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A NineStar Press Publication

www.ninestarpress.com

Ardulum: Second Don

Copyright © 2017 J.S. Fields

Cover Art by Natasha Snow ©Copyright 2017

Edited by: Sasha Vorun

Published in 2017 by NineStar Press, New Mexico, USA.


This is a work of fiction. All characters, places and events are from the author’s imagination and should not be confused with fact. Any resemblance to persons, living or dead, events or places is purely coincidental.


All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced in any material form, whether by printing, photocopying, scanning or otherwise without the written permission of the publisher, NineStar Press, LLC.


Warning:

This book contains scenes of graphic violence and gore, as well as brief depictions of genocide.

Second Don

Ardulum

J.S. Fields

Table of Contents

Dedication

Acknowledgements

The Charted Systems

Chapter One

Chapter Two

Chapter Three

Chapter Four

Chapter Five

Chapter Six

Chapter Seven

Chapter Eight

Chapter Nine

Chapter Ten

Chapter Eleven

Chapter Twelve

Chapter Thirteen

Chapter Fourteen

Chapter Fifteen

Chapter Sixteen

Chapter Seventeen

Chapter Eighteen

Chapter Nineteen

Chapter Twenty

Chapter Twenty-One

Chapter Twenty-Two

Chapter Twenty-Three

Chapter Twenty-Four

Chapter Twenty-Five

Chapter Twenty-Six

Chapter Twenty-Seven

Chapter Twenty-Eight

Chapter Twenty-Nine

Chapter Thirty

Chapter Thirty-One

Glossary of Ardulan Talents

About the Author

For my Aunt Barbara, who always made sure I had books to read with strong female protagonists, and for my mother, who forced me to read them even when they were dry


Acknowledgements

Whew! Books are always a huge collaboration of sorts, and so many people helped to make this one possible. Thanks, first, as always, to Lauren for all the late-night brainstorming, red ink, and concept of bipeds needing “walkies.” Thank you to my editor, Sasha Vorun, for taking a chance on me as a brand-new sci-fi writer and suffering through my perpetual inability to properly use commas. To Letty, for finding time to beta read despite the demands of two toddlers, and once again, to the amazing forum readers over at 17th Shards Reading Excuses (Bill, Robinski, and so many others) for going over each chapter until their eyes bled.



Chapter 1: Eld Palace, Ardulum

This is a Galactic News Network special report. Aid agency reports coming in outline a new species found on Risalian ships in the aftermath of the Crippling War. Our Risalian sources confirm the species as ‘Ardulan,’ a non-sentient beast of burden. The bipeds resemble Terrans and Neek in appearance but have unique subdermal bruising. All specimens thus far recovered have been dead; however, the newly appointed Markin request that should a live one be found, it should be turned over to the Council immediately.

—Excerpt from wideband news broadcast in the Charted Systems, December 2nd, 2060 CE



It was his Talent Day. His day to be here, in the old palace. His day to meet the Eld and complete his metamorphosis.

Arik pushed a sheet of black hair from his face—streaked with red from a summer tending andal trees—and began a slow, deliberate procession towards the Talent Chamber. He passed under a high andal archway built in the traditional encased knot style, reliefs carved into each aborted branch. Reaching out as he passed, Arik ran a finger over one of the knots, noting the texture created by chisels and pyrography. He picked his way over andal floorboards, worn to unevenness from generations of youth making this same journey. The lustrous, black heartwood reflected the sunlight falling from the glass ceiling, but Arik didn’t turn his eyes from the glare.

Four more steps and a turn brought Arik around the final corner. He faced the door to the Talent Chamber and paused. His heart rate increased, so Arik rested his back against the andal wall paneling, digging his nails into the soft, white sapwood. It was comforting to be so close to Ardulum’s native tree, reassuring to embed himself in it, if only slightly. His pulse calmed. His breathing slowed. Arik took another two calming breaths and pushed off the wall. He nudged the door ahead with his foot, and it slid silently open, revealing the room inside.

As with the receiving hall and throne room, natural light filtered in from the glass ceiling. Here, however, it was muted. Outside, the canopy of several large andal trees swayed in the breeze, casting patchwork shadows on the floor. Arik stepped forward, trying to keep to only the darker, shadowed areas, and approached the rulers of Ardulum.

In the center of the room, the three elds sat on ornate, wooden thrones, each watching him with reserved amusement. Arik supposed humor was a good sign. Perhaps the Eld had a soft spot for young second dons on their Talent Day. Perhaps being the only one present meant the Eld were not tired from numerous ceremonies, and Arik would get their full attention.

Arik stopped when he was within an arm’s length of the Eld and then let his gaze flicker around the hall. Towering sculptures of past elds, carved in great detail in the black andal heartwood, loomed over the thrones and stared ominously at Arik—their freshly polished faces glistened in the baronial light.

A deep male voice broke the silence. “You come before us, Arik of the second don, fresh from metamorphosis. What do you bring?” The male eld, who looked to be the oldest of the group, stared unblinkingly at Arik as he stroked the worn wood grain of his throne seat. His two Talents were carved into the throne base, easy for Arik to see: Hearth and Mind. It wasn’t a bad pairing to have. The Eld were the only ones on Ardulum to have more than one Talent, of course, but Arik liked the balance created when the Talents encompassing protection and construction intertwined with the Talents surrounding critical thinking and mathematics. The male eld was likely an excellent architect, which, if the palace suffered any ill effects after the next move, would be a key skill to have.

Arik’s stomach growled loudly, and the youth sheepishly placed a hand over it, hoping that somehow the Eld hadn’t heard.

“Arik?” the male eld prompted again, his tone gentler than before. “What do you bring to offer to us, your Eld?”

Arik closed his eyes tightly for just a moment and brought his mind back to the present. Andal help him, he could smell wood cooking, the sweet odor wafting from the kitchens. Arik’s stomach growled again, and his mouth started to water.

Focus! he scolded himself as he fumbled momentarily through his tunic pockets. This is the biggest day of your life. Stop thinking about lunch! Finally, his fingers came across his offering—the form of a small child whittled from andal from his parents’ plantation. The carving was crude and made only from sapwood—Arik had never had great fine motor skills, but the figure had visible appendages and a reasonably detailed face. Arik hoped it was enough.

