CHAPTER 16

Arhat [Pali]: One who has achieved total enlightenment by heeding the words of the Buddha. Arhats are as completely transcendent as Gotama Buddha himself. The only difference is that Gotama perceived the truth on his own, without a teacher, while arhats needed assistance from the Buddha’s words.

Festina carried me in a firefighter’s lift, just as she’d carried Tut. I weighed considerably less than he did, so she managed to move at good speed: ten seconds jogging, ten seconds walking, over and over again. The jogging hurt as I bounced on her shoulder — hurt both of us, I could tell — but we pretended we couldn’t hear each other’s gasps over the rain.

Overhead the lightning had eased off, though another active storm cell would arrive soon. We were left with cool drizzle on mud. Puddles splashed under Festina’s boots, and her jogging feet kicked dirty spatters so high they sometimes struck my face. Within seconds, the rain would wash me clean again. Our nanomesh uniforms had long ago lost the fight to stay waterproof; Festina and I were soaked to the bone.

Soaked to what few bones I had left.

Outwardly, my legs looked intact — the Balrog continued to hide its presence from spying eyes (from pretas or anything else watching). Inwardly, however, my legs were a mossy mess.

The bones were mostly gone: their remnants broken down by the Balrog into basic elements, to be used as raw materials for constructing new spores. The spores had then moved on to dismantle adjacent tissues — the muscles, tendons and ligaments damaged in Festina’s attack. A number of important blood vessels had been severed by sharp bone fragments; if not for the Balrog, I might have bled to death through gashed arteries. But the spores had stopped the hemorrhaging… they’d reinforced my skin so no bone shards sliced into open air… and they’d restored blood flow to whatever parts of my legs remained human.

All this I saw through my mental perception: how little of me was left from hips to toes. And the Balrog hadn’t finished. It was still mainly occupied with emergency repairs to keep my condition stable. Once it stanched my wounds, I had no doubt it would annex whatever flesh remained healthy — cleaning up unfinished business, but always invisible from the outside.

At least the pain was gone. The nerves at my injury sites had been cannibalized to make spores, so my brain could no longer receive neural messages of agony. No sensation at all below the pelvis. But my brain was not the only player in the game of “Who Is Youn Suu.” There was also that sentient point in my abdomen (my womb, my dantien) which served as the seat of higher perceptions. The Point of Me. It watched with perfect clarity as my legs became alien territory. When I finally tried to move them — when I summoned the courage to try — nothing happened. The legs (no longer my legs) remained as limp as death.

I found myself speaking aloud: “Consider this body! A painted puppet with carpentered limbs, sometimes injured or diseased, full of delusions, never permanent, always changing.”

“Is that a quote?” Festina asked, grunting under my weight.

“From the Dharmapada,” I told her. “Look at these brittle white bones,” I went on, “like empty husks of fruit left to rot at the end of summer. Who could take joy in seeing them?”

“Buddhism is such a cheery religion,” Festina muttered. “Then again, my nana used to recite similar lines from Ecclesiastes.”

“This body is only a house of bones,” I quoted, “and I have searched many cycles of lives to find the house-builder. Who would construct such an edifice of grief? But now I have seen it was always my own hands wielding the tools… and knowing that, I shall not build this house again. I shall let the rafters fall. I shall let the bones break. I shall let in the sunlight of wisdom, so that when death comes I shall not be condemned to another prison of bones.”

Festina suddenly broke into a true run — not just the jog she’d been using. Her aura showed some thought had upset her. I asked, “What is it? What’s wrong?”

She ran for a few more seconds, then sighed and slowed to a walk. “You said ‘when death comes’… how do you know it will?”

“Everyone dies, Festina.”

“Every human does. But you aren’t human anymore.” She paused. “How much do you know about Kaisho Namida?”

“I’ve read Pistachio’s files.” I gave a weak laugh. “Since the Balrog first bit me, I’ve read them at least ten times.”

“Navy files are incomplete,” Festina said. “The Admiralty lost touch with Kaisho as soon as she left the rehab center. I was the only one she kept in contact with. For a while, I… never mind. But know one thing, Youn Suu. Kaisho was middle-aged when she got bitten by the Balrog; now she’s a hundred and sixteen, but physically, she’s younger than me. The Balrog has rejuvenated her tissues.”

“The few tissues she has left.”

“The Balrog will never consume her entirely. That would be a nonsentient act. As long as the Balrog’s alive, Kaisho will be too. I’m not sure Kaisho will ever die.”

“Even the Balrog has to die eventually,” I said. “If nothing else, it can’t survive the end of our universe.”

“Can’t it?” Festina began jogging again. “These creatures… the ones way up the evolutionary ladder… they come and go from our universe… at least we think they do…” She slowed, out of breath. Not even Festina Ramos could jog, talk, and carry a full-grown woman without getting winded. “I was on Cashleen when the Balrog appeared,” she said. “Spores literally came from nowhere. The Cashlings got it on camera: one moment there was nothing, then there were spores.”

“We know the Balrog can teleport,” I said.

“But there was no trace of incoming matter or energy. It didn’t look like the Balrog was traveling in some other form through our universe, then reconstituted itself into spores. There was no discernible transmission. The spores just showed up. From elsewhere. From outside.” Festina jogged a few more steps. “Other species do the same — the purple-jelly Fuentes, for instance. Researchers think these creatures spend most of their time outside the normal universe… whatever the hell that means. Anyway, the end of our universe may not guarantee the end of the Balrog. It may have someplace else to run.”

