by John R. Plunkett
Personal log: 1047 hours, 7 July 2333
I am preparing to leave the F.S.S. Isaac Asimov for the last time. And, I freely confess, it is not without mixed feelings. New Karnak is a prestigious posting; notables from the Federation Science Corps, the Voxxan Academy of Sciences, and Dewclaw University are researching the site. I hear that xeno-archeologists line up on a waiting list years long to get out there. If I was an archeologist I'd probably be more excited, but I'm not. As a lowly Ensign of Security I'm not even a scientist. The only reason I'm here is as a last-minute replacement for a security officer who was injured. That wouldn't bother me if Nelhut Three wasn't at the very back of beyond. At the very edge of the Caitian Expansion Zone, the one-way trip from Terra took almost two and a half months. Once the Big A goes out system there'll be no contact with the rest of the galaxy until the next supply ship arrives, six months from now. I can expect to be here for at least two years unless I request a transfer. That's as long as I've been with the Asimov. Just long enough for her to become my home, for her crew to become my friends. Leaving her, and them, is like leaving home all over again.
I hear that there are no other Chakats at New Karnak. I freely confess that this fact leaves me conflicted. Being he only member of my race is bound to be lonely. On the other hand, maybe I won't have to be constantly fielding questions about my deformity.
"Last call, all visitors ashore," Ensign Hoeg called as he swaggered up a narrow aisle between packing cases to the runabout's cockpit. "Got all your luggage, Boots?"
Ensign Boots looked up from hir personal workstation. "That's an aye-firmative," shi agreed. Though it's hardly anything to write home about. All hir extra uniforms and personal effects fit into a pair of medium sized saddle-packs slung across hir lower body. Of course it helped immensely that, as a Chakat, the only clothing shi had to worry about were tunics. No pants, shoes, socks, or under things, except for a handful of brassieres.
"Then hold on to your pants, 'cause here we go." Hoeg dropped into the pilot's chair and ran through the pre-flight checks. "Runabout Norby to Asimov, requesting permission to cast off."
"Asimov to Norby, permission granted." It was the voice of Commander Dawnfire, the executive officer. "Take care of yourself, Boots. We'll miss you."
Boots tried to respond but hir throat was too tight. Then it was too late. The shuttle bay doors were open, Norby was off the deck and moving through them, out into space. Boots hoped that shi might get one last glimpse of the Asimov but it was not to be. Norby had chairs only for humanoids, meaning Boots had to lay on the deck in the cargo section. At least shi could see directly ahead through the cockpit view ports, where black space was being displaced by the bulk of Nelhut Three. What little Boots could see looked entirely typical: blue-green ocean, fluffy white clouds, green forest, and brown plains. In detail it could have been Terra, Voxxa, Cait, Chakona, or any one of a number of Type L worlds. As the sky brightened it turned a pleasant blue; the sun was yellow, and there was even a single large moon- not quite as large as Luna, but the naked eye could hardly tell the difference. After about half an hour of flight the runabout descended toward a forbidding landscape of dark sandstone bluffs, hardpan, and windblown dunes. Small, wiry bushes dotted the landscape, but on the whole it was an arid, desolate place, unmarked by the hands of sentients. Until-
Norby came over a low ridge and there, in the middle of a wide valley, was an enormous building constructed of gigantic sandstone blocks. Parts of the roof and outer walls had fallen away, revealing a forest of columns. A ramp led up to a doorway flanked by a pair of towering, jackal-headed figures. In front of the building were a pair of colossal foundation stones; the one on the right supported a massive obelisk but its companion on the left had toppled into the sand that had all but obliterated the wide avenue leading up to the foot of the ramp. Flares marked a spot near the base of the standing obelisk; Hoeg brought the runabout down to a smooth landing and lowered the rear cargo ramp. Hot, dry, gritty air swirled through the cabin. "Here we are," he announced.
Boots had to shield hir eyes as shi walked down the ramp. Heat rose in shimmering waves from sand and hardpan that seemed to reflect the blazing sun straight into hir face. Within seconds shi was panting heavily; shi paused to put on hir shoes. The desert did not look like it would be kind to feet accustomed to the smooth, climate-controlled decks of a star ship.
Along one side of the ruin was evidence of more recent habitation: a dozen or so prefab huts, clearly of Federation origin, and several cloth tents obviously the product of a much lower tech level. Figures were boiling out of them all and hurrying toward the runabout. Terrans were easy to spot due to their muzzle-less and (mostly) hairless faces. Mixed in were several Voxxans, recognized by their conspicuously vulpine features. Not only were their heads fox-like, they even had tails- though other than having fur, their bodies were basically humanoid. There seemed to be a fairly even mixture of the red-pelted variety (red or orange with white underbelly and tail tip, plus black stockings) and the grey-pelted variety (grey with orange highlights, white underbelly, black tail tip). And though the planet had been discovered by Caitians and was technically in their sphere of influence Boots could make out only three of that species, all male. (Not bad looking specimens, though their tawny fur and golden manes had been discolored by the local dust. Regrettably Caitians were, like the Voxxans, humanoid, though under the circumstances Boots figured shi was lucky to find any other felinoids.) The remainder of the crowd- about half the total- could have been Voxxans if one didn't pay close attention. Their most distinguishing feature was that they all dressed in long robes of coarse cloth that was clearly not synthetic in origin; physiologically they had the narrow faces, slender muzzles, and sharply pointed ears one expected from foxes, but they were taller and heavier than the Voxxans and their fur was closer in color to the tawny gold of the Caitians. Looking at those people, the jackal-headed statues took on a whole new meaning.
A bulky Terran man with fair skin (scorched by the sun) and fair hair including a bushy beard (bleached by the sun) pushed his way forward. "Howdy all, and welcome to New Karnak," he called. "I'm Thor Amundsen, generally recognized leader of this little bunch."
"I'm Ensign Boots," Boots replied. "This is Flight Officer Pader Hoeg." Shi gestured to hir Terran pilot. "In there-" shi pointed into the cabin- "are the supplies."
"Well then, let's get to work so you can get back to your ship." Thor gave Hoeg a slap on the back that almost knocked him down, while gesturing with his other hand to the crowd.
"Um-" Boots had to step off the ramp to avoid the rush as the jackal people hurried on board, but despite the apparent confusion they began emptying the cabin at least as fast as a Federation crew with grav-jacks could have done. "Can I help?"
"Don't worry yourself," Thor replied. "The lads know where everything goes. There'll be plenty of time later for work."
"So... those are the Tabaqui?" Boots asked.
"Yep," Thor responded.
The sentient inhabitants of Nelhut Three did not have anything like a global government or culture; their most advanced civilization was still in the Iron age. Because there was no widely accepted name for their species, and their jackal-like appearance, Federation personnel had begun calling them Tabaqui, after the jackal in Rudyard Kipling's Jungle Book. The name had stuck and was by now all but official.
Actually, Boots was glad shi didn't have to work. The heat was awful and one disadvantage of hir physiology was that because of hir increased mass getting rid of excess body heat was more difficult. Shi could all too easily imagine hirself passing out from heat stroke after just a few minutes.
"Bummer of a place to be black," one of the Caitians commented, giving Boots a once-over that spoke of more than clinical interest.
"Genetics can't be helped," Boots replied- far too defensively, shi thought sourly. He hadn't mentioned hir deformity. He probably hadn't even noticed.
Thor gave his new security officer a looking over as thorough as the Caitian's had been but with a very different intent. He couldn't help but wonder what shi was so defensive about; the Chakats he'd known were, as a rule, very open and easygoing people. On the surface Boots was a very typical Chakat, right down to hir black panther markings- though technically shi wasn't completely black; in bright sunlight hir leopard spot pattern could be made out. Beyond that-
A Chakat is basically a feline centaur, a creature that looks as if someone had taken a regular cat and inserted a humanoid between its head and body. In Boots' case the torso was female, full figured but, like the rest of hir, lithe, muscular, and covered with short, silky fur. Shi had a mane, jet black in color and trimmed severely short. As was not uncommon for panthers hir eyes were an intense yellow-gold. From head to forefoot shi was the shortest person present, but hir lower body added a great deal to hir overall size. In addition to the saddle packs slung across hir lower back shi wore thong-like shoes on all four feet and a black Starfleet tunic with gold Security section trim and a comm badge on the left breast.
By the time Thor completed his examination Norby's cabin was empty. "I understand there's a returning passenger?" Ensign Hoeg inquired.
Thor's expression became somber. "Yes. He'll be along in a moment. in fact, there he is now."
Four Tabaqui emerged from one of the prefab huts carrying a long, narrow box. Boots could only stare in mute horror as the box was carried on board the runabout and strapped down where shi had been sitting not too long ago. "What..." shi began.
"That, I'm sorry to say, is your predecessor." Thor shook his head sadly. "Ensign Wilkes was all we could have asked for in a security officer. A block fell on him while he was doing a routine check on the security scanners. He... passed away only last night."
"Euh..." Ensign Hoeg hesitated on the ramp. He obviously didn't want to walk past the box and its gruesome contents.
"Thank you very much for your assistance, Ensign," Thor said, taking Hoeg's hand and pumping it briskly. "Please give Captain Walker our regards," he called as Hoeg hurried up the ramp.
"Wilco," Hoeg replied, slapping the ramp control. He skirted the box by as much as possible as he hurried to the cockpit. The cargo ramp started up and closed with a thunk; Thor and everyone else cleared back as the runabout's repulsor drive came on with a deep thrumming sound. The ship took off in a blast of grit; Boots followed it with hir eyes until it was out of sight then continued to look until hir eyes began to sting from the glare.
"Come on, it's not that bad here," Thor said gently, taking Boots' arm. "If that offer still stands, you can help us put the supplies away. Then I'll show you your berth and introduce the crew."
"Okay," shi said quietly- then straightened up. "I mean, aye aye sir."
"No need to be so formal, Ensign," Thor assured with a mild chuckle. "We're all scientists here. In fact, I think you're the only real officer."
Boots merely nodded because quite frankly shi didn't find that to be particularly reassuring. These people didn't need a security officer.
"Is everything in order, Pashket?" Thor asked suddenly, dropping back to speak with one of the Tabaqui. Not that he doubted; he just wanted an excuse to get behind Boots. Having seen hir from the front and side his sense of scientific thoroughness demanded he get a look from the back, too- and in that instant he suddenly understood something about Ensign Boots that explained hir odd behavior. As a species Chakats are hermaphrodites; overall they appear female but possess both male and female reproductive organs.
Make that most Chakats. Boots' female parts seemed to be entirely in order, from hir well formed though not exceptionally large breasts to hir recognizably flared pelvis, but shi had not a trace of the male organ one of hir species would normally poses. Thor could detect no evidence of injury or surgery that might account for the lack, though it was difficult to say without a closer examination. It was as if Boots had simply never had one.
Thor nodded thoughtfully. Pashket may have believed Thor was responding to what he was saying, but in truth Thor registered not a word. Not as it mattered; if anything needed to be done Pashket would take care of it.
Personal log: 1220 hours, 7 Julytry to remember all the names, but at least I know the main people. There's Thor, of course; the three Caitians are named R'marl, N'trem, and L'sal. Jenmotal nal Veda is leader of the Voxxans and a master at restoring broken artifacts and damaged paintings. Ranahran ne Kra is her assistant and also in charge of domestic arrangements including housing and meals. Julius Clayton is chief translator of ancient texts; his assistant, Laird James, handles modern local languages and interstellar communications. The camp has a hyper-wave transceiver and several message torpedos so we aren't completely isolated, though it could take anywhere from a week to a month for a ship to reach us. Geni Pashket is leader of the Tabaqui contingent; the males do a lot of the digging and moving of equipment while the females- supervised by Geni Kala, Pashket's wife- help with the cleaning and sorting of artifacts. I am assured that without their help the dig would be years behind schedule.
I never thought I would appreciate air conditioning so much. After putting away the supplies we had lunch in the mess hall and Thor introduced me to everybody. There's about sixty people in all, half of whom are Tabaqui. I'm not even going to
I had been wondering why there was a Federation presence here when under normal circumstances contact with pre-FTL species is discouraged. It turns out that some years ago a Voxxan survey vessel experienced a serious breakdown and crash-landed right outside one of the planet's largest cities. After that there wasn't much choice about contact; the crew had to be rescued and the wreckage cleaned up. During that process someone heard from locals about the site now called New Karnak; someone in the Science Corps decided that since First Contact had already been made there was no reason not to send a team. So here we all are.