“I bring you this gift,” Arik said slowly, his voice wavering and squeaking to a higher pitch on the last word. “May it show my devotion to my spiritual journey, so I can leave my childhood and discover my Talent. Please accept this offering and guide me onto my new path.” With shaking hands, Arik knelt on the mat and held the carving up over his head. The coarse weave of the andal fibers dug into his knees, and Arik had to stop himself from reaching down to scratch.

A cool hand touched Arik’s wrist briefly before removing the carving. “We accept your offering, Arik of the second don.” The female eld reached down and put a small finger under Arik’s chin, lifting his face up. “Rise and receive your Talent.”

Arik got to his feet, suddenly hyperaware of these mystical individuals. He’d never been this close to the Eld before and likely never would again, so Arik took a moment to study their faces. They were old, older than the oldest third don Arik had ever seen—and yet, their fingers were elegant, their bodies strong and well-muscled. The male eld looked to be from one of the southern provinces. His hair still had dark streaks shooting through a mass of silver, and his skin was closer to olive in its translucency. The female, blessed with Talents of Mind and Aggression, was tall, her sharp chin well above the other elds’ heads. Her hair was uniformly cinnamon save for at her temples. She, too, looked to be from the south. However, the gatoi, of Science and Hearth, was much paler, zir skin containing next to no melanin. Zie was from the farthest northern province, then, where sunlight rarely penetrated the thick andal forests. The birth rate was skewed in favor of the third-gender gatois in that region, although Arik wasn’t certain whether that was a natural phenomenon or whether it came from parental selection.

The male eld cleared his throat, and Arik again snapped back to the present. The Eld were still staring at him, unmoving. Was his offering not enough? Was there another component he had forgotten? His mother and talther, his gatoi parent, had helped him carve it, staying up late each night since Arik’s emergence and guiding the young man’s wavering chisel with steady hands. A week wasn’t much time to construct an offering. Did others bring more elaborate gifts? Should he have done something in line with what he hoped his Talent might be? Dizziness threatened to topple him, the smells from the kitchen confused him, and he had to work to control his breathing. His mind wandered. The increasingly saturated smell of cooked andal spun through his head. Was he in the kitchens? It certainly seemed that way now. How had he ignored the intensity of the smell before? It was almost like standing in the rotisserie himself, the scent of sweet spice invading his nostrils.

The female eld smiled slightly at the male, who gave a knowing wink. Arik teetered in a near panic, vision straying between reality and his wandering delusions.

“Peace, young one,” the gatoi eld said as zie stepped forward. In zir hands, zie carried a small wooden bowl filled with a pale mucus. Zie dipped two fingers into the bowl, coating them, and then held zir hand out towards Arik. “Step forward to begin your journey.”

Arik’s empty stomach rolled. He knew the mucus was synthetic, but what it represented brought the taste of bile to the back of his throat. Determined to not embarrass himself further, Arik took a confident step towards the gatoi eld and closed his eyes. For the past year, he’d been instructed in the ritual that was about to take place. He would not mess things up now—not on his Talent Day, no matter how strange and ostentatious the performers or how heavily the air hung with the smell of food.

“I am Eld,” the gatoi eld said steadily as zie outlined Arik’s face with the mucus. “I am the vessels that transport power.”

“I am Eld,” said the female, taking the bowl from the gatoi. She swirled her smallest finger in the mixture and then coated Arik’s nose. “I am the fibers of strength.” She handed the bowl to the male, who had stepped forward as well.

“I am Eld,” the male said, pinching Arik’s chin between two mucus-coated fingers. “I am the rays that store our knowledge.”

Arik counted silently to fifteen in his head as he’d been instructed. The tingling at the mucosal contact points radiated from his face down to his neck, absorbed into his skin, and congealed into a tight, painful lump just above his heart.

“I am Arik of the second don,” he said when he finished the count. Gently, slowly, Arik moved his consciousness into himself to where the lump lay just under his skin, pulsing in rhythm with his heartbeat. He watched it for a moment, external stimuli forgotten. He was both slightly revolted and slightly in awe of this thing, this synthetic chemical compound that would, in just a few seconds, stimulate his adrenal gland and cause the production of a massive number of hormones—hormones that would determine how he would spend the rest of his life.

Arik let his mind touch the lump. The mass dissolved, its components seeping into his bloodstream and heading directly for their target. Arik’s body became warm—and then hot. He broke out in a sweat, the salty liquid beading on his yellow skin and reflecting in the bright overhead lighting. He shut his eyes and was forced to his hands and knees when the chemicals hit his adrenal gland and the hormones began to affect his other cells.

Cells changed. Cells morphed. His blood circulated in the normal direction, paused for a fraction of a second, and then reversed. His metabolism increased, and his internal body temperature shot up even more. Veins bulged in his wrists and began to burst, blood seeping under the skin and forming bright violet bruises. Arik felt like he couldn’t breathe anymore. The heat was too intense. He began to pant and fell onto his right side, curling into a fetal position.

As abruptly as it began, the heat began to back off. Arik could feel his cells calming, the veins in his wrists closing. Sweat stung his eyes, seeping past his eyelids, and Arik brought his left hand up to wipe them clean. When his vision cleared and he brought his hand away, Arik saw his new markings for the first time—three linked, black circles on the inside of both of his wrists surrounded by a bruised haze of extra subdermal blood. His smile grew slowly as he moved into a sitting position and looked up at the Eld.

“I am Arik of the second don,” he said clearly, his voice resonating, crisp and strong, throughout the chamber. No wavering. He could be proud of that. “I am of Science.”

“And there your Talent shall lie,” the female responded. “Stand, Arik, and leave this palace. Return to your home and begin your apprenticeship.”

Arik’s face broke into a broad grin. He clasped his hands behind his back and stood, his previous discomforts forgotten. Arik took a moment to straighten his tunic before bowing to each eld. “I thank you, Eld, for showing me my way.”

The Eld smiled back but remained silent. Remembering that he was to leave promptly, Arik turned and took several confident steps towards the door. Pride filled his chest—pride at his Talent, pride at the way he’d conducted himself, and pride that he could go home and apprentice to a Talent that would not take him away from his family or his andal saplings. With the Talent of Science, he could stay and work his ancestors’ andal plantations—could tend the young trees he’d grown up with. His entire family was of Science. They would be proud of him.