“Nothing lasts forever,” I said. “Nothing is permanent. Even if the Balrog doesn’t die a conventional death, it can’t just go on and on. It can’t. Over time it’ll change into something different, the way rocks break down into soil. Then the soil is used by plants, the plants are eaten by animals, and everything keeps changing forever. If the Balrog lives in some universe where entropy doesn’t apply, there’ll be something else that makes things change. Impermanence is an inescapable fact.”

I could sense Festina smiling, though I wasn’t looking at her face. “That’s the voice of your upbringing,” Festina said. “If my nana were here, she’d lecture you on her inescapable facts: everlasting heaven, everlasting hell, everlasting souls, everlasting everything else… except, of course, for the physical universe, which she discounts as fleetingly insignificant. Nana sees immortality everywhere.” Festina chuckled. “If it’s any consolation, Kaisho Namida is on your side. She believes devoutly in change and impermanence.”

A chill went through me. “Is Kaisho Buddhist?”

Festina nodded. “Zen meditation every day… at least until the Balrog took her.”

“You mean the Balrog has only claimed two human beings in all history, and both have been Buddhist women? Female Buddhist Explorers?”

“Ooo.” Festina’s aura flickered. “Ouch. When you put it that way, it’s an odd coincidence. I hate odd coincidences.” She walked a few steps. “How many practicing Buddhists do you think we have in the Explorer Corps?”

“I’m the first Explorer ever from Anicca — I checked the records once, out of idle curiosity. And Anicca’s the primary center for all Buddhist traditions. There are small retreats and communities on a lot of Technocracy worlds, but the only other planet with a sizable Buddhist population is Shin’nihon.”

“Which was Kaisho’s homeworld,” Festina said. “I remember her once telling me… fuck.”

“What?”

“Five years ago — after she’d been infected by the Balrog. Kaisho and I were talking about something else, when all of a sudden she told me she was the only Explorer ever to come from her world. She mentioned it completely out of the blue. When I asked why she’d brought it up, she said I’d figure it out someday.” Pause. “By which she must have meant today. Damn, I hate precognitive aliens!”

“So Kaisho’s the only Explorer from Shin’nihon, and I’m the only Explorer from Anicca. The odds are good we’re the only Buddhists ever to join the corps.”

Festina nodded. “There’ve only been a few thousand Explorers since the corps began… and most were drawn from the core worlds, where it’s hard to find any religion beyond the usual vague sentiments.”

She broke into another jog, while I returned to thoughts of Kaisho. If she and I were the only two Buddhists who’d ever become Explorers… and both of us had been taken by the Balrog… what did that mean? That Buddhists were better suited to the experience? That we could handle it better because of our mental discipline? That we were easier to invade because we were more open?

Or maybe just that our flesh tasted sweet from being lifelong vegetarians.

Of course, Kaisho followed Zen — a different tradition from my own Tarayana. But the two traditions had much in common. Zen had been a significant influence in the early days of Tarayana… and since that time, there’d been cordial relations between the two, allowing for a degree of intermingling and convergence. Different roots but not so different in modern practice.

Zen and Tarayana. Kaisho and me. Avatars of the Balrog. Why?

“It has to mean something,” Festina said. “Five years ago, Kaisho made sure I knew. Unless the Balrog was just playing games: trying to make us think there’s significance when there isn’t. Taking another Buddhist woman to fool us into believing there’s a pattern.”

I opened my mouth to say I didn’t like being consumed, physically and mentally, just so the Balrog could create a false mystique about its actions. But even as that thought glowered in my mind, a different one arose: So what?

So what?

So what?

A thing had happened. I wouldn’t have chosen this fate if I’d been given the option, but so what? Life was full of unasked-for results. Sometimes you got sick; sometimes you got hurt; sometimes you got a windfall success from pure unadulterated luck. Or from karma. Karma was something we all had to live with: a web of cause and effect so vast that no one could fathom it.

So what?

So what?

So what?

So what if my life had irreparably changed… for an important reason, a trivial reason, or no reason at all? Change happened to everybody, all the time — sometimes devastating change through no fault of your own. Sixty-five hundred years ago, a Fuentes scientist had made a mistake (possibly major, possibly minor) and ever since, millions of beings had been unjustly condemned to endure a preta purgatory. Maybe our party would join them; maybe we’d somehow save them. Rescuing people was better than getting trapped ourselves… but there’d always be more trouble, new trouble, one thing after another, and no one could dodge every bullet.

So what? What to do? What could anyone do?

Simple. You did what you could, in the here and now. Nothing else was possible.

The past was past. Remember, but let it go.

The future was not yet with us. Wise people planned and prepared, but didn’t obsess.

All anyone has is the present. Live there.

It sounds so trite when put into words. Stock phrases everyone has heard a thousand times. But in those few moments, as I bounced along on Festina’s shoulder, the words fell away like shabby clothing to reveal pure nonverbal reality. As if words were like a boat that had helped me across some river. Now I was on the other side, and could proceed forward without assistance. No words, no platitudes, just inexpressible realization: unvarnished unspeakable truth.

A path you can identify as a path isn’t The Path. A truth you can put into words isn’t true enough.

Thus I experienced a wordless release while Festina carted me down a game trail in the middle of a rainstorm.

So what? Why fixate? Be free.

Don’t ask why it happened then; how can such a thing be explained? And I realized this brief flash of freedom might be the Balrog’s work. Regions of the brain’s temporal lobe can be stimulated to create artificial feelings of spiritual awe. The spores in my head could have granted me a bloom of the numinous to distract me from other trains of thought, to keep me quiet, or simply to toy with me… the way you scratch a dog’s belly and laugh at how much the dog likes it.

But I accepted that. I could live with it, as I could live with all the universe’s other ambiguities. Would getting upset solve anything? Would it improve my life or anyone else’s? No. So let it go.

