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by Jacqueline Lichtenberg
Category: Science Fiction/Fantasy
Description: College students, human and nonhuman, raised together on the same planet, search for the origins of civilization in the Galaxy and find old magic and a vast, implacable conspiracy. Can they forge bonds of friendship and understanding among themselves strong enough to stand against greed, lust for power, and absolute domination of a hundred planets? If not, then why does the enemy fear them?
eBook Publisher: Wildside Press/Wildside Press, 1985 USA
eBookwise Release Date: November 2005
20 Reader Ratings:
Available eBook Formats: OEBFF Format (IMP) [405 KB]
Reading time: 269-376 min.
"But, Arshel, committing yourself to a human? They don't even molt!"
A great whistling roar shook the house as the noon space shuttle set down at the new spaceport the humans had built at the far end of the island. Arshel was grateful that conversation was impossible for several minutes. She had expected her parents to be hostile to her choice of a life companion but had not expected this total incomprehension. After all, it wasn't as if she were planning to mate with a human.
Abrupt silence made the faint lapping of the waves of the hatching pond loud. Outside, the boom of the sea formed a constant background. How am I going to tell them the worst of it?
Trying to make her voice calm, Arshel said, "Others have taken bhirhir among the humans. It's done all the time on the mainland, in the mountains ... I mean no disrespect, Surmother, but I am of an age to make my choice, and I've done so."
As Arshel moved, the sun glanced off her skin, displaying the mature fineness of her scales and their new silvery coloring. Her breasts were budding at last, filling out the light yellow shirt she wore. Anyone could see that she'd experience her first adult molt soon.
Her surmother moved nervously into the shadows, as if unwilling to look at Arshel's new maturity. "So, you've taken a human molt sister. Arshel, I don't even know if the molt sister's oath is valid with a human. What if she turns on you--on us? To bring a human into our family--you have no idea what it's like to be adult and helpless in molt. How can you give a human such power over you? Just look what they've done to our island, our world!"
Another, clearer voice called from the archway of the family room, "What's all this?" Arshel's mother came into the room, going directly to the other woman and adding, "Don't agitate yourself so, my bhirhir. You'll raise venom for nothing."
For the first time, Arshel saw the strong resemblance between herself and her mother. She's beautiful. Maybe I'll be, too.
Her mother looked up from trying to comfort her molt sister. "What have you said to upset your surmother like this? Was it something you picked up from the humans at that hole in the ground?"
Arshel's part time job at the Cross-Species Archeological Society's dig had been a sore point in the family for almost a year. She took a deep breath, determined not to stir that up again. "I said I'd taken bhirhir among the humans."
"Bhirhir, you--" Her mother choked off the words, too shocked to do more than hold her molt sister tightly.
"I did not say," Arshel added, "that my bhirhir is female. I've taken a molt brother."
Her surmother stared at her in renewed shock. Her mother's mouth fell open, and her venom fangs unfolded from their sockets.
Arshel backed away until the water of the hatching pond lapped her sandals. After an initial surge of alarm at the sight of her mother's fangs, she felt strangely lightheaded.
"Kill this human," said her surmother, "and come back to us. We'll find you a male, if that is what you really want."
They'd really go that far? She felt confused. The freshwater spawn, people of the mainland, often took bhirhir from the opposite sex, but it was a practice shunned on the islands. They love me in spite of everything. Her venom glands ached. "I can't kill him. We've already sworn bhirhir."
"He's immune to your venom?" her mother asked.
"Yes," she lied, surprised at how easy it was. She had never yet raised true-venom, only the watery prevenom. But she had inoculated him with it often. "Yes, of course he's immune, or how could we have sworn bhirhir?"
"Then he is immune to the whole family," said her surmother. "Why didn't you bring him here to speak for himself?"
"I only thought it would be kinder to warn you!"
"Then you knew how we'd feel!" said her mother.
"How you feel isn't important. He's my molt brother! It's how I feel that's important." Panting, she was gripped by the most peculiar sensations. "Dennis has been my only friend for all this year, my only real friend ever. He's never made fun of me because I look too young. He's fought for me--and I for him. And the venom doesn't come when he's with me. He's the only one who does that for me. Isn't that what bhirhir is?"
