Copyright 2000 by Paul S. Gibbs. All rights reserved. Any reproduction, reuse, reposting or alteration, without the express written permission of the author, is strictly prohibited. This is a work of fiction. Any resemblance to any person, living or dead, is purely coincidental.

"THE CHOSEN FEW" BY PAUL S. GIBBS

 

CHAPTER THIRTY-TWO


In the scant shade of a big pink boulder--rhyolite, I noted absently--I paused to rest, and reached for one of my bottles. I forced myself to sip only a little of the warm water: just enough to stave off dehydration a little longer. Make it last; Goddess only knows when I'll get a refill.

The hike across the plain had been grueling, a fair approximation of the Terran concept of hell. During my previous exile I'd never ventured from the forest--and with good reason. Out on the flats the heat was brutal, the wind like the exhaust from a fusion drive. Within a hundred meters, panting helplessly, I bitterly regretted the time I'd wasted at the pod. And by my chrono, it was still early morning. No way I could make the return journey under those suns; I might have to wait until dark, or spend the night among the hills. Two evils--and which the lesser?

I'd found an easy path up a dry wash to the center of the ring--and that space, flat and nearly circular, lay before me now. Without a doubt a caldera, formed by a volcanic eruption at some point in Hellhole's distant past: the obsidian littering the plain to the edge of the forest proved that. In another place that circle might have contained a lake--but not on Hellhole. The suns beat down mercilessly on a dry bowl of sand, gravel and thorn bushes, casting harsh multicolored shadows. Even through my goggles the glare was painful.

With a sigh I heaved myself upright and keyed my scanpak. My hosts' clues had led me this far; but what now? There was nothing here that screamed "intelligence:" no structures, nor anything else not a work of nature. I shuddered. What if I'd read the clues wrong? Worse, what if they'd been entirely the product of my fevered imagination? And worst of all, what if I'd been led to this place so the heat could finish me off?

Stop that, I told myself firmly. You've got enough problems without getting paranoid. I believed myself to be in the midst of a test of my problem-solving abilities--and if so, the clues wouldn't be lying around in the open. I'd have to be patient, and search. So…where to start?

A magnetic scan, I thought. It was Hellhole's bizarre magnetic field that attracted both Raven and Zelazny in the first place, and a massive magnetic anomaly that led to my rescue. Which might itself be a clue--or at least a good place to start. I flexed my fingers, bringing up the correct setting, and turned a slow, full circle.

As always, Hellhole's magnetic field was as hard to pin down as an Arcturan glassfly, making small-scale anomalies almost impossible to locate. Three times I narrowed the field and reduced the gain, and three times I spat some choice Sah'aaran phrases as the readings shot off the scale anyway. When finally I'd narrowed the field to half a degree, and reduced the sensitivity to two percent--then I picked up a signal. One which practically begged me to track it. Intrigued, I walked slowly across the sink, still scanning. The gravel was sharp, and it burned my feet, forcing me to proceed in an undignified mincing quick-step. What I really need is a pair of nice thick sandals…I heard myself chuckle, for the first time in more than a day, as I contemplated the Quartermaster's response to that request.

On the far side of the bowl, cut deep into a sheer face of glossy black rock, was a rough triangular niche about three meters high and two deep. On its floor the gravel was piled high and deep. A random product of erosion, so it seemed…but it was the focus of a powerful magnetic anomaly. Like a target…and where had I heard that before? Nowhere near as powerful as the one which attracted Zelazny's attention…but in a way, eerily similar. In any other place I would have explained it away: a large buried mass of basalt, perhaps. But not here.

Now what? I wondered. What was I expected to do? The walls of the niche were solid, the cliff sheer. So…what? Something buried in the gravel, perhaps? The next clue? I knelt and began to brush away the rubble. It was about ten centimeters thick--and covered a solid flat surface. I dug for five minutes or so, casting aside handfuls of stone and scraping my fingers raw--and finally uncovered something that was most definitely not a product of nature. A raised black slab, apparently the same type of stone as the niche itself, but absolutely flat and mirror-bright. I reached out to brush away the dust…

At that instant there came a loud crack, and then I was falling, tumbling head over heels amidst a shower of gravel. I cried out and curled into a ball, covering my head with my hands. But it was no more than a two-meter drop, and I landed without harm on a spongy, resilient surface. I rolled over, gravel crunching beneath me…but before I could scramble to my feet, I felt myself falling again. No--not falling, but rather descending, rapidly but gently. Not daring to stand, I crouched, my tail lashing and my claws expressed. My eyes darted back and forth--and what I saw did not please me.