Several steps into his departure, the smell of the cooked andal began to waft towards him again. What should have been a pleasant, understated smell was pungent and slightly curdled. He tried to ignore it, quickening his pace. The soft slack slack slack of Arik’s bare feet hitting the polished andal floor was suddenly joined by the deep sounds of a heartbeat.

Slack du-dumn, slack du-dumn, slack

Arik spun around, confused, and looked for the source of the noise. It took another three seconds of du-dumn du-dumn before Arik realized that it was his heart he was hearing, the beats becoming more rapid in his agitation.

Arik swallowed, his throat dry. His muscles twitched under his tunic, the fibers itching his skin. He glanced at the Eld, a peculiar expression on their wrinkled faces.

“I…I don’t feel well,” Arik said, mostly to himself. He cringed when his own voice sounded too loud in his ears. His heart was trying to escape out of his chest, and no amount of controlled breathing seemed to help. The smell of the andal wound through his head and down his throat, causing Arik to gag. Thoughts of simultaneous choking and hyperventilating filled his mind. Unsure of what else to do, he moved his consciousness back inside himself, trying to find the cause of his distress.

What he saw shocked him. This wasn’t the body he knew—did not resemble anything of his. Here, capillaries burst just under his skin and leaked perpetual blood out of his circulatory system. Hormones raced everywhere, transmitting across his chest and up into his brain. Something was happening near his throat, too. Loose blood pushed ligaments around, unwrapping and changing their positions, and pooled just under his larynx. Cartilage scavenged from around his thyrohyoid ligament sidled closer, surrounding the blood.

Arik opened his mouth in an effort to call over the Eld, but was shocked when all that came out was a gurgle. He tried again, forcing more air out through what had once been his larynx. Again, only gibberish.

He grew hot, a red flush surfacing not just on his cheeks, but across his entire body. Arik watched in stunned horror as the purple veins that had always been just slightly visible under his skin—the veins that had already started to fade after his time with the Eld—darkened to black.

Once more, Arik looked to the Eld, desperate for guidance. They’d moved closer. The gatoi reached a bony hand out to Arik, zir expression unreadable.

Help? Arik sent frantically on a telepathic thread. It was unacceptable to speak to the Eld in such a manner, but he was in trouble. They had to know!

None of the Eld responded to Arik’s mental query. The hand remained out and open, all elds staring at Arik expectantly. Not knowing what else to do, Arik reached out. His whole right arm was covered now in arcing black veins that grouped into geometric patterns just under his skin.

I’m dying, Arik thought to himself. The smell of the andal is actually going to kill me. He let his fingers touch the tips of the gatoi eld’s hand, and his mind cleared. The contact sparked through Arik, and he snapped his head up, eyes wide. The gatoi eld stared back, unblinking, as pieces of emotion began to filter into Arik’s mind. Discomfort, unease, disappointment… That didn’t seem right. He hadn’t done anything wrong—something had just misfired, that was all. He was still Arik, still of Science. A healer could fix his larynx, he was sure of it. He wasn’t quite sure why all of this was happening, but surely the Eld knew. Surely others had had this same problem.

The intensity of the connection became uncomfortable, but when Arik tried to pull his hand away, he could not. The gatoi eld had a tight grip on Arik’s wrist. The male eld moved behind Arik in two fluid steps and placed his hands on his shoulders, pushing down to keep Arik in place. The female grabbed his other hand around the wrist, her longer fingernails digging into his skin.

Time seemed to be slowing. Arik felt his heart rate depress, the blood in his veins decrease in flow rate. His mind became muddled again. Something was wrong, and he needed to speak to the Eld about it. Why couldn’t he speak? Why wouldn’t the words come out?

Dark spots began to swim before Arik’s vision. His heart didn’t seem to be beating anymore, and Arik thought that was wrong somehow. The blackness increased. Arik slumped. The male eld backed away quickly, and Arik’s body hit the wood floor with a thump, his head bouncing once after the initial impact. Words leaked across the darkness: defective, unsuitable, terminate.

Terminate?

Arik opened his mouth to make a sound to indicate his distress, when his brain, starved of oxygen, finally shut down.

Chapter 2: Mmnnuggl Pod, Risalian Wormhole

In order to keep the Terran and the altered Risalian Ardulan alive, we need to stop at Xinar Hub on our way back to Mmnn. We will be buying bipedal foodstuffs, drinks, and clothes. We might be a while. Don’t worry though—we will be back soon. Everything is going just fine. Nothing to worry about. Maybe we could bring up ceiling height at the next council meeting.

—Tightband communication from the small Mmnnuggl pod Bysspp, to the Mmnnuggl president’s office, Third Month of Arath, 26_15



“This text is impossible!”

Neek slammed the plastic data pad into the wall. The glass screen shattered in a satisfying crash, and the unit went dark. A moment later, a thin gel secreted from the pad’s scaffold, condensed, and hardened. The unit turned back on.

It was less satisfying to break things when they could regenerate. Exhaling, Neek bent and picked the pad back up. The text resumed where she had left off, the screen’s backlighting flashing irritably.

She couldn’t read any more. It had been bad enough having to go through the old Neek holy texts with her uncle during her exile from her homeworld, but at least then it had only been once a month. She might have been branded a heretic for claiming Ardulum was a stupid, religious fairy tale, but she was still niece to the high priest. Now, however, the text seemed more cumbersome than ever. In the past two days alone, she had finished two versions of The Book of the Arrival and was about to start the first version of The Book of the Uplifting. She couldn’t bring herself to open another file. She only had to kill another half an hour until their diminutive Mmnnuggl pod made it to Risal, but Neek couldn’t take one more verse about Ardulan deities or an impossibly traveling planet. She had an actual Ardulan—sort of—onboard the ship. She hadn’t been able to bring herself to believe in the old texts while still living on her homeworld under her parents’ care. There was no way she could find them even remotely plausible now, despite one of those supposedly mystical beings sitting meters away from her, separated only by thin sheets of biometal and putrid green lighting.

