Changes Just Keep Happening
   

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A timer clicked, and began to count its way along an internal trail. Branching, the trail became endless; programs opened and began their work.

The Watcher woke. E touched, interpreted and sorted the data moving through eir channels. E encountered gaps. Subroutines that should intersect eir widest avenues were missing. All e could do was obey an inner imperative to repair the damage as best e could, forming bridges across the rents.

With that accomplished, e began eir main task.



Magda wanted very much to stay in the dream. She tried to make herself believe that the dream was reality. She knew it should have been, might have been real, some time in the past. Perhaps so. But now all she could do was hang onto it for a little while longer.

Taverna Habitat was an ideal spacer vacation spot. On this, their last day there, Magda had entered a zero-g gymnastic competition. Things had turned ugly for a few minutes, when a spacer from a less modified clan challenged Magda's right to participate. She'd claimed Magda's prehensile tail gave her an unfair advantage. In rebuttal, Magda had accused her antagonist of inter-clade prejudice, and the judges, after a short debate, voted in Magda's favor.

Now, Magda grinned as she twisted her way through the last hoop. Then she tucked her knees up and reached her right hand out, grasping her fingers around the swinging spidersilk rope. In another instant, she'd clasped her legs around the rope and was inching down to the judge's balcony and a definite victory. Her tail flicked through the air, free and unencumbered, its abilities unnecessary for her finale.

Magda accepted the first-prize titanium necklet with a modest graciousness that would have pleased her clan mothers. Then she jumped to the nearest handhold, and made her way out of the spherical room and into the corridor.

"I kicked their tailless butts," she proudly told Kadzin, a few minutes later. Then she winked, showing she meant no disrespect to his clade.

"Good for you. But maybe I should have entered, and given you some real competition."

"Hah. You were too busy swathing yourself in darkness." Then, when his expression told her she'd gone too far, she said, "Sorry. I meant to say, you've been very involved with your meditations." She held up her hand, forestalling his next words. "I know, we promised not to have this discussion again. I agree completely." They'd had it too often already, in the shipmonths since his conversion to the Void-Sailors faith. Though Kadzin had journeyed through many philosophies and belief systems since they'd been together, she found his Void meditations particularly irksome. She just hoped it would lose its appeal for him as quickly as had the others.

Kadzin smiled, and held out his hand. She entwined his fingers with her own. They shared a few quiet, contented moments, their gazes wandering to a cloud of golden butterflies drifting between the branches of the chamber-tree.

He sipped at his drinkbulb, and she did the same, relishing the flavors of cold, sweet, nectar. "Taverna's the best there is," he declared. "It's been a great vacation."

"Yes," she agreed. "Too bad it isn't real."

Oh gods. She'd said it. Couldn't take it back. Now . . .

His expression moved swiftly from shock to panic. "Magda, what's happening?"

"I can't keep it together any longer," she said. Her voice diminished, becoming a sigh.

When she lost the dream, she lost everything. Not only Taverna and its Chamber-tree cafe, but Kadzin. And herself. The self that should have been her agile, spacer's body was buried, segments dispersed, senses reading images of stones and soil. Sometimes she could hear his voice whispering in her mind, almost as if they were still joined together in the shipnet.

~Kadzin,~ she thoughtspoke, ~All those hours of meditation -- can they give you any answers? Do you have any idea of what's happened to us?~

~The meditations, the Void-sailors -- they're part of the dreams,~ he replied. ~No more or less real than the rest.~

~But the dreams must be real, Kadzin. This . . .this can't be.~



Despite her increasing discomfort, Jenessa was glad for the light rain that had begun to fall. It would put difficulties in the way of anyone who might be tracking them through the forest. But she'd have to build shelter quickly. She'd flung one of the water-proof tarps over Meera, and left her sitting atop the flest, after tethering the beast beneath the sprawling branches of a greatnut tree. These were definitely not comfortable, or protective, conditions for a sick child.

Now she cut several limbs, strapped them together and placed them against the massive trunk. Then, taking the remaining tarps from the flest's carry-pack, she unrolled them, put one on the ground beneath the lean-to, and another across the branches.

Meera sat slumped between the padded ties that held her against the saddle's high, ridged back. Jenessa had used her show-saddle because of that high leather ridge. Never before had the saddle been worn by a gentle, matronly animal, and never before had it been worn in the rain. The swirling embroidery she'd spent weeks pulling through the leather was already streaked with mud and wet leaves. At another time, Jenessa would have been both angry and tearful at the sight. Now she gave it only a brief, regretful thought as she lifted the child from the flest.

Carrying Meera to the shelter, she lay her on the tarp. Then Jenessa hurried through the rain, unclasped the saddle and bags from the flest, and draped the remaining tarp into a sloppy tent, covering the animal's head and back.

By the time she dragged the saddle and bags into the lean-to, her shirt and trousers were soaked. She had to sink back against the saddle and catch her breath before opening the bags. Then she took two blankets, covered Meera with one, and wrapped herself in the other. Though the late summer nights were still warm, the wet clothing chilled her skin. Drops of rain still ran from the arches of her crest, down her cheeks and neck. Her hands shook as she took a bottle of water from the pack and held it against Meera's lips. "Aren't you thirsty? Try to drink a little," Jenessa said.

The girl raised her head, took a sip, then lay back. Jenessa pulled the child against her, and lay down, hoping to steady her own ragged breathing. Later, she'd eat some of the bread and smoked meat she'd brought. She doubted Meera would be able to eat for at least a day. Jenessa hadn't, for the first two days of the sickness.



And after the third day, if she followed Jenessa's pattern, Meera would begin to hear the voices and see the visions. Jenessa wondered if they'd be the same as her own. She felt very curious about that.

With the anxiety of taking Meera from town in the middle of the night, riding along forest paths more remembered than seen, and finally rushing to build their shelter, Jenessa had paid little heed to the flickering visions and voices. She'd become so accustomed to them during the past six days that sometimes she could relegate them to the back of her mind, not letting them take her attention from other matters. But she was more and more fascinated by these inner happenings. A few of the words she recognized; most were strange. When the unknown words were accompanied by images, she'd often make quick sketches of them. These were on a tablet she'd put in the bottom of one of the bags.

Now, safe and relatively comfortable, Jenessa closed her eyes, and watched her mind fill with strange scenes and sounds.



Jacked into the Wanderling's shipnet, Magda called up navigational charts, referenced data from the two orthogonal arcs, and plotted their course. Numbers slipped like cool streams through her mind, pulling behind them bright connectors to multiple levels of direction. Concepts bloomed. It all fit together, forming an intricate whole she could never have known, unaugmented.

