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. See the attached file "license.txt" for details.



"Ehm'rael? Can you hear me?"

A whisper of sound, a voice, as if from far away, speaking words I ought to understand

"Ehm'rael, please!"

A touch, somehow distant, as if through a mummy's thick wrapping of linen: hands on my shoulders. One soft and warm, the other hard and cold

"Ehm'rael, my darling, speak to me."

A memory, recalled as if through a fog, of something dark and terrible…pain? Yes, pain. As if someone had driven spikes into the sides of my neck

My eyes flew open, and with a horrified gasp I heaved myself upright. The hands tightened on my shoulders, gently but firmly restraining me, pushing me back down. I didn't try to resist, because with my sudden movement came a most unpleasant wave of nausea. "Take it easy," Sah'ahl said soothingly. "You're safe."

His face loomed above me, an orange-and-brown blur which refused to come into focus. Something wrong with my eyes--? "Water?" he offered, and I nodded. My neck felt stiff too, a little painful; and when I tried to speak my voice sounded strangely hoarse. I paused and cleared my throat, but other than causing a sharper stab of pain, it had little effect.

"Yes, please."

As Linda Rochelle had, days ago, Sah'ahl lifted my head with a gentle hand, and pressed the rim of a bottle to my lips. I drank slowly, in sips, despite my raging thirst--and as I did, I gradually became aware that something wasn't right. It hurt to swallow, something I hadn't experienced for many years, not since the last time I suffered a childhood rhinovirus. And not only that: the play of muscles in my throat seemed somehow…different. I raised a hand to my neck--and when my fingers encountered something hard and unyielding, the memories came flooding back. I choked, spraying water far and wide.

Sah'ahl produced a towel and dried us both off. "Yes," he said softly. "It's still there."

My eyes had begun to clear by then--though they felt strangely gritty--and as the details of Sah'ahl's face gradually resolved, I saw to my distress that he looked awful. Like someone who hadn't slept in a week; or, more accurately, like someone who had labored long and hard under terrible stress. He noticed my scrutiny, and smiled, but his eyes were haunted, overflowing with pity and concern.

My other senses had begun to reassert themselves by then--but what they were telling me made little sense; it matched my memories not at all. I lay on my back on what felt like a foam pad, a flat cushion beneath my head, wrapped loosely in a thin silver "survival" blanket. Underneath I was naked--but my ubiquitous green bodysuit lay neatly folded beside me. So far so good--but beyond that, things began to break down. To begin with, I had no idea where I was. A smallish, grey space: for a few horrible seconds it reminded me of my cell on the Protector's platform. But no: the ceiling was a good ten meters above me; it was curved, and ribbed with support members. And only one of the walls surrounding me was truly solid, that being the one behind my head. It was smooth, grey-painted metal, not at all rusty. The others were simply loose stacks of packing crates, enclosing a slice of floor three meters square. From somewhere beneath me I heard and felt a deep, almost subsonic vibration; the only other sounds were a ragged high-pitched wail, as of a strong wind, and a strange, random booming, cause unknown. The light was dim, coming almost entirely from a lantern atop a crate near the foot of my "bed." And last but not least, the place stank. My cell had smelled of rust and damp; here the dominant--almost overpowering--odor was that of fish, fish and more fish.

I struggled to sit up, and Sah'ahl helped me, propping me against the solid metal wall with the cushion behind me. I wrapped the blanket around myself, under my arms, more for modesty's sake than because I felt particularly cold. "Where are we?" I asked. Even to utter those few words was bitingly painful, and I lowered my voice to a whisper. "What happened?"

Sah'ahl lowered himself stiffly onto a crate beside me. Peering closer, I noticed that the box--and all the others surrounding us--had the words "Neptune Packing Co." stenciled on its side. That gave me a clue--one which Sah'ahl quickly confirmed. "We're aboard an automated fish-packing platform," he said softly. He shook his head. "But as to what happened…I'm afraid you'll have to begin that story."

I nodded, which also hurt. I reached up with both hands and touched the device. It was clamped down upon my neck as if glued there; or--more horribly--as if it had somehow merged with my flesh. I grasped the wider sections between my claw-tips and tried to wrench the thing free. "Don't!" Sah'ahl said sharply; but a tearing wave of agony had already warned me to desist. I dropped my hands to my lap.