Ardulum was a planet. A traveling planet. A traveling planet that housed a race of gods or god-like beings that had fundamentally shaped Neek civilization. It was ridiculous and unbelievable, and yet, yet

Neek stood as much as she could in the low-ceilinged room and tried to stretch away the cramps from her thighs. She splayed her hands out on the ceiling, letting her mind wander to trivial things, like if her stuk would interact with the paint, or how her life would have been different if she’d been born into one of the older family lines on Neek, the ones with three fingers per hand instead of eight. Had that happened, she would have never been able to pilot the Pledge and its geriatric, piecemeal navigation systems. She wouldn’t be here, on a Mmnnuggl pod, with an Ardulan and—damn it! If the Risalians didn’t have the answers she was looking for or at least some trail of information she could follow, Neek wasn’t certain what they would do. Regardless of the promise she had made to Emn, Neek couldn’t find Ardulum without any leads. If they were lucky, the Risalians wouldn’t shoot them the moment they emerged from the wormhole and would provide some coordinates where they might begin. The Risalians were looking for their Ardulans, after all, and had to have acquired the base genetic stock from somewhere. Armed with coordinates, Neek could stop sifting through mountains of religious text, looking for location clues, and driving herself slowly insane.

The ache in her thighs wasn’t getting better. With a labored sigh, Neek leaned her head against the wall and cursed the coldness of the metal. She closed her eyes. The white noise was blissful. She counted her heartbeats against the thrum of the ship’s engines and tried to ignore the steady, feathery presence in her mind. The presence wasn’t intrusive, but thinking about it overloaded her brain, blurred her vision, and made her throat feel tight. No matter how many times Neek tried to put the jigsaw pieces of her life into some semblance of order, the pieces kept changing shape. It was hard to focus on anything except the woman in the cockpit—the Ardulan in the cockpit. The god in the cockpit. Maybe. Shit.

Memories flooded her mind.

A blood-soaked little girl tumbled from a stasis chamber, one dark triangle under her eye.

Flotsam from a Risalian cutter.

Emn’s chrysalis nestled underneath a pyre of Risalian bodies. The smoky smells. The crisp flesh.

The scattered remains of the Mercy’s Pledge drifting through space, carrying Yorden’s body with them.

The Ardulan woman who ended the Crippling War, or whatever the news feeds were calling it now. Ended the lives of many Mmnnuggls, Risalians, and her own people.

The Ardulan woman who was piloting their stolen Mmnnuggl ship. The woman so covered in Talent markings that little of her translucent skin remained.

The woman she couldn’t be around without her body entering into some sort of primeval panic mode, which did not create an enjoyable atmosphere within the ship. Her Journey youth, Nicholas, had been sure to point that out several times over. Loudly. Usually when they were all together in the cockpit and Neek couldn’t avoid Emn’s stares.

A soft knock on the door drew Neek away from her memories. The round panel slid into the wall to reveal a gangly, young man with thick, dark curls framing his face and even darker skin. Nicholas brushed the curls from his eyes as he stepped into Neek’s room and smiled lopsidedly, surveying the wreckage.

“Don’t give me that look,” Neek spat as she launched a small, plastic tablet at his head. Nicholas ducked just in time to avoid impact, and the pad rebounded off the wall, landing at his feet. He shoved his hands into the gaping pockets of his flight suit and stared at her reproachfully. Neek glared in response.

“No, I still haven’t found any clues for how to find Ardulum. Yes, I’m sure I don’t want to come hang out in the galley or the cockpit or wherever you and Emn have set up camp, and no, we are not going to avoid Risalian space. We have a reasonable chance of not being shot on sight. The ship is valuable, if nothing else.”

“Neek,” Nicholas interjected, but Neek cut him off.

“They’re the only species in the Charted Systems to have potentially interacted with the Ardulans, so they’re a logical starting point.” Neek kicked at the nearest pile of pads, this time trying to avoid cracking the screens. “If you really want to steer clear of the Risalians, start reading. There are three main holy books, four revised editions of each, and a small mountain of supplementary text written in the first ten years after the Departure. Oh, and these plastic tablets Chen gave us don’t have the memory or speed of the newer cellulose ones, so each only holds half a holy book. There is a mess of oversized artwork files embedded in the text. Enjoy.”

“I’m not the one that doesn’t want to go to Risal, Neek, and I don’t have any goals in this Ardulum thing, outside of wanting to help Emn find her people.” Nicholas dropped to his knees and picked up the pad Neek had thrown at him. “How far into this are you?”

Neek sighed and tugged at the end of her braid, debating whether it was long enough to strangle Nicholas with. “I’m systematically reading one holy book at a time, starting with the original and working my way through the revisions. I’m about to start the second set of texts.”

Nicholas eyed her warily. “Emn is afraid…”

An image of Emn’s mother—her skull shattered, the pieces spinning on the floor—danced across Neek’s vision. She pushed the image away, buried it under a million other memories she didn’t need to see right now. “I understand Emn’s fears. What the Risalians did is unforgivable. We’d be completely remiss, however, if we didn’t at least try to get information from the Risalians. Emn deserves a home. It’s a crazy undertaking, but I made a promise. And this, here, with the Risalians, is the best place to start. Surely she understands that.”

“She might, if you actually explained it to her in person.” Nicholas nudged Neek’s boot with his bare foot. “It’s been two weeks, Neek, and you’ve spoken to Emn maybe three times.” He put his hand over his nose. “It smells in here. You have to leave. Walk around. Eat something. Talk to her.” Nicholas pressed his hand into the film on the floor and lifted it slowly. A squelching noise followed as the film stretched and then popped loose. “One room can only handle so much stuk. Natural secretion or not, your body can’t possibly have evolved to stay stationary in a tiny room all day.”

“Get out.”

Nicholas stared at her, his brown eyes so full of concern that she wanted to vomit. Last week, they’d spent four days on Craston, getting supplies and catching up with Chen, one of the late Captain Yorden Kuebrich’s old contacts. Yorden. Andal help her, she missed that old foul-mouthed Terran and the dilapidated tramp transport she’d piloted with him for a decade. If it hadn’t been sheared in two by a Risalian cutter, Yorden and the adult Ardulan woman they’d rescued from the Risalians would still be alive—and Neek wouldn’t be the one shepherding the remaining crew of the former Mercy’s Pledge through space. Damn Yorden, and damn his death!

Neek dragged her mind back to the present, before memories threatened to suffocate her. She’d seen Emn every day while in the spaceport, even on the day she’d gotten horrifically lost trying to find someone who could sharpen the strange knife-vegetable peeler thing with the hooked blade she’d gotten from Chen the last time they’d come this way, and for some reason couldn’t manage to just throw away. She’d probably spoken to the young woman too, although she couldn’t recall what she might have said. Nicholas was clearly exaggerating.