Security is more of an issue than I'd thought. There are dangerously poisonous reptiles skulking about in the ruins, and not all of the natives are friendly. Bandits and raiders come through with some frequency. Against that we have a number of hand and shoulder weapons, plus that the whole complex is covered by sensors and autoguns (on non-lethal settings, of course). There's even a vault for artifacts, but at the moment it's full of fresh fruit. (After sampling food pack cuisine I have to agree that fresh food is far more precious than the tablets, stones, and bits of cloth currently stacked in two of the supply sheds.) My prime responsibility is inventory and maintenance of said hardware. The scientists aren't exactly a rowdy bunch, and the local helpers have been here for a year and a half without any serious incidents. Well, time to quit yakking and get to work. R'marl said he'd show me around the site.
Boots applied hir left thumb to the scan plate. Interlocks withdrew with muted clunks and the weapon safe swung open. Three rifles, six pistols, and energy cells for all were neatly arranged on racks. One by one shi took out each weapon and inspected it thoroughly. All were clean and in good order, all power cells fully charged. Whatever else hir predecessor might have been, he took good care of his gear. But then it's easy to take care of equipment that spends its time in a sealed box. The sensor grids and autoguns were a different story; as shi reviewed the maintenance logs in the security console (which was actually just a workstation set on an empty packing crate) it became apparent that heat, cold, wind, dust, and the vagaries of archeology had taken their toll. Nearly every day one of the autoguns had to be cleaned, serviced, or remounted; sensor pods had to be pulled up and relocated as excavation moved from one site to another.
"Going out to check the grid?" R'marl asked, appearing in the doorway.
"Yeah." Boots selected one pistol and one rifle, checked them, loaded them, then inserted the pistol into a shoulder holster and slung the rifle.
"You really think we're gonna need all that hardware?" R'marl stepped back as Boots exited the security shack and locked the door.
"I certainly hope not." Boots had augmented hir wardrobe with a hood similar to what the Tabaqui wore, and something like a miniature horse blanket over hir lower body. The noonday sun was murder even if one's body wasn't covered with black fur. "I'm going to test-fire them. If anything's gonna go wrong, better now than when we really need 'em."
"Makes sense." He fell in step as they headed for the first autogun position, near the base of the standing obelisk.
In addition to shielding hir face from the sun, the hood allowed Boots to eye hir companion without being obvious about it. Apparently the sun didn't bother him because he wore only loose shorts and an equipment belt. Which of course left his broad-shouldered, lean-waisted, well-muscled torso on display for whomever cared to watch. His legs and thighs were in much the same vein, and evidence suggested that his hips and buttocks were as well- though Boots wouldn't have at all minded the opportunity to confirm by direct observation. His fur was short though it clearly hadn't been trimmed in some time; his mane was similarly wild and spilled down past his shoulder blades. The effect- at least for Boots- was intoxicating. Of course it would be better if he were a centauroid- then shi smiled, realizing that he was probably thinking much the same thing, wishing that Boots was a humanoid. Rather surprising, in fact, that N'trem and L'sal had let him get hir alone.
"This is the Prayer to Lord Sky," R'marl announced.
"Sorry?" Boots looked around; they had stepped up onto the platform supporting the standing obelisk.
"Those glyphs carved into the faces are a prayer to the god of the sky," R'marl explained, pointing at the base of the monument then tracing a line upward toward its peak. "The obelisk is a single piece of red granite thirty-two meters long and weighing three hundred and twenty tons."
Boots licked hir lips. It hadn't seemed like much when seen from the air, but standing at its base it seemed that the tip must be touching the very vault of heaven. "Oh... my word," was all shi could say.
"That one over there-" he pointed at the fallen monument- "is the Prayer to Father Sun."
Boots blinked. "Father son?"
"That's Father Sun, as in that big yellow thing up in the sky."
"Oh. Father Sun."
"Right. And that-" he pointed at the figure to the right of the doorway- "Is Lord Sky himself. Across from him is Father Sun. At the opposite end of the building is an identical entryway; the Prayers and figures are for and of Lady Earth and Mother Moon. Inside the temple itself are prayers and statues for twenty-eight gods and goddesses, whom we believe are the children of Father Sun and Mother Moon."
Boots almost forgot to check the autogun. It was okay; the targeting sensors and aiming mechanism were in good shape and the magazine fully charged. Boots unconsciously rubbed hir comm badge; anything larger than a fox which came within forty meters of the gun and was not carrying a properly coded badge was in for a nasty shock. Though hardly larger than the shoulder weapon Boots was carrying, the autogun could drop a charging Cape buffalo- or even a larger creature if one were inclined to set it for lethal rather than merely incapacitating effect. On top of that, the guns had been placed so as to have interlocking fields of fire; at least four adjacent weapons would have to be disabled to clear a safe path. Boots knew that even the Iron Age locals could overcome the system with siege machinery, sufficient troops, and some clever generaling, but presumably things would not be allowed to get that far out of hand. If by some happenstance they did, there was a tactical shield generator in the security shack that would stop anything short of a plasma warhead.
"Why did they build such an elaborate temple way out here in the middle of nowhere?" Boots asked,
R'marl shook his head. "That is the question. Dating of artifacts indicates that this place was built about two thousand years ago. Climatological studies suggest that it wasn't quite so dry back then, but not a whole lot. You see those mounds?" He pointed
Boots turned and looked. "Yeah." They were so low and flat that they would only be visible from ground level.
"Those are the remains of covered reservoirs. They were installed by the builders to provide water for the four thousand odd laborers who did the grunt work. There's no aqueduct or anything; water was brought overland by caravans, along with the food and other supplies. It's covered by sand now, but ground-penetrating radar showed us a veritable super highway leading from here to the river, fifty kilometers away. If you look around there's dozens of outbuildings, whose sole purpose seems to have been supporting the work force. When the work was done they tore it all down."
"Where'd they get the stone?" Boots wondered.
"A quarry just across in the next valley." R'marl turned, pointing through the building.
Boots looked around again. Some of the mounds had been excavated; shallow pits dotted the landscape. At least three were in the process of being worked. "Why's all the digging outside? Haven't you got into the temple?"
"A little," R'marl admitted. "We've cleaned out a lot of the rubbish and restored some of the writings and paintings. But rooting around there doesn't help us much if we don't understand the context. Thing is, there's no other sites like this. We've surveyed the whole region; there are temple complexes, but they were all razed to the ground. Even the material was hauled away. Every tomb we've located has not only been looted but destroyed. Virtually everything we know about the temple builders has come from this one site. And besides-" he shrugged- "sixty people aren't a lot for the scale of work we're trying to do. Especially as how there ain't a big university ready to hand. We have to do all the work ourselves."
"What do the locals have to say?" Boots inquired.
"Not much. The only people who live around here now are the lizard people nomads."
R'marl laughed when he saw the expression on Boots' face. "No, there isn't another sentient species we didn't tell you about. They're called lizard people because they ride lizards. Our crowd are lizard riders. They settle with us because we pay well."
"So that's what I smelled. What do you pay them?"
"Water purification tablets, razor blades, and the odd artifact that's deemed to be of minimal scientific value. In return they help us dig, decipher the writings, and negotiate with other locals. Once they've amassed an adequate stash they head off to the trading post and convert it to cash."
Boots frowned. "Aren't you worried about... distorting their culture?"
R'marl shrugged. "The only way to not distort their culture would be to stay away from them, and it's a little late for that. Would you like to take a look inside?"
Boots brightened. "I'd love to! But- let me finish checking the grid out front. Then we can walk through the temple and check the back and sides."
After making a quick round of the sensor pods Boots joined R'marl at the head of the long stone ramp that led up to the temple's east portal. It was in reasonably good shape and generally free of drifting sand. Boots paused between the massive, fifteen meter high statues of Lord Sky and Father Sun; looking up at them a smile spread across hir face, and shi gave a quick bow to each one.
"What's all that?" R'marl wondered.
"Well, if we're going to go into their house, we should at least be polite," Boots replied.
"Hmm. I never thought of it that way." R'marl looked back and forth between the statues, then gave a quick bow of his own. "I like it, though."
"Infidel! I shall smite thee dead!" a voice thundered.
R'marl jumped, his fur frizzing out so that he looked like a giant bottle-brush. Boots had the rifle half off hir shoulder when shi noticed two Caitian figures jogging around the feet of Father Sun. When R'marl noticed them he let out a stream of invective that was both scathing and highly original. "You two sons of dogs scared the crap out of me!" he concluded.
"You mean we caught you trying to sneak off with the young lady," the first pointed out, swishing his tail with great amusement.
"We've been friends for how long, and this is how you repay us?" the second added in a mock-hurt tone.
Obviously these two were N'trem and L'sal. Boots re-slung the rifle. "R'marl was just showing me the temple."
"He may have been planning to show you something erected, but it sure as Hell wasn't gonna be architecture," N'trem stated with a knowing leer.
"Don't worry, Boots," L'sal assured. "We'll protect you from this fellow."
"Yeah, and who'll protect hir from you?" R'marl demanded, cuffing L'sal.
L'sal deflected the blow and launched a counter-jab that R'marl handily side-stepped. "Ignore them, Boots. They're uncouth barbarians," R'marl said. "If this is your idea of sweet nothings, it's no wonder you two end up dating your hands so much."
Boots' lips tightened. Abruptly shi was no longer in the mood for this adolescent posturing. "That's all right. I have work to do." Shi turned about smartly and leapt to the ground near Lord Sky's feet. Why in the world did the cute ones have to be so damn infantile?
For a second R'marl looked as if he might try to follow. Boots almost wished he would; it would be amusing to watch a puny two-legger try to outrun a 'taur. But he didn't and Boots finished the inspection by hirself.
Personal Log: 2346 hours, 7 July My first night at New Karnak, and maybe this isn't going to be so bad after all. The sky is incredible; I've never seen so many stars. You'd think that being in Starfleet you see lots of them but you don't. Star ships generally don't have windows, and even if they did most of the time you couldn't see anything anyway. I grew up in the heart of Berdoovia, and I swear it's as bright in the middle of the night as it is in the middle of the day. I remember taking some family trips with Mom and Dad out to New Bletchley; even though it's nothing like Berdoovia for sheer size, it's still pretty well built up. The only other time I've ever seen a sky as clear and bright as this is while I was going to school at Cape York Academy on Terra. Me and a few friends rented a truck and headed off into the mountains with six cases of cheap beer.
My first night at New Karnak, and maybe this isn't going to be so bad after all. The sky is incredible; I've never seen so many stars. You'd think that being in Starfleet you see lots of them but you don't. Star ships generally don't have windows, and even if they did most of the time you couldn't see anything anyway. I grew up in the heart of Berdoovia, and I swear it's as bright in the middle of the night as it is in the middle of the day. I remember taking some family trips with Mom and Dad out to New Bletchley; even though it's nothing like Berdoovia for sheer size, it's still pretty well built up. The only other time I've ever seen a sky as clear and bright as this is while I was going to school at Cape York Academy on Terra. Me and a few friends rented a truck and headed off into the mountains with six cases of cheap beer.
Boots lay down on the floor of hir hut, curled so that shi could stroke the place between hir hind legs where a normal Chakat would have a sheath. Boots and Tuftear had ended up consuming almost all the beer; Brenda didn't drink and N'ren had only a little. Then Tuftear, who in spite of hir mass and Chakat resistance to poisons was more than a little drunk announced that shi was going to give Boots a blow job. Boots protested, but a river of alcohol had dissolved hir inhibitions. Shi ended up on hir back while Tuftear licked hir belly. It was the most erotic experience of Boots' life. Minutes later, it seemed, the sun was coming up. Tuftear asked Boots to be hir mate. Boots asked why. Tuftear replied that shi wanted to bear Boots' children. Boots cried and said surely that wasn't possible. Tuftear insisted that if there was a way shi'd find it, and swore shi'd die childless if she couldn't have Boots' baby. Boots cried some more.
After that night Real Life intervened. Underclassmen at the Academy don't have personal lives. The relationship dangled unresolved for the rest of the semester. Then disaster struck: Tuftear qualified for Command division and Boots didn't. From then until graduation they almost never saw one another. After graduation they were posted to different ships headed for different parts of the galaxy.
Boots' hand began to tremble. Shi'd received some from letters from Tuftear telling about how shi'd been picked to be part of an honor guard for the Voxxan ambassador. About shooting a recruitment spot on the beaches of Amistad, and all the groupies the project had attracted. Boots' eyes began to sting and shi squeezed them shut. In the face of all that why should Tuftear remember a drunken promise to someone whose career prospects were lukewarm at best and who was only half of a real Chakat?
