by Michæl Bard
Text ©2006 Michæl Bard; illustration ©2006 Cubist
This is Lieutenant Kyros Imbreos of the Patrol vessel Unity. Your ship has been identified as the Stag of the Night belonging to Dalthyn Walwyntha. Cut engines and prepare to be boarded. Repeating, this is Commander Kyros Imbreos of the Patrol vessel Unity
Dalthyn cursed as the voice repeated, the nasal tones of a herbivore of some sort echoing in his ears. The Patrol ship wasnt large, a short range craft with a crew of two or three. But it was more than enough to deal with his unarmed ship. And it was a ship of the Patrol.
The Patrol Dalthwyn hated the Patrol. Sure, he knew they were necessary; they were the only thing standing between civilization and atomic destruction for they controlled all the weapons of war, all the bombs. Nevertheless, Dalthwyn had always resented them, had always known that there had to be a better way. A way for civilization to survive without the threat of the gun held over them. But there wasnt, and the Patrol was here.
Great Maker but hed been so close! Dalthwyn had contacted his buyer in code to indicate that the drug shipment was pending arrival. Hell, hed even been counting the money that was going to go into his already bulging bank account. How had the Maker-damned Patrol fingered him?
For a second he thought about dumping the cargo, but the Unity was close enough that it would have no problem recovering enough to damn him to the mines on Luna for the rest of his life. If only he hadnt been so greedy that hed loaded the extra mass of cargo instead of explosives to destroy the evidence. It wasnt as though he needed the money; these days, he only smuggled to try and escape boredom.
The words in his headphones changed. Stag of the Night, this is your final warning. If you do not cut your engines immediately, I will open fire. You have ten seconds.
Think, damn you! Think! As his nostrils gulped down the thick herd-scented air, he pressed the transmit key above his head. Umm Patrol ship Unity. This is Captain Manwyth of the chartered vessel Rich Lady. I have a registered cargo of medical supplies and filtration parts for Venusport. Ahh Im running latethe goods are perishable. You sure you have the right ship? Over.
As the lies spilled from his cervine muzzle, Dalthwyn was already plotting an emergency re-entry. His ship wouldnt survive, but the burnup would take care of the evidence, hopefully. Venus wasnt that harsh; it would be a peaceful walk through the Venusian jungle for a few months, something different and interesting. After all, those stories about wandering in the wilderness for years were just horrible exaggerations. Had to bethere were all those mineral-seeking prospectors. Hed show up as one of them, and then access his numbered accounts. Enough to purchase a ticket back to Terra and a fake ID! Once there, a new ship, a new unbreakable IDhow hard could it be? Hed spent a weekend camping in a jungle preserve a few years ago
Checking the course the astrogation system recommended, he activated the RCS jets and began flipping the Stag of the Night 180 degrees to begin an emergency de-orbit burn, running them far into the red. He didnt know how long the Patrol bastard would wait before opening fire.
Stag of the Night, I read your engine still live, and have visual confirmation that you are performing orbital maneuvers. Cease immediately, otherwise I will be forced to fire. Over.
Uhh Unity, Im re-orientating to facilitate docking. Ive beamed Venusport and warned them of the delay. I hope youre willing to face court-martial when the medical supplies arrive too late. Over.
Stag of the Night, there is no medical crisis at Venusport. Cease your actions immediately! Over.
A sharp Patrolsentient would catch him. Of course hed drawn a sharp one. Checking his orientation, he confirmed that it was not quite rightwell, nothing for it. Dalthwyn grabbed the lever and yanked it hard, activating the main drive at full burn. All the improper rotation meant was that hed just have to walk further. A roar shook the ship as the main drive rapidly ran up to its maximum of 2.5G, and then a bit over, deceleration pushing him back into his padded chair, his tail pushed back into the small hole that enveloped it. His teeth rattled in his muzzle, and he was glad hed shed his horns before hed left Ceres.
Stag of the Night, youre falling out of orbit. Your ship is not made for re-entry! I recommend you come about to115 mark 89 and
Dalthwyns teeth clattered in his muzzle from the shaking of the ship, but he forced out, Youre breaking up, Unity. Please repeat. Over.
The ship began shaking more as it scraped against the outer wisps of Venus thin atmosphere. To think that some people believed that the Precursors had terraformed it millennia ago He snorted. Venus had always been like this, just like Mars had always been wrapped in canals.
Stag of the Night, I read eighteen seconds till re-entry. You leave me no choice but to open fire. You must eject immediately! Over.
Damn that Kyros! Dalthwyn dragged his hand over to the ejection systems. Hed just have to hope that the hole hed leave, after ejecting, would spoil the ships streamlining enough to ensure that air friction destroyed it completely. He grinned. Itd be one hell of a ride!
The ship shook, and half the lights on his controls burned red. Charged particles had just blown off his main drive, and hydrogen was venting rapidlyImbreos had been as good as his word. Why couldnt he have been intercepted by an incompetent Patrol officer?
As if there was such a thing
Unity! What in the Makers name are you doing!? My boards red, I read cascading overloads. Maker damn you! Dalthwyn prepared the pilot capsule ejection. Hed have to burn the solid booster hard to get deep enough into the atmosphere in time as his only hope was that the heat of re-entry would scramble their sensors and keep them from engaging him.
Stag of the Night! Eject now! Ill recover you. Repeat
Maker! Systems failing all overEjection system has red lighted. Repeat red lighted. I hope the fawns you just condemned to death haunt your dre-
Dalthwyn pushed the eject button; his control capsule blasted clear as the door behind him sealed itself against the Breath Sucker. Grabbing the stick, he reoriented the ship, his control causing the RCS in the capsule to fire. He ignited the main drive and the solid booster roared into life, shoving him back hard against his seat with almost 5 Gs of acceleration.
And then it was out of his hands. There was no way to stop the booster once it was ignited.
Stag of the Night! I read a successful command ejection. However, youre diving into the
The capsule shook as it re-entered, and Dalthwyn was bounced against the straps as he rocketed into the atmosphere. Sparks burst in the capsule until fuses blew, and then he was coughing in the oily smoke. Grabbing the overhead breathing mask, he shoved it over his muzzle and sucked in the cool, fresh oxygen. His body relaxed slightly as the comforting scent of other deer having passed nearby hours ago filled his nostrils from the emergency oxygen, even though his eyes were blinking in the smoke. All the controls on his board were red now. Then the booster burned out, and for a handful of seconds he fell free, before the friction from the atmosphere shoved him against his straps. The capsule shook and rattled, tumbled and spun, but soon the air was thick enough that it forced the capsules aerodynamic shape into re-entry orientation. Deceleration mounted, and Dalthwyn was pushed hard into his seat, his neck sore from the recent jerking, the oxygen from the mask cold and harsh in his lungs.
Stag of the Night, respond! I read you falling into the northern hemisphere. I mark your landing zone as roughly 50 degrees east of the meridian. Im alerting Venusport authoritiesthey will send search and rescue.
I hope you live, Dalthyn Walwyntha. Spectrographs of your ship as it burned up confirm large quantities of the interdicted substance Squirrel Ecstasy. I hope youre ready to rot, you bastard!
Screw you! Dalthwyn screamed out as the friction heat of re-entry cut off all communication, and it, along with the buffeting, soon drove him into unconsciousness.
Dalthwyn woke up rocking back and forth in the padding of his chair. His body was soaked with sweat, and he sucked at the cold oxygen in his mask desperately. He wasnt in free fall so he knew the chutes had deployed. Pulling himself together, he looked out the soot-streaked window, the mask tugged at his muzzle, its hose stretching; his sweat-soaked shipsuit squeaked against the damp polymer padding of the seat. He could feel the heat billowing from the forward viewport as the control cabin rocked with his movement.
Through the window Venus stretched out. A thin layer of high-altitude clouds were above him, and deeper and thicker piles of cotton billowed below. Piercing them here and there were the barren mist-enshrouded highlands of Venus; glinting through the odd gap were the brilliant green jungles and glistening topaz swamps and lakes of the lowlands.
With a click and a hum now that the exterior pressure was great enough, a fan switched on, sucking the cool air of the high atmosphere into the capsule. The interior pressure thinned as the cabins heat dropped, but Dalthwyn continued sucking cool oxygen through his mask. The cables to the chutes creaked and groaned as wind pushed the cabin to a slight angle.
More comfortable now, Dalthwyn sat down, his wet clothes clinging to his fur, and forced himself to a level of calm. He could do nothing until the capsule landed, and then hed have to act quickly. For a second he looked at the radio, thought about transmitting, but then resolutely switched it off. Hed stay free, make his way back in a few months or so, and then buy a new ship. He grinned. Whatever else might be said of his current situation, it certainly wasnt boring!