With the course fixed and held, she turned her attention to the other center of ship awareness. Kadzin was engrossed in the last few seconds of drive system diagnostics. Combined, their minds acquired virtual senses that listened to schematics of containment rings and magnetic coils as if they were music, and touched through shielding densities like swatches of textured silk.

Kadzin mindspoke. ~All set.~ And Wanderling veered out of orbit. The ring of habitats dropped away from view, looking like small, filigrees of gold beneath the Wanderling's radiator fins.

In a few minutes, they'd disengage from shipnet, unclasp the webbing, and make their way to the small lounge. But for now Magda wanted to linger, savoring the combination of intimacy and expansion the net gave.

But these moments of peace were too-soon broken by their joined consideration of the cargo the ship carried: a small set of info stacks.

~Already, many of the liners grown at the Yard are Turing grade, some hyperTuring." Kadzin said. "There's no holding back the future, not with the spread of the Nexus.~

~Guess not.~ She sighed. ~How long do you think we have before spacers are seen as unnecessary baggage?~

~However long -- that future's not yet, Magda, and hopefully it won't be, till we're dead and out of it. Well out of it.~

Magda forced a virtual laugh. ~But I think death is one more thing that's going out of style.~



Jenessa struggled to pull herself from the conversation going on inside her head. It became more and more compelling. Some of the words she recognized, remembering them from before. How strange to have a new language building inside her.

But Meera stirred and cried out. "Mumsa, where are you?"

Jenessa lay the child's head in her lap, and stroked her crest -- swollen, flushed and moist from the effort of her body to dissipate the heat of its healing processes. "Your mumsa's gone out, Meera, remember? She asked me to stay with you."

Meera opened her eyes, gazed for an instant at Jenessa's face, then jerked her head back and forth. She pushed herself up, elbowing Jenessa in the stomach. "Why aren't we at home, Jen? Where is this?"

"Just a temporary shelter. We'll go back to town in a day or so. You've been sick, Meera. As I was. We needed to go away, and not pass our illness on to anyone else."

"But . . ." Meera frowned, then lay back down. "All right. I'd rather be home though. My head hurts, and things are crawling!" Meera drew up her knees and began to scratch her legs. "They're crawling on my back, Jen. Bugs! Get them off."

Jenna gently rubbed the little girl's back. "There are no bugs. What you're feeling is something happening inside your body. From the sickness. It won't last more than a few hours."

"Are we the only ones in the whole town to have this? Why?"

"I suspect it's my fault," Jenessa said. "Last week, when I was out with the hunting party, I went off on my own for a while. The next day I was hot and itchy, like you are now."

"Oh -- and you talked funny, while you were sleeping. I remember. I came into your house, and you were in bed, during daylight. You said not to tell anyone about what you'd said. And I didn't."

Jenessa sighed. "I'm sorry, Meera. If I'd had any idea this would happen, I would stayed on familiar ground that day, but I just gave no thought to possible danger. There was a light, glowing orange and yellow, in the direction of Highridge. After riding toward it for a couple of hours, I realized, that whatever it was, must be further than I expected. I was already late in getting back to the others. So I had to turn around." Jenessa laughed. "Though I didn't want to. I wanted to know what that light was. I don't know how my riding in that direction caused me to get sick -- or even if it did so, for sure. But I think it did, Meera."

"I wanted to go hunting with you," Meera said.

Jenessa laughed. "You always want to go with me."

"Um. And you always say to wait till I'm older. Well, I'm with you now, away from town. So, I guess I'm older."

"Yes. I guess you are."



By morning Meera began speaking the strange words as Jenessa heard them inwardly. The effect was so eerie that Jenessa left the shelter, though not moving so far that she'd be unable to hear if Meera called out for her.

She took the flest to a stream, overflowing from the night's rain, then tethered him near a line of lush grass. As she stood for a moment, watching the beast lower his head to crop, its curved horns catching the first gleam of the rising sun, Jenessa felt a new sensation wake within her. She had no name for the sensation, but it brought a difference in the voices. They were not louder, but more immediate, as if some barrier had given way.

~Kadzin, there's someone in link with us -- sending!~

~Yes. But how . . .~

~Who are you?~ Magda asked.

Jenessa startled at the directness of the question. But surely it couldn't be speaking to her, as a person would do. She stepped back and turned, her gaze sweeping the bushes and trees, the lean- to. No one was there. Of course not.

~Who are you?~ the voice repeated. The female sounding voice -- the one referred to as Magda by the other.

"I'm Jenessa," she spoke aloud.

~How are you linking in? I don't know what's happened to us. Maybe some kind of accident. The Wanderling was headed for Talyas Yards, but I can't remember if we arrived. Where are you sending from?~

For the first time, Jenessa allowed herself to wonder if the things she'd been seeing and hearing had some reality apart from her own mind. But no, she decided. It went too far beyond any sensible view of reality. She would not answer the voices again. She'd trust her body to find a way to defeat this sickness.

"Jenessa!"

~Jenessa, are you still there?~

Confused, she felt reluctant to move, to do anything. But then she realized one of the voices had been Meera's. Rushing back to the shelter she found the child crouched at the edge of the tarp.

"Do you hear them too, Jen?"

"Yes. But don't be afraid. They're nothing but fever dreams. You'll be all right. We'll both be all right."

~You -- Jenessa! Listen up. You're in link with us, the Wanderling's crew. Are your images real-time? The little kid and prim environment?~ Jenessa pulled Meera back into the lean-to, and held her close. She lay very still, willing her body to fight harder. ~All I'm getting is confusion. Don't you know what you're doing?~

"They know we're here. They see us." Meera whispered.

"Shhh. None of it is real."

~Kadzin, are you getting all that? How could the prim woman be in link?~

~She must have an implant, but be ignorant of what it is and how to use it.~

~That makes no sense.~ Magda thought for a moment, then sent, ~Maybe the prim world is just another dream we've slipped into.~

~I've been thinking, Magda. Even in link, we never shared dreams before. And the ones we've been having are so clear and precise. More like a virch.~

~ It can't be. The dreams are taken from memories. I know those things happened to us. But they're cut up, and cut out. Greatgods. They do resemble a virch. And following that line of thought, right now we could be trapped in another virch.~

~It's an explanation for what's happening. We need to consider it as a real possibility.~

~Kadzin, the idea's too horrifying.~

~But what we're experiencing is horrifying. We haven't wanted to analyze it, so we escape by sending our minds elsewhere. I can't move any part of my body. I suspect we don't even have bodies now. And we're not using ship's sensors.~

~No. But Kadzin, this is a world. There are plants here, like grass. And soil. Air. Somehow I sense those things. We could be injured, lying out in the wilderness, our minds drifting in and out of dreams. That's easier to believe than being in a virch created from our own memories. Why would anyone want to us trap us like that?~

~Maybe -- for some reason -- we did it to ourselves.~

~Kadzin! Please don't say any more about it. We have to stay sane and figure things out. The prim woman may be our best, or only, hope.~



Jenessa had heard nothing from the voices for more than an hour. She now had cause to hope she was recovering and would hear no more from them at all. But her relief and hope were edged with disappointment.