Boots leapt to hir feet and barged out into the darkness. The sky was black velvet filled with incredibly bright and incredibly sharp sparkles of light. The ground was so dark it seemed two dimensional, utterly lacking in depth or definition. Nevertheless Boots moved quickly and confidently; hir genetic ancestors, the leopards, were night hunters and Boots had inherited more of that legacy than just fur. Shi crossed the broken ground, skirted the current dig site, and hurried up the ramp to the temple's western portal, guarded by Lady Sky and Mother Moon.
"Do you know what it's like to be... to be half a person?" shi asked in a quavering voice. "Do you know what it's like to wonder if the person you love is ever going to come back to you?" Boots turned away, scrubbing hir face, tears running between hir fingers. "Of course you don't. Your mate and your children are right here with you. And they'll stay with you until this whole place turns to dust. You don't know how lucky you are. I'd... I'd give anything to be that lucky!"
Somewhere deep inside the ancient temple something fell. It hit the ground with a crash like thunder, the sound echoing back and forth between the bleak sandstone cliffs lining the valley. Boots went straight up into the air as if shi were trying to leap into orbit. For a period that seemed just short of forever shi hung there while hir limbs windmilled frantically. Finally hir feet touched the ground and shi was off as if fired from a gun. Straight as a laser beam shi made for the hut shared by R'marl, N'trem, and L'sal. Not that there was any shortage of living space; anyone who wanted a private room had only to set up one of the innumerable prefab huts with which the expedition had been provided. Even so people tended to bunk in groups and now Boots had a pretty good idea why. She barreled into the door, slamming it right off its hinges. The three Caitians were on their feet in a spray of bedding; N'trem switched on the light and screamed. At that point Boots had no idea what shi looked like. Hir eyes seemed about ready to fall out of their sockets, every hair on hir body was standing straight up, shi was trembling like a leaf, and hir feet were splayed out so far shi was almost laying down. Hir claws were extended and starting to rip furrows in the hard plastic floor.
"What is it?" R'marl demanded.
"I don't want to spend the night alone," Boots tried to say. Shi had no idea if what came out of hir mouth was anything like that, but they seemed to understand well enough.
The sun was up, filling the valley with light but not yet heating it to the searing oven it would be later in the day. Soft illumination gave the temple an entirely new character, easing the harsh lines that came out under direct sunlight, and making it seem a little less, well, ruinous. In this setting an odd group was leaving camp: Boots, walking somewhat unsteadily; N'trem holding hir left hand in both of his, R'marl holding the right. L'sal walked just behind N'trem, his hand resting on Boots' lower back.
"I swear to you, I didn't hear a thing," R'marl said in the patient tone of someone who has repeated himself innumerable times. "The very first bang any of us heard is when you flattened the door. I swear on my mother's honor."
A snide retort rose to L'sal's lips but he swallowed it back. Boots would almost certainly hit him again, and his ribs were already rather badly bruised.
"If anything fell down inside the temple there would have been something on the security log," N'trem pointed out. "And Thor would have had us all up and chewed us out for letting it happen in the first place."
Boots froze between the feet of Lord Sky and Father Sun and even the combined efforts of three adult male Caitians could not get hir moving, short of picking hir up. "I- I'm sorry," shi gasped, glancing left and right.
"It's okay," N'trem replied, squeezing hir hand reassuringly. R'marl frowned, realizing to whom Boots had actually addressed the comment. But at last she started forward again.
Like old Karnak for which it had been named, the centerpiece of the temple of New Karnak was a gigantic hypostyle hall. Boots found hirself at the head of a long aisle bordered by massive, towering columns; at the far end shi could see out through the west portal. Looking to the left and right shi could see a veritable forest of columns, slightly shorter than the centermost rows. All of them were carved with amazingly intricate glyphs and pictographs; some of them even had flecks of gilt, paint, and other decoration still clinging to them, though most were bare stone. "How-" Boots had to swallow down a lump in hir throat. From the air it had seemed so... primitive. And small, when compared to the architectural wonders of the modern age. Seen as it was supposed to be seen- from ground level- it had an imposing majesty that even the largest of modern buildings somehow lacked. "How did they light it?" shi asked in a hushed voice, looking upward. Sections of roofing were gone, admitting plenty of light. An intact, solid roof- as it seemed there must have originally been- would have reduced the interior to cave-like darkness.
"You notice how the center row of columns is taller than the others?" R'marl said. "There was a clearstory in the step of the roof, lined with stone grills to keep out the weather." He glanced to the left and right. "The shrines would still have been pretty dark. We think they lit them with freestanding braziers. We've found several."
Boots licked hir lips. None of the towering stones shi could see looked to be on the verge of falling. In fact, they seemed so incredibly solid shi couldn't imagine them falling, though obviously some had. "How big is it?" shi asked. In the warm light of day, hir fears of last night seemed- frankly- rather silly. Shi released hir grip on R'marl and N'trem.
"The hall is one hundred and twenty meters long and sixty meters wide," N'trem supplied. "The shrines are up to ten meters deep, and the outer walls up to four meters thick."
"That's a lot of stone," Boots marveled, drifting to hir left to admire the carvings on the nearest column.
"You bet your ass it is," L'sal put in. "They hauled it all by hand, too, if you can belive it."
As Boots moved slowly around the base of the first column a line of sight gradually opened to the easternmost shrine on the temple's south wall. The roof in that area was reasonably intact, leaving the shrine in deep shadow. Boots caught a glimpse of it from the corner of hir eye-
Boots drew a hissing breath. Shi didn't run because the people with whom shi felt most emotionally comfortable were right here, and because hir legs had suddenly become rubbery. "W- what is that?" shi demanded, pointing a quavering finger.
"Her?" R'marl moved quickly to Boots' side, resting a hand reassuringly on hir shoulder. "That's Daughter Night. Her and her brother, Son Day, seem to be the major deities. At least they figure heavily in all these writings." a casual gesture took in the columns and their carvings.
Boots wasn't paying the slightest attention. Daughter Night was eight meters high and seemed to have been carved from a single piece of black stone. She was either naked or wearing a snugly fit gown; in the shadowy darkness it was impossible to tell which. She was also rather more full figured than the Tabaqui females Boots had thus far seen, who tended, like their men, to be slender. The eyes of the statue were gold, gilt or more likely inlay to have lasted this long. They seemed to be staring directly at Boots.
"Want to meet her?" N'trem asked, taking Boots' hand and gently tugging.
Not particularly, Boots wanted to say but could not force the words through hir tightly constricted throat. Shi moved along because pulling away would have meant abandoning hir protectors. As range closed shi began to feel silly again; the statue wasn't really looking at hir, it was just a trick of perspective.
"Ain't she a dish?" N'trem commented, giving the statue a once-over.
Boots made a noncommittal sound. In hir heart of hearts shi agreed; but if Daughter Night were indeed a powerful goddess, would she appreciate being thought of as a sex object?
Maybe so. Daughter Night was not naked, as Boots had fist thought, but the gown she wore conformed closely to the curves of her body- and did not cover her breasts at all. The artisans had rendered nipples and aureoles in exquisite detail.
"Morning, all," Dr. Amundsen announced, appearing suddenly from behind a pillar.
This time all four of them jumped. Boots' unease vanished when shi saw the expressions of hir three Caitian companions; in fact shi had to struggle to keep from laughing.
"Good morning," R'marl responded in a slightly strangled voice. "What brings you out, Doctor?"
"After Mr. Wilkes' tragic accident, I've been scanning the building's foundations for any signs of shifting," Thor replied. "I'm gad to report that everything looks solid- and I'm even more glad to report that I may have located several underground chambers that may be tombs or hidden storage areas. Once we close up Mr. Clayton's pottery dig we'll open them up and have a look."
Personal log: 1620 hours, 9 July Everybody is practically beside themselves over Dr. Amundsen's discovery. Apparently there hasn't been much to find in the outbuildings other than shards and fragments, tantalizing clues into the temple builders' daily lives. The temple itself contains an incredible quantity of well-preserved writings- but interpreting them has been a difficult and frustrating process. I understand that Dr. Clayton has a Swiftsure Translator, and he's analyzed the language forward, backward, and sideways, but all the software in the universe can't tell us what the words mean without some sort of context. Here again the locals are little help; their language has no connection to what the temple builders used. I can understand how frustrated Julius must feel, to be surrounded by all this writing that could tell us so much and not be able to read it. Recently the translators got a lucky break. After one of his trading expeditions Pashket brought back an old book that talks about the temple builder's religion. From that Julius was able to extract names for many of the deities. That's how we know about Lord Sky, Lady Earth, Father Sun, Mother Moon, Son Day, and Daughter Night. Some of the others are River, Rain, Wet Wind, Dry Wind, Lightning, and Thunder. Unfortunately the book doesn't name them all- and the information it gives is highly suspect. It was written by a monk or cleric, working exclusively from older texts or notes, and who regarded the temple builders as pagans. Still, by using this book as a guide, Dr. Clayton has managed to translate some of the inscriptions in the temple. They seem to describe the temple builders' mythology; in my spare time I've been reading the transcripts. The raw output is atrocious, difficult to read at best and utter gibberish at worst. My personal favorite is "Wet Wind plants poppies in the sky so that sausages will explode when expelled from one's rectum." So far all attempts to clean up the translations have failed; everyone has a different idea of what the stories mean. Casually mentioning the subject in the mess hall is enough to spark a bloody jihad. So far everyone has been content to abuse one another intellectually rather than physically; I'm beginning to reconsider my opinion that scientists are a non-violent lot. Part of the story seems to be a creation myth; Lord Sky and Lady Earth had two children, Father Sun and Mother Moon. They in turn had two children. Now things get complicated; those kids were either Son Day and Daughter Night or Mighty Phallus and Golden Eye. (Don't blame me; those names are what the translator spat out.) Mighty Phallus and Golden Eye were apparently the first king and queen of the temple builders and are closely connected to Son Day and Daughter Night. Depending on how you read the text, Son Day and Daughter Night may have become mortal to rule their kingdom on earth, or Mighty Phallus and Golden Eye became deities upon their deaths. Things start to get interesting later on, when Son Day and Daughter Night do battle with the Lizard God. In a nutshell, after an unspecified period of fighting the Lizard God was loosing and offered a truce. Son Day went to negotiate; the Lizard God chopped him into pieces and scattered them all over- except for the genitalia, which he kept. When Daughter Night heard what happened she abandoned her army and went searching for the parts. As a result her army was defeated but she managed to reassemble Son Day- except for the genitals. She went to the Lizard God and demanded their return; the Lizard God agreed to give them back if she submitted to him. (This could mean that Daughter Night had to surrender her army and swear fealty to the Lizard God, or he intended to tie her up and rape her.) Daughter Night presented herself as ordered, but instead of submitting took the Lizard God's genitals. (On this point everyone pretty much agrees: Daughter Night bit them off and swallowed them. Rather gruesome, I admit, but I suppose I can understand. If someone had cut off my mate's penis I'd probably be willing to return the favor if the opportunity presented itself.) Next up is a prisoner exchange of sorts; each set of genitals is returned to its rightful owner. (I can't imagine the Lizard God's genitals being in very good shape after Daughter Night pukes them up, but it is mythology, after all.) The Lizard God tried to fool Daughter Night by giving her a set of fake genitals; she responded by destroying the Lizard God's. The Lizard God bled to death, but only after one last battle in which everything was destroyed. What happens next isn't clear. There's mention of Mighty Phallus and Golden Eye being buried in a fancy tomb. This has been interpreted to mean that Son Day and Daughter Night were laid to rest after the battle (which is odd because it doesn't say anywhere that Daughter Night had died). It could be that Mighty Phallus and Golden Eye ascended to heaven to become Son Day and Daughter Night. It could even be a ritual whereby Son Day and Daughter Night are worshipped. Everyone is hoping that opening the catacombs under the temple may answer these questions. It is generally believed that there actually was a war; other nearby ruins that might have been temple builder sites had been very carefully obliterated. Pashket's book claims that the temple builders engaged in cannibalism and human sacrifice, which would certainly explain why they weren't popular. The strange thing is that New Karnak seems to have been built at the time when all the other temples are being destroyed. Why would the temple builders be expending resources on such a project when the rest of their kingdom is falling apart? Why would the invaders leave one temple standing after destroying the rest? What happened to all the people, temple builders or invaders? The lizard riders of today don't seem to have any obvious connections to either group.
Everybody is practically beside themselves over Dr. Amundsen's discovery. Apparently there hasn't been much to find in the outbuildings other than shards and fragments, tantalizing clues into the temple builders' daily lives. The temple itself contains an incredible quantity of well-preserved writings- but interpreting them has been a difficult and frustrating process. I understand that Dr. Clayton has a Swiftsure Translator, and he's analyzed the language forward, backward, and sideways, but all the software in the universe can't tell us what the words mean without some sort of context. Here again the locals are little help; their language has no connection to what the temple builders used. I can understand how frustrated Julius must feel, to be surrounded by all this writing that could tell us so much and not be able to read it.
