Nersi watched the pair huddled together on the bunk, Sekher's hands and teeth working at knots in Chaiila's dark ruff, feeling a peculiar wave of envy wash over her. She shook her head and smiled at the absurdity of it. Envy, huh! This Sekher was probably the best thing to happen to her for a long time and he had done a remarkable job in reassuring her. Amusing to think that only a couple of days ago he had never so much as touched a female before.
She scratched at her still-damp arm, then looked at the window where rain was spattering soundlessly against the pane. For a few beats she stared, then left the others to their togetherness.
The corridor was empty when she stuck her head out, no sign of Seth'Nai or anything else. There were other doors in the hall. She approached the next one down the corridor and touched the red triangle in the centre. Nothing happened. She frowned; did that mean she had done something wrong? or was it locked?
She ran a finger over the smooth material the door was made of, thinking. Then she moved to the door opposite the room Chaiila and Sekher occupied. This time the portal slid aside at her touch, the sound and smell of water wafting out.
Another strange room. Well, in general appearance it was similar to the other one, with the bed and window, but it differed in details. The floor covering was a different color, a light brown. The shelves were filled with an impressive number of books, enough to rival a royal library. The adjoining room was filled with misty clouds of steam that refused to cross the threshold.
Cautiously, nervously, Nersi stepped inside, her feet soundless on the floor covering, tracing fingertips along the wall. She breathed out in awe at the books on their shelves, tucked safely away behind glass: So many, and with such a worn and ancient air about them. Seth'Nai's bag was tossed on one of the beds alongside a pile of clothing that would suit only something like that creature.
A familiar low rumbling sounded above the running water. Nersi cocked her head, turning to regard the door to the adjoining steam-filled room curiously. What WAS he doing in there?
Her third eyelid flicked out and briefly blurred her vision when she stepped through the door. She stopped to orientate herself, squinting through the murk. The white room was similar, not identical, but similar to the one in the other room. There was a small chamber like the one in which she had inadvertently drenched herself; Seth'Nai was standing beneath the shower of water, his back to her and face upturned to one of the jets.
She studied him curiously. He really was different without clothing, and by the Gods, not having a tail looked strange. When he reached up to wipe water away from eyes you could see exactly how the muscles moved under that fragile hide.
Then Seth'Nai turned and recoiled with a loud bark. "Uh... Hello," said Nersi.
He sagged, leaning against a wall of the cubicle, then glared and growled at her.
"Oh, I startled you, ah?" she fought back a muzzle-twitching smile. "Sorry."
He blinked at her with droplets of water running down his pale face, and she realised he couldn't understand her. Without his little device he was as deaf and dumb as the day she had met him. She remembered that; seeing him like an apparition through the smoke in the dungeon. Now, she was seeing him blurred through steam and there was none of that fear that had flooded through her. Almost hairless hide slick with water. He... He was he... she was jolted with shock and disbelief as she felt the stirrings deep within her, scents barely perceptible tinged the air.
She looked away in a wave of embarrassment.
"Ah, sorry," she mumbled again, abruptly anxious to be away and clumsy in her haste. Her claws didn't help, catching in a piece of clothing left on the smooth floor, tangling around her feet, skidding out from under her and sending her over backwards into pouring water and a pair of smooth hands catching her under her arms before she had a chance to hit.
"Gods-burned clumsy fool," she berated herself while sitting on the floor with water pouring down, soaking her and pooling around her and a weird male kneeling over her. She looked up into the grinning face of Seth'Nai. "That wasn't the most graceful thing you've ever seen, ah? Almost as bad as you. Thank the Pantheon you can't understand me."
Still, she took the hand he offered and clambered to her feet to look down at herself in a mixture of disgust and amusement: fur sopping wet, her breeks soaked, both dripping trails of mud that swirled away down grills in the floor. That wave of emotion earlier, that had abated... Ah, well, at least the water was warm. Wonderfully warm. She closed her eyes and sighed as the stream pulsed on her head, caressing her as she had never known water could.
A few beats later Seth'Nai was helping her balance while she struggled out of grimy clothes that seemed to have grown to her. He threw them from the cubicle then helped her get clean.
"Who would think to make water do this?" Her rhetorical question was unanswered and she kept tapping a claw against the small grid of squares marked with little pictures. Each one made the water come from different directions. A horizontal bar with a blue-to-red gradient let her change the pressure and temperature.
"Hot or cold water," she grinned and changed the water to hot pulsating needles that struck her from head to toe. "Gods, that feels good... Higher... No lower, down there..."
