CHAPTER 18

Bodhichitta [Sanskrit]: The awakened heart/mind/spirit. Every living creature already possesses bodhichitta. The purpose of skillful practice is to remove klesha (poisons) that prevent one’s bodhichitta from making itself known.

Since the station was a giant Fuentes head, its door was placed in its mouth: a curtain of dark energy centered between the four huge mandibles. By “dark energy,” I mean a field of silent blackness — an intangible thing that blocked off light, but didn’t register on any of the Bumbler’s sensors. When Festina reported the lack of readings, Li said, “Stupid machine. What good is it?”

“If it can’t be used as eyes,” Festina said, “we’ll use it as a hat on a stick.”

She pushed the Bumbler into the flat curtain of blackness (making sure to keep her fingers safely out of the field). She waited a moment, then pulled the little device back. “No apparent damage,” she said after checking it over. “And it still works. Let’s hope that means we can pass through without our intestines exploding.”

Festina stepped through the sheet of blackness. A moment later, Ubatu did the same with me in her arms. Immediately, I went blind.

I still had my normal vision. Light entered the building through two glassed-in domes overhead: the faceted Fuentes eyes high up on the station’s “face.” The general glow was dim — outside, the sun hadn’t quite reached the horizon — but the tepid illumination showed we had entered a narrow corridor circling the edge of the building. The corridor’s interior wall was as smooth and white as an eggshell. It curved upward to join the outside walls a short distance below the spiked crown. The actual contents of the station (whatever they were) sat in a great white bowl inside the Fuentes head. This corridor ringed the middle of the bowl, in the gap between the inner and outer walls.

All this, I could see with my physical eyes. My sixth sense, however, stretched no farther than my skin. I could perceive everything inside my own body — millions of Balrog spores, and what little remained of my own tissues — but I could see nothing beyond… not even Ubatu’s life force, though she was pressed against me, still holding me in her arms.

A deep, abject blindness.

Within me, the Balrog stirred. Its life force wasn’t nervous or dismayed, but it was definitely disoriented. Disconnected. Its glow had shut down the moment we crossed the threshold — as if it was saving strength.

Ah. I understood.

The Balrog was a hive creature: each spore linked with all others, a gestalt spreading through the galaxy. The spores shared everything instantaneously — thoughts, strength, brainpower — which is why they could keep glowing, even inside my body. For normal creatures, producing light where no one could see was just wasting energy… but for Balrog spores, such squandered output would instantly be replenished from reserves in other spores. Probably, the Balrog had trillions of spores doing nothing but soaking up sun on well-lit planets, then feeding solar power to spores like the ones under my skin. The moss in my belly could draw upon huge amounts of energy as needed…

…until we’d entered this station. Which somehow cut off my spores from their fellows. Not only were they blind, devoid of their sixth sense; they were isolated. On their own.

I could almost imagine bits of moss snuggling up to my own cells for comfort. As soon as we passed through the station’s black entrance, the spores had ceased to be the Balrog. Now they were piteous orphans, not dominating me but depending on me.

From this point on, we could expect no help from the Balrog as a whole. As for the small supply of spores I carried in my body, I assumed they were there for a purpose, but I couldn’t imagine what. They had limited brainpower, limited energy, and probably limited abilities. There’d be no dramatic feats of telekinesis to save us from the station’s dangers. If I got injured, perhaps the spores wouldn’t even be able to keep me alive.

We humans — we Explorers — we champions — were finally on our own.

“What now?” Li asked behind me. He’d taken his time coming through the entrance’s energy field, but had finally gathered enough courage to join us.

“Now we look around,” Festina said. “And before anyone wanders off, let’s use the Bumbler.” She took a quick sensor scan. “No good,” she reported. “We can’t see through the inner wall.”

“How about the Stage One microbes inside you?” I asked. “I don’t suppose they decided to stay outside?”

Festina raised a questioning eyebrow. “The EMP clouds keep their distance from this station,” I said. “It makes them nervous. Maybe the microbes that are trying to mutate you want to stay out too.”

“Oh good,” Festina muttered. “I love waltzing into places that terrify the locals.” But she took more readings with the Bumbler and reported, “We still have our escort of microbes — around us and in our bloodstreams. They must be so eager to turn us into smoke, they don’t care if monsters live in this building.”

“They’re microbes,” Li said. “They’re too stupid to care about anything.”

He had a point. The microbes weren’t pretas; they had no intelligence or emotions. They were just little wrecking machines, waiting for the signal to tear us apart. We could hope the signal wouldn’t pass through the station’s scan-proof walls… but that was just wishful thinking. The Fuentes would have done their best to make sure the signal blanketed the entire planet — especially into buildings like this one, which probably had a crew of maintenance personnel to make sure it worked when the time came.

“Let’s get going,” Festina said, slinging the Bumbler over her shoulder. “We’ll circle this corridor once and see what there is to see.”

We walked the circumference of the station and found two entrances into the central “bowl” — one on the north and one on the south, both curtained over with the same black energy that covered the front door. No noise came through either entrance; the building hung thick with absolute silence, as if the walls shut out every wayward sound. All we heard was our footsteps on the concrete floor… the rustling of our clothes… the beating of our hearts.

After our first circuit, we started around again. This time, Festina stopped in front of the first door we came to: the southern entrance, black, blank, revealing nothing. Once again, she pushed the Bumbler through to make sure the energy curtain was safe to enter; the machine came back unharmed. “Okay,” she said. “Time to jump down the rabbit hole, Alice.”

We stepped into a room brightening with dawn. I’d thought the roof of the station was opaque; it looked that way from the outside. From the inside, however, the room seemed open to the air: a sky of brightening gray, edging into cool, cloudless blue. The sun was too low to be seen, but its rays penetrated the walls, illuminating everything with a yellowed glow.

What was there to see? Ornate machinery: gleaming brass, shining steel, bits of copper and gold. The place reminded me of a Victorian astronomical observatory, with its open roof and collection of equipment below, bristling with gears, cranks, wheels, and levers. There was nothing so recognizable as a telescope, but numerous devices pointed skyward, some long and sharp like spears, others like bulbous cylinders or elongated pyramids. All of them made soft noises — one producing a hum, another a hiss, a third tick-tick-tick — filling the room with a background purr that suggested the station was still operational.