Recently the translators got a lucky break. After one of his trading expeditions Pashket brought back an old book that talks about the temple builder's religion. From that Julius was able to extract names for many of the deities. That's how we know about Lord Sky, Lady Earth, Father Sun, Mother Moon, Son Day, and Daughter Night. Some of the others are River, Rain, Wet Wind, Dry Wind, Lightning, and Thunder. Unfortunately the book doesn't name them all- and the information it gives is highly suspect. It was written by a monk or cleric, working exclusively from older texts or notes, and who regarded the temple builders as pagans.
Still, by using this book as a guide, Dr. Clayton has managed to translate some of the inscriptions in the temple. They seem to describe the temple builders' mythology; in my spare time I've been reading the transcripts. The raw output is atrocious, difficult to read at best and utter gibberish at worst. My personal favorite is "Wet Wind plants poppies in the sky so that sausages will explode when expelled from one's rectum." So far all attempts to clean up the translations have failed; everyone has a different idea of what the stories mean. Casually mentioning the subject in the mess hall is enough to spark a bloody jihad. So far everyone has been content to abuse one another intellectually rather than physically; I'm beginning to reconsider my opinion that scientists are a non-violent lot.
Part of the story seems to be a creation myth; Lord Sky and Lady Earth had two children, Father Sun and Mother Moon. They in turn had two children. Now things get complicated; those kids were either Son Day and Daughter Night or Mighty Phallus and Golden Eye. (Don't blame me; those names are what the translator spat out.) Mighty Phallus and Golden Eye were apparently the first king and queen of the temple builders and are closely connected to Son Day and Daughter Night. Depending on how you read the text, Son Day and Daughter Night may have become mortal to rule their kingdom on earth, or Mighty Phallus and Golden Eye became deities upon their deaths.
Things start to get interesting later on, when Son Day and Daughter Night do battle with the Lizard God. In a nutshell, after an unspecified period of fighting the Lizard God was loosing and offered a truce. Son Day went to negotiate; the Lizard God chopped him into pieces and scattered them all over- except for the genitalia, which he kept. When Daughter Night heard what happened she abandoned her army and went searching for the parts. As a result her army was defeated but she managed to reassemble Son Day- except for the genitals. She went to the Lizard God and demanded their return; the Lizard God agreed to give them back if she submitted to him. (This could mean that Daughter Night had to surrender her army and swear fealty to the Lizard God, or he intended to tie her up and rape her.) Daughter Night presented herself as ordered, but instead of submitting took the Lizard God's genitals. (On this point everyone pretty much agrees: Daughter Night bit them off and swallowed them. Rather gruesome, I admit, but I suppose I can understand. If someone had cut off my mate's penis I'd probably be willing to return the favor if the opportunity presented itself.) Next up is a prisoner exchange of sorts; each set of genitals is returned to its rightful owner. (I can't imagine the Lizard God's genitals being in very good shape after Daughter Night pukes them up, but it is mythology, after all.) The Lizard God tried to fool Daughter Night by giving her a set of fake genitals; she responded by destroying the Lizard God's. The Lizard God bled to death, but only after one last battle in which everything was destroyed.
What happens next isn't clear. There's mention of Mighty Phallus and Golden Eye being buried in a fancy tomb. This has been interpreted to mean that Son Day and Daughter Night were laid to rest after the battle (which is odd because it doesn't say anywhere that Daughter Night had died). It could be that Mighty Phallus and Golden Eye ascended to heaven to become Son Day and Daughter Night. It could even be a ritual whereby Son Day and Daughter Night are worshipped.
Everyone is hoping that opening the catacombs under the temple may answer these questions. It is generally believed that there actually was a war; other nearby ruins that might have been temple builder sites had been very carefully obliterated. Pashket's book claims that the temple builders engaged in cannibalism and human sacrifice, which would certainly explain why they weren't popular. The strange thing is that New Karnak seems to have been built at the time when all the other temples are being destroyed. Why would the temple builders be expending resources on such a project when the rest of their kingdom is falling apart? Why would the invaders leave one temple standing after destroying the rest? What happened to all the people, temple builders or invaders? The lizard riders of today don't seem to have any obvious connections to either group.
Boots' hands hovered indecisively over the keyboard. Shi'd never quite worked up the nerve to write about hir "nightmare." R'marl had almost convinced hir it was just a dream- until shi checked the security log. The sensors showed, without any possible shadow of a doubt, Boots leaving hir hut and walking to the temple's west portal- then streaking like a scalded cat to R'marl's hut. But they registered absolutely no sign of a loud noise. Other sensors, placed to monitor the temple and warn of impending collapse, clearly indicated that not a single pebble had shifted during the night.
"Howdy, Boots," R'marl called, sticking his head into the security shack. "Ready for dinner?"
"Sure." Boots closed the workstation and put it away. Analyzing the events of two nights ago made hir uncomfortable. Better to just put it out of hir mind. All the security records proved was that shi had gone to the temple; what they didn't prove was that she hadn't been hallucinating or sleepwalking or some such. Certainly it was much more pleasant to think so. "What's for dinner?" shi asked as shi closed up the security shack.
R'marl gazed up into the sky. "Food packs," he said with a heavy sigh. Food packs were designed to be portable, nutritious, and long lasting; flavor and presentation weren't exactly ignored, but they did take a back seat. "Or-" he brightened- "if you're feeling brave, you can try some fresh lizard. That's clubhead, not whiptail."
Boots blinked. "Huh?"
"Oh, sorry. Our Tabaqui friends keep two kinds of lizards, one for riding and one for carrying packs. The whiptails are the riding lizards, clubheads the pack lizards- and food, when it comes to it."
"Is it... safe?" Boots wondered.
R'marl shrugged. "As safe as any fresh food. We've managed to impress upon them some of the advantages of cleanliness, and if you still have qualms, give your portion a once-over with a medical scanner. They won't be offended. We've never had anyone die of food poisoning." He smiled wryly. "Not to say that a boulder landing on your head won't ruin your whole day."
"Was it an accident?" Boots asked quietly.
R'marl stopped abruptly. "In spite of how it might look, this isn't Death on the Nile," he insisted. "Jim was my friend." He looked down. "Sure, we've had our personality conflicts. You can't put a group of people in an isolated setting like this and not have them. Other than Largo and Jensen getting into a fist fight, I can't think of any time things got out of hand. At any rate, no one got anywhere near the block that smacked Wilkes for months beforehand. Thor checked the security logs. Not by himself, either, but with everyone watching. If it was murder, it was a plot so incredibly convoluted as to defy rational understanding."
"Sorry." Boots laid a hand gently on R'marl's shoulder.
R'marl laid his own over it. "It's all right. If I were suddenly dropped in here under similar circumstances I'd probably be creeped out too." He lifted his eyes; Boots met his gaze. For a moment they stood in silence. He squeezed hir hand.
"Where's N'trem and L'sal?" Boots asked.
R'marl grinned. "In the mess hall, waiting for us."
"They let you get me alone?" There was just a hint of challenge in hir tone.
R'marl grinned. "We drew lots. I lost." Boots punched him; he started laughing. After a bit shi did too. It felt good.
"You know, Boots," R'marl commented, "If you didn't say you were a Chakat, no one would ever know the difference."
Boots stiffened. Hir whole body was quivering; all hir claws were extended, hir tail was lashing and shi had to resist the urge to crouch. "What?" she demanded, because that the only word shi could force out past the storm of emotions in hir mind.
"Boots, there's nothing wrong with you," R'marl insisted, grabbing hir shoulders and squeezing gently, either not noticing or deliberately ignoring the expression of hir face and body. "There's plenty of felitaurs who aren't Chakats-"
"I am a Chakat, R'marl." Shi swept hir arms up and around, breaking his grip. He hopped back, rubbing his forearms; shi had not struck lightly. "And I'm not a Chakat. That is the whole problem." Shi brushed past him and into the mess hall. He stood, looking sadly after hir.
Personal log: 2258 hours, 9 July I had my first taste of lizard today. Believe it or not it really
I had my first taste of lizard today. Believe it or not it really
After dinner, to celebrate opening the catacombs tomorrow, Pashket told us some ghost stories. Most of them were about Daughter Night. If these stories are to be believed, she was somewhere between Count Dracula and the Whore of Babylon. She supposedly had all sorts of powers: being invisible, walking through walls, controlling people's minds, and so on. Supposedly also she liked to deflower young virgins, of whatever sex happened to be handy. After giving them the most incredible sexual experience of their lives she would kill her victim by drinking his or her (or their, if she was feeling particularly energetic) blood.
To be fair, Pashket did tell some stories about Son Day, too. If the stories about him are to be believed, he's somewhere between Odysseus and Casanova. He confines his bloodletting to that of monsters and enemy warriors, but he shares his sister's delight in the pleasures of the flesh, and is said to be hung like a horse. (Lizard penises are very small.) I can understand why Daughter Night got so pissed off when the Lizard God cut Son Day's dick off.
Boots slammed the workstation shut and hefted it, preparing to throw it across the room. Thinking of dicks had brought R'marl to mind. Just who the Hell did he think he was?
"Damn, damn, damn." Boots tossed the workstation onto hir bunk and got up. Shi was back in the security shack; shi did not need or wish to spend the night with R'marl and friends. In fact, if a huge block of stone were to fall and squash the lot of them-
Boots opened the weapons safe and took out a pistol. After shedding hir tunic and placing hir comm badge in a belt pouch around hir waist she eased silently out into the darkness- deliberately ignoring the night vision equipment. In a very determined fashion shi marched around to the temple's east portal. With a perfunctory nod to Lord Sky and Father Sun, shi turned left and headed toward the shrine of Daughter Night. With only starlight to illuminate it the hypostyle hall was as dark as the inside of a casket. The small amount of light that filtered down from above actually made things worse by deceiving the eye into thinking that it understood the spatial relationships between looming shadows. Boots walked through it without a second thought; darkness- by itself- held no terrors for hir. The statue of Daughter Night was one patch of black against another; her golden eyes invisible. Boots stopped and looked defiantly upwards. "Am I supposed to be afraid?" shi demanded. "Are you going to come and suck my blood?" Shi turned, drawing the pistol and thumbing off the safety. Shi had disabled the holographic sight to protect hir night vision. "Bring it on." Shi turned slowly, panning the pistol across the bases of the massive columns.
An active imagination could have very easily seen shadows seeming to detach themselves from the pillars and flowing across the floor like ink. The night sounds of the temple could be the echo of stealthy footfalls, creeping ever closer-
"I thought not." Boots thumbed the pistol back on safe and holstered it. "Sorry to disturb you." Shi gave Daughter Night a quick bow and returned to hir bunk.
Personal log: Addendum After he finished his stories I asked Pashket if maybe Daughter Night would be offended by them. He laughed and told me that I shouldn't be frightened by old superstitions.
After he finished his stories I asked Pashket if maybe Daughter Night would be offended by them. He laughed and told me that I shouldn't be frightened by old superstitions.
"Hmm, let's see... about four meters west, N'trem," Thor directed. N'trem obeyed, keeping his sensor as steady as he could.
Thor was intently studying the screen of a portable workstation, using an empty drum for a desk and a packing crate for a chair. R'marl, N'trem, L'sal, and three Voxxans were slowly pacing the floor of the hypostyle hall, aiming their sensor packs downward.
"Any luck?" Dr. Clayton inquired hopefully. He didn't seem as old as Thor, though not having facial hair probably had a lot to do with it. His distant ancestors had probably been Inuit or similar folk.
"We'll see in a moment," Thor replied, never taking his eyes from the screen and never even blinking. "Ah! Jandar, stop and back up about ninety centimeters." One of the Voxxans complied. "Got it!" Thor rose, grinning like a maniac. "Bring in the cutters and the grav-jacks!"
These were the words everyone had been waiting for. In moments the heavy equipment was muscled into the hall and set up. Thor paced in a small circle, then stomped on a large slab. "This one," he pronounced.
Everyone- including Boots- who didn't immediately have work to do was gathered around to watch the spectacle. The Caitians stepped aside while the Voxxans carefully placed six grav-jacks, three on either side of the heavy slab. Then the Caitians stepped in with cutters as the grav-jacks applied tension.
Natural stone, as a building material, is heavy and rather brittle. Lifting a slab weighing many tons without breaking it required carefully balanced forces. In this case there were other considerations as well; over time the temple's floor had heaved and shifted, loading the stonework in ways the original builders had not anticipated. Before one slab could be moved the slabs around it had to be pushed away to relieve tension. Careful scanning and modeling was required to make sure that removing this one slab wouldn't weaken some other part of the structure.
