Art by Vincent Di Fate.
From the author: Far in the future, an interplanetary civil conflict has ground to an uneasy halt. Kithri, abandoned on a desolate mining planet, meets Eril, shell-shocked pilot. A freak accident sends them back to a time when their desert world was lush and green, when an alien civilization stands on the brink of a war of total destruction. They must choose to remain outside the conflict or to stand up for what they believe.
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No light, no taste. Silence. Anesthetic numbness filmed her skin. Her mouth—surely she should have a mouth below her sightless eyes. Her mouth—open or closed, she could not tell. Teeth and tongue, lips—were they wet or dry or coated with a thick gel?
Kithri struggled to pull herself upright, but there was no sensation of muscles contracting or joints flexing, no tug of gravity to orient herself in space. No change to prove she had actually moved.
I must be dead, then, she thought, and fled back into unconsciousness.
Some time later, she woke again. Her skin was slick and icy, her first reaction one of relief to be feeling something again, even if it was unpleasant. After a few moments, she noticed the feathery swish of air through her lungs. Her chest rose and fell rhythmically. Something flat pressed against her back, firm but not hard.
If she could feel her body, then she was still alive. And if she was not dead at the hands of the pirates, then what she had seen before she blacked out must be real and not an hallucination born of dying brain cells.
An image flashed unbidden across Kithri’s mind.
Man-high and twice as long, the rounded body had tapered upwards, like a mound of silver jelly drawn erect at one end. Four plate-like discs covered the highest tip. Below them, boneless appendages uncurled and lengthened, reaching for her—
No, don’t think about that!
—and there had been a voice, she remembered, two voices, deep and resonant.
“Ah! Your recovery is proceeding well.”
Kithri sat bolt upright. She was no longer in the crystalline courtyard or the scrubjet. She was sitting, stark naked, on a low table in an otherwise unfurnished room of neutral gray.
She shivered and hugged her arms to her body. A thin film covered her skin and peeled away at the lightest touch. Slowly her eyes locked on the rounded silvery shape. She’d remembered the creature’s size and color right, but the head discs were tinged with shades of copper and blued steel, resembling four oblong coins. They were set in the place of eyes but showed no hint of pupil or other marking. Coiled tentacles covered the upright section of the body, varying in thickness and arranged in no discernible order.
A webwork of centrally located neck slits vibrated as the deep-toned voice spoke again. “Please do not be alarmed. No aggression toward you is being intended.”
Now there was no possible doubt she was awake. Not only awake, but facing something that looked like a giant silver slug.
“Please do not be attempting to communicate verbally,” the thing said. “Your universal-meaning unit has not yet been installed, although the artifact previously implanted in your cerebral cortex is permitting you to comprehend my words.”
Artifact? Brianna’s translator.
One of the creature’s neck coils uncurled into a slender appendage, which it extended in her direction as it moved closer. Kithri leapt off the table, putting its bulk between her and the creature. It withdrew, folding its tentacle into a series of graceful coils.
“Your companions have previously indicated the desirability of synthetic integument. To obtain this, I must be manipulating this building-appendage,” it said. “Then I can be fitting you with a device permitting mutual conversation.”
Without waiting for her response, the alien glided to the table. Its neck section shrank back into the mass of the body as it uncurled several slender upper tentacles and began stroking the base of the translucent gray pedestal.
Kithri jumped back a few steps. She pressed the knuckles of one hand against her teeth, forcing herself to breathe slowly and evenly. It was ridiculous, to be so afraid. The thing hadn’t harmed her or even threatened to do so. In fact, unlike the pirates, it seemed to be making every effort to reassure her. Your companions, it had said. Eril, the others—alive, too? Then where are they? What’s happened to them?
Slow down and think! she told herself sternly. If they’ve been asking for clothes, how bad off can they be?
The slug creature finished whatever it was doing and undulated back across the room, revealing a cubbyhole in the table’s pedestal base. Kithri cautiously approached the table, knelt and reached in.
Her fingers closed around a bundle of silky cloth. This proved to be a loose, sleeveless shirt, long enough to come half-way down her thighs, a length of fabric to tie around her waist as a belt, an undergarment somewhere between a loincloth and a bikini—she wondered whose idea that was—and tube-like socks.