"I…put it around my neck," I said quietly. Whispering was easier. "A whim; it looked like it would fit. It…attacked me. Grabbed onto my flesh. Paralyzed me--couldn't move, couldn't speak. Then you came into the cabin…that's all I remember." Actually, technically, I remembered one other thing: the pain. As if someone had driven spikes into the sides of my neck…But that didn't bear describing.

Sah'ahl nodded tiredly. "I thought as much," he said. He peered into my eyes, and then he added, "That was approximately thirty-six hours ago."


"Yes," he said. "A day and a half I would not willingly relive."

I waved a hand. "And this place--?"

"The first refuge that presented itself," he explained. "You can hear the wind, I'm sure. It began to rise not long after your…accident. It is driving before it some truly frightening swells. My skills as a mariner are small--I began to fear for the fate of so small a boat on those seas."

I quirked an eye--but decided not to pursue the thought that had immediately occurred to me. "You did say 'automated'?" I asked.

"Fully," he assured me. "Other than ourselves, there is not a soul aboard."

"And if someone arrives?"

He smiled and shrugged. "We'll have to deal with that when--if--it happens."

I reached up and touched the device again, more gingerly this time. "Why…why didn't you get this thing off me?" I asked.

His face fell, and he shook his head. "I can't. If I'd been a second or two quicker back on the boat…perhaps. But not now."

"Why not?" I asked, but he didn't answer immediately. Instead he opened the sash-pouch of his ragged day-robe and brought forth his tiny flashlight. He rose and knelt beside me.

"Open your mouth and say 'ah,' please," he said, and I did. Taking the point of my chin gently between his thumb and forefinger, he shone the light down my throat. A few seconds later he nodded and rocked back onto his haunches. "The swelling is finally going down," he said. "The pain should begin to diminish soon."

I grasped his real hand. "Sah'ahl," I said intensely, "why can't you remove it?"

He hesitated, looking into my eyes. Finally he dropped his gaze and sighed. He ran his fingers gently across the coppery surface. "This thing--this device--isn't simply attached to your neck," he said. "It's attached through as well. I can see it, lining your trachea--some kind of valve assembly. It appears to have pierced both sides of your throat…"

"Stop," I said. Suddenly I was ice-cold and shaking, the blood thundering in my ears. I truly feared I was on the verge of passing out; and it's a good thing my stomach was empty. Sah'ahl gathered me into his arms, pressing me tight against his chest until the fit passed.

"And that's not all, I'm afraid," he said, loosening his grip to peer into my eyes.

I swallowed. "Go ahead," I said faintly. "I can take it."

"Can you?" he asked. He sighed. "All right. If I'm correct, it's formed a direct connection to your carotid arteries." He shook his head. "And if so--well, you understand why I can't remove it. Even if I had the tools, I don't dare try. If I broke that connection you'd bleed to death in seconds."

He had to hold me again, and this time the shaking went on much longer. When eventually I could speak again, I did so all but inaudibly, directly into his chest. "What…what is it? What have they done to me?"

His hands moved gently up and down my back, soothing and calming me. "If it's any consolation," he said, "it wasn't intended for you. I'm certain of that." With one of his steel claw-tips he traced the lines on the device's sides--marks which, I believed, indicated the covers of small hatches or vents. "Think about it," he said. "Where else have you seen something like this? And what might it achieve to connect a device to someone's circulatory system?"

I thought about it…and finally I lifted my eyes to stare at him incredulously. "It's a gill," I whispered. "An artificial gill."

He nodded. "That's the only logical conclusion," he agreed. "It diverts the blood-flow through a semi-permeable membrane. Oxygen in, carbon dioxide out, into solution."

The horror had begun to recede, a little anyway, and that was good. Confronted with a strange and admittedly wonderful new machine to be deciphered, the more dispassionate "engineer" part of my brain had (as usual) begun to take over--a process which I approved and encouraged. If nothing else it helped quiet my shuddering, enough so that Sah'ahl was able to release me. He pulled his crate a little closer and sat, gazing intently at me.

"So underwater," I said thoughtfully, reaching up to feel the incised lines, "these ports would open, exposing the membranes within."

Sah'ahl nodded. "I expect so," he agreed. "And when the device is exposed to air the ports close, just as the amphibians' gill-slits do, to protect those membranes and prevent them from drying out."

I shook my head. "It wouldn't be enough," I said, "just to place them in water. There would have to be a positive flow…"

"You're right," he said. "And that, I believe, is the reason for the structure inside your throat. Think about those amphibian children we watched that day. How did their gills function?"