Piles of fine sand began to form where the cutters were at work. Their shearing force fields were gently extracting dirt and dust that had filtered down between the stones over the centuries and grinding down the rough edges where stones butted together. After two hours of painstaking work the central slab was noticed to be visibly offset from the surrounding floor. Thor waved the cutters back and crouched down to watch. Millimeter by millimeter the slab crept out of the spot where it had lain for two millinea until it was suspended a hand span above the floor. Four powered cargo lifters were brought in and slid under the slab; they took the weight as the grav-jacks were removed. Then the entire assembly was carefully shifted aside and set down. It settled with a muted crump. Everyone pushed forward to see what had been revealed. It seemed to be nothing but a trench between two foundation stones filled with crushed gravel, trash, and broken pottery.
"Kind of a let down, isn't it?" Boots observed.
"Not really," Thor replied. "This is just fill to cover the doorway. It is odd, though. Pashket, if you would?"
Pashket and half a dozen of his fellows, equipped with shovels of both powered and traditional variety, moved in and started clearing away the fill. Each shovel load was fed through a separator; Julius supervised as pottery shards and other artifacts were tagged, logged, and packaged.
"What's odd?" Boots asked.
Thor pointed to the slab that had covered the hole. "That block weighs twelve tons and it was fitted perfectly into the floor," he said. "It could not have been dropped into place or it would have shattered. It could have been lowered by filling the cavity with sand, dragging the slab over it, then letting the sand drain out. In that case there would have to be a hole through which sand was removed and fill put in. There is not, because for the last year and a half we have been searching for just that type of evidence and found nothing. There is a simple explanation, however. The catacombs were built first, then all traces of their existence were obliterated when the temple was built on top of them."
"Why would they do that?" Boots wondered.
"Security," Thor replied. "If this is, as I suspect, a tomb, then the builders would wish it to remain hidden. The temple's foundations cover all traces of the original construction, and even if one knows where to look one has to cut through the temple floor."
Boots frowned. "But isn't building a gigantic temple over it rather... obvious?"
"Is it?" Thor raised an eyebrow. "We've been here a year and a half and only now realized that there were hidden chambers. Partially because we were only looking for traditional signs of tomb building... and partially because, even with ground-penetrating scanners, the temple's foundation blocks mask the underground chambers. Without scanners, even if you knew there was a tomb here, you'd have to tear down the whole temple to find it. Not an impossibility, of course, but certainly beyond the ability of casual robbers."
"Yeah," R'marl put in with a chuckle. "It takes serious robbers, like us."
"But if all the other temples were destroyed, why not this one?" Boots protested.
Thor shrugged. "A puzzle wrapped in an enigma."
When Pashket and his crew finished removing the fill there lay revealed a narrow stair well, no more than one hundred and forty centimeters wide. At the bottom was a door that had been coated with plaster and impressed with various designs.
"Jackpot," R'marl declared. "See those signs there, Boots? It's the cartouches of Mighty Phallus and Gold Eye."
"What's that big thing above it?" Boots asked.
"If this were an Egyptian tomb, that would be the seal of the Necropolis, the workers who built it," Thor replied. "As it is..." He stepped down into the stairwell to get a closer look. "I don't believe we've ever seen this before."
"We haven't," Julius agreed. "In fact... that doesn't even look like a temple builder seal. These inscriptions around the edges aren't even the same language."
"Call in the imaging team," Thor directed, climbing out of the stairwell. "Make sure to get detailed recordings of this."
A portable hologram recorder was set up on the stairs, and in five minutes had created a high-resolution image of the scene. Thor reviewed it on a large view screen that had been propped against the base of a nearby pillar, pronounced his satisfaction, then ordered the seal broken.
"Put on a respirator," Thor added as R'marl set the grav-jacks. "When the door comes loose there'll be some air exchange, and it's going to be pretty rank."
Boots took advantage of hir physiology by propping hir forepaws on an upended packing case, thus elevating hir head above those of the crowd that pressed close around the stairwell. R'marl stepped back and activated the jacks; they first delivered a sharp blow that cracked the plaster very neatly but also caused large portions of the writing to scale off. Next they pulled gently but steadily, extracting the door panel from its frame. The only sound as it came loose was that of grinding stone, but a dry, musty smell wafted up. Though not particularly strong or unpleasant, it still managed to convey- at least to Boots- the impression of things long dead.
"Right, then." Thor donned a commo helmet and a respirator, but left the mask hanging loose around his neck. "Julius, Ranahran, Laird, Pashket... the imaging team, naturally... and Boots, why don't you join us?"
Boots started, eyes wide. "M- me, sir?"
"I'm sure I'll never hear the end of it if I insisted on leading the way into a potentially dangerous place without my security officer with me," Thor replied. "Besides-" he grinned- "you and Daughter Night seem to be on good terms. Perhaps with you along she won't mind if we poke around a bit, hmm? Everyone else can watch on the view screen." He activated his helmet lamp and video recorder; on the view screen there appeared, larger than life, Boots' rather dazed looking features. Shi donned the respirator that had been placed in hir hand, then followed once all the scientists had gone.
"We're in a long, narrow hallway," Thor reported for the benefit of those waiting above. "The walls... my goodness! Are decorated with incredibly intricate paintings of what I believe is a funerary procession... Julius?"
"Yes," Julius confirmed. "Here you can see the sarcophagus being escorted to the temple... the sarcophagus has the cartouche of Mighty Phallus on it. On the opposite wall is an identical procession for Golden Eye."
As Boots ducked under the low transom and entered the hallway it occurred to hir that shi'd probably be better able to see from above, watching the view screen. Shi hadn't taken a helmet or even a hand light. Still, there was plenty of illumination from other helmet lamps, enough to see the somber lines of marching figures inscribed on the walls. Most were soldiers armed with spears and bows. There were wagons loaded with treasures, pots, and possibly foodstuffs. Walking around and behind the huge wagon bearing the sarcophagi were groups of robed figures that might be priests or priestesses. No pack animals were in evidence; all wagons were pulled by long lines of laborers. Boots was momentarily confused by what appeared to be processions going in opposite directions before shi realized that it was all the same procession, wrapped back and forth along the wall.
"The level of preservation is incredible," Julius continued. "You can see where water has damaged it, but a lot of the paint is still in place. There's even... this looks like gilt, here on the sarcophagus."
"Keep moving," Thor instructed. "We'll have time to study each section at leisure. Right now, let's inventory the whole area."
"We're coming into a room," Julius reported. It's... incredible! Will you look at that!"
Boots peered over Pashket's shoulder- and hir blood froze. Standing there, large as life, was Daughter Night, her eyes shining like pools of liquid fire-
"These paintings are amazing," Julius continued, stepping to one side. Daughter Night was a life-sized catryid carved into the face of a squat column. Life size, that is, if Daughter Night was only one hundred and sixty or so centimeters tall. Her fur was obviously meant to be black, as was her gown. Her right hand was at her side, her left crossed just under her breasts, gripping an odd looking scepter. Hanging around her neck, covering the tops of her breasts, was a necklace shaped like a bird with its wings spread. It had been framed with gold and inlaid with azurite and lapis lazuli- and when one looked closely, one could see that it had the head of a jackal.
Now that the passage had cleared out somewhat Boots could see a second catryid to the left of the first. This figure was obviously male; he was as powerful and muscular as Daughter Night was voluptuous. He wore a kilt made of alternating triangular sections of white and gold; his left arm was at his side, his right raised and gripping a scepter- but not crossed over his chest, because there it would block the hammered metal sunburst that covered his entire torso. It had been made of copper and gold; the copper had long ago turned green but the gold was still relatively bright. The dark spots on him were his eyes, which were as black as basalt.
"That must be Son Day," Boots muttered.
"Yes," Pashket agreed, nodding.
"There's no exit," Jenmotal commented.
"It will be hidden," Pashket replied.
"Look at this," Julius said, pointing. "It's a warning. Something to the effect that if anyone disturbs the rest of Mighty Phallus and Golden Eye, then the gods will come up from the underworld and destroy them." He chuckled. "Something to scare off the grave robbers."
"It seems to have worked," Ranahran commented. "There's been very little signs of pilfering here." He seemed more pleased than apprehensive.
Boots shifted uneasily. Sure it was just old superstition... but it just didn't seem right to be talking like that. Not here.
"R'marl, bring down a scanner and a couple of grav-jacks," Thor instructed, obviously speaking to the people gathered above. "And if you so much as breathe wrong on those paintings in the hall, I will turn you into a throw rug."
A smattering of laughter drifted down the passage. Boots stepped aside; a moment later R'marl arrived with the equipment. Boots took the grav-jacks; R'marl switched on the scanner and started around the room.
"Here," Pashket said, pointing.
R'marl aimed the scanner at the wall- and blinked in surprise. "It's right where he says, Thor. There's a passage behind this panel."
"Then open it up, if you please."
"Righto. Boots, you can help me with this. Bring those grav-jacks over here."
Under R'marl's direction Boots set one of the jacks and operated it. In only a few minutes the panel was carefully prized from its setting without disturbing so much as a fleck of paint on its surface. Behind it was another stairway; Thor aimed his helmet light, revealing a landing some twelve meters down.
"How did they light this place?" Boots wondered.
"On Terra, tomb builders used polished mirrors to reflect sunlight," Thor replied. "We've found polished metal panels, so the Tabaqui might have done the same."
"Pashket, how did you know where the hidden panel was?" Boots added.
Pashket grinned. "Stealing from the dead is what we do for a living."
That gave Boots another shiver of trepidation. Old Superstition....
"We are starting down," Thor announced. The party followed him. Boots went last- and could not restrain hirself from glancing backward every now and then. Beyond the small pools cast by helmet lights it was as dark as- well, a tomb.
At the foot of the stairway was a much larger chamber. Braziers were affixed to the walls and lamps still hung from the ceiling, though there was none of the carbon smearing which would suggest that they had ever been lit. Six doors- three on either side- opened off this chamber; a long hallway extended into the distance.
"Bring those grav-jacks," Thor instructed, pointing toward one of the doors.
"No, no," Pashket interrupted. "What you want is down there."
"Why there?" Boots asked.
"Here is only the food and furnishings left for the dead on their journey through the underworld," Pashket replied. "The resting places of the king and queen will be there."
Without a word Thor turned and started walking. He ignored the many doors lining the long corridor and no one remarked on the fact. They all wanted to see Mighty Phallus and Golden Eye. Boots could feel it in the air.
"There," Pashket pronounced. At the end of the corridor was a small chamber with two doors on the far wall and exits to the left and right. "Those two-" he pointed at the end wall- "will lead you to the king and queen."
"Can we do the queen first?" Boots blurted out as Thor started toward the right hand door.
Thor paused and looked at hir quizzically. If shi had not been covered with fur shi would have been blushing. Where in the world did that come from?
"Sure," Thor agreed. "Get those grav-jacks over here and open it up."
Getting the panel loose took only minutes. Once Boots and R'marl set it aside Thor stepped up and swept his helmet light around the room.
Boots was unable to suppress a gasp, and shi was not alone. The chamber was not especially large- no more than four by three meters- but it was crammed with stuff. The floor was covered with small urns in shape of various animals. Chests were pushed against the walls, in places stacked one on the other. Warped wooden frames supported what had once been fancy clothing; much of the cloth had rotted away but the gold thread and beadwork of semiprecious stones remained. All of which was secondary to the room's greatest treasure: the enormous wooden sarcophagus whose intricately carved surface had been decorated with gold, precious stones, and ivory. At its foot was a small stone table with a rack of fancy decorated knives set upon it.
"Wonderful things," R'marl breathed, eyes wide.
"They practiced animal sacrifice, at least," Julius commented, crouching to get a look at the table. It had channels cut in its surface leading to carved spouts. The stone was splashed with dark discolorations.
"Is... is she in there?" Boots whispered.
"Her cartouche is on the lid, so if she's anywhere, she's there," Julius replied.
"Let's open it," R'marl suggested.
"All right." Thor looked around. "Where's the imaging team?" A moment later they arrived; they had been taking recordings of other parts of the tomb.
"So what do you think, Boots?" R'marl's eyes were practically glowing with excitement. "Is this the find of the century of what?"
"I don't know..." Boots looked around. "I feel kind of... funny. Not that I've got anything against Pashket and his people, but...."
"You're worried about him being a grave robber?"
R'marl grinned. "You know, the only difference between grave robbing and archeology is whether anyone's around to complain."
