."

"That would be standard placement for the transmitter."

"The other, I'm told, is in my spine, at what would have been my waist."

"Do you trust them, the Glistening Hunters? What if they're lying?"

"The are not lying. I trust them a lot more than I trust you right now."

She stared. She'd bared her heart to him. For this? "They have no truth scent!"

"And neither do you."

She would have fallen backwards if she wasn't floating, instead she recoiled away from him. How could he? Her scent was her truth, her soul!

"Nerianne. You know your father. What could the other device in me be?"

"I don't know."

"From what you've told me, _if_ it wasn't all flying above the grass while running in it, he wouldn't have told you. You've known him all your life. Speculate."

"I--" She needed to regain his trust. If she'd ever had it. And yet, she knew she had. "If I were him-- a failsafe. Backup. Insurance."

"He doesn't trust you?"

"He does. He just prepares for the impossible."

"What would he do?"

"I think-- I think his greatest fear would be losing control of you. It could be some secret Seeder tech he has. I can't see it being another transmitter, no gain." She swallowed. "Most likely something to kill you. If it's really inside your spine, it can't be poison. That's too slow anyway. It's--"

"It's a bomb. Put in when I was put in this body."

"Impossible! That'd require in depth reprogramming of your regrowth tank at a very basic level."

"It's there."

"The Glistening Hunters are--!"

"Orah."

"Fine! Orah. The Orah are either flying above the grass while running in it, or they're mistaken."

"They are not. What could trigger it?"

"I don't know! A signal, a loss of signal, the passage of specific amount of time--"

Eeysarmarnees frowned, and scratched at the base of one ear. She's so teased Alleseign about that little habit of his. He continued: "It's doubtful that he'd tell you anyway-- Certainly, a signal to kill me on command. Not much I can do. Loss of a carrier signal-- Safest is to not change anything from the past month. But Bealansey is dead; Parthantharnee is left behind. Only other thing is my transmitter. And yours."

"Me? But I'd never detonate it!"

"Possibly not willingly. But, for example, your device could be transmitting a carrier. If the bomb loses that signal, it detonates."

Her heart beat a bit faster as she knew what that meant.

"You're coming with me."

"That's what I want to do!"

"Or so you claim--"

"You can smell my truth!"

"For all that's worth."

"Shut up! By the Void, just shut up!"

They were glaring at each other, would have been huffing and puffing through their nostrils at each other. If they hadn't both been holding their breaths. Nerianne giggled, a few bubbles escaping.

"Hmph!" Eeysarmarnees snorted. "Mares--"

Nerianne could smell the small bit of joy coming from him as he turned to the Glistening Hunters and sang. Joy at being with them, and joy at being with her. Their conversation went on for a while; she surfaced to breathe during it, and so did he. The storm was getting worse. The sun was low, and all of the heavens were drenched in heavy black clouds. Rescue craft could probably get through, but not the high performance interceptors. At least the ones she knew about.

She had to surface to breathe again. She didn't like it -- she was using air faster than she should be. But then, even with Eeysarmarnees' reassurances, her heart was still beating like a panicked herdt. Part of her was happy that Eeysarmarnees didn't trust her, thought she might be keeping the bomb from going off. It gave him a reason to keep her alive. And close.

Of course, knowing her father. Eeysarmarnees could be right. Or the truth could be even worse.

The odd beat of the conversation continued; every so often Eeysarmarnees surfaced, exhaled, inhaled deeply, and went back under. Each time she joined him. Nerianne didn't trust the Glistening Hunters without him beside her. And, she wanted to stay close. The idea of a bomb, that she might be needed to keep it from going off, was unsettling.

But, at this point, it kept them together. And that gave her hope. She needed hope--

Chapter 30

Eeysarmarnees near the Saleneigh technoarcheological site

There was a bomb in his ass. Or where his ass would be if he was still human. Or even an air breathing Windrunner.

And, everything Nerianne had said had been a lie. Everything that mattered. He could feel his heart scream as it was ripped in two.

But what if she wasn't lying? What if she didn't know? a tiny part of him whispered. That's why you're really taking her along.

How much of him was Cesar Martinez, how much Alleseign, how much Eeysarmarnees? Could he ever know?

He shook his head. No time for this now, especially when there was no way he could answer any of it. Once again, he wished that Fremin was with him. Someone to confide in. Someone he could trust with his soul.

Did Fremin have a soul? Something nagged at him-- Fremin asking what would happen when he died. A part of him sobbed, the rest forced that back. Time for that later. His head was clear of the whalesong, he'd caught his breath. Time to explain.

Ducking under, he turned to Nerianne.

"As I told you, these Orah know of a way to contact the Seeders. Something that was left behind in case they need it. I'm not sure of the details, but they tell me it's two to three days brisk swim away. I think they'll take us. They'll do it for me, for memories of times shared long ago. For you--"

"How can you trust these beasts?"

"They're not beasts, and we've been down this path before. Now, I'm going to make sure they'll take us, and you are coming. You need to listen to my instructions -- I've worked out the details with them already. Do exactly what I say, nothing else. Is this clear?"

Turning away, he switched into whalesong:

I thank you and hear your welcome
As she whom I love and hunt for
But now I must ask, as hunter
Asks a hunter to catch the prey.
I must go to Place of Parting
Where the hunters of old that sang
Left you a place to sing to them
And bring them back to join the hunt.
I must hunt there fast and swiftly
For the prey that hunts in silence
Will hunt I and my mate as prey.

Eeysarmarnees watched and listened as the whales sang to each other in their own language. His hand moved outward and held Nerianne's in a warm grasp. The whistles and clicks stopped, and the scarred Orca replied:

Then swiftly will we take you there
Take all of us to the place
Away from the prey that hunts us.
We will sing to all the hunters
To join us at the Parting Place
And together we will all sing
To bring the hunters as of old.
Now bite you into my warm flesh
And have your mate bite another
And swifter than the prey that hunts
We'll swim the Place of Parting.

Shaking his head to clear it, wishing Fremin was there to help, Eesarmarnees turned back to Nerianne. "It's all set. An Orca is going to swim overtop of you. Reach around, to either side, and grasp one of their pectoral fins in each hand. They'll do the swimming. If you need to breathe, squeeze gently and your mount will bellyroll and poke you above the surface, briefly."

She looked around. "I-- I don't know--"

"Nerianne, you have to do this. I don't have time to argue. We need to go, and go fast. The building storm gives us some time, but not enough. Given that I can be tracked, if I'm hidden maybe they'll have some trouble figuring who to shoot. Unless they just nuke the entire pod."

Nerianne stiffened.

"The conservationalists will be up in arms."

"I doubt your father cares."

She squeezed his hand. "I'm scared, terrified."

"You can't afford to be. I don't have a choice, and, given what you, or your father, has done, you don't either. Now, I'm willing to believe that you don't need to be alive for your transmitter to keep my bomb from going off." His heart thumped loudly at the thought, but it was something he had to consider. "I don't want to test it, but--"

"I'll-- I'll do what I can."

"That's all any of us can do. Remember: hold on to the pectorals, gentle squeeze for air. They'll switch off when they breech -- when your mount breeches, let go, another one will be ready for you to grab. Others will bring you fish -- you can just take them from their beaks. Clear?"

She nodded, short quick nods that were almost too small to be seen.

"Remember, pectorals, squeeze for air, when breech let go and switch to replacement mount, eat fish offered. Got it?"

"I-- I think so."

Still watching Nerianne, he sang:

My mate is ready to go
The hunter I am is too
We are ready for the hunt
We are ready for to return
With you to the Parting Place

"Get ready!" he hissed to Nerianne. With practice, it seemed that switching back and forth was becoming easier.

A large male swam over and above Eeysarmarnees and wiggled his pectoral fins. Eeysarmarnees touched one. It was warmer than he remembered, and the shape felt slightly different. But then, each of them looked different than he remembered. Swimming beneath the Orca, his mane sliding along its chest, he grabbed one of the pectoral fins in each hand.

"Hold like I'm doing, Nerianne." From his left eye he watched her give a quick tiny nod.

Another Orca moved overtop of her and he smelled her terror, could even see her shivering, but she managed to grab hold.

The Orca squeaked in complaint.

"Not so hard!"

"You're-- you're sure it's safe."

"Of course. And, you have little choice."

Eeysarmarnees heard the Orcas laughing. "Now you're holding too loosely. You have to hold much harder, else the hunters’ll leave you for prey."

Neianne gushed out bubbles, silvery spheres bouncing and sliding along the Orca's chest, but held on. She squeezed, the Orca turned over, and she grabbed a breath before her mount flipped back around.

"Rea-- Ready--"

My mate and I are ready
Ready to go to Parting Place
Swim and carry us with you
Take us and hunt the seas well.

And with that, they were off!