I thought back, with difficulty. Only a week ago, give or take--but it might as well have been a century. "It seemed almost a swallowing action," I said. "They took in water through their mouths and forced it out through the gill-slits. According to our ship's doctor, the amphibians have a kind of valve in their throats, which prevents water from entering their lungs."

"And so do you, now," Sah'ahl said with certainty. "Theirs are made of muscle and cartilage; yours of metal and polymers. But equally functional. Or so I assume," he added quickly, with a faint smile. "The only way to know for certain would be to throw you overboard."

I shuddered again. "No thanks," I said. I paused. "If what you're saying is true," I went on, "there's only one thing missing: the reflex. The amphibians are somehow able to translate the breathing imperative into swallowing. I can't."

Sah'ahl hesitated. Then he said softly, "I…rather imagine you can--now. You mentioned that the device paralyzed you when you fit it around your neck?"

"Yes," I confirmed. "I felt a shock at the base of my skull…"

"I suspect that it has formed a connection with your nervous system as well--with your medulla oblongata. Again, there's only one way to know for certain--but if you were submerged, I believe you would find your reflexes appropriately redirected."

I wrapped my arms around my legs and drew them to my chest, resting my forehead on my knees. For a few minutes all was silence, except for the distant humming and the howl of the wind. It seemed to me that I could feel the platform rocking ever so gently on the swells; or perhaps that was my imagination. No way to know. Finally I raised my head. "Then this thing is…permanent," I said flatly.

"I…wouldn't go quite that far," he said carefully. He clasped my hands. "Perhaps not permanent--but certainly not easily removed. It would require a very well-equipped hospital--and even then it would be a tricky operation."

"And this is what your employers offered the amphibians in payment."

"Undoubtedly," Sah'ahl agreed placidly. "I suspect it to be a prototype. Major Akad's own words seem to confirm that--he termed it 'irreplaceable.' Governor Odyn seems not to have entirely trusted my masters, however."

I frowned. "How so?"

"Rather than putting the device immediately to use, she assigned her scientists to examine it," he explained. "And thus the Cranes were able to steal it."

Maybe--or maybe not. That thought bubbled up from my subconscious, but exactly what it meant I had no idea, and I lacked the concentration to figure it out. "Rochelle never had a clue what it was," I mused. I chuckled bitterly. "Neither did I, come to that."

"Nor I."

"Who would? But…it makes sense. In a bizarre way, it does. The governor wants to end the strife on her world. What better way than to make everyone equal--for all practical purposes. The normal humans can't be converted into amphibians--not through biological means. Their descendants could, but not the ones alive now. You can't 'mutate' a fully-formed body." I touched the device. "With this, though…"

"But," Sah'ahl pointed out reasonably, "is it something they would desire?"

I thought about the Rochelles, and Mary Crane, and the other normal humans I'd encountered during my sojourn with the Protectors. "I doubt it," I said finally. "Very much. But it might be difficult for the amphibians to understand that. The governor might honestly believe that this is the greatest gift she could give them. If so, she's in for a surprise."

"Several," Sah'ahl said dryly.

Considering the implications of the thing encircling my neck made my head begin to whirl. Obviously Governor Odyn did not believe that the normal humans deserved equality--at least not in their present state. But the humans themselves…how many of them would willingly stick their necks out? Or does she intend to give them a choice? Perhaps forced amphibianization (to coin a word) would join forced sterilization on the list of indignities those poor people had to endure. And that's what it boiled down to: dignity. That was all the normal humans really wanted…

…Or is it? I wondered suddenly. I remembered Mary Crane's disturbing words: "Equality, yes--at first." And Linda Rochelle: she'd disapproved of her husband's use of the Protector sobriquet--because she felt that the latter-day group had little chance of achieving the original Protectors' aims. And what were those? Not equality, surely. They had seen themselves as teachers, helpers, guidance counselors if you like, for a population of amphibians not ready for self-determination. Was that Rochelle's real aim? Not equality, but a return to dominance? If so, then he truly was a dreamer…


I shook my head, dragging myself back to the real world. Sah'ahl was gazing at me in concern, and with a sudden rush of embarrassment I realized that he'd been speaking for several seconds--but I had no idea what he'd said. I smiled bleakly. "Pardon?"