Trying not to take her eyes off the creature, she pulled the shirt over her head. The thin gray fabric felt unexpectedly warm against her skin. Instantly it shrank in some places and stretched in others so that it fit her body perfectly.
When she straightened up, the silvery alien was holding a small rectangle of grayish glass between two of its feathery upper tentacles. “It is now necessary that I approach you more closely for the installation of universal-meaning device. The process is brief and without risk. The panel will adhere to your synthetic covering, not your integument. I assure you, I mean you no harm.”
Kithri pressed her back against the hard, rounded edge of the table. She forced herself to stand still as the thing slithered closer. A cold sweat drenched her hands. Her breath came in punctuated gasps, so shallow she felt dizzy. She wet her lips with a tongue gone curiously numb.
It isn’t going to hurt me—I think—and besides, where could I run to? There’s not a door or window in the place. It’s stupid to be this scared...
The giant slug was almost upon her now. Kithri expected to smell its foul, decay-laden stench, but there was only a slightly acidic odor, not at all unpleasant. The panel was inches from her heaving chest now. She caught a glimpse of it, a thin tile of the same watery-gray stuff as the table and walls. She held her breath.
The slug-voice said, “I am of the caste Hath, rank Djan, and my personal name is Raerquel.”
After a long moment Kithri began breathing again. The alien had retreated to about ten feet away, and she hadn’t felt a thing. It had just formally introduced itself.
She cleared her throat. “I’m—I’m Kithri—Kithryne Sunnai. Human. Woman. Are you male or female—what are you?”
No sounds came from the “translator” panel on her chest, but with each word a ripple of white light danced across the surface. She took a deep breath and watched the panel flex with the movement. It did not change brightness, so it must be sound and not movement that was the activating energy.
“My species is the pinnacle of molluscan evolution, and calling ourselves—” the translator in her skull hesitated, “—Gastropoideus sapiens sapiens. The question of gender is of concern only to lesser orders that have a constant preoccupation with genetic recombinant reproduction. We have no such drainage on our mental energies.”
The gastropoid came closer in a gliding movement. This time, instead of recoiling in horror, Kithri watched it curiously. It did not ooze along on a carpet of slime like the slug it superficially resembled, but propelled itself on a rippling ridge of muscle. The movement of the flesh suggested some sort of internal pumping mechanism or hydraulic system. That would make sense, since there would be no bony skeleton to support so much mass. She couldn’t be sure. Her training in xenozoology was sketchy at best, most of it centered around the two alien races that were known to the Fifth Fed. Her textbooks hadn’t even considered the possibility of invertebrate sapience.
“I am a scientist studying vertebrate life forms, my particular interest being mammalians,” the gastropoid said. “Your species is most unusual, if you will forgive any inadvertent discourtesy in my saying so. I have never had the opportunity to converse with an intelligent vertebrate before. All the mammalians we have studied have been nonsentient.”
Kithri thought wryly that they’d certainly gotten things backwards here. She’d seen slugs before. Stayman had several varieties of shell-less snail, tiny, slime-coated creatures that ravaged the farm plots and dug deep beneath the soil to conserve moisture. A person could survive on them in an emergency if he could bring himself to eat them. Kithri had never needed to.
She shifted away from the table and said, “So you’re a scientist. Is that what you want, to study us? Is that why you separated us?”
“Yes, I am desiring you to answer questions. “Preliminary noninvasive evaluations of your structure and physiology have been completed during your period of unconsciousness.”
“Questions...” Kithri folded her arms protectively across her body and suppressed the impulse to pace. The gastropoid seemed perfectly comfortable sitting—or lying—there.
“To begin with, what are you and where did you come from?”
Kithri was tempted to laugh, Is that all? “I told you, I’m human. As to how I got here, your guess is as good as mine. I’m not even sure where here is. It’s not the Stayman I started out on, that’s sure.”
“You consider yourself a person?”
She paused, a little puzzled. Brianna’s translator seemed to have confused the meaning of the word “human.” “That’s my species, yes. But doesn’t every race define itself as ‘people’?”