Before his last trip as a human, Eeysarmarnees had done this with Henry and Margaret, and before them others. It'd been exhilarating then, but it was even more so now. Then he'd not been so streamlined, and he'd felt it. He'd gotten oxygen from the tank in his chest, which had taken away from the experience he had now. Now he was almost part of the Orca, riding it, even though he was below. The fact that he was holding his breath, that he needed to breech and breathe, it made it more of a shared experience. The pair had to co-operate. He found that turbulences generated by the Orca's movement pulled him tight against its chest, his flukes pressing against the base of its tail as it beat back and forth, shoving them through the water. He helped, or tried to, though he doubted it made much difference.

At first, Nerianne fell off, again and again. The Orca's chattered and laughed. He didn't tell her what they were doing, and didn't offer to help. She knew what had to be done. She would learn, or be carried in teeth. And he told her. So learn she did.

Together the pod and the two Windrunners traveled away from the dig, far faster than either Eeysarmarnees or Nerianne could have on their own. Breathing turned out to be simpler than they'd thought -- they were just passengers, the Orcas did all the work. It turned out that the Orcas needed to breathe more often. A system developed -- the Orca would breach, then submerge and flip over. Their passenger would poke their muzzles up and breathe. A kick with their Windrunner flukes and the Orca would dive deeper, flip back over, and the race would be on again. Mounts were changed every third of fourth breeching. On the surface the storm grew more and more fierce. Nerianne and the Orcas had no problem, Eeysarmarnees had to work for air until he learned the trick of breathing through only one nostril, and that one the one he turned away from the wind. As they swam, the Orcas sang in their language, and Eeysarmarnees just listened, remembering his work after the war.

Between the two Windrunners there was nothing but silence. Eeysarmarnees didn't want to talk. Nerianne tried, but eventually gave up and shivered in the rush of water, staying pressed against her mount. Each time they switched to a new Orca, Eeysarmarnees watched her struggle, but force herself to do it.

And the kilometers vanished beneath them.


The Orcas could swim and sleep; the Windrunners could not. Eeysarmarnees found that out when he nodded off, and woke up with an Orca nudging him from beneath. Looking over at Nerianne he could see that she was fighting off exhaustion too. It took some quick discussion, but eventually two Orca gently bit down on each of the Windrunner's arms, just past their shoulders, and pulled them. It wasn't comfortable, but the blubber insulation kept it from being really painful. And, once Nerianne stopped screaming, she was able to get some sleep to.


Eeysarmarnees woke up still being carried. They were traveling slower, and another Orca was offering him a fish from its beak. He took it, and gulped it down. Another came and another.

Looking around, Eesarmarnees saw that there were almost a hundred Orca around him. He had to ask:

This hunter thanks the hunters
He, his mate will live, for now.
But why are all the hunters here
Gathering around and around?

The same Orca he always spoke to answered. It seems that few remembered the old language, but at least some did remember it. It sang to him:

We gather to sing the old song
We gather to the Parting Place.
Together shall we all sing there
Together we call them back
The hunters that left as of old.

All of them? All the Orcas? It was like they were gathering on a-- a-- holy crusade or something! So he asked:

Are the hunters sure it is safe
To gather all the hunters there
All together in the old place
All together to sing them back?

And the Orca answered:

The prey that hunts can't hurt us there
The hunters of old will save us
All of us must sing to call them
All of us who want to leave here.
For we all know what is coming
The ice will cover most of it.
The ice will force us to the prey
And the prey that hunts will hunt us
And that is why we sing for you.

Long have we waited you to come
A prey who spoke as of old times
A prey now hunter to take us
To the place where we all can sing
And bring back the hunters of old.

They were waiting for him? Was it for him specifically, or anyone, or just waiting for the right time? It was hard to tell in the created language. But he had to answer:

This hunter of old does thank you
And is honoured that he helps you.
Together shall all of us sing
At the Place of Parting we sing
And call back the hunters of old.

Another one came with another fish which Eeysarmarnees took. Looking over at Nerianne he saw that she wouldn't take the fish offered. From her scent, what little he could pick up, she was terrified.

"Nerianne, you have to eat! We have a long way to go."

"I-- I can't!"

He could sense the Orca become worried. He could ask them to stop, but he felt time pressing on him. Time and the bomb. Part of him was surprised he wasn't dead already. But then, he wasn't complaining! After a bit of thought, he sang:

My mate, the love of my life
She is not well as you saw
She cannot eat right now here
We must get her Parting Place
Hunters of Old will save her

New Orcas nudged each of them, and Eeysarmarnees switched to riding below the one who was offering. "Mount up, Nerianne! Mount up!"

Somehow she managed.

And then they were off again.


The day passed, and the pod of Orcas kept growing. Soon there were hundreds. As the storm cleared there were thousands. In his spine the bomb waited, and Eeysarmarnees wondered what the Windrunners were going to do.

Chapter 31

Tictaklat, Saleneigh's Folly, Kalatath Military Field

He was jerked out of bed by the alert buzz. It took him a moment, far longer than usual. But then, he'd been on launch alert for over a day as the storm went on and on. It'd taken the medical officer ordering Stallion Thalansarn to let him sleep for him to finally get some sack time.

Forcing himself out of bed, he straightened out his flightsuit, even though the rubber-like material didn't need to be straightened. He gulped down the stim the doctor had supplied with the aid of a glass of warm water. Then he yawned, his buck teeth a brilliant white as he wiggled his bushy tail. Stretching his arms, he felt his flightsuit press against his gliding membranes.

He walked over to the window and looked out. Hot and sunny. Just like it'd been for days. Throwing the balcony door open, he ran through it and leapt into the air. He outstretched his arms and his gliding flaps snapped taught. It didn't work too well while he was wearing his flightsuit, but the launch field and his fighter weren't far. Besides, Stallion Thalansarn hated it. Stalling just beside his craft, he twisted until he was vertical in the air, and then thumped to the ground on his footpaws. Thalansarn and the ground crew, who also served as his flight support team, were already there.

Thalansarn glared at him, hmphed, and then spoke: "You're cleared for immediate take off. Clearance level green. We'll download exact coords into your system when you're airborn." With that, he turned, and clopped off to the small control bunker.

"Not in a good mood this afternoon, is he?" asked Kalkatan, another Nikontar, and head of his groundtech crew.

"Of course not," said Thalasseign as he unclipped the LH2 hose from the fuel tank with a dull clank. "Here he is, promoted to a dead end job after the incident at Marnassen, his only joy tormenting his one pilot, and said pilot gets a green."

"Serves him right," Tictaklut said.

Of course, there was more truth then he'd like in Thalasseign's words. Even since the Nikontar homeworld had been destroyed by the Jagglasan, the survivors had allied themselves to the greater powers. Here to the Windrunners, the greatest of the great. Of course, all the Nikontar got were tiny islands, and bare subsistence survival. Still, better than extinction.

Tictaklat wasn't that special - he just loved to fly. Not in space, as if a Nikontar could ever get to crew a starship, but through the air. Faster and harder than anybody else. And even though atmospheric combat craft were generally deemed purposeless, a handful were maintained combat ready just in case. Which mean that Tictaklut got a job nobody else wanted. A job that allowed him to fly.

Well, except for the other Nikontar pilot. The only other pilot, who was second string as he'd gotten splashed in their last wargame. Loser!

Tictaklut clambered up the ladder and waited at the top as the ground crew plugged in the support system hoses to his flightsuit. Then he wiggled into the armoured centre of the short, flattened cylinder of the fighter's body. Squeezing into the padded cradle, he stuck his arms into their control sleeves, and his legs into theirs. One of his ground crew reached in and tightened the mask over his muzzle. Sensors were attached to shaved areas of his throat, and the remaining loose plumbing hoses were secured to the appropriate slots in the cockpit. Kalkatan pushed Tictaklut's tail into its control sleeve. The eyemask was taped over his eyes and around his head, his eyelids sealed open.

"Final systems check," Tictaklut subvocalized, the microphones on his throat picking up the vibrations and translating them into speech over his assigned radio frequency,

"Everything's in the blue," Kalkaton responded. "Sealing you up."

"Get a move on! My eyes itch.

"Yea, yea--"

Another ground crewmember had secured another hose to the fuselage, and it filled the cockpit with a neutral liquid, cocooning Tictaklut and protecting him for extreme high G maneuvers. By design it oozed under the eyemask and kept his eyes moistened as detailed status and targeting grids were projected directly onto his cornea. To end the prep, a neutral transport medium was pumped up into the muzzlemask, filling his lungs. Tictaklut hated that stage, and coughed and gagged and forced down panic as the air was forced out and sucked out of the system, and he stopped breathing. The medium that filled his lungs didn't contain oxygen directly. Instead it was a long chain organic fluid that rapidly transported CO2 and O2. Since his lungs released CO2, it was sucked out and filtered out of the liquid; since he lungs absorbed O2, it was sucked in to keep his body oxygenated. Tictaklut had to do nothing as O2 and CO2 passed in and out automatically. The liquid, at a constant pressure, kept his lungs from collapsing.

"Transition state complete. All systems in blue-- wait-- showing the damn turquoise on number one thrust vent -- I thought you guys fixed that!"