She looked from mother to surmother as they stood together facing her. Although the atmosphere was charged, neither of them had raised venom, while her own venom sack was straining at the neck of her blouse. With a savage jerk, she pulled open the top button, tearing the fabric.
In unison, they backed away two more steps, acknowledging her volatile condition.
"You don't realize," said her mother, "the power you're granting this offworlder over you."
"Dennis is not an offworlder!" Nobody seemed to notice the trouble she was having pronouncing Dennis' name. The "s" sound was as difficult and alien to them as it was to Arshel. In sudden relief, she thought, Is that all they're worried about? "He is from the colony. His grandparents were on the first ship, and both his parents were born here. He's not an offworlder--he's only human."
Her mother looked slightly relieved, but her surmother said, "It makes no difference. I will not have this within my family."
"It's too late," Arshel insisted. "It's done." This lie was the hardest thing she'd ever said, but the saying of it made it true.
Her mother made a small gesture of resignation, and hope surged through Arshel. But then her mother stepped to the edge of the hatching pond and dipped the toe of her sandal into the warm water. Her venom sack quivered with the power of her emotions as she looked into the water from which Arshel had emerged. Then, softly chanting the hundred repetitions of Arshel's name in mourning, she turned and left the room, her back straight and her head held high.
Her molt sister looked after her until the sound of her voice had faded among the pressed-sand archways and vaulted chambers of the family home. Then she turned to Arshel.
"You have struck out for your adulthood, Arshel, and must now be counted as an adult, but not of Holtethor. If you can choose and be chosen, then be also welcome at the home of your molt brother, for he is not welcome here now or ever. Nor are you welcome. We mourn your loss in Holtethor, but death has taken our children before. We will go on."
Moving to the edge of the gently lapping water, she touched it with a toe. Chanting, she too turned and without another glance went to join her molt sister in mourning the loss of a child.
Arshel was left alone in the silent house, with the noon sun barely glancing in the window through which the pressed-sand domes of the city could be seen glittering hotly. In all that city, there was only one place for her, and that was among the drylanders.
She went to her knees in the shallow water of the hatching pond where she had struggled for and won the right to life. Never to be allowed to touch these waters again, never to see her spawn churn their way to life from the waters that had served her mother and mother's mother for more than ten generations ... Her venom sack stretched painfully as emotion raged uncontrolled through her. She had never been happy in this house. They had never understood her. Why should leaving hurt so much?
As she made her way across the island, back to the dig for the afternoon's work, it was as if she were seeing the city for the first time: the domes, the lofty spires, the sweeping arches blending together like the waves of a stormy ocean frozen in midrage and suspended forever, forbidden to strike. And the people, dressed in their floating veils, drifting from place to place among their buildings, seemed suddenly alien.
Closer to the dig, buildings gave way to open hillside crisscrossed with footpaths. She encountered other young people dressed as she, in shorts and shirt of the human style, moving in pairs back to work on the excavation. They were coming in to check the bulletin board for the afternoon shift assignments. Then they'd march out into the pit, toolboxes in hand, to begin the delicate work of dusting away layers of sand and soil, charting, recording, and mapping.
They were uncovering an ancient city, perhaps built by long-dead aliens from another galaxy. Here, on Vrashin Island, they might find the key to translating documents pertaining to the City of a Million Legends.
Known by many names on every planet of the Hundred Planets, it was called by Dennis "Shangri-la," "Atlantis," or "Camelot." It was the long-ago place where people had once achieved perfection. There, people knew how to avoid war, social crime, and poverty. But the City of a Million Legends, Arshel felt, had been a real place during the First Lifewave occupation of the galaxy. If only half the legends were true and they could bring all that alive again today--oh, how good life would be.
Standing in the shade of the open shed, she squinted against the glare to watch Dorsan, the human who was the dig's official computer Interface, sitting cross-legged on a huge stone cube they had uncovered a few days before. He was sorting through a large tray of minute items, turning each in his hands to examine it and then staring off into space with that glassy-eyed, frozen stare that meant he was using the circuitry implanted in his brain to enter data into the computer or to correlate data. She always found it disconcerting when he did that, and today she found it frightening when his wooden stare chanced to light on her.