Instead of replying, the slug asked her again where she’d come from, and how, and for what purpose. What planet was she from? Did her species have interplanetary flight? How had she gotten to this world? Who sent her and why?
“I don’t know,” she said, as often as she was asked. Her own mind was spinning with questions. What had happened to them this time? Had they travelled again through alternate probabilities? Or some inexplicable, instantaneous shift through space? Or through time itself and if so, forward or backward?
“I’ve already told you!” she said. “If you don’t like my answers, go ask someone else.”
“Are you wishing a reunion with your companions?” the slug said unexpectedly, as if this explained her lack of cooperation.
“Of course I want to see them!”
To her surprise, the gastropoid asked no more questions. It crawled over to a blank stretch of wall and touched it with a thick lower appendage. A door appeared on the smooth surface and slid noiselessly open. Beyond lay a hallway of the same featureless gray.
These gastropoids must be damned good engineers to camouflage the door that well. I wonder what else I missed.
As she followed the alien along the narrow, curved passageway, Kithri realized that, for all her uneasiness in her new surroundings, she was no longer in physical pain. It took her a few moments to remember the last time she’d been awake. Her face had been beaten into bruises, her lip cut and swollen, skies only knew how many ribs cracked, her shoulder wrenched half out of its socket, other damage that blended together into one enormous pain.
Gone, all of it.
She ran one hand over her chest, feeling only the curve of breast and muscle under the silky cloth. She might have lain for weeks under some sort of suspended animation while she healed, unless the gel itself possessed unusually potent regenerative properties.
They came to the end of the corridor, turned left and under a wide archway. Raerquel halted at the threshold of a spacious courtyard.
Light drenched the open space, reflected and magnified by the mirror-bright towers. Some looked slender and delicate like glass filigree. Others rose in solid blocks or gray or white like highly polished alabaster.
Kithri squinted and shaded her eyes with one hand, feeling as if she were standing in the center of a brilliant-cut diamond. Then her vision adapted and she realized the effect was partly due to the water, clear and sparkling, which filled the courtyard.
Several aliens went by, half-crawling, half-swimming, weaving among sculptures that looked like petrified waterfalls. Others rested like beached seals on the flat, rectangular islands.
Raerquel started across the pond, its undulating movement smoothing into a glide. Kithri hesitated, her gaze once more drawn aloft to the glittering towers. They reached no more than a story or two, but the graceful spires and causeways made them appear taller. She spotted other, lower buildings interspersed with the towers. Her eyes lit on a wide pyramid a few blocks away and she shuddered. The last time she’d seen a structure like that, it had been emerald green.
Kithri’s heart did a curious little flip. Take away the slugs and the water, and color the city in gemstone hues—and she’d be right back in Brianna’s world. Here she saw only shades of gray and silver, heard only the lapping of the water and the muted basso rumbling of the giant slugs.
And yet...the resemblance was so uncanny, she recognized some of the towers.
Raerquel halted and turned back towards her. She took a hesitant step into the sun-warmed water. It seeped through her tube socks and between her toes, stirring childhood memories of flower-banked streams.
At the far side of the pond, Kithri spotted round pipe openings, and felt the faint tug of circulating water.
Just like in the other city, only we didn’t realize what they were for. And those islands, we thought they were benches.
Kithri stumbled. It is the same city, it’s got to be! And this one’s inhabited, so it must have come first. We must have travelled back in time... To Lennart’s time?
She waded slowly, shuffling her feet and looking around her. When she’d first woken up, her impression had been of an austere, sterile world. Now, splashing through the knee-high water, she imagined herself treading a sea of shining light. Brianna’s city seemed like a tawdry imitation of this city’s subtle-toned brilliance. She felt as if the dust of Stayman were at last being washed from her pores.
Raerquel led her up a ramp and along a dry avenue. Kithri followed, her socks dripping for a few steps before they shed their wetness. The gastropoid crawled through the open doorway of a wide, squat cylinder. Inside was a circular wall, forming a corridor along the building’s circumference. Although Kithri could see no markings indicating its location, the gastropoid opened a second door in the inner wall. A ramp spiralled down to a blank-walled corridor filled with indirect light. Kithri followed Raerquel downward. The gastropoid created another door, this time at the end of the lower corridor, and stood back for her to enter.