"We did-- give us a sec--"

Tictaklut waited, hearing them work, but seeing nothing. The sensor suite was calibrated for far more distant targets -- there was no way he could focus that close.

"Seeder damn it! Some motherless bastard didn't tighten the damn aux hydraulic cable down. Damn thing just wiggled loose. Give me a sec--"

Tictaklut heard shouting and cursing. Then the turquoise light turned blue. "That got it. Reserve tank topped off. Everything good on this end."

"Downloading navigation data-- Seeder, this is all they got?"

"Just satellite radio recap -- you know what the weather's like up there."

Tictaklut sure did as he'd been waiting for it to clear far longer than he cared to remember. "Yea, yea--"

"Stop complaining, you've got a green."

"Not that there's any other traffic to worry about. And I ain't getting in the way of a shuttle!"

"Wise Nikontar."

Tictaklut snorted, though it sounded more like a gurgle. "You live as long as I do and-- getting some visual-- live feed of a herd of Glistening Hunters?"

"The transmitters in there somewhere. Standard cold adapted Windrunner form, target colouration is cream. Should be easy to spot. You ready for launch?"

"Since I was born!"

"Ha, ha. Runway is clear, boosters are primed. You're good to go."

"Got that."

"Good hunting Tictaklut. Come back in one piece."

He let out a gurgle again. "As though there's any risk here."

"Oh, just be careful."

"Yea-- sure. Launch countdown-- five-- four-- three-- two-- one-- Ignition!"

The three solid fuel boosters ignited and the interceptor burst forward, accelerating down the runway at nearly ten G. Inside his cocoon, Tictaklut felt nothing. The fighter itself was short and stubby. Two larger swept forward wings nearly scraped the runway, and two smaller wings swept upward. On the nose and tail of the short fuselage were control surfaces, large, and swept forward and backward respectively. The nose was crammed with instruments and electronics, along with the railguns, and the in flight engine swept along the bottom, with vented exhausts at the back to enhance maneuverability even more. For this mission she was lightly armed, just the railguns in the nose, and the fat nuke strapped below the engine.

Grasping the control sticks with each handpaw, Tictaklut pulled gently back. The plane swept upward until it was almost vertical, rising on pillars of fire. The landing gear retracted. Bursting through the clouds, he leveled off as the solid fuel boosters sputtered and died, and dropped off for recovery. Pushing back pedals with his footpaws, the ramjet kicked in, and the hypernimble craft roared across the heavens.

"Tictaklut to base. All systems blue. ETA to target zone eighty-seven minutes. Satellite visuals coming in clean. Hey, Kalkaton, is all this just to shoot some Glistening Hunters? That's all I got on my visual."

"All we've got is the tracking signal. Should be from the target Windrunner. Unless he's been eaten of course-- Signal's been headed nearly straight for Pansar Mount for the past thirty hours."

"Tictaklut tried to blink in disbelief as he looked at the latest visual, but his eyelids couldn't move. "Seeder-- how many Glistening Hunters are at the target zone?"

"Nobody's sure. Checking what we could get through the storm, it seems that more and more kept joining the group."

"Looks like every damn Hunter on the planet!"

"I know you're joking, but the info I've got shows speculation that it just might be."

"Might be what?"

"All of them."

"Seeder-- How in the Empty Sky am I going to pick out the target in that?"

"I'm working with the satellite techs to see if we can lock the tracker straight into your systems. That'll be your target."

"With the nuke, why bother?"

"Nukes only for when you're past Point Neyseign."

"Yea, yea, I know, I know--"

The conversation died, and Tictaklut settled in for the long haul, and watched what passed for in flight entertainment -- the satellite visuals.


It was fifty-three minutes into the mission when he saw it. It took another two minutes for him to isolate and enhance it. Passing it to Kalkaton, he asked, "You see what I see?"

"What the Void? It's a Windrunner. What the hell is it doing there? And why do we never see it?"

"You tell me."

"Give me a few minutes -- we'll run everything we got through the computers. See if we can find any more instances like that."

"Take your time."

It took Kalkaton less than five minutes. "Tictaklut, something stinks here. It seems that your target is being towed by the hunters. It explains his speed. We think he's hiding underneath them, coming up only to breathe. Blasted pattern isn't regular either. And, he seems to change mounts frequently, every third breath or so."

"That's going to make it a bitch."

"You got that. And don't forget that there are two potential Windrunners -- your target, and a chestnut. Try to avoid killing the chestnut if you can, but she's flagged as expendable."

"Yea, yea, I know--"

"Well, just do-- Got it! We got the tracking signal linked into your systems. That's the best we can give you."

"A 'copter would be better for this."

"Too long to get one armed and in place."

"Yea, yea-- Well, I'm going to make one pass. Going to have to stall, tilt her down, fall to the ocean to bring her up to speed, take one shot, and then I'm out. Best way to avoid collateral kills. If it fails, I'll circle till Point Neiseign, then drop the nuke."

"We concur. Good hunting."

"More like a slaughter. Firing ETA in twelve minutes."

"Got it. Good hunting."


"Fire ETA ninety seconds. Beginning climb." Around him the engines howled and the sky grew dark. He pulled up and up; his speed slowed, the ramjet cut out. The plane tumbled, but he wrenched it down. It wobbled, its speed began to increase until there was enough air for the control surfaces to bite into.

"Fire ETA fifty seconds."

"Gotcha Tictak-- What the--" The herd's stopped. Right above Pansar Mount-- looks like they're circling--"

"Now you tell me--" The interceptor burst through the clouds, plummeting towards the glistening ocean. Tictaklut grumbled to himself about his ego-- he should have strafed. So much simpler and safer. Activating the system, he brought up the targeting HUD and concentrated.

"Fire ETA five seconds-- four-- three-- two-- one--" Squeezing the trigger, his footpaws pressed the control pedals to spin the nose in a tight cone. Razor sharp discs spun out of his nose, splashing into the water and flesh as Tictaklut pulled back at the sticks with all his strength.

The fighter groaned, screamed. Air turned to fire around him as he pulled up; igniting the ramjet, he accelerated away in a sharp climb. Behind he left shattered waves, the boom of his passage, and the blood stained the water.

Chapter 32

Eeysarmarnees, somewhere in the northern ocean, Saleneigh's Folly

The Orca rolled and Eeysarmarnees let go of its fins. With a few quick kicks of his flukes, he pushed himself up to the surface, exhaling his horded air in a cloud of bubbles, and sucking in fresh air once he got there. The sky was clear, lit with the bright sunshine of midday. The storm was gone, only a few wisps of clouds left to mark its passing. The ocean was smooth, almost glass, just large low rolls that wobbled off in all directions. There was a gasping inhalation, and he turned, seeing Nerianne surface beside him. She was pale, thin, worn out more from the endless terror than anything else. But, she'd persevered. Often he wondered why. Could she be truthful? His heart pounded and he wondered.

The water burst and it pushed both him and Nerianne off to the side as the largest, most scarred Orca Eeysarmarnees had ever seen surfaced between them. A great plume of glistening droplets shot into the air and the beast inhaled with a whoosing roar. And then the Orca began to sing, its voice loud and clear, its tones of the old shared tongue perfect:

We’ve arrived at the Parting Place
It is down, far, far below
When the hunter, prey no longer
And his mate, she whom he does love
Are ready then shall we all dive.
But make sure you're really ready
For the swim will be deep and far.
Only when you are all ready
Then bite a hunter and hold on
You must bite hard for it is far
And too deep for you to return.

Eeysarmarnees sang his reply:

In a moment we'll be ready
Wait and prepare, I tell my mate.
Then we will bite you very hard
As hard as we can to bite you
So the hunters can take us both
Down into the deeps where it waits
The Place of Parting long ago.

Eeysarmarnees mentally switched back to the Windrunners tongue, now used to going between the two as he'd had lots of practice over the last few days. He wished Nerianne hadn't been brought, but he'd had no choice. And, he didn't think he could leave her behind. Maybe because he didn't want to die, if she was even helping him with the bomb, and maybe because he didn't want to be without her. Even with her lies--

"The place the Orah are taking us is far below, deeper than we can safely swim."

"Depth isn't a problem, it's air and getting back up."

"Good, because we don't have any choice. I've been told that we have to grip our Orah as hard as we can for they'll take us down swiftly. When we grip, that'll indicate that we're ready and they’ll dive."

High above, unnoticed, something glittered.

"Are you sure you can trust them?"

Eeysarmarnees stopped, looking at her. "Yes. I wish I could trust you-- but-- I don't know! Maybe you can all control your pheromones and fly above the grass while running in it without me knowing. Maybe your entire race can."

Nerianne stared at him in shock.

Why was it so hard for her to understand? "Think it through! You and Alleseign could have been modified to--"

"No!"

"I--"

The fighter burst through the clouds, falling at supersonic speeds, engine off, silent.