The equipment only covered the outer half of the chamber. The middle of the room was clear of clutter, with nothing but a low ash-gray dome set into the floor — the way humans might put a reflecting pool or a little garden plot in the heart of an open rotunda. But if the dome on the floor was supposed to add visual appeal, it didn’t succeed. It was simply a mound of gray, twenty paces across, not quite rising to knee height in the center… not what I’d call an attractive architectural feature, but the Fuentes might have had different aesthetic tastes.

Then something fluttered in the mass of grayness. An infinitesimal motion. I looked more closely, trying to detect what had moved… and, finally, I realized what I was seeing. I should have recognized it instantly, but I’d come to rely so much on my sixth sense, my normal vision had lost its edge.

The dome — the gray heap — was fuzzy. Mossy. In fact, the mound resembled the mat of spores that had covered the city of Zoonau. It had the same texture, the same smothering weight, the same thick furry surface… everything but the color.

I was looking at the Balrog’s pallid gray sibling: an anti-Balrog, faded and wilted and dulled.

Ever since we’d landed on Muta, the Balrog had carefully concealed its presence. Now I finally knew what it had been hiding from.

Festina stared at the moss. “Is that what I think it is?” she whispered.

“It appears so,” I said.

“You don’t know? You don’t have any, uhh, feelings about it?”

“My sixth sense hasn’t worked since we entered the station.”

“That’s disconcerting.”

“Tell me about it,” I said.

Festina pulled the Bumbler into position for a scan. “That stuff certainly reads like the Balrog… except, of course, the color.”

“It’s blotchy,” Li said in a loud voice. “Like it’s got mange.”

He was right. Though the mound at first appeared a uniform gray, closer examination showed subtle variations in tone. Some patches were bleached nearly white; some were smokier, almost as dark as charcoal; other areas had ghostly tints, the barest touch of opal or olive… as if this wasn’t a single type of moss, but a haphazard assemblage of slightly different breeds, with each individual clump squeezed against its neighbors.

Motley, I thought. Motley like the mishmash of colors in Muta’s ferns. Motley like the mosaics on Fuentes buildings. Motley like the pretas, seeming to form single clouds, but to my sixth sense, showing up as multitudes of different beings crammed together — neither separate nor integrated, but tossed into a jumble, like salad.

Li took a step toward the mound. “Careful,” Festina said. “We don’t know whether it’s safe. And before you say something stupid like, ‘How dangerous can moss be?’ remember what the Balrog did to Zoonau.”

“Is this the Balrog?” Li asked. “Or is it something different?”

“Chemically, it’s the same,” Festina answered, consulting the Bumbler. “But that means nothing. Chemically, humans are nearly identical to slime molds. What matters is how the chemicals go together.”

“With Balrogs,” I said, “what matters is how the spores go together. I don’t think these are a single hive mind. They’re separate hive minds, huddled together for warmth.”

“You say that because of the different colors?”

“Yes. And because it’s what the entire planet has been shouting at us ever since we landed. Motley. Separate things unblended. That’s the message.”

Li gave me a disgusted look. “Planets don’t shout messages. They just are.”

“What they are is the message,” I said.

Festina frowned. “Don’t go animist on me, Youn Suu. I’m still getting used to you as a junior Buddha.”

“I’m an all-purpose Eastern hero. Buddhism is my specialty, but I dabble in animism as a sideline.”

“So when it comes to kicking ass, I take on the gods, and you take the pissy little nature spirits?” She looked at the gray mound. “Which of us handles natural-looking moss with godlike powers?”

“What godlike powers?” Li asked. “It’s just a pile of moss. No big threat.”

Festina and I winced. The Balrog would have taken Li’s words as a cue for attack. But the gray anti-Balrog didn’t react… except for a slight shiver.

Li didn’t even realize the risk he’d taken. He walked to the edge of the moss and stared at it: perhaps debating whether to poke it with his shoe. Festina tensed, but didn’t stop him; even self-sacrificing Western heroes can let fools walk into the lion’s mouth, just to see what the lion does. In the end, the lion — the gray moss — made no obvious response. Li glowered at the mound a moment. Then he said, “Boring!” and turned to walk away.

An odd expression came over his face. “What’s wrong?” Festina asked.

“I can’t move my foot,” he said.

“Why not?”

“I just can’t.”

Festina almost took a step forward, but I shot out my hand to catch her. “Scan with the Bumbler,” I said.

“Forget the damned machine,” Li snapped. “I’m… I’m paralyzed. Maybe I’m having a stroke.”

I knew that wasn’t true; Li probably did too. But he couldn’t bring himself to admit he’d been caught in a mossy trap.

“I’m getting electrical readings,” Festina said. “From the gray spores.”

“EMPs?” I asked.

“Not that strong. But a pattern of electrical discharges are focused on Li, and they’re interfering with his nervous system. Signals aren’t traveling properly between his muscles and brain.”

“If we get too close, will the same happen to us?”

“Probably.” Festina shucked off her backpack and pulled out a coil of soft white rope. “I might be able to lasso him and drag him back…”

“No!” Li shouted. “Just come grab me. Hurry. I’m-“

His foot lifted. Li looked at it in surprise. I assume the motion wasn’t Li’s doing — electrical discharges from the mound were moving the leg against Li’s will — but I never found out for sure. The next moment, Li stepped into the bed of moss. Then his legs buckled, and he toppled backward.

Li fell more slowly than gravity would dictate: as if he were in a VR adventure where the action could suddenly go slow-mo for dramatic effect. His descent took at least ten seconds, drifting through the air, millimeter by millimeter, a feather wisping its way to the ground.

All the way down, Li screamed: a prolonged earsplitting wail, full of anger when it started (“How can you do this to me? To me?”) but flooding with fear as the fall continued, then right at the end, transmuting to sorrow — regret? maybe even shame at how his life had turned out? — only to be cut off abruptly as he reached the middle of the heap, and spores swept in to cover him. An instant later, Ambassador Li Chin Ho was nothing but a fuzzed-over lump within the mound of gray.

The rest of us didn’t react for several seconds. Ubatu’s grip was tight around me. Finally, Festina let out her breath and checked the Bumbler’s readout. “Li’s fall was slowed by something the sensors couldn’t analyze. The effect left residual heat, but beyond that the Bumbler says UNKNOWN EMISSION.”

“The emission came from the spores?”

