“Love,” I said, then closed my lips, unsure what to do or say next.
There was a pause, then Morgan said quite desperately: “Don’t, Sira. Don’t promise what might not be possible for you to give.”
The firelight was now less intense than the glow from the carnivorous flowers above our heads. Morgan was a shadow. Even the miscellaneous sounds of the forest had subsided to occasional whining hums from small, flying things.
“I don’t know how to be Clan,” I began slowly. “Do I need to learn?” Unprompted, my hand reached out to him. His hand dropped from my shoulder to wrap my fingers in a firm clasp.
The horrible wrongness flared with sickening speed, dragging at us both. A scream tore from my throat as I fought to contain it, to keep it from Morgan. He spoke. Then agony of agonies, he tried to contact my mind. Away! I had to get away before it overwhelmed him. A wrenching pain. Disorientation . . .
I was nowhere.
And it was beautiful.
I could stay forever, suspended, not breathing, not moving, not truly alive.
I ordered, but where? There was no mark, no distinction in this nothing place.
Wait. There was a passage nearby, etched in bright remembered power.
myself along it . . .
And found my body again. I dropped into the soft grass, hugging my knees, taking deep breaths for the joy of feeling the life returning to me.
I drew a shaky breath, relieved to be free of that place, but totally amazed to be lying under a sunny, azure blue sky. I stood up and turned slowly, surveying my surroundings. Dried, yellow turf coated the undulating landscape— and there was no other vegetation or life as far as I could see.
“Oh, my,” I said weakly, sitting back down quickly. What had I done?
HAD I kept a record of my recent past, I was glumly sure it would have been a distressingly regular cycle of having, then not having, the basic comforts of life. Necessities might be the better word. I was taking Morgan’s advice concerning native water and food quite seriously— but only because I hadn’t had any chance to do otherwise. I squinted up at the blazing sun, passing my tongue over dry lips, longing for the cool night I’d left. However I had brought myself to this monotonous plain, I had to find my way off again soon or die.
The worst of it was, I knew what I had done, if not how to do it again. Under stress, more concealed memory had broken through the blockage smothering most of my past. I had a name for that terrible nothingness that had almost claimed me twice and Morgan once. It was the M’hir.
I had no idea what the M’hir was, but I had somehow traveled through it, bypassing normal space. Which meant I could be anywhere, though I refused to believe I wasn’t still on Acranam.
I’d gained other fragments of memory, each tantalizing and useless. I had journeyed like this before—routinely, in fact. More proof, if I needed any, of my heritage. But how? I’d been miraculously lucky to find someone else’s passageway through the M’hir. I couldn’t try again blind.
There was another, not-so-minor, problem. Although I wasn’t more than moderately thirsty yet, I soon would be. Along with thirst would come hunger, and then, growing weakness. How much strength would I need to travel back to the escape pod?
No. Not to the pod. I had to stop thinking of the pod—and Morgan. The darkness deep in my thoughts constantly urged me toward him. I refused to listen. Somehow, I knew this evil within me, this new compulsion, meant to drag Morgan into that nothingness, to destroy him. The pod was the one place I mustn’t go, not until I was sure I wasn’t a threat.
I sat down on the dry grass, poking small holes in the turf with my fingers, trying not to feel thirsty. It helped to think I was protecting Morgan by my absence. There was no effort, no dispute in my thoughts as to the rightness of my concern for him. For the first time in my foreshortened memory, I was calm and determined. I would not rejoin Morgan, even if I could figure out how.
However, I had no intention of becoming a set of bones bleached by Acranam’s sun. So what was left? Not Yihtor. I shuddered as the thought of him crossed my mind. And I couldn’t contact Huido. My options were becoming rather limited.
I sighed. Better to act while I was conceivably strong enough to protect myself.
The image of the Clanswoman, Rael, was easy to form. I made myself comfortable, aware that the process might be a long one. I’d no idea how far away she was, or whether she’d help me after I’d scorned her. Careful to maintain every possible safeguard, I made myself into as inconspicuous a mental presence as possible, preparing the questing thought with a skill that came more easily each time I practiced my still uncomfortable power.