The platform onto which I had fallen was about two meters square, its surface springy like foam rubber. It was dropping like an elevator down a perfectly square, smooth-walled shaft cut from the very living rock. Above me the hatch--which I'd obviously triggered, either with my weight or the touch of my hands--was growing steadily smaller, the bright square of sky diminishing. Already I'd descended more than ten meters, and the platform showed no sign of stopping. My breathing accelerated toward hyperventilation, and I fought to bring it under control. Steadying myself with one hand, I drew my stinger. Hellhole had no intelligent life, I'd once told Gaetano; I'd even been willing to stake my reputation on it. Good thing he wasn't here to collect. Everything else that had happened to me might have been the result of natural phenomena--but not this.

As the platform dropped and the sunlight petered out I removed my goggles, letting them dangle around my neck. I rummaged in my pack for my flashlight and strapped it to my wrist; my right, so I could aim my stinger along its beam if necessary. I had descended something like half a kilometer when the platform eased to a halt with a sigh of compressed air. I remained where I was, crouched, as I surveyed the situation.

The wall before me had opened out into doorway, which led to a long, dark, straight tunnel. Perfectly square, about three meters to a side, its walls, floor and ceiling were cut from that that same black stone, smoothed and polished with incredible precision. The air was breathable, though stale; and I heard nothing except the hammering of my own heart. The temperature had dropped considerably, to just 22, according to my scanpak. Comfortably cool--but after the heat it seemed freezing, and I actually found myself shivering. Maybe I shouldn't have left my field gear behind… This might be a bad place to be naked in. I did have my survival blanket, and if I felt uncomfortably cold--or exposed--I could wrap it around me like a cape. Somehow that thought made me feel better.

I knelt there for several minutes, until my shivering stilled and my heartbeat and breathing returned to normal. Then, slowly, I straightened. I checked myself quickly for injuries, finding none, and took a drink, more to calm my nerves than because I was truly thirsty. I was still grasping my stinger--hard enough to leave fingerprints in the hard grip--and I forced myself to put it away. Nothing was threatening me--and until something did, I would maintain a peaceful posture. Finally, slowly, I stepped off the platform. Behind me, with a heart-stopping thud, a solid stone hatch dropped down to seal off the shaft. No amount of pushing would shift it, and I finally gave up trying. Obviously the only way out lay through.

The corridor was dim but not entirely dark, and as I began to walk I quickly saw why. Set into the ceiling at ten-meter intervals were large translucent panels, from which issued a faint yellow light. A human would have found the passage inconveniently dark; myself, I could have read a book by that light. Or I could have once. As I studied one of the panels its edges abruptly went fuzzy, and my eyes began to water. Quickly I looked down at my hands; they were unrecognizable blurs. Only after several hard blinks did my eyes partially clear. A chill ran down my spine and stiffened my tail. Goddess! It can't be happening already! But it was: the degeneration had progressed much faster than Dr. Zeeleeayykk predicted. Perhaps the damaging rays weren't adequately blocked by my goggles. Down here, out of the relentless sunlight, the process should at least be slowed, but beyond that…well, if I ever made it back to Zelazny, Captain Haliday would have to hurry if he wanted to get me home in time to see the place. I tried not to think about the consequences of blindness on Hellhole: a one-way ticket to an unpleasant and lingering death.

My vision might be going fast, but I still had other senses. Though at the moment the information they provided was not the most useful. My ears brought me nothing: apart from the soft pad of my footsteps, the tunnels were utterly silent. I felt no discernible air movement. And I smelled nothing beyond a slightly stale, damp odor, as in a long-undisturbed basement. Compared to the bone-dry surface, this place was actually humid.

