User:Michael Bard/The Survivor

From Shifti
Jump to: navigation, search

The Survivor

Author: Michael Bard

"This is Lieutenant Kyros Imbreos of the Patrol vessel Unity. Your ship has been identified as the Stag of the Night belonging to Dalthyn Walwyntha. Cut engines and prepare to be boarded. Repeating, this is Commander Kyros Imbreos of the Patrol vessel Unity—"

Dalthyn cursed as the voice repeated, the nasal tones of a herbivore of some sort echoing in his ears. The Patrol ship wasn't large, a short range craft with a crew of two or three. But it was more than enough to deal with his unarmed ship. But it was a ship of the Patrol.

The Patrol— Dalthwyn hated the Patrol. Sure, he knew they were necessary. They were the only thing standing between civilization and atomic destruction for they controlled all the weapons of war, all the bombs. Dalthwyn had always resented them, had always known that there had to be a better way. A way for civilization to survive without the threat of the gun held over them. But there wasn't, and the Patrol was here.

Great Maker but he'd been so close! Dalthwyn had contacted his buyer in code to indicate that the drug shipment was pending arrival. Hell, he'd even been counting the money that was going to go into his already bulging bank account. How had the Maker-damned Patrol fingered him?

For a second he thought about dumping the cargo, but the Unity was close enough that it would have no problem recovering enough to damn him to the mines on Luna for the rest of his life. If only he hadn't been so greedy that he'd loaded the extra mass of cargo instead of explosives to destroy the evidence. It wasn't as though he needed the money. He only smuggled these days to try and escape his boredom.

The words in his headphones changed. "Stag of the Night, this is your final warning. If you do not cut your engines immediately, I will open fire. You have ten seconds."

Think damn you! Think! As his nostrils gulped down the thick herd-scented air, he pressed the transmit key above his head. "Umm… Patrol ship Unity. This is Captain Manwyth of the chartered vessel Rich Lady. I have a registered cargo of— medical supplies and filtration parts for Venusport. Ahh… I'm running late — the goods are perishable. You sure you have the right ship? Over."

As the lies spilled from his cervine muzzle, Dalthwyn was already plotting an emergency re-entry. His ship wouldn't survive, but the burnup would take care of the evidence, hopefully. Venus wasn't that harsh — all the stories he'd heard were obviously exaggerations. A peaceful walk through the wilderness for a few months, something different and interesting. After all, those stories about wandering in the wilderness for years were just horrible exaggerations. He'd show up as one of the prospectors and then access his numbered accounts. Enough to purchase a ticket back to Terra and a fake ID! Once there, a new ship, a new unbreakable ID— How hard could it be? He'd spent a weekend camping in a jungle preserve a few years ago—

Checking the course the astrogation system recommended, he activated the RCS jets and began flipping the Stag of the Night 180 degrees to begin an emergency de-orbit burn, running them far into the red. He didn't know how long the Patrol bastard would wait before opening fire.

"Stag of the Night, I read your engine still live, and have visual confirmation that you are performing orbital maneuvers. Cease immediately, otherwise I will be forced to fire. Over."

"Uhh… Unity, I'm re-orientating to facilitate docking. I've beamed Venusport and warned them of the delay. I hope you're willing to face court-martial when the medical supplies arrive too late. Over"

"Stag of the Night, there is no medical crisis at Venusport. Cease your actions immediately! Over."

A sharp one would catch him, and of course he'd drawn a sharp one. Checking his orientation, he confirmed that it was not quite right. Well, nothing for it. Dalthwyn grabbed the lever and yanked it hard, activating the main drive at full burn. All the improper rotation meant was that he'd just have to walk further. A roar shook the ship as the main drive rapidly ran up to its maximum of 2.5G, and then a bit over, deceleration pushing pushed him back into his padded chair, his tail pushed back into the small hole that enveloped it. His teeth rattled in his muzzle, and he was glad he'd shed his horns before he'd left Ceres.

"Stag of the Night, you're falling out of orbit — your ship is not made for re-entry. I recommend you come about to— 115 mark 89 and—"

Dalthwyn's teeth clattered in his muzzle from the shaking of the ship, but he forced out, "You're breaking up Unity. Please repeat. Over."

The ship began shaking more as it scraped against the outer wisps of Venus' thin atmosphere. And some people believed that the precursors had terraformed it millennia ago. He snorted. It had always been like this, just like Mars had always been wrapped in canals.

"Stag of the Night, I read eighteen seconds till re-entry. You leave me no choice but to open fire. You must eject immediately! Over."

Damn that Kyros! Dalthwyn dragged his hand over to the ejection systems. He couldn't dump and destroy the cargo, but the ship had explosives in its hull to ensure its destruction. The explosion should scrag the cargo, and should scramble the Patrol's sensors enough for him to fall out of engagement range into the atmosphere. He grinned. It'd be one hell of a ride!

The ship shook, and half the lights on his controls burned red. Charged particles had just blown off his main drive, and hydrogen was venting rapidly. Why couldn't he have been intercepted by an incompetent Patrol officer?

As if there were such things—

"Unity! What in the Maker's name are you doing?! My board's red, I read cascading overloads. Maker damn you!" Dalthwyn armed the destruct system and prepared the pilot capsule ejection. He'd have to burn the solid booster hard to get deep enough into the atmosphere in time; the Patrol would be able to track him. Dalthwyn's only hope was that the heat of re-entry would keep them from engaging him.

"Stag of the Night! Eject now! I'll recover you. Repeat—"

"Maker! Systems failing all over— Ejection system has red lighted. Repeat red lighted. I hope the fawns you just condemned to death haunt your dre—"

Dalthwyn pushed the eject, and his control capsule blasted clear as the door behind him sealed itself against the Breath Sucker. Grabbing the stick, he reoriented the ship, his control causing the RCS in the capsule to fire. He ignited the main drive and the solid booster roared into life, shoving him back hard against his seat with almost 5G.

And then it was out of his hands. There was no way to stop the booster once it was ignited. A countdown zeroed and buzzed, the explosives in the main body of the ship had just detonated.

"Stag of the Night! I read a successful command ejection. However, you're diving into the—"

The capsule shook, and Dalthwyn was bounced against the straps as the force of the destruction of the Stag of the Night reached him. Sparks burst in the capsule until fuses blew, and then he was coughing in the oily smoke. Grabbing the overhead breathing mask, he shoved it over his muzzle and sucked in the cold fresh oxygen. His body relaxed slightly as the comforting scent of other deer having passed nearby hours ago filled his nostrils from the emergency oxygen, even though his eyes were blinking in the smoke. All the controls on his board were red now. Then the booster burned out and, for a handful of seconds he fell free, before the deceleration caused by the atmosphere shoved him against his straps. The capsule shook and rattled, tumbled and spun, but soon the air was thick enough that it forced the capsule's aerodynamic shape into re-entry orientation. Deceleration mounted, and Dalthwyn was pushed hard into his seat, his neck sore from the recent jerking, the oxygen from the mask cold and harsh in his lungs.

"Stag of the Night respond! I read you falling into the northern hemisphere. I mark your landing zone as roughly 50 degrees east of the meridian. I'm alerting Venusport authorities — they will send search and rescue.

"I hope you live Dalthyn Walwyntha. Spectrographs of the detonation of your ship confirm large quantities of the interdicted substance Squirrel Ecstasy. I hope you're ready to rot you bastard!"

"Screw you!" Dalthwyn screamed out as the heat of re-entry cut off all communication.

The violent buffering, the extreme heat, all drove Dalthwyn into unconsciousness.

Dalthwyn woke up rocking back and forth in the padding of his chair. His body was soaked with sweat, and he sucked at the cold oxygen in his mask desperately. Since he wasn't in free fall, he knew that the chutes had deployed. Pulling himself over, he looked out the soot-streaked window. The mask pulled at his muzzle, its hose stretching; his sweat soaked shipsuit squeaking against the damp leather padding of the seat. He could feel the heat billowing from the transparent plastic as the control cabin rocked with his movement.

Through the window Venus stretched out. A thin layer of high altitude clouds were above him, and deeper and thicker piles of cotton billowed below. Piercing them here and there were the barren mist-enshrouded highlands of Venus; glinting through the odd gap was the brilliant green jungles and glistening topaz swamps and lakes of the lowlands.

With a click and a hum now that the exterior pressure was great enough, a fan switched on, sucking the cool air of the high atmosphere into the capsule. Quickly the interior pressure thinned as the cabin cooled, but Dalthwyn continued sucking cold oxygen through his mask. The cables to the chutes creaked and groaned as wind pushed the cabin to a slight angle.