“I’m fine,” Neek managed through gritted teeth. “Are you going to help, or are you going to leave?”

Nicholas tapped the glass screen of the pad. A chime sounded from the old technology as a start-up screen flashed on. Nicholas grimaced and brought the pad up closer to his face. “I’ll help. Where do you want me to start?”

Picking up the pad she’d been working on, Neek checked her progress. The first two sentences from The Book of the Uplifting stared back, taunting her with hyperbole. “Tackle the extra material, and we can compare notes when you finish. That way there is no chance we overlap and you have to suffer through the same crap I just read. Also, watch out for mentions of the word ‘Keft.’ It keeps coming up, and I can’t tell if it’s a planet or food or what.”

Nicholas slumped into a sitting position in the far corner, eyeing her warily. The pad wavered in his hand, moving up to his eyes, down to his lap, and then back up again. On the third iteration, he opened his mouth to speak.

“Don’t,” Neek warned, hoping to forestall another lecture.

“Fine.” Nicholas looked down at his pad, running his hands over the plastic scaffold that held the glass screen in place. The pad flashed twice, indicating that the text was ready. Nicholas squinted against the bright backlighting of the device and then groaned. “One hundred and seventy-three books of ‘encounter’ stories and over forty volumes of poetry.” He looked up. “Aw, not the poetry. I tried to go through some of this stuff when we were marooned on your homeworld. It’s excruciating.”

“Hey, there are technical reports and data from the technology the Ardulans supposedly gifted the Neek with as well. You’re always babbling about how great cellulosic integration is. You should love those sections. The texts describe the whole process in detail, from andal genetic engineering to cellulosic separation and weaving cellulose into biometals.”

Nicholas huffed and bent back over his pad, grumbling.

“Hey!” Neek kicked him with a booted foot. “That part is interesting. The Risalian company Cell-Tal is credited with developing all the cellulosic integration techniques, but if you read between the lines of the text, the Ardulans were doing it first.” She tapped the pad against the floor. “Looks like the Neek people weren’t the only ones who were given gifts.”

Nicholas stared back at her, unconvinced. She watched the youth for another moment, making sure he wasn’t going to pepper her with more questions, before she returned to her own text. The first fifteen pages went quickly, containing only a primer on wood anatomy. After the introduction, the text veered more to Ardulan encounters on the planet Neek. Likely fiction, in Neek’s opinion, although her thoughts on that were certainly evolving. This passage covered sightings of the Eld, the triarchy which ruled Ardulum. Neek slowed her reading. She read the same paragraph once, twice, and then a third time, checking that she wasn’t making up words as a result of eye strain.

On that day, we were treated to a most holy sight. The Eld had chosen the harvest festival to greet us in person, we who managed the andal forests. Magnificent were they, the Eld of the Ardulans—resplendent in their golden robes, the markings of their many Talents shimmered in the dawn light.

Many Talents.

Eld.

Emn and all her markings.

Neek had had enough revelations in the past two months. She didn’t need another. Neek tossed the pad to the side, cracking yet another screen, and buried her head in her hands. She could just file this tidbit away, let it simmer and marinate until it was digestible. The texts did change from version to version. That was natural in any revisionist religion. The changes weren’t major, but it was possible this paragraph wasn’t even in any of the revised material. There was no need to overreact. No need to jump to conclusions. Nicholas was likely buried in some bad poetry and hadn’t even looked up when she’d thrown her pad, and Emn was up in the cockpit right now, probably synced with the Mmnnuggl ship’s mental interface and trying to figure out how to work the wormhole generator. Everything was fine.

In the back of her mind, Emn’s presence stirred, nudged by Neek’s errant thoughts. Their connection tightened, the wispy presence continuing to flicker but making no move to engage. Emn was keeping her distance, which Neek appreciated, but she felt the pressure of a silent question every time she reached for their link.

Neek didn’t know what to say to her. How was a Neek—a member of a species that gave up their individual names upon adulthood so they could become symbolically closer to a mythical planet—supposed to address an Ardulan? What did one say to someone whom her people worshipped as a god? What was a religious outcast supposed to do when a woman with not one but multiple Talents was stuck with her on a ship? Furthermore, how had she forgotten about the description of the Eld? If Emn really was Ardulan, if that fucking traveling planet did exist, she just…just…

Neek’s thoughts continued to drift. It took Nicholas clearing his throat for her to realize that her posture had become rigid, her back ramrod straight and arms tight at her sides.

“Dry reading,” Nicholas ventured. “Looks like yours is more interesting. What’s it about?”

Neek shrugged her shoulders, picked up another tablet, and made an effort to stare at it. She shoved her emotions down, buried them under other repressed memories, and kept quiet.

Nicholas continued to fish. “Find the planet, by any chance? Or did you stumble upon a declaration of non-divinity?” Neek could feel Nicholas’s pointed stare. “That’d be really convenient, because maybe then you’d stop acting like a doofus every time Emn was in the same room as you.”

A growl bubbled up from Neek’s throat despite her best efforts to squelch it. Nicholas always knew just the right buttons to push. “I have no fucking idea what to believe,” she muttered. “I’m willing to accept that the Risalians tinkered around with some poor species and made very powerful weapons. Are they connected to a traveling planet that maybe shaped Neek civilization? Who knows. It would be nice to find out, sure. Nice to find out, then go back home, and rub it in everyone’s smirking face if it doesn’t exist, which, realistically, it probably does not.”

“If you don’t think Ardulum really exists, then why are we doing all this?”

Neek continued avoiding his eyes.

“Well?” Nicholas demanded. “If you say it out loud, it might actually help.”

“I’m not talking about this anymore, Nicholas.” Neek’s voice was low and cold. It was enough to shut Nicholas up, but even after Neek raised her head, he was still staring at her, a look she couldn’t place on his face.

“You can’t avoid her forever.”

“What am I supposed to say to her?” Her tone came out pleading instead of angry, but it was too late to stop the flood of words. “I don’t know how to act.” Neek swiped her knuckles across the pants of her baggy flight suit. “Mental guide, I could deal with. Protector, I can live with. Whatever I am now…” she trailed off and grabbed her pad again. “I just can’t, Nick. Here. Read this.” Neek tapped the tablet in her hand to bring up The Book of the Uplifting, scrolled to the paragraph on the Eld, and then handed it to Nicholas.

