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.



The shrine...

Throughout the timeless, formless period that followed, my portable shrine was my only anchor to reality. I need only turn my head to see it. The tatak doors were always open, the tiny golden Goddess shining within. Sometimes I found that the shrine had moved; sometimes it was within arm's reach, sometimes farther away. When those shifts occurred I knew, somewhere in the depths of my mind, that I had also been moved. But the shrine was always there, whenever I looked; the candles always lit, always fresh. Eventually it occurred to me to wonder who was keeping them so...and finally that led me to wonder where I was, and what had happened to me. And when at last I was able to give voice to those questions, and understand the answers, the doctors knew I was beginning to recover.


"I always think of Sah'ahl in the third person," he said. He shook his head. "Silly, perhaps--but it's the only way I can think of him: as someone else, the stranger who held title to my body for ten years. It's the only way I can keep my sanity."

He sat very still, in a chair pulled up close beside my bed. The morning sunlight, streaming in through the open windows, glinted from the shiny, skeletal copper-red hand resting upon his knee, and the matching set of legs protruding beneath the hem of his green-striped day-robe. My bond-mate, the stranger.

"They questioned me, of course. Starting with Captain Thunumm." He chuckled. "Actually I questioned him more than he did me. But even after he'd told me where I was, and what had happened to me...I simply couldn't believe that ten years were missing from my life. Not until Dr. Chiiriss showed me these prosthetics, and the remains of the stuff he'd removed from my head."

As he spoke, I found myself watching him closely, silently compiling a list. In one column, the ways he resembled Sah'ahl; in the other, the ways they differed. Column B had taken a major early lead, and looked to be heading for the finish line virtually uncontested.

"And then the Lands-Enders returned Sah'ahl's property," he went on. "There wasn't much--some clothing, a few grooming items. Some kind of transmitter--the CF confiscated that, and they're welcome to it. But there was also a journal, written on a Chrysaoan palm-reader."

The scar that had bisected Sah'ahl's face was gone, smoothed entirely away; and this man's muzzle sported a full set of whiskers. Two perfectly-formed ears protruded from a shoulder-length natural mane; even the tuft at the end of his tail had been repaired. And when he smiled, as he did often, I looked in vain for Sah'ahl's broken teeth. What I saw instead was gleaming perfection, a masterpiece of dental surgery.

"Sah'ahl started keeping the journal not long after he arrived on Lands-End. The first few entries were pretty mundane: observations about the amphibians and their government, the progress of his assignment, and so forth. But after a time the subject shifted almost entirely"

His taste in clothing was different too, judging from his colorful day-robe and embroidered collar. And his speech patterns: less formal, yes; the choice of words more colloquial. On the plus side, perhaps a little less pompous, a little less...smug.

"And as I read it, I began to understand what you'd meant to he'd begun to feel about you." He swallowed. "The feelings he left me to deal with."

So...what could I put in Column A? The prosthetics, for one: they hadn't changed, except to become a little more brightly polished. And his eyes. Most especially, his eyes. Infinitely deep, a little sad, they still had the power to grab my soul and hold it fast. Anything else? As yet, I couldn't say.

"After I was well enough to leave sickbay, I asked Captain Thunumm if I could use your cabin," he continued. "He agreed, of course: he didn't have any other place to put me." He sighed. "Maybe I shouldn't have. I honestly wasn't trying to pry, or to invade your privacy. I just wanted to understand you, feel closer to you." He nodded across at the little shrine, sitting atop my dresser. "That got a lot of use during our trip back."

I nodded, which hurt. "I don't mind," I told him softly. "I probably would have done the same."

He smiled. "Thank you."

The view from my bedroom window had always been the most attractive feature of my home, and the hospital bed which had temporarily replaced my normal resting place had been angled so I could enjoy it. An endless waving sea, ruffled by the wind...but a sea of grass rather than water, still green from the monsoon rains of the Interval, but tinged with grey at the tips now that second-summer was edging into autumn. As a child I often ran naked and free through that grass, allowing it to engulf me, rising far above my upraised arms. Sometimes I'd contrived to be "lost" for hours, deliberately, relishing the make-believe terror, knowing full well that I could follow my nose back home. Suddenly, irrationally, I longed to do so again--but it would be quite some time before I'd be able. For the moment, even to walk across the room was almost beyond my strength.