More comfortable now, Dalthwyn sat down, his wet clothes clinging to his fur, and forced himself to a level of calm. He could do nothing until the capsule landed, and then, he'd have to act quickly. For a second he looked at the radio, thought about transmitting, but then resolutely switched it off. He'd stay free, make his way back in a few months or so, and then buy a new ship. He grinned. Certainly he wasn't bored this time!

Another ten minutes passed before the capsule slammed into the ground with a loud bang and crunch, along with the creaking and groaning of tortured metal and plastic. Cables snapped in the wind, and the parachutes whipped and tugged. With a groan the cabin tilted, and then scraped along the ground, pulled by the parachutes, before banging to a stop. Wishing he could take the oxygen tank with him, Dalthwyn pulled the wet mask from his muzzle, his damp fur sticking to the rubber as he yanked it loose. Oxygen loudly hissed from it. The air was cold and thin, and his lungs sucked and gasped, fighting to get enough to breathe.

Dalthwyn didn't have much time. VTOLs from Venusport could be here any time, depending on where exactly he was, and he couldn't wait for them. He stood up, his cloven hooves slick on the flooring beneath him, and pulled himself around the command chair that had tilted slightly to stay upright in Venus' .9 G. Now, where was it— Dalthwyn felt around under the chair and pulled out the survival kit. After that was the blaster on its belt, and all the batteries for it he could manage. Pulling a yellow lever, explosive bolts fired, and the hatch blew off letting the cold mist fall into the cabin. Dalthwyn clambered out, wishing he had some water somewhere. The wind grabbed at the parachutes again, and the capsule groaned and scraped. Dalthwyn grabbed at the seat to try and stay on his hooves. He could feel the capsule skittering beneath him, and then, with a bang that made him fold his ear against his head, it slammed against a rock and stopped.

Dalthwyn burst out and bounded out onto the frosted soil of the Venusian highlands, rapidly putting distance between him and the capsule. He didn't have much time. The cold soil scraped and slid beneath his hooves, and he could feel his hoof lobes stretching and twisting as they skittered on the sharp broken rock. Around him the light was dim, everything was shrouded in mist; behind him he could see it curdling and twisting away from the still cooling hull of the capsule as though it was afraid to touch. He continued running and scrambling over the rocks.

Surrounded by nothing but the whining of the wind and the distant mellowed snapping of the parachutes, Dalthwyn staggered to a stop. He leaned over, resting his three-fingered hands on his upper legs, against the cold wet material of the shipsuit, gasping for breath, misting the air with each exhale. His muzzle hung open, and the thin wet air was sucked in and out from his desperate lungs. His sweat was cold and caked on his fur. But, he was free.

Shivering, but feeling a bit better, he sat down on the rocks and pulled the survival pack off his back. The water condenser/purifier was neatly packed away, and he put it out and switched it on. It hummed, and began pulling water from the air and purifying it. He stripped out of his soaked shipsuit, throwing it away so that it landed with a wet splutch somewhere in the distance, and pulled on the insulated bodysuit that was folded in the pack. Then he reached in and pulled out a high calorie nutbar and started crunching at its hard layer, the sweet taste and scent of acorn filling his nostrils. Slowly his body warmed, and his breath calmed.

That was when he realized he was alone. There was no sound, no scent but his own, no voice. It wasn't like in space, it was— He snorted. He'd been alone, he'd always been alone. And yet— He sniffed, and for the first time felt that maybe he should have surrendered. No oak trees, no hints of other herd members having passed by—

He was alone.

Involuntarily he shivered, and not from the cold.

Something boomed in the heavens and he involuntarily looked up. Dalthwyn couldn't see anything, but as his ear twitched he realized that it was a sonic boom. For a moment there was silence, and then he heard the growing roar of engines from off the distance. He couldn't tell exactly where it was as it echoed and bounced through the mist, but he could sense the general direction.

It was the VTOLs from Venusport come to capture him.

For a second, just a second, he was tempted. There was an inertial compass in the survival kit which would guide him back to where he'd started. Away from the barren plain of rocks. Back to warmth and companionship—

Back into the hands of the Patrol.

The great Dalthwyn would not end his days in the Lunar mines! He picked up the water condenser and gulped down the warm liquid it had collected. Then he slung it over his sweat-soaked shoulder to continue its work, finished off the nutbar, slung the pack over his shoulder, and began walking, his hooves clacking on the broken rock.

Using the compass he headed north.

He just hoped they didn't have any cervines that could track the scent he was leaving from the glands between the lobes of his cloven hooves.

According to his watch, Dalthwyn spent a week on the plateau before the mist finally burned off. That was when he remembered that the Venusian day lasted months. The ground was rough and broken, but the protective suit kept him warm. Thought his hooves grew worn, they fortunately didn't crack. One morning he awoke, stiff and sore, and saw the crystal clear thin air and the scattered rock all around him. The sun was huge, far too bright to look at or even look near. For the first time he could see where he was, and that was when he realized the Maker had abandoned him.

All around was rock. Bare, naked rock covered in frost that was slowly melting as the air warmed. The temperature must never fall below freezing until near the end of the night, otherwise he'd be waist deep in snow. Of course, that might have been better as he wouldn't have gotten far enough away from the Patrol to escape.

He had maybe a month of rations left. No radio — that was in the command cabin. Scratching his legs he sighed, slowly rubbing warmth back into the cold and sore muscles.

He may be screwed, but, by The Maker, he wouldn't go down without a fight! He'd fought off carnivores, ultravores, drunken wolves in a bar. For a second he grinned as he remembered the wolf who called himself Wanderer, and the puns. But then, the sterile air, silent but for the faint whistle of the wind through tangled rocks, brought him back to the present. He refused to let Venus win. Staggering to his hooves he sipped some water, and then spasmed in his throat and began chewing cud. Supposedly Venus was crawling with life — so where were the blasted jungles?!

Looking around, he blinked in the glittering light, and realized that the ground was sloping downward. Maybe he could get off the mountain and down to where the life was. That was it! Get off the highlands and into the jungles and swamps. Easy!

Filled with renewed hope, he started walking downhill, stepping carefully on the rocks so that he rarely slipped. He kept the fastest pace he could manage over an extended period in the thin air and tried not to think of what would happen if he didn't find a way into the jungles.

In the silence he remembered reading of continent sized plateaus of rocks, barren and lifeless. He had to be on one of the smaller outcroppings, or near the edge. He forced himself to believe he was.

If he wasn't, he was dead.

Three days, by his watch, later, he arrived at the edge of a cliff. Stopping, he looked down and out upon Venus. Thank the Maker he was at an edge, and before him was a broken sea of scree and tortured paths that led down, far far down, into forest and then into the mist-shrouded jungle.

He had a long way to go.

Sighing, he resumed walking.

The way down was not easy. There were dead ends, cliffs he had to detour around to find a way down if they were too tall. Though he had rope, he couldn't climb down. There was only the one piece of rope and if he used it, he'd never be able to get it back.

From his shadow, he thought the sun was higher, but he wasn't sure. Why had the Maker made planets so damned big! Venus only had a circumference of something like 40,000 kilometers—

His legs ached, his hooves ached, his lungs ached. A sneeze burst its way out through his nostrils, splattering droplets onto the still cold ground. The air was thicker, it had to be, but he couldn't tell. He'd already used one powerpack in the condenser—

"Fuck!" His voice echoed off nearby cliffs, fading until he could only hear the thin wind.

It was then, when he wasn't paying attention to where he was stepping, that it happened. The left lobe of his left hoof was pressed upon a small sharp rock. The tip snapped, he stumbled, wobbled, and then fell. Although he managed to catch himself with his arms so that the sharp rocks only tore the surface material of his bodysuit, it still hurt like hell. A sharp stabbing pain exploded from his left hoof and oozed its way up his postern and burned his lower leg. Screams, his screams, echoed, the sound loud and shrill and lonely.

For a while he lay there, gasping, until the pain faded into a dull burning. Tears burned in his eyes, piercing the fur of his muzzle with icy coldness. As his breath slowed he blinked them away, wiped the dampness off his muzzle and along his forehead, touching the scar where his right ear had once been. Before he'd lost it in a firefight with the Patrol.

Maker damn them!

Pushing himself up, he rolled around and sat down, feeling the cold on his behind even through the insulated suit. Pain stabbed up his leg at that slight movement, and even more when he grabbed it and pulled it around to look at the hoof. Both lobes were worn, rounded at their tips. He'd been cleaning the dirt and stones out of them, but this was the first time he looked at them, really looked at them. Their once sleek blackness was gray, peppered with tan dust. A bead of crimson blood stained the left lobe. Afraid of what he'd see, Dalthwyn licked his finger and brushed the dust and blood away.

There was a hairline crack.