“Second of the holy books, huh?” he asked before silently scanning the page. When he finished, he put the pad down and looked appraisingly at Neek. “The Eld are the leaders, that much I know. Is there something else I am supposed to be getting out of this?”

Neek picked the pad back up and shut it off with a quick swipe. “Many Talents, Nicholas. As in, more than one.”

“Yeah, but couldn’t that just mean more than one because they each had one? So therefore, there were many Talents?”

“Maybe. But maybe not. I have to check the other editions. But if an eld can have more than one Talent…”

“Emn potentially being of the ruling caste isn’t what this is about, Neek, and you know it.” Nicholas brought his hands down and tilted his head. “Be reasonable. She’s Emn. She’s our Emn. Eld, Ardulan, or Risalian construct, treating her with deference and piety isn’t going to help anything. She certainly doesn’t know the protocol for Neek-Ardulan interactions. Why should you care?”

“Right,” Neek muttered. “So, if the next wayward passenger we get on our ship is baby Jesus or Buddha or some other Terran deity, I’ll be sure to remind you that protocol is irrelevant.”

Nicholas rolled his eyes. “Fine. Then don’t talk. Spend some time together. Get to know her as the adult she is, not the little kid we rescued. If she starts turning water into wine, call me.” A smirk crept across his face as he stood, hunched, and opened the door to the hallway. “Emn said we should arrive at Risal in the next twenty minutes, assuming a Mmnnuggl pod doesn’t try to take us out again. Your time in your cave here is almost up. Emn and I will be waiting for you in the cockpit when you’re ready to face her or bow down in reverence. Whatever suits you.”

Neek halfheartedly tossed a pad at Nicholas as the door slid shut behind him. After waiting a moment to make sure he wouldn’t reappear, she picked up the pad with the Eld passage, took a deep breath, and swiped to the next page. She could do this. She could stay focused on their goal of finding the traveling planet. She just had to ignore the woman in the cockpit, the emotions that kept bubbling to the surface, and what all those Talent markings could mean if they ever landed on Ardulum.

Chapter 3: Mmnnuggl Pod, Risalian Space

We have become increasingly interested in the Terran who travels with the captive Risalian Ardulan. We have included select video of their interactions to date. Request guidance on how best to proceed.

—Tightband communication from the small Mmnnuggl pod Bysspp, to the Mmnnuggl president’s office, Third Month of Arath, 26_15



Wetness ran along her ear canal. Emn tilted her head, allowing several drops of maroon blood to trickle out. She checked the area where they fell, but just as before, the texture of the floor hid the blood from view. Relieved that there wouldn’t be awkward conversations when Neek finally surfaced, Emn slid her mind from the interface, the pressure inside her skull waning.

They’d entered Risalian space only moments ago. While Emn wasn’t looking forward to communicating with the Risalians, she did understand the reasoning. Besides, if the Risalians did have information on Ardulum, the crew might finally—finally—be able to leave the Charted Systems and find the planet from which her progenitors originated. They might find her genetic family, however distant, and maybe, just maybe, find a place where she wasn’t hunted for her abilities.

“You have to tell her,” Nicholas said. He pushed himself out of a lean and pointed to where Emn’s blood had fallen. She’d been interfacing with the ship all the way through the wormhole and hadn’t noticed Nicholas return to the cockpit. That meant Emn was getting a lecture, one way or the other. Annoyed, she tugged at the fabric across her chest, the sensation something she was still getting used to, and turned to look at Nicholas. She’d have much preferred a lecture from Neek.

Nicholas’s eyebrow rose. “This is the fourth time I’ve seen you bleed from interfacing with the ship. If your physiology is so incompatible with it, then Neek needs to know. We need to find another ship.”

Emn dabbed at her ear with a finger, ensuring the canal was clean, and then straightened the front of her dress. She’d already stopped the bleeding. The blood vessel breaks had been small—only minor capillaries affected—and healing was simple first-don stuff. Except, each time she synced with the ship, the pain was worse. What had started as a light buzzing during her time on the Mmnnuggl flagship Llttrin, during the Crippling War, was now a pressure that thumped between her skull and brain. It was ever-expanding, pulsed behind her eyes, crushed blood vessels, and had her leaking maroon from her ears and nose.

After sitting down against the black paneling, Emn looked at her lap. The dress, which she’d managed to keep mostly clean of blood, was tight in areas she’d not anticipated. It clung to her hips and chest, highlighting the most notable changes since her metamorphosis. It was… Could something be uncomfortable and yet comforting at the same time? She was an adult. There was no denying that, not with something so formfitting. Emn enjoyed the visual reminder of who she had become.

“For me to discuss any of this with Neek, she’d have to actually talk to me. Right after the Crippling War, I thought we had broken through that layer of self-doubt, or whatever makes Neek so rigid around me, but I guess not.” Emn went to pull at the front of her dress again before catching herself.

Nicholas ran his hands through his thick hair and shook his head. “You’re telepathically connected. You don’t have to be in the same room to talk.” Just as he had when she was in first don, Nicholas plopped beside her so she could lean into him. The reminder of their friendship helped ease the thumping in her head. She was forever grateful that Nicholas didn’t seem at all uncomfortable with the changes she’d undergone.

“Do you think it looks all right?” Emn asked, looking down at the front of her dress.

Nicholas snorted. “You look like a woman in a dress, Emn. It fits well. Your chest looks normal, if that’s what you’re asking, although you’ll crease the fabric if you keep pulling at it like that. If you want more specific feedback, there’s a different person you should ask. I know you don’t have a perpetually open connection, but even if she’s closed down, you could still nudge her. It’s good for her.”

Emn returned the half smile, imagining how Neek would react if she just started chatting to her through their link about mundane things, like constellations or cellulose biometals, or if she actually asked about the dress…

As if Neek had been listening, the door abruptly slid open, and the room was filled with the distinctive sound of booted feet. Emn and Nicholas stood up.