“No way to tell… but if you ask me, that gray heap used telekinesis to drag Li in, slowing his fall so he wouldn’t crush any spores when he landed.”

“That’s encouraging,” I said. “If the moss was afraid of Li falling full force, the spores must be fairly fragile.”

“Mmph!” Ubatu agreed, making stomping gestures with her foot.

Festina put her hand on Ubatu’s arm. “Crushing the bastards is certainly an option to consider… but if they can telekinetically grab prey and reel it in, let’s consider that option from a safe distance. I propose a strategic retreat and then we debate tactics.”

“Strategic retreat sounds good,” I said, and nudged Ubatu toward the exit. While Festina grabbed her Bumbler and backpack, Ubatu carried me to the curtain of energy where we’d entered the room. She hit the black sheet at a pretty good speed — unluckily for me, because the energy field had turned as solid as a concrete wall. Held in Ubatu’s arms, I thunked hard against the black surface, then was squashed in by Ubatu’s body for a moment before she realized what had happened.

“Mmph!” she muttered as she backed away.

“Festina,” I said. “It seems to be a one-way door.”

“Shit!” Juggling her pack and the Bumbler, Festina hurried over. She reached gingerly toward the black barrier. Her fingers stopped on contact. “Shit!” she said again… then she slammed out her hand in a palm-heel strike, as if brute force might shatter the blockage. The sheet of black made no sound when hit, but I could see the jarring impact travel up Festina’s arm, hard enough that the recoil made her step back.

“I believe you’re right, Youn Suu. It appears to be a one-way door.”

From behind us came a cackling laugh. We whipped around to see the source: Li’s head protruding from the mass of gray, spores flecking his skin like pustules. The rest of his body lay submerged in moss, but at least his lungs were working — he had enough breath to laugh again.

Festina groaned. “Am I the only one on this planet who isn’t possessed by something?”

“Give it time,” I told her. “The morning’s still young.”

“Hah!” Li cried. “You’re trapped.”

“Is that Li speaking?” Festina asked me. “Or the moss just using his mouth?”

“Likely the moss,” I said. “Got inside him… infiltrated his gray matter… took over the speech centers and the neurons that understand English.” I shrugged. “Eat someone’s brain, learn a new language.”

“The planarian approach to linguistics.”

“You’ll go the same way as me,” Li sneered. “Soon, you’ll all be eaten.”

Festina gave me a look. “Isn’t he supposed to twirl his mustache when he says crap like that?”

“He probably can’t,” I said. “The spores swallowed his hands.”

“Pity they didn’t get his tongue.” She raised her voice. “Lot of good eating in a tongue. Mmm, yeah, tasty. I’d eat Li’s tongue myself, if that’d save us from one of those ‘You unsuspecting fools!’ speeches.”

“You are unsuspecting fools!” Li said.

“Aww, jeez, here it comes,” Festina muttered.

“Usually, we only eat vermin,” Li gloated. “Scrawny lizards and meatless insects that wander in here to make nests. It’s been a long time since we dined on anything larger.”

“Dined?” Festina said. “Who the hell uses words like dined? Not even a gasbag like Li would say dined.”

“We are not Li,” the leering head replied. “We are the Glorious Ones. We are the Divine.”

“For God’s sake,” said Festina, “if you have to possess the poor guy, would you please search his brain for the normal speech centers? Li wouldn’t be caught dead saying ‘Glorious’ or ‘Divine.’ “

“We’re content with the part of his brain we’ve claimed. Contact with this inferior creature’s mind disgusts us. We don’t intend to access more than necessary… but it’s been a long time since we had visitors, and we would speak with you.”

Festina rolled her eyes at the phrase “we would speak with you.” Personally, I thought we were lucky the “Divine” considered themselves too lofty to rummage through Li’s brain. Otherwise, they might learn things we preferred to keep secret. What would happen, for example, if the Divine discovered that my body contained Balrog spores? I might instantly become the next meal. Yes, they intended to eat me eventually — or as they might put it, they’d “feast on my succulent flesh” — but for the moment, the patchy gray spores appeared eager to inflate their egos at our expense.

I wondered if the Divine were naturally pompous, or if there was something in Li’s body chemistry that induced self-aggrandizement. Buddhists have always known you should be careful what you eat.

“So what do you want to gloat about?” Festina asked the moss. “How clever you were to mess up Stage Two for the Fuentes?”

“What?” Li’s spore-flecked head asked. “What do you mean?”

“My friend is implying,” I said, “that you, the Divine, are responsible for this station’s failure. She thinks your presence here indicates you sabotaged the Fuentes’ attempt at transcendence.” I glanced at Festina. “Alas, she views higher beings with suspicion. Magnificent ones such as you… she fears you may seek to prevent lesser creatures from achieving your own degree of perfection.”

“Magnificent ones such as you?” Festina said under her breath. “Guess we know who’s chosen to be the ass-kissing suck-up.”

“I prefer the term ‘good cop,’ ” I whispered back.

“Silence!” the possessed head roared. “It is not for you to judge us. You know nothing of our plight.”

“Then enlighten us, that we may benefit from your wisdom,” I said.

“We shall enlighten you,” the Divine replied through Li’s mouth. “But any benefits therefrom will be short-lived. When we finish consuming this man’s flesh, one of you will be next.”

“Take Youn Suu,” Festina said. “She’s bioengineered… all kinds of yummy extra vitamins.”

“Bitch,” I murmured (with a smile).

“I prefer the term ‘bad cop,’ ” Festina said.

“You’re wrong thinking we sabotaged the Ascension.” Li’s head had composed itself into a smug expression — as smug as anyone could be while clumps of gray fuzz snacked on his cheeks. “We are the ultimate result of that process. We,” said the Divine, “are what you would call Uplifted Fuentes.”

“I’ve seen Uplifted Fuentes,” Festina replied. “They look like purple jelly.”

“Impostors!” the Divine howled. “Lying, deceitful frauds!”

“Why?”

“They claim we are not truly elevated!” Li’s head made a snorting sound that might have been a laugh or a sniffle. “You saw what we can do — how we drew your companion to us. You’ll experience the same power soon enough. Even if you run, we shall drag you back by force of will and munch with delight on your bones. But the Jelly Ones… they whisper… we shut them out, but they whisper… they say we are pitiful craven things who never really rose at all.”