With his right leg supporting his left, he reached into the survival kit. He remembered that there was something… Yes. A small bottle of a thin liquid cement to repair such damage. It wasn't perfect, and he would have to reapply it every few days as growth caused it to lose its grip, but it would allow him to keep going.

Realistically he should rest and give his hooves, the cracked one, the general wear and tear on the others, time to heal, but he was running out of food. He had to keep going. Giving the glue the minute it required to set, he looked in the small pouch and pulled out a tight strap. This would be far easier if he was an equine, but he wasn't, and the kit makers had known that when they prepared the cervine version of the emergency supplies. He wrapped a small plastic strap around the damaged hoof lobe and then used the screwdriver in the kit the get the strap nice and tight.

This solution would, at least, allow him to keep going.

After putting everything away, he heaved himself back up onto his hooves with a groan, and continued on his limping way.

Travel was slower after that. Every other morning he re-glued the crack — he couldn't tell if it was shrinking or not. At least it didn't seem to be getting worse. Each step became a pain, his hooves were thin, worn, and he was spending more and more time feeling rocks against the soft parts between his hoof lobes. Time became a blur. He slept when he was tired, woke, walked until he could walk no more, and slept again. He became gaunt. The rations kept him alive, but they weren't quite enough to replace the calories he was burning.

As the rations grew fewer, Dalthwyn reduced himself to half portions. He was walking slower. Even worse, the glue in the survival kit was almost gone. When it was gone he'd have to stop, or he'd quickly become lame. But then, he had no choice but to continue.

Then he scented salvation!

Slowly clomping his way around a cracked and worn outcropping of rock, skidding slightly on the scree piled around it, sniffing at the air, licking his nostrils, he followed the pine scent. Followed it like a blood hound until finally he saw it. A tree.

It was a small tree, all alone, stunted, maybe two metres high.

But it was something!

And it was something he could eat!

Oblivious to the dull pain in his legs, he jogged down towards it. The rocks thinned, there were patches of a thin sandy soil with some kind of moss-like growth. When he trod on the moss he tore it, and a cloud of dry spores and a bitter dry scent rose around him. To him the scents, bitter, dry, pine, were glorious, rich, and intoxicating. Any scent other than his own was a gift from the Maker.

Falling to his knees on the rock strewn sand, he shoved his dry and dusty muzzle against one of the branches, and tore the needles and hard bark off, crunching it between his teeth. It was bitter, hard, dry, almost tasteless.

But to Dalthwyn it was the most wondrous ambrosia.

It didn't taste of acorns.

Dalthwyn spent a long time by the tree, so long that he ate it practically bare. His stomach wasn't happy, his cud was bitter, but for once he was thankful that all life in the solar system seemed to derive from a single genetic source. The trees were not quite what he'd known in the asteroid farms, or on Terra or Luna, but they were more than close enough to sustain him. The rest gave his hoof lobe time to heal, and gave his body the same.

It also gave him time to realize how truly alone he was.

But, he'd been alone before, and would be alone again. He was a survivor. He'd survived a youth amongst the triads as a hunted slave, he'd survived the raid and rescue by a ship of the Patrol. A ship that dragged him away, proving to the Triads that he would never be tough enough to work for them. He'd survived explosive decompression, exposure to vacuum.

And, by the Maker, he'd survive Venus!

The sun continued to slowly rise, the world to slowly warm up. Before he'd quite killed the tree, he burned off a branch with his blaster, trimmed it, and made a staff to help him walk. More glue, the strap, and he continued on his way.

The ground grew sandier, moss more and more frequent, until it covered everything. Scents grew more and more numerous. The pollen of flowers, the sweetness of new leaves, the trill sharpness of tiny life. There were trees here and there, all pine, scattered, small, scrawny, but they were food. He scented and heard and saw hints of squirrels and birds in the trees, but nothing on the floor of the forest. Moving slowly, Dalthwyn gave his body time to rest and to heal. The ground grew softer, the trees denser. Deciduous started to replace the conifers. It was three months by his watch before he ran across a stream. It was small, but clear, and bitterly cold.

He let it lead him on his slow journey to the lowlands as it headed generally north.

The trees were fairly dense around him and he was walking almost entirely on pine needles and dirt when he scented deer.

For a while he didn't notice it. The scent was not threatening, instead it was comforting, inviting. It was like coming home. Instinctively he relaxed, and didn't realize why for the longest time.

And then he came upon a doe grazing. Instantly his blaster was in his hand, aimed at her.

She stopped, lowered her head, and then jerked it up. She looked at him, her tail half raised.

He stopped and stood still, holding the weapon steady.

She snorted, and stomped each of her forehooves, one after the other.

He'd seen wild deer in the parks on Terra and had paid close attention as they were supposedly distant ancestors of his own kind. Dalthwyn could see that the doe was pregnant, though not close to term. The male was long gone.

With a blur of motion she waved her tail high, bounded away, and was gone.

Dalthwyn relaxed, felt the tension slide out of his muscles, slowly lowered his pistol and flicked the safety back on. He slipped it back into its holster, snorted, and resumed his slow pace through the slowly thickening woods. Oddly he was happier, not so alone. They were only wild deer, non-sentient, but they smelled right.

That night, like all others, he didn't make a fire. He had not matches, and he didn't want to waste the power packs of his blaster just for warmth. The sun was still up, and the world was slowly growing warmer. That, his fur, his bodysuit, all kept him warm and comfortable. With a yawn, he sat down, his back against a tree, and nodded off.

Something woke him. It was still day, the world seemed unchanged. He licked his nostrils and inhaled. He could scent pine faintly, the spoor of the deer, the cold sweetness of the water.

And there was something— It was coarse, bitter— Licking his nostrils he exhaled and sniffed again. And it was—

With a screeching yowl, something leapt from the tree above him.

Years of living in fear, of struggle, kept Dalthwyn from panicking. Instead he spun away, hand leaping to the grip of his blaster and drawing it.

But, as fast as he was, the creature was faster. It landed on him, a blur of splotched tan fur and claws and teeth. Claws tore into his bodysuit, and into his flesh. Teeth dug into his shoulders and chewed up towards his neck.

Without conscious thought, Dalthwyn flipped off the safety and blasted its skull once, and then a second time, even though it was already dead.

And then there was silence, except for the wind in the trees.

He snorted to clear the stench of burned meat, the coarse bitter stench of the carnivore, from his nostrils. With a groan he pushed the corpse off.

All around him rose the scent of alarm and panic, and he could feel his tail pulled up tight against his spine, pressing against the bodysuit. His breathing was rapid, but slowing.

Dalthwyn forced calm to flow through him. He could scent nothing else around him, but the dead, and the faint traces of deer. He was armed, he was safe. Stripping his bodysuit off his upper body he dressed the cuts with antibiotics from his bag, and then put the bodysuit back on. The tears were unfortunate, but it was getting warmer, and most of his body was still covered.

Calm now, Dalthwyn began gathering underbrush, fallen branches. He cleared an area of ground and built up a small fire. Setting his blaster to its lowest setting, he fired into the pile of tinder. Instantly it burst into flames. He flicked the safety back on and grabbed the pack and pulled out the utility knife.

Then he began skinning his kill. It was ugly, messy, bloody. The stench of death, of meat and blood, overwhelmed him. Goo and slime poured from organs as he cut into them. Half the meat was covered in guck from inside the thing, and Dalthwyn couldn't make himself touch them. But some of the meat was good, and, unlike the wild primitive deer, he could eat meat. Dalthwyn wasn't an omnivore, but he could stomach it. And he was tired of the bland fare of leaves and nuts.

As the fire settled into coals behind him, he cut what meat he hadn't spoiled in his naiveté. One small piece. And then another, and another. He broke long thin branches off of the trees, stripped their tips of bark, and stuck the shards of bloody meat onto them. Holding them over the fire, he heard and scented the rich fat dripping into the flames that hissed and crackled. And then he ate.

The meat was tough, hard, charred on the outside and barely cooked on the inside. But the juices were sweet, and after months of his bland diet, the little taste the scraps did have was rich and succulent.

Dalthwyn continued his descent. The air was thicker now, his breathing was comfortable. It was getting warmer, and eventually he cut off the torn and partially shredded top half of his bodysuit and went bare. Life became more frequent and the air grew thick with scents. Sharp tangs or fruit and nuts, oozing hints of decay, strong bitterness of predators. He spent time scouting during the day for clearings, and he spent his rest inside them. Each night he made a fire — it didn't take much of a charge, and the small use was far less than he'd use to kill a predator. He learned to trust his ears and his nose more. The felines seemed to be tree dwellers, they didn't bother him in the clearing. He came across the spore of a wolf pack, but it was old. He became more wary.