Another ten minutes passed before the capsule slammed into the ground with a loud bang and crunch, along with the creaking and groaning of tortured metal and plastic. Cables snapped in the wind, and the parachutes whipped and tugged. With a groan the cabin tilted, and then scraped along the ground, pulled by the parachutes, before banging to a stop. Wishing he could take the oxygen tank with him, Dalthwyn pulled the wet mask from his muzzle, his damp fur sticking to the rubber as he yanked it loose. Oxygen loudly hissed from it. The air was cold and thin, and his lungs sucked and gasped, fighting to get enough to breathe.
Dalthwyn didnt have much time. VTOLs from Venusport could be there any time, depending on where exactly he was, and he couldnt wait for them. He stood up, his cloven hooves slick on the flooring beneath him, and pulled himself around the command chair that had tilted slightly to stay upright in Venus .9 G. Now, where was itDalthwyn felt around under the chair and pulled out the survival kit. After that was the blaster on its belt, and all the ammo-packs he could manage. Pulling the yellow release lever, the hatch blew off, letting cold mist flow into the cabin and Dalthwyn clambered out, wishing he had some water somewhere. The wind grabbed at the parachutes again, and the capsule groaned and scraped. Dalthwyn grabbed at the edge of the hatch, trying to stay on his hooves. He could feel the capsule skittering beneath him, and then, with a bang that made him fold his ear against his head, it slammed against a rock and stopped.
Dalthwyn leapt out and bounded out onto the frosted gravel of the Venusian highlands, rapidly putting distance between him and the capsule. He didnt have much time! The cold rocks scraped and slid beneath his hooves, and he could feel his hoof-lobes stretching and twisting as they skittered on the sharp broken material. Around him the light was dim, everything was shrouded in mist; behind him he could see it curdling and twisting away from the still-cooling hull of the capsule it was seemingly afraid to touch.
He ran and scrambled over the rocks.
Surrounded by nothing but the whining of the wind and the distant mellowed snapping of the parachutes, Dalthwyn staggered to a stop. He leaned over, resting his three-fingered hands on the cold wet material of the shipsuit that wrapped his upper legs, gasping for breath, misting the air with each exhalation. His muzzle hung open, and he forced the thin, wet air into and out of his desperate lungs. His sweat was cold and caked on his fur. But, he was free!
Shivering, but feeling a bit better, he sat down on the rocks and pulled the survival pack off his back. The water condenser/purifier was neatly stored away, and he set it up and switched it on; it hummed as it began pulling water from the air and purifying it. He stripped out of his sopping shipsuit, throwing it away so that it landed with a wet splutch somewhere in the distance, and pulled on the insulated bodysuit that was folded in the pack. Next he retrieved a high-calorie nutbar and started crunching at its hard layer, the sweet taste and scent of acorn filling his nostrils. Slowly his body warmed, and his breath calmed.
That was when he realized he was alone. There was no sound, no scent but his own, no voice. It wasnt like in space, it was
He snorted. Hed been alone, hed always been alone. And yet he sniffed, and for the first time felt that maybe he should have surrendered. No oak trees, no hints of other herd members having passed by
He was alone.
Involuntarily he shivered, and not from the cold.
A sound split the heavens; by reflex, he looked up. Dalthwyn couldnt see anything, but as his ear twitched he realized that it was a sonic boom. For a moment there was silence, and then he heard the growing roar of engines from off in the distance. He couldnt tell exactly where it was, as it echoed and bounced through the mist, but he could sense the general direction.
It was the VTOLs from Venusport come to capture him.
For a secondjust a secondhe was tempted. There was an inertial compass in the survival kit which would guide him back to where hed started. Away from the barren plain of rocks. Back to warmth and companionship
Back into the hands of the Patrol.
The great Dalthwyn would not end his days in the Lunar mines! Picking up the water condenser, he gulped down the warm liquid it had collected. Then he slung it over his sweat-soaked shoulder to continue its work, finished off the nutbar, slung the pack over his other shoulder, and began walking, his hooves clacking on the broken rock.
Guided by the compass, he headed north. He just hoped they didnt have any cervines that could track the scent he was leaving from the glands between the lobes of his cloven hooves
According to his watch, Dalthwyn spent a week on the plateau before the mist finally burned off. That was when he remembered that the Venusian day lasted months. The ground was rough and broken, but the protective suit kept him warm. Though his hooves grew worn, they didnt crack. One morning he awoke, stiff and sore, and saw the thin, crystal-clear air and the scattered rock all around him. The sun was huge, far too bright to look at or even look near. For the first time he could see where he was: That was when he knew that the Maker had abandoned him.
All around was rock. Barren rock, covered in frost that was slowly melting as the air warmed. The temperature must never fall below freezing until near the end of the night, otherwise hed be waist deep in snow. Of course, that might have been better as he wouldnt have gotten far enough away from the Patrol to escape.
He had maybe a month of rations left. No radiothat was in the command cabin. Scratching his legs he sighed, slowly rubbing warmth back into the cold and sore muscles.
He might be screwed, but by The Maker, he wouldnt go down without a fight! Hed fought off carnivores, ultravores, drunken wolves in a bar. For a second he grinned as he remembered the wolf who called himself Wanderer, and the puns. Then the sterile air, silent but for the faint whistle of the wind through tangled rocks, brought him back to the present. He refused to let Venus win. Staggering to his hooves he sipped some water, and then spasmed in his throat and began chewing cud. Venus was supposed to be crawling with lifeso where were the blasted jungles!?
Looking around, he blinked in the glittering light, and realized that the ground was sloping downward. Maybe he could get off the mountain and down to where the life was. That was it; get off the highlands and into the jungles and swamps. Easy!
Filled with renewed hope, he started walking downhill, stepping carefully on the rocks so that he rarely slipped. He kept the fastest pace he could manage over an extended period in the thin air, and tried not to think of what would happen if he didnt find a way into the jungles.
In the silence he remembered reading of rocky, continent-sized plateaus, barren and lifeless. He had to be on one of the smaller outcroppings, or near the edge. He forced himself to believe he was.
If he wasnt, he was dead.
Three days later, by his watch, he arrived at the edge of a cliff. Stopping, he looked down and out upon Venus. Thank the Maker he was at an edge! Before him was a broken sea of scree and tortured paths that led down, far, far down, into forest and then into the mist-shrouded jungle.
He had a long way to go
Sighing, he resumed walking.
The way down was not easy. There were dead ends, cliffs he had to detour around to find a way past if they were too tall. Though he had rope, he couldnt climb down. There was only the one piece of rope and if he used it, hed never be able to get it back.
From his shadow, he thought the sun was higher, but he wasnt sure. Why had the Maker made planets so damned big! Venus only had a circumference of something like 40,000 kilometers
His legs ached, his hooves ached, his lungs ached. A sneeze burst its way out through his nostrils, splattering droplets onto the still cold ground. The air was thicker, it had to be, but he couldnt tell. Hed already used one powerpack in the condenser
Fuck! His voice echoed off nearby cliffs, fading until he could only hear the thin wind.
It was then, when he wasnt paying attention to where he was stepping, that it happened. The left lobe of his left hoof was pressed upon a small sharp rock. The tip snapped, he stumbled, wobbled, and then fell. Although he managed to catch himself with his arms so that the sharp rocks only tore the surface material of his bodysuit, it still hurt like hell. A sharp stabbing pain exploded from his left hoof and oozed its way up his postern and burned his lower leg. Screamshis screamsechoed, the sound loud and shrill and lonely.
For a while he lay there, gasping, until the pain faded into a dull burning. Tears burned in his eyes, piercing the fur of his muzzle with icy coldness. As his breath slowed he blinked them away, wiped the dampness off his muzzle and off his forehead, touching the scar where his right ear had once been. Before hed lost it in a firefight with the Patrol.
Maker damn them!
Pushing himself up, he rolled around and sat down, feeling the cold on his tail even through the insulated suit. Pain stabbed up his leg at that slight movement, and even more when he grabbed it and pulled it around to look at the hoof. Both lobes were worn, rounded at their tips. Hed been cleaning the dirt and stones out of them, but this was the first time he looked at them, really looked at them. Their once sleek blackness was gray, peppered with tan dust. A bead of crimson blood stained the left lobe. Afraid of what hed see, Dalthwyn licked his finger and brushed the dust and blood away.
There was a hairline crack.
With his right leg supporting his left, he reached into the survival kit. He remembered that there was something Yes. A small bottle of a thin liquid cement to repair such damage. It wasnt perfect, and he would have to reapply it every few days as growth caused it to lose its grip, but it would allow him to keep going.