“Gee,” said Festina, “how could they think that?”

I gave her a warning look. The Divine were craven things — whining snivelers without enlightenment — but like Bamar demons who could be fooled by Ugly Screaming Stink-names, the gray spores shouldn’t be underestimated just because they seemed like buffoons. This moss had real powers: telekinesis and who knew what else. Their mentality might be deficient (perhaps just degraded with age), but they were still deadly. Just ask Ambassador Li.

“The Jelly Ones don’t understand you,” I said. “They’re cruel to torment you with their whispering. Do they do it often?”

“They never stop. Never! When they get close enough, we destroy them… but mostly they stay out of range and plague us with taunts. They say they could help if only we’d let them. Liars! We don’t need their help.”

“I’ll bet you hold others at bay too,” I said. “Other creatures besides the Jelly Ones.”

“Oh yes, many others. We have millions of enemies — millions and millions! All of them hateful and jealous. But we kill them if they get too close.”

“What about the settlers?” Festina asked. “The Unity. The Greenstriders. They lived here for years, and you didn’t eat them.”

“We are the Divine!” they shrieked through Li’s mouth. “Do we squander our strength on lesser beings when we must conserve power to fight greater enemies?”

“Ah,” said Festina, under her breath. “The bastards have limited energy.”

“Besides,” the Divine continued, “why should we exert ourselves when microbes do the job for us? In time, the microbes turn all invaders to smoke. Then the newcomers cease to be annoyances.”

“You’re on good terms with the EMP clouds?” Festina asked.

“The clouds are beneath our contempt… but they know their place. At one time, they tried to steal our treasure, but-“

“Treasure?” Festina and I repeated in unison.

“Our blessing. Our inheritance.”

“O Splendid Ones,” I said, “perhaps you should explain what that means. We wish to comprehend your true greatness.”

“We’re glad to do so,” the Divine replied. “Too long have we been misunderstood. Listen, and be amazed.”

As the Divine began to speak, Ubatu laid me on the floor. That might just have meant she was resting her arms — why hold me during a potentially lengthy diatribe, when she might need all her strength later? — but I was still troubled by her action. Ubatu hadn’t been carrying me out of courtesy or compassion; it was something to do with Ifa-Vodun. She saw me as the vessel of a particularly powerful loa. I’d thought she wanted to keep her hands on me and perhaps win favor with the Balrog through displays of worshipful servitude.

But now Ubatu had met the Divine. And now she’d set me down. I couldn’t help wondering if she’d decided the Divine would be more susceptible to her pandering than the Balrog had been. They certainly seemed better candidates for being manipulated: powerful, but not very bright. If Ubatu abased herself before the Divine — if she offered to be their priestess — they might be gullible enough to accept.

Especially if she could prove her loyalty. Perhaps by offering Festina and me as sacrifices. And betraying the secret that I harbored the Divine’s enemies: Balrog spores. If Ubatu had been capable of speech, she might have already blurted out the truth. As it was, she’d have to bide her time: wait for some kind of opening that would let her catch the Divine’s attention before Festina and I could stop her.

Or not. I might be inventing ulterior motives where none existed. Ubatu could simply be resting her arms. I wished I could still read her life force, but my sixth sense had lost its reach. I had to fall back on my natural five senses, keeping a close eye on Ubatu to make sure she did nothing treacherous while the Divine talked.

Meanwhile, Festina took up a position leaning directly on the curtain of blackness across the room’s entrance. If the energy field lost its solidity for the slightest instant, she’d fall into the outer corridor and perhaps beyond the Divine’s clutches. Putting her weight on the blackness might also force the Divine to expend energy maintaining the curtain’s impenetrability. If the gray spores had limited resources of power, why not compel them to use as much energy as possible?

I found it difficult to believe the Divine were as mighty as they claimed. They reminded me of a grandiose jungle tribe, hiding from modern society, claiming to be masters of the world but living on lizards and insects. If we could make them overextend themselves, we might find a way to avoid being eaten like Li. But first, we had to listen to them pontificate.

“Long, long ago,” the Divine said through Li’s half-eaten lips, “we were technicians at this station. The ones who readied it for Stage Two of the Ascension. We did exactly what we were told. Exactly! We followed the scientists’ directions to the letter.”

“Fine, we got the message,” Festina said. “You just followed orders, and you weren’t the ones who screwed up. What happened?”

“The Ascension happened!” The Divine apparently liked to shriek. This particular yell sounded more breathy than those previous; I wondered if the spores had started snacking on Li’s lungs. “It happened just as predicted. First, the microbes pulled apart our bodies. Then, the energy projectors in this station activated themselves. It was glorious.”

“What went wrong?”

“From our viewpoint, nothing. In the form of clouds, we gathered at the energy projectors. We felt ourselves change — growing more powerful. New strength flooded through us, and we used that strength to feed on the radiation. We gathered it to us; we drank it in; we reveled in it. All that power for ourselves.”

“For yourselves?” I asked. “What about the people in Drill-Press? Weren’t they supposed to get their share too?”

“There wasn’t enough to go around! The scientists must have miscalculated. After we ascended, we drove the others away; otherwise, they would have stolen what was rightfully ours.”

“You’d already ascended,” Festina said, “but you kept sucking up the power pumped out by this station?”

“The power belonged to us. Our treasure. Our due.”

“Oh boy,” Festina muttered under her breath. Raising her voice, she said, “Let me get this straight. This station could produce enough energy to uplift everyone in this part of the planet, including the entire city of Drill-Press and God knows how far beyond. Instead, your team of grease monkeys, who happened to be closest to the source, were the first shoved up the evolutionary ladder. You acquired fancy new abilities and immediately used those abilities to grab the energy for yourself. For the past sixty-five hundred years, no one else has been able to ascend because you’re hogging the juice… and you yourselves are getting a million times the intended dose of radiation, which means you’re-“

“Divine and glorious,” I put in before Festina finished her sentence.

She paused for a moment, then said, “Right. Divine and glorious. Absolutely.” She gave me a look, then turned back to the moss. “I suppose the same happened at other projection stations?”

“At all of them,” replied the moss. “We’re in constant mental contact with our counterparts around the planet. Our thoughts are… sublime.”

“I’ll bet. Because you guzzle sublime radiation. The more you get, the more you want, right?”

“The more we absorb, the more our majesty increases.”