The ground became damper. Underbrush grew thick and heavy, and his pace slowed. He moved away from the river he was following, and often had to detour around brambles and growths. Life become overwhelming. The trees changed, becoming thicker and higher. He began to have to detour around bogs and marsh, and they became more frequent. Again he needed to his water purifier. The Maker alone knew what was in the bog water. His pace slowed, but he had lots to eat. The deer traces faded, but other herbivores replaced them. He couldn't see the sun anymore, just the leafy canopy above. And it rained, almost every day. The heat became oppressive, thick and heavy. Breathing became hard, the air oozing up and down his throat more like a liquid than a gas. He stripped the bodysuit off entirely, and still panted and sweat all the time. The wild deer didn't go down into the tropics because they couldn't sweat. Lucky them. Sleep became hard, but he adapted.

The ground became damper, with every step water oozed out, soaking his hooves. Dalthwyn just walked slower, carefully, using the staff to stay upright. Time passed, and the endless soaking started to rot his hooves. They grew soft, his legs grew sore, but he refused to stop.

Coming across a small lake, the water green and glistening in the brilliant sun he hadn't seen for a month, Dalthwyn stopped. According to his watch, he'd been on Venus for five months. The sun was close to noon. All around bird chattered, insects hummed. Something splashed in the water. The lake wasn't wide, and looked shallow. As the underbrush was thick and dense, he decided to try walking across the lake.

He placed a single hoof in first, his left one, healed but now rotting. The soft ground had allowed it to grow thick again, and his leg muscles were hard and tough. There was no pain. The bottom was a soft thick ooze, his leg sunk deep into the cold goo, and he wiggled the two lobes as the mud slithered between them. Finally his hoof found hard packed clay. Checking, he found that he'd only sunk down into the bottom 15 centimetres or so. If the whole lake was like that, he'd still make better time than through the underbrush. And the water was cool and refreshing.

He stepped in with his other hoof, and began a slow careful pace across the lake. Fish scurried around his legs, their fins brushing against the thick fur of his legs. He'd taken two more steps when he felt something bite his leg.

Stopping, he looked down. It was a fish, almost circular.

And then the water began to boil.

As if by magic, more of the same fish appeared around him. Each would nip in, dig out a chunk of his flesh, and then dart away. Dalthwyn didn't stop to look. Screaming in pain, he turned and ran. The ooze at the bottom sucked at his legs, the fish bit and tore. Some leapt out and grabbed chunks of his thighs. Drawing his blaster, he flicked off the safety and set it to its second lowest setting. The trigger was soft, and the water boiled around him even more, burning and scarring his legs.

As fast as they'd come, the fish vanished, leaving behind the bloated bodies of their boiled compatriots, and blood.

He staggered to shore, his legs scarred and bleeding, blood oozing out through a hundred tiny bites. With his mind a haze of pain, he fell on the shore. Some part of him made him fumble through the pack and pull out an antibiotic and inject it. And then he fell asleep.

Somehow he survived. He awoke hours later, blood staining the ground around him. Each leg was a screaming bar of pain. Swallowing three painkillers, he injected more of the antibiotic. Then he poured the clear water from the purifier over his legs, the pain a blinding white that washed out his vision and almost made him pass out. He poured a salve over his legs, and then wrapped them in every bandage he had. Gasping, he had enough presence of mind to fire at the nearest tree, the setting high. It began to steam, and finally caught. Only when it was burning did he stop and fall back into sleep.

When he awoke, the tree was a smoking tower — the upper branches hadn't burned and didn't even know they were dead yet. The other trees hadn't been touched. Rain drove from the sky, peppering the lake with droplets, but only heavy drips of water fell from the canopy above him, splopping into the dense ground cover.

Dalthwyn knew he was feverish; his stomachs gurgled and clenched. The bandages on his legs were caked with blood and gore. Through blurring eyes he read the instructions in the first aid kit and injected and swallowed everything that could help him. He gulped some water through his hot heavy lips. He knew that he couldn't stay here. He needed to move, to find some kind of shelter, some place he could defend.

Somehow he dragged himself on to his hooves, even though his legs screamed in fiery agony. He shook, shivered in the steaming rain, but took one step. And another. And another.

He made five steps before his body could take no more. He fell to the ground, blood oozing through the bandages on his legs.

Like the other inner planets in the Solar System with an atmosphere, Venus had its own indigenous sophants. These were called by themselves, quite unimaginably, Venusians.

Unlike all other sophants, they were amphibians, though that classification was not wholly correct. They were warm blooded, and they suckled their young.

It was a small band of hunters that came upon Dalthwyn's dying body. Through his fevered gaze he saw the group of green-skinned, long tailed, hairless frogs approach him, their bodies painted in brown and tan patches for camouflage. Somehow he managed to bring up his blaster, his nostril wrinkling from the putrefaction rising from his own legs. But his hand shook, and his swollen thumb couldn't flip the safety off.

The Venusians gathered around him, chittering and squeaking. Most kept a wary eye around them, but the leader crept over and ran his long thin fingers along Dalthwy's body, along the large curve of his skull, over the velvet covered buds of his antlers, and along his legs. The Venusian was remembering the instructions given to him by the elders.

Dalthwyn screamed out loud when the fingers touched the puffy flesh beneath the oozing bandages.

The leader chittered and chirped to the others, and they chittered back. Four of the Venusians grabbed Dalthwyn — two by his arms, two by his thighs. Two more carefully grabbed each of his hooves. The leader pulled something from a coarse skin pouch and rubbed it along Dalthwyn's legs, and he immediately relaxed and the pain faded to a numb dullness.

The group turned and quickly carried their cargo out of the jungle, across the shallows of the lake as the leader poured some concoction into the water ahead of them and the fish fled. Then the leader pinched Dalthwyn's nostrils shut, and they all ducked under the surface and vanished.

The only thing left behind was bubbles, and a few splotches of cervine blood.

By the time the Venusians got Dalthwyn to their colony, he was in bad shape. The antibiotics he'd taken had helped, but nowhere near enough. Fungal growths already littered the damp bandages, and spores had taken root inside the wounds. He hadn't noticed it, but the same fungal growths had infested his clothes, his skin, all of his belongings.

Life in the swamps on Venus grew fast.

They chattered amongst themselves, examined him, and decided that they had little time before the sentient's life would pass to the Great Maker. Soft gentle hands carried him to a soft bed as others fetched the healers. They came, took samples, mixed concoctions, and chirped sadly.

The form was badly adapted to Venus — it would never survive. Steps had to be taken if he was to serve the needs of the elders.

They chirped and chattered as aids removed the caked and stinking bandages. Drawing knives and calling for specific concoctions, they went to work.

Dalthwyn woke up in a domed chamber lit by a dull greenish glow from the walls. He breathed easily, after so many months the air was cool and easy in his lungs, its overbearing humidity gone. The only thing he could scent was himself, and his scent was of health. The only entrance that he could see was a pool of greenish water that made up half the floor. He was on a bed of dried reeds and moss, and there was some kind of thick fungus coating his legs and hooves in a single large cocoon. There was no pain. He was naked.

Panic blossomed in his blood, his heart thumped faster and faster. His head whipped around, his breath pulsed, until he saw his blaster in its holster against the wall, along with the rest of his supplies. All were speckled with fungus and mold. Closing his eyes, breathing deeply until the urge to panic flight had subsided, he returned his attention to the stuff coating his legs. Touching it, he found that it was cool and dry. It was scentless, but felt like a fine wood. And it felt just as hard.

There was a splash that echoed and tinkled through the chamber, and the slick green body of a Venusian popped out and onto the shelf beside him. Water splashed onto him, and his nostrils pinched shut as a drop touched his nose. A faint scent of fish, of green life, of dampness, filled the dome.

He stared at the Venusian, and the Venusian stared at him. Then it nodded, put what looked like a gourd beside him, and then another beside it.


It slipped back into the water and, with a gurgle and a handful of bubbles, was gone.

For a moment Dalthwyn sat there, watching the fading ripples, and then he snorted, his breath loud and lonely through his nostrils. One of the things that had kept him alive for so long was to not try and change the unchangeable.

And in this case, nearly immobilized in a room where the only exit lay through the water, there was not much he could do but wait. With a little fumbling, his hand grasped the gourd, his fingers gripping the smooth polished surface. And so did something else, some kind of film between his fingers—

Slowly he brought one hand up to his muzzle and cocked his head to examine it.

His fingers looked the same, but— maybe— they were slightly longer. And, there was indeed a fine web joining each of the three fingers. Slowly he turned his hand around, the light becoming tinged with red as it pierced the thin film. He sniffed at the film, and could smell only himself. His nostrils brushed the film, and he felt the film with his nostrils, and his nostrils with the film.