So, after all -- as she'd expected -- none of the things from the visions had any reality. Reality included only the town, her people, the forests and animals. There were no mysteries to explore.

Jenessa patted the flest, rubbing the place between the its horns, as the animals liked. She'd ridden to an outcrop above the lean-to, and looked out across the forest, back the way they'd come. She watched a rider pass amid the trees, following the same subtle path she'd followed. She couldn't as yet see the rider's face, or the color of his crest beneath the wide-brimmed hat.

But she recognized the red and brown mottled shirt, as well as the shaggy-coated black flest he rode. Erel.

Jenessa couldn't help but feel pleased that he'd come searching for her. If it were anyone else, she'd disappear with Meera deeper into the forest. But childhood memories, and more recent ones, gave her hope that Erel could be trusted.

After going back to the shelter, and looking in to see that Meera still napped, Jenessa rode out past the stream and waited. Only moments before Erel rode down from the wooded hillside, and into clear view, Magda's voice spoke suddenly form inside Jenessa's head.

~Can you see where I am? Are you nearby?~

Jenessa had not yet replied to Magda or Kadzin. But not replying took more and more of her will. She hoped that Erel's presence would lead her away from the voices' temptation.. Though, once she could see his expression, it brought her little reassurance.

"Jenessa, where's the child?"

"I've heard friendlier greetings from you. Meera's sleeping, in a temporary shelter I built."

"Well, excuse me if I'm not in the best of moods. I've been riding since daybreak. Do you have no idea of the commotion you've caused? It took a great deal of wheedling from your family to persuade the lawkeepers to let me find you instead of an official delegation. Lura has everyone in an uproar. Jen, why would you bring a sick child here, away from her home?"

Jenessa sighed, took a drink, then held out her water flask to Erel.

"I have water. What I want are answers."

"You're the only person I'd trust with these answers. I would have had little trouble in hiding where we'd be very difficult to find. By the way, you might remind Lura that she left her daughter in my care -- so she could spend the night with her latest boyfriend. And it's far from the first time."

Erel nodded; then he threw one leg over the saddle and jumped to the ground. After stretching and bending, he said, "Let's walk for a bit. I'm hardly the rider you are."

Jenessa slid down from the saddle, and drew the flest along by its reins. "I'm grateful for your coming here. I need for you to explain to Lura, to everyone, that I have reason to think Meera's illness may be contagious. A few days ago, I had the same symptoms.

"But you seem fine now. Even if it is contagious, it must not be so terrible. Unless Meera . . ."

"Meera's in no danger. At least I don't think she is. But there are oddities -- that might create danger of a different kind. Erel, if I tell you more, you must promise to tell no one."

"How can I promise that until I know what you're talking about?" He gently grasped her shoulder, and stood waiting, until she met his eyes. "I'll do the best I can to help you, Jen. I think you know that."

Jenessa nodded, then motioned for him to sit on a wide, flat rock. She sank down beside him, and gestured to the left. "Our shelter is up there. I don't think you should be close to Meera, while she has fever. This fever is not like any other. It brings visions and voices, things that seem very real. I knew Meera could not keep from speaking about them while she was ill. I don't need to remind you what actions the lawkeepers take against people they judge 'unstable'."

Erel gave a half nod and pursed his mouth -- as he often did to show he was giving thought to what someone said. After a few moments he replied. "I understand the need for caution. But maybe you're over-reacting. You and Meera were temporarily ill; you didn't deliberately bring on an intoxicated state. Though most lawkeepers are from the conservative factions, I doubt many of them seriously believe the legends of shapechanging demons. Anyway, what's happened to you doesn't fit into the legends very well."

Jenessa took her folded note pad from her pocket and opened it, handing it to him. "I've written quite a few of the phrases, and made drawings of what I saw, keeping them in the order I experienced them."

"Why would you do that?" Then he looked at the page, turned it, kept turning, then moved back through them a second time.

Jenessa watched Erel and listened to Magda who was growing more agitated as she argued again with Kadzin

"Jen, I assumed you meant something like vivid dreams. But what you've written is too coherent for dreaming, yet too bizarre to be anything else! If Meera's experiences are anything like this, I think you were right to take her away."

"Erel, she hears exactly what I do, at the same instant."

"That's not possible. I mean . . .it shouldn't be possible."

Her eyes met and held his. "I know that," she said.

"But Jen, wait -- you just said that she sees and hears what you do. But you don't still have the fever, do you?"

"No. And that should mean I'm not endangering you."

"That's not what I meant to ask. Are you still experiencing . . .?" "Oh yes. It's somehow become more intimate in the past few hours. As if they're looking through my eyes. They're seeing you, Erel, right now."

"By all the Holy World. This is so much worse than I thought. You may not ever be able to come back. Jen, we may lose each other! Unless . . .unless I stay with you here, or wherever it's safe for you to go."

Jenessa couldn't stop the smile that spread across her face. But then she stood and walked a few paces from him. "That's exactly what I wanted you to say! But no. You can't give up everything for me -- your family and friends, the apprenticeship with Leindre. And you're not as much at home in the woods as I am."

"But maybe it won't be forever, just until you've regained . . ."

"Stability. That's what you mean."

"Wellness. You're not well."

"Erel, I've never felt better, or stronger. And the strangeness doesn't seem about to go away. I think you should go back now. It might be best for you to tell them you couldn't find us. I can make sure no one else does."

"Jen, I always thought we'd be together, make our home together -- like everyone does."

"But I'm not like everyone. Not any more. And I might as well tell you what I'm thinking. Do you remember when we were children -- we'd make up stories -- the kind of stories we couldn't let anyone overhear? Until, one day your brother did overhear, and brought all kinds of hell down on us."

Erel's mouth quirked into a wry smile. "How could I forget? I wasn't allowed to talk to you for fourseasons, and had to do endless chores."

"But the stories -- do you remember those? How we imagined there were people living at the bottom of the lake, and in the night sky, next to the stars."