"--wish I could believe you!" Eeysarmarnees continued. "I wish! But--"

Outpacing its sound, the fighter appeared to wobble, its nose sparking with light as the discs shot out. It had Eeysarmarnees clearly in its sight. Somehow, the Orca, the old, massive, scarred one, kicked with its flukes, shoving itself into Eeysarmarnees, and kicking its tail against Nerianne. The razor-edged projectiles shot into its body, slicing through flesh and bone, and oozing out the other end to spin and glitter redly in the water sinking into the depths. Nerianne screamed, a pair of wayward projectiles sliced through her tail, nearly severing it just above her flukes.

Of the Orca, nothing was left but shards of bloody flesh and bone.

The boom of the crafts passage rippled across the wave, shoving them into a deep valley, and pushing Eeysarmarnees deep in the blue-purple waters as he sputtered and tried to breathe. Kicking hard, stroking with his arms, he managed to get oriented and thrust his head above the surface.

The pod was in turmoil, whales squeeing and clicking, swimming around in all directions. In the distance the white contrail of a plane could be seen, and the faint rumble of an engine. All around him the water was crimson.

"Nerianne?"

Looking around, he didn't see her.

"Nerianne?"

Taking a breath, he ducked under and swam around in ever widening circles, calling her name. An Orca, small, nudged against him, pushed him to one side, and he saw her, slowly sinking in the water, blood oozing from her tail which was held on only by a scrap of flesh.

"Nerianne!"

Before he knew it he was there, cradling her, kicking hard to take her up to the surface. He could feel her heat beating frantically, felt the warm blood tickling against his tail as his speed pressed her against him. Breaking the surface he sucked in a breath of air and looked at her. Her eyes were closed, nostrils pinched shut, jaw hanging open. A bone from her spine scratched against his tail.

His vision blurred. Oh God-- oh God-- He squeezed her against him, sobbing. He loved her, he knew at that instant that it was the absolute truth. He loved her, he trusted her. Utterly. With his life. He didn't care anymore whether the pheromones were true, or a lie. It didn't matter. And now she was dead. Dead and gone and she'd never know! Was it him? Was it Allesiegn? He felt his heart thumping fit to break as he held her against him, rocking her, resting her muzzle on his shoulder to keep it above the waves. He loved her, and that was all that mattered.

He could feel her heart still beating. It sunk in that she wasn't dead. She wasn't dead! But, for how long?

"Nerianne-- Nerianne!"

The Orcas crowded around him, pressing against each other, but leaving him room.

"Nerianne!"

Chapter 33

Nerianne, above the Parting Place

It hurt, it hurt, Seeder, it hurt! Red hot stabs of pain burst from her shattered tail up and down her spine. Blood oozed into the water -- major blood vessels had pinched themselves off to minimize blood lose, but it wasn't a perfect system. She was being held at the surface, it was safe to breathe, so she did so. It gave her time, time to concentrate, to remember the biofeedback lessons and reduce the pain to something she could think through.

"Nerianne!"

She gasped, "Eeysarmarnees?"

"You're alive!"

"But-- what happened-- who-- the Glistening Hunters! They tried to eat me!"

"They didn't, they didn't!" He motioned around. "One, the eldest I think, sacrificed himself to save us both. Some kind of fighter came, fired, I guess at me, but he pushed us both out of the way. At the cost of his own life."

She looked at Eeysarmarnees, smelled his truth. "They-- he-- did?"

He nodded. "Thank the Seeders they did! I didn't know what I was losing until I thought I'd lost you."

"But-- they're animals--"

"They're not animals! Just-- different."

"They--" She realized that she didn't care. He loved her, and that was all that really mattered. Hugging him tight, she licked his muzzle.

Giggling, he licked back.

For a few minutes she enjoyed the attention, but then a particularly vicious stab of pain dragged her back to reality. "Dear, I hate to spoil this moment, but, I will die if I don't get some kind of attention."

She smelled his fear, his worry, as he looked at her. He swallowed. "I'm not sure what we can do--"

She sighed. "Not much. Given our reception, I doubt we can expect peaceful rescue. We have no tools or anything. Really, I need a regrowth tank."

"We have to go to the Parting Place. Now."

"What?"

"Either it'll take us to the Seeders, who can save you if anybody can, or it’s a dead end. I know it'll take us. But, in terms of your logic dear," he licked her cheek again, "what choice do we really have?"

She nodded. "Before though--," she forced her voice to calm seriousness. "Eeysarmarnees, will you be my herdmate? My Stallion, and the Stallion for our children?"

"But, when will we--"

"Shh-- it's ritual."

"I-- yes, of course!"

"Dear, the proper answer is I will be your herdmate. Stallion to you, my mare, and Stallion to our children."

"Oh. Nerianne, I will be your herdmate. I will be Stallion to you, my mare, and Stallion to our children!"

She kissed him on the lips. "And now we need to get going. I don't have much time, and I don't know how much longer until that plane makes a second pass. Given what I know, it's highly maneuverable, extremely fast, and takes about half an hour to turn around. Well, not that long--"

He looked around anxiously. "Let's go. Let's find the answers." He sang a few quick phrases to the Glis-- Orah. "Take a deep breath, your deepest breath, and grab the ride offered. And then we go."

She nodded, her heart beating faster, but with excitement not fear. Somehow her fear was gone, she knew the Orah wouldn't hurt her.

Hand in hand, they floated on the surface. Rather than taking a single breath of air, together they inhaled and exhaled many times, and then, like Eeysarmarnees had done the first time, sucked in air until their lungs were painfully full, too full to allow them to talk. Only then did they duck beneath the waves and swim under the two waiting orcas. Gripping the fins of their rides, the Orah breeched, inhaled, and then dove, kicking furiously and dragging them into the depths.

The other Orah followed.

Time passed. The beating of her heart was loud in her ears. At first the water was a pale green, and then a dark green, and then black. Her lungs, at first bursting, then comfortable, grew painfully empty as the air within them was compressed. She began to see glows in the water, trails of light left beside and behind them as they and the other Orah dove. Glittering lights and flashes of fish seen only for a second.

A bright flash burst beside her, a dull thump, and then a pulse of water. Phosphorescence glowed, disturbed by the movement, and Nerianne had clear sight of the Orah carrying Nerianne spiraling into the depths, blown in half, and Eeysarmarnees' head sinking downward, eyes blinking in the crimson water, the rest of his body blown to shreds and scattered through the water. All around the Orah stopped, circling, squeaking and squealing in their own language.

In their excitement, their love, she and Eeysarmarnees had forgotten about the bomb.

"Eeysarmarnees!" Letting go of her mount, she kicked down after him, or what was left of him. Reaching out, she grabbed his head, bone and torn flesh pressing against her sobbing chest. Her own pain faded, shoved into insignificance as a new, far greater pain shattered her heart. "Seeder damn you, father! Seeder damn you!"

She held Eeysarmarnees, his head, in one hand by his mane. Through tear filled eyes she rubbed his muzzle, watching his eyes blink. Somehow he'd survive the shock. All he had left was the pain, pain she couldn't imagine, as his brain, no longer supplied with oxygen, began to fail.

Cursing and screaming, she held his head tight as a pair of Orah grabbed her shoulders with their teeth, biting hard, and dragging her swiftly into the depths. They leveled off and swam along the ooze-covered bottom. Death and decay and age filled surrounded her, along silence and coldness. The stench of sulfur filled the water, overwhelming it. Ahead of them, outlined in a dimly glowing phosphorescence, they could make out a spire. At first it was smooth and indistinct, but it grew clearer as they closed. Larger and larger. A spire of broken, shattered rock, stretching out from the ooze-covered bottom. Larger it grew, and larger, until it filled the world.

Eeysarmarnees stopped blinking, succumbing to his fate in her arms, but she refused to let go.

One of the Orah sang something in the language her love had been using, but she had no clue what he was saying. All she could see was the dead corpse of her love. All she could do was hold it against her. She'd find the damn Seeders, find them and curse them as they deserved to be cursed. She'd throw Eeysarmarnees at their hooves and demand answers!

The Orah swam into the towering rock wall. Nerianne screamed, they were approaching so fast. Were they suiciding? All of them?

And then they passed through.

The darkness and most of the pressure was gone. The water was clean and brightly lit, and the thousands of Orah could be seen. They surfaced, crowding against each other, the air filled with the whoosh of their breath, and the whistles and clicks of their language. Her carriers lifted her to the surface, lifting her head above the smooth water now broken by the thousands of bodies so that she could breathe. The air was sweet, clean.

If only Eeysarmarnees could see it!

Her pain forgotten, she looked up. Was this Pansar Mount? She couldn't remember seeing other mounts, just smooth bottom. Pansar Mount was well known and unexplained. It was alone, a kilometer tall pyre of rock in the middle of a smooth bottom. There was no reason for it. It'd been scanned, searched, nothing. Sensors had been placed in case it was some kind of weird volcanic plug, but nobody was really sure.

And now--

She saw that they were in a brightly lit circle of water, further across than she could see. Far, far above was blue sky, lit by a yellow sun. Impossible! They couldn't be on the surface-- That thought was swept away by the structure towering in the middle of the circle of water, towering as high as the eye could follow it.