What was happening to him?!

He breath pulsed in and out through his nostrils. Did the air feel different? Were his nostrils shaped differently? How the hell could he know?! Dragging himself over to the wall where his blaster was hung, he grabbed it, letting his fingers, their— webbing, caress the worn ivory. The charge still showed at 81%, and, after flicking it to its minimum setting, he fired it at the pool of water, and there was a satisfying explosion as the superheated water burst into steam.

At least it worked!

Dragging himself back to where he'd been, the green reeds crackling and rustling underneath his sleek fur, he sat up. Carefully putting the blaster down beside him, safety on, he picked up one of the gourds. Inside it something gurgled. The thing had no handle, a nozzle but no obvious cork or cap. It was fairly obvious where and how it should be drank from, even though there was no opening. For a moment he debated leaving it — it could be poisoned. But, if they had wanted to kill him, they could have done it far easier. And they had left him his blaster.

Unless they didn't know what it was—

And what if the liquid would brainwash him—?

He looked at the innocuous brown and green-splotched gourd.

If they needed him to drink something to condition or brainwash him, then they could just as easily wait until he was unconscious and pour it down his muzzle.

He sighed, and with not a little trepidation, put the neck of the gourd in his muzzle and bit down. The material was smooth and hard, like plastic, but warmer and smoother. His teeth made no impression in the material. His tongue felt around it, felt its smoothness, felt a very faint fine grain. It certainly seemed something grown.

When his tongue touched what seemed to be the nozzle, something cold and sweet gushed upon it. He gasped, and instinctively swallowed. More liquid gushed out through the sealed nozzle, and he swallowed some more. It was rich and thick, more a syrup than a liquid, and it was ice cold.

Yanking the gourd out of his muzzle he looked at it. It was still smooth, featureless, and the nozzle was still sealed. He touched it with a finger and it was perfectly dry, not even damp from his saliva.

What in the Maker's name?

He looked at it. There was no way liquid could be passing out of the gourd. And there was no way it could be cold. No way!

Still, when in Neyork…

Putting the gourd back in his muzzle, he sucked at the rich, thick liquid like a baby sucking at a doe's teat. It was cold and filling, and settled in his chest comfortably filling up the first of his stomachs. When nothing more came out to his sucking, he tossed it into the now still pool. It flew through the air and skipped across the water, and thunked into the side of the hole with a hollow clunk. And then it floated, slowly spinning. He took the other gourd and it was filled with the same liquid. He emptied it and tossed it to join the other.

Dalthwyn sighed and lay down to sleep, keeping one hand on his blaster. He wanted answers, and the next visitor would give them to him.

Dalthwyn was sleeping when the next visitor came, whether or not it was the same one he couldn't tell. He'd dozed off but was awakened by the tinkling of water and the splash of droplets on him. Before he was awake he fumbled for his blaster — it wasn't where he'd left it — there it was — grasped it, drew it, and aimed.

The Venusian crouched there, just looking at him, water dripping from its sleek scales to the floor. The creature was not reptilian, but was instead covered in sleek glistening green skin, fading to pale yellow along its belly. A mottled pattern of dark brown and green splotches were scattered over its back and head. There was a dark fin running down the centre of its muzzled head, its eyes were large and yellow, and a long sleek tail hung into the pool of water. Its hands were long and thin, the fingers tipped with tiny claws; its feet were thicker and webbed, and more heavily clawed. It carried another gourd.

It looked at him, breath pulsing in and out of its nostrils, its muzzle slightly open revealing rows of fine pointed teeth.

"Who are you?" Dalthwyn asked.

The creature blinked, and then burst out with a long string of chirps and squeaks.

Dalthwyn frowned, shook his head, and started running through the other languages he knew. First the various racial languages, then some of the communication codes used. Each time the Venusian just looked, and chirped and squeaked.

Digging into his memory Dalthwyn remembered the theories of an Intelligent Origin of all the sentients in the system, and dug scraps of an old old language he'd taken in school. A language believed to be a primary lingual source for all the tongues known to be in common use within the Sol system. "YOU WHAT BE?" Dalthwyn finally worked out, and gutturalled through his muzzle.

The creature cocked its head and looked at him from one eye. It blinked, and then slipped, or fell, backwards into the pool and was gone.


It was too late.

The Venusian had even taken the gourd with it.

For a while Dalthwyn cursed, his words echoing around him. The sound was odd, hollow, constant. It did not change as he turned his head, or as he flicked his ear—

Dalthwyn realized that he had no ear to flick.

Sure, he'd lost one in his youth, but he'd always kept the other. And now—

Keeping one eye on the pool, he reached up and ran a hand carefully along the top of his head. There was nothing. Nothing but sleek fur. No ears, no scars, no holes— Hell, even the buds of his antlers were gone.

What in the Maker's Name had the bastards done to him?!

A shape burst out of the pool and slapped onto the floor, spraying him with water. Dalthwyn dropped his hand and held his blaster steady. Murder gleamed in his eyes.

This Venusian was definitely different. Its body was no longer sleek and glistening. Even wet, its hide seemed wrinkled and dry. Its colours were faded, and its skin fell lose over a skeleton he could easily see. For a moment it looked at him, eyes large and old and wise, so large that Dalthwyn could feel himself sinking into them.

The creature spoke and broke the spell: "KNOW ANCIENT TONGUE. WORDS PASSED MAKER." Its voice was slow and hesitant, dry, and it squeaked on some of the consonants. Yet, it was understandable.

Dalthwyn shook his head for a second to gather his thoughts. That class had been so long ago, and he'd never paid that much attention. Yet, his memory had always been sharp, and he had used it once or twice as a source of code phrases. "BADLY. WHY HARM?"


Dalthwyn's rage burst out of him in Solarian, the common tongue developed after the last war for ease of use by all species. "What the fuck did you do to me?!"

The Venusian was unperturbed at the outburst it couldn't understand. "STAY HERE. LEARN TONGUE. TEACH. TIME HEAL."

What did it mean? Stay here was obvious, as was learn tongue. But teach? What did he know? Dalthwyn had never heard of anything that could have changed him — webbed hands, nostrils that pinched shut, ears that vanished— And time heal. Did they think that in time he'd forgive them? Little did they know!

Dalthwyn stopped and cocked his head in thought. He'd never let his rage control him, and it was easy to push it down now. He was trapped here, and at their mercy. Venus had almost killed him. There were secrets here. Why was the Patrol keeping them secret? What would they pay him to maintain their secret?

Dalthwyn grinned.

If he was stuck here, then he'd have to learn the language. And then he'd learn the rest. He rubbed his hands together, and then formed a reply in the old tongue. "TEACH MEANINGS."

"MUCH LEARN," the Venusian replied, before beginning to teach Dalthwyn their language.

Time passed; how long Dalthwyn never knew. His environment never changed. The light was the same, the air was always fresh, the moss he slept on always clean and new, though he knew he had soiled it. He ate and drank from the gourds brought to him, chewed his cud, and learned. Gradually he grew comfortable enough to leave his blaster in its holster.

He'd learned enough of the local tongue to be understood, when his teacher came to him with another elderly Venusian. The flesh on the other one had been painted or dyed, and a snaking pattern of red curled around on his back.

Dalthwyn pointed. "Who?"

"<clicksquealclickclick> medic. Fixed you."

"Here, why?"

The elder who had been teaching him scratched at its head a moment, and then pointed at the cocoon encasing his legs. "He <squeeeeek> take off. Check."

The medic looked at him and spoke: "You <click> feel no pain. <squeclick> move."

"Not receive last."

"Still," the elder said.

Dalthwyn nodded.

As he watched, the doctor reached into an ornate shining ouch on a belt that crossed his left and pulled out what looked like a slug, though it was rounded almost into a sphere. Dalthwyn tried to back away, but with his legs bound he had to drag himself and it wasn't near fast enough. Holding the slug thing over top of the wooden cocoon, the doctor squeezed it. Liquid dribbled out, and pattered onto the wood which began to smoke.

It was a thick smoke, huge gray clouds that wafted and drifted up as the centre of the cocoon dissolved into nothingness. Just the smoke, though there might have been a fine transparent liquid that slid down the floor and into the water. The smoke was not bitter or dark, but it was rich, and scented of oaks and acorns and fresh leaves and shoots. The doctor put the slug away as the last of the liquid dissolved the centre of the wooden cocoon so that his two legs were once again separate. As the smoke rose, billowing and curling along the top of the dome, Dalthwyn could see the inner half of each of his legs, with the porous spongy material surrounding them. Then the doctor reached down and lifted Dalthwyn's left leg a bit. There was no pain. Then he grasped the wood, above and below Dalthwyn's leg, and gave a sudden yank. The material cracked, the sound a tearing and ripping and then a creak as fibres groaned. It split revealing Dalthwyn's leg.