I took a deep breath and forced myself to move faster--though toward what I had no idea. So rapid was the degeneration now, I honestly believed I had no more than hours of useful vision left. No time for dawdling.

I had proceeded about fifty meters when I came to a fork in the road; as it turned out, the first of many. Two corridors branched off to the right and left, identical, with nothing to distinguish between them. I stood for a moment, nonplused, gazing back and forth. Did I mention rats and mazes? All of a sudden that comparison had become very apt indeed. I might have known, really.

Now what? With no logical basis for a decision, I was on the verge of closing my eyes and choosing at random--when I noticed the plaques. Two of them, inlaid at eye-level near the entrance to each corridor. About the size of my hand, they appeared to be wrought of tarnished copper, making them difficult to see in the dim light. In the beam of my flashlight I studied the symbols--or perhaps I should say "pictograms"--engraved thereon. The corridor on the right was marked with a hollow circle containing six small dots; on the left, an identical circle holding fourteen. What in the Dark Domains--?

Another test, obviously--which was beginning to irritate me. Clearly those symbols had a meaning, and I was to base my choice of route upon it. And the consequences of a wrong choice? No way to know. For lab rats it was usually nothing more than wasted time…but sometimes too it was an electric shock.

Six and fourteen, I thought. Both were even, and therefore neither were prime; No help there. Was the arrangement important? Two rows of three, or two rows of five and one of four. And why the circle--?

As a scientist, I'm ashamed to admit that I stood puzzling a full twenty minutes; in my defense I can only say that it had been a long time since I'd studied chemistry. Atomic number, that's what the symbols represented: protons in the nucleus. Unique for every element. Once I'd figured that out, it was a simple matter of remembering that atomic number six is carbon, and fourteen is silicon.

But that was only half the battle--because I still didn't understand the significance. Carbon and silicon. On what basis would I choose between them? Personal preference? Ridiculous; nobody has a favorite element, the way they have a favorite color or a favorite song. What, then? What did they have in common? Both are abundant all through the universe…and both are the basis for life.

That thought, which leapt unbidden into my mind, was technically only half true. Scientists have speculated for centuries about the possibility of silicon-based life--but none has ever been found. Even so, I was utterly certain: that was the choice I was being asked to make, based on my own makeup. One path for the carbon-based, another for the silicon-based. Simple--and portentous: it proved that this facility had not been built solely for me.

I had no better explanation, and I had no time to waste on dithering. I snapped a picture of each symbol with my scanpak's eyepiece camera--and then I turned right. If I was right, it was the only choice I could make: silicon-based life-forms would be poisoned by an oxygen atmosphere.

Fifty meters later, I came to another intersection, identical to the previous--but with different symbols. The one on the left I recognized instantly, as would any school-kit: a tightly-twisted ladder, the famous "double helix" of DNA. It was the symbol on the right that gave me pause. It showed a chain of ten small spheres, each made up of sixty interconnected dots. It appeared to represent a very a rare form of carbon called "fullerene," or sometimes "Buckyballs," because of its geodesic structure. A genetic code based on fullerene? Is that even possible? To this day I still don't know. But the choice was simple, and I immediately turned left.

As I walked, I pondered. I'd expected to be tested, and so I had been, on several levels. In figuring out the pictograms and making the correct choices, my intelligence was judged--but there was more to it than that. It was as if I was being asked to define myself, point by point. But to what end? Surely my hosts already knew everything about me…except, perhaps, how I defined myself. Was that what this was all about? Possible--but somehow it didn't ring quite true. Some part of the equation was still missing.

Another fifty meters then, and another intersection. On the right, a long sinuous stem covered with leaves; on the left a stylized stick-figure with a head and four limbs. Animal or vegetable. Had this world truly been visited by animated plants? And if I'd turned that way, what would I have found? I'll never know--more's the pity. I turned left, defining myself as an animal, and kept going.

###

Three hours later I called another halt.

