Three years passed and the eldest Omega One fell asleep in the lodge and never woke up. Five years passed and Lambda One made an error attempting to manufacture Lambda Fifteen and Sixteen. She died a legend. The infants lived, a second set of twins, walking miracles. Six years passed and Rho Two fell from a rock face and broke his leg. The bone pierced the skin and the wound festered. He grew hot and died. Seven years passed and still Rho Five lived. Nothing had changed. They were no closer to salvation. Rho Five was no closer to Psi Two.
On this particular night, Rho Five trekked yet again through the mud and the spring rains to stand before the blasted earth left by the gods' star. Nine years had passed since she was taken. The clouds cleared for a moment to let the moon shine through and in the pale light, he saw that a sole shoot was forcing its way out of the scarred ground. Thoughtfully, he turned his face skyward to make his nightly prayer. Just in time to see a star falling from the sky. His skin went cold and tingled.
The star pierced the clouds and came down just beyond the tree line.
The falling object appeared to settle behind the southern hills. Rho Five was running before he reached the conscious decision to go see what it was. It took him thirty minutes to crest the top of the hills at the southern bounds of the meadow. He forced his way through mud and weeds, breath searing through his chest and a sharp pain in his side, until he came out into a clear spot with a view down into the next stretch of meadowlands.
An orb rested down there in the tall grass, standing on three spindly legs. The fitful moonlight was reflected faintly from its surface and a light emanated from a hole in the side.
The gods had come back.
Rho Five flew down the hillside, leaping over fallen branches and tearing through scrub. Somewhere along the way, one of his leather moccasins came off, but he hardly noticed it. Nine years was a long time. He had no right to expect that the gods had brought her back with them. She might be dead. She might not even remember him. Rho Five didn't care. He wasn't hoping to see her here tonight as much as he was hoping to find someone to beg directly to.
He raced across the meadow, knees high and legs pumping for all he was worth, heedless of the pains in his left foot. There was nothing around the outside of the star but more grass and a few large rocks, so Rho Five took a chance and flung himself inside the star before it leapt back into the sky and disappeared as quickly as it had come.
He hit the warm, curved stone floor and opened his eyes. The inside of the star resembled nothing so much as the inside of the Cave of Fire Runes, but lit with a warm, yellow light and alive with soft humming, buzzing and whirring. Runes covered the sphere except for two strips that bisected and then quartered the rounded walls; these were smooth and wide, containing clear sections through which Rho Five realized he could see out. Suspended in the center by slender rock spires, a strange apparatus seemed to hold netting, rods, and of all things, a chair of sorts, like the ones the Daugh'ters sat in when the time of manufacturing was at its completion. Rho Five sat up, perplexed at the ways of the gods. Did they manufacture batches of reps with that chair? How did they fit thousands of fully grown, instantly made Reps into this modestly sized star...?
Motion at the corner of his eye caused him to turn and look out the opening. A rock was peering in at him. Or at least that's the first impression he had. Rho Five's thoughts occurred in precisely this order: First, it was ridiculous to think a rock could be looking at him. Second, how was it that there was suddenly a rock several feet in the air to give a foolish impression that it was looking in at him? Third, since when did rocks have tentacles? And finally, some gods seemed to be made of stone, for several long, ropey tentacles whipped into the cave and gently pulled the boulder-like body in after them, while still other tentacles danced over runes. A high-pitched sound whined in Rho Five's ears and then he remembered no more.
The gods were like that.
A couple rabbits pretended to scamper away as 27 trotted up the slight incline. She smiled, watching them hop a few steps more and then sink, fat and contented, into the clover. The only time they ever had to seriously run for their lives was when they got into her garden and laid waste to it.
She wiped her forehead as she rounded a bend in the trail, opening up her stride to really get the cardio going. The synthetic fabric of her shirt did a great job of keeping sweat from running off her torso. Maybe she'd get a sweatband for her forehead...
"What the hell?"
27 drew up short, jogging in place to keep her heart rate up. Up ahead, the trail was closed at the equator of the biosphere. With a frown, she turned around and ran with a long, ground eating stride to the 180 degree mark. It took her a decent thirty minutes to get to the continuation of the artificial line of hills that separated the two hemispheres. She slowed her trot to a walk as she entered the cave opening, briskly striding alongside the carefully landscaped riverbed. She passed the turnoff that led to her quarters and the interior of the ship and followed the airy passage that led through the hills and out to the other side.
Up ahead in the dim light, she could make out another alloy gate, blocking physical passage, but not sight or air.
Frowning, 27 went back to her quarters to shower and change clothes, pausing to check her private console on the way. No messages or updates. She paused to blow a kiss to the large print-out of Johnny Savage hanging on the wall and then went into the decontamination room to clean up.
Coming out, she opened a storage compartment and frowned over the choices inside. She felt like something colorful, dammit. Stinky could just get over himself. 27 went with a brilliant fuchsia tunic over the wheat colored pants that matched the highlights in her hair. Had to look good for Johnny. She gave a coy wink to the picture and then went out into the cool cave passage again, this time hooking a left and veering toward the lift shaft that would take her into the interior of the ship.
The lift descended, adding about ten pounds to her as it dropped her into the slightly higher gravity of Deck One. She walked out and headed straight for the environmental controls, eyes hooding over as she readjusted the settings.
"Ten hours of light is more than enough, Stinky."
And 1900 calories is more than enough for you, but you don't see me snatching the food from your roots at dinner time.
27 had to look over at him to see it, of course. The large corkscrew taproot looked like nothing so much as a large insect abdomen, supported by thick coils of vines. Delicate, fuzzy feeder roots wrapped themselves out of the way around the taproot. Foliage-bearing vines held up the large, spade-shaped leaves in an array around the root, according to function. Feeder leaves angled toward the overhead lighting. Photo- and phero-sensitive leaves were positioned to give him a dome-like view of his surroundings -- one that easily encompassed her. Finer tendrils trailed along the ground, picking up longer wave-length sounds and vibrations the same way the hairs on his stems did for shorter wavelengths. Those small tendrils also manipulated the computer console and, most pertinently at this moment, danced in the complex sign language that had taken 27 several years to master.
Might I add that your petals look completely ravishing today, 27?
"No. What's going on with the biosphere? The winter hemisphere is blocked off. Are they doing something with the organisms on that side?"
We picked up a new... life-form. Something about the way the tendrils hesitated and then moved with a particular kind of flourish set 27's jaw to clenching. This was some kind of joke, then.
"What, is this another thing like the rabbits? Did you guys find a cow while you were planetside? I've already told you, the synthetic proteins taste just fine to me. Hate to disappoint you, but I'm not going to stalk my food. Not unless you call setting up my own hydroponics tanks 'hunting'."
Maybe you won't be the one doing the hunting, oh scarlet hued flower bud.