He grinned in gentle mockery. "I was saying," he told me, "that we might be getting ahead of ourselves."

"Oh? How so?"

"It occurs to me that gills--natural or artificial--do not an amphibian make, not by themselves. Governor Odyn and her people have many other alterations from the human norm--eyes, ears, skin, hands and feet…"

I nodded slowly. "You're right," I said. I fixed him with my gaze. "Perhaps your employers had that covered as well."

He spread his hands. "Perhaps so," he said. "But if so, I was not informed." He paused. "Let me ask you this--and if it is something you feel you can't answer, for whatever reason, I won't be offended."

"Go ahead."

He nodded at the device. "Is that something the Alliance could have offered the amphibians?"

I paused. Finally I said, "If it truly is an artificial gill and nothing else…then yes, I think they could have. Though bioengineering really isn't my field. The more relevant question is would they…and I'd have to say no, they wouldn't."

He cocked his head curiously. "Why not?"

"It isn't the way their minds work," I said. I smiled. "I suppose they're not as results-oriented as your employers. They care about the means as well as the ends."

"Which may not be a bad thing," he replied. "Are you hungry?"

"Yes," I said, and--a little to my surprise--I realized that I truly meant it. My panic and horror were just bitter memories now, having faded into something like resignation. The thing around my neck was there to stay, at least until I returned to the Alliance. And other than a sore throat, it seemed to be causing me no particular harm. For the time being I would simply have to learn to ignore it.

"Good," Sah'ahl said briskly. He stood and smiled down at me. "So," he went on, "how do you like your canned fish?"


Sah'ahl indicated the narrow window with a wave of his hand. "At the moment," he told me, "this is as close to the great outdoors as I care to get."

I pressed my fingers against the thick glass, feeling the pane vibrate madly as the gusts slammed against it--and I shivered. Outside, in the waning twilight, streamers of spray tore by, strafing the side of the building, clattering against the window like hail, forming little rivulets which endured only a fraction of a second before being smeared and whisked away. Beyond the edge of the platform, gigantic foamy breakers sprang up, only to fall as if chopped off at the knees; and beyond that, huge white-topped mountains of blue and green billowed and writhed, climbing to the sky and eroding away to nothing, one after another. "I tend to agree," I said.

After my breakfast (or--as it was by then late afternoon, shading over into evening--is "dinner" the more appropriate term?) After my first meal in almost two days, Sah'ahl took me on a sightseeing tour. It turned out to be a remarkably short trip.

The building which he had chosen as our refuge was a warehouse, a huge Quonset hut some hundred meters long and fifty wide, with a concrete floor and grey-painted, corrugated metal walls. It was--so my rescuer informed me--one of perhaps two dozen such structures, outwardly identical, which stood in neat rows atop a platform considerably larger and more modern than the one the Protectors had appropriated. Dimly-lit, illuminated only by a series of narrow slit windows high up the curved walls, the warehouse seemed to be about three-quarters full. Uncountable thousands of grey plastic crates were piled neatly atop pallets and shrink-wrapped; in some places the stacks reached halfway to the ceiling. Exactly how many little flat oblong cans that represented, I didn't care to contemplate. Metal rails embedded in the floor, entering through a pair of massive doors in one flat wall, suggested some kind of automated transport system; but what manner of machinery rode on them I never learned.

Fully-automated though this facility might be, it still required maintenance once in a while. Sah'ahl had tucked our "camp" into one of the building's corners, a spot devoid of both tracks and pallets--and, as luck would have it, directly adjacent to a functional (if tiny) bathroom and a locker full of emergency supplies, dusty and neglected but usable. I might have hoped for a dormitory with nice soft beds, and I suppose that such might have indeed existed somewhere aboard; but we'd have to take what we could get.

Sah'ahl showed me around the warehouse, which took not long at all. He finished his tour with a glimpse outside, which proved considerably more instructive--in a horrifying sort of way. A narrow, decidedly airy catwalk ran around the entire circumference of the warehouse, eight meters above the floor, and from it, by design or accident, one could look out through those small windows. The view was at once fascinating and appalling.

At a guess, the wind was blowing at more than a hundred kilometers an hour. In describing the swells kicked up by that gale, Sah'ahl had used the word "frightening." Myself, I'd vote for "terrifying." Because of its massive size, the platform rode the seas almost level--fortunately. The system of baffles and breakwaters which extended out from the hull, dozens of meters in every direction, took some of the force out of the waves, so that mere rivers--as opposed to deluges--cascaded between the buildings.