“We get the picture… don’t we, Youn Suu?”

“Indeed.”

Personally, I was picturing a group of people on Anicca called Crunchers. They caught and ate small snail-like creatures whose shells contained powerful hallucinogens. Crunch, crunch, crunch as the snail shell went down… then they’d pass out or go off wandering in a daze. Every few years, safety officials talked of exterminating the snails as a means of ending Crunch addiction; but monks and nuns howled in protest at any mass killing — even snails. Besides, the snails played a role in Anicca’s ecology: a protein in their slime trails helped keep the soil fertile. The snails couldn’t be slaughtered for fear of environmental disaster. Anicca’s safety officials never carried out their threat, and the crunch-crunch-crunching continued.

Festina probably wasn’t familiar with Crunchers, but she’d be picturing something else — a different drug, or perhaps wire-heading, sex-melds, surgical deverbalization, or any of the other ways Homo sapiens embraced delusion. If life didn’t offer enough opportunities for fixation, people doggedly sought more inventive obsessions. And the enthusiasm for honey traps wasn’t restricted to human beings; these gray spores, these former Fuentes, had succumbed to a similar temptation. When the Stage Two energy flowed, they were supposed to let it wash over them, like bathing in a pleasant stream… but instead, they’d got a taste of uplifting energy and instantly wanted it all. They’d gobbled so much in those first few moments, they’d overdosed. Yes, they’d gained telekinesis and perhaps other powers too, but they’d damaged themselves in the process. Burned out their brains. Instead of gaining enlightenment, the Divine had become virtually infantile… but infants with godlike strength.

“So you’re still basking in the station’s radiance,” Festina said. “I’m surprised the equipment keeps working after so many millennia.”

“We are the Divine!” the moss shouted. “Do we not have the power to do what we will?”

“They were technicians,” I reminded Festina. “Now they’re technicians with TK. They know how to keep the machines operational. Anyway, Fuentes technology can last a long time without outside maintenance. Remember the research center in Drill-Press? Whatever kept the pocket universe stable… remember how well that equipment worked?”

“Ah… yes…” Festina said. “I remember how stable the research center was. You think the equipment here is the same?” She thought for a moment. “You’re probably right. Wherever I go, Fuentes artifacts all seem in similar condition.”

I.e., on the verge of falling apart. Just as the rainbow-arch research center had flickered constantly, perhaps the machines around us were ready for massive failure. The Divine spores could perform routine maintenance on the station’s facilities, but how would they manufacture new parts when old ones broke beyond repair? Some time soon, there’d be a malfunction the gray moss couldn’t handle; then it would all be over.

Perhaps that explained why the Balrog had finally come to Muta. The Divine might be vulnerable now. In the past sixty-five centuries, while the station still worked, the gray spores had been unassailable… but now when the system was weakening, perhaps the moss could be beaten. Besides, the Balrog might want to resolve the mess on Muta before this station suffered permanent breakdown; otherwise, there’d be no way to propel the pretas into Stage Two. Our arrival may have been timed for a unique window of opportunity: when the station’s output was precarious enough to debilitate the Divine, but still sufficiently functional to elevate the pretas.

All we had to do now was persuade the Divine to share the station’s energy with their fellows: the EMP clouds, the pretas, the hungry, hungry ghosts.

“Where does the station’s power come from?” I asked the Divine. “Hydroelectric generators in the dam? Solar collectors? Geothermal? Fusion using lake water as a hydrogen source?”

“All those,” the moss replied. “There’s also a sizable amount of plutonium buried beneath the building’s foundations. Well shielded, of course, but it provides ongoing heat.”

“Tremendous,” Festina said. “What prevents a runaway chain reaction? Control equipment sixty-five hundred years old?”

“You need not worry about nuclear explosions, human. Your death will come as we feed on your flesh.”

“What do you need flesh for? Don’t you feed on this station’s energy.”

“We bask in that glory, yes. But we also require small replenishments of chemical nutrients. We can obtain simple elements like oxygen and nitrogen from the air, but we have long since depleted all nearby iron, calcium, and the like. We spend much of our time dormant to reduce our needs… but the flesh of four humans will allow us to remain awake for years.”

“Glad to be of service,” Festina said. She looked at the surrounding equipment: the metal spikes, barrels, and pyramids. “Do all these things project the energy you eat?”

“They are part of the chain of production. The actual emission center is directly beneath us.”

“There’s a basement?”

Li’s head cackled with laughter. “No. The emission surface is embedded in the floor on which you stand. We have positioned ourselves on the primary projection outlet. Originally, the power was supposed to be transferred to broadcast rods on the exterior; but we couldn’t permit it to be squandered on the world at large.”

In other words, the Divine were sitting directly on the central emitter — like a dragon sprawled on its hoard. Or like a plug holding back the flow. If somehow the moss was cleared away, the Stage Two radiation would be released as originally intended: it would spark across the gap to the station’s roof and shoot from the spiky crown on the giant Fuentes head. Nearby pretas would be uplifted. Clouds farther off would learn what was happening, thanks to their shared mental links… and pretas around the world would fly here as fast as they could, yearning to be freed from their smoky existence. I didn’t know how long it would take for every cloud to make its way here and be transformed — hours? years? — but that didn’t matter. If clouds in the immediate neighborhood were elevated, we’d be safe from angry EMPs. We could set up a Sperm-tail anchor and return to Pistachio, where standard decontamination procedures would purge us of Stage One microbes.

All that stood in our way were the spores, corking up the energy flow. Remove them, and the problems of Muta would be solved.

Festina must have followed the same train of thought, because she murmured, “All right, your Buddha-ness, any suggestions for a fuzzy gray exorcism?”

“We could try gentle persuasion. Show them the error of their ways.”

“Or,” said Festina, “we could kick their ass.”

“The moment you try, you get eaten like Li.”

“Never underestimate a Western champion, you Eastern also-ran. We always have a trick up our sleeve… a magic sword, a flask of holy water, or spiffy ruby slippers.”

I wanted to ask what trick she intended, but the Divine might overhear. So would Ubatu… who’d listened to Festina, and now had a worrisome look in her eye. It occurred to me, I’d never told Festina about Ifa-Vodun and Ubatu’s goal of toadying up to godlike aliens. Surely though, that wouldn’t matter — Festina had never trusted Ubatu (or anyone else, for that matter), so there was no risk Festina would say too much with Ubatu in earshot. Right?