The act of sending the thought opened a kind of inner door in my mind, admitting the nothingness of the M’hir. I recoiled, then relaxed slightly as I recognized I was not being drawn in, but simply using some odd new sense. Perhaps the Clan existed partly in that place.
The sun, which I took on faith to be the same one I’d seen the day before, had chased my shadow to my back before I felt the trace of an answer. Instantly, I poured all my remaining strength into the tenuous contact, ignoring the clamminess of my palms.
A flash of surprise, then a reassuring warmth accompanied her recognition, filling my perception. I could feel a path forming between us through the M’hir, becoming wider and more distinct with each input of power.
Holding my half of the path open was draining me as though I’d cut a wrist and was watching my blood pour out on the soil. I tried to hurry my thought.
You called me sister, Clanswoman. Promise you won’t betray me.
Linked to mine through the M’hir, her thoughts were like a mountain pool, so exquisitely transparent that not even the depths were hidden, if I had the strength to search them.
Sister- and heart-kin, Sira. Whatever your trouble, you know you can depend on me.
You are fading.
I’ve noticed that,
I agreed wryly.
Locate for me.
I sensed her puzzlement echo my own, but she didn’t waste time.
Open your thoughts to me. I’ll come to you.
My distrust and suspicion were immediate and impossible to conceal.
You must trust, if I’m to help you, Sister,
Rael’s thought tone was blunt.
I don’t know you,
I said, wavering.
You’re a stranger to me.
Rael’s reply was tinged with impatience.
There must be a thousand words for stranger in the explored galaxy. Let one of them be sister—I don’t care. All I know is to help you, I must be able to find you exactly and without error.
I think my own rapidly growing fatigue was more convincing than her persuasion. I closed my eyes and opened the doors to my surface thoughts. Before I could drop more defenses, she said quickly:
Enough, dear Sister.I have your location. Stay where you are. I must make ready.
I need supplies, water,
I sent through the fog suddenly muffling my thoughts. The contact was gone.
With the warm sun beating down on me, I curled into a ball. Barriers restored, tucked down into the dry soft grass like a bird in a nest, I succumbed to the needs of my weary body and slept. What I could do for myself I had done. The next move was up to the stranger who called herself my kin.
“I SHOULD have brought the galley’s servo unit.” Rael watched me eat with something approaching awe on her beautiful face. “I’ve had fosterlings who didn’t eat this much at a meal, and you know the calories children need when they are still holding that link to their parents.”
Actually, I had no idea, so I grunted something apologetic, though I didn’t put down my cup of stew. Over its rim, I eyed her warily, a bit suspicious that Rael and her welcome provisions would disappear again as magically as they’d arrived. The tent fluttering gently in the cool evening breeze was another of her gifts.
“I’ve learned to stock up while I can,” I said when I was at last as full as possible. “Thank you, Clanswoman.”
Rael’s eyes darkened. “I have a name.”
“I’m sorry, Rael,” and I meant it. She’d shown me nothing but kindness—demanding nothing, not even an explanation for my behavior, which I could see was a constant source of distress to her. “I’ve told you I can’t remember my past,” I said slowly, searchingly. “I’d like to remember you.”
Although Rael offered no mental contact, there was a sense of leashed strength about her, an aliveness I could feel even without the visual impact of her vivid beauty.
As much to break the binding growing between us as anything else, I said sharply: “But it’s hard for me to believe you and I are sisters. Look at you—and at me.” I waved a hand down over my curveless, lean body, still clad in oversized space coveralls from the
Her angry reaction surprised me. “You’ve learned to be cruel among the Humans.”
The hurt in her voice and face made me uncomfortable. It was like kicking a Turrned. “Why do you say that?” I said, steeling myself against guilt. “It’s obvious we’re very different.”