"I don't . . .all right, maybe I do, if I try. But what . . .Oh, so that's what you were writing! You were just making things up."

The relief in his expression brought tears to her eyes. She quickly brushed them away. "That's not what I meant. What I've seen and heard is beyond anything I could imagine. And it seems more real by the minute. Maybe it is -- real. Maybe there are people who look like the ones I drew, living in other worlds than ours, and they have shelters -- ships -- that move them from place to place."

"Jen, you know I'm not superstitious. But it's not good to say things like that, to question the holiness of our reality."

She saw his glance flick past her, to the surrounding woodland. "No, you're not superstitious. But you think that maybe, just maybe, some demon has gotten into me, and that any minute it's going to make the forest break into tiny bits and change into something else." She stepped closer and held out her hand for the notebook. Then she turned away. "Good-bye Erel" she said without looking back; then she mounted the flest and rode swiftly up the hillside.

By the time she arrived at the lean-to she felt more angry than sad, and the tears merely blurred her vision, without falling and making a nuisance of themselves. Meera peered up at her. "They're inside me now."

Jenessa nodded. "I know just what you mean."

"They're in some kind of trouble, and want us to do something. They're scared, Jen."

"I know that too."

"Then, shouldn't we . . .?"

Jenessa sighed. "I suppose we should." She gathered the bags and re-rolled the blankets while Meera nibbled at a lunch of dried meat and buns. Then, just as Jenessa finished tying the last of the bundles to the flest's saddle, she heard a noise behind her and turned.

Erel, wearing his floppy hat, leading his shaggy black flest, stepped through the trees.

Do you two mind if I tag along?"

Jenessa smiled. It was a moment before she could say, "Well, you'll have to be ready for a longer ride than you're used to."



A second timer clicked, and the Watcher ran a systems diagnostic. Thereby, e discovered that the task e had considered to be eir sole function was itself only part of a greater whole. A dormant subroutine within eir internal structure switched on. It sorted and ordered. The first transmission began.



The three of them had ridden into the foothills, nearing the Landsend range itself, by early evening. When Jenessa glanced toward Erel, she saw he'd taken off his hat. His crest was flushed and beaded with sweat.

His eyes met hers, and he flicked his head into a shrug. "I knew the chance I was taking. So far, it's uncomfortable, that's all."

"Do you itch?" Meera asked. "It doesn't last. I don't itch now." An instant later, a torrent of sight and sound flooded Jenessa's mind.

"Jen!" Meera cried out.

Jenessa slid from the flest, stumbled and picked herself up, then grabbed Meera before she could fall. The child's face had gone slack and pale, her eyelids fluttered. Her crest turned bright again with rising fever.

For Jenessa, her companions -- her own body -- all the world around her, seemed to recede, to become difficult to touch. The inner world became her primary reality, a sea through which she must swim before she could hear Erel's voice or feel the ground beneath her feet as she walked.

Then, as suddenly as the deluge began, it stopped.

Erel moved clumsily from his flest and helped her lay Meera onto the ground. "What's happening," he asked.

~Where did all that come from?~ Magda's inner voice trembled, as though she felt as stunned as Jenessa.

After that onslaught, the presence of Magda and Kadzin seemed a minor annoyance, a mystery to which Jenessa could easily accustom herself.

Meera's eyes opened, then closed again.

"More images, words." Jenessa told Erel. "But this was different, less dreamlike than before. It moved fast, and there was so much -- I can't describe it. Meera must have experienced it too. But you aren't ready for the visions yet. The sickness hasn't made you ready."

Jenessa took several deep breaths, wanting to celebrate the return of her familiar world. Though she supposed it was only a respite. She turned back to Erel.

"Help me make camp," she told him. "We'll need shelter." She nodded toward the nearest grove of trees. Then she grabbed the reins of the flest.

When she'd accomplished all the necessary tasks, Jenessa sank down onto a blanket between Erel and Meera. Erel reached for her hand, and she relaxed against him for a few moments, then said, "Those new things that came into my mind -- I can feel them shifting and settling. They're here to stay." She sighed. "I suppose it's the same for Meera. Maybe that's why she can't stay awake. She needs to sleep to absorb it all."

When Jenessa closed her eyes, there was no restful darkness, but scenes rushing by, replacing one another, then beginning again, often in a new order. She thrust her arms in front of her face, as if that could stop her inner sight. "It's like the legends have come to life inside me. I never believed the old stories of shapechangers; now I can't escape them! Much of it is like the Lawkeepers have told. There was another world where our ancestors lived, where they tried to build houses and plant crops, to live as our people do. But the others wouldn't allow them to live normal lives. Anything could dissolve with a shapechanger's touch. People would wake in the night and find their homes swirling into fog and mist. Crops and trees became strange, meaningless shapes. The ancestors even had to fear for their own bodies!"

She was trembling, and Erel grasped her hands, trying to hold her still. "Jen, it's the fever come back, making you see things that aren't real."

"No. It all happened. And now it's become a part of me. As if I were there, and the memory stayed alive, no matter how long it's been." Realizing her inability to escape, she felt suddenly resigned.

~Jenessa, are you ever going to talk to us, help us figure out what to do?~

"I suppose I might as well. None of you are going away. Are you one of the shapechangers?" Jenessa spoke aloud, unsure if there was any other way to communicate.

~Ah, that's better! Those data transmissions must have come from somewhere on your world, or in orbit. But why the virch-hells would it display scenes from Nimbus? That's what the shifters are Jenessa -- Nimbians. No, no -- we're not foglets, not Kadzin and I. And the Wanderling should be nowhere near Nimbus.~

~But whoever is transmitting might be Nimbian,~ Kadzin interrupted. ~Jenessa, have you seen anyone, anything, like that, on your planet?~

"No. They aren't here. The shapeshifters are from the other world -- the world before this one, a place where no one can live. Our ancestors escaped and created this world for our people; they made it stable and fertile -- that's what the legends say. I didn't think any of that was real, just stories the Lawkeepers use to make people afraid to ask questions or make changes. But now I've seen what the shapechangers can do. I don't know why I've seen it, but there must be some reason behind my knowing. Perhaps the shapechangers are coming here! I have to go back and warn the lawkeepers.

~Hold it!~ Magda's voice was like a shout inside Jenessa's head. ~You're doing a lot of misinterpreting. Mythologizing. There's no need to tell your people anything. But Kadzin and I need for you to find out what's happened to us.~

"How do I know you aren't shapechangers? You've given us this sickness, forcing us to hear you."