Neek took a moment to stretch, reaching her hands up over her head and letting her sixteen fingers, eight per hand, brush the ceiling. This was the only room in the small Mmnnuggl pod where any of them could stand upright, and it was blissful to do so. Stretching pulled the fabric of the flight suit taut against Neek’s chest and Emn let her eyes linger, careful to ensure the image did not leak across their bond. They needed Neek in the cockpit, captaining, not hiding in her room. She didn’t need to know about Emn’s burgeoning…something. Not yet, anyway. Still, Emn followed the tightly braided red-blonde hair to her narrow shoulders and then to her wide hips partially hidden in a baggy flight suit. Neek had her sleeves rolled up to her elbows, and Emn wrinkled her nose without meaning to. The lighting in the pod did not go well with Neek’s olive-brown complexion. Realizing that she had probably stared for a bit too long, Emn walked back to the viewscreen.

“Looks like such a harmless planet from out here,” Neek said as her arms fell to her sides. Currently filling the floor-to-ceiling viewscreen was Risal, its orange algae oceans and brown landmasses looming above them. Risal’s two moons, the red Korin and white Rath, buffered the planet on either side. At their current position, the shadows from the sun overlapped Risal in two intersecting crescents, leaving a thin hourglass shape of lit land. Two cutters were in orbit around Korin, docked next to one another near the moon’s north pole.

Emn knew more than she cared to about those moons. She had no firsthand memories, but being synced to the late Captain Ran’s cutter had given her data on both. Rath was used as an andal plantation, although it was not a very successful one. Korin, in contrast…Korin was likely where she had been born. Emn probably had had siblings there, perhaps other genetic parents as well. They’d be dead, of course, like all the Risalian Ardulans, but that didn’t make the moon any less oppressive.

Her focus was suddenly returned to the cockpit. Confused, Emn blinked, trying to clear her vision, and then realized what was happening. Her thoughts must have leaked. Now, instead of Korin, she was seeing herself through Neek’s eyes, their connection taut. It was strange to see herself from the back—a woman in a knee-length, gray dress with shoulder straps and a flared hipline, tracing a finger over the moon’s image. Her black hair held only hints of the red that shone in her youth, and the moonlight highlighted the dark veins that streaked across her translucent skin. Patterns emerged, if one looked long enough—and Neek was—patterns of geometric shapes bound tightly together, distorted and intersecting. Several words bounded across their link despite Neek’s best efforts to rein them in. One in particular struck Emn as odd.

Beautiful.

Except, calling the markings such belied their daunting mythos and marginalized Neek’s history. Emn tossed the word aside, conscious of its relevance but unwilling to call it to Neek’s attention.

Emn chanced speaking, her mind caught in a spiral of the past. “How many Risalian Ardulans were at the Korin facility, do you think, at the end of the Crippling War? How many died there? One hundred? One thousand?” Korin could no longer be seen on the viewscreen, but the moon lingered in Emn’s vision.

A bright, green light shot across the interface.

“Is that normal?” Nicholas asked as the light repeated. “Did we break the ship?”

Emn put her hands back on the interface, closing her eyes. Pressure raced into her head as soon as the connection reestablished. Blood vessels burst instantly, but Emn didn’t bother to stem the flow. “It would appear our new signal identifier is not working. We have a priority communication from one of the cutters.” She opened one eye, ignoring the blood threatening to drip from her nose, and looked at Neek. “It says they’re glad we could make it and want to know when the rest of the delegates will be arriving.” She paused and considered. “What’s going on?”

Blood began to drip from Emn’s nose before anyone could answer. She tried to discreetly catch it on her shoulder, but Neek pulled her forward, snatching Emn’s hand from the panel and her consciousness from the interface. Momentarily disoriented, Emn wove into Neek’s mind. Neek sighed, pulled a small square of cloth from her pocket, and gingerly wiped the affected area.

Soft cotton traced Emn’s lips. Fingers brushed her cheeks. Neek’s movements were surgical, but Emn’s mind still wandered. Not wanting to create any additional tension between them, Emn pulled away and tried to focus on the current problem.

Neek, you’ve severed my connection. Emn winced as Neek persisted and brushed her nose bridge, checking for breaks.

You’re the only one who can fly this thing, Emn. Hell, I can’t even work the food printers without your help because of the intricate telepathic interface. I don’t want you bleeding out in the cockpit.

Emn caught Neek’s hand in hers. Is this what it takes to get your attention?

Neek pulled back as if stung. “I’m not avoiding you,” she said out loud.

“Yes, you are,” Nicholas said. The large cutter broke away from the moon and accelerated towards them. “Let’s table that for a minute though. What sort of delegation do you think they think we’re from?” He furrowed his brow. “We’ve been keeping up with the Galactic News Network broadcasts. The Risalians have been busy installing the new Markin and soliciting volunteers for sheriff forces. That’s plenty to keep them busy. How could they have time for anything else?” He paused and considered. “You don’t think the Nugels are sending diplomatic envoys to Risal, do you? That’d be…awfully nonviolent of them considering all the trouble they just went through to wipe out the Risalian Ardulans.”

“It does seem really unlikely, but I don’t think we should make assumptions about the Risalians. Not after this last month.” Neek edged closer to the panel, keeping her distance from Emn. “If they think we’re Nugels, maybe they’ll be more open with us. Emn, would you send them a message that asks for an itinerary of the visit? Maybe that will give us some information.”

Frustration rose in Emn, but she pushed it down. They needed to have a proper conversation about what had just transpired, but it’d have to wait. She reengaged with the ship, her eyes back to staring at the shiny, black paneling instead of Neek. “This would be an ideal opportunity to just shoot them,” Emn muttered as she transcribed the message into the relay. “They’ve fired enough times on us without any reason for a warning shot to be well-deserved.”

“No,” Neek said abrasively. “We need information from them, remember? Shooting is not going to help us achieve that.”

Emn waited for yet another reproach, or even for Neek to run away again. Instead, Neek scuffed her boots over the floor. When she did speak again, her tone was tempered. Hesitant.

“If you want to avoid interacting with the Risalians, the pod’s logs are the only other option for finding coordinates.”

Emn closed her eyes, catching some blood on the back of her hand as she did so. The logs. She’d tried repeatedly to access them. They were nestled somewhere near the life support systems, bundled in wires and cellulose and chips that took too long to untangle from the air compressors and heating. The concentration required to retrieve them brought her to her knees in pain each time she had tried. Of course, it was her own fault that Neek didn’t know that, although Neek hadn’t exactly been around to see.

Another green light shot across the panel.