Let it go.

Let everything go.

I told Festina about my sixth sense. How it let me perceive at a distance: the pretas, the Rexies, Tut and the diplomats. How I could sense a person’s life force, including hidden emotions. How, back in Drill-Press, I’d overextended my brain and ended up with spores replacing much of my gray matter.

In other words, I told the truth. Up till then, I’d clutched my secrets as if they were rubies everyone else wanted to steal… but that furtive privacy had just been ego. The terror of being vulnerable. A desire to keep an ace up my sleeve. The dread of being chided for withholding important facts.

Disclosing the truth didn’t hurt me. Why should I have thought otherwise? And Festina didn’t react badly. She’d stopped trusting me long ago, and she knew the Balrog had senses beyond the human norm. I was telling her nothing she hadn’t already considered. Her aura showed no self-consciousness at my ability to see beneath her defenses. Instead of getting flustered, she shifted into a virtually emotionless state, thinking through possibilities. I couldn’t read her mind, but I believed she was debating how to use me: like a new kind of Bumbler, capable of scanning uncharted spectra.

If nothing else, she let me guide her on the shortest route back to Tut. The trip took slightly longer than expected, because Tut’s group had stopped moving forward — they’d reached a clear area on the Grindstone’s bank and had stopped while Li fussed about something. I could have eavesdropped to determine the exact nature of his complaint, but his aura revealed that the specifics didn’t matter. Ambassador Li was cold, wet, and angry. He felt useless as Tut found trails and Ubatu ripped through foliage, so he latched onto some flimsy pretext to raise a fuss. Just to get attention.

Li couldn’t stand being ignored. I saw that he bullied people out of loneliness… and how could I not sympathize? Hadn’t I done ridiculous things for the same reason? Still, it didn’t make his behavior any less obnoxious; and in this case, Li’s grandstanding might have disastrous results. I’d calculated our travel times based on the assumption that Tut and the diplomats would keep trekking ahead. Unfortunately, they’d remained on that riverbank five whole minutes while Li cursed and stomped about. It would therefore take Festina and me five extra minutes to reach them… which meant the Rexies might get there first.

I would have told Festina to drop me and go on alone, but that wouldn’t help. My weight slowed her down, but my sixth sense compensated by showing the fastest routes. We were already going as fast as we could.

So were the Rexies.

The bank where Li was having his tantrum rose three meters above the water below: a low weedy cliff overlooking the river. The top of the bank was mostly chalk-white grass growing ankle high… but here and there, slightly taller red ferns had put down roots, where they stood out like blood drops on snow. Not that a normal human eye could discern the color — it was full night now, and with rain clouds blocking the stars, the darkness hung as thick as a velvet blindfold. Only my sixth sense let me perceive more than shades of gray in the ponderous black. (Festina carried a chemical glow-tube, tied in a loop round her belt. Tut and the others, however, had no light at all: one of the many things Li was railing at. “Stumbling blind through this stinking bush. I hate the smell of mustard!”)

The darkness must have impeded the Rexies too — they were built for daytime hunting, so their eyes were relatively small, not the bulging orbs needed for regular nocturnal prowls. Still, the killer-beasts were driven by pretas who seemed unhindered by lack of light. Whatever senses the EMP clouds possessed, they could keep the Rexies on track despite the night and the rain. Perhaps the pretas had some limited form of the Balrog’s mental awareness; that might have been a “gift” they’d received from their incomplete ascension. But whatever their abilities, the clouds were nowhere near the Balrog’s omniscience. They couldn’t, for example, perceive the spores inside me… which is why the Rexies were going after Tut instead of straight for me.

Three Rexies: two in front, one behind. As I’ve said, the pretas planned to catch Tut and the diplomats using pincer tactics, with the rear Rexy driving the prey into ambush by the two others. The two at the front had taken good pouncing positions a short distance up the trail, in a region of bush where tall ferns provided more cover than the low foliage on the bank. But as Festina and I approached, the pretas must have realized they wouldn’t be able to spring their trap — our route would bring us to the two lurking Rexies before the third Rexy was in position. Festina would have time to stun the two predators, leaving only one Rexy to attack.

Furthermore, the remaining Rexy couldn’t rely on surprise. It would have to charge across the open area of the bank, letting Tut and the others see it coming. At that point, the odds would be three humans to one pseudosuchian in a straight-up, in-the-clear fight. Human blood would surely be spilled, but the Rexy just wasn’t big enough or strong enough to guarantee total victory. Tut was the same size as the predator, and Ubatu was slightly taller. Together, they might batter the Rexy into unconsciousness before it ripped out their throats.

Which meant if the pretas wanted surefire kills, they needed a new plan. They opted for simplicity: a massed assault. The Rexies in front broke away from their ambush positions and raced toward the bank, as the one at the rear did the same.

“Drop me,” I told Festina. “Now you have to run.”

Ubatu heard them first, thanks to her bioengineered hearing. But the Rexies made no effort to be silent, and within seconds even Li picked up the sounds of human-sized dinosaurs crashing through the foliage. The diplomats stared blindly into the dark, straining for a glimpse of their attackers… but Tut, with a grin on his face, didn’t bother to look. Instead, he pulled on the bear mask and flexed his fingers like claws. Softly he whispered, “Grr-arrh.”

Meanwhile, Festina sprinted toward the scene. The light on her belt let her see well enough to set a fast pace, and the trail she was following led straight to the open riverbank. She wouldn’t get there before the Rexies; but if Tut and the diplomats could withstand the first assault — even if they just dodged or ran for cover — Festina would do the rest.

Provided she didn’t get killed in the process. Her stun-pistol could fell a Rexy with only a few shots, but it wouldn’t handle three at once.