Realistically, he should rest; given the general wear and tear, his hooves (the cracked one especially) needed time to heal. But he was running out of food. He had to keep going! Giving the glue the minute it required to set, he looked in the small pouch and pulled out a tight strap. This would be far easier if he was an equine, but he wasnt, and the kits makers had known that when they prepared the cervine version of the emergency supplies. He wrapped a small plastic strap around the damaged hoof-lobe, and then used the screwdriver in the kit to get the strap nice and tight.
This solution would, at least, allow him to keep going.
After putting everything away, he heaved himself back up onto his hooves with a groan, and continued on his limping way.
Travel was slower after that. Every other morning he re-glued the crackhe couldnt tell if it was shrinking or not, but at least it didnt seem to be getting worse. Each step became a pain; his hooves were thin, worn; and he was spending more and more time feeling rocks against the soft parts between his hoof lobes. Time became a blur. He slept when he was tired, woke, walked until he could move no more, and slept again. He became gaunt. The rations kept him alive, but they werent quite enough to replace the calories he was burning.
As the rations grew fewer, Dalthwyn reduced himself to half portions. He was walking slower. Even worse, the glue in the survival kit was almost gone. When it was gone hed have to stop, or hed quickly become lame. But then, he had no choice but to continue.
Then he scented salvation!
Slowly clomping his way around a cracked and worn outcropping of rock, skidding slightly on the scree piled around it, sniffing at the air, licking his nostrils so that the faint odour burst into colour, he followed the pine scent. Followed it like a blood hound until finally he saw it. A tree.
It was a small tree, all alone, stunted, maybe two metres high.
But it was something!
And it was something he could eat!
Oblivious to the dull pain in his legs, he jogged down towards it. The rocks thinned, there were patches of a thin sandy soil with some kind of moss-like growth. When he trod on the moss he tore it, and a cloud of dry spores and a bitter dry scent rose around him. To him the scents, bitter, dry, pine, were glorious, rich, and intoxicating. Any scent other than his own was a gift from The Maker.
Falling to his knees on the rock-strewn sand, he shoved his dry and dusty muzzle against one of the branches and tore the needles and hard bark off, crunching it between his teeth. It was bitter, hard, dry, almost tasteless.
But to Dalthwyn it was the most wondrous ambrosia.
It didnt taste of acorns.
The tree was one of a small stand. Dalthwyn spent a long time there, long enough to eat them practically bare. His stomach wasnt happy, his cud was bitter, but for once he was thankful that all life in the solar system seemed to derive from a single genetic source. The trees werent quite what hed known in the asteroid farms, or on Terra or Luna, but they were more than close enough to sustain him. The rest gave his hoof lobe time to heal, and gave his body the same.
It also gave him time to realize how truly isolated he was.
It didnt matter: Hed been alone before, and would be alone again. He was a survivor. Hed survived a youth amongst the Triads as a hunted slave; hed survived the raid and rescue by a ship of the Patrol. A ship that dragged him away, proving to the Triads that he would never be tough enough to work for them. Hed survived explosive decompression, exposure to vacuum.
And, by the Maker, hed survive Venus!
The sun continued to slowly rise, the world to slowly warm up. Before hed quite killed the trees, he burned a branch off one with his blaster, trimmed it, and made a staff to help him walk. More glue, the strap, and he continued on his way.
The ground grew sandier, moss more and more frequent, until it covered everything. Scents grew more and more numerous. The pollen of flowers, the sweetness of new leaves, the trill sharpness of tiny life. There were trees here and there, all pine. They were scattered, small, and scrawny, but they were food! He scented and heard and saw hints of squirrels and birds in the trees, but nothing on the floor of the forest. Moving slowly, Dalthwyn gave his body time to rest and to heal. The ground grew softer, the trees denser. Deciduous started to replace the conifers. It was three months by his watch before he ran across a stream. It was small, but clear, and bitterly cold.
He let it lead him on his slow journey to the lowlands as it headed generally north.
The trees were fairly dense around him, and he was walking almost entirely on pine needles and dirt, when he scented deer.
For a while he didnt notice it. The scent was not threatening; instead it was comforting, inviting. It was like coming home. Instinctively he relaxed, and didnt realize why for the longest time.
And then he came upon a doe grazing. Instantly his blaster was in his hand, aimed at her.
She stopped, lowered her head, and then jerked it up. She looked at him, her tail half-raised.
He stopped and stood still, holding the weapon steady.
She snorted, and stomped each of her forehooves, one after the other.
Hed seen wild deer in the parks on Terra. Hed paid close attention, as they were supposedly distant ancestors of his own kind. Dalthwyn could see that the doe was pregnant, though not close to term. The male was long gone.
With a blur of motion she waved her tail high, bounded away, and was gone.
Dalthwyn relaxed, felt the tension slide out of his muscles, slowly lowered his pistol and flicked the safety back on. He slipped it back into its holster, snorted, and resumed his slow pace through the slowly thickening woods. Oddly he was happier, not so alone. They were only wild deer, non-sentient, but they smelled right.
That night, like all others, he didnt make a fire. He had no matches, and he didnt want to waste his blasters ammo-packs just for warmth. The sun was still up, and the world was slowly growing warmer. That, plus his fur and bodysuit, all kept him warm and comfortable. With a yawn, he sat down, his back against a tree, and nodded off.
Something woke him. It was still day, the world seemed unchanged. He licked his nostrils and inhaled. He could scent pine clearly, the spoor of the deer, the cold sweetness of the water.
And there was somethingit was coarse, bitterlicking his nostrils, he exhaled and sniffed again. And it was
With a screeching yowl, something leapt from the tree above him.
Years of living in fear, of struggle, kept Dalthwyn from panicking. Instead he spun away, hand leaping to the grip of his blaster and drawing it.
But, as fast as he was, the creature was faster! It landed on him, a blur of splotched tan fur and claws and teeth. Claws tore into his bodysuit, and into his flesh. Teeth dug into his shoulders and chewed up towards his neck.
Without conscious thought, Dalthwyn flipped off the safety and blasted the things skull once, and then a second time, even though it was already dead.
And then there was silence, except for the wind in the trees.
He snorted to clear his nostrils of the stench of burned meat, the coarse bitter stench of the carnivore. With a groan he pushed the corpse to the ground.
All around him rose the scent of alarm and panic, and he could feel his tail pulled up tight against his spine, pressing against the bodysuit. His breathing was rapid, but slowing.
Dalthwyn forced calm to flow through him. He could scent nothing else around him but the dead, the pines, and the faint traces of deer. He was armed, he was safe. Stripping his bodysuit off above the waist, he dressed his cuts with antibiotics from his bag, and then got dressed again. The tears were unfortunate, but it was getting warmer, and most of his body was still covered.
Calm now, Dalthwyn began gathering underbrush, fallen branches. He cleared an area of ground and built up a small fire. Setting his blaster to its lowest setting, he fired into the pile of tinder and it burst into flames. He flicked the safety back on and pulled the utility knife out of his pack.
Then he began skinning his kill. It was ugly, messy, bloody. The stench of death, of meat and blood, overwhelmed him. Goo and slime poured from organs as he cut into them. Half the meat was covered in muck from inside the thing, and Dalthwyn couldnt make himself touch those bits. But some of the meat was good, and, unlike wild, primitive deer, he could eat meat. Dalthwyn wasnt an omnivore, but he could stomach it. And he was tired of the bland fare of leaves and nuts.
As the fire settled into coals behind him, he cut what meat he hadnt spoiled in his novice butchering. One small piece. And then another, and another. He broke long thin branches off of the trees, stripped their tips of bark, and stuck the shards of bloody flesh onto them. Holding them over the fire, he heard and scented the rich fat dripping into the flames that hissed and crackled. And then he ate.
The meat was tough, hard, charred on the outside and barely cooked on the inside. But the juices were sweet, and after months of his bland diet, what little taste the scraps did have was rich and succulent.
Dalthwyn continued his descent. The air was thicker now, his breathing was comfortable. It was getting warmer, and eventually he cut off the partially-shredded top half of his bodysuit and went bare. Animal encounters became more frequent; the air grew thick with scents. Sharp tangs of fruit and nuts, oozing hints of decay, strong bitterness of predators. He spent time during the day scouting for the clearings he rested in. Each time he sat down to rest and sleep, he made a fireit didnt take much of a charge, certainly far less than hed use to kill the predator. He learned to trust his ears and his nose more. The felines seemed to be tree dwellers, they didnt bother him in the clearings. He came across the spoor of a wolf pack
but it was old. He grew more wary.