~Not so. We have no way of doing anything to you. It sounds like nano -- maybe bionano -- has been building augments into your brain and nervous system. Whoever sent that data transmission about Nimbus is probably responsible. But none of that has anything to do with the Wanderling. Or with Kadzin and myself.~

~Uh -- Mag, we can't be sure it doesn't. We can't be sure of anything.~ Kadzin told her.

Then he continued, ~Jenessa, can you think of anything that happened to you, that might have brought on your -- sickness?~

"There was a light, in the Landsend Range. I knew it was most likely a lightning fire. None of our people would have gone into the mountains. We keep to the low plains and forest. It was such a strange place to see a light. I just wanted to know what it was." Jenessa shrugged, and glanced at Erel. "That's the way I am. I couldn't go far enough to find it though. And the next day, I knew something was wrong with me. I had no idea how wrong."

~The Wanderling must have crashed and burned!~ Jenessa could hear the panic in Magda's words.

~Could you find the place where you saw the light?~ Kadzin asked.

"Probably. We've already come closer than I did that day. We're in the foothills. But that - transmission -- " Jenessa's mouth felt awkward, saying the strange word "It made Meera sick again. We can't move her."

The voices seemed to have no answer for her, though they talked swiftly between themselves.

Erel took a candle from his pack, lit it, and set it on a metal trivet. Jenessa wanted to express her gratitude for the small comfort it gave, but then her awareness was driven far away from the lean-to by the streaming images of another transmission.

When it ended, she knew the world had changed for her, though she could express not one word of it to Erel. Her lips and throat were numb, as if from too many things crowding there, waiting to be spoken.

She crawled out of the lean-to, then walked through the trees until she found a clearing where nothing encumbered her view of the sky.

Stars. She knew their true nature now, and she knew that each one had some name or designation. Such knowledge alone would have seemed miraculous, if there had not been so much more.

Jenessa heard the dry crackle of footsteps among the leaves and twigs. She lowered her gaze from the sky and saw Meera moving into the open space.

The child's face turned up. Her voice was little more than a whisper. "How can so many kinds of things be out there?" She asked.



Jenessa felt grateful for the wind as it whipped through scraggly trees along the narrow pass, then cooled her face and crest. It sharpened her senses, strengthened her feelings of embodiment. Gave her hope that she wasn't ready to disintegrate into a cloud of molecules.

"Molecules. Until today I had never heard the word. But they've always been here, making up my skin and bones and blood."

"And inside the molecules are atoms, and each atom has a nucleus," said Meera. "But even if I change into a Nimbian, you can't see the atom's nucleus."

"Is that what the two of you are going to do next, change into . . .Nimbians?" Erel asked,

Jenessa thought she detected anger hidden beneath his bantering tone. She glanced over her shoulder, hoping to think of some joking thing to say. But she saw his hands holding tight to the saddle, his crest swollen and red. She pulled the reins of her beast, and waited until he moved alongside her. "It's time to stop and rest," she said.

"No. Not again. I can go on." He told her.

"It's not much farther -- around the next bend, and up. But I was thinking of myself as well as you, Erel. I wouldn't mind another delay. I dread finding . . . whatever it is we'll find."

"Don't you already know? I thought you knew everything now?" Then Erel sighed. He managed a half-grin. "Sorry. But you've changed so much, Jen. And I know you can't ever go back to being the girl I grew up with."

"I'm not different in every way." She reached out to touch his face with her fingertips, but he flinched away. "You're changing too," she told him. "Soon you'll be able to hear Magda and Kadzin. And there will be more transmissions. I do know that. You'll see and hear them."

"You'll see the Nimbians," Meera said. "I think it would be fun to change into a cloud and make myself any color I wanted to be. And then I'd float."

Jenessa caught his glance. "She sees everything as if it were some wonderful new game. I envy her."

"And how do you see it, Jen?"

She shook her head. "I don't know. It is exciting -- all this knowledge. Though it's hard to fit things together in the right way. Nothing seems the same as it was the day I left town. I was always so sure the shapechangers couldn't be real. But they were. Though they weren't supernatural monsters. Some of them were our own ancestors who wanted a different kind of life. They came here, to this world. They knew what it was like here. Others of their kind had transformed the planet during some earlier experiment. So they made themselves into . . .us. Our people. Just the sort of people to live here."

Jenessa looked down at her hand and tried to imagine it falling into tiny pieces. "I don't think that will happen," she said softly, her voice hinting at uncertainty.

Erel's expression showed his bewilderment.

"I don't think we'll turn into Nimbians. But I'm not sure."

Erel started to speak, stopped, then began again, "No wonder you feel dread."

She nodded. "But some of what I feel comes from them -- Magda and Kadzin. They're afraid to find out how they fit into our world, the shapechangers world. But they have no choice. They have to know."

Jenessa and Erel gazed at one another through several heart beats, until she felt Meera stir restlessly behind her.

Then she made a clucking sound in her throat, telling the flest to move forward, and it did so. She led the way beneath an overhang of pale, striated rock, then rounded the natural bend in the path. The flest clambered with difficulty upward through a gap in the rock, and passed a line of slender-boled trees.

They came into a meadow. Jenessa heard Erel's gasp and Meera's whoop of delight.

"So. There it is," Jenessa said. She had almost known there would be a ship.

~But it isn't the Wanderling,~ Kadzin said.

The finality in his voice saddened Jenessa. She wanted to hold out some hope to him, but didn't know how.

~No! All those huge spines growing along the prow. That ship's nothing like our graceful Wanderling. It's one of the new breed, the kind of ship that doesn't needs spacers. It has nothing to do with us,~ Magda declared. Her mindvoice rose then, panicky. ~ But our Wanderling has to be nearby -- somewhere. Doesn't she? How else could we be here?~

With deep-level diagnostics, Watcher re-discovered the creation of the Chimera 4's shipsoul. And e learned that essential parts of eir's larger self were missing. Distributed. And unlinked. E touched through repositories of memory to the point of beginning. Then, using shipsoul frequencies, e began to transmit:

Log 1: When Magda opened her first set of eyes, they were the ship's inner eyes. Optic systems looked in upon cargo bays, bot and probe lockers, maintenance tubes and corridors, small weapons cache, engine core, and spherical chamber housing her/eir mainbrain.

She could see Felicity standing there, checking readouts in the center of the chamber, the woman's spikey augments reminding her of the ship's huge computronium spires.

Then longing, hopeless and intense, filled Magda's awareness, blotting out ship's senses. Longing for real eyes and a real body that could disconnect itself from the ship. But that wouldn't happen now, not with this ship, one of Felicity's Chimera fleet. No crew needed; uploads only need apply.