I myself was out of the picture. Festina had set me down on the trail, and I sat there, seeing everything, doing nothing. Not yet. There would come a moment when I’d have to… no, I dismissed the thought. The future had not yet arrived; all I had was the present.

A present in which people were fighting for their lives.

All three Rexies screeched simultaneously: their piercing eaglelike cry. Tut screeched back, imitating the sound; a moment later, Ubatu did too. Her aura flickered with fearful hope she might frighten the animals off… but Tut was just shrieking for the fun of it.

The Rexies were not intimidated. As they reached the open bank, they screeched once again in unison; then they charged.

Tut went for the one in the rear. I thought he might try the clothesline maneuver again, since it worked so well in Drill-Press… but Tut never used the same trick twice. Instead, as he and the Rexy converged, he suddenly dropped to the dripping-wet grass and slid forward on his butt, easily passing under the snapping bite aimed at his face. If the Rexy had reacted quickly, it might have jumped on top of Tut with its great clawed feet, gouging his entrails with a few brisk swipes; but neither the dim-witted dinosaur nor the EMP clouds possessing it had been prepared for Tut’s move. He slid on by, then spun to his feet with a helicopter swing of his legs. Half a second later, he’d jumped on the Rexy’s back: one arm around its throat, the other pushing its head forward to expose its spine.

Then he slammed the bear mask’s muzzle against the back of the Rexy’s neck.

For a moment, I didn’t understand what he was doing. Then I realized he thought he could bite through the dinosaurs vertebrae… as if he really was the mask he wore, able to snap with the sharp white fangs like a genuine bear. He’d have done more damage if he used his own teeth — the mask’s jaw was locked in place so it couldn’t open or close. When Tut smashed it up against the Rexy, all he did was dent the mask’s nose.

But.

The Rexy wasn’t built to carry a man-sized weight on its back… especially not on slippery wet grass while homicidal clouds interfered with its normal mental functions. The animal lost its footing and went down with a wailing cry. The cry ended when something went pop: the deceptively soft sound of bones breaking. Tut’s bite had done nothing effective, but with his right arm around the Rexy’s throat and his left still exerting forward pressure, the extra momentum of the fall had snapped the beast’s neck.

For a moment, the Rexy’s life force was nothing but anger: an outraged fire, furious for Tut’s blood. Then the aura changed to confusion and fear; the panic of an animal discovering it can no longer move its limbs or tell its lungs to breathe. Perhaps outwardly, the Rexy looked dead — motionless, heart stopped — but inwardly, its brain would take minutes to die with the blood in its skull growing stale. Smoke leaked from the creature’s mouth as the pretas who’d driven the animal to its fate now fled. The Rexy would die alone… bewildered by what was happening, frightened of being powerless, eventually slipping into stoic numbness as it waited for the end.

Tut stood and gave the Rexy a kick. Then he threw back his head and roared in triumph. Two seconds later he raced into the bush, making bearlike growls… as if he’d forgotten his companions. He never even looked back.

Meanwhile, Li and Ubatu had to deal with the other two Rexies. Li (true to form, but with indisputable common sense) ran away as best he could. Since running forward or back would take him too close to murderous Rexies, Li went the only way left: toward the river. Despite the darkness, he found the edge of the bank and eased himself over. Weeds grew on the low, muddy cliff above the water; Li got a stranglehold on some well-rooted ferns and dug his feet into the mud, plastering his body against the cliff side. His clothes, his hands, his face, were instantly covered with muck… but his grip was secure and his position safe — below the bank’s lip so the Rexies couldn’t see him, but above the torrents of the rain-swollen river.

Ubatu, however, didn’t run. She thought she was a fighter; and the way she’d wrestled Tut into submission proved she knew some martial arts. Unfortunately, practicing in a gym or scuffling with an unaggressive man like Tut wasn’t the same as dealing with two reptilian killing machines. If Ubatu had tried surprise tactics, she might have come through unscathed — we’d already seen that a Rexy’s minuscule brain couldn’t deal with the unexpected. But Ubatu chose to confront the pseudosuchians as if they were honorable opponents facing her in a dojo. I think she even bowed to them… though perhaps she was just assuming some preparatory jujitsu stance I didn’t recognize.

It didn’t help that her form of combat was based on grapples and throws. Rather than delivering strikes from a distance, she obviously intended to close with the animals — grabbing them, forcing them to the ground, maybe trying a chokehold to make them surrender. As if they were likely to moan, “I give up,” and congratulate Ubatu on a well-fought match.

But that’s just my uninformed guess. I don’t know what Ubatu really planned; she never got a chance to explain.

One Rexy reached her a fraction of a second before the other. She grabbed the first by its small weak arms and began rolling back as if she were going to pull the animal with her, probably tossing it over her head.

Imagine her surprise when a spindly limb broke off in her hand. Snapped away clean at the elbow.

The arm had been flimsy to begin with… and the Rexy’s preta- driven rush through the jungle had caused several damaging falls: falls that fractured the arm with numerous cracks, to the point where Ubatu’s bioengineered strength could finish the job of impromptu amputation. She continued rolling backward — couldn’t stop her momentum — but now she was desperately off-balance, only gripping the Rexy by one of its arms while still holding the detached limb in her other hand like some blood-gushing back scratcher.