The ground became damper. Underbrush grew thick and heavy, and his pace slowed. He moved away from the river he was following, and often had to detour around brambles and growths. By now, it wasnt just animals; even the plant-life become overwhelming. The trees were larger, thicker and higher. He began to have to detour around bogs and marsh, and they became more frequent. He got more and more use out of his water purifierthe Maker alone knew what might be in the bog-water. His pace slowed, but he had lots to eat. The deer traces faded, but other herbivores replaced them and he couldnt see the sun any more, just the leafy canopy above. And it rained, almost every day. The heat became oppressive, thick and heavy. Breathing became hard, the air oozing up and down his throat more like a liquid than a gas. He stripped the bodysuit off entirely, and still panted and sweat all the time. The wild deer didnt go down into the tropics because they couldnt sweat. Lucky them. Sleep became hard, but he adapted.
Water oozed out of the ground with every step, soaking his hooves. Dalthwyn just walked slower, carefully, using the staff to stay upright. Time passed, and the endless soaking started to rot his hooves. They grew soft, his legs grew sore, but he refused to stop.
Coming across a small lake, the water green and glistening in the brilliant sun he hadnt seen for a month, Dalthwyn stopped. According to his watch, hed been on Venus for five months. The sun was close to its zenith. All around him, birds chattered, insects hummed. Something splashed in the water. The lake wasnt wide, and looked shallow. As the underbrush was thick and dense, he decided to try walking across the lake.
He placed a single hoof in first, his left one, healed but now rotting. The soft ground had allowed it to grow thick again, and his leg muscles were hard and tough. There was no pain. The bottom was a soft thick ooze, his leg sunk deep into the cold goo, and he wiggled the two lobes as the mud slithered between them. Finally his hoof found hard packed clay. Checking, he found that hed only sunk down into the bottom 15 centimetres or so. If the whole lake was like that, hed still make better time than through the underbrush. And the water was cool and refreshing.
He stepped in with his other hoof, and began a slow careful pace across the lake. Fish scurried around his legs, their fins brushing against their thick fur. Hed taken two more steps when he felt something bite his leg.
Stopping, he looked down. It was a fish, small, almost circular.
And then the water began to boil.
As if by magic, more of the same fish appeared around him. Each would nip in, dig out a chunk of his flesh, and then dart away. Dalthwyn didnt stop to look. Screaming in pain, he turned and ran. The ooze at the bottom sucked at his hooves, the fish bit and tore. Some leapt out and grabbed chunks of his thighs. Drawing his blaster, he flicked off the safety and set it to its second lowest setting. His shot boiled the water around him even more, burning his legs.
As fast as theyd come, the fish vanished, leaving behind the bloated bodies of their cooked compatriots, and blood.
He staggered to shore, his legs scalded and bleeding, blood oozing out through a hundred tiny bites. With his mind a haze of pain, he fell on the shore. Some part of him made him fumble through the pack and pull out an antibiotic and inject it. And then he fell asleep.
Somehow he survived. He awoke hours later, blood staining the ground around him. Each leg was a screaming bar of pain. Swallowing three painkillers, he injected more antibiotic. Then he poured the clear water from the purifier over his legs; the pain a blinding white curtain that blanked out his vision, and almost made him pass out. He poured a salve over his legs, and then wrapped them in every bandage he had. Gasping, he had enough presence of mind to fire at the nearest tree, the setting high. It began to steam, and finally caught. Only when it was burning did he stop and fall back into sleep.
When he awoke, the tree was a smoking tower; the upper branches hadnt burned and didnt even know they were dead yet. The other trees hadnt been touched. Rain drove from the sky, peppering the lake with droplets, but only heavy drips of water fell from the canopy above him, splopping into the dense ground cover.
Dalthwyn knew he was feverish; his stomachs gurgled and clenched. The bandages on his legs were caked with blood and gore. Through blurring eyes he read the instructions in the first aid kit, and injected and swallowed everything that could help him. He gulped some water through his hot, heavy lips. He knew that he couldnt stay here. He needed to move, to find some kind of shelter, some place he could defend.
Somehow he dragged himself on to his hooves, even though his legs screamed in fiery agony. He shook, shivered in the steaming rain, but took one step. And another. And another.
He made five steps before his body could take no more. He fell to the ground, blood oozing through the bandages.
Like the other inner planets in the Solar System with an atmosphere, Venus had its own indigenous sophonts. These came to be known as Venusians. Unlike all the Systems other sophonts, they were amphibians, albeit decidedly odd ones. They were warm-blooded, and they suckled their young.
It was a small band of hunters that came upon Dalthwyns dying body. Through his fevered gaze he saw the group of green-skinned, long tailed, hairless frogs approach him, their bodies painted in brown and tan patches for camouflage. Somehow he managed to bring up his blaster, his nostril wrinkling from the putrefaction rising from his own legs. But his hand shook, and his swollen thumb couldnt flip the safety off.
The Venusians gathered around him, chittering and squeaking. Most kept a wary eye at the wilderness that surrounded them, but the leader crept over and ran his long thin fingers along Dalthwyns body, along the large curve of his skull, over the velvet covered buds of his antlers, and along his legs. The Venusian remembered the instructions given to him by the elders.
Dalthwyn screamed out loud when the fingers touched the puffy flesh beneath the oozing bandages.
The leader chittered and chirped to the others, and they chittered back. Four of the Venusians grabbed Dalthwyntwo by his arms, two by his thighs. Two more carefully grabbed each of his hooves. The leader pulled something from a coarse skin pouch and rubbed it along Dalthwyns legs; he immediately relaxed as the pain faded to a numb dullness.
The group turned and quickly carried their cargo out of the jungle, across the shallows of the lake as the leader poured some concoction into the water ahead of them and the fish fled. Then the leader pinched Dalthwyns nostrils shut, and they all ducked under the surface and vanished.
The only residuum was bubbles, and a few splotches of cervine blood.
By the time the Venusians brought Dalthwyn to their community, he was in bad shape. The antibiotics hed taken had helped, but nowhere near enough. Fungal growths already littered the damp bandages; spores had taken root inside the wounds. He hadnt noticed it, but the same fungal growths had infested his clothes, his skin, all of his belongings.
Life in the swamps on Venus grew fast.
They chattered amongst themselves, examined him, and decided that they had little time before the sentients life would pass to The Great Maker. Soft, gentle hands carried him to a soft bed as others fetched the healers. They came, took samples, mixed concoctions, and chirped sadly.
The strangers form was badly adapted to Venusit would never survive. Steps had to be taken if he was to serve the needs of the elders.
They chirped and chattered as aides removed the caked and stinking bandages. Drawing knives and calling for specific concoctions, they went to work.
Dalthwyn woke up in a domed chamber lit by a dull greenish glow from the walls. He breathed easily; after so many months the air was cool and easy in his lungs, its overbearing humidity gone. The only scent he could catch was his own, and he smelled healthy. The only entrance that he could see was a pool of greenish water that made up half the floor. He was on a bed of dried reeds and moss, and there was some kind of thick fungus coating his legs and hooves in a single large cocoon. There was no pain. He was naked.
Panic blossomed in his blood, his heart thumped faster and faster. His head whipped around, his breath pulsed, until he saw his blaster in its holster against the wall, along with the rest of his supplies. All were speckled with fungus and mold. Closing his eyes, breathing deeply until the urge to panic flight had subsided, he returned his attention to the stuff coating his legs. Touching it, he found that it was cool and dry. It was scentless, but felt like a fine wood. And it felt just as hard.
There was a splash that echoed and tinkled through the chamber, and the slick green body of a Venusian popped out and onto the shelf beside him. Water splashed onto him, and his nostrils pinched shut as a drop touched his nose. A faint scent of fish, of green life, of dampness, filled the dome.
He stared at the Venusian, and the Venusian stared at him. Then it nodded, put beside him two objects that looked like gourds.
It slipped back into the water and, with a gurgle and a handful of bubbles, was gone.
For a moment Dalthwyn sat there, watching the fading ripples Then he snorted, his breath loud and lonely through his nostrils. One of the things that had kept him alive for so long was to not try and change the unchangeable. In this case, nearly immobilized in a room where the only exit lay through the water, what could he do but wait? With a little fumbling, his hand grasped a gourd, his fingers gripping the smooth polished surface. And so did something else, some kind of film between his fingers
Slowly he brought one hand up to his muzzle and cocked his head to examine it.
His fingers looked the same, butmaybethey were slightly longer..? And there was indeed a fine web joining each of the three fingers. Slowly he turned his hand around, the light becoming tinged with red as it pierced the thin film. He sniffed at the film, and could smell only himself. His nostrils brushed the film, and he felt the film with his nostrils, and his nostrils with the film.
What happened to me!?