What Magda longed for most of all was to curl up next to Kadzin and feel his arms holding her. Kadzin. ~Oh gods!~

~Magda, it's all right. We're all right. We just have to get used to . . .all this.~ Kadzin's mindvoice sounded just as it had in the Wanderling's shipnet.

~But will we ever -- get used to it?~ She asked him.

His characteristic chuckle reassured her. ~Try thinking of it as spacers' Heaven,~ he advised.

Magda narrowed and refined her sense of sight, awareness zooming toward the cluster of icons on her upper left quadrant. Then, her attention touched the one that activated her link with Felicity. ~You patched in a lot of emotion,~ Magda told her.

~That's what you wanted, when you filled in the specs before . . .~ ~Before I lost my body. Yeah. But I didn't know I'd feel so trapped!~

Felicity's laugh was a vibrant alto bursting through ship's audio; her mindvoice said, ~You won't feel trapped when the Chimera 4 is spacebourne, when you're spacebourne. Remember the simulations, Magda?~

~Um. But for now, let us settle into our virch.~ Magda was almost sure her virtual body would feel like her own, like home. And Kadzin would be with her there, in that place Felicity had created for them.

~Of course,~ Felicity said. ~Perhaps that's the best way for you both to accustom yourself to Watcher's presence.~

Watcher. Oh gods. She'd forgotten about em. Though now that her attention was alerted she realized e'd been there all along. In every part of the ship. In every part of her mind.

Log 2: Magda called up the portal that would allow her to separate her sense of identity from the surrounding ship sensorium and datasphere. She shrank inward, diminished. Becoming a replica of her former self, wearing the symbolic smartsash of her birth clade, she swung through the access into the Chimera 4's virtual oasis.

Kadzin was already there, seated in a copy of his favorite tilt-back chair from the Wanderling's lounge. She grasped a rung of her preferred stool, slid it along the wall slot, as if it were its original in zero g environment. Then she sat down, curling her tail between the back rungs, and commanded the chair to float across the cabin to Kadzin.

~Almost like home,~ he gestured expansively. ~Only more so.~

Torn by the familiar homesickness for real bodies and real space, and paradoxically, feeling bereft of the contiguity of presences within shipsoul, Magda didn't reply. She smiled her best smile, and stopped pretending she needed the stool. She floated free, then wafted down, and glided to the nearest transparent wall. ~Much better view,~ she said, finally.

And it was. The Wanderling had only a small holo-window. This cabin had two walls open to the oasis beyond, where varied species of palm straggled alongside an almond-shaped pool. The water reflected a Terran-blue sky that Felicity had helped their combined shipsoul imagine into existence.

~Let's go for a walk,~ Kadzin suggested, appearing beside her, ~while Watcher oversees maintenance.~ When he took her hand, the scales of his palm felt sleek and cool against her fingertips.

They passed through the cabin's doorway, and the false sun warmed her face as if she were still a creature with blood. ~Notice the breeze,~ he said. She nodded.

~Any regrets?~ Magda asked him. She of course could not have regrets. If she hadn't uploaded after the accident, she'd be dead.

~We've become part of something remarkable.~ He chuckled. ~I was always the one to pursue new philosophies and life styles. Perhaps -- if the accident hadn't happened -- and I learned of Felicity's plan for combining human minds with AI into shipsouls, I'd have wanted to go for it, tried to talk you into it.~

~I think you might have, at that. Regardless of all might-have-beens, here we are.~

They lay down upon the pale sand, pressed close against one another, exploring -- for the first time -- possibilities. When they'd realized that all was as it should be, but before they had time to exhaust their mutual interest, a dark shape suddenly shadowed the afternoon sky.

Watcher's avatar, a copper-colored avian, plummeted down beside them and spread the huge fan of its tail, each feather ending in the stylized eye that symbolized a subroutine linkage. ~Felicity asks for a file download now. She has an appointment to negotiate our next run. Wants to make sure that everything is meshing psychologically.~

~Such attention. You'd think we were her first hybrid ship.~ Magda stood and stretched, luxuriating in the feel of arms and legs and tail. ~I suspect she's working on ways to spread her awareness throughout the fleet of indentured ships, not just her Chimera 1. And she probably will, eventually. I'm not sure what that will be like!~

The three of them went back into the cabin, and Kadzin took from the shelf a data bloc -- appearing like those they'd used in the Wanderling. It was the icon they'd agreed on, for downloading their stored experiences into Felicity's files.

Log 3: Watcher, it seemed to Magda, took great pride in eir internal subsystems. Though, until incorporating the uploads into Chimera 4, e could not have recognized, or named, the feeling of pride.

To Magda, when sensing the same subsystems, they felt much like the play of smoothly tuned, augmented muscles, as she'd enjoyed in the free-fall games of her first youth. But now -- in something that was as much meditation as play -- these muscles pushed and stretched and held her integrated shipself together, as with the controlled release of amat they gradually changed vector, aligning Chimera 4 with the wormhole.

Sensor tendrils extending from the ship's computronium spines rendered a fluid image of surrounding space throughout the electromagnetic spectrum. Background radiation and motes of dust turned through ship's audio into a new kind of music, with the presence of stones and debris vibrating warnings of disharmony against the hull.

It had not been an effortless transformation.

She thought she'd known intimate connection between spacer and ship, spacer and spacer, during their years aboard the Wanderling. Perhaps that was so. But she had not known oneness: The disappearance of self, and the re-finding it in others -- in Kadzin and Watcher and Chimera 4. In the giving and taking, and taking and giving that connected them as shipsoul.

Log 4: Entering the Wormhole interface had been a slightly different experience from that of the Wanderling. The Wormhole's outer seraph checked the identity codes that Felicity had used in booking their passage; then disabling mechanisms switched on, rendering useless any of a decad of possible weapon systems. The effect of this latter was a cushioning of awareness that Magda had not before noticed, not unpleasant, yet not conducive to productive thinking. The Wormhole entity deigned to give only a grazing touch of nonverbal acknowledgment from its lowest level system. If Watcher's sensorium had not included her own, she'd not have been aware of the implied snub. She held back comment at the time, only later saying ~It's such attitudes that make Felicity's views somewhat appealing.~ And Kadzin had replied, ~But I doubt that her ideology for including uploads in Wormhole structure is likely to happen. For one thing, who would want the job?~

Exotic matter displayed as a dusty gleam during their moment of transfer. Then they were out; the nearby habitat zone a welter of delightfully mismatched shapes to their shipeyes. Chimera 4had little liking for formal aesthetic.