Boots gasped. "Don't talk like that!"
R'marl chuckled. "Relax, Boots. You're taking this way too seriously."
Imaging the burial chamber to Thor's satisfaction took almost an hour. During that time Boots felt the sepulchral atmosphere very acutely; shi wanted desperately to return to the surface for a breath of fresh air. Shi didn't care to try negotiating the passages without a light, though- and asking for one would only validate what shi was trying to keep in the back of hir mind. Besides, leaving would be a refutation of the honor Thor had bestowed upon hir by inviting hir in the first place. So shi waited.
"How did they get that massive sarcophagus down that narrow little stairway?" Boots asked, more to pass the time than because shi was interested.
"They brought it down in pieces and assembled it," R'marl replied.
"What are in those little urns that look like animals?"
"If this were an Egyptian tomb on Terra, I'd say they contained the queen's soft organs, removed during mummification and preserved separately," R'marl said. "There seem far too many of them here for that alone, though. Probably we'll have to open them up and see."
"Why were the soft organs removed?"
"Because if they weren't, they'd rot inside the body and spoil it. So all that stuff is removed. Heart, lungs, stomach, liver, intestines, brain-"
"Brain? How do they get that out?"
"Pick it out though the nose with a special tool."
Boots lost interest in asking questions after that.
"You two, come over here," Thor commanded, pointing at Boots and R'marl. "The sarcophagus is too big to fit through the door, so we're going to open it in situ. Start clearing those funerary urns out of the way to make a path."
More and more of the team had found its way down to the antechamber. They were standing around conversing with one another, studying wall paintings and pictographs, photographing them, and dictating notes into portable recorders. As Boots and R'marl carefully handed out each urn it was labeled and entered into a database, then set in a corner out of the way. Eventually enough room was cleared that three people could stand on either side of the sarcophagus to lift the lid. Boots stood in the doorway so that hir lower body did not disturb any of the remaining artifacts.
"What's in those?" Boots asked, noticing Ranahran going over the funerary urns with a medical scanner.
"Hearts, penises, and testes," he replied. "One set in each jar."
"All this about genitals," Boots muttered, looking away quickly.
"Ready?" R'marl called. "Every one got a grip? Okay. One, two three, lift!"
The lid came off quite easily. Everyone shuffled toward the door, where the lid had to be tipped slightly to fit through. Once out into the hall it was set carefully on the floor, where it too was tagged and logged.
"This is incredible," R'marl breathed, kneeling to run his hand over- but not actually touch- the richly decorated wood. Inscriptions had been carved into it, then filled with lacquer to highlight them. "Now I know how Howard Carter must have felt."
"Who was he?" Boots asked.
"A Terran," Thor responded. "He discovered the tomb of Tut-Ankh-Amen in 1922. It was the most famous tomb in the Valley of the Kings until the rediscovery of the tomb of the sons of Ramesses II in 1986."
"What do you think, Boots?" R'marl asked.
"It's nice," Boots replied. It makes me realize how fundamentally useless a security officer is around here.
The imaging team had been busy once the lid of the sarcophagus was removed. "We're ready to open the coffin," someone called.
People crowded around the entrance to the burial chamber but Boots remained by the lid, staring down at it. Age had dulled the wood and water had stained it, but the image of Daughter Night was clearly recognizable. Lacquer- now badly crazed- had been used to generate the lustrous black of hir face and torso. A pair of gold plates represented her eyes, copper studs her nipples. Her arms were crossed below her breasts, her wrists circled by golden bracelets. In her left hand she held a scepter, as in the entrance hall. Likewise the bird necklace had been constructed of bits of inlaid stone, but the gold portions seemed to had been formed by hundreds of tiny studs. A number of the stone inlay pieces had fallen out when the lid was tipped. Below the arms she was not represented; the lid was instead covered with pictograms and glyphs.
In a moment of fancy Boots found hirself imagining hir own sarcophagus. It would have to be extra long, of course. That same black lacquer would do for hir fur and the base color of hir tunic. For the Technical section color stripe- well, gold leaf seemed rather ostentatious (but wasn't that the point?) as well as being not quite the right color. Lacquer, maybe. An ivory and hammered silver comm badge. Gold insets for the eyes-
Boots shuddered. Surely my eyes don't look like that.
"Here she comes!" R'marl called. Boots looked up; while shi'd been daydreaming another lid had been removed. This one was smaller, finer, more intricately decorated, and in better shape; it had been protected from water damage by the outer lid. Thematically it was similar- except that instead of a scepter, her left hand gripped a bloody dagger. Boots found hirself glancing nervously at the rack of weapons, which had been set aside on the floor.
R'marl and N'trem emerged from the burial chamber carrying between them a mask. It seemed to have been made of gold and though both quite muscular the two Caitians were straining under the weight. They set it down on several hastily laid layers of bubble-pack.
To Boots, at least, it was obviously Daughter Night. Rather than paint over the gold, the ancient smiths had represented her black fur by outlining her eyes, ears, nose, and face with lacquer. To support the ears and neck a striped headdress had been added, alternating bands of raw gold and something that shone like silver but was not metallic. As shi stared at it Boots realized that there were no pupils in the eyes. Come to think of it, the catryid in the entrance hall and the statue in the temple had been the same, but for some reason shi hadn't noticed.
"She doesn't really look like that, does she?" Boots asked of no one in particular.
"I shouldn't think so," Thor replied. "Images on burial masks tend to be stylized."
"Make way for Her Majesty, people!" R'marl called. He, N'trem, and two Voxxans eased carefully out of the burial chamber. They were carrying-
A body. Wrapped in linen, then painted. The face area had been decorated in a pattern similar to that of the burial mask, the rest with glyphs and pictographs. The arms were crossed over the chest instead of under it. Boots half expected to see it clasping a scepter or a dagger, but the hands were empty.
"She's in remarkably good shape," Ranahran commented, panning the medical scanner over the wrapped body. "Very well preserved. No obvious signs of injury or disease... hmm." He adjusted the scanner and tried again.
"What's wrong?" Boots asked.
"As a general rule, people aren't mummified in the prime of life," Ranahran replied. "Usually, death occurs at the end of a long illness, or as the result of a serious injury. Examination of the remains with modern forensic techniques will reveal the cause of death quite clearly, even after several thousand years." He moved to the other side of the body. "On the other hand... among- um, less technically developed cultures-" Boots suspected that he'd been about to say primitive and changed his mind when he realized that Pashket was in the audience- "and in particular where a transfer of power is concerned, an individual may be, shall we say, persuaded to shuffle off their mortal coil." He stood, switching off the scanner. "Then, too, there are traces... though perhaps less obvious. A poison, for example. The queen, here, appears to have been a quite hale and hearty woman in her middle thirties. I'll have to examine her in greater detail to find out how she died."
Thor nodded. "Wrap her in sprayseal, then take her up to the lab. Boots, I'm going to need you to open one of the security vaults."
"I'm sure no one's going to steal her," Boots muttered. For some reason sight of the actual body made hir uneasy.
"Actually, they might," Thor replied. "She was probably buried wearing all sorts of trinkets. Given what's here, I'd guess they were quite fancy."
Ranahran nodded. "She has bracelets on her arms and wrists, several amulets, and fancy sandals."
Boots blinked. "What about-" shi laid a hand on hir chest- "the necklace?"
"Necklace?" Ranahran cocked his head.
"Like that." Boots pointed at the sarcophagus cover.
Ranahran shook his head. "Nope. She wasn't wearing anything like that."
"I wonder why." Boots scratched hir cheek. "After all that trouble to show it everywhere...."
"Who knows?" Thor shrugged. "Once we've had time to examine the artifacts we may learn. For the moment... we have a great deal of work to do. Boots, I don't seriously think anyone's going to run off with the queen, but I do want her to stay in a climate controlled environment. If we expose her haphazardly to cycles of heat and cold, humidity, and light, she'll start to deteriorate. For the same reason I want you to rig a security screen across the tomb entrance. At least until we can get the artifacts coated with sprayseal to protect them. Ah, ready? Good."
L'sal had been applying the sprayseal while Thor was talking. R'marl and N'trem carefully lifted the body and L'sal sprayed the bottom. The plastic coating made the mummy appear damp.
"Need help with that?" Boots asked, dreading that they might say yes.
"Nah. She ain't heavy." R'marl took the head, N'trem the feet. They lifted carefully, but without effort.
"I'll go ahead and prepare the vault," Boots declared. Shi started to ask for a hand light, then noticed that someone had placed glow strips. Shi started out, not running but nevertheless walking very quickly. Shi did not fear darkness, but the cool light of the glow strips only seemed to illustrate how much there was that couldn't be seen. Breaking out into the light- even the relative shade of the hypostyle hall- felt like broaching the surface of a deep, dark pool. Boots drew a shuddering breath, luxuriating in the feel of heat and light. Shi turned-
And reeled back, shading hir eyes. The expedition had been underground for rather a long time; the sun was angling straight in through the western portal. After allowing a moment for hir eyes to adjust Boots walked out into the sunlight and around the footing of the temple to camp. When shi arrived shi spotted a pair of Tabaqui men by the lizard corral. "Excuse me!" shi called because shi could not remember their names. "I need to clear out one of the vaults! Some artifacts are being brought up from the temple!"
They left off what they were doing and hurried over. Boots led them to the first storage shed. Immediately behind the outer door was the smooth face of the security vault; Boots applied hir thumb to the lock and the door slid open. Without having to be told the two Tabaqui started clearing out the fruit.
Boots sighed heavily. The fruit would have to be eaten quickly before it spoiled. All so some dead woman could have a comfortable place to rest. Of course it wouldn't have been a problem if we hadn't come along and disturbed her.
The vault was empty long before R'marl, N'trem, and a crowd of others showed up with the mummy. They moved quickly but with great care, as if they were rushing an accident victim to the emergency room. Boots grabbed a broom and swept out some remaining detritus. Shi stepped aside just the crowd swept in.
"There you go, Your Majesty," R'marl said, easing the mummy carefully to the floor. "Not as fancy as your regular digs, but quite comfortable. Night night." He stepped out and closed the door. "Say, Boots... will you have dinner with us?"
"Um-" For some reason the question caught hir off guard. "Well... actually, I'm feeling a bit queasy. I'm just going to take a walk, maybe get something later."
"We'd be glad to come with you," L'sal ventured.
"No," Boots replied. "I need to walk by myself."
"Sure," R'marl agreed, silencing L'sal with a warning glance.
With several melons in hir saddle-packs and a pistol in a shoulder holster, Boots walked along the southeast face of the temple. The sun was low but not yet touching the horizon; setting the force field over the tomb entrance had only taken a few minutes. Thor and many of the others were still down in the tomb and probably would be well into the night. Bully for them.
The temple's exterior wasn't much to look at. There weren't any windows; the walls had to be solid to hold up what had originally been- and still was- a massive roof. That, combined with the sloping buttresses every few meters, gave it an almost industrial look.
Boots eyed the slope of one of the buttresses, then took off hir sandals and dropped them in hir saddle-pack. Full-grown jaguars- who were not much less massive that shi- were quite proficient tree-climbers. Shi flexed hir claws, set them against the stone, and started up. Centuries of wind-blown sand had roughened the surface and opened the joints, giving plenty of purchase. Boots' claws were in excellent shape; shi cleaned and trimmed them regularly. (As a child shi had taken to sharpening them on the furniture.) Physically shi was in excellent shape as well; shi had always loved to run, jump, and climb. Even- especially- as an adult shi was not about to let hirself get into a condition where such things might become difficult- or, heaven forbid, impossible. Forcing hirself into idleness would have been unbearable torment.
There was a small lip at the top of the buttress, enough for Boots to set hir hind feet on as shi scrambled up onto the roof. From there it was a simple matter to walk along the edge until shi reached the western face. Shi settled down where the roof was reasonably intact- directly over Daughter Night- and stretched out. The air was already starting to cool, but the stone retained its heat. It felt wonderful. Shi took out a melon, cut it in half, and started trimming off portions of succulent meat. Open sky, fresh food, something warm to curl up on... such things were not to be found in star ships. Even if it had been necessary to cross half the known galaxy to get here, perhaps it was worth it after all....