He breath pulsed in and out through his nostrils. Did the air feel different? Were his nostrils shaped differently? How the hell could he know!? Dragging himself over to the wall where his blaster was hung, he grabbed it, letting his fingers and theirwebbingcaress the worn ivory. The charge still showed at 81%; after flicking it to its minimum setting, he fired at the pool of water, and there was a satisfying explosion as the superheated water burst into steam.
At least it worked.
Dragging himself back to where hed been, the green reeds crackling and rustling underneath his sleek fur, he sat up. Putting the blaster down beside him, safety on, he picked up one of the gourds. Inside it something gurgled. The thing had no handle, a nozzle, but no obvious cork or cap. It was fairly obvious where and how it should be drunk from, even though there was no opening. For a moment he debated leaving it; what if it were poisoned? But no, if theyd wanted to kill him, he wouldnt be alive now to doubt their intentions. And they had left him his blaster.
Unless they didnt know what it was
And theyd changed his body. Somehow, they must have extensive knowledge of his biology. What if the liquid could brainwash him..?
He looked at the innocuous brown-and-green-splotched gourd.
Suddenly he smiled ruefully at his paranoia. If his hosts needed him to drink something to condition or brainwash him, then they could just as easily wait until he was unconscious and pour it down his muzzle.
The logic, while sound, wasnt entirely reassuring He sighed, and with not a little trepidation, put the neck of the gourd in his muzzle and bit down. The material was smooth and hard, like plastic, but warmer and smoother. His teeth made no impression in the material. His tongue felt around it, felt its smoothness, felt a very faint fine grain. It certainly seemed as if it had been grown, and not manufactured!
When his tongue touched what seemed to be the nozzle, something cold and sweet gushed upon it. He gasped, and instinctively swallowed. More liquid gushed out through the sealed nozzle, and he swallowed some more. It was rich and thick, more a syrup than a liquid, and it was ice cold.
Yanking the gourd out of his muzzle he looked at it. It was still smooth, featureless, and the nozzle was still sealed. He touched it with a finger and it was perfectly dry, not even damp from his saliva.
What in the Makers name?
He looked at it. There was no way liquid could be passing out of the gourd. And there was no way it could be cold. No way!
Still, when in Neyork
Putting the gourd back in his muzzle, he sucked at the rich, thick liquid like a baby sucking at a does teat. It was cold and filling, and settled in his chest, comfortably filling up the first of his stomachs. When nothing more came out to his sucking, he tossed it into the now still pool. It flew through the air and skipped across the water, and thunked into the side of the hole with a hollow clunk. And then it floated, slowly spinning. He took the other gourd and it was filled with the same liquid. Emptying it, he tossed it to join the other.
Dalthwyn sighed and lay down to sleep, keeping one hand on his blaster. He wanted answers, and the next visitor would give them to him.
Dalthwyn was asleep when the next visitor camewhether or not it was the same one, he couldnt tell. He was awakened by the tinkling of water and the splash of droplets on him. Even before he was fully awake he fumbled for his blasterit wasnt where hed left itthere it wasgrasped it, drew it, and aimed.
The Venusian crouched there, just looking at him, water dripping from its sleek hide to the floor. The creature was not reptilian, but was instead covered in sleek, glistening green skin, fading to pale yellow along its belly. A mottled pattern of dark brown and green splotches were scattered over its back and skull. There was a dark fin running down the centre of its muzzled head, its eyes were large and yellow, and a long sleek tail hung into the pool of water. Its hands were long and thin, the fingers tipped with tiny claws; its feet were thicker and webbed, and more heavily clawed. It carried another gourd.
It looked at him, breath pulsing in and out of its nostrils, its muzzle slightly open revealing rows of fine pointed teeth.
Who are you? Dalthwyn asked.
The creature blinked, and then burst out with a long string of chirps and squeaks.
Dalthwyn frowned, shook his head, and started running through the other languages he knew. First the various racial languages, then some of the communication codes used. Each time the Venusian just looked, and chirped and squeaked.
Digging into his memory, Dalthwyn remembered the theories of an Intelligent Origin of all the sentients in the system. There was an old, old language hed taken in school, a language believed to be a primary lingual source for all the tongues known to be in common use within the Sol System
Nothing else had worked. It was worth a shot: YOU WHAT BE? Dalthwyn finally worked out, shoving the guttural sounds out through his muzzle.
The creature cocked its head and looked at him from one eye. It blinked, and then slipped, or fell, backwards into the pool and was gone.
It was too late.
The Venusian had even taken the gourd with it.
For a while Dalthwyn cursed, his words echoing around him. The sound was odd, hollow, constant. It did not change as he turned his head, or as he flicked his ear
Dalthwyn realized that he had no ear to flick.
Keeping one eye on the pool, he reached up and ran a hand carefully along the top of his head. There was nothing. Nothing but sleek fur. No ears, no scars, no holes Hell, even the buds of his antlers were gone!
What in the Makers Name did the bastards do to me!?
A shape burst out of the pool and slapped onto the floor, spraying him with water. Dalthwyn dropped his hand and held his blaster steady. Murder gleamed in his eyes.
This Venusian was definitely different: Its body was not sleek and glistening. Even wet, its hide seemed wrinkled and dry. Its colours were faded, and its skin fell loose over a skeleton he could easily see. For a moment it looked at him, eyes large and old and wise, so large that Dalthwyn could feel himself sinking into them.
The creature spoke and broke the spell: KNOW ANCIENT TONGUE. WORDS PASSED MAKER. Its voice was slow and hesitant, dry, and it squeaked on some of the consonants. Yet, it was understandable.
Dalthwyn shook his head for a second to gather his thoughts. That class had been so long ago, and hed never paid that much attention. Yet, his memory had always been sharp, and he had used it once or twice as a source of code phrases. BADLY. WHY HARM?
NOT SUITED. DEAD. MADE FIT WORLD. MADE BETTER.
Dalthwyns rage burst out of him in Solarian, the common tongue developed after the last war for ease of use by all species. What the fuck did you do to me!?
The Venusian was unperturbed at the outburst it couldnt understand. STAY HERE. LEARN TONGUE. TEACH. TIME HEAL.
What did it mean? Stay here was obvious, as was learn tongue. But teach? What did he know? Dalthwyn had never heard of anything that could have changed himwebbed hands, nostrils that pinched shut, ears that vanishedand time heal. Did they think that in time hed forgive them? Little did they know!
Dalthwyn stopped and cocked his head in thought. Hed never let his rage control him, and it was easy to push it down now. He was trapped here, at their mercy. Venus had almost killed him. There were secrets here. Why was the Patrol keeping them secret? What would they pay him to maintain their secret?
If he was stuck here, then hed have to learn the language. And then hed learn the rest. He rubbed his hands together, and then formed a reply in the old tongue. TEACH MEANINGS.
MUCH LEARN, the Venusian replied, before beginning to teach Dalthwyn their language.
Time passed; how long Dalthwyn never knew. His environment never changed. The light was the same, the air was always fresh, the moss he slept on always clean and new, even though he knew hed soiled it. He ate and drank from the gourds brought to him, chewed his cud, and learned. Gradually he grew comfortable enough to leave his blaster in its holster.
Hed learned enough of the local tongue to be understood, when his teacher came to him with another elderly Venusian. The flesh on the other one had been painted or dyed, and a snaking pattern of red curled around on his back.
Dalthwyn pointed. Who?
<clicksquealclickclick> doctor. Fixed you.
The elder who was his teacher scratched at its head a moment, and then pointed at the cocoon encasing his legs. He <squeeeeek> take off. Check.
The doctor looked at him and spoke: You <click> feel no pain. <squeeclick> move.
Not receive last.
Still, the elder said.
As he watched, the doctor reached into an ornate shining ouch on a belt that crossed over his left shoulder and pulled out what looked like a slug, though it was rounded almost into a sphere. Dalthwyn tried to back away, but with his legs bound he had to drag himself and it wasnt near fast enough. Holding the slug thing over top of the wooden cocoon, the doctor squeezed it. Liquid dribbled out, and pattered onto the wood which began to smoke.
It was a thick smoke, huge gray clouds that wafted and drifted up as the centre of the cocoon dissolved into nothingness. Just the smoke, though there might have been a fine transparent liquid that slid down the floor and into the water. The smoke was not bitter or dark, but it was rich, and scented of oaks and acorns and fresh leaves and shoots. The doctor put the slug away as the last of the liquid dissolved the centre of the wooden cocoon so that his two legs were once again separate. As the smoke rose, billowing and curling along the top of the dome, Dalthwyn could see the inner half of each of his legs, with the porous spongy material surrounding them. Then the doctor reached down and lifted Dalthwyns left leg a bit. There was no pain. He grasped the wood, above and below Dalthwyns leg, and gave a sudden yank. The material cracked with a sound of wood ripping, and then a creak as fibres groaned. It split apart, revealing Dalthwyns leg.