Seth'Nai rumbled something and moved the brush to scrub the spot between her shoulders where she pointed with her tail. The dirt was long gone down the drain and what with the grooming and the hot water, the knots in her muscles were going the same way. He took some time to examine the still-healing wound on her leg that still gave her twinges of pain when pressed. When she hissed in sudden pain he just patted her flank and left it.
There were strangely scented liquids and soaps that Seth'Nai assisted in rubbing into her pelt, his fingers lingering and swirling through her fur. When rinsed out she smelled odd and her skin tingled, but her pelt felt... clean.
Drying off was no ordeal. Nersi flinched when the jets of water turned to blasts of hot air that buffeted her, insinuating itself beneath her fur in warm waves. She closed her eyes and let the wind wash around her. "You know," she sighed, "I think I could get used to this."
Seth'Nai dried off a lot faster than she did. He left, taking her trail-stained clothing with him, returning shortly after with others that he left outside the cubicle for her.
Nersi's fur was gleaming, her ruff puffed out in glorious golden disarray when she stepped from the booth. She picked up the clothes Seth'Nai had procured and examined them curiously; a pair of long breeches and a jerkin, both of unusual make and texture. She discarded the jerkin and tried the breeches. They were of a copper color that was almost metallic, with black angular markings down the legs and around the waist. Stretchable bands around the hips and legs stretched and held them in place as well as any belt could. The slot in the back wasn't fitted with clasps as with normal breeks, so she had to spend a short while threading her tail through.
Seth'Nai looked up when she stepped out into the main room. He was sitting at the desk, wearing a loose-fitting, one-piece white garment that appeared to be breeches and jerkin in one. "Look better," he greeted her. His talk-device was once again strapped to his wrist.
"Thanks," she replied. "Ah, there's something else I wanted to ask..."
Seth'Nai listened, then his speaker barked a laugh. He took her back into the washing room and showed her the facilities she needed, then left, shutting the door behind him.
It was an awkward and new experience. Still, she finished her business without mishap, touched the square Seth'Nai had shown her, then nearly hit the roof when warm water squirted up to clean her.
When she finished she found Seth'Nai lounging back in the chair, his heels planted up on the black desk. He was avidly studying the window which now displayed a bewildering assortment of lines, symbols; a crosshatched mishmash of colors and shapes.
"What is that?" Nersi asked.
He looked up at her, then waved at the window and said, "A map. See." The lines filled in, becoming a view of the building they were in. As she watched it began rotating and spinning, showing every side.
"First, ¿¿¿¿¿¿¿," commanded Seth'Nai. The image dissolved from a solid mass to a mess of lines again, then seemed to whip towards them and they were twisting and turning through corridors inside. Then the image solidified and Nersi saw a tiny, dark tunnel where a metal device wielded a brilliant blue flame that struck gouts of sparks when it struck the wall. Seth'Nai spoke again and the picture flickered. Nersi found she was looking into a room where a Trenalbi and a peculiar creature were watching a window where a Trenalbi...
Nersi shook her head and grimaced in shock. Hells, that WAS her! She wheeled, trying to find the eyes watching her. In the window the other figures copied her, down into infinity.
She pointed at the desk, "What IS that?"
His forehead furrowed. "Is a ¿¿¿¿¿¿¿... A part of the machine that runs," he made a gesture with his hands, "everything."
"Like in the other room?" Nersi asked.
"Yes. Same thing."
"Does this also talk?"
"Talk?" Seth'Nai blinked at her, then grinned. "You have already met First?"
"Yah... What is it?"
Seth'Nai sighed and leaned back. "Hard to explain. First is not a ¿¿¿¿¿¿¿; is only machine, a tool. It knows more than both of us together, but it cannot... feel. It only ¿¿¿¿¿¿¿ think. You say something to it, it will do as you say. It can make only ¿¿¿¿¿¿¿ ¿¿¿¿¿¿¿." He scratched his chin, the corners of his mouth twisting down. "Burn it, I do not have the words to tell you."
That brought to mind another thing Nersi had been wondering about: "You are talking much better suddenly."
His shoulders heaved and he moved his arm to show her the device strapped to his wrist. "This is a machine like First, but much smaller. By itself it knows only few words and makes mistakes, but when it is close enough to talk to First, it works better, no?"
Nersi wasn't sure she understood that. All she grasped was that they had to be close to work. "But why do you need it to talk?"
Seth'Nai looked startled. "Without it, you cannot hear me and I cannot hear you. Your speaking is too... high for me to hear." He grinned, "I see your mouth move, but nothing comes out."
Nersi blinked. "And why did it take so long for you to let us know you COULD speak? Why didn't you say something back in the Ch'sty Rim?"