But it was not Dalthwyn's leg.

As the doctor repeated the procedure on his other leg, Dalthwyn could just stare.

As it had been before, his leg was still covered in a fine fur, brown, and it ended at a glistening black cloven hoof. But there the resemblance ended. Extending from his knee down to his hock was a thick blade of flesh, not naked but covered in the same hair as his leg. It ended a few centimeters above the top of his hoof. Somehow he could feel warm air on it, and a slight dust from the broken cocoon. His other leg was the same, though opposite.

Dalthwyn squinted, there was something not quite right about his hoof— Then he realized that it glistened far more than it had, glistened as though it was wet, or covered with some kind of oil.

The doctor bowed, and, after gathering up the four pieces of cocoon, slipped into the water.

"What—? How—?" Dalthwyn sputtered out in Solarian, but then the stern gaze of the elder made him try again. "How fix?"

"Medic used old <squealclicksquee>. Bred by the Makers. We remember the <squeeclick>. It rewrote your <clisqueek>—" the elder tried again at Dalthwyn's stare of incomprehension, "— your life— bodies—. It made you <squeak> for Venus. The way the Makers bred us."

Dalthwyn shook his head, concentrating on the language he was still struggling to learn. "Not have words. Tell all me later. I want learn." What he could do with this off planet. What the Triads would pay! If he could understand it. A part of him was hesitant though— he remembered what had happened to the Venusians in the north—

"Dalckwee, come <click> me. I will take you to < clickclicksqeee >. Then you begin to learn. I will take you to our <clickclicksqeee>."

Dalthwyn raised his arm in a gesture he had mastered, due to much practice, to indicate that he didn't understand. "How take? Take where?"

"Follow. <squeee> make clear." And with that, the elder slid backwards into the water, leaving behind only ripples.

Dalthwyn just stared. He couldn't swim, had never learned. He knew of some cervines who could, but it was a struggle on the surface, a fight that lasted as short a time as possible.

And now the Venusians wanted him to go out into the unknown, away from the air. He couldn't!

He looked at his legs, at the blades— the fins they now had. He pinched his nostrils shut with a thought, felt his smooth head. They had done things to him. Somehow they had changed him. Adapted him for Venus. Had they done to him what the Great Maker, what the Precursor civilization had done for them? Had they kept those secrets which the other races had lost?

The prize was too valuable.

The elder poked its head up, exhaled air in a woosh, and looked at him. "Follow. You will be safe." Then the elder ducked back under in a swirl of greenish water and a few bubbles.

When in Neyork—

Filled with trepidation, Dalthwyn pushed himself up onto his hooves. Standing was awkward, and his legs were weak, but not as weak as they should have been. He had to duck under the roof.

A drop of water fell from the roof and onto his head. And then another.

The dome had never leaked before!

Dalthwyn looked up, and he could visibly see the smooth pearly surface curdle and crack. More water began dribbling in.

What in the Maker's name?

Water dribbled onto his muzzle and he closed his eyes, but could still see.

What else had the Maker damned Venusians done to him?!

The flow of water into the dome was remaining at a steady dribble, but he felt the water rising along his fetlocks and— fins. Looking down he saw that the dome was rapidly filling with water. He splashed over to where he'd been sleeping and grabbed his blaster and secured the belt around his waist. He grabbed the backpack and slung it over his shoulders.

The water was up to his thighs.

It seemed he had no choice but to trust what the Venusians had done to him.

Looking down, he saw the face of the elder looking up at him from below the surface, below the hole that presumably led outside.

Nothing for it.

Dalthwyn could smell his nervousness, could smell the scents of danger and panic he was giving off.

What if those fish were here? What if they came in after him?!

But they weren't hurting the Venusian—

The water was up to his waist.

He took a few steps towards the hole, and could feel the pressure of the water on his fins.

Taking a few deep breaths he leaned forwards, almost falling into the rising gurgling water. It closed over him, seeming to suck him under. Instinctively his nostrils pinched shut, his eyes closed, but he could still see. Clearly. He heard a gurgling from his back and sank a bit deeper; turning his head he could see a last few bubbles sliding out from the pack he was wearing.

At least the blaster was water tight.

He had no urge to breathe, no panic, no sense of discomfort. The water was warm and smooth, almost silky. Almost like the manicured body of a doe pressed against him. He tried a couple of kicks and moved through the water faster than he'd have thought possible, almost hitting the far wall.

And still no urge to breathe.

He could feel the air in his lungs, could feel a slight tightness, but there was no need, no panic. He knew he had lots of time.

The elder poked its head up through the hole into the water now almost entirely filling the dome. "<clicksqueeal> up! I can't wait for <squeak>."

Dalthwyn tried to speak, but all that happened was a few bubbles tickled and oozed their way out of his nostrils.

"The medics couldn't do a full <squealsqueak>." With that the elder curled around and slipped back out the hole.

The dome was full now, except for a few bubbles twinkling along the ceiling. The internal light was beginning to fade, and Dalthwyn could see the dome material becoming spongelike as it rapidly decayed.

With nothing for it he pulled himself through the hole, his webbed hands grabbing the greenish liquid. A few kicks and he was through and into the open water.

Unlike the stories he'd been told about swimming, the water was not a dim frightening place, but a glowing green world lit by shafts of sunlight. All around were domes of various sizes, some gleaming and new, some older and covered in growths. Cables or vines anchored them to the bottom. Here and there Venusians swam around them moving through the water with ease. Some were carrying things, some just moving. He could hear the squeaks and clicks of their language echoing through the water.

But it was strange. Although it was beautiful, it was flat.

And then it hit him. There was no scent. None. Not a one.

Of course there wasn't, he was under water, his nostrils were sealed. And yet—

His lungs twitched, and he knew that his time here was not limitless. Looking around he quickly found the elder waiting for him a short distance away and began awkwardly swimming towards him.

"Kick your legs together," the elder said, and demonstrated.

Dalthwyn tried, and it was easier.

It wasn't far through the glistening water as the elder led him deeper and to a larger dome, this one covered in growths and mosses until it was almost a part of the bottom. His lungs pinched a bit more and he thought for a moment of making for the surface far above, yet his need wasn't urgent. So he followed. He could feel his legs, his fins, churning the long weedy undergrowth as he followed the elder into the dim light beneath the dome, and finally into the hole at its bottom. The shaft was short, and led upward to a steady greenish light.

His head burst into the air and his nostrils opened as he exhaled his spent air with a woosh before drawing in the fresh air inside the dome. Without the grace of the Venusians, he dragged himself out of the water and felt it stream off of his slick fur. His eyes opened, and he blinked, and closed his eyes that suddenly worked as they had for so many years.

And then he just stared.

Unlike the dome he'd been in, this one had a second level, and maybe more — an ornate carved wooden ladder led up to it. There were doorways, covered with some kind of green matting, but the walls—.

The walls were shelves, and on the shelves were stacked and rowed books. But they were not like any books he'd ever seen. The books were thick, some approaching a third of a metre. And they didn't look like paper or leather, they looked like ivory or polished wood.

And there were hundreds, nay thousands.

Were there more upstairs?

"Dalckwee, welcome to our <clickclicksqeee>. Here you will learn. And then you will teach us."

Dalthwyn could only nod as he remembered the wars that had been fought over the Cruinni Stone, over hints and rumours of secrets left behind by the Precursors. The Precursors he had never believed in before. What he could find here!

"Teach me— hear voices—", Dalthwyn motioned at the books. "Teach me."

Dalthwyn dreamed of wealth beyond what he'd dreamed of before.

"Teach me."

The Venusians had already created quarters for Dalthwyn in their library, as though they wanted him there, and wanted him to learn. Dalthwyn had no complaints — he wanted to learn too. Already some of the things he'd found made him drool with what he could get paid for them. There was nothing earth shattering, but there were lost fragmentary histories, medical and healing methodologies, things that the right people would pay almost anything for. Dalthwyn kept note of what books were most valuable so that he could take them if he had a sudden need to depart.

As one possessed, he forced himself to learn the Venusian script, and to master their language. He would stay at the books, which were thick plates of a dense ivory or wood with a fine script engraved upon them, until his eyes were blinking shut, struggling to master the meaning of the faint script. Once or twice a day he would slip into the water, slow and clumsy compared to the Venusians, graze at the fast growing green weed that lined the bottom, and relieve himself. He also ate from the gourds the Venusians brought.

The only scent was that of the Venusians, a cold sweetness with a hint of fish that varied slightly from individual to individual. He never smelled food, or anything else. The books only smelled of those who used them. And there were others who used the library, though not many. They were all old; Dalthwyn barely looked at them. They avoided him. Each day was filled with the soft rustle of feet, the faint scrape of claws, the quiet squees and clicks of whispered conversations.