Festina glanced cautiously toward the heap of Divine, then said very softly, “Back at Camp Esteem, when we first searched the cabins for survivors, I found something. Something I took, just in case it came in useful.” Her hand slipped into her backpack. When she pulled it out again, a small object lay in her palm: egg-shaped, no bigger than the tip of her thumb, colored in swirls of pink and green. “It’s a Unity minigrenade. Doesn’t look like much, but there’s antimatter inside — enough for a good-sized explosion. Team Esteem must have packed it in case they needed to blow their way into some Fuentes security vault.” She cast a sideways look at the Divine. “If those spores are as weak as I think, this should burn them to a crisp. We’ll take cover behind all this fancy equipment.” Festina reached for the Bumbler with her free hand. “Give me a few seconds to analyze where we’ll get the best protection from the blast…”

She didn’t have those seconds. Ubatu snatched the egglike object from Festina’s palm with the speed of a striking eagle. I tried to stop her but wasn’t quick enough — Ubatu moved inhumanly fast, beyond even my bioengineered reflexes. Either her designers had discovered some new genetic tricks, or she’d been amplified with illegal implants: artificial glands that could pump a barrage of chemicals into her bloodstream when she needed an extra boost. I barely managed to catch her leg as she was bolting away… but she shook me off and dashed across the floor, hollering, “Ooommmph! Ooommmph!”

Straight toward the Divine.

The gray spores rippled at Ubatu’s approach… in fear? In anticipation of another hearty meal? But they took no obvious action. Ubatu stopped short of the mound and abased herself, holding out the little pink-and-green ovoid like an offering to an idol. Beside me, Festina turned dials rapidly on the Bumbler, scanning, scanning, scanning. Still looking for a place to take cover if the grenade went off? Was there really a chance of accidental detonation? I had no idea. I knew nothing about Unity minigrenades: not a subject we’d studied in the Explorer Academy. I didn’t know a grenade’s power, its volatility, the timing on its fuse…

Oh.

No…

Oh again.

Eastern champions don’t always think quickly, but sooner or later they do catch on.

“Be careful with that!” I shouted to Ubatu. “Don’t you know not to make sudden moves with a bomb?”

“A bomb?” The words squealed from Li’s mouth as the mound of moss went wild: variegated patches of gray thrashing against their neighbors. The patches remained separate, but their boundaries blurred. I wondered how much they’d been mind-linked in the past few minutes; enough to coordinate their efforts in eating Li and speaking through his mouth, but not to deal with matters of life and death. A motley — a mosaic — individuals with no real community. “A bomb?” the Divine repeated, as if they’d never entertained the thought they could be threatened in their own sanctum.

“Ooommmph!” Ubatu cried. She pulled in her outstretched hands, clutching the little blob of pink and green to her breast for a moment, before hurling herself on top of it. “Ooommmph,” she said to the Divine. Softly. Reverently.

“What is she doing?” the Divine shrieked, still rustling with agitation.

Since Ubatu couldn’t answer, I did. “She’s showing that she’s willing to throw herself on a grenade for you. Demonstrating her readiness to sacrifice herself for your magnificence.”

Ubatu nodded eagerly.

Even without my sixth sense, I could almost feel the gray moss staring at her. “Why would she do that?” the Divine asked.

“Because she wants to win your favor. She wants to worship you… in the hope that you’ll share some of your knowledge and glory. None of the other advanced aliens in the galaxy will grant such boons to lesser beings… but Commander Ubatu believes that if she enacts the correct rituals in a spirit of true obeisance, you’ll make her your priestess.”

“Priestess? Priestess?” The gray mound shivered. I doubted the spores ever considered the possibility of acquiring a priestess. If sentient beings had wandered into this station anytime in the centuries before our arrival, the Divine probably just gobbled up everybody — no attempt to form a congregation. But now that Ubatu had made the offer…

“Is the bomb safe now?” the moss asked.

“I don’t think it’s going to explode,” I told them truthfully.

“Then approach, priestess,” the Divine said. “Approach and let us assess you.”

Ubatu leapt to her feet, then bowed deeply. “Ooomph!” She straightened and took a few steps forward, up to the edge of the mound. Only then did she glance down at the front of her uniform. The gold cloth was smeared with a gooey blot of orangey yellow.

“What’s that?” the Divine asked.

“Ooommph?” Ubatu said, still staring at the mess.

“Looks to me like egg yolk,” I told them. “Better clean it off before-“

My words were drowned out by screams: sudden agonized howls from the Divine. This time they weren’t using the dead Li as an intermediary — the cries of pain came directly from the mound itself. Somehow the spores, with neither mouths nor lungs, wailed like dying animals. “What have you done? What have you done? What have you done? What have you done?”

I’d done nothing… but Festina had. I looked back and saw her standing beside a brass pyramid almost exactly her own height. While Ubatu and the egg/grenade captivated the Divine’s attention, Festina had used the Bumbler to scan the station’s equipment. She’d found what she was looking for, then crept silently across the floor and popped open an access panel. Reaching inside, she’d detached a wire: a single slim strand of yellow that she now held in her right hand. Her left hand was out of sight, inside the pyramid’s guts.

The room had gone silent — the hum and hiss of machinery dwindling to nothingness.

“Hey, Youn Suu,” Festina said. “I found the off switch.”

The silence lasted another heartbeat. Then the Divine cried, “Traitor! Deceiver!”

Ubatu was yanked off her feet and pulled into the mass of gray — swallowed with merciless brutality. She made no sound as she disappeared under the spores… perhaps hoping the Divine might just possess her rather than consume her. Or maybe she didn’t mind being eaten; maybe she was so fanatic she’d revel in any kind of attention from “advanced lifeforms.”

Ifa-Vodun’s first martyr.

While Ubatu was vanishing into the heap, I murmured to Festina, “Pity you can’t tell the difference between an egg and a grenade.”

“Yeah,” she said. “Real shame.”

“You found the egg in the huts you searched?”

“Sure. One of Team Esteem’s naturalists had gathered a nice set of samples — eggs from the nests of local lizards. I’ve always liked little colored eggs; I couldn’t resist taking the prettiest. Breaks my heart Ubatu smashed it.”

“Didn’t do the baby lizard much good either.”