His head shook from side to side. "I could not. I had to... change this," he tapped the band around his forearm, "so it could hear you."
"Oh," Nersi said, not entirely understanding that either. It was all stretching her capabilities to absorb. She licked her lips nervously. "You must have powerful priests to work such sorcery."
Seth'Nai grimaced at his wrist, then looked at her. "I didn't understand that. What do you mean by 'sorcery'?"
She clicked her claws together whilst gathering her thoughts before explaining it.
He listened, his forehead furrowed. "No! No, not sorcery. There is no... magic."
Huh, the way he said that. One would almost think he was denying magic existed at all!
"It is just a machine," he continued. "We make it with our hands and what is up here," he tapped his head. "There is no magic or gods involved."
"We?" Nersi asked. "How many of you are there?"
His shoulders heaved. "I am not sure. Many. Very many."
She cocked her head to one side. "Can you tell me about them? What is it like where you come from?"
He looked back at her, then dropped his feet and leaned forward in the chair, hands dangling between his knees. "Nersi, I came here by accident. Things... happened. I have done many things I am not allowed to. Just having you here..."
Her ears wilted. "I don't understand."
"No, you wouldn't," he said softly. "The ¿¿¿¿¿¿¿ is a big place. We have never met anything like your kind, but we had... rules to follow if we did. I have broken a lot of those rules."
He waved a hand. "There were plans for the ways our kinds were to meet. Had to be. What would happen if we just walk in and say 'hello'? ah? I think it may cause some trouble."
"To say the least," Nersi agreed, then the realisation of what he was saying hit her. She stepped back in shock and sudden fear. "But you brought us here! You are telling me this! W... what are you going to do with us?!"
Seth'Nai stood then, looming over her while his eyes locked with hers. "What I am going to do," he said, "is ask you, and your friends, to give me your word and keep your silence." Then he reached out and lightly rubbed the downy fur on her muzzle.
Nersi's hand rose to touch the ruffled spot in her fur while she warily watched Seth'Nai.
His mouth twitched again. "Nersi, I don't know how you keep going, but I've got to ¿¿¿¿¿¿¿. That didn't translate, did it? Never mind... Well, I cannot answer your questions now, but there is something that may help. First can show you a... moving picture that tells about my kind. Are you interested?"
"Uh... yes," answered Nersi nervously.
"¿¿¿¿¿¿¿," Seth'Nai bobbed his head and tapped at the desk. Burning green patterns flared within the dark surface and his pale blunt-clawed fingers flashed across them. "All right. Is yours. If you have more questions, ask First. It will answer as... simple... as it can. ¿¿¿¿¿¿? Just tell it when you are ready. Good night."
Leaving her standing he rose and ambled across the room, where he stripped off his clothing and hung the garments in a concealed recess at the head of the bunk, then he practically fell into the bed.
"Why do you have to do that all the time?" Nersi asked after him.
Seth'Nai rolled over and blinked at her. "Do what?"
"Do that." Nersi gestured uncertainly at the beds. Two beds in one room was certainly a luxury and waste of space that would seldom be incorporated into Trenalbi architecture. "Go unconscious all the time."
He rolled onto his back and grinned at the ceiling of the alcove. "It is the way I am. I wonder why you never ¿¿¿¿¿¿¿. It seems impossible to me."
"But drifting is... normal," Nersi pointed out.
"To you..." He shook his head slightly and closed his eyes. "Have First show you. That should explain."
Nersi stared as his breathing slowed and deepened. What kind of a life was it to spend half of it in an unconscious stupor? She hissed, then turned to the desk. Alright. "Ah, First?"
"Yes?" the disembodied voice sounded. "Are you ready?"
"No," she said, "but whatever you're going to do, do it." Lights dimmed and the mirror cleared, fading to a black so deep Nersi felt she could fall into it. Tiny white specks gleamed steel-hard in the blackness. Slowly, a curved expanse of blue-white rose into view. With a jolt Nersi realised it wasn't the view of the world that Seth'Nai had earlier shown them: the brown shapes were different and... and there was only a single Daughter, a huge silver crescent rising beyond the curve.
With all the ponderous, inexorable grace of clouds drifting over the plains that orb rolled beneath her, growing larger, filling the window, the brown curve of land directly ahead.
Faded to black.
The light rose on broad savannahs speckled with outlandish plants. The sky was a cobalt blue, the Lightbringer swollen and yellow. The carcass of an utterly unfamiliar animal lay in the grasses while a number of squat, four-legged animals that bore a disturbing resemblance to Trenalbi tore at it with powerful jaws.