Time passed, and the short times he spent outside grazing grew shorter and shorter as the light faded, and the weed grew more and more sparse.

One day the elder who had led him to the library came to speak with him.

"Dalckwee, I see that you have learned much."

"Yes mistress," Dalthwyn answered with a faked modesty and respect. It seemed that like all other known sentients, the Venusians had two sexes. The male was small and did the hunting and gathering, the female was larger and dominant. Dalthwyn could have sworn he'd seen a third sex, but never clearly enough to be sure.

"The sun is about to set, and we will enter hibernation."

Dalthwyn swallowed, suddenly nervous. Would he have to sleep the night away?

"We could modify you, but not that much. You can wipe that panic from your muzzle."

He licked his lips. "Thank you mistress."

"You have wondered why we saved you?"

That made Dalthwyn take a step back, and he could feel the echoes of his non-existent ears flick in consternation, and he could feel the miasma of fear oozing from around him. After all this time he still knew so little about the Venusians. Did they have a sense of smell? He swallowed as cud threatened to ooze up. "I had."

"The hunters who found you brought you back to our home. It was obvious to them that you were sentient, and they could not abandon you to die. We put you into a deep sleep, and then debated what to do with you."

Dalthwyn slowly moved his hand to the blaster at his belt. "What did you decide?"

She clicked in laughter. "Obviously we decided to save you."

He nodded.

"There is some contact amongst the tribes, and we have heard stories from the far north where others like you have come. We have heard of the Patrol—"

Dalthwyn's blaster was in his hand and pointed at her head.

Her eyes blinked, and she looked down at the steady barrel.

That was when Dalthwyn realized that the dome was empty — there was nobody else here but the two of them.

"From your reaction I presume that you are not friends with this Patrol."

Dalthwyn nodded. "We have had our differences."

"Then I suggest you let me continue. Although we may look like primitives, we aren't. You would do well to remember that."

"What I'm holding mistress is a weapon, something far beyond anything you have."

"We know. Its operation is simple, and we examined it after you demonstrated that it was a weapon. Later, when you slept, we swapped its heart."

"I think it's best I leave now then. You've been helpful so I'm not going to just shoot you, but I would suggest you don't make any sudden moves."

"Dalckwee, contrary to the belief of both you, and those of your kind in the north, we are not barbarians. When the Makers destroyed themselves, we kept secrets hidden. We remember. The north, where they settled, was devastated. But we near the equator remember." She slowly moved her hand to a pouch and slowly pulled out a power pack.

Dalthwyn watched as she tossed it on the floor between them. It clattered and rolled to a stop against his right hoof.

"You weapon does not function."

"We'll see." Dalthwyn flicked the charge to minimum and fired at the floor just in front of the Venusian. Nothing happened.

"We are not stupid."

He backed away, and flicked his blaster so that he could check the power pack in its handle. It looked clean and showed 83%. He flicked the lock on the power pack and watched it pop out. It looked fine. He yanked it the rest of the way out.

Normally it should feel cool and metallic, now it felt warm. Although the end felt exactly right, the rest of it felt slightly rougher. Digging a finger-hooflet into it, he pulled away a sliver of some kind of blackish wood.

"Dalckwee, you have your technics based on metal and fire, we have ours based on growth and healing. The heart you have is fake, all the ones you have are. And the one I brought is empty.

We are not primitives for you to dominate."

Dalthwyn let the useless blaster fall from his hands and clatter on the floor. "What are you going to do with me then?"

"You can try and survive in the night with only your body and your skills. You won't do it. We sleep during the night both to preserve food, and for safety. The beasts that are awakening now would treat you as a bountiful feast and gorge themselves on your flesh. But, if you want to leave, we won't stop you."

Dalthwyn really needed time to think, but he couldn't let her keep the upper hand. If he could find where they'd hidden the packs—

"Dalckwee, you won't be able to see where you're going. It's night."

He snorted. He'd been on Terra, in the parks at night. It had been easy to see by the bright glow of the—

Of the moon. Of which Venus had none.

Leaning down, he picked up his useless blaster and slipped it back into its holster. Even though he knew it was useless, it gave him confidence. "Why didn't you just kill me then?"

"We need you. We need your help."

Dalthwyn blinked.

"The northern tribes, those we consider primitive, have been overwhelmed by your technic civilization. The diseases your kind brought took out their brightest, and the rest now flock to join them, forgetting their past. The diseases hurt us too, but we found cures.

We refuse to lose our culture, our history."

"I may have brought diseases. If so, I'm sorry."

"We had learned. The hunters sickened, but we a <clicktweet> had warned us and we had aid ready. We know that what you brought was not intentional. There are far easier and more effective ways you could deliver plague to us."

"Did you need me to create cures?"

"No. We need the way you think."

Dalthwyn blinked.

"Your technic culture is grasping, greedy, aggressive. Even without disease, even if we were unified, it would overwhelm us. We need your drive."

"Why should I help you?"

"Because if you don't, we will die."

"Bad argument. What's in it for me?"

"We have a plan. It may work, but it needs your help to ensure it works. If you help, you will be honoured amongst us. If you refuse, then you can go home. No-one will stop you."

"You said it was a death sentence if I left."

"If you leave at night."


"I will take you to where our histories are, to where the records we have of what happened to the northern tribes are. Read them overnight. When we awaken we will talk. If you still wish to go home, we will return your batteries and give you supplies and aid.

"We need your willing aid to make the plan succeed."

He snorted. "You've set me up very well."

"I'm sorry. We— I am not good at this. It is against the <clikque>. But, we are growing desperate. What we have done on our own is not promising."

Dalthwyn licked his lips and snorted. "Guess I'm going to read then."

"Dalckwee, we are not a cruel people. You must know that by now. What we are is desperate. Consider the time you spend here payment for healing. Food will be stockpiled here for you before we sleep. Your breath will keep the dome alight and refreshing the air for you. We hope you don't try and leave — you could kill many of us, and then you would die. For nothing."

For the first time Dalthwyn wished he knew some choice words in Venusian, or even an alternate form of address. He had to use the language he knew. "Mistress, you have my word that I will study. I have nothing to lose, and much to gain."

She clicked in what Dalthwyn had learned was amusement. "Oh yes, we know of what you've been studying. You can take it, take all that you can carry. We'll even help you pack." She sighed. "Our knowledge is n0t going to save us, and our culture will doom us unless you help."

On Terra it would be winter. On Mars the centaurs would have migrated to the opposite hemisphere. In the asteroid colonies things would be unchanging as they always were.

On Venus it was just quiet.

Dalthwyn hadn't realized how much he missed comforting sounds and smells. On board ship there was always the hum of circulation fans, the creak of heat expanding and shrinking as the ship rotated to spread the heat of the sun around. On the asteroids there were always voices, the dim song of birds.

On Venus there was nothing.

Even when Dalthwyn slipped into the water to do his business, the clicks and rattles and whistles that had always been there were gone. There were groans, loud mournful howls, but nothing else. The water seemed cooler, the only light was the dim wavery light that shone from the library into the still water. Even the plants he'd grazed upon were dead — the bottom was covered in decay and muck. He never spent long out there as he could sense things moving beyond the light, avoiding it as though they were afraid. Dalthwyn didn't want to find out what they were.

One time Dalthwyn stopped just below the entrance and looked up at himself. He'd been under for a while, stretching his muscles, and the water in the entrance had quieted to a glassy sheen. He still looked the same — his fur was the same colour, his face the same face, his muzzle the same muzzle. But both ears were gone, and that made him look alien. His fur had a sheen to it, and his eyes bulged out a little and glowed as though they had their own internal light. His hands were still black, as was the webbing between them. His legs may have been a bit longer, it was hard to be sure. It might have been an optical illusion caused by the fins that projected out to each side of his body, like the control fins of an atmospheric flyer. It was his hooves that looked out of place, hanging in the water, black and useless.

He scratched his nose, and a few bubbles slid out and glurped up to the pool where they sat there, clinging to the surface where he belonged. Then, in the distance, something groaned, and Dalthwyn burst back into the air and the light, water sliding from his fur. This was his world, not the water.

And in that world that currently imprisoned him, were the records.

Dalthwyn had known that the first landing on Venus had occurred some seventy years ago. Drugs found in the plants had caused a colony to rapidly grow at each of the poles — the rest of the planet was too hot and too wild. After the landings, it hadn't taken long for diseases, mild in mammalian races, to cross the racial divide and burst upon the Venusians. The Patrol had tried to help, but it was estimated that half the native population had died before effective inoculations were developed and distributed. That was where his knowledge ended.