Ubatu hit the ground awkwardly: far from the smooth roll she must have intended. The Rexy came with her but slowly, not jerked off its feet the way a human might have been. (Jujitsu throws are designed for tossing Homo sapiens, not pseudosuchians with a completely different musculature and weight distribution.) Instead of sailing cleanly over Ubatu’s head and smacking into the ground, the Rexy landed on top of her — screeching like a demon and snapping its jaws in an effort to bite anything within reach. Ubatu clubbed its snout with the severed arm she held, gashing the Rexy with its own claws; but the animal scrabbled wildly with its legs, trying to get away and stand up. Its great taloned feet raked Ubatu’s own legs, shredding her trousers and gouging the skin beneath. She was lucky the claws hit no major blood vessels… lucky too that the Rexy just wanted to right itself rather than use its claws to cripple her. Even so, one talon pierced her left thigh, punching deep into the meat before the Rexy stumbled away. With an injury like that, I didn’t know if she’d be able to stand, let alone maneuver and fight.

Then the second Rexy stepped in and sank its teeth into her face.

It was probably aiming for her throat — instinct would dictate attacking the quickest-kill target — but in the dark and confusion the Rexy missed its mark. The animal’s huge mouth nearly engulfed the front half of Ubatu’s head, jaws on either side of her face. Not quite enough strength to crush her skull, but the teeth punctured both her cheeks and scraped against bone at her temples. For a moment, the Rexy chewed; then Ubatu got her hands up and pushed the beast away. Its teeth minced her face some more as they dragged free. Ubatu tried to club the Rexy’s snout with her fist, but it moved back too quickly, out of reach. Preparing for another attack? No. It turned its head aside and spat out its mouthful of cheek flesh and blood.

The Rexy didn’t like the taste of Earthling meat. The animal spat again in disgust. Bits of Ubatu’s face spattered down on top of her.

Festina ran into the open area, stun-pistol ready in hand. Neither Rexy noticed her; they were both too busy fighting the pretas inside their heads. My sixth sense told me the pretas wanted the animals to finish off Ubatu: she was down, with one leg injured and her eyes blinded by her own blood. But one Rexy — the one whose arm had been torn off — was afraid to close in on the woman who’d done it, while the other was still too revolted by the flavor of human flesh to take another bite. In the long run, the pretas would conquer the beasts’ resistance by sheer force of will… but in the short term, the Rexies had managed a standoff by brute stubbornness.

Which meant Festina got off her first shot while the Rexies stood doing nothing.

The pistol’s hypersonics focused on the nearest animal — the one still bleeding from the stump of its pulled-off arm. It staggered, head drooping: it was already woozy from loss of blood. Festina steadied the gun to fire again… but before she could pull the trigger, furious smoke rose up and surrounded the weapon. My sixth sense felt the resulting EMP: a surge of energy slagging the wires that connected the gun’s battery to the hypersonic projectors. Festina’s trigger finger finished its squeeze, but nothing happened. No whir to show that the pistol had fired. No reaction from the Rexy in response to the shot.

Festina had one last stasis sphere, containing one last weapon. She didn’t even try to open it. Instead she switched her grip on the gun she already held, taking it by the barrel so she could pistol-whip the first Rexy to come within reach.

The Rexies charged in unison — spurred partly by the pretas and partly by a knee-jerk instinct to attack moving prey. (The one so sickened by the taste of Ubatu was too stupid to realize Festina would taste the same.) Festina lunged to the left, making it impossible for both animals to reach her simultaneously. In fact, the beast on the right tried to redirect its rush and only succeeded in jostling its companion so that neither could make a clean lunge. Festina had no such problem. Her hand lashed out, and the butt of her pistol caught the closest Rexy in the throat. It happened to be the one-armed animal who had already been shot once; that particular Rexy was moving more slowly, less quick to react… which was how Festina landed a clean solid hit on the creature’s windpipe.

The Rexy tried to screech, but no sound came. My sixth sense saw that the beast’s esophagus was crushed. In a moment the Rexy collapsed, sucking for breath that wouldn’t come. Its heart pounded fast from fear and exertion; but without oxygen, the pounding pulse would stop soon enough.

Another feast for scavengers when the rain let up.

But there was one more corpse yet to come — either Festina or the last remaining Rexy. The Rexy screeched a challenge; Festina only shook her head sadly. “Greetings,” she said. “I’m a sentient citizen of the League of Peoples. I beg your Hospitality.” A brief silence. “But I’m not going to get it, am I?”

The Rexy screeched again and charged.

The fight was over in seconds. Most fights are.

Under other circumstances, the Rexy might have employed a variety of instinctive tactics… but the pretas had no such instincts, so they forced the animal to stick with a single form of attack: charging directly at Festina and trying to bite her somewhere vital. Festina didn’t stay still long enough to make that possible. Furthermore, during her “sentient citizen” speech she’d surreptitiously untied the glow-tube from her belt. She held it in her left hand, the pistol in her right; whenever the Rexy charged she used the light for distraction, thrusting it out one way as she dodged the opposite direction, or ramming it suddenly toward the Rexy’s eyes, blinding the animal for a moment while she kicked at its knees or punched the pistol’s muzzle into the Rexy’s ribs.

Neither combatant moved at peak efficiency. Like the Rexy who’d lost an arm, the one still on its feet had suffered numerous injuries on its run through the jungle; it was bleeding, battered, bruised. Festina wasn’t damaged, but she was noticeably tired — fatigued from jogging so far with my body weighing her down. Perhaps that’s why on one of her feints, she didn’t move the glow-tube fast enough: the Rexy, pushing itself hard (or perhaps being pushed by the pretas), lurched forward quicker than expected. It caught the light in its teeth and bit down hard, spraying luminescent chemicals in all directions.

Including into its own mouth.