Then something disturbed the predators at their feeding.
They began pacing around the carcass, snarling at something out of Nersi's field of view.
Dark shapes appeared in the picture, screeching and scampering forward, retreating as a predator rushed them, then milling forward again. A predator turned, distracted for a second, and intruders dashed forward, knobbed white clubs rising and falling on the creature's flanks. It yelped and limped off, its tail tucked. Other beasts managed to snatch a few mouthfuls before also being driven away.
Dark-furred creatures shuffled forward to gather around the carcass, tearing at the flesh, screeching and squabbling. Females and young hovered around the periphery, occasionally diving in for a scrap.
First's voice came as a shock:
"Terra, long ago, long before there were writings or even talking. There were many different types of animals: giant predators, fast and strong, grass-eaters either huge and armoured or small and swift, but there was one creature, small and hairy that was different from the others in one, important way - it moved on two legs instead of four, leaving its hands free to gather food."
One of the animals filled the screen, rearing up on its hind legs and seemingly staring back at her with dark eyes. Its hands... forepaws? clasped a bone. Nersi flinched as it brandished the bone above its head. Gods, that face... a small muzzle and nose, the round ears. She'd seen something vaguely like that before.
It was lying in the bed behind her.
The scene faded on the group dragging the carcass away.
"It was much later they learned to use their hands to hold other things. Bones from dead animals were used as weapons for hunting, then, still later, a ¿¿¿¿¿¿¿ human learned to break stones to make a sharp edge that could cut food."
Another view appeared: a rocky arroyo with a group of the dark-haired creatures gathered around the carcass of a long-legged furry animal. These were slightly different, being taller, far less hirsute and with features that resembled Seth'Nai even more. One of them was using a sharpened rock to sever a leg from the body.
"With stone tools early humans were able to make use of new lands that were colder and less ¿¿¿¿¿¿¿ than the ¿¿¿¿¿¿¿ warmlands where they had originated. They learned to work together to survive and the small groups they lived in became larger. They learned to tame fire."
Another view: a narrow cave with a smoky fire sputtering in the opening. Again another group of the creatures... the humans... were different. Their fur was thickest in patches on the head and groin, elsewhere it was thin and limited. The ones with the visible sex organs were male, then the others must be females. Gods, strange... Still, even the males looked different from Seth'Nai: their skin blacker, the features coarser.
First continued to herald the changes as they appeared in the window.
Crude huts of animal skins clustered around a fire. Dusty cubs scrambled and tussled in the dust. Females ground food between rocks.
A river where boats made from carved trees bobbed in the current.
A male squatted before clay tablets, laboriously etching wedge-shaped markings.
Later, cold plains: a string of the creatures wrapped in heavy furs and mounted on animals moved across the wind-blasted landscape towing their possessions in crude wagons.
Nersi stared spellbound at the pictures, watching thousands of years unfolding before her. Seth'Nai's kind, from a beginning as simple animals, slowly growing, as a cub grows.
There were towns, then cities. Buildings of white stone rising on verdant hillsides beside a glittering ocean. Roads stretched across the countryside. Strange looking ships set sail from ports to vanish over the horizon, unfettered by the lethal and unnavigable reefs that so restrained the Hub ports. Empires rose and fell across the continent, kingdoms so vast the World could be lost in them. From their ruins others would rise, only to disintegrate again.
Castles rose over the landscape. The towns were masses of narrow houses surrounded by high walls, the narrow streets within congested and so uncomfortably familiar; like a Trenalbi city.
There were wars. Mounted and armoured warriors and filthy foot-troopers fighting in muddy fields.
A new continent was discovered. Settlements grew, then split away.
The cities grew. Huge smokestacks belched fumes. Machines growled and pounded. Incomprehensible amounts of metal pouring from mines into smelters and foundries.
The images and eras passed. Nersi had questions, but she restrained them, always wanting to see what happened next.
Ships crossed the waters between continents. Cities grew and spread.
Giant cylindrical flying devices wallowed into the skies and crossed oceans, their shadows covering towns. She saw one crash, enveloped in flames that engulfed it in a beat while humans milled in panic.
Vehicles on the ground moved without animals. Still the cities spread.
A war. Battlefields where humans fought from holes in the ground, ranks of troops taking turns to advance on their enemies to be mown down without a chance. Explosions churned the dirt to mud. Mobile fortresses lumbered across torn landscapes while in the skies above flying devices looped and spun and burned.
There was peace again, then war again. Weapons more fearsome, different machines, flying machines in numbers that turned the sky dark. Cities were levelled.