But it wasnt Dalthwyns leg.
As the doctor repeated the procedure on his other leg, Dalthwyn could just stare.
As it had been before, his leg was still covered in a fine fur, brown, and it ended at a glistening black cloven hoof. But there the resemblance ended. Extending from his knee down to his hock was a thick blade of flesh, not naked but covered in the same hair as his leg. It ended a few centimeters above the top of his hoof. Somehow he could feel warm air on it, and a slight dust from the broken cocoon. His other leg was the same, though opposite.
Dalthwyn squinted, there was something not quite right about his hoof Then he realized that it glistened far more than it had, as though it was wet, or covered with some kind of oil.
The doctor bowed, and, after gathering up the four pieces of cocoon, slipped into the water.
What-? How-? Dalthwyn sputtered out in Solarian, but then the stern gaze of the elder made him try again. How fix?
Medic used old <squealclicksquee>. Bred by the Makers. We remember the <squeeclick>. It rewrote your <clisqueek> the elder tried again at Dalthwyns stare of incomprehension, your lifebodies. It made you <squeak> for Venus. The way the Makers bred us.
Dalthwyn shook his head, concentrating on the language he was still struggling to learn. Not have words. Tell all me later. I want learn. What he could do with this off-planet. What the Triads would pay! If he could understand it. A part of him was hesitant thoughhe remembered what had happened to the Venusians in the north
Dalckwee, come <click> me. I will take you to <clickclicksqueee>. Then you begin to learn. I will take you to our <clickclicksqueee>.
Dalthwyn raised his arm in a gesture he had mastered, due to much practice, to indicate that he didnt understand. How take? Take where?
Follow. <squeee> make clear. And with that, the elder slid backwards into the water, leaving behind only ripples.
Dalthwyn just stared. He couldnt swim, had never learned. He knew of some cervines who could, but it was a struggle on the surface, a fight that lasted as short a time as possible.
And now the Venusians wanted him to go out into the unknown, away from the air. He couldnt!
He looked at his legs, at the bladesthe fins they now had. He pinched his nostrils shut with a thought, felt his smooth head. Theyd done things to him. Somehow theyd changed him; adapted him for Venus. Had they done to him what The Great Makerthe Precursor civilizationhad done for them? Had they kept those secrets which the other races had lost?
The prize was too valuable.
The elder poked its head up, exhaled air in a woosh, and looked at him. Follow. You will be safe. Then the elder ducked back under in a swirl of greenish water and a few bubbles.
When in Neyork
Filled with trepidation, Dalthwyn pushed himself up onto his hooves. Standing was awkward, and his legs were weak, but not as weak as they should have been. He had to duck under the roof.
A drop of water fell from the ceiling onto his head. And then another.
The dome had never leaked before!
Dalthwyn looked up, and he could visibly see the smooth pearly surface curdle and crack. More water began dribbling in.
What in the Makers name?
Water dribbled onto his muzzle and he closed his eyes, but could still see.
What else had the Maker-damned Venusians done to him!?
The flow of water into the dome remained at a steady dribble, but he felt the water rising along his fetlocks and fins. Looking down he saw that the dome was rapidly filling with water. He splashed over to where hed been sleeping and grabbed his blaster, securing the belt around his waist. He grabbed the backpack and slung it over his shoulders.
The water was up to his thighs: It seemed he had no choice but to trust what the Venusians had done to him.
Looking down, he saw the face of the elder looking up at him from below the surface, below the hole that presumably led outside.
Nothing for it.
Dalthwyn could smell his nervousness, could smell the scents of danger and panic he was giving off.
What if those fish were here? What if they came in after him!?
But they werent hurting the Venusian
The water was up to his waist.
He took a few steps towards the hole, and could feel the pressure of the water on his fins.
Taking a few deep breaths he leaned forwards, almost falling into the rising, gurgling water. It closed over him, seeming to suck him under. Instinctively his nostrils pinched shut, his eyes closed, but he could still see. Clearly. He heard a gurgling from his back and sank a bit deeper; turning his head he could see a last few bubbles sliding out from the pack he was wearing.
At least the blaster was water-tight.
He had no urge to breathe, no panic, no sense of discomfort. The water was warm and smooth, almost silky. Almost like the manicured body of a doe pressed against him. He tried a couple of kicks and moved through the water faster than hed have thought possible, almost hitting the far wall.
And still no urge to breathe.
He could feel the air in his lungs, could feel a slight tightness, but there was no need, no panic. He knew he had lots of time.
The elder poked its head up through the hole into the water now almost entirely filling the dome. <clicksqueeal> up! I cant wait for <squeak>.
Dalthwyn tried to speak, but all that happened was a few bubbles tickled and oozed their way out of his nostrils.
The doctors couldnt do a full <squealsqueak>. With that, the elder curled around and slipped back out the hole.
The dome was full now, except for a few bubbles twinkling along the ceiling. The internal light was beginning to fade, and Dalthwyn could see the dome material becoming spongelike as it rapidly decayed.
With no other options, he pulled himself through the hole, his webbed hands grabbing the greenish liquid. A few kicks and he was through and into the open water.
Unlike the stories hed been told about swimming, the water was not a dim, frightening place, but a glowing green world lit by shafts of sunlight. All around were domes of various sizes, some gleaming and new, some older and covered in growths. Cables or vines anchored them to the bottom. Here and there Venusians swam around them, moving through the water with ease. Some were carrying things, some just moving. He could hear the squeaks and clicks of their language echoing through the water.
But it was strange: Although it was beautiful, it was flat.
And then it hit him. There were no scents. None. Not a one.
Of course there wasnthe was under water, his nostrils were sealed. And yet
His lungs twitched, and he knew that his time here was not limitless. Looking around he quickly found the elder waiting for him a short distance away and began awkwardly swimming towards him.
Kick your legs together, the elder said, and demonstrated.
Dalthwyn tried, and it was easier.
It wasnt far through the glistening water, as the elder led him deeper and to a larger dome. This one was covered in growths and mosses until it was almost a part of the bottom. His lungs pinched a bit more; for a moment he thought of making for the surface far above, yet his need wasnt urgent. So he followed. He could feel his legs, his fins, churning the long weedy undergrowth as he followed the elder into the dim light beneath the dome, and finally into the hole at its bottom. The shaft was short, and led upward to a steady greenish light.
His head burst into the air and his nostrils opened as he exhaled his spent air with a whoosh before drawing in the fresh air inside the dome. Gracelessly (by comparison to the Venusians), he dragged himself out of the water and felt it stream off of his slick fur. His eyes opened, and he blinked, and closed his eyes that suddenly worked as they had for so many years.
And then he just stared.
Unlike the dome hed been in, this one had a second level, and maybe morean ornate carved wooden ladder led up to it. There were doorways, covered with some kind of green matting, but the walls
The walls were shelves, and on the shelves were stacked and rowed books. But they were not like any books hed ever seen. They were thick, some approaching a third of a metre. And they didnt look like paper or leather, they looked like ivory or polished wood.
And there were hundreds, nay, thousands.
Were there more upstairs?
Dalckwee, welcome to our <clickclicksqeee>. Here you will learn. And then you will teach us.
Dalthwyn could only nod as he remembered the wars that had been fought over the Cruinni Stone, over hints and rumours of secrets left behind by the Precursors. The Precursors hed never believed in before. What he could find here!
Teach mehear voices Dalthwyn motioned at the books. Teach me.
Dalthwyn dreamed of wealth beyond any of his previous imaginings.
The Venusians had already created quarters for Dalthwyn in their library, as though they wanted him there, and wanted him to learn. Dalthwyn had no complaints; he wanted to learn, too. Already some of the things hed found made him drool with what he could get paid for them. There was nothing earth-shattering, but there were lost, fragmentary histories; medical and healing methodologies; and a number of other things that the right people would pay almost anything for. Dalthwyn kept note of what books were most valuable, so that hed know which ones to grab if he had a sudden need to depart.
As a sentient possessed, he forced himself to learn the Venusian script, and to master their language. He stayed at the books, which were thick plates of a dense ivory or wood with a fine script engraved upon them, until his eyes were blinking shut, struggling to master the meaning of the faint script. Once or twice a day he would slip into the water, slow and clumsy compared to the Venusians, graze at the fast growing green weed that lined the bottom, and relieve himself. He also ate from the gourds the Venusians brought.