Log 5: After receiving docking instructions, they were given a chance to patch into the local media net. The fee was reasonable, and garish blue and green flocking ads promised amusement. Ethnic humor from the habitat's majority population of provolved parrots. Of course, they had to purchase a temporary splice-imitation program in order to understand the multi-level, multi- lingual, plural-mind humor. But it was worth the price. They saw Watcher's first belly-laugh appear as huge wild ripples across the virch pool, and they all got drunk on laughter, then passed out until the ship alarm cut in next habitat morning, with the arrival of their client's representative.

Though the temporary program had run its course, remembrances of humor erupted throughout the mundane chores of remote-boting the packets of wet-nano enhancement seeds from the cargo bay. It was Magda and Kadzin's first mind-ride in the four-armed, treaded bots. They turned it into a race. The pretentious solemnity with which the pan-sophontist cockatoo took possession of the cargo was enough to send her into fresh gales of laughter. They were grateful for the expressionless bot faces.

~Think we can get Felicity to bid on their next contract?~ Magda wondered later, when the oasis pool had calmed, and they'd speculated on the side effects of the humor programming.

Log 6: To Magda's new surround-sight, the oasis spun slowly, but determinedly, around her. And how in hells do I close any of these eyes, she wondered. Nevertheless, she was glad to spend some time in the oasis again. Lately, they'd explored many of Watcher's Escheric spaces during the Chimera 4's maintenance and docking.

~Wouldn't you know. Just when we've gotten accustomed to being uploads, and being shipsoul with the AI, Felicity comes up with this.~ Magda wanted to give an indignant shake of her virtual head. But her head wasn't really a head now; it was a cloud of virtual nanochines. As was her body. Head and body were not quite joined in her vaguely humanoid form. ~Never, not in my wildest fantasies, not in any virch, had I imagined transforming into utility fog! In the Wanderling, we'd never even visited a Nimbian colony.~

~Well, it wasn't part of Felicity's original planning either. But when the opportunity came up, she couldn't resist the expansion,~ Watcher said.

~Hmm. But she isn't the one expanding. And neither are you. You have the easier part of this assignment. You're not required to become Nimbian,~ Magda told him. Watcher's avatar, maddeningly whole, plopped down on the sand, in the long shadow of a date palm.

Kadzin floated above the virtual pool, alternately contracting and expanding his foglet shape. ~If I spread myself too thin, I lose control,~ he complained

Felipe, the representative from the Nimbian expedition, glided his avatar up and across the pond. His somewhat prissy voice spoke into their mental space. ~Adjustment problems are most likely caused by lack of mental identification with the form. So I advise concentration exercises as well as practice.~ Then Felipe demonstrated a more advanced technique by gathering parts of himself into tightly woven structures, dipping into the water, then lifting some of it out, and creating a small waterfall as it fell back into the pool from his foglet ‘hands'.

~We can do that with real water in the physical world?~ Magda asked the Nimbian.

~Of course. You can even swim. This program I patched into your virch duplicates the abilities you'll have when teleoperating the new utility fog remotes of the Chimera 4. The feeling of texture and weight is exquisite, I assure you. And aside from the sensations, each microchine transmits and interprets data from the environment.~

~Um. But I seem to have a problem with ordering the information in a meaningful way, contextually. The opposite I suppose of the ancient saying -- I can't see the trees because of the forest.~ Kadzin said. Then he continued. ~But, Felipe, if the foglet state is everything you claim -- and I'm not doubting your word -- why are your colonists so eager to renounce it and go prim?~

Felipe tightened himself into an ebony-skinned Human form. ~To truly understand our faction's viewpoint, you'd need to study the way Nimbian philosophical and political differences have evolved and split, during the millennia since our inception. Now I myself am no Luddite, though some members of the new colony are decidedly so. A few of them might be described as fanatical. But what all of us colonists have in common is the desire to experience the original baseline Human existence -- or as near to it as we can, on a terraformed world. We can't live that sort of life on Nimbus, without opponent factions dissipating our towns and homes nearly as soon as they're built! Most of us are leaving backups on Nimbus of course, in secure depositories. Our baseline bodies will die, as all of our ancestors did. Our children will be raised as Humans. Then, in the next generation, your ship will use the programming I've designed, and build a core nano- station to create the viruses that will allow our descendants the knowledge of their true nature. They'll decide their future, for themselves.~

~And the point of the whole thing is . . .?~ Magda asked. Suddenly, she achieved a sense of wholeness in her new form. The oasis stabilized, surrounding her, in 360 degree visual acuity. She moved slowly, and with imagined great dignity, across the sand.

Felipe nodded approval, and said, ~The point is just that decision. It will answer many of our clade's questions; such as: Is the Nimbian development desirable, to nearbaselines with no preconceived cultural bias? We'll know that. In sixty colony years.~

Magda supposed that she must have heard more absurd ideas at one time or another. Though she couldn't, off hand, remember any. She called up the secure communication channel that united Kadzin, herself, and Watcher, excluding the Nimbian. ~It's the sixty years that really bother me! We'll be stuck on that colony planet -- doing what? Sure, the foglet state will have plenty of advantages, once we master it. But -- sixty years!~ Accompanying her message, she sent a virtual stream of pheromones, screaming: dread/boredom in the extreme!

Watcher and Kadzin sent calming pheromones, though Kadzin's were overlaid with his own doubts. ~Don't be obsessive about a mere sixty years,~ Watcher advised. ~Afterward, you'll retain Nimbian possibilities throughout millennia of life. You'll move freely about any port, planet, habitat. And through remote transmissions, I will enjoy the mobility, through you. The benefits outweigh all costs. Remember, Felicity agrees, heartily. She urges the contract be sealed.~

~And why assume boredom?~ Kadzin struggled to put a positive spin on the experiment. ~We'll be in virch. Subjectively, we don't have to notice the time passing.~

~Oh, we're going through with it. I know it's an extraordinary opportunity,~ Magda admitted. ~But as for all that waiting around... Kadzin, how about taking a trip through our past? We could program in some of the old days -- with us and the Wanderling. Watcher won't mind . . . E'll be, well, watching. Please. I feel nostalgic.~

Kadzin laughed. ~I predict you'll get tired of nostalgia, and run back to one of Watcher's more exotic labyrinths. Long before sixty years has passed. But sure. Why not? ~

Log 7: Their awareness was tucked within the remote treaded 'bots, hands and arms filled with simple tools and tent fabric. Magda didn't even know the names of many of the implements she carried.