The Rexy gagged and squealed. The chemicals inside the glow-tube weren’t aggressively toxic — at least not to terrestrial life — but the taste was engineered to be as vile as possible, to discourage children drinking the fluid if some accidentally spilled. (A typical safety precaution to placate the League of Peoples.) It seemed the Rexy’s taste buds had the same reaction as Homo sap infants: the animal was so appalled by the chemical flavor that for a few seconds, all it could do was retch. The pretas tried to overcome the Rexy’s reaction, but the animal’s instinct to spit out the glowing chemicals was so basic, so visceral, that even the clouds couldn’t stop the Rexy from wasting precious seconds on the urge to vomit.

Festina used those seconds. She too had luminescent chemicals sprayed across her — glowing/flowing down her arm, spatters splashed across her shoulders and the side of her face — but she ignored the shining polka dots as she clubbed the pistol hard against the Rexy’s skull. The animal half turned toward her, fluorescent vomit spilling from its mouth. She clubbed it again in exactly the same place… and this time the skull broke open, disgorging blood and what little brains the Rexy possessed. Smoke poured out too, wreathing around Festina for a moment as if trying to asphyxiate her. Then the preta clouds flowed into the night, vanishing almost immediately from normal vision.

To my sixth sense, however, the clouds remained as visible as a forest fire — ablaze with irrepressible fury.

The chemicals from the glow-tube burned out quickly in the open air. Their shine lasted just long enough for Festina to check that all three Rexies were dead. Over their corpses, Festina murmured, “That’s what ‘expendable’ means”: a time-honored Explorer Corps phrase used when confronting the death of almost any living thing. Then she went to examine Ubatu, who wasn’t dead or even unconscious.

Just bloodied and disfigured.

Both her cheeks were in tatters: fatty flaps of tissue were almost cut loose from her face. Her temples were also in bad shape — punctured, gore-smeared, oozing. My paramedics professor liked to say, “Head wounds always seem worse than they are”… but in this case, I thought Ubatu’s injuries were just as bad as they looked.

As Festina bent over her, Ubatu tried to speak. The resulting slur of sound wasn’t words. Her jaw couldn’t move — the muscles to do that had been butchered by Rexy teeth. Anyway, what could Ubatu say? “I’m hurt,” maybe? (As if that weren’t obvious.) Or perhaps “Do I look hideous?”

As if that weren’t obvious too.

But at least Festina could stop the bleeding. She got out her first-aid kit.

Some time later, from the bank of the river, Li uttered a weak “Help!” He’d held his tongue in fear, unable to see what had happened with the Rexies and afraid the big predators had slain his companions. I could see he was worried that if he made a sound, killer pseudosuchians would come for him… but as silence drew out after the fight, his nerves grew too frayed to keep quiet. He’d tried a few preliminary whimpers, then managed a more audible cry.

Not that Li really needed help. He could easily climb back to level ground on his own. His aura showed he just wanted to dramatize his situation, make it look like a fearsome predicament. He was dirty and wet, and in shock at being dirty and wet; he didn’t know that Festina was more so, covered with chemicals, dinosaur puke, and Ubatu’s blood. Li probably wouldn’t have cared if he did know. He just wanted attention. “Help!” he called again when no Rexies came to attack. “Help! Help! Help!”

Festina was just about finished with first aid: Ubatu’s bleeding was controlled, and her face had been swathed in bandages, leaving only her eyes exposed. The eyes had suffered no damage — the only part of her face that could make that claim. Festina murmured, “I’ll be right back,” to Ubatu, then shouted, “Hold your horses, Ambassador! I’m on my way.” Moments later, she dragged Li back to the top of the bank, then listened to him babble about how he’d almost been killed. Meanwhile, she scooped water from a puddle and washed off the various residues smeared on her uniform.

When she was clean, she stood up and interrupted Li’s tirade. “Did you see where Tut went?”

“How could I possibly keep track of…”

“Tut!” she called, ignoring the rest of Li’s sentence. “Tut! You can come out now. The Rexies are dead.”

No answer. Tut was already out of earshot, moving south through the bush. He still wore the mask… and occasionally, he went down on all fours and growled, “Grr-arrh! Grr-arrh!” Pretas hovered around him. I couldn’t tell if they were trying to possess him or simply marveling at the sight, wondering what in the world he was doing. But whether by plan or by accident, he was heading south — toward the Stage Two station.

Festina, Li, and Ubatu would soon turn that way too: the two diplomats couldn’t be left on their own in the jungle, and they refused to go back to Drill-Press. Ubatu could walk — slowly, with a limp, muttering inarticulately thanks to her slack jaw — so proceeding forward was the best of a bunch of bad possibilities. Anyway, Festina wanted to get back to where she’d left me, to make sure I was safe. Who knew how many more Rexies might lurk in the darkness?

I knew. Two more Rexies were approaching fast from the south. They’d been coming this way all the time, following Festina and me as we’d gone back to help the others.

The Rexies would reach me long before Festina would — with her glow-tube destroyed she’d have to stumble through near-total blackness, while the Rexies came on, unerringly guided by pretas. I could even tell I’d been singled out as the animals’ target; I was helpless, and they were zeroing in on me, timing their pace to arrive simultaneously.

Aloud I said, “The next few minutes are going to be tricky.” Then I began pulling myself along the ground, heading for the river.

It was hard going. My legs were useless, nothing but deadweight. I could pull myself forward with my arms, but when the foliage was low it was slippery under my hands, and when it was high I had to bulldoze my way past countless stalks and tangles. The mustard smell of Muta’s ferns was thick and pungent this close to the ground, made stronger as plants in my wake were crushed to pulp beneath me. I didn’t have far to crawl to the river — only forty meters from where Festina left me — but getting there took the effort of a marathon.