“They’re saying these are just preliminary negotiations, so they didn’t prepare an agenda,” Emn recited as the information relayed from the ship into her mind. “Now they’re asking if we have anything specific we would like to address other than hemicellulose and the Ardulans.”

“Genetic salvage operation?” Nicholas asked seemingly no one in particular. “I’d have thought the Risalian Ardulans were moot at this point. Also, who cares about hemicellulose anymore?”

Nicholas’s words, while clearly unintentional, hurt more than the interface. Emn debated whether or not to mention it, when a proximity alarm chirped. After checking the message, Emn changed the view on the screen to aft. From the throat of the Risalian wormhole, three small Mmnnuggl pods and one large pod frigate emerged on a clear intercept course. The Risalian skiffs made no move to engage them.

Emn’s frustration pushed warmth into her cheeks. As soon as they had left Craston, the Mmnnuggls began trailing them. She was tired of the constant Mmnnuggl pursuit. It had been easy enough to disable any pods before they could get a shot off, but when would they give up and let her get some rest?

“After us, or here for the meeting? Emn, could you disable them if needed?” Neek asked.

“If they were tailing us, they’re just going to keep coming, Neek,” Nicholas returned. “It’s been weeks. We’re never going to shake them in one of their own ships. Disabling them is accomplishing nothing.”

Neek raised an eyebrow. “Are you advocating for shooting them?”

Nicholas kicked the wall. “No! Just…we need another strategy. Like, say, using the wormhole generator and leaving the Systems. Getting another ship. That sort of thing.”

“I don’t think any of that is necessary,” Emn cut in. “Those pods seem to be expected.” Emn pointed at the screen. The Risalian ships were now moving in tandem with the pods. The group changed heading and circled to Korin, the second cutter already disappearing behind the far side of the moon.

“We should probably follow them, if we don’t want to seem out of place. Neek?” Emn didn’t mention her desire to shoot at the pods. This entire situation was starting to mirror the Crippling War a little too closely.

“Neek, we should talk to the Risalians,” Nicholas interjected. “We’ve come all the way here. This is our one chance with them. We shouldn’t waste it. If they have coordinates, we can just pop them in the wormhole generator and go, maybe lose our Nugel tail, too.”

Neek shook her head, although Emn could feel her desire to leave the Systems and ignore the whatever-it-was brewing behind Korin. She didn’t blame her. They were in no place to get involved in another conflict.

“We’ll play along for now,” Neek declared. Her tone was crisp, but even Nicholas raised an eyebrow to Emn. He’d apparently caught the hesitancy, too. “I want to know why the Risalians are parleying with a species that slaughtered hundreds of unarmed civilian ships. Besides, I have reservations about the generator.” This time, Neek’s tone was serious. Their link tightened, as if Neek wanted to be certain Emn was listening. “With the connection problems Emn’s been having, trying out a new piloting system might not be the best course of action.”

Emn closed her eyes and let out a long breath. So, Neek did know, then, about her problems connecting—or perhaps she’d caught the edge of Emn’s pain during her last interface. It didn’t matter. Blood leaked from Emn’s nose before she could catch it and hit the floor. Emn mentally cursed her body’s poor timing.

“We can’t go on this way, Emn.”

Nicholas swallowed a laugh, and Emn bit back what she wanted to say. Instead, she edged the pod towards Korin and then turned to look Neek in the eyes.

“Do you have a suggestion for how to better deal with the issue between us?”

Neek held her hands out, her eyes landing on anything except Emn. “I meant the ship! The interface with the ship.”

Nicholas winked at Emn.

Hoping that the issue would die where it stood, Emn sent, I’m not a child anymore, Neek. I can define my own limits. We won’t get far outside the Systems without using the generator or stumbling upon a new wormhole.

That didn’t garner any response, even an emotional one, although Neek’s color was slowly normalizing. Instead, Neek focused on the viewscreen. As they rounded the far side of Korin, the Mmnnuggl pods came back into view, along with the Risalian cutters and skiffs. What Emn had not expected to see, however, were the other ships. Frigates, larger Mmnnuggl pods, galactic liners, and cutters, all massed behind the moon. Aside from the pods and Risalian ships, Emn didn’t recognize any of the crafts. The scanners told her there were over one hundred ships present. Looking out the viewscreen, that seemed like an understatement.

“Xylnqs, Astorians, Wens, Nugels, and four others I can’t hope to pronounce, but a few I recognize from the war.” Emn dictated the names as they came through the interface. When she tried to dig deeper, however, her scans were rebuffed. Since some of the ships were Mmnnuggl as well, there had to be a way to reach their databases through the link in the small pod, but Emn was too exhausted to trace the connection.

“I don’t think following was such a good idea. Where are they from?” Nicholas breathed. “If they’re from outside the Systems, how did they get here? Why are the Risalians allowing this?”

“They’re weaponized,” Emn murmured. She didn’t need a scan to tell her that—she could see the laser ports mounted to the ships. “All of them are, including the Risalian ships. That includes the Risalian transports.”

“But why?” Nicholas asked. “The Crippling War is over. The Nugels lost. They should be heading back to the Alliance with their tails between their legs.” He pointed to a Risalian transport in the upper-right corner of the screen. “There’s no reason to weaponize anything. The war is over.

Neek wrapped her arms around her chest and shook her head. She walked to the viewscreen, let her fingers glide across the fleets, and then paused on a Risalian cutter.

“Emn, can you give us any additional information on the fleet?”

Reluctantly, Emn sank into the pod’s computer. Fatigue batted at the edges of her mind, and she could feel a sticky wetness gathering in her inner ear. When she focused the scan, she reinforced it with a touch of her own energy.

This time, a travel log pinged back from a tiny Wen ship that floated just starboard of them. Hoping it would be enough to satisfy Neek, Emn read the entire script aloud. “I have a Wen travel log,” she said through the exhausted haze that was settling over her mind. “Last stop before this, Wen homeworld of Querl. Before that, Xinar Hub. Before that, the Keft homeworld of—”

“Wait. Stop.” Neek’s hand was on Emn’s shoulder a moment later. Her grip was uncomfortably tight. “You said Keft?”

“Yes,” Emn confirmed. “I can’t do any more, Neek. I’m exhausted.”

The hand slid from Emn’s shoulder, and suddenly Neek’s mind was alight with excitement. “We have coordinates though, right? From the log?”


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