“Don’t blame me,” Festina said. “I wasn’t the one who sold out to the enemy.”

“You suspected Ubatu would?”

“I suspected she’d do something stupid. Back on Pistachio, I read her personnel file. She has a record of irrational behavior in pursuit of advanced aliens… and flagrantly preaching some religion called Ifa-“

The rest of Festina’s words were drowned out by more screams from the moss. They’d finished dealing with Ubatu; they’d ripped her apart because they thought she was a hypocrite, falsely offering to be their priestess just to distract them. Now they were turning to the real source of their distress: the woman who had shut down the station. “Put that wire back!” they shrieked at Festina. “Fix it, or we’ll kill you!”

“You were going to kill me anyway,” Festina said. “If you try it now, I’ve got my left hand around some glass thingamajig the Bumbler tells me is fragile as hell. There’s foamy orange liquid inside the thingamajig; if I break the glass, it’ll spill all over. I haven’t a clue what the stuff does, but I’m willing to bet the orange liquid is a complex chemical you can’t replace. I’m also willing to bet the liquid is essential for running this station — my Bumbler says this pyramid is a central hub for all the wires and pipes in the building. Mess with me, and I snap the thingamajig to pieces… splatter orange goo everywhere. That’ll put this place out of commission a lot more permanently than a loose wire.”

“Put the wire back, human! Reattach it now. Don’t you realize the sacrilege…

“Sacrilege? Bullshit. You aren’t gods. You’re opportunists who were in the right place at the right time to suck on a magic teat. You’ve been slurping the milk of heaven ever since, but you’re no more divine than I am.”

“If we can’t touch you, what about your companion?” I felt a wave of hate from the gray moss aimed at me — a palpable flash of loathing so strong it registered on my dormant sixth sense. “Reattach the wire,” the Divine told Festina, “or we’ll kill your friend.”

“Honestly,” Festina said, “can’t you talk about anything but killing? First you were going to kill us for lunch. Then you were going to kill me for sacrilege. Now you’re going to kill Youn Suu for extortion. The more you make death threats, the more you convince me there’s no point striking a deal. You’re lousy at negotiation.”

“Perhaps it’s because the Divine have just eaten Li and Ubatu,” I said. “Neither of them were good at diplomacy either.”

“If they ate you, would they get all enlightened?”

“If they asked politely, they could have the bottom half of my right leg. It wouldn’t be enough to bring out their entire Buddha nature… but it might raise their IQ forty or fifty points, and it would even me up nicely.”

“Bilateral symmetry is so important,” Festina agreed.

“Shut up, shut up, shut up!” the Divine shrieked. “Shut up and tell us what you want.”

Festina laughed. “What do you think we want? Get your fuzzy asses off the energy emitter. Let this station work the way it was intended.”

“But we need the energy! We need it or we’ll die.”

“Nonsense.” Festina held up the detached wire, still in her right hand. “You’re already cut off, aren’t you? And you’re still alive. So don’t give me sob stories. Maybe if you stop overdosing on weird-shit energy, you’ll transform the way you were meant to: into real higher beings, not just psionic blowhards. Besides,” she added, “I don’t care if you do die. You killed Li and Ubatu. That makes you dangerous nonsentient lifeforms. The League of Peoples will give me a gold star for ending your useless lives.”

“But…”

“No buts! Get off the emitter… now. Otherwise-“

Three things happened in rapid succession.

First, Festina’s left hand was thrown back out of the pyramid. Somehow the Divine had telekinetically ripped loose her grip on the glass thingamajig without breaking the delicate mechanism. I was surprised the spores had tried such a risky maneuver — if they’d miscalculated, they might have smashed the glass and put the station permanently out of order — but deprived of their age-old addiction, the bits of moss were desperate enough to take the chance. I heard no shattering glass; the Divine’s gamble had paid off.

Second, Festina gasped… not just in surprise at having her hand torn free from the pyramid. She was under some other attack: the Divine trying to kill her. Telekinetically crushing her heart? Squeezing her throat? Bursting an artery in her brain? The spores would want her dead, to make sure she gave no more trouble and to take revenge for the trouble she’d already caused. Without a sixth sense, I couldn’t tell what the Divine was doing; but the sharpness of her gasp suggested the onslaught was fast and brutal.

Third, I felt power surge within me: the red Balrog spores finally making their move. Their strength was limited — their mass was no more than a tenth of the Divine mound’s, and their energy proportionately small — but they had the advantage of surprise. The Divine spores never expected opposition on the psychic plane, so they were totally unprepared for the Balrog’s intervention. Glowing red barriers sprang up around Festina and me, beating back the Divine’s assault. Festina’s gasp turned to relief as the Divine’s crushing grip was repelled.

But the respite was only temporary; we weren’t safe yet. The red spores in my body were massively outnumbered by the gray spore heap. My internal Balrog could only protect us a short while: I felt the Divine hammering on the red glow around me, trying to bash down the wall. My spores had no strength to spare beyond keeping the enemy at bay. Festina and I would have to neutralize the Divine on our own, before the gray overwhelmed the red and ripped us all to pieces.

At least we had one advantage: the gray spores couldn’t draw on the station’s energy. Festina still held the detached yellow wire, so no power was flowing. Even as that thought crossed my mind, however, the wire jerked in her hand. The Divine must have grabbed it telekinetically; their next step would be to reconnect it and bring the station back online. With the return of radiation to the emitters, the gray spores would gain all the strength they needed to finish us off.

As Festina fought to hold the wire back, I pulled myself toward her as fast as I could. The Divine didn’t stop me; why weaken themselves by dividing their efforts? They were already concentrating on two tasks: trying to break the red fields that protected Festina and me, and shoving the wire back into place.

Festina held the wire in both hands now, wrestling it like a thin yellow snake. Her body strained with the effort, a desperate tug-of-war. It amazed me the wire didn’t break under the tension; either it was made from high-tech material far stronger than conventional copper, or the Divine were psionically reinforcing it, holding it together by the power of their will. Millimeter by millimeter, the bare tip of conductor at the end of the wire nosed its way toward the electrical terminal where it was supposed to be attached… but before it made contact, I grabbed Festina’s arms and added my strength to hers.