Boots' eyes snapped open. The sun was gone, they sky black and dotted with stars, the air decidedly chilly. How long had shi been napping? Shi got to hir feet, turning-
And froze. Shi had nearly stepped off the edge of a slab. It would have been a long fall to the cold, hard floor of the hypostyle hall. Sure, shi probably could have landed on hir feet, but the cube-square law was against hir. A house cat might fall out of a fourth story window and survive, but its body would have developed considerably less energy by the time it hit the ground. The creators of the Chakat race had designed them to be hardy, but Boots was disinclined to test their engineering skills in such a direct fashion. Shi stepped back and looked around-
All around hir was black emptiness. Shi stood on an island of cold stone in a sea of dark. What happened? shi wondered frantically. Shi'd studied the maps of the temple; shi wouldn't have come up here if shi hadn't been certain of the roof's condition. Had shi been sleep walking? Perhaps wandered onto one of the fallen down sections? But if that were the case, there'd have to be a way back. Surely shi hadn't jumped in hir sleep. If a stone had fallen shi would have heard it.
Something glinted in the darkness. Boots peered over the edge. There was Daughter Night, looking up at hir, those cold, golden eyes glittering like distant firelight.
"You!" Boots screamed, drawing the pistol. "You want me, come and get me, you antiquated hunk of rock!" Boots had neglected to disable the holographic sight; a ghostly, translucent image of Daughter Night's massive stone head sprang into existence over the pistol's receiver, the targeting pipper centered directly between those gleaming eyes-
"Thor to Boots, come in Boots. Where are you? Come in!"
Boots' eyes snapped open. Shi leapt in panic as something exploded with a flash, boom, and a stinging cloud of stone chips, seemingly right in front of hir face. When hir back foot kicked on open air shi flopped forward and hugged stone until the wave of panic finally receded. Then shi peeked up and looked around.
It was dark. The stone was cold, having radiated the heat it collected during the day. Shi was clinging to the very edge of the roof at the southwestern corner. For meters in every direction- except directly behind- was quite solid, if slightly uneven, stonework. About three meters away the stone was marred by a smoking gash. Boots stared at it, then thought to look at hir hand. The pistol was there, off safe. It's charge status meter indicated that it had been fired once. She flipped it to safe and thrust it back into the holster. Shi ended up having to guide the muzzle with hir other hand.
"Thor to Boots, come in. Boots, answer me! Don't tell me something's happened to you, too!"
Boots looked around for the source of the voice, then remembered hir comm badge. Feeling rather foolish she activated it. "Boots here," she responded in what shi fervently hoped was a normal sounding voice.
"Boots, I'm terribly sorry to wake you up like this, but I need help. R'marl is missing."
Boots clamped hir jaw shut at the very last possible instant to keep hirself from asking some sort of moronic question. "I'll be there in fifteen minutes." Shi switched off hir badge before Thor could respond, then took several deep breaths. Hir hearts were still racing fit to leap out of hir body and hir mouth was sour with the taste of fear and adrenaline but at least hir limbs felt stable enough to reliably support hir weight. Slowly, carefully, shi walked back to where shi had ascended and shimmied down. On the ground shi paused to take several more deep breaths, then jogged back to camp.
It was closer to twenty-five minutes later when Boots entered the hut Thor and Julius shared. All the lights were on, and it looked like everyone in the camp was up and milling about- except R'marl. N'trem and L'sal were huddled together, looking rather lost.
"When was the last time anyone saw him?" Boots asked.
"2320," N'trem replied. "He got up to- um-" he looked away. "Relieve himself." He looked up hopefully. "Wasn't he with you?"
"No, he wasn't with me!" Boots snapped. "I've been asleep since- since sunset. When- when did you notice that he was gone?"
"A bit more than an hour ago," Thor replied. "I needed to confer with him about some artifacts taken from the king's burial chamber. I stopped by his hut and found that he wasn't there. We've searched the camp and can't find him."
"Could he have wandered into the desert?" Julius wondered.
"Was he wearing his comm badge?" Boots wanted to know.
"Not unless he- um-" N'trem cleared his throat. "He wasn't wearing much of anything when he left us."
Boots tapped hir comm badge. "Computer. Autogun status."
The comm badge beeped. "Autoguns on line."
"Computer. Autogun firing status."
The comm badge beeped again. "Autoguns have not fired during the current activation cycle."
"Computer. Report autogun authentication log."
Beep. "The following authentications have been logged during the current activation cycle. Amundsen, Thor J. Clayton, Julius R. Pashket, Geni. Boots d/o Flasheart and Kyrie. That is all."
"Computer. Report current autogun activation duty cycle."
Beep. "Autoguns activated by light level trigger at 1926 hours, 10 July 2333."
"Computer, report the location of ID R'marl."
Beep. "Grid location 19.72 west, 16.55 east."
"That's inside his sleeping hut," Thor reported, glancing at his workstation screen.
"Okay." Boots looked around. "The autoguns were active when he left the hut. His comm badge didn't pass through the security field. And the autoguns haven't fired at anything. So, unless he swiped somebody else's badge...."
Pashket produced his. A moment later Thor and Julius produced theirs.
"Then he's still in camp," Boots replied. "Unless he flew away."
"But we've searched everywhere!" Julius insisted.
"No you haven't," Boots replied. "You've overlooked something. There's somewhere you haven't searched because it's too obvious or too obscure."
"Well, I don't think anybody's checked the roof of the mess hall-" Julius began.
"The security vault," Thor said.
Boots practically slapped hir comm badge. "Computer. Report security vault authentication log since 2300 hours, 10 July."
Beep. "2359 hours, 10 July. R'marl of Sinjusani. That is all."
"That was easy," Boots commented. "He's in the security vault."
"What in the world would he be doing in there?" Julius demanded, rather accusingly.
"How the heck should I know?" N'trem shot back.
Boots spun and marched away. Thor fell in beside hir, but for some reason everyone else held back. It wasn't until shi'd reached the security vault and was preparing to open it that shi realized shi'd drawn the pistol- and thumbed off the safety, because the holographic sight was active. Shi started to holster it.
"No, no," Thor protested. "Your instincts are quite correct, Ensign. If R'marl is in there playing solitaire we'll apologize for startling him, then tear a strip out of him for scaring the life out of us."
Boots nodded, but now shi was terrified. If Thor actually thought there might be a danger-
Thor touched the lock plate by reaching in from the side. Boots stepped back and leveled the pistol; the pipper wavered slightly but was otherwise steady on the center of the doorway. Hir training was extensive, but shi had never in hir life fired a weapon in anger.
As the door swished silently open the stink rolled out in a wave. Boots gritted hir teeth and swallowed back the bile rising in hir throat. The pistol's targeting pipper wavered and dropped, centering on the side of R'marl's torso. He was sprawled face down on the floor. In the unreal, electronically generated world of the pistol's sight picture the wetness soaking his legs, pelvis, and belly were just dark splotches. In Boots' nose, legacy of a world where coldly efficient killers stalked their prey by sound and smell across the darkened veldt, it was the mark of violent and primal death.
Boots dropped the pistol and turned away just in time to avoid spraying Thor in the back as the contents of hir stomach were noisily voided.
Personal log: 0740 hours, 11 July R'marl is dead.
R'marl is dead.
After staring at the screen for some number of minutes Boots closed the workstation and put it away. Shi'd thought that writing about it would help, but it just brought back the horror. Shi barged out into the morning light, not bothering to pick up hir comm badge or even to dress.
There was a security scanner on the inside and outside of the security vault door. Last night- early this morning, actually- Boots had sat with Thor in the security shack, watching a playback of the video. The image was of poor quality to save space in core memory, but R'marl was clearly recognizable as he walked up- in nothing but his fur, with the mother of all hard-ons, and a dagger clutched in his right hand. Even in the grainy image Boots recognized the weapon instantly. It had been on the rack set by Golden Eye's feet, and represented on the lid of her coffin. He touched the lock plate and the door opened. Boots switched to the inner scanner; shi saw R'marl walk slowly around the mummy. There was a strange expression on his face, one of- of-
Pure, naked lust. Boots recognized that because shi had seen it before, too. Three nights ago....
R'marl was constantly muttering, but never loud enough for the low-quality security recording to reproduce intelligible words. He knelt by the mummy's head- on the side away from the security sensor, fortunately- and stroked it lovingly. He leaned forward, murmuring. Boots could almost reconstruct the words; shi had heard him murmur them before. He licked the body, starting at the shoulder and working all the way up to the top of the head. Boots shuddered; she could almost feel the rough texture of his tongue as it ran over hir fur. He took the knife and began to cut away the wrappings, occasionally pausing to stroke his erect member. In spite of having been underground for two thousand years the blade cut like a freshly honed razor. In no more than forty minutes he had peeled away the wrappings from the head and chest; as the last layers came away a handful of fine, black hairs sprinkled down. Revealed was a skeleton with shrunken, dark brown skin that had the apparent texture of dried leather. It was recognizably the body of a female because of the shape of the shoulders and the fact that her breasts were still visible but devoid of mass, like deflated balloons stuck to her chest. He caressed them lovingly, sliding his hand up onto her throat and chin while whispering into a desiccated ear that had been folded flat against the top of her skull. He stroked her jaw and blackened teeth; the flesh had shrunk away from her muzzle, pulling her face into a perpetual snarl. He worked his fingernails between her teeth and prized the jaws apart; long-dead flesh crackled and flaked. He rose partially, placing his knees on either side of her shoulders. Supporting himself with one hand, he used the other to guide his manhood into her mouth. His pelvis began to pump rhythmically.
Boots had wanted to look away but couldn't. Shi could feel his member sliding over hir tongue, taste the rich, masculine flavor of him-
His pumping became more energetic. He was gasping and grunting, his face suffused by a look of pure ecstasy. He didn't notice when those sharp canines and jagged carnissals ripped the delicate flesh of his penis. He didn't notice as the blood filling his tumescent organ began to spill down those shrunken cheeks to stain the piles of discarded linen.
"I don't understand," Thor had muttered, shaking his head sadly. "His psych eval was perfect!"
Boots hurriedly left the room. Shi had barely made it to the door before shi began to retch uncontrollably.
Just remembering was enough to make hir stomachs churn. Breakfast was out; shi didn't want to be anywhere near food or the hushed speculation about R'marl's state of mind. Nor did shi care to walk near the store room where a hastily constructed box had been set in a far corner.
Glancing up, Boots realized that shi was standing outside R'marl's hut. Without knocking shi opened the door and entered. N'trem and L'sal were sitting on the floor. They looked up as Boots entered; their eyes were red and puffy. Boots walked over and sat down with them. No words were spoken. None were needed.
Personal log: 1926 hours, 12 July Today we had a brief service for R'marl. Thor led. Then we wrapped him in sprayseal and stuck him back in the shed with the other relics. Lucky him. He gets to go home on the next supply ship. Thor did try to send a message on the hyper-wave communicator, but couldn't get through. No big deal, he says, he'll try again in a few days. If he still can't after a week or two he'll use a message torpedo. This whole incident has really put a damper on things. All anyone can talk about is why R'marl went nuts. It seems the only people who don't want to hear about it are me, N'trem, and L'sal. We spend a lot of time in our hut- we built a new one; it was too depressing to stay in the one R'marl had lived in. Thor doesn't seem to participate in the discussions but he hasn't made any particular effort to stop them, at least not so far as I can see. There has even been talk about a Mummy's Curse. Thor says it's rubbish; it happens every time a tomb is opened. I asked Pashket about it; he told me he wasn't afraid of Daughter Night. I find it interesting that he didn't tell me not to give credit to old superstitions. Queen Golden Eye is back in her sprayseal and nestled comfortably with her hubby, Mighty Phallus. I suggested that maybe we should keep them in separate vaults; after all, he might be rather pissed when he finds out that his wife has been screwing around. Still, that's pretty good for a woman who's two thousand years old. Ha ha. Thor has told me that there are at least four more galleries in the tomb, and dozens- if not hundreds- more mummies. Not to mention stuff. Weapons, armor, chariots, clothes, jewelry, money... apparently the temple builders felt that you
Today we had a brief service for R'marl. Thor led. Then we wrapped him in sprayseal and stuck him back in the shed with the other relics. Lucky him. He gets to go home on the next supply ship. Thor did try to send a message on the hyper-wave communicator, but couldn't get through. No big deal, he says, he'll try again in a few days. If he still can't after a week or two he'll use a message torpedo.
This whole incident has really put a damper on things. All anyone can talk about is why R'marl went nuts. It seems the only people who don't want to hear about it are me, N'trem, and L'sal. We spend a lot of time in our hut- we built a new one; it was too depressing to stay in the one R'marl had lived in. Thor doesn't seem to participate in the discussions but he hasn't made any particular effort to stop them, at least not so far as I can see.
There has even been talk about a Mummy's Curse. Thor says it's rubbish; it happens every time a tomb is opened. I asked Pashket about it; he told me he wasn't afraid of Daughter Night. I find it interesting that he didn't tell me not to give credit to old superstitions.