Even as I crawled, I scouted ahead mentally. The bank itself was much like the one where Festina had just finished her own battle — a low, sandy cliff, slightly less than a story high and overgrown with a breed of tall, thin ferns that unfortunately had evolved primitive thorns. The area between me and the bank was slathered with the same sort of weed, mercilessly scratching my face and hands. (The rest of my body suffered no harm, thanks to the Team Esteem uniform. Nanomesh can’t withstand rain, kicks, or Rexy bites, but at least it’s resilient enough to shrug off a few plant prickers.)

I had one great advantage in the coming confrontation: my total mental awareness. I knew exactly where the Rexies were; I knew where to find a fist-sized rock that could be pried loose from the wet mud; I knew which sections of the bank were solid and which were ready to crumble if you put too much weight on them; I even knew how much weight was too much. I thought to myself as I crawled along, I’m living a Bamar folktale — one of those stories where a saint is threatened by ravenous beasts and wins out by the power of enlightenment.

Of course, in my ancestors’ folklore, “winning out” didn’t always mean surviving. Sometimes the beasts still got you, but you earned a really good rebirth.

I reached the lip of the bank mere seconds ahead of the Rexies… but along the way, I’d dug up the rock I needed. I held the stone tight as I waited on the edge of the drop-off.

The Rexies appeared moments later — the first time I’d seen them with my real eyes. They both looked tall and imposing (at least to a crippled woman sitting on the ground). I knew they’d screech before they attacked; all the other Rexies had done the same. Perhaps it was a standard tactic to freeze their prey with panic… or perhaps the Rexies were crying in agony as the pretas in their skulls jolted their brains into action. Either way, their auras gave away the exact instant when they began to open their mouths. I threw my rock at the closest and scored a perfect hit: straight to the back of the throat.

The Rexy blinked in surprise. It tried to shriek, but only managed a wheeze. Then it coughed, trying to dislodge the blockage in its windpipe. The animal wasn’t completely choked up — the rock I’d chosen wasn’t a perfect fit. Still, the Rexy could barely draw air around the edges of the rock, and its instincts would force it to hack and wheeze until it gagged up the obstruction.

One Rexy neutralized, at least temporarily. One more to go. It charged… not a smart thing to do when the target is right on the edge of a cliff.

I rolled aside at the last split second. The Rexy still got a chunk of me; though my upper body evaded fast enough, my legs straggled limply behind and my right calf got gouged by the Rexy’s claws. Since my right calf no longer belonged to me — it was now strictly Balrog territory — I didn’t feel pain. I simply saw the claw stab in… and I couldn’t help laughing as Balrog spores under the skin beat a hasty retreat to avoid being seen at the edges of the wound. A moment later, the nanomesh uniform (briefly torn by the incoming talon) sealed itself back up, hiding the spores beneath.

As for the Rexy, it kept going, unable to stop its momentum after trampling me. Right over the lip of the bank, belly-flopping into the water below.

The Rexy could swim — not well, just the usual frantic paddle of land animals that find themselves in deep water — but I trusted the beast wouldn’t drown. Not even in the fast-flowing flood from the rain. It was, after all, far lighter than a mammal of comparable size: almost as light as a bird. The Rexy would ride the torrent, head above water, till the current washed it ashore… and if we were all lucky, the shore where it landed would be the far side of the river. Ending up over there, the Rexy would lose its usefulness to the pretas. There was no easy way to get the animal to our side of the river again, since it couldn’t swim against the Grindstone’s heavy current, and the only bridges were back in Drill-Press. Therefore, if the Rexy washed up on the opposite shore, the clouds would have no further reason to keep it enslaved. They’d release their hold on its brain and let the animal return to its normal life.

At least, that’s what I hoped. I had no wish for the Rexy to die. I had no wish for anything to die… including the Rexy who remained in front of me, still trying to clear its throat.

I wondered if there was any way a woman paralyzed from the waist down could administer the Heimlich maneuver to a dinosaur.

But that proved unnecessary. With a heave of its lungs, the Rexy finally coughed the stone onto the ground. It turned its head toward me, eyes bleary; it held my gaze for a moment, as if saying, “To hell with the pretas. Now this is personal.” Then it screeched and came for me.

It didn’t make the mistake of charging. Even if the Rexy itself wasn’t bright enough to learn from what happened to its companion, the pretas realized another precipitous rush would only end up in the river. So the Rexy advanced with slow deliberation. I waited, equally stolid — I was sitting up now on the edge of the bank, legs slack in front of me but with my fists raised in what I hoped was a convincing ready-to-fight stance. If the predator tried to chomp my upper body, I’d fend it off as best I could.

But the Rexy (or the pretas) went for the easiest target: my legs. They were the closest body parts the Rexy could reach — limp and unmoving flesh, beyond the swing of my fists. Apparently helpless.

So my would-be killer took the bait.

The Rexy firmly, deliberately, clamped its teeth into my left leg, right at the knee. Blood squirted; incisors scraped bone. The bite was so crushing, one of the Rexy’s teeth broke off from the force — deep, deep, the animal getting an unbreakable grip in preparation for shaking its head and ripping the leg clean off. I waited till the bite was irrevocably committed… then I pushed myself backward and off the cliff.

I don’t know if the Rexy was capable of letting go; its teeth were so solidly embedded in my flesh, it might not have been able to release me even if it wanted to. But it didn’t want to — its aura showed nothing but determination to hold on, no matter what. Which is why, when I started to fall over the edge of the cliff, the Rexy came with me all the way. Its birdlike weight was far too light to hold me back, and its feet had no purchase on the slick muddy ground. Together, the Rexy and I tumbled over the bank. After a deceptively quiet moment of free fall, we smacked down into the flood.