After a moment, Rael nodded graciously. Her long, white hand sketched a gesture I recognized, with a small shock, as one I had offered to Morgan unknowingly. “You should forgive me, dear Sira. I must constantly remind myself that you don’t understand what you’re saying.” It was Rael’s turn to look uneasy. “Which means I have a lot to explain. I wish we knew what happened to you. Are you certain you won’t let me examine your mind? I may not have Cenebar’s healing touch, but—”
“No.” I shook my head for emphasis. “Oh, I believe you mean well enough, Rael. But what about others of your kind? I can’t take the risk.” I thought of Gistries and shivered. Never would I expose myself to that.
Rael accepted my reply with a slow nod. “I might feel the same in your position. But don’t say my kind, Sira. Regardless of how you’ve been treated, you are still one of the M’hiray, the Clan. You’re not Human.” The last word seemed deliberately stressed. I bristled.
“What’s wrong with Humans? If you hate them so much, why live among them?” I glared at her. “And why hate them at all?”
“We live among Humans because we must. There aren’t enough of us to fill a world, let alone run its economy.” She paused. “Even if there were, it’s not the Clan way to live piled on top of one another. Power must travel to enhance the M’hir for all.” This last sounded like a rote lesson, but I thought I understood it. Had I not used pathways created by someone else’s power to arrive here? I tucked away the notion to consider later, not ready to leave the Human issue alone.
“You haven’t answered my question.”
Rael licked her lips and dropped her gaze from mine. “I don’t
Humans. It’s much better to just ignore them, you know. Unfortunately, because of your—situation—I can’t do that. There’s Morgan.”
“So?” If she were as adept at reading voices as minds, Rael should have heard the warning in mine. But she didn’t.
“Because of Morgan, we must discuss certain delicate matters. Which I am not finding easy, Sira. There are things polite adults don’t discuss.” She muttered something under her breath that sounded like, “Pella better not hear about this.”
Then louder: “To begin with, you must understand that Human and Clan are distinct, regardless of how similar we appear to each other. And we must remain so.”
If the tent had been taller, I’d have stood. I had to settle for an annoyed snort. “You’re as bad as Morgan for riddles. Say what you mean.”
“Words are useless.”
“Words must do.” I made this an ultimatum.
“Your refusal to open to me is wasting time,” Rael sounded exasperated. “I can’t sense your feelings, Sira. I don’t know you!”
“That makes things nicely even, then.” My smile probably contained every bit of the cruelty she’d accused me of earlier. “You’ve helped me. I’d like to understand your place in this, Rael. But I won’t let you near my thoughts.”
Eyes that were dark, liquid pools regarded me with a strange sadness. “Then I will do what I can with words.” Her lip curled. “However inadequate.”
I realized my advantage over the Clanswoman. She’d never needed to read expression; perhaps she couldn’t. Better still, I thought, she’d probably never needed to control her own. “Do your best, Rael,” I suggested.
“This is such a dangerous time in your life, Sira,” she began, each sentence following an obvious effort. “You remain a Chooser. Because, for you, there isn’t to be Choice.” A flush rose into her cheeks, staining them a faint pink. “The Council examined every possible candidate; there’s none—not in the coming generation either. That was their so-called reason behind the decree to keep you from all but family.” She smiled, then sobered almost immediately. “In places, you’re somewhat of a legend.”
Aggravated, I rubbed at the familiar ache between my eyes. Matters were rapidly becoming more, rather than less, confusing. I didn’t try to keep the edge from my voice. “No wonder I preferred to be Human. It was certainly simpler,” I commented bitterly. “What’s a Chooser? What’s Choice? How can I be a legend? And by what right does this Council of yours order my life?”
She waved her hands to slow my angry questioning. “This is impossible! I can’t communicate this way.” Rael was now distinctly red-faced. There was simply no guile in her. Emotions came and went across her expressive features with an openness I found comforting. At the moment, concern warred with confusion.
She was the one needing reassurance, I realized, amazed. “I’m sorry, Rael,” I said, quite honestly. “Take your time. Tell me what you can. I’ll try to save my questions.”
Rael let out a deep shuddering breath that had something of a sob to it. “I don’t know where I should start, Sira. You taught me, remember? No, I suppose you don’t. I’ve depended on you all my life—it hurts to see you like this, to have you distrust me, close your thoughts to me.