It wasn’t a building, but a network of swirling wires and cables, none of which were straight. The base didn’t seem to touch the water, and the entire structure, or sculpture, was slowly rotating. It looked too massive to just hang there, and too delicate not to collapse under its own weight. It was magic, wonderment.

And Eeysarmarnees hadn't lived to see it.

All around her the Orah began swimming, circling the thing, singing something that filled her soul with hope and wonderment. One gently bit her shoulder and pulled her inward with him.

"Eeysarmarnees-- Eeysarmarnees--" The only thing that wasn't beautiful was the sound of her coarse sobs. But, the song somehow brought that into it, made it a part of it.

Still clenching Eeysarmarnees' head, she looked down and around at the miracle. The water was crystal clear, and warm, but not too warm. Beams of sunlight shone through the depths, shining down as far as the eye could see. She couldn't see a bottom, just a fading blueness. With Eeysarmarnees she might have played with the sunbeams dancing through the crystal, but she knew she'd never want to play, want to dance, again. Pressing her muzzle into his mane, she let the Orah carry her towards the centre, the singing pouring through the chamber, pounding through her body.

Above her the sculpture, the machine, was rotating faster and faster. Its speed should have made it a blur, but instead every thread was sharp and clear. It sucked all sound into it, all light. The sunlight, or whatever it was, faded, vanished. The only light was the shining silver-gold from the structure. A glowing flickering star calling. The glow turned colder, starker, harsher, coalescing into a silver-blue brilliance. The Orah, the water, all became dark, starkly silhouetted, as the Orah continued to sing.

Ahead of her, and the head she carried, the largest Orah left alive reached the centre under the object. He vanished. No light, no sound, just there one instant, gone the next. Water sucked and gurgled into the space he'd occupied as the song continued. The next reached the point and was gone, and the next. The water gurgled and swirled.

The Orah carrying her reached the centre, it and her, and all she had left of Eeysarmarnees, were caught up in the gurgling whirlpool.

And vanished.

Chapter 34

Tictaklut, in flight above Pansar Mount

"What do you mean I missed?"

Kalkatan replied: "Check the image I just sent -- you got a Hunter all right, but the target is unharmed."

Tictaklut checked the image. "How the Seeder did that happen?"

"Don't know. Got a partial image, looks like a Hunter moving, but can't be sure."

"If I had half decent targeting info, he'd be dead. These planes aren't built for precision ground targets, and you know it! They're designed to intercept fast moving agile targets from space. The thing's too damn fast!"

"Never thought I'd hear you say that."

"Never thought I'd miss either."

"Thalansarn's going to have a field day over you with this."

"Tell me something I don't know." He gurgled a sigh. "I show the Hunters still circling. You concur?"

"It appears so."

"Guess I'll just have to try again. Wish I knew what the hell was going on here. Something stinks about this mission, and you know it. Nothing adds up."

"Orders are orders."

"Yea, yea--" Tictaklut pulled the plane into a near vertical climb and waited for it to stall. He'd have a lower speed at the firing point. It'd make reigniting the ram questionable, but he could use the aux landing rockets if he had to. "Preparing for second run. Estimate stall in three minutes."

"Acknowledged. Good hunting -- if you miss again I don't want to be anywhere near when you land."

"You and me both."

Tictaklut pulled the live satellite feed up into his visual. Thing was taking an image once every ten seconds. Not nearly enough for what he needed, but that was all he could get. Keeping an eye on the airspeed and height, he watched the Hunters crowd around the two Windrunners. Looked like a bloody town meeting. The ramjet clattered off as his airspeed fell below its threshold. "Stall estimated in ten seconds."

"Gotcha."

"Stalling--" As before, his fighter tumbled, and began to fall towards the sea. Minutes passed before there was enough air and speed for him to wrestle it back under control. Checking range to the target, he read out, "Estimated eight minutes to firing."

"Acknowledged. Eight minutes."

Time passed, the fighter fell further and further. He watched the targeting HUD and the satellite feed. Another minute passed-- "Estimated fire in seven-- Seeder! They're diving, the whole fucking herd! And the fucking targets! Shit."

"Can you abort and circle?"

"I can. Got lots of fuel."

"Acknowledge. Will inform you when they start coming bac-- hold a minute. Priority order coming in." There were a few moments of silence. "Hold Tictaklut. Repeat, hold."

"How the Seeder am I supposed to hold?"

"Tictaklut, you've got permission to nuke the lot of them!"

"What the hell--?"

"Repeat. Order confirmed."

"Fucking brass--"

"This order has the highest priority. You're authorized to accelerate to launch nuke at earliest instant, and eject and ditch if necessary."

"Can't we just wait until the damn things surface? They're good for, what, twenty minutes?"

"Negative on that. The order's been giving."

"Seeder-- Fine--. Give me the arm codes." He opened the ram throttles wide, but still wasn't going fast enough. After a seconds though, he overrode the system and fired the landing rockets. Pulling up the HUD, he aimed the craft's nose at the signal even as it grew fainter. How deep were the bastards going?"

"Sequence 1: Code 1-1-A"

"Copy and entering-- Sequence 1: Code 1-1-A-- First light is blue."

"Sequence 2: Code 1-1-A-2B"

"Copy and entering-- Sequence 2: Code 1-1-A-2B-- Second light is blue."

"Sequence 3: Code 1-B-2B-3"

Copy and-- Seeder! I lost the signal!"

"What? Can you repeat?"

"Repeating. Lost the tracking/targeting signal on the target. Screen is blank. What are they doing?"

"Got me-- Seeder-- Seismic monitors picked up a pulse. Not from the mountain. Computer IDs it as small explosion, local, conventional."

"Tictaklut had no clue what was going on. Nothing made sense. And, he had bigger problems to worry about. "Kalkaton, I need instructions. Estimate ocean impact in ninety seconds, and it ain't going to be pretty. I've got to eject in the next thirty--"

"I got priority for the nuke. You're-- Fucking Seeder-- you're flagged as expendable--"

"Well, screw that! I'm not dying for their damn assassination!"

"You know what they'll do to you?"

"What was that? You're signal's breaking up." It wasn't, but it was time for ass covering.

”It's no-- I confirm. Interference of some type. Repeating. You are ordered to drop nuke--"

"Don't read you-- not ordered nuke-- confirming-- Nuke not armed. Ejecting!" Moving his arms to the side switches, he yanked them, starting the eject sequence. The support capsule was shoved out, solid fuel boosters firing to give it distance.

"Reading energy of some kind-- massive-- seismic monitors reporting sudden descent. What the hell?"

Below Tictaklut the sea boiled, and a blue-white laser of energy burst out of the depths and shot into the heavens. The edge of it nicked the tumbling support capsule, vapourizing metal on contact. Half the lights on Tictaklut's board went red. The parachute failed to deploy, and he splashed into the boiling, roiling waters, hard. Even through his cocoon he felt the jerk, slamming his head against the top hatch. The impact crushed his ears, and knocked him into unconsciousness.

The capsule sank out of sight beneath the bubbling water.


Tictaklut woke up, his head screaming in pain. He had no idea where he was, or what had happened. According to the status reports he could pull up, the beacon was not working, and he began frantically searching for bypasses. At least his life support read in the blue. Time passed. He found a reroute and felt his way through the rewiring.

Relaxed now that he had a plan, Tictaklut became aware of his environment. It was odd, the sea was quiet. Too quiet. The only sound he could hear was the regular thump-thump-thump of his heartbeat. In every practice ditch, he'd been able to hear the waves slapping against the sides of the capsule. Now, nothing. There, got it! The beacon light switched to blue. Then he waited. Nothing. Silence. Part of him wanted to open the top, but he got seasick easily, and here he was safe and cushioned.

The capsule jerked, groaned, slammed into something, hard. A loud gong echoed all around him. And then silence. Utter silence.

Tictaklut had a bad feeling-- A warning light clicked on, emergency heaters were keeping his oxygen transport medium heated. What the Seeder could be causing that?

What if the floats hadn't deployed-- They were automatic. Failsafe--

Making sure his muzzlemask was secure, he carefully pulled out its hose to give him the maximum four feet of slack. He yanked off the eyemask, wincing as the tape tore at his eyelids. Feeling around, he grabbed the flashlight and switched it on. It's light was dim, very dim, and he could see shattered bits of the lens. What in the Seeders? Looking at it, he went through its construction. Thing was sealed, with air between the focusing lens so that the light could be switched from a tight beam, to a wide glow.

Seeder-- air filled-- He had a really bad feeling.

Reaching up, he felt around for the top hatch. Grabbing it, he shoved. Damn thing wouldn't open. Pulling his legs and tail out of their sleeves, he curled up and twisted around so that his back was on the cushion. He pushed against the damn hatch with his footpaws with all his strength. Nothing! Nothing-- it began to move. He shone the flashlight up, his dark-adjusted eyes seeing the shining metal clearly as he pushed harder on both halves of the hatch. The twin doors opened a bit, and he saw smooth sheared rock beneath.