"We didn't remain in orbit around Lands-End very long," he said. "Captain Thunumm believed the fleet was strong enough--so he left. I don't know whether he was within his authority doing that. Needless to say, I wasn't invited to his tactical briefings."

His words didn't surprise me: I had already been told how Thunumm had decided to bring me home personally. My only regret was that I hadn't had the chance to thank him. Had he exceeded his orders? Probably. Would the Admirals give him (a many-times-decorated, certified hero) much grief over it? Most likely not.

"As soon as we arrived in orbit around Sah'aar I was taken into custody," he said. "I was brought down to the local CF Headquarters, and questioned again." He shook his head. "Captain Thunumm had vouched for me in his report: he knew there was nothing I could tell Intelligence about Chrysaoan technology or movements. But evidently someone didn't believe him. I was held incommunicado for almost three weeks, while Intelligence officers questioned me and examined my prosthetics. For a time I was afraid they'd amputate my hand and my legs and confiscate them, as they did Sah'ahl's transmitter."

I frowned. As a rule I was proud of my association with the Combined Forces, and happy to be a citizen of the Alliance. I liked to believe that we were morally superior to the Jellies. But every once in a while something came along to make me question my patriotism. Fear, I told myself in disgust. Paranoia. It never fails, I suppose. In war the first casualty may indeed be the truth--but in a so-called "cold" war, civil liberties are more often at the head of the line.

"But then, all of a sudden, I had a lawyer," he said. "I couldn't imagine who had hired her--who would have known I was in that situation. It turned out to be a man named Sah'surraa, a wealthy publisher. I'd heard of his company, but I'd never had anything to do with him. I still can't understand..."

That was a surprise, and I felt my chest tighten as a sudden wave of affection and gratitude swept through me. The equipment surrounding my bed, sensing this, sent a spray of medication into my lungs through the plastic tube inserted into my left nostril, and a few seconds later my breathing eased. I couldn't blame the machines for their caution: my newly-transplanted lungs were still quite sensitive, and though there was no chance of rejection--the organs having been cloned from my own cells-- they still needed time to settle in properly.

"He's an...old friend," I explained. "At one time we hoped it could be something more--but the Goddess decided otherwise."

Sah'ahl (not Sah'ahl, dammit, Sah'majha) nodded slowly. "I see," he said. "Yes, that makes sense. At any rate, she was able to get me released--she appealed directly to the Alliance Council. The CF really had nothing to charge me with. They could hardly argue that Sah'ahl had worked for the Jellies voluntarily--not really--or that I was a spy."

"So you were entirely cleared?"

He nodded again. "Yes," he said with a smile. "Free as a bird, as the Terrans say. After I was released, my attorney set about tracking down my family..."

"They're still alive, then?"

"Yes," he said quietly. "Thank the Goddess, they are. My mother and father, my sister, her mate and their kits--they all live on Ehm'tarr Continent, in Equator City. I spent several weeks with them. They'd like to meet you, when you're able..."

"I will be honored," I said. The Goddess bless you, Sah'surraa, I thought. No use wondering how he'd found out; he had connections everywhere, and ways of discovering things that far exceeded my own. Captain Thunumm knew about my bonding; I'd told him, laying bare my heart in my effort to prevent him from returning Sah'ahl to the Chrysaoans. And once that bit of news reached Sah'surraa's ears (by fair means or foul) he would immediately realize that the physiological connection would outlive Sah'ahl's "death."

"And that wasn't all. Sah'surraa also offered to pay for all my reconstructive surgery. And not just a basic cut-and-paste job, either: he found the best cosmetic surgeons on the planet. All of Sah'ahl's scars are gone--everything the Jellies didn't consider it worthwhile to repair when they 'rescued' me."

May you, Ehm'nallaa, and your kits be forever well and happy. "But you kept the prosthetics."