I have no idea how far I'd walked down those dark, unchanging corridors. I know only that I passed exactly ten intersections, and at each I defined myself in finer detail. Sometimes the pictograms were easy to decipher; sometimes more difficult. After declaring myself an animal, I refined that to vertebrate, then to air-breather. That one gave me a little trouble: I simply could not figure out the icons, and I ended up turning right at random. When the corridor became a steep flight of stairs descending into a deep pool of water, I realized my mistake and backtracked. I pictured an exhausted aquatic being, gratefully shucking his heavy water-filled helmet…but how he would have survived Hellhole's climate, I have no idea. After that I defined myself as terrestrial rather than amphibious or aerial (one of several three-way choices I would encounter, the third alternative being straight ahead); live-bearing as opposed to egg-laying; practicing multiple rather than single births; a mammal, not a reptile. When finally I'd defined myself as diurnal, rather than nocturnal or crepuscular, it was time for a rest.

During that time too I had become thoroughly lost. Oh, I could have gone back, by following the symbols; but as for exactly where in Hellhole I was, relative to the ring of hills, I didn't know. Oddly, this trek reminded me strongly of my nightmare crawl through an automated hyperzap relay satellite, all those years ago. The corridors here were wider, and I could walk upright instead of squirming along on elbows and knees; but the feeling of being trapped and disoriented was all too familiar. That journey had seemed endless, inescapable; and so too did this. At least that time I'd had a definite goal. For all I knew, this trip might end only when I finally gave up and died.

I was astounded--though I shouldn't have been--to find the water fountain. I heard it long before I saw it, of course; but the splashing was distorted by echoes, such that I didn't know what I was hearing until I stood beside it. The thing occupied a little oval niche in the right-hand wall. The bottom half formed a small basin, into which a stream of clear water spurted from a hole in the back. Always half-full: it obviously had a drain, though it wasn't visible.

I stared at this apparition for several minutes. I am highly skeptical of things that are too miraculous to be true--and this definitely qualified. I was being asked to believe that this fountain had been waiting uncountable years for me--just me, and my empty bottles--to come along. Sure.

But…well, skepticism is fine, but refusing a gift that falls into your lap is stupidity. My scanpak pronounced the water safe, with exactly the same trace elements as the creek-water I'd drunk for sixty-three days. If I was about to be poisoned, it was beyond Alliance technology to detect it. And what would have been the point? Easier to believe that my hosts were simply making my journey more comfortable. I drank deep; the water was just the right side of cold, and infinitely refreshing. My thirst slaked, I filled both of my bottles.

As I prepared to move on, I suddenly grew extremely tired. Not surprising, I suppose: I'd been constantly on the move for almost six hours, under trying circumstances. My legs were aching, and my singed foot-pads stinging. I sank to the floor next to the fountain, and shrugged off my backpack, setting it aside along with the rest of my equipment. Rummaging through the pack, I brought forth my survival blanket and spread it over my legs, then dove back in for a ration bar. If my hosts could only conjure up a few kilos of lean maxigrazer…

Before I lay down, some prudent part of my mind made me draw my stinger and tuck it tight against my abdomen. I curled up with the blanket wrapped around me and my head pillowed on the tip of my tail, and seconds later I was fast asleep.

###

I woke after several hours of dreamless slumber, yawning and stretching my stiff and sore body, very aware that I'd been sleeping on a hard floor. But as I opened my eyes, all thoughts of physical discomfort were driven from my mind…because I couldn't see.

It was as if I'd blundered into the thickest fog ever to drift through the Golden Gate. I could see my hand in front of my face; but fuzzily, as through a grey mist. For endless minutes I grappled with mindless panic. I blinked hard, time and again; I rubbed frantically. Nothing helped.

Finally my groping hand encountered my belt, and the water bottles clipped thereto. It took an eternity to wrench one free, and another to get its stopper out; then I inverted the bottle over my upturned face. Why I did so I'm not certain. The problem with my eyes lay deep inside; logically, no amount of washing should have helped. And yet, somehow the cool water did rinse away the occluding film. When I shook away the drops my eyes seemed clearer--a little, anyway. The fog was still there, but thinner; I could read my chrono when I glanced down to check the time.

I had not dozed long enough to become hungry again; and so, after I'd brought my hammering heart and shaking limbs under control, I hauled myself to my feet. I took up my equipment again, fastening the belt around my hips and settling the pack on my sore shoulders. Nothing was missing, and there was no sign of visitors--not that I'd expected any. I took a deep breath, said a few silent prayers, and moved on.