The only scent was that of the Venusians, a cold sweetness with a hint of fish that varied slightly from individual to individual. He never smelled food, or anything else. The books only smelled of those who used them. And there were others who used the library, though not many. They were all old; Dalthwyn barely looked at them. They avoided him. Each day was filled with the soft rustle of feet, the faint scrape of claws, the quiet squees and clicks of whispered conversations.
Time passed, and the short times he spent outside grazing grew shorter and shorter as the light faded, and the weed grew more and more sparse.
One day the elder who had led him to the library came to speak with him.
Dalckwee, I see that you have learned much.
Yes, mistress, Dalthwyn answered with a faked modesty and respect. It seemed that like all other known sentients, the Venusians had two sexes. The male was small and did the hunting and gathering, the female was larger and dominant. Dalthwyn could have sworn hed seen a third sex, but never clearly enough to be sure.
The sun is about to set, and we will enter hibernation.
Dalthwyn swallowed, suddenly nervous. Would he have to sleep the night away?
We could modify you, but not that much. You can wipe that panic from your muzzle.
He licked his lips. Thank you, mistress.
You have wondered why we saved you?
That made Dalthwyn take a step back, and he could feel the echoes of his non-existent ears flicking in consternation, and he could smell the miasma of fear oozing from him. After all this time he still knew so little about the Venusians. Did they have a sense of smell? He swallowed as cud threatened to wiggle up. I had.
The hunters who found you brought you back to our home. It was obvious to them that you were sentient, and they could not abandon you to die. We put you into a deep sleep, and then debated what to do with you.
Dalthwyn slowly moved his hand to the blaster at his belt. What did you decide?
She clicked in laughter. Obviously we decided to save you.
We have heard stories from the far north where others like you have come. We have heard of the Patrol
Dalthwyns blaster was in his hand and pointed at her head.
Her eyes blinked, and she looked down at the steady barrel.
That was when Dalthwyn realized that the dome was emptythere was nobody else here but the two of them.
From your reaction, I presume that you are not friends with this Patrol.
Dalthwyn nodded. We have had our differences.
Then I suggest you let me continue. Although we may look like primitives, we arent. You would do well to remember that.
What Im holding, mistress, is a weapon. Something far beyond anything you have.
We know. Its operation is simple, and we examined it after you demonstrated that it was a weapon. Later, when you slept, we swapped its heart.
I think its best I leave now, then. Youve been helpful so Im not going to just shoot you, but I would suggest you dont make any sudden moves.
Dalckwee, contrary to the belief of both you, and those of your kind in the north, we are not barbarians. When the Makers destroyed themselves, we kept secrets hidden. We remember. The north, where they settled, was devastated. But we near the equator remember. She slowly moved her hand to a pouch and slowly pulled out a power pack.
Dalthwyn watched as she tossed it on the floor between them. It clattered and rolled to a stop against his right hoof.
Your weapon does not function.
Well see. Dalthwyn flicked the charge to minimum and fired at the floor just in front of the Venusian. Nothing happened.
We are not stupid.
He backed away, and flicked his blaster so that he could check the power pack in its handle. It looked clean and showed 83%. He flicked the lock on the power pack and watched it pop out. It looked fine. He yanked it the rest of the way out.
Normally it should feel cool and metallic; now it felt warm. Although the end felt exactly right, the rest of it felt slightly rougher. Digging a finger-hooflet into it, he pulled away a sliver of some kind of blackish wood.
Dalckwee, you have your technics based on metal and fire. We have ours based on growth and healing. The heart you have is fake, all the ones you have are. And the one I brought is empty.
We are not primitives for you to dominate.
Dalthwyn let the useless blaster fall from his hands and clatter on the floor. What are you going to do with me then?
You can try and survive in the night with only your body and your skills. You wont do it. We sleep during the night both to preserve food, and for safety. The beasts that are awakening now would treat you as a bountiful feast and gorge themselves on your flesh. But, if you want to leave, we wont stop you.
Dalthwyn really needed time to think, but he couldnt let her keep the upper hand. If he could find where theyd hidden the packs
Dalckwee, you wont be able to see where youre going. Its night.
He snorted. Hed been on Terra, in the parks at night. It had been easy to see by the bright glow of the
Of the moon. Of which Venus had none, even if the sky werent a perpetual overcast.
Leaning down, he picked up his useless blaster and slipped it back into its holster. Even though he knew it was useless, it gave him confidence. Why didnt you just kill me then?
We need you. We need your help.
The northern tribes, those we consider primitive, have been overwhelmed by your technic civilization. The diseases your kind brought took out their brightest, took out our brightest, and the rest now flock to join them, forgetting their past. The diseases almost destroyed us, but we found cures, almost too late.
We refuse to lose our culture, our history.
I may have brought diseases. If so, Im sorry.
We had learned. The hunters sickened, but a <clicktweet> had warned us and we had aid ready. We know that what you brought was not intentional. There are far easier and more effective ways you could deliver plague to us.
Did you need me to create cures?
No. We need the way you think.
Your technic culture is grasping, greedy, aggressive. Even without disease, even if we were unified, it would overwhelm us. We need your drive.
Why should I help you?
Because if you dont, we will die.
Bad argument. Whats in it for me?
We have a plan. It may work, but we need your help to ensure it works. If you help, you will be honoured amongst us. If you refuse, then you can go home. No one will stop you.
You said it was a death sentence if I left.
If you leave at night.
I will show you where our histories are, show you the records we have of what happened to the northern tribes, what happened to us. Read them overnight. When we awaken we will talk. If you still wish to go home, we will return your batteries and give you supplies and aid.
We need your willing aid to make the plan succeed.
He snorted. Youve set me up very well.
Im sorry. WeI am not good at this. It is against the <clikque>. But, we have few or no alternatives. What we have done on our own is not promising.
Dalthwyn licked his lips and snorted. Guess Im going to read then.
Dalckwee, we are not a cruel people. You must know that by now. What we are is desperate. Consider the time you spend here payment for healing. Food will be stockpiled here for you before we sleep. Your breath will keep the dome alight and refreshing the air for you. We hope you dont try and leaveyou could kill many of us, and then you would die. For nothing.
For the first time Dalthwyn wished he knew some choice words in Venusian, or even an alternate form of address. He had to use the language he knew. Mistress, you have my word that I will study. I have nothing to lose, and much to gain.
She clicked in what Dalthwyn had learned was amusement. Oh yes, we know of what youve been studying. You can take it, take all that you can carrywell even help you pack. She sighed. Our knowledge is not going to save us, and our culture will doom us unless you help.
During winter on Terra, people would huddle in their homes. On Mars, the centaurs would have migrated to the opposite hemisphere. In the asteroid colonies, things would be unchanging as they always were.
During winter on Venus, it was just quiet.
Dalthwyn hadnt realized how much he missed comforting sounds and smells. On board ship there was always the hum of circulation fans, the creak of the ship expanding and shrinking as it rotated to spread the heat of the sun around. On the asteroids there were always voices, the dim song of birds.
On Venus, there was nothing.
Even when Dalthwyn slipped into the water to do his business, the clicks and rattles and whistles that had always been there were gone. Once in a while there were groans, loud mournful howls, but nothing else. The water seemed cooler, the only light was the dim wavery light that shone from the library into the still water. Even the plants hed grazed upon were deadthe bottom was covered in decay and muck. He never spent long out there as he could sense things moving beyond the light, avoiding it as though they were afraid. Dalthwyn didnt want to find out what they were.
One time Dalthwyn stopped just below the entrance and looked up at himself. Hed been under for a while, stretching his muscles, and the water in the entrance had quieted to a glassy sheen. He still looked the samehis fur was the same colour, his face the same face, his muzzle the same muzzle. But both ears were gone, and that made him look alien. His fur had a sheen to it, and his eyes bulged out a little and glowed as though they had their own internal light. His hands were still black, as was the webbing between them. His legs might have been a bit longer, it was hard to be sure. It might have been an optical illusion caused by the fins that projected out to each side, like the control fins of an atmospheric flyer. It was his hooves that looked out of place, hanging there, black and useless.
He scratched his nose, and a few bubbles slid out and glurped up to the pool where they sat, clinging to the surface where he belonged. Then, in the distance, something groaned, and Dalthwyn burst back into the air and the light, water sliding from his fur. This was his world, not the water.
And in that world that currently imprisoned him, were the records.
Dalthwyn had known that the first landing on Venus was some seventy years ago. Drugs found in the plants had caused a colony to rapidly grow at each of the polesthe rest of the planet was too hot and too wild. After the landings, it hadnt taken long for diseases, mild in mammalian races, to cross the racial divide and decimate the Venusians. The Patrol had tried to help, but it was estimated that half the native population had died before effective inoculations were developed and distributed. That was where his knowledge ended.