He nodded. "The doctors recommended it. This equipment is better than anything the Alliance can offer--and it's been so long since the original injury, they feared transplants might not 'take.'" He flexed his hand, gazing at its movement in fascination. "These are at least a proven commodity. And my brain already knew how to control them; that wasn't lost."

"Does it...bother you to have to keep them?"

"No," he said. "At first it did--but not any more. They're just tools, the best available. The CF engineers were amazed how well-built they are; they should last me a lifetime."

I smiled. "They'd better--I'm not sure if anyone in the Alliance could repair them."

He grinned. "The surgeries didn't take long," he said. "And as soon as they were completed I found myself thinking" He frowned and shook his head. "No, that's not right. I never stopped thinking about you. But after my reconstruction I was finally able to do something about it. I came here to Sah'salaan, and I discovered that the doctors had just taken you out of hibernation."

I nodded. "I know." Only too well, I knew. In all, something like five months of my life was missing. Ten weeks were irretrievably gone, lost to the peculiar, dreamless semi-existence also known as "suspended animation" or "cold-sleep." Five weeks of travel time between Lands-End and Sah'aar; and another five while the physicians studied my condition and considered ways to remedy it--and also rapidly cloned a new pair of lungs, because my old ones were past saving. The other ten weeks still existed, but only in part: they passed by rapidly in a blur of surgeries, hospitals, catheters, IV's, feeding tubes, doctors and nurses, with only my portable shrine to keep my mind from descending into chaos.

It's debatable which part of the process was the most difficult. Certainly the removal of the artificial gill--which the physicians undertook first--was the trickiest: not only to disconnect the thing from my carotid arteries without allowing me to bleed to death, but also to remove its ancillary parts: most importantly the tiny valves which had invaded my throat, sinuses and Eustachian tubes. But the most challenging aspect was the neutralization of the nanobots with which my body was permeated--because to do so, the physicians had to literally teach themselves a new discipline. Only the fact that the process had still been in an early stage, and the 'bots relatively localized and comparatively few in number, made eradication possible. Even now the doctors couldn't be certain that they'd gotten them all; but with the gill--the ultimate source of the 'bots--long gone, no more should be introduced into my body. The Goddess willing. My hands and feet were already healed, the webbing removed; fortunately it showed no sign of growing back. My eyes were taking a little longer; but the turquoise membrane had been laboriously peeled away, the inflamed sclera had finally begun to recover, and my vision was almost back to normal. Only my lungs and my neck remained fragile; those and my emotional state. Deep inside me, a perverse desire to be underwater still clamored for my attention. Eventually it would go away. I hoped.

I reached up and gently massaged my throat, which had grown sore from too much talking. As is proper, my neck was hidden from sight--but by soft bandages, rather than an embroidered collar--or an ugly assemblage of copper-red metal. That wrapping was not there to preserve my modesty, but to protect two recent skin-grafts. There were hair follicles within those two wide patches of cloned flesh, and in time the fur would grow out, concealing the minor scars.

"The doctors still don't know for certain what caused your lungs to deteriorate," Sah'majha said, "But they agree that it must have been some unintended side-effect of the gill. It was not designed for Sah'aarans..."

"No," I agreed. "It wasn't." And maybe the degeneration--which proceeded with shocking and nearly-fatal rapidity--had been a side-effect. An immune reaction, perhaps, to the presence of foreign bodies within my pulmonary system. So my doctors had theorized. But unintended? That, I was not certain I believed. In fact I rather suspected that it had been quite intended indeed. Intended, that is, for the humans on whom the device should have been inflicted. But if so, by who? Not Odyn; at least I hoped not. The Chrysaoans, then? Doubtful that I would ever know--but nothing prevented me from speculating.

"...But they're in agreement that Dr. Chiiriss did the right thing, placing you in hibernation. Of course there was no way he could have known..."

"No," I said again. "There wasn't. I didn't really know myself." There is a difference between "know" and "strongly suspect." And yes, placing me in cold-sleep was indeed the only way of saving my life. With my metabolism slowed a hundredfold or more, the degeneration of my lungs was nearly halted--and so too, fortunately, was the nanobots' rampage through my body. Dr. Chiiriss had no other choice, nor any reason to hesitate...