"Where's our boat?" I asked.

Sah'ahl pointed down. "Underneath the platform," he said. "Beneath an overhang. There is mooring space for perhaps twenty vessels down there--and judging from the size of the slips, large vessels. When we arrived, all the slips were empty. They're partially sheltered--but still, we would have been in for a rough ride if we'd stayed aboard."

I frowned. "Are you sure the boat will survive?"

He smiled and shrugged. "No," he said simply. "I'm not."

I glanced at him sharply--then sighed and looked away. He was right: there was no possible way he could be sure. Nor me either: this was a new experience for both of us.

How would the Protectors cope with a storm like this? I wondered suddenly. An easy enough question to answer: Run from it. Their radioman, Sam, must have been constantly on the alert for weather forecasts. Their platform was mobile; they could simply put distance between themselves and an approaching front. But the Goddess help them if the forecasts turned out to be wrong.

I shivered again, and Sah'ahl slipped his arm around my waist. "Let's go down," I told him. "I've seen as much of this as I care to."

"Fine with me."

We made our way along the catwalk to a stairway, a spiral of gossamer steps that bounced like a spring beneath our feet. It was only a short walk from the foot of the stairs to our corner, and there we sat down side-by-side, our backs against the wall. For some minutes we were silent. What Sah'ahl was thinking I don't know; but as for me, I found myself gazing in some amusement at the careful arrangements he had made for our comfort. The walls and the majority of the furniture were made of crates; they formed the pantry as well. The "bed" was a foam pad and several survival blankets, filched from the emergency stores, with seat-cushions from the boat for pillows. The plates, cups and other utensils were also from the boat. He hadn't bothered with any kind of stove: our species commonly views cooking as an unnecessary luxury. And as for the cuisine…well, sick as I was of fish, starvation was no better alternative.

"Sah'ahl," I said finally, quietly, "what are we going to do?"

He shook his head. "For the moment," he replied, "there is precious little we can do--other than wait for the wind to abate."

"You know how vital it is that I contact my ship," I said, and he nodded.

"Certainly I do," he said soberly. "But I'm rather at a loss to say how."

"The boat has radio equipment," I pointed out. I waved a hand. "And this facility must too--somewhere."

"Somewhere," he agreed. "Whether any of it will be adequate to the task of contacting a vessel in orbit, I don't know. I'm afraid communications technology isn't my forte."

"Nor mine," I admitted. Where's Preston Saunders when you need him? I smiled. "We'll just have to pool our knowledge. You will help me, won't you?"

He smiled. "Of course. For my sake as well as yours."

"--But until the wind dies, we're stuck," I concluded sourly. If only I'd spent more time studying the local meteorology…For a time I stared up at the distant ceiling. Then I said, "Sah'ahl, why didn't you--"

I broke off--because my savior, my cyborg tower of strength, was fast asleep, his head lolling and his mouth wide open. I nudged him gently in the ribs, and he woke with a start. "What?" he mumbled. He grinned sheepishly. "Sorry," he said. "Must have dozed off..."

"Exactly when did you last sleep?"

He frowned. "I'm not quite certain," he said indistinctly. "I'd guess about two days ago. I caught a quick nap before I came to rescue you…"

"Two days?" I exploded--and a twinge of pain from my still-raw throat instantly warned me to lower my voice. I climbed to my feet. "Come on," I said briskly, as to a five-year-old kit. "It's past your bedtime."

Luckily for both of us, he didn't argue. Never before had I seen exhaustion grab hold of anyone quite so quickly--or so thoroughly. I had to help him as one would an infant, stripping him of his clothing and collar and wrapping him loosely in one of the blankets. We had only one pad, but that was all right: it was wide enough for two Sah'aarans. As soon as his head hit the makeshift pillow he was out, so deeply asleep that it wouldn't have disturbed him if the entire platform capsized.

I took my time with my own preparations, not really being in need of sleep, but having nothing better to do than join him. I removed my bodysuit, and raided Sah'ahl's sash pouch for the folding brush I knew would be there, and which he'd would forgive me for borrowing. I'd tried hard to forget the device clamped around my neck, and to a great extent I had been successful; but when in the course of my brushing my fingers suddenly encountered the thing, a fresh wave of horror rose from the pit of my stomach. Angrily I thrust it aside.