At the next intersection I faced another three-way choice. On the right, a stylized mouth with flat, grinding teeth bit down on a leaf. In the middle, a mix of flat and pointed teeth seemed to hesitate between a leaf and a meat-covered bone. And on the left, pointed teeth clamped eagerly down on the bone. I had to smile at the iconography--but the choice was clear. I turned left.

By this time I had defined myself as well as anyone could--except for one small detail, which the final intersection covered neatly. Once again it was three-way, and if you want to know what the symbols looked like, go look for yourself. I refuse the describe them. The alternatives represented were Male, Female…and Neuter. I passed through the center way…and I knew immediately that I'd reached the end of the road.

Beyond the junction a short corridor ended at a door, a flat black panel three meters wide and high. As I approached, it rose silently…and I stopped short, shielding my eyes from a sudden onslaught of light. Blindly I groped for my goggles.

Behind the door lay a large chamber, some ten meters wide and deep, and very tall. The entire ceiling was a single white glow-panel, shining much brighter than those in the corridors. At first glance the walls seemed to be glowing as well--but they were not. In fact they were mirrored.

Slowly, hesitantly, I stepped forward. My hand began to drop toward my stinger, but I restrained it firmly. Even now I would not give in to fear--nor its first cousin, mindless aggression. Not until I faced a tangible threat. So far my hosts had taken good care of me; why should that change now? That my journey had ended was obvious, though: the room had no other exit.

Dead center stood a thick slab of that polished black stone, two meters square. Deeply incised into its surface was an elongate X-shaped groove, its legs reaching almost to the corners. What in the world--?

I stepped toward the right-hand wall. The mirrors were not perfect; in fact they were quite cloudy, indistinctly reflecting my haggard, goggled, one-eared visage. I gazed deeper…

It's possible that I'd begun to hallucinate by then; the long hours of solitude, stress and strangeness might have begun to take their toll. But it seemed that I saw movement behind the glass, and as I peered closer it resolved…into scenes from my own life. Hazily, as in a dream, I saw myself as a six-year-old kit, running naked through the grass with my brother and our friends. I moved a little to the left--and saw myself a little older, a schoolgirl; a teenager; a college student…and as I watched, fascinated now, it seemed that I was being drawn into the scenes. I felt the innocent, live-for-today joy of a child; the uncertainties of adolescence; and when I came upon a scene depicting an argument with my father, I once again felt the pain of his rejection. I would not, could not, ever be exactly what he wanted…As I moved along, the years fled: the Officer's Academy, Point Cabrillo and Zelazny…and finally Raven.

I watched until I could take no more; then I turned away, burying my face in my hands. I'd tried so hard to forget…but now it all came rushing back, stronger than ever: pain, anger, fear, sorrow. My fingers tingled, and I suppressed an impulse to look down and make sure my claws were still there.

Out of the corner of my eye I caught a sudden glimpse of movement, and I spun. What I saw made me gasp and stumble back several steps. Before me, not two meters away, a cloud of golden mist had begun to coalesce, apparently out of the very air. Formless at first, it quickly gathered itself into a rough, Golemesque bipedal form. Too late, I grabbed for my stinger…but before my hand could close on it, a proto-forelimb snapped out like a lash and snatched the weapon away. The stinger vanished, absorbed apparently, even as the amorphous shape twitched and quivered into a final solidity.

If it had been a gigantic multi-armed arthropod, or even a huge and hideous blob of luminescent green slime, I could have coped. But it was neither; at first glance, in fact, it appeared almost Sah'aaran. Taller than me by about twelve centimeters, its body was extremely thin, and appeared to be both boneless and jointless. Smooth and gleaming gold, it seemed somehow liquid, like an animated pool of molten gold. Its stylized, solid "mane" was slightly darker, like polished brass, and it gazed at me impassively through huge, pupilless yellow eyes. Clearly a construct of some kind, more like a free-form sculpture than a living being. An archetype, perhaps: the logical conclusion of the path I'd followed. For a few seconds it remained motionless, while I stood frozen in horrified fascination. Then it began to move--or flow--silently toward me.