...But under the circumstances, is it really fair to blame the hibernation for what happened? Other females in my delicate condition--humans and Sah'aaran--had endured it with no difficulty. The division of the fertilized egg is, after all, nothing more than a cellular process, not terribly different from others which are safely suspended by cold-sleep. The doctors refused to commit themselves; but I will go to my grave believing it was Chrysaoan nanotech that murdered my kits. But whatever the cause, the effect was undeniable. When finally I was thawed out, those two little bundles of cells were, as the physicians put it, "no longer viable." Exactly what they would have developed into, had it been possible, is a matter for speculation--but clearly, nothing Sah'aaran. Better--far better--that they were never given the opportunity. Or so I kept telling myself; someday, perhaps, I might actually believe it.

"The doctors are convinced that only the two fetuses were affected," Sah'majha said quietly. Did he consider them his kits, or Sah'ahl's? So far I hadn't found the courage to ask. "They believe your unfertilized ova are most likely undamaged..."

I nodded. "I know," I said. And someday perhaps I might be able to convince myself of that too. Maybe.

There came a long pause then, during which Sah'majha gazed curiously around my bedroom. My home: a place to which I too seldom returned, but whenever I did, unfailingly gathered me into its warm and welcoming embrace. Not nearly so large or ostentatious as Sah'surraa's mansion, less than a kilometer away; but comfortable, elegant in its own way. No wonder the doctors had been so willing to allow me to convalesce there. Just the previous evening I'd been brought home, complete with bed and ancillary equipment--and a nurse, who had quietly absented herself to another room when Sah'majha arrived. Please the Goddess, in a week or two I would no longer require her services.

Apart from the solarium--which was inaccessible to me for the time being, unless I cared to drag all that equipment along behind me--the bedroom had always been my favorite space. Woven mats on the floor; walls a restful shade of pale green, the exact shade of grass after the Interval; massive antique dresser and wardrobe of dark tatak; shelves lined with the odds and ends of my was a private place, as much so as the inside of my head. Sah'majha was one of the few people who had ever seen it. But as he looked around, I knew that his intention was not to judge my taste in decorating. Rather, he was seeking a key to my personality. As yet we'd spent little time together, and in my weakness I had been very poor company. In the details of my home he sought the details of my mind.

Finally he shook himself. "I have something for you," he said, fumbling with his sash-pouch. "This was found in Sah'ahl's luggage," he went on quietly, "and from his journal I know he meant it for you."

He dropped a small, hard object into my cupped hand. I looked--and the machines had to treat my lungs again. What I held was a round brooch, red-and-white polished coral in a delicate gold setting. I had noticed--and admired--it, many weeks ago, in a jeweler's stall in the Public Market on Lands-End. But never in my wildest dreams had I expected to see it again.

"He must have noticed how it caught my eye," I murmured. "Gone back for it later..."

Sah'majha nodded. "That's what I gather." He cocked a curious eye. "He never mentioned it--?"

"No," I said. I rubbed my thumb across the smooth stone, then pinned the brooch to the front of my gown. I'd intended it for a particular collar--I could see it on the rack on my dresser--but for now it felt right to keep it close to my heart. "He didn't. I imagine he wanted it to be a surprise." And it is, I thought. The Goddess help me, it is! "Thank you," I went on. "Very much."

He smiled. "You're welcome," he said. "Though I'm only the delivery boy." He paused. "Sah'ahl was right: it does look lovely on you."

I felt the blood rushing to my ears and nose, and I turned away. Sah'ahl--wherever you are--thank you too.

There was silence again for a time; then Sah'majha, gazing out at the billows of grass, said quietly, "What was Sah'ahl really like?"

I sighed and closed my eyes. I'd been expecting this--dreading it--and I was not totally unprepared. "On the surface," I said, "he was witty, charming, clever, self-assured; a true raconteur. Exactly what the Chrysaoans intended him to be: the perfect representative. He could discuss any topic, be at ease in any situation..."