The Venusian records were more detailed.
The polar tribes had always been on the fringes of Venusian civilization; they were the scattered barbarians. The closer one got to the equator, the more developed Venusian civilization had been. At the time of the landing at the north pole, most of the planet had been divided between a number of large federations of city-states. The Venusians had never really known war; the barbarians were out of civilization more by choice than anything else. There was some conflict, but weapons had never really been developed beyond spears. There was not even economic competition as was known on Terra. There was competition for prestigecertain federations were better than the others at certain things. But there was no ownership. Other than clusters of learning, universities, such as what he was in, there was no permanent habitation. Buildings were destroyed when no longer needed, and left no evidence of their ever having existed by night. To the technic civilization of which Dalthwyn was a member, the Venusians looked like a primitive rabble of wandering tribes, without permanent settlement, without any knowledge or technology.
But they did have knowledge. Just not technology as the Patrol would understand the term. Their knowledge was biological. Whereas the world Dalthwyn knew made their buildings out of stone and wood, the Venusians grew their buildings from a wood-like fungus they had bred for millennia; whereas the United Planets made their tools out of metal and grease and the breaking of the atom, forcing their will upon the physical reality, the Venusians used chemicals and biological agents, retroviruses and symbiotes, to change and mutate the life around them, changing it until it fit their will and did what they needed.
Its what theyd done to him. Theyd used millennia-old tools, possibly dating back to the Precursors, to change him, to make him fit.
To save him.
This Venusian culture had survived, unchanging, living with its world, learning and growing in its understanding, for untold ages. Possibly for as long as the 50,000 years since the Precursors were said to have destroyed themselves, if theyd ever actually existed.
The sentients from Earth had brought disease. The Venusians at the poles transmitted the diseases to the rest of the planetary population. But, whereas the polar tribes got the eventual inoculation, the rest of the planet didnt. And it was more densely populated.
Within five years, something like seventy percent of the planetary population was dead. And that dying had ended the federations, the city states, the universities. The group that had found him was one of the university centres. Theyd co-operated with the communities around them, isolated travel and minimized the spread of the plagues, and had finally developed inoculations against them.
There was one account, a personal account it seemed, that stayed in his mind and haunted his dreams. A Venusian, female, had come back to her village, only to find the lake empty, and full of the stench of rot. The water was black and oily, and when shed dove into it, it had clasped at her skin, itching, grabbing, not wanting to let go. When she reached the bottom, she found that most of the houses were gone, rotted and sunk to the bottom. Scattered amongst them were the bodies of her clan, of her friends, of her family. They had not died easy, it seemed that theyd entered a delirium before death. With their claws theyd scratched at themselves, ripped pustules from their flesh, ripped their skin and muscle until bone showed. Even the other life in the lake abandoned them, refused to eat the bodies, leaving them to slowly rot, their flesh decaying and melting into the bottom muck. Even the weeds refused to grow around the corpses.
What had happened to the rest of the planet wasnt known, only speculated about. Explorers had found only barbarism and suspicion. Travelers to the north had encountered Venusians that chopped down the trees, killed the wildlife, and were equipped with devices of metal and plastic. Devices like his own. Theyd abandoned the Venusian culture, copied that of their conquerors, and were enforcing it on the rest of the planet.
The biologists here had developed a new warrior caste, all male, all sterile. They were strong and tough. One on one, they could beat the northerners.
Except they had no weapons, and no clue as to how to use them.
Consensus had been reached to try and negotiate with one of the invaders the Venusians had heard rumours of, stories passed and distorted during the plague years. They needed information and they needed help. Theyd hoped that if they could find one, they could convince him to help them. Where Dalthwyn would have sent parties to kidnap one, the Venusians couldnt conceive of such an act. Instead theyd waited, trying to find one and ask that one to come, hope fading, until theyd found him.
For the rest of the night Dalthwyn read, ate and slept, and thought. He had to decide. He could take the knowledgesteal it, even though it was freely offered. Then he could return north, let it out, milk it for all the money he could.
But eventually, the Patrol would find out, and they would take control of the knowledge for the benefit of civilization. Just as they were destroying the Venusians for the benefit of civilization. Sure, hed be left with his wealth, his does, his own asteroid. A fat technocrat wasting away in a life of sex and play as civilization continued on around him, unchanging. Under the yoke of the Patrol
The first Dalthwyn knew of spring was the sudden silence in the lake when he dove into it. The water was still black and murky, but the groans and whines that had haunted him were gone. He didnt make much of it at first, more relieved than anything else. Then the water began to lighten, changing from black to a murky blue, to a dark green. In the dim pre-dawn light, he could see the black mud of the bottom carpeted in the corpses of the bottom weed. Here and there were largish lumps: Venusians, buried in the muck as they hibernated. The light grew brighter, bright green weed began to grow, algae began to drift through the water, lilies bloomed on the surface. Where once Dalthwyn would have eagerly ripped into the new growth, now he just nibbled, enjoying it as a treat, but letting the mass alone to grow. The sky brightened, the water lightened, and the Venusians stirred into wakefulness.
Dalthwyn was reading some old biological recordssuggestions that the body could be changed, cells could be regenerated, but at the cost of ones memorieswhen he heard the water slosh downstairs, and a body thump onto the floor. He climbed down the ladder awkwardly, his hooves almost useless except for the gap between the two lobes on each foot. With a clomp he dropped the last few metres, and then turned to see the dripping form of the elder whod taught him, whod talked to him, before shed left to sleep.
Dalckwee, I see that you did not try to escape.
Dalthwyn snorted. As you pointed out, it would have been futile. Did you rest well?
She clucked sadly. As well as might be expected. I fear I will not awaken from tonights sleep.
I will be saddened by your passing.
Her eyes glowed. So, you will stay?
You have no idea the wealth I could make if I returned with what you offer Dalthwyn hadnt even realized hed decided, until he said that.
For a moment she closed her eyes, the semi-transparent eyelids not completely hiding the sad yellow glow. That is your choice, and, yes, we will keep our word. All I, we, ask, is for you to send somebody back who will help us.
I doubt that anybody would come.
Then we will die, forgotten. It is natural that the better competitor wins I It seems that we are not the better
Mistress, Dalthwyn tried to wrap his muzzle around the clicks and squeaks of her name and failed. I did not say I would not help. He could see other forms swimming down in the water, waiting, but none made a move to enter the dome.
I do not understand..?
For a long time I had planned to leave, but I realized that going home would give me nothing. Ive been There was no word for rich. blessed, Ive been wretched. I have no love for the civilization I come from. I want He didnt know the word for revenge, assuming there was one. My culture survives, but I hate the price it has had to pay.
Together, maybe, we can find a different way.
She just nodded, as Venusians didnt smile. You will help us?
I will help you. But there will have to be changes. Your culture will change. Do you understand this?
We understand. We have talked much, made plans. We know that we will need, her voice forced out a distorted but recognizable technology. We have found some metal. But we need to know more. We need to know how you think.
Dalthwyn nodded. Your culture will change. Things will not be as they were.
We know. And we would choose our change, choose what to keep, what to throw away. We would not have the choice forced upon us from outside.
Then let us talk and plan. Bring the other elders. Show me the new caste you have bred. Tell me what you have found. You wont be able to make anything like this blaster, he pointed, but there are other weapons. I can only try to remember.
We know of techniques that might help you remember.
They will be needed.
Then let us share. She slapped her tail into the water, and other forms started bursting out, all old and wise. Let us share together.
And then Dalthwyn, and the elders, sat, and talked, and planned.
When sentients from Terra first landed on Venus, they thought they knew what Venus was. Pictures taken from orbit had revealed only mist-shrouded wilderness, no sign of civilization. The polar landings had found primitives with only a basic culture. The disease that had swept them was unfortunate, but it had swept away their primitive beliefs and allowed them to accept civilization.
Or so the members of the Terra-centric United Planets believed
Policy was made to limit colonization, to give the Venusians time to adapt, to help them change their world and bring it into the modern technic sphere. There was nothing on Venus that was not more cheaply attained from the asteroids, aside from a few refined drugs that the natives brought and traded.
It was over a hundred years after the first landing when this belief, so obvious and logical, was proven wrong. Like Mars, Venus had its own culture; old, foreign, alien from that of Terra and her outposts throughout the system.
It was the Venusians that made contact. Theyd been studying the foreign invaders of their world, determining whether or not they were wise enough to make contact with. Envoys came, dressed and cloaked according to the customs of Terra that they had learned through unknown means.
The Venusians finally revealed their true selves, and kept their planet.
And when they came, they whispered amongst themselves what was at first thought to be their name for the Great Maker: Dalckwee.