I backed away, matching it step for step. Because of its appearance I addressed it in Sah'aaran rather than Terran; not, I think, that it made much difference. "Uh--listen," I said, my voice a thin, strangled yowl, "can we talk this over? My name is Lieutenant Ehm'ayla. I'm from the Survey vessel Zelazny, representing the Terran/Centaurii Alliance. I'm sorry if I'm trespassing, but I'm stranded on your planet…"

It made no reply; it just kept oozing toward me, and I kept retreating. I tried again. "Listen," I said, "I think it's fair to warn you--I'm not defenseless. I don't want to hurt you, but if you don't back off …"

Still it approached, and then my back thumped against the wall. No choice now. "All right, buster," I said, "you asked for it." I raised my hands, and as the thing came up into my face, I slashed my claws across its torso. I struck with my full strength; if it had been a living creature, I would have cut deep through flesh, muscle and even bone. But this thing…it was like slicing gelatin. My claws passed through it without resistance, leaving eight parallel slashes…which healed instantly and without a trace. The thing was not hurt--but it did stop in its tracks, and glanced down at its abdomen in evident surprise. Then it backed up a pace.

I nodded in relief. At very least, I'd gotten its attention. "That's better, fella," I said. I glanced from side to side. Make a run for it? I wondered--but then I remembered that whip-like appendage. No telling how far it could reach. "Maybe you'd like to tell me what you want from me," I suggested, more to buy time than because I thought it would answer.

The thing stared at me for a moment. Then, without apparent haste, it raised its right index finger and pointed at me. From that digit a cloud of golden vapor spurted forth and enveloped my head. My chest went thick, and my breathing faltered; the room spun; and I dropped as if chopped off at the knees.

###

I woke flat on my back, on a surface hard and cold.

It took an eternity to force my eyes open, and when finally I had, I found myself staring up at a glowing ceiling far above. Fortunately its brightness had been reduced--because my goggles were gone. So too was almost everything else: backpack, belt, chrono and scanpak. A tightness around my right wrist told me that the prisoner band was still in place. I had no difficulty reasoning out where I was: on the black slab in the chamber of mirrors. The thing, the robot, the entity, had gassed me unconscious and stripped me. I tried to sit up…and to my horror, I discovered that I couldn't.

My heart hammering, I struggled to roll over, lift a leg, twitch a finger…anything. I was not restrained in any way, not that I could feel--but I was utterly unable to move. I lay spread-eagled in the X-shape trough, my arms above my head and my legs wide apart--a position which made my helplessness all the more intense. Only my eyeballs were under conscious control; I was even denied the instinctive Sah'aaran stress-relief of a lashing tail. Never before, not even aboard Raven, had I felt so powerless; and without a collar, even a thick coat of fur could not stave off a terrifying sensation of nakedness. My field gear might as well have been on Terra.

I caught a glimpse of motion then, off to my right. Straining my eyes, I once again watched my captor coalesce out of thin air--and once again the sight caused me to doubt my sanity. As it stepped toward me I felt my heartbeat quicken. Goddess, what is it going to do to me--?

Laid out as I was, the word "vivisection" came immediately to mind--and once again I fought my invisible bonds, without success. I couldn't even beg for my life; I could utter no sound more articulate than a strangled gasp.

For a few seconds I lay in the grip of stark terror. I tried somehow to prepare myself for the pain, the blood I was certain would follow…but in fact my fears were groundless. The robot raised its hands--but they were empty, and its fingers were blunt, flat, and decidedly non-threatening. Me and my overactive imagination… My relief was a bit premature, though. What happened then wasn't painful--not yet--but was definitely embarrassing: a minute examination of my body. My entire body, mind you, whiskers to toe-claws. With those cold, oddly spongy digits it probed me, lifting my arms and legs, turning me partially over to feel my back and tail; burrowing deep into my mane to trace my skull. Obviously its hands had a sense of touch--and probably others too. It even opened my mouth and felt my teeth and tongue. When it reached my female anatomy I took a deep breath and tried to think of other things; there was nothing else I could do.