The Venusian records were more detailed.

The polar tribes had always been on the fringes of Venusian civilization, they were the scattered barbarians. The closer one got to the equator, the more developed Venusian civilization had been. At the time of the landing at the north pole, most of the planet had been divided between a number of large federations of citystates. The Venusians had never really known war — the barbarians were out of civilization more by choice than anything else. There was some conflict, but weapons had never really been developed beyond spears. There was not even economic competition as was known on Terra. Certainly there was competition for prestige — certain federations were better then the others at certain things. But there was no ownership. Other than clusters of learning, universities, such as what he was in, there was no permanent habitation. Buildings were destroyed when no longer needed, and left no evidence of their ever having existed by night. To the technic civilization of which Dalthwyn was a member, the Venusians looked like a primitive rabble of wandering tribes, without permanent settlement, without any knowledge or technology.

But they did have knowledge. Just not technology as the Patrol would understand the term. Their knowledge was biological. Whereas the world Dalthwyn knew made their buildings out of stone and wood, the Venusians grew their buildings from a wood-like fungus they had bred for millennia; whereas the United Planets made their tools out of metal and grease and the breaking of the atom, forcing their will upon the physical reality, the Venusians used chemicals and biological agents, retroviruses and symbiotes, to change and mutate the life around them, changing it until it fit their will and did what they needed.

It's what they'd done to him. They'd used tools millennia old, possibly dating from the Precursors, to change him, to make him fit.

To save him.

This Venusian culture had survived, unchanging, living with its world, learning and growing in its understanding, for untold ages. Possibly for as long as the 50,000 years since the Precursors were said to have destroyed themselves. If they had ever actually existed.

The Venusians at the poles transmitted the diseases to the rest of the planetary population. But, whereas the polar tribes got the eventual inoculation, the rest of the planet didn't. And it was more densely populated.

Within five years, something like seventy percent of the planetary population was dead. And that dying had ended the federations, had ended the city states, had ended the universities. The group that had found him was one of the university centres. They'd co-operated with the communities around them, isolated travel and minimized the spread of the plagues, and had finally developed inoculations against them.

There was one account, a personal account it seemed, that stayed in his mind and haunted his dreams. A Venusian, female, had come back to her village, only to find the lake empty, and full of the stench of rot. The water was black and oily, and when she'd dove into it, it had clasped at her skin, itching, grabbing, not wanting to let go. When she reached the bottom, she found that most of the houses were gone, rotted and sunk to the bottom. Scattered amongst them were the bodies of her clan, of her friends, of her family. They had not died easy, it seemed that they had entered a delirium before death. With their claws they'd scratched at themselves, ripped pustules from their flesh, ripped their skin and muscle until bone showed. Even the other life in the lake abandoned them, refused to eat the bodies, leaving them to slowly rot, their flesh decaying and melting into the bottom muck. Even the weeds refused to grow around the corpses.

What had happened to the rest of the planet was not known, only speculated about. Explorers had found only barbarism and suspicion. Travelers to the north or south had encountered Venusians that chopped down the trees, killed the wildlife, and were equipped with devices of metal and plastic. Devices like his own. They'd abandoned the Venusian culture, copied that of their conquerors, and were enforcing it on the rest of the planet.

The biologists here had developed a new warrior caste, all male, all sterile. They were strong and tough. One on one they could beat the northerners.

Except they had no weapons, and no clue as to how to use them.

Consensus had been reached to try and negotiate with one of the invaders the Venusians had heard rumours of, stories passed and distorted during the plague years. They needed information and they needed help. They'd hoped that if they could find one, they could convince him to help them. Where Dalthwyn would have sent parties to kidnap one, the Venusians couldn't conceive of such an act. Instead they had waited, trying to find one and ask them to come, hope fading, until they'd found him.

For the rest of the night Dalthwyn read, ate and slept, and thought. He had to decide. He could take the knowledge, steal it, even though it was freely offered. Then he could return north, let it out, milk it for all the money he could.

But, eventually, the Patrol would find out, and they would take control of the knowledge for the benefit of civilization. Just as they were destroying the Venusians for the benefit of civilization. Sure, he'd be left with his wealth, his does, his own asteroid. A fat technocrat wasting away in a life of sex and play as civilization continued on around him, unchanging. Under the yoke of the Patrol.

The first Dalthwyn knew of spring was the sudden silence in the lake when he dove into it. The water was still black and murky, but the groans and whines that had haunted him were gone. He didn't make much of it at first, more relieved than anything else. The water began to lighten, changing from black to a murky blue, to a dark green. In the dim pre-dawn light he could see the black mud of the bottom carpeted in the corpses of the bottom weed. Here and there were lumps of the Venusians buried in the muck as they hibernated. The light grew brighter, bright green weed began to grow, algae began to drift through the water, lilies bloomed on the surface. Where once Dalthwyn would have eagerly ripped into the new growth, now he just nibbled, enjoying it as a treat, but letting the mass alone to grow. The sky brightened, the water lightened, and the Venusians stirred into wakefulness.

Dalthwyn was reading some old biological records, suggestions that the body could be changed, cells could be regenerated, but at the cost of one's memories, when he heard the water slosh downstairs, and a body thump onto the floor. He climbed down the ladder awkwardly, his hooves almost useless except for the gap between the two lobes on each foot. With a clomp he dropped the last few metres, and then turned to see the dripping form of the elder who'd taught him, who'd talked to him, before she left to sleep.

"Dalckwee, I see that you did not try to escape."

Dalthwyn snorted. "As you pointed out, it would have been futile. Did you rest well?"

She clucked sadly. "As well as might be expected. I fear I will not awaken from tonight's sleep."

"I will be saddened by your passing."

Her eyes glowed. "So, you will stay?"

"You have no idea the wealth I could make if I took what you offer back." Dalthwyn hadn't even realized he'd decided, until he said that.

For a moment she closed her eyes, the semi-transparent eyelids not completely hiding the sad yellow glow. "That is your choice, and, yes, we will keep our word. All I, we, ask, is for you to send somebody back who will help us."

"I doubt that anybody will come."

"Then we will die, forgotten. It is natural that the better competitor wins — I— It seems that we are not the better—"

"Mistress—, " Dalthwyn tried to wrap his muzzle around the clicks and squeaks of her name and failed, "I never said I would not help." He could see other forms swimming down in the water, waiting, but none made a move to enter the dome.

"I do not understand."

"For a long time I had planned to leave, but I realized that going home would give me nothing. I've been—" there was no word for rich, "blessed, I've been wretched. I have no love for the civilization I come from. I want —," he did now know the word for revenge, if there was one, either. "My culture survives, but I hate the price it has had to pay.

Together, maybe, we can find a different way."

She just nodded as Venusians didn't smile. "You will help us?"

"I will help you. But there will have to be changes. Your culture will change. Do you understand this?"

"We understand. We have talked much, made plans. We know that we will need," her voice forced out a distorted but recognizable "technology. We have found some metal. But we need to know more. We need to know how to think."

Dalthwyn nodded. "You culture will change. Things will not be as they were."

"We know. Yet, we would choose our change, choose what to keep, what to throw away. We would not have the choice forced upon us from outside."

"Then let us talk and plan. Bring the other elders. Show me the new caste you have bred. Tell me what you have found. You won't be able to make anything like this blaster," he pointed, "but there are others. I can only try to remember."

"There are techniques we know that might help you remember."

"They will be needed."

"Then let us share." She slapped her tail into the water, and other forms started bursting out, all old and wise. "Let us share together."

And then Dalthwyn, and the elders, sat, and talked, and planned.

When sentients from Terra first landed on Venus, they thought they knew what Venus was. Pictures taken from orbit had revealed only mist-shrouded wilderness, no sign of civilization. The polar landings had found primitives with only a basic culture. The disease that had swept them was unfortunate, but it had swept away their primitive beliefs and allowed them to accept civilization.

Or so the members of the United Planets centered on Terra believed.

Policy was made to limit colonization, to give the Venusians time to adapt, to help them change their world and bring it into the modern technic sphere. There was nothing on Venus that was not more cheaply attained from the asteroids, except some refined drugs that the natives brought and traded.

It was over a hundred years after the first landing when this belief, so obvious and logical, was proven wrong. Like Mars, Venus had its own culture, old, foreign, alien from that of Terra and her outposts throughout the system.

It was the Venusians that made contact. They'd been studying the foreign invaders of their world, determining whether or not they were wise enough to have contact made with. Envoys came, dressed and cloaked according to the customs of Terra that they had learned through unknown means.

The Venusians finally revealed their true selves, and kept their planet.

And when they came, they whispered amongst themselves what was at first thought to be their name for the Great Maker: Dalckwee.