Deep water, deeply chilled. The momentum of my backward cannonball dive plunged me more than a meter below the surface… but the featherweight Rexy, still fastened to my leg, had the buoyancy of a life preserver. He rose fast and pulled me with him, the two of us bobbing into rainy air that was almost as cold and wet as the river.

I expected the Rexy to splutter with panic at its sudden immersion. It didn’t. Maybe the pretas suppressed all fear reactions. More likely the animal was so focused on taking a chunk out of me, it didn’t have the brainpower to think about anything else. It bit down; it shook its head hard, as violently as the water allowed; and after a moment of thrashing, my leg came off at the knee, as easily as pulling the plug in a bathtub.

Immediately, the Rexy and my detached limb began to drift away in the torrent. I swam a few strokes to increase the distance between us. The animal continued to chew on the bloody stump as it disappeared into darkness; my sixth sense told me the Rexy avoided swallowing my putrid-tasting meat, but gnawed and gnawed and gnawed until the bones were ground into mash.

Through all this, I felt no pain. Nanomesh fabric closed seamlessly around the jagged remains of my knee. Then the Balrog, concealed by the uniform, closed off my spurting blood vessels, tidied up the bone ends, and pulled the remaining flaps of my skin to make a smooth outer seal — better than the work of any Technocracy surgeon.

I’d expected no less. The spores had proved they could repair other kinds of damage to my anatomy; why shouldn’t they handle an amputation? And I trusted them to save me from other threats too… like hypothermia, now that I was drifting helplessly in heart-chilling water, with no more protection than a sodden skintight uniform. Perhaps the Balrog wasn’t legally compelled to help me survive; I’d thrown myself into the river of my own free will, knowing quite well that humans often died of exposure under similar conditions. If the Balrog let me freeze to death, the League of Peoples wouldn’t object. Superior lifeforms can’t be held responsible if a lesser being takes suicidal risks.

But the Balrog would save me anyway. Not to preserve its good standing with the League of Peoples. Not because I might still be necessary to its plans. It would save me because it was not a callous creature.

I saw that now. The Balrog was no villain. In fact, it was deeply compassionate… in its inhuman way.

Everything the Balrog had done to me — for me — had been a gift… at least from the moss’s alien viewpoint. It believed it was improving me: making me less human and more like a “civilized” species. If the process scared and dismayed me, that might be cause for pity but not for backing off. When you take a beloved cat to the veterinarian, the animal may struggle and yowl; but you know you’re acting in the cat’s best interests, so you don’t let yourself give in.

“This is for your own good, Fluffy.”

This is for your own good, Youn Suu.

The Balrog believed it was doing me a favor: infesting my body, infiltrating my mind. If I didn’t appreciate the favor… well, every pet owner has to deal with that look of accusation when Fluffy thinks she’s been betrayed. Lesser creatures can’t always understand when they should show gratitude.

Did I feel gratitude? No. But I felt acceptance. I put myself at the Balrog’s mercy, letting it do whatever it saw fit.

Perhaps I’d be saved from hypothermia by having all my skin replaced with moss: an insulating layer of fuzz that would hold in my body heat, but make me look like landscaping. Was that so bad? With my cheek, I’d never looked entirely human. Wasn’t I used to that by now? Why should I be dismayed by a new outward appearance?

I didn’t regret what I’d done, no matter the price I paid. I’d removed the final two Rexies from the picture; I’d even done it humanely, so they’d both survive. My long-distance perceptions showed no other Rexies near enough to cause trouble. Festina could reach the Stage Two station without further risk.

She wouldn’t press on immediately. With Li and Ubatu in tow, she’d return to the spot where she’d left me; she’d find my dragging trail through the thorns and follow it to the river; she’d see Rexy tracks in the mud and the spot where the hank crumbled when the Rexy and I went over the edge. Festina’s Bumbler would pick up traces of my spilled blood… but by the time she used the machine to scan the water I’d be far downstream, out of the Bumbler’s viewing range.

Eventually, she’d realize there was nothing she could do. She’d set off toward the station, probably sticking close to the river and using the Bumbler from time to time to see if I’d washed up onshore.

Tut would head in the same direction — hunched over like a bear, stopping occasionally to dance, roll in the mud, or kill some poor lizard and eat it raw — but he’d make his way to the station too. He had nowhere else to go. He certainly wouldn’t go back to Drill-Press: there was nothing to interest him there. And if he just wanted to wander through the wilderness, curiosity would turn his steps toward the station; even if Tut had gone feral, he wouldn’t find much entertainment in a wasteland of ferns. The station was the only nearby location where something extraordinary might happen.

Pretas continued to drift around him, trying to insinuate themselves into his brain. Tut’s life force fought back as it had before: with a swirl of evasive lunacy, impossible for the clouds to control. If ever they came close to conquest, a flash of mental purple beat them back. I couldn’t identify what the purple was — maybe some core of sanity within his madness — but it held the pretas at bay. They contented themselves with merely nudging him forward, guiding him to keep pace with Festina and the diplomats. Later, they might make an all-out attempt to turn Tut into their absolute puppet. For the moment, however, they only needed that he stay close enough to be available if they decided to use him.

So we all proceeded south: Tut through the bush… Festina, Li, and Ubatu along the shore… me on the current in the river’s deepest channel. I had no trouble keeping my head above the flood — partly turned to moss and missing half a leg, I was light enough to float high in the water. And unlike rivers back home on Anicca, the Grindstone had no snags where I might get caught: Muta was millions of years away from having trees, and therefore millions of years from having significant deadfalls blocking the stream. If a tree-sized fern fell into the river, it would rot so much faster than conventional wood, there wouldn’t be time for obstructions to form.

Which gave me clear sailing through the night.

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