There seems to be a limit on how long you can remain terrified--and since nothing painful had happened to me so far, I was beginning to shade over into angry. What is this thing, I wondered, some kind of intergalactic Peeping Tom? What does it want from me? "Helpless" is not a condition I tolerate well…

Perhaps twenty minutes later, the thing completed its work. It took a step back and stood still for a moment, as if in deep thought; receiving new instructions, perhaps? Then, to my dismay, it began all over again. But this time it ignored most of my body, concentrating instead on just a few areas, which it probed in exacting detail. It didn't take me long to realize what those areas were: places where I bore scars. My missing ear. The tops of my toes, scraped raw when I saved Gaetano's life at the cliff; the fur was still thin over them. The gash in the small of my back where the haft of my spear broke beneath me. My fractured ribs. And finally my mangled right arm. But why--?

This second examination took about ten minutes; and when it was over, the robot once again stepped back and stood a while in uffish thought. What it did then would be the stuff of my nightmares for a long time to come. I've often wondered if it was the final test; or if the concept of "fear" was entirely unknown to my hosts. I'd prefer it to be the latter; I'd rather think of them as oblivious, rather than malicious. The robot stood motionless for perhaps a minute--then it raised its left hand over me, the index finger pointing down. What now? I wondered uneasily. And then, to my astonishment, that digit began to melt. It flowed like hot wax, forming a single pendulous glob about three centimeters in diameter. For a few seconds it remained suspended…then it broke loose and plopped down onto my chest. I gasped--expecting, I suppose, to be burned--but the liquid was neither hot nor cold. It lay there in my fur, retaining its spherical shape; then abruptly it collapsed. And then, with breathtaking rapidity, it began to spread--and grow.

I tried to scream, but no sound emerged; I tried to shake the stuff off, but I could not move. Within seconds my chest and abdomen were engulfed--and it didn't stop there. The ooze penetrated my fur and clung to my skin; the sensation was like having millions of ants crawling all over me. It covered my torso, and I felt it lift my body off the slab as it joined with itself underneath me. And still it grew, steadily, remorselessly, enclosing my arms and legs, my hands, feet and tail. As it climbed my face I squeezed my eyes tight shut, but the stuff flowed over and into them, forcing the lids open.

I prayed for it to stop there, and for an instant I believed it would--but it did not. It closed in on my muzzle from all sides, climbing millimeter by millimeter. When it reached my mouth there was nothing I could do; it pried open my jaw and poured down my throat. The taste was bitterly metallic. Simultaneously the gel covered my nose and flowed into my nostrils. I felt it fill my sinuses, felt it enter my lungs…I fought to cough, to expel this liquid that was drowning me…but even that was not permitted.

Brief as they were, those moments were the most horrifying I had ever endured, worse even than watching Enyeart cut off my claws. I have no way of knowing how long I lay in the grip of panic…but gradually it dawned on me that I wasn't dead. My heart was still beating; and not only that, I was still breathing--in a manner of speaking. By that time the ooze had enclosed my entire body, penetrated every orifice, and literally permeated the very core of my being. But it had neither drowned nor smothered me; somehow, in fact, it had taken over the function of my lungs. My chest felt thick, as if I had a bad lung infection; but the breathing reflex continued unabated.

…And with that realization, my terror began to ebb away. That too may have been an effect of the ooze: a tranquilizer perhaps, pumped into my lungs or injected into my bloodstream. Very soon I had not a care in the world; detached from my helpless body, I floated serene and comfortable in a purple mist. I was dimly aware that the ooze was still thickening around me; it seemed to be congealing now, forming a solid cocoon. Ordinarily that would have troubled me.

Enclosed as in the womb, cut off from all sensory stimulation, thrown back on the resources of a mind already pushed to the edge of madness…I have no way of knowing how much of what I seemed to experience actually happened. The line between reality and hallucination--never absolutely distinct for any sentient species--had been all but erased. Time no longer had meaning; I tried to reckon the seconds by counting my heartbeats, but I soon lost track. My thoughts were jumbled, hazy, impossible to keep hold off; really more a jumble of random images pulled from my memory than a logical progression of ideas. Even to wonder what would become of me required a degree of concentration which I did not possess.