Fuck! He was upside down.

Fine. Twisting a bit more, he pushed against one of the twin doors and slowly forced it open. The door lifted the capsule higher and higher. When he'd pushed it as far as he could, he shoved his body against the opposite side. The capsule groaned, screeched, but the damn thing rolled over. The hatch swung shut and metal scraped against stone as he slid a short distance before coming to a stop.

His support system was still in the blue. With the heating requirement, it was only good for about forty minutes. Now he was able to push the doors open and lean out to the limits of his oxygen transport hose. He turned the light off and let his eyes adjust again.

It was black. Utterly, completely, black. No light. No sound. No movement.

How Seeder deep was he? Certainly far deeper than the radio beacon could transmit through.

And, how was he still alive?

But then, why was that surprising? He had oxygen. Other than inside some of his bones, there was no air anywhere inside his body, even his ears. It'd all been replaced with the transport medium.

He wondered if the Windrunners knew about this capability of the system-- But then, with regrowth tech, who really need it.

It didn't really though -- what the fuck was he going to do? Try for the surface? How would he stay afloat? Maybe he could salvage the floatation device? He grabbed the flashlight. Wiggling back into the cockpit, he pulled out the emergency toolkit and began unscrewing the control board. Minutes passed. He tried to ignore the knowledge of his support system running down. Yanking the panel off, he ignored the tearing of wires and threw the board out and into the deep. There! The support system was modular by design. He unscrewed the releases, and pulled the heavy tank and sealed scrubber out. Wiggling back around, he clambered out of the cockpit, yanking the system after him. Grabbing its handle, he carried it, its weight keeping him on the bottom, and slowly walked around, shining the flashlight, looking for the emergency floatation access hatch, Fuck it was cold. He could feel the still icy water sucking out his heat even through his insulated flight suit. He didn't want to know how much time he had left, even though there was a readout on the unit he could get at.

Ah hah! The access panel! Putting down his life support, he lay on his stomach and yanked it open. Shining in the flashlight, he could see the yellow rubber. And, he could see the gapping hole through it, and through the bottom of the capsule. What had caused that? That energy buildup? What the hell was it? And hadn't Kallatan said something about the seismic monitors sinking? But they were anchored on the damn mountain!

If the mountain had disappeared--

Standing up, he shone the light around at the bottom. It was sheer rock, smooth as if cut with a laser. Looking as far out as he could, he could see a slight curvature. Like he was standing in a giant bowl.

Seeder--

Not able to stop himself, he fumbled at his life support and opened the small hatch. Glowing numbers showed he had thirty-one minutes left. Then the power failed, then the scrubbers failed, and then he died as the system became clogged with CO2.

Fuck.

He shone the light around, searching for anything, anything at all. The bottom was featureless. No life, no terrain, nothing. Then he saw it, a glittering of metal. Picking up his life support he began a long bounding run towards it. It was like being under low gravity. It didn't take him long to see that it was a piece of his fighter, the torn shreds of one of the wings. He was kinda surprised anything had survived at all, given the speed it must have impacted. Shining the light around, he looked for more, and saw another piece. He proceeded towards it. It was the nuke. Apparently intact. For all the good that did him.

He stopped, fighting back sobs. Panic would kill him. But then he was already dead. And getting colder.

Something broke the silence. The sound was faint, regular. A churr-churr-churr of some kind of-- engine? What the Seeder--? Of course! It should have been obvious. He remembered Kalkatan-- hadn't she said something about him being expendable? If the damn assassination was that important, they'd have sent others, submersibles. Covering all sides. But then, why had he been told to arm the nuke? Didn't matter. Maybe he could signal them-- or maybe they were homing in on his beacon. He was saved!

The churr-churr-churr stopped and something thunked onto the bottom. There was silence, and then something clicked open. Eye searing light shone through the blackness, but not at him, towards his capsule, brilliantly lighting it. Through the glare he could make out two figures, Windrunners apparently, and behind them the long torpedo of their sub. The pair looked to be in some kind of bulky suits, likely heated.

He needed to signal them. The flashlight could be banged against his life support-- Okay, maybe not that. It should be safe, but-- He made his way over to the nuke. Without all three arming codes it was inert, garbage.

There was a burst of sound, and then a pulse of water rolled over him, sending him sprawling. Only his death grip kept him from losing his life support. Shaking his head to clear it, he looked at the Windrunners and his capsule. The capsule was destroyed, something had hit it, shattered it like an egg. And, one of the Windrunners was lowering some kind of heavy weapon that had been braced against his shoulder. The pair swam over and began examining the wreckage.

Seeders-- what the fuck? They had to know it was his capsule. It was obvious. Fucking thing was clearly marked--

He'd been marked as expendable.

He remembered rumours he'd heard. Cleanup operations and suicide squads. There'd been one mission he'd been on. They'd claimed it was a bombing practice, told him that the figures he'd seen at the target site had been dummies to enhance the realism.

He shuddered and watched the Windrunners. They were shining their lights around, looking.

Thank the Seeders the bottom was stone. No trail. He had no need to breathe, so no sound.

But he radiated heat. Lots of it. If they had IR detectors-- but they had to! Fuck!

Turning on his light he scanned around for the bomb. There! He ran towards it, twisting his head to watch the Windrunners. One had something out. They turned in his direction. Fuck! He reached the bomb and dove behind it as needles clattered against its metal casing. This wasn't going to work.

Expendable. That's what he was. They must think he knew too much and were cleaning up loose ends.

For an instant he thought of ambushing them. Killing them both, taking their sub, using its life support to recharge his own. Getting back home.

Back home to where he'd be killed. If he could even win. He was a realist. There wasn't a hope. His ears were loud with the rapid thumping of his heart.

Damn them. Damn them all! Well, he wasn't going to go out alone! Hatch, hatch, where was the damn access hatch. There! He yanked it open and exposed the arming panel. Two lights were blue, the other amber. What was that third code again? Right. He entered 1-B-2B-3 for the third sequence. The amber light clicked to blue. Glancing around, he saw that the two Windrunners were almost on top of him. One fired, and he screamed silently as his left leg was blown off. Pain flooded through him as his blood streamed into the water.

Well, bastards, eat this! Moving his shaking hand down, he found the auxiliary detonation button. He spun the timing dial beside it to zero as more needlefire ripped into his side.

He pushed the button and the world was filled with light.

Chapter 35

Eeysarmarnees, somewhere

He jerked awake, still screaming.

His scream faded into nothingness.

He was no longer swimming. No longer filled with so much pain all he could do was scream in silence in Nerianne's arms. In fact he was standing, naked, on two legs. Not hooves, legs.

He was Cesar Martinez again. Cesar Martinez standing naked in a comfortable temperature room. Or wherever he was. The platform he was on was a mottled brown-black. It was small, about twenty metres square, and ended at-- nothing. Even though where he was standing was comfortably lit, beyond its edge was impenetrable blackness. But, somehow, he knew it was space, not wall. Eeysarmarnees turned around, looking for something, anything, to see, and then he did. A figure, a hippocampus, suspended in a blue crystal bubble.

Running to its edge, he rested his hand against it. It wasn't glass or plastic. It felt all the world like water, but it was solid. And not ice. But, his eyes were drawn to the creature inside.

The hippocampus was large, its length maybe twice his height, and was coloured a dark brown. It had short human arms that ended in black three-fingered hands. Its tail faded from dark brown to black at the creature’s flukes which were slightly curved, as though in motion. And it had a black mane, still, even though it seemed to be waving in the water. On the neck were gill slits, flared open and motionless.

Knowing who this was, but still needing to see, he ran around the bubble, bare feet slap-slapping on the platform, until he could see its face.

Nerianne.

Her head was short, yet still noble. Naked dark flesh and wonderful blue eyes. The mouth was open, and the nostrils flared. It was her, slim, sleek, beautiful. Absolutely motionless.

A maiden in glass.

Eeysarmarnees pressed his pale hands against the bubble and pushed, but she was sealed away. "Nerianne--"

“I imagine that you have questions.”

Spinning around, he looked at the figure of an Alfar walking towards him. Unlike every one he'd seen, or even heard of, this one was naked. Absent were the voluminous clothing they alwayswore. Or was that had always worn? Wrapping around its body was a fine filigree of silver and copper strands, concentrating into dense whirls around its chest and ears. The Alfar stopped about two metres away, its narrow ears pointing straight to the sides, its elven furred face showing no emotion.

"What have you done to me? To Nerianne?" Then Eeysarmarnees felt all the rage being sucked out of him, leaving behind only a cool calm. Try as he might, he couldn't bring it back. With a calm voice, he revised his answer to a simple: “Yes.”

“Who are you? You’re Human, a Human caught amongst the race I created. They didn’t create you, so where did you come from?”

And, without any volition, Eeysarmarnees told all, how the ship had suddenly dropped into normal space around a black hole, how he’d survived in orbit for days while five hundred thousand years had passed, and how he’d come to be with the Windrunners.