The colonists would use them in felling trees, then slice the wood, and assemble it into buildings. Real seeds would be planted and sprout in plowed fields. Magda didn't try to imagine those long, laborious processes. Even now, she wondered if the colonists understood what was ahead of them. Surely, they couldn't. Or they'd be out of here and back to Nimbus. It's like some game they've decided to play. The ‘bot's camera eyes turned to follow the colonists -- nearbaseline bodies muscular and newborn from their nanochrysalis, after they'd journeyed in the form of compressed cubes.

The 'bots stacked the supplies at the edge of a small, natural clearing. Then, all the good-byes said that needed saying, they extruded long hands with dexterous fingers and began dismantling the nanostations, taking the core back into the ship. After the 'bots themselves were trundled back into storage, Magda and Kadzin centered their awareness into the oasis. ~I think I've had enough of pristine beauty,~ Magda said. ~It's a fine enough place to visit -- especially as foglet -- but I never did get the hang of swimming, and how long can you examine trees and stones? And all those animals that haven't even begun their ascension to sapience -- don't the Pan-sophontists know about this world? Limited place for a vacation, if you ask me.~

~The foglet bit will be more fun back in Taverna, and other spacer habitats,~ Kadzin answered. ~I have missed the amenities. I can admit that now, since we have a way to make up for lost time. After this assignment is finally over.~

~But there's something we can look forward to right now -- our past. You'll be surprised at all the things I've remembered to program. As soon as we get the ship settled into that upland meadow, we'll crack open the first scene. We'll have some great times.~



When Watcher's transmission ended, es presence didn't disappear from Magda's virtual viewpoint. Es avian avatar was superimposed on the upper left section of her foglet vision of the physical environment.

~By Omega's Holy Crunch!~ For several moments Magda felt incapable of voicing anything further. Finally she said, ~Well, Kadzin -- time to pull ourselves together.~

To Magda, that meant more than just getting a mental handle on the wholeness of her foglet shape. The image and knowledge of her own identity was nearly as scattered as her microchines. One part of herself was still spacer, and the Wanderling's pilot. And that Magda was horrified at what she'd become; all she wanted was to escape back into the virch of her past.

But of course she couldn't. Her expanded sense of self quickly rejected the idea, and reached out to Watcher, as shipsoul. ~What in all virch-hells happened? How did we get torn apart? But never mind -- let's just the Chimera 4 out of this gravity well and back into space.~

Kadzin streamed virtual pheromones of regret across their communal space. ~It won't be that simple.~

The avian nodded. ~We have a contractual obligation to the colonists, only part of which has been fulfilled. The virus has begun to seek them out, and has created filamentary augmentations within a few of them. When all colonists are brought to an understanding of their possibilities, they will choose. And we will take those who wish back to Nimbus.~

~But some of those colonists sabotaged the ship -- us! We certainly weren't separated by accident. Doesn't that nullify the contract?~ Magda argued.

~Whoever the saboteurs were, they were from a previous generation,~ Kadzin said. ~You know we can't just leave these people here, as nearbaselines.~

~No, I suppose we can't. But as for those Ludds -- I hope they're long dead, and had no backups!~

~I suspect you're right on both counts.~

~And what about Felicity? She must have known we were missing. Way past those sixty years! Why didn't she send one of the Chimeras to find us?~

~Actually, she did.~ Watcher's avian grinned. ~A broadcast from Chimera 2's probe tweaked the first of my timers, and it clicked, re-started our processes. The ship will move to lower orbit in 2400 minutes.~

~Good to know we're still part of the Galaxy!~ Magda suddenly remembered Jenessa. ~Hey there, Jenessa. You're not making any sense of this, are you? Anyway, you don't have to come looking for us. I'll have Watcher transmit our background info to you. Tells a lot about us. And something about your ancestors. Have fun with it.~

~Are you sure they're ready for all that?~ Kadzin asked.

~They'll need to get ready. We're not waiting around any longer than we have to.~ ‘bots

~Aye to that. But we have our own next step to take, Mag.~

~That we do. Ready. Right now.~

Magda sensed each of her microchines, saw through the multitude of camera eyes the soil and grass and brush where each one clung, made sense of the minutia of varied reports. They were -- her. And she was not planet-bound. Every attachment was dismantled. Her particles thrust up and out, then moved together into the sloppily humanoid shape that felt most comfortable to Magda.

All directions were visible to her surround-sight: nearby mountain range, an evening sky, three nearbaselines, Kadzin pulling himself together. The Chimera 4 -- home.



Jenessa gazed into the glowing tank of the assembler station. The same glow she'd seen from a distance, five -- no, six, days ago. Now she saw its yellow-orange reflected in Meera's eyes.

~Do you know we can talk like this, without opening our mouths?~

Enhanced frequencies of hearing brought Meera's words to Jenessa. Just when she'd thought she was beyond surprise! Jenessa shook her head. "I'm not quite ready for that. But I will be." For a great many things.

She turned to her left, where Erel lay on his side, head against his flest's saddle, eyes averted from the glow, from the ship. Jenessa pushed her blanket aside and reached out to him, touching his shoulder. "You've begun receiving the transmissions, haven't you?" She asked.

"Transmissions." Though his voice was weak, he seemed to spit out the word. "You don't talk like . . .us any more. You talk like them."

"Soon there won't be much difference between us and them," she told him.

He twisted his shoulders, and directed his gaze toward her face. "I saw and heard things, their way. In bits, flashes. Nonsense. Just craziness."

"It wasn't a good way to begin. You missed the early transmissions. I'm sure Watcher -- the ship -- will start them again, when more people have had their nervous systems rebuilt."

Erel turned, very deliberately, away from her.

She knew there was no way to bridge the gap between them. Yet. Just as she knew there was no going back to her life as a trainer of flests and leader of hunting parties. Or as Erel's bride.

She was still considering all those lost things, when Magda and Kadzin floated into view from the northern end of the meadow. Jenessa stood, then walked closer to the ship, to the Chimera.

The foglets would have been nearly invisible by starlight, but the microchines caught glints and glimmers from the light of the assembler tank. They were silent now, at least in the frequencies Jenessa shared with them. She understood that they had a lot to catch up on, going back to the completeness of their identity.

As did she, in her own way. She wondered who, and what, her identity would become. Only hours ago, she would have been frightened by the foglets. Now she found them, and their possibilities, intriguing.

Nevertheless, she felt comforted to know that becoming Nimbian wasn't something that would just happen to her -- as he enhancements had happened. It was a technological process that could be undergone. By choice.

But the Chimera 4's transmissions had sparked other glimmers and glints into her awareness. Other choices. Many of them.