Gradually, though, I became aware of a strange sensation--if that's the correct word; a feeling of…dissolution, perhaps. It was as if the stuff that held me, inside and out, had begun to break down the substance of my body, much as a sand-castle is gradually washed away by the encroaching tide. It was not painful; or rather, what pain there was seemed centered in one spot: my right wrist, which for a time burned like fire. But very soon I lost the capacity to feel pain, as my nervous system dissolved. At some point my heart stopped, and so too did my sluggish semblance of breathing. But at some level my being, the spark of consciousness that was Ehm'ayla, continued to exist, disembodied and alone. Eventually it occurred to me to wonder whether this was death: a thought which ought to have been accompanied by fear--but was not. In large measure, fear is a physical sensation, and I no longer possessed a body to experience it. In any case, I thought not--and when at length I once again became aware of a steady thumping in my chest, and a tingling spread through the familiar confines of my body and limbs, I finally began to understand what my unseen hosts had done to me--and for me as well.

###

…A hand on my shoulder…

"Ehm'ayla? Can you hear me?"

…And a voice in my ear.

I woke with a start, to find myself lying on my left side, curled tight with my arms around my knees and my head resting on my tail. As I turned partially over, dust tickled my nose, and I sneezed. The air was chill, and I opened my eyes to a sky like a bowl of blood: daybreak on Hellhole. Silhouetted against the dawn, a dark shape slowly resolved into a familiar face, partly hidden behind a scanpak eyepiece. Kneeling beside me, Aparna Singh sighed in relief and reached for her commpak microphone. "Max, I've found her! Home in on my signal!"

She helped me to sit up, and I looked around in bewilderment. I was indeed on the surface--but how I had gotten there, I had no idea. I lay in the middle of a wide dusty trail--in fact the exact same spot where I'd fainted and fallen, almost three months ago. Off in the distance, I caught a glimpse of a wide clearing; the breeze at my back bore the scent of water. Suddenly dizzy, I reached out to steady myself--and my hand closed upon a small hard object. With no particular surprise I found myself once again clutching a stone knife with a crudely-chipped blade and a grass-wrapped handle. My diploma. I chuckled.

"Ehm'ayla, are you all right?" Aparna asked in concern.

My voice was rusty; I hurriedly cleared my throat. "I--I think so," I told her. "I don't really know…"

She embraced me briefly, and the slickness of her field gear against my fur made me realize, with a sudden rush of embarrassment, that I was completely naked. I looked around in vain for the rest of my gear, somehow knowing that I wouldn't be seeing it again. In fact I rather suspected that Zelazny would be short one landing pod as well. Hopefully the Admirals wouldn't dock my pay.

"Thank God we found you," Aparna was saying. "We'd just about given up hope. After all this time…"

"Time?" I echoed. "What do you mean? I've only been down here two days…"

She shook her head, peering into my eyes. "You've been missing for a week," she said softly. She frowned. "You mean you didn't know--?"

Goddess! I thought. A week?

"If we hadn't detected a hypertunnel signature an hour ago, we might have given up and left. It's lucky…"

I shook my head, gazing down at my obsidian knife. "Luck had nothing to do with it."

Even as we spoke, the dawn was growing brighter--and with a sudden thrill that made my tail go stiff behind me, I realized that I was gazing into the glowing sky without my goggles…and without pain. Aparna's delicate features were sharp and clear, and so too were the distant treetops. My eyes were healed. And that meant, must mean…

At that moment the other two suns rose, bringing with them the usual crashing wave of heat. In the abrupt brightness, Aparna glanced at the left side of my head--and her eyes widened. Her hands, resting on my shoulders, suddenly tightened. "Ehm'ayla," she whispered. "Your ear--!"

Already certain what I would find, I lifted my hand…but as its palm came in view I froze, staring in disbelief. "Goddess!"

"What's wrong?" Aparna asked.

I showed her. Not only that hand but the other, and my ankles as well. She drew back. She paused, gazing at me in something like fear, then said, "Ehm'ayla--what exactly happened to you down here?"

I began to reply…but at that moment as Max Goodwin came crashing through the underbrush, followed by two Security men. He stopped short, gazing down at our little tableau; then he grinned. "You're out of uniform. Again."


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