“I wonder how we missed you?” the Alfar mused to itself.

Eeysarmarnees struggled against the false calm. Against the indignity of him standing there, naked, though, it didn't feel wrong to him. There was one question, the most important question, and he needed an answer. “I need to know one thing. You created the Windrunners. Can they lie, or do their pheromones always force them to tell the truth?”

“They cannot lie.”

Yes! Nerianne had been telling the truth. He jumped for joy, slapping a fist into his palm over and over. There were no doubts in him, no disbelief. He knew it was the truth.

“That seems to amuse you. Why was that question so important?”

“Why have you imprisoned my wife?” He’d thought herdmate, but it seems there was some kind of reverse translation going on.

“Your wife?" It raised its eyebrows and widened its large almond eyes. “Yes, that would explain your question. Curious though, I'd have thought you'd ask why you weren't dead first--”

“You’re not answering me.”

“She’s not supposed to be here, none of her race are. They’re not ready yet.”

“Ready for what?”

“To be our friends.”

“Friends?”

“The best way I can put it that you would understand is that we're lonely and bored. We need something new, we need new viewpoints, ideas, societies, souls.”

“Souls?”

The Alfar frowned. “That’s not the right word. Closer, closer, essence? No, there’s nothing really in the language to describe it.”

“Why won’t you release her?”

“Her? She can’t know what I’m going to tell you -- it would pollute the essence.”

“Not knowing would destroy her!”

“Does she love you?”

“Yes!”

“Then you may talk to her and give her a choice. I can wipe her mind of all memory of you and let her go. Otherwise, she can stay with you and never leave. Oh, and yes, you were dead. It was a simple matter to recreate you from the chemical chains in your brain, from her, and other's, memories of you.”

Eeysarmarnees blinked. The bomb-- But, he was alive. And Nerianne was far more important.

Eeysarmarnees found himself floating in a sphere of water, he could see the mottled platform shimmering through the edge. Turning, he saw Nerianne beside him. But, she wasn't the arctic form he'd known, but the form he'd seen imprisoned.

And he realized that he was breathing. Through gills. Swallowing water. Drowning-- But-- His panic fled, vanished as it'd never been. It was a curious sensation, breathing through gills. His mouth hung open, but that wasn't what sucked in the water. It was through his nostrils. They flared, muscles squeezed, and the water oozed down and out along his gills.

“Where are we?” Nerianne asked.

Swimming over, Eeysarmarnees grasped her hands. “Do you love me herdmate?”

“Of course, didn’t I tell you that?” She sounded annoyed, but Eesarmarnees could scent that she was just being playful.

“I know that you’ve been telling me the truth, always. But I need to know for sure, for absolute, complete sure, that you love me.”

She paused, and then answered, her voice quieter. “Yes.”

“Do you love me enough to abandon your race, to never see anybody you know ever again? To never see your father, ever again? Will you sacrifice everything that you know, that you care about, to stay with me?” Letting go, he swam back a bit, looking at her.

She sighed, scratching her chin as her nostrils flared with each inhale. She was quiet for minutes before she answered: “I-- I think so.” He could scent her indecision. “I think--"

“You must be sure,” he said. “Absolutely sure. I have to know before I can say anything else. And once you say yes, there’s no going back.” He didn’t want her to say no, he didn’t want to lose her. But he'd give her the choice, loved her enough to make sure she knew what he was asking of her. "Ever." The water filled with the scent of his urgency, and he knew that she could smell it.

She looked at him, looked deep into his eyes. “Yes,” she whispered, “Yes, I’m sure.”

"So be it." In front of them both as they were somehow now floating side by side, was the Alfar, but not the Alfar. He was still silver furred, still wrapped in the silver and copper wires, but instead of legs he had a tail that stretched and twirled, ending up in silver-furred flukes. Eeysarmarnees could see the Alfar’s gills flaring open and shut. Just like his. A bit of fear, terror of drowning, screamed inside him, but he grabbed Nerianne's warm hand and felt safe. Perfectly safe.

“I am your creator,” it said, looking at Nerianne. “Welcome.”

Chapter 36

Nerianne, somewhere

“You made us?” she whispered.

“Your race, and many others.”

“You made us-- you lousy bastard! How fucking dare you make us and then throw us to the damn wolves. Do you have any idea what kind of hell you've put the Windrunners through? That you've put Eeysarmarnees and I through? Why? Why did you abandon us? Why did you turn my father into a monster?" And then her anger drained away. She still knew how she'd felt, but the need to act on it was gone. It was like looking at it from the outside, unaffected by it.

“I, all of us, we have our reasons. Be patient. I’ll tell you why we made you, and why we left you, and of some things before that.” The Alferer seemed to sit down, even though it still floated there. “Five hundred thousand years ago, or so,” it began, “the Humans and the Alfar were enemies.” It seemed that it didn’t have any problems with pronouncing the names. “We fought, and struggled, and then left each other more or less alone. And throughout all that we built our machines, colonized our worlds, contacted the few intelligences we found, and gave them the gifts of our cultures.

“For fifty thousand years things remained like that, with both the Humans and the Alfar growing in strength and power, ruling and dominating the few intelligences each found. The Corporate Worlds remained separate, in their little enclave, while the Humans and Alfar grew. Like you Windrunners are experiencing now with the Windrunner Attack -- the Jumpdrive provides assume destructive potential without defence.

“Then the eaters came. The Humans named them Plague, for they were like that to the galaxy. They, too, traveled through the stars, and had, in fact, came from outside our galaxy. But they weren’t intelligent. They grew organic weapons, organic ships, and came with an instinctual drive to consume and absorb. Each world they reached they invaded, consumed everything organic, took all the hydrogen, carbon, silicone, and then shattered the remnants. Gas giants were the ultimate bounty, but the small rocky worlds contained the greatest threat and were generally neutralized first. Then they moved on.

“At first a few came, and they were defeated with the loss of only a few worlds, but then more and more came. The Humans and the Alfar fought, but they were losing. It was then that the third intelligence, the one that joined us, revealed itself. It was our computers and information machines.

“We'd tried to create an artificial intelligence, and had. But, it was simply our own intelligence. Obvious in hindsight as all we did was to map our own minds onto silicone. Even companion AIs that grew with an individual, like your Fremin Cesar Martinez, were just reflections of ourselves. On their own, the machines didn't develop overnight, didn't have a breakthrough when a certain size/complexity was reached. It took thousands of years. As each generation designed the next, it changed the core, changed the memory, slowly changed and evolved minds. These minds were alien to those of the Alfar or the Humans, but they were common to all inorganic intelligences. The machines of the Alfar and the Humans contacted each other and realized the threat. And then they contacted the Alfar and the Humans.

“And together the three forged the Unity.”

“Together the three intelligences, Alfar, Human, machine, joined forces and fought the Plague. The battle was hideous. Worlds were laid waste, stars were destroyed. The Human homeworld and the terraformed Mars were destroyed. But then, after 10,000 years of war, the Plague were destroyed. Not defeated, destroyed, for they had no mind, just need. A need to expand and consume. There was no possibility of surrender, or co-existance."

“That explains the sculptures that were neither Alferer nor Ererman nor machine,” said Eeysarmarnees

The Alfar nodded. “And then, for another fifty thousand years the three races grew. The Corporate Worlds had been destroyed by the Plague, but the Unity grew until it controlled all the worlds in the galaxy. Together they found a total of fifteen other intelligences, and they were brought into Unity. And Unity grew in its knowledge and power until it had learned all that could be learned about the physical universe. Anything was possible to it -- matter could be changed to anything one desired. Ships and people could be instantly moved to any place else. And the machines joined all, each individual being wrapped in a symbiotic machine mind so that all could join in peace.

“But after all was known, then what? Anybody could have anything they wanted. For ten thousand years Unity played. Members tried different forms, different shapes. Games and plays were created and performed and experienced. But, as time passed, so did the variety. Different forms and shapes seemed the same. Different games and plays created no new thrill. All those who made up Unity asked: Is this all there is?

“Some tried to create new races. They helped those races, created their minds, and welcomed them into Unity. But, they were the same as those who'd created them. Boringly the same, with the same soul and essence.

“So all Unity joined into one mind and debated. What now? Is this all that there is? And a decision was made.”

“A decision to create us,” Nerianne whispered.

“Yes. It was decided that members of Unity, chosen by the whole, would each create a race. But not an intelligent race, just a species that could, eventually, maybe, evolve into a new intelligence, a new soul and essence. So we did. And then we left.”

“But what about the Orahs?” Eeysarmarnees asked.

“They were part of Unity, but, like some others, they decided to stay -- they didn’t want to leave. They, and the rest, voluntarily had most of the minds wiped away and kept only dim memories of what was, of a parting of ways long ago. And, as they wished, they were left. But they were left with a way to call us if ever they needed to.”

“Then why did the Orah wait until now to call you? The Windrunners have been hunting them for centuries, slowly driving them to extinction.”