Before I retired I adjusted the lantern. I did not turn it off, but rather as far down as it would go. The soft orange glow it emitted would serve as a of night-light; somehow the thought of pitch-darkness in that immense space unnerved me. Once I had completed that slightly fiddly task, I lay down and pulled the other blanket around myself. Sah'ahl had turned over onto his side, and I cuddled up against him, fitting my abdomen against his spine. He stirred, but did not wake, as I draped my arm across him. And as I touched him, as I allowed myself to relax against the solid reality of his body, it was as if a new sun had suddenly been born in the pit of my stomach, its warmth gradually spreading until it seemed to pour forth from my fingers, toes, tail, and even my whiskers. Briefly I considered trying to wake him; but that would have been needlessly cruel, not to mention probably impossible. No, let him sleep.

For a long while I lay still, listening to the quiet sound of his breathing, and the more distant, less comforting shriek of the wind. Every time it rose in pitch I shivered and drew closer to Sah'ahl; until finally, mercifully, I dropped off to sleep.


How long I dozed I don't know; several hours, certainly. Nor am I sure what finally woke me. Some small noise, perhaps; or maybe something more fundamental. But wake I did, and when I opened my eyes I found myself staring into another, softly-glowing pair, no more than five centimeters from mine. I realized then, with a shock, that I was no longer lying curled up against Sah'ahl's back, but rather in his arms, and with nothing at all between us. His right hand stroked my mane and my shoulder, over and over, in long delicate sweeps that sent a thrill racing down my spine; his left, hard and cold, rested upon my hip, motionless, as if trying not to be noticed. For an instant I stiffened in surprise, and the stroking abruptly ceased. "I'm sorry," he whispered contritely.

"No," I replied. "There's nothing you need apologize for. Nothing at all."

I slipped my arms around him, feeling the firm muscle of his back and shoulders beneath the thick soft fur; and I tucked my muzzle under his chin. It was his turn to freeze, just for a second; then his right hand began to move again. I felt as well as heard his purr, rumbling up from the depths; my own, a full octave higher, provided the descant.

"Sah'ahl," I whispered, some minutes later, "Why did you rescue me? You took all kinds of risks: you stole a boat, tracked me across the ocean, sneaked on board the Protector's platform…why?"

A brief chuckle interrupted his purr. "I think," he replied, "we both already know the answer to that."

Once again that feeling erupted in my gut, as of the blazing forth of a brand-new star; but much stronger this time, so intense that I almost imagined I could see my entire body glowing. "You mean--?"

"Yes," he said. "I do. It began the moment I first saw you, in the governor's dining room." He paused. "I didn't realize what was happening--not at first. Please understand: it was my amnesia, the brain damage my employers couldn't entirely repair. I knew that I was feeling something--something very strong--but I had no guide, no way of knowing if it truly was a bonding. Now I do."

I gazed into his eyes. "How?" I asked. "What made you certain?"

"Two things," he said. "First, you were kidnapped--and when the implications of that struck home, when I realized, fully and viscerally, that you were gone, and I had no idea where you were or what was happening to you… that was when I knew. But even then I wasn't absolutely certain--not until that night in your cell. When we touched, when you embraced me…if I had any doubts left, that's when they evaporated." He reached up and touched the thing around my neck. "But then this happened, and we had no opportunity to discuss the situation."

"Until now."

"Until now," he agreed. He paused. "If 'discuss' is the correct word…"

…And that's how it began--or ended, depending on your point of view. From that moment forward there was no more discussion, no more words. He licked my cheek, and I felt the roughness of his tongue against my fur; I licked his, and felt the smoothness. He nuzzled deeply into my neck, my throat, finding the narrow patch left bare by that damned device: by a fortunate accident, the most sensitive spot of all. I nuzzled his, and nothing at all got in my way. Our lashing, twisting tails finally found each other and twined. And somewhere in the midst of this our conscious minds simply went away, leaving us in a place where it was suddenly easy to forget…everything. To ignore both the thing around my neck and the jagged hardness of his prosthetic legs against my shins. A place where nothing at all mattered, not the Chrysaoans or the Alliance; not the amphibians or the Protectors. Not even the howl of the wind or the pervasive smell of fish. Nothing but the mingling of two bodies and two minds. A place where, after we had finally grown still, the benevolent Goddess allowed us to remain, to sleep long and peacefully in each other's arms with no cares at all.