Guarded gates were opened on horrors. They weren't Trenalbi, but still Nersi felt ill when she saw the living skeletons, the stacked piles of alien corpses. If they weren't gods, then surely there were some who were demons.
Cities grew. Towers reaching for the skies. Machines flying around the world. She saw twisting infants being birthed and felt a sick sympathy for the female. Vehicles filled the roads.
Another war in a jungle: A major power being humiliated. Then a tower of white and black being held by metal arms that dropped away as flame and smoke blossomed around the base. Ponderously, it rose on a column of fire, faster, arrowing into the sky.
A bulky white figure like a cubs' stuffed toy bounced across a grey landscape to plant a flag of red, white, and blue. In the black sky behind it a blue and white globe rose.
They went even further.
Their cities spread above their planet. They built cylinders and sprawling, fragile-looking constructions in the blackness where they lived and produced things impossible on the surface of the world below. In time huge vessels plied the darkness to neighbouring worlds where cities were built underground: tunnels and caverns of metal and rock as they began to change the red deserts on the surface to suit them. More of the floating cities began to appear high above it.
When the change came, it was abrupt.
A single, metallic vessel, like a glittering fish in the darkness, riding atop a lance of blue-white flame before it rippled, then vanished. Distance was no longer a barrier.
Like migrating Longrazers others followed it, spreading out from their world and Lightbringer, bound for the distant points of light in their sky. There they found other Lightbringers, and worlds of unbearable heat and cold, giants of gas, balls of rock, but nothing like the one they had left behind.
So they built new ones.
The cities they had built above their own world were dwarfed by these vast structures. They used machines to build them, and other machines to build more machines. Devices sought out rocks floating in the emptiness and stripped them of their metal. The Daughters dancing around massive worlds of gas and winds were cracked into fragments and melted by titanic mirrors.
Their homeworld tried to spread its influence over the new worlds they were building. Vast, ominous vessels of metal and stone drifted into the shadows of these cities. Sometimes there was fighting, and new Lightbringers would be born as a city or a vessel died.
Still, like ripples on an infinite pond, they continued to spread. Whatever their council on their homeworld was like, it realised there was no way a single world could police that kind of territory. It finally, however reluctantly, conceded to acknowledge the new territories' independence.
The centuries that followed saw them spreading across the skies. It awed Nersi to see just how much territory they controlled, and in all that vastness, in all the time these humans had spent searching, her own glittering world locked away in its secluded corner of creation, was the only other speck of life they had found.
Nersi sat and stared at the window as it faded to darkness for the last time. Her world, everything she had been taught and had taken for granted; in a matter of a couple of hours a machine had successfully desiccated it. The Gods, she knew they were there. The magic and powers of the Priests, they were something that could not be denied. Was it possible that these humans never had gods in the first place? or that their deities had forsaken them?
Or that they no longer needed them?
Burn it! There were others better suited for this kind of thing: scholars who would be only too willing to delve into the intrigues and paradoxes of theological debates. It was something she had been taught not to think about.
She rubbed her temples with her fingertips: hard.
There was something else...
"First, humans are aggressive... I mean, they have fought a lot of wars, right?"
Her ruff twitched. "Do they still fight wars?"
"Large wars are no longer fought: they proved to be too expensive for all involved. Small battles between provinces are fought, but such actions are rare and limited."
"Would they..." Nersi anxiously began to speak, then lowered her head. "Forget it."
First said nothing.
"I'd like to rest now," Nersi said. "Think things over... can I ask you some questions later?"
"I am always ¿¿¿¿¿¿¿ to answer questions," the machine replied.
Nersi bowed her head to the black desk, then stood and worked the stiffness out of her back and cramped tail muscles. Behind her the window shimmered and turned into a mirror, the green lines in the desktop fading away.
Seth'Nai was unconscious. She stood for a time, just watching his face. He twitched and growled something then settled again. Did he see anything in his drift? Was it just... nothingness? Perhaps that was the price they paid for rejecting their gods: they lost the time the gods gave them for contemplation.
She sighed - loud in the stillness of the room - and turned to the other bed, letting the copper breeches fall to the floor, stepping out of them. The bed was soft and already warm, but she lay there, an empty feeling nagging at her.
Seth'Nai stirred slightly when she slipped into the bed beside him, but that was all. She huddled up against his back, his hairless hide exuding a gentle warmth and feeling incredibly soft against her fingertips as she stroked his ribs. Gently she breathed against his shoulder, inhaling the green freshness of water, the transient tingle of salt. He rumbled faintly when she licked the nape of his neck, then there was a vague, indefinable sensation of well-being glowing deep inside her as she tucked her head against him and settled into drift.