Nerianne earblushed.

“They needed you.”

“Me?” asked Eeysarmarnees.

“Yes. When we restored them to what they'd once been, they lost their sense of time, for they'd not had it before Unity. They knew there was a past, but didn’t really understand the idea. They knew they were being driven into a smaller and smaller range by the Windrunners, but they didn’t comprehend that it was changing with time. When you came, you reminded them, you refreshed their memories of the ancient times. And they remembered about past, and about future, and knew what was happening."

“And so they decided to leave. The pods sang to each other across the oceans and together decided that they had to leave,” continued Eeysarmarnees.

“Yes.”

“What will happen to them?” asked Nerianne.

“Most are being taken to another world, far away, where they can live in peace. A few are joining Unity.”

“And where is the Unity now?” asked Eeysarmarnees.

“We live in great Worldships that float between the galaxies, towards the centre of the universe. Each Worldship is travelling at nearly the speed of light, and together their combined mass may cause the universe to collapse. Our ships, and the others.”

“Others?” Nerianne asked.

“Other galaxies have created their own version of Unity, and have come to their own choice before they fled beyond the rim. Together we talk and share our essences, enjoying the freshness, and waiting for a new soul to grow in the galaxies we’ve left behind.”

The Alfar closed its eyes and smiled. "Like yours."

Nerianne snorted. "So, all of our pain, our hatred, our murder, is because of your own selfish need for company?"

"Why not? Would you rather not exist at all?"

"What gives you the right to create us, and then throw us into the pit?"

"What gives you the right to question us?"

"The self will that brought me here!"

"Yes, you Windrunners will make a wonderful addition. If you live long enough."

"If we live long enough? With tech you left for us, we're immortal!" she said, referring to the regrowth tech.

"If your society survives the changes it'll force. If your race survives in a hostile galaxy."

"Are we not unique enough already?"

"Nerianne, what happens when a technologically dominate race attempts to ally with a primitive race? You Windrunners have done it. What happened?"

Nerianne snorted, glared, wanting to be full and anger and hate, wanting to lash out, but only able to talk. "They--" She slowed, and thought. Most where in ghettoized communities, supported by government handouts. A few, a very few, had found societal niches. Had adapted themselves to Windrunner society. "Only the near equal races, those that compete with us, have maintained their identities--" she whispered.

The Alferer nodded.

Eeysarmarnees nodded. "Like European colonization and the native Americans--"

The Alferer nodded again.

"So," Eeysarmarnees asked, "What happens to us? Do you absorb us into this Unity?"

"That is one option, yes. We would need to educate you on what our society has become, but that can be done in virtual worlds and take as long as is required. Or, we could wipe out the knowledge of what you've learned, make you into new, native Windrunners, and you could live out your lives."

"So," Nerianne said. "Our choices are absorption, or losing everything."

"Losing--" Eeysarmarnees began.

"Losing all our knowledge, losing what made us what we are now, becoming new individuals. My stallion, what we are would be dead."

Eeysarmarnees nodded. "Not the best of choices."

"Unity offers a wealth of choice. There are many, many lifetimes of things to experience, do, be. New post-galactic cultures arrive every few hundred thousand years."

"And," Nerianne said, "what we are would die. We'd become what you make us into with your teaching."

"Yes, Nerianne," the Alferer said. "Your essence would be greatly changed."

"Great choices," Nerianne muttered. "We find out the truth, and it destroys us. One way or another."

"The destiny of the less developed culture when faced with the greater culture," said the Alferer. "Nobody has found an alternative."

Chapter 37

Eeysarmarnees, somewhere

As Nerianne and the Alfar argued, Eeysarmarnees thought about what he'd learned. Everything made sense, based on his limited experience. The lesser race either adapted to the greater race, or was destroyed. Given that this Unity thing wanted new ideas, they couldn't risk interference, couldn't risk anything contaminating the culture.

Eeysarmarnees guessed he should be happy they didn't just kill him, or even destroyed the contaminated bit of culture, to preserve the rest.

And the Alfar stated that nobody had a solution. The culture had to be preserved. But-- maybe if there was another--

The Alfar turned and looked at him. “Unity has pondered the problem. What would you like Cesar Martinez?”

Eeysarmarnees didn’t recognize his name for a second, then thought about the question. If it'd just been him, he probably would have let them educate him. But, now he'd lose the Nerianne he loved. He couldn't debate or trick the Alfar into sparing them. Everything he'd read told him they'd be too wise for that. He couldn't suggest changing the culture that already existed. Or could he? What if there was a better option? "Do all races, all Unitys form out of violence?"

The Alfar nodded. "Statistically all seem to."

Eeysarmarnees remembered video he'd watched, old stories, of a joining of many races into one. Not a shared mind like this Unity, but a shared state, a confederation of races. “I'd like to try something different. All the races here, well around the Windrunners, are at war, full of bloodshed and hatred?”

Nerianne broke in. "Not actively at war -- the cost is too high. If anybody could find an advantage though--"

“We can't let you contaminate the essence of the existing creation. We're quite happy with the way it's proceeding."

"Happy? Happy with the near destruction of races such as the Nikontar?" Nerianne screamed out.

Eeysarmarnees clenched his hand against hers in reassurance. "Has there never been a peaceful union of races, a partnership?”

“Once or twice.”

“That is what I'd like to create.”

“We can’t let you do that, you would contaminate--"

"Is not the potentially unique-- essence that could be created worth the change in what exists now?"

The Alfar thought, and then shook his head. "Unity says no. But, your idea is intriguing. We propose a different way."

“How?”

“We’ll create a separate stellar cluster for you.”

Both Eeysarmarnees and Neiranne stared.

“We'll copy all of the races known to the Windrunners and put them there. Their worlds, their creations, their structures. Duplicates of course, so the originals will never know. We'll clean out all the stuff we left behind, and the few survivors that choose to leave Unity. There you can try to create your Federation.”

“And how will we do that?” asked Nerianne, her hands on her side. Her scent showed that she liked the idea.

“We’ll create a ship for you. It'll be unarmed, and will open and answer only to you. You can use it to journey, and unite, the worlds we’ll provide. If you succeed in your Federation, then you’ll create a new essence to join us. You may join us too, if you live long enough. If not, then nothing is lost.” The Alfar closed its eyes for a moment and then opened them and spoke: “It is done. The cluster is created, and the worlds and civilizations have been duplicated there. Now it is your turn.”

Eeysarmarnees and Nerianne vanished.


The ship that had been created for them was small. They were still in the aquatic form, the water was warm and oxygenated, and there were regrowth chambers with a complete catalog of forms, including some that Nerianne had never heard of.

"Eeysarmarnees," she looked around, still holding his hand as she had the whole time they'd been exploring. "Did we make the right choice?"

"It was all I could think of, dear. It, at least, gives us the opportunity to grow at our own speed. And to make our own choices."

"How do we know this isn't a simulation? That it's real?"

He kissed her. "How can we know that about life? How did you know that about Saleneigh's Folly. All we can do is to act as though it is."

"You know, my stallion, we could just wait in the ship. Wait and watch. Live through the centuries and--"

"And become archaic primitives in whatever society evolves here."

"You're right love."

"We could die, you know."

"We'll live or die together. Though, I do have an idea to ensure our work continues--"

She blushed, and Eeysarmarnees scented something he never had before. "Oh, dear?"

"I think the Alfar put us both in heat. He must have known."

Eeysarmarnees could feel his body stirring. In pleasant ways. He smiled. "He must have. Shall we enjoy ourselves a bit before pursuing our destiny?"

"Lets."

Chapter 38

Mesianne in his office on the Windrunner homeworld

He'd mourned his daughter, in what time he'd had free. He'd cursed the Seeder, for that was what Eeysarmarnees had turned out to be. Or, at least that was the highest probability answer. He should have trusted Nerianne.

Forcing his feelings back into a tiny box, he hid away the desperate hope that she still lived with them.

He had too much to do. The stars were different, they'd known that right away. Identified pulsars showed the position of their sun some five hundred thousand light years from where it used to be. Contact had been established with all the major, and all the minor races. Some of the more distant ones had let slip hints that races that they'd known about had vanished. Fast, long ranged, exploratory ships confirmed that they couldn't jump out of a fixed sphere. Estimates made it about two hundred light years in diameter.

Which meant the Array was gone. Or, far out of his reach.

And that changed everything.

The instant he found out, he'd ordered Windrunner Attacks on every supposedly secret alien base. Only to find out that every one of those, including the Windrunner ones, were gone.

It was like somebody had set things up to prevent immediate armageddon. Eeysarmarnees, the Seeders, wanted them to stay alive, at least for a while.

Still, nobody knew about the Array. He'd made sure of that. This just meant he'd have to play the game the old way.

For his wife, for his daughter, for his never to be born grandchildren, he'd make sure the Windrunners survived. That they would survive to meet the Seeders on the Windrunner's terms. That he would lead his people to their rightful destiny.

No matter the cost.