"And that's what attracted you to him?"

"At first, yes," I said. I opened my eyes and fixed him with my gaze. "But as time went on, I began to realize that he was essentially...shallow. He was never meant to have more than a superficial relationship with anyone. For the Hegemony's purposes that was enough: he would arrive on a planet, charm the socks off the local dignitaries, obtain an agreement--while making some observations on the side--and leave. He was the perfect servant: pastless, rootless, constantly reminded of what he owed them. I've found myself wondering how many of their 'representatives' they acquire that way."

"I've been wondering the exact same thing," Sah'majha said. He shook his head. "There's no way of knowing--but I imagine it's no small number."

I chuckled. No small number. A phrase which can have many meanings...

"But then he bonded with you," Sah'majha went on.

I nodded. "Exactly. And that put him in a situation where his hollow bonhomie was no longer adequate. He told me the Chrysaoans didn't control his every thought--by which he meant that he had the capacity to adapt to unique situations. He would have been useless as a representative if he hadn't. So in bonding with me, and in coping with the situation we found ourselves in, he gradually began to show other traits: bravery, tenderness, loyalty, Some of them would have surprised his masters greatly--and displeased them too."

Sah'majha turned away. "I see," he said in quiet despair.

"No," I told him. "You don't. Dr. Chiiriss said that Sah'ahl existed within that circuitry--but the more I think about it, the more I realize he was wrong. Perhaps Sah'ahl's memories did--or at least the largest part of the ten years of his existence. But the rest did not. It couldn't have. There had to be some raw material from which the Chrysaoans created him--and which he could himself draw upon later. That raw material was you, Sah'majha. It had to have been. Sah'ahl didn't have your memories--but he did have bits and pieces of your personality. Perhaps if he'd been separated from his masters long enough, some of the memories would have returned too. There's no way to know. But do you understand what I'm saying? The aspects of Sah'ahl I came to admire, and finally to love, are within you. In different proportions perhaps, a different mixture...but they're in there somewhere."

He turned away, but not before I saw his new ears flush red. My throat was throbbing; lying back, I massaged it, and reached across to the control panel to request yet another spray of soothing medication.

"You say he was shallow," Sah'majha said a moment later. "But he was deep enough to realize the terrible choice he faced. That's in his journal too: he was desperate to find a way to keep you. He even considered kidnapping you and taking you to the Hegemony by force."

I chuckled. "I'm not surprised--because in a sense that's what I ended up doing to him."

"But if he had survived--if he was sitting here now instead of me--he could never have been truly happy. They would have always been calling to him. And worse yet, to be surrounded by his past but unable to remember it...that would have tortured him. You would have helped him track down his family--my family--using genetic records...but they would have been strangers to him."

I nodded. "And he to them," I said. "I know." One of the reasons why--may the Goddess forgive me--I had come to believe that Sah'ahl the artifact, Sah'ahl the slave...was better off dead.

"...You and I, though," Sah'majha said. "We don't have much choice, do we?"

"No," I said. "We don't." I smiled. "But our situation isn't unique--not really."

He quirked an eye. "No?"

"Think about it," I urged. "Sometimes a Sah'aaran, if she's fortunate, will bond with the boy next door. Literally: a male she's known since they were kits in the sandbox together." I shook my head. "And sometimes she will not, no matter how much she might wish it. But just as often times, complete strangers will bond. A chance meeting at a dinner, in an office, in the market...sometimes that's all it takes."

He nodded. "And when that happens, all they can do is make the best of it. Learn to understand each other--eventually, perhaps, to love each other."

"Yes," I said. I swallowed. "I loved Sah'ahl," I went on softly, "and in a certain sense I will always mourn him. But when I look at you I see the man behind the mask--so to speak. And more. If it takes the next seventy or eighty years to find out how much more--well, that's fine with me."

He smiled. "Me too," he said. "So--when would you like to start?"

I smiled and reached across to grasp his hand--the gleaming copper one with steel claws. "Now," I told him, "seems as good a time as any."