More precisely, I added my weight to hers. I had no legs to brace myself, and lying on the floor, I couldn’t reach high enough to grab the wire itself. All I could do was grip her bent elbows and hang off them, letting my body mass drag her down. The wire came with us, pulling away from the connection terminal by our combined efforts. In the center of the room, the Divine howled gibberish… perhaps curses in the ancient Fuentes language.

Both Festina and I hung our full weights on the wire — pulling down while the Divine tried to lift the thin strand into place. Under other circumstances, the metal line would have sliced Festina’s fingers like a garrote; but the Balrog’s glowing red shield resisted the wire’s cutting force as well as the gray moss’s ongoing assault. Still, we were only fighting a delaying action… and we weren’t winning. Bit by bit, we were pulled upward as the Divine spores exerted their willpower.

“Got any bright ideas?” Festina asked.

I looked around for inspiration. The pyramid’s open access panel showed hundreds of complex components, from electronic circuit boards to sheets of spongy biologicals to crystal vials containing colored liquids and gases… but a faint gray fog lay between us and the machinery, almost exactly like the dim red glow surrounding Festina and me. The Divine must have raised that fog as a force field, to stop us attacking the pyramid’s delicate innards. Not that we really would have tried to damage the fragile equipment — we still wanted to reactivate the station once we’d removed the Divine — but the gray spores weren’t taking chances. I was glad they had to expend energy on the gray fog field; the more they used on unnecessary measures, the less strength they had for pulling the yellow wire. But the fog meant there was nothing within reach we could use to our benefit.

So Festina and I continued to dangle — the two of us entwined awkwardly, muscles straining, our breaths loud in our ears. “So,” Festina said, trying to make her tone conversational, “what are the odds the Divine will exhaust themselves before they reconnect the wire?”

“I don’t know.”

“But you’re an Eastern hero,” she said with a smile. “Aren’t you supposed to know everything we dumb Western heroes don’t?”

“Eastern heroes specialize in the big picture. Ultimate truths of the cosmos, not what’s going to happen in the next ten seconds. Although,” I added, “hanging from this wire reminds me of a story.”

“Feel free to share.” Festina yanked on the wire as it struggled to make the connection. “What else do I have to do but listen to stories?”

“Once upon a time,” I said, “a monk was chased by a tiger. While running away, he accidentally fell off a cliff; he just barely saved himself by grabbing a vine on the cliff’s edge. So there he was dangling, with the tiger roaring just above his head and a deadly plunge beneath his feet.”

“I’ll like this story a lot,” Festina said, “if the monk has a clever way to escape.”

“This isn’t that kind of story. The monk noticed the vine he was holding had berries on it. He caught a berry in his mouth and ate it. ‘Ahh,’ he said. ‘How sweet.’ And that’s the end of the story.”

“In other words,” Festina said, “ignore your troubles and enjoy what you can?”

“No. Don’t ignore anything. That’s the point. Even if you’re in desperate straits, berries still exist, and they’re still sweet. The universe doesn’t go sour just because you personally have problems.”

“And the tiger doesn’t go away just because you eat a berry.”

“Exactly. Don’t fixate on either the berry or the tiger.”

“Okay.” Festina said nothing for a few heartbeats. The wire in her fingers continued to inch toward the terminal. “Youn Suu,” she muttered, “I’m having trouble seeing the berry here. Unless…”

“Grr-arrh.”

We both snapped our heads toward the door. Tut stood inside the black energy curtain: still wearing the battered bear mask, sniffing the air in a gruff ursine way.

“Grr-arrh,” he said again. “Grr-arrh!”

“Okay,” Festina said. “Berry… bear… it’s a stretch, but I get the point.”

“Tut!” I yelled. “See the gray moss, Tut? The moss, Tut, the moss. Show the bastards you still don’t care.”

For a moment, he didn’t respond… and I feared his brain had been damaged by the pretas who’d worked all night to possess him.

Then: “Hot damn, Mom!” He whipped the mask off his head. “You’ve finally found some fun on this shit hole of a planet. Swan dive!”

As he’d done atop the ziggurat in Zoonau, Tut threw himself onto the spores.

When the Divine pulled Li and Ubatu into their midst, they’d taken their time. They’d reeled the diplomats in, making sure their descent was slow — slow enough not to crush any spores underneath.

But when Tut plunged into the mossy heap…

The Divine weren’t prepared to split their attention in so many directions: having to deal with Tut, as well as playing tug-of-war with the yellow wire, maintaining the gray fog to protect the pyramid’s mechanical guts, and keeping up pressure on the red glow that shielded Festina and me. Tut’s move caught the Divine by surprise. They were used to dragging prey in, not having it leap on top of them. Besides, the demonic gray spores were too fixated on reconnecting the yellow wire; they didn’t react to Tut until a nanosecond before he plunged into their midst. Then, at the last instant, as Tut plummeted down like an avalanche of long-delayed karma… the Divine simply bolted in fright.

Pure atavistic instinct: jump out of the way. The spores forgot everything else as they scattered in all directions, fleeing to the edges of the room with the grainy sound of a sandstorm.

The tug-of-war on the yellow wire ended abruptly. Festina and I hit the floor as the panicked Divine let go of their end.

Tut landed on solid gold: a golden disk embedded in the floor, almost exactly the size of Tut himself as he threw out his arms and legs to absorb the impact of landing. He looked like da Vinci’s drawing of human anatomical proportion as he posed spread-eagled within the golden circle. Then Festina, free from the Divine’s TK, shrugged me off and slapped the yellow wire back into place on its terminal.

All around the room, machines began to hum. A heartbeat later, golden light flooded upward from the emitter disk, streaming around Tut’s body like honey-colored fire. Gray spores howled and tried to scurry back to the radiance… but at the edges of the disk, they ran into a glowing red barrier. I could feel the Balrog spores inside me blaze with dying determination as they spent their last reserves of energy holding the Divine back.

Gold light filled the dome of the station. It built to a blazing intensity, then exploded outward through the spikes in the building’s crown. For a moment, my sixth sense returned, showing me hundreds of pretas outside the station, permeated with healing bursts of energy. I waited to see them transform…

…but instead I went blind. Truly blind. No sixth sense. No eyes. The spores in my body — the ones replacing parts of my brain, the ones that had kept me alive through broken bones, hemorrhages, and even amputation — all of them reached the end of their strength and died en masse within me.

I was purged of my infestation… and left with a body no longer able to survive on its own.

Everything went black.

Contents