Queen Golden Eye is back in her sprayseal and nestled comfortably with her hubby, Mighty Phallus. I suggested that maybe we should keep them in separate vaults; after all, he might be rather pissed when he finds out that his wife has been screwing around. Still, that's pretty good for a woman who's two thousand years old. Ha ha.
Thor has told me that there are at least four more galleries in the tomb, and dozens- if not hundreds- more mummies. Not to mention stuff. Weapons, armor, chariots, clothes, jewelry, money... apparently the temple builders felt that you
The big question on everyone's mind- make that the other big question- is what happened to Golden Eye's innards. We're pretty sure that none of the canned penises found in her burial chamber belonged to her. (Maybe they were meant to entertain her in the afterlife.) Anyway, the soft parts extracted from her during mummification were not with her or in any other rooms thus far explored. The boffins have no explanation for this. There is also no explanation for why she's not wearing her necklace. It has not been found, either.
By the way, Ranahran gave Mighty Phallus the once-over and says that his genitals are missing. But the rest of him isn't; his guts were carefully stored in funerary urns set right beside his sarcophagus. Maybe Golden Eye really needs all those dicks after all. Though without guts I'm not sure what she plans to do with them. And I have no idea what she plans to do with all the hearts.
Thor says that he's going to ask that the site be upgraded to a permanent base. I hope he succeeds. If he does, a higher ranking security officer will be appointed.
Personal log: 1257 hours, 13 July Tomorrow I will have spent exactly one week in this garden of earthly delights. To celebrate I took out a rifle and blasted the shit out of a bunch of rocks. On the way back in I swung by to take a look at Daughter Night. I swear, she's laughing at me. One of these days I'm gonna wipe that smarmy smirk off her face with a phaser. And frankly I don't give a rat damn about what Thor says about defacing relics. This morning he suggested that I might want to have a chat with Jenmotal, who doubles as camp counselor. I, in turn, suggested that he take his suggestion and ram it sideways up his big fat ass. Actually, I didn't. I said thanks, I'd do that. But I was thinking it, though. The other thing, that is. R'marl is still dead. There's no sign that the spirits or whatever have carried him away to the afterlife. What a gyp.
Tomorrow I will have spent exactly one week in this garden of earthly delights. To celebrate I took out a rifle and blasted the shit out of a bunch of rocks. On the way back in I swung by to take a look at Daughter Night. I swear, she's laughing at me. One of these days I'm gonna wipe that smarmy smirk off her face with a phaser. And frankly I don't give a rat damn about what Thor says about defacing relics. This morning he suggested that I might want to have a chat with Jenmotal, who doubles as camp counselor. I, in turn, suggested that he take his suggestion and ram it sideways up his big fat ass.
Actually, I didn't. I said thanks, I'd do that. But I was thinking it, though. The other thing, that is.
R'marl is still dead. There's no sign that the spirits or whatever have carried him away to the afterlife. What a gyp.
"Hello, Boots." Jenmotal was seated in a folding chair. "Sit down." She gestured to what looked like a mattress that had been laid out on the floor.
At least she didn't offer me a chair, Boots thought as she settled hirself.
"Tell me about R'marl," Jenmotal said.
"He was a prick!" Boots snapped. "All he wanted was to get into my pants! I mean- you know what I mean. You're-"
"I'm a what?" Jenmotal inquired gently.
Boots shifted uncomfortably. "A woman," shi muttered.
"Did the other cubs tease you?"
"Yes." Boots' eyes unfocused. "They'd whisper among themselves when they thought I wasn't listening. They called me-" hir voice caught- "dickless."
Jenmotal smiled warmly. "It's not your fault, Boots."
Boots began to quiver. "The last words I said to him- I was pissed off at him, giving him the cold shoulder, but I wanted him! And then- and then- I turn around and he's dead!" Shi began to cry.
"It's not your fault," Jenmotal insisted, gently but firmly, slipping out of her chair and kneeling so that she could put her arms around Boots' shoulders. "It's not your fault."
Boots cried and cried for a long time. When shi pulled away hir tears had matted the fur on Jenmotal's shoulder. Shi tried ineffectually to brush it away.
"It's all right." Jenmotal gently lifted Boots' hands away. "I would soak up an ocean of tears if it washed away your pain."
Boots sniffed and wiped hir face; Jenmotal handed hir a tissue. Boots blew her nose. "Jenmotal... I'm so sorry..."
"Boots." Jenmotal took Boot's face, gently but firmly. "Don't be sorry for hurting. And don't be sorry for letting it out. A wound has to drain before it can heal."
Boots sniffed, dabbing at hir face. "But... what can I do? How do you heal a wound that isn't real?"
"No, Boots. Your wound is very real. But it can't be fixed by a med-pack."
"Then how can it be fixed?"
"Write him a letter, Boots."
"Write him a letter. Say all the things you didn't say to his face. Come back when you've finished. You don't have to show me what you wrote, but I'd like to talk to you about what it was like to write it. Okay?"
Boots let out one last sniff. "Okay."
Personal log: 2316 hours, 13 July You know what? A strange thing happened to me today. I was wandering around camp, just after dinner time, and happened to run into N'trem. We stared at each other for a minute. Then, at exactly the same instant, we both realized that the other was carrying a letter. We stared at each other for a another minute. "We should give him the letters," N'trem said. I agreed. We went back to the hut; L'sal was there, still working on his. We talked. We shared what was in our letters. We cried a lot. We've all finished our letters. We're going to deliver them to R'marl now.
You know what? A strange thing happened to me today. I was wandering around camp, just after dinner time, and happened to run into N'trem. We stared at each other for a minute. Then, at exactly the same instant, we both realized that the other was carrying a letter. We stared at each other for a another minute.
"We should give him the letters," N'trem said. I agreed. We went back to the hut; L'sal was there, still working on his. We talked. We shared what was in our letters. We cried a lot.
We've all finished our letters. We're going to deliver them to R'marl now.
The lock on the storage shed was a formality. Boots could probably have kicked the door off without too great an expenditure of effort. Shi opened the lock and slid the door aside, then stepped in. N'trem came behind with a hand light; there was nothing in the shed worth wasting a glow strip on. Certainly not when every available glow strip and helmet light was needed down in the catacombs.
The box was in the corner, right where it had been left three days ago. Boots moved over and grabbed it-
"What's wrong?" N'trem asked.
Boots frowned. Shi had grabbed the top of the box in preparation to laying it on the floor. She shook it gently.
"What's wrong?" N'trem repeated, more urgently.
Boots glanced up. Shi tipped the box forward. The lid wasn't sealed; with the body wrapped in sprayseal there was no need. The lid fell off and clattered to the floor, followed by a fluttering cocoon of sprayseal.
R'marl was gone.
Boots kicked open the door to the lab. Thor, Julius, Jenmotal, Ranahran, and a dozen others were there. They all looked up in surprise as Boots stepped into the room with N'trem and L'sal right behind.
"R'marl is gone," Boots pronounced in a voice that was utterly devoid of emotion.
No one moved. No one spoke. That puzzled Boots until shi realized that shi was holding a pistol. It was aimed at the ceiling but everyone could see the shimmering light of the sight picture. Very deliberately Boots thumbed it back on safe and lowered hir arm.
"What happened?" Thor asked. His voice was calm but his body held an underlying tension, as if he were speaking to a king cobra that was flaring its hood only centimeters from his face.
"We went to see R'marl," Boots announced.
"To give him our letters," L'sal put in.
"When we opened his box, it was empty," Boots continued.
"Nothing left but the sprayseal," N'trem added.
"It wasn't cut," Boots went on. "It was just- empty."
"Are you suggesting one of us made off with him?" Thor inquired. There was not the slightest trace of sarcasm in his tone; he was asking a completely serious question.
"Um-" Boots shifted uneasily. When he put it that way it seemed rather silly, actually.
"We just want to know what happened to him," L'sal said.
"Have you checked the security logs?" Thor asked.
"Ah-" Now Boots really felt like an idiot.
"Then we will check them now," Thor replied. "Jenmotal, get everyone to the mess hall. Boots and I will fetch the security workstation." He moved around the work bench and headed toward the door, as calm and completely in control as ever. It occurred to Boots that there was a very good reason that this particular man had been selected to lead this expedition.
Ten minutes later everyone was gathered in the mess hall. The room was a-buzz as Boots entered carrying the workstation. Thor was right beside hir.
"Tell us if anyone went near the shed tonight," Thor said.
Everyone gathered around as Boots opened the workstation and set to. There were no video scanners in or near the shed; all Boots could do was track the movements of comm badges. During the hours of darkness seven people- including Boots, N'trem and L'sal- had entered the shed, but none of the others went near the box. Each person was interviewed; each had gone to the shed to take or return a piece of equipment; only one even admitted looking at the box. The log showed that none of them had gotten close enough to actually touch it.
"Let's go backward to when the box was originally placed," Thor directed.
Boots did so. By the time shi finished shi was no longer excited, just bored like everyone else. Very few people went into or even near the shed; no one had wanted to get close to R'marl unless absolutely necessary.
"Well, Boots?" Thor inquired.
Boots clenched and unclenched hir fists. The empty box and sprayseal had been brought and passed around. Now everyone was looking at hir. She wanted to do something, shi needed to do something, but-
Boots grabbed the workstation and slammed it shut. "You know, this place is really starting to chap my butt," she growled and stormed out. L'sal and N'trem followed. No one said a word.
"But what could have happened?" N'trem demanded.
"How the Hell should I know?" Boots demanded crossly, fluffing hir bedding for the fourth time. "Maybe he got sick of being dead and decided to take a walk."
"But without his comm badge, he couldn't have gotten past the autoguns," L'sal protested.
Boots fixed him with a hard gaze. He looked away.
Boots started fluffing hir bedding again, then kicked the whole lot into the corner. "I'm sick of that shit," she said. "You two, take off your clothes."
"Huh?" L'sal blinked.
"Look," Boots explained. "Right now I've gotta work off some excess energy. I can think of two ways to do that. One involves clawing peoples' eyes out."
"And the other," N'trem ventured, "Involves us taking off our clothes?"
"Got it in one."
N'trem and L'sal looked at each other. "Fine with us," N'trem declared, kicking off his shorts.
"We were feeling pretty much the same way," L'sal admitted.
"Good," Boots declared. "Because I have a lot of energy to work off."
Consciousness returned slowly, bit by bit. At some undefinable point Boots decided that shi was awake and opened hir eyes. Bright sunshine was leaking through the curtains.
All the bedding had ended up in a pile on the floor. Boots, N'trem, and L'sal had ended up in a pile on top of it. Boots shifted hir weight; shi had ended up closer to the bottom than the top.
If you didn't say you were a Chakat, no one would ever know the difference.
Boots had to reach across N'trem's chest to touch hirself between the hind legs. He stirred but didn't wake.
N'trem and L'sal don't think I'm half a person. Neither did R'marl, for that matter.
Boots had to blink repeatedly. Hir eyes had gone all watery. And speaking of water-
"Hey!" N'trem exclaimed as Boots struggled to hir feet and he was dumped on his side.
"I gotta take a leak and a shower, and I'm starving," Boots replied.
"Ah." L'sal gingerly rubbed his side. "I saw R'marl last night."
"You did?" Boots stiffened.
"Yeah. You just about fucked me to death."
Boots slapped him viciously with hir tail. He fell over giggling.
It was late in the morning and from the look of things most everyone had already had breakfast and headed off to the catacombs. Boots took a very long shower; water actually wasn't too serious a problem. The vapor still was running all the time, extracting what water there was even in this dry air. The recycling plant got every last drop that didn't evaporate as sweat. Several wells sunk nearby had proven sufficient to make up the loss. Even if for some reason things did get tight, all that had to be done was to take a skimmer down to the river. Food was actually a much more serious problem; it couldn't be easily recycled. So far, ration packs brought by supply ships and supplemented by whatever Pashket and his cronies could get had been sufficient. As Boots stepped into the mess hall shi was actually feeling rather good.
Seated at one of the tables, halfway through what a ration pack designer had euphemistically called Eggs Benedict, was Daughter Night. She looked up as the door opened; her eyes really were gold, but it was for the same reason Boots' were: because the whites weren't visible. Each eye had a very normal looking pupil. Her fur was black and shiny like velvet. She was easily as voluptuous as the statue had claimed, if not more so. She was dressed in a white muscle tee that didn't quite fit; it had clearly been designed for a man. Standing on the table next to her, picking bits from her breakfast, was a bird. It looked sort of like a hawk, but there was something wrong with its head-
"Hello, Boots," she said. Her voice was rather deep for a woman, but quite smooth. Sexy even, Boots would have said if hir mind had been capable of entertaining such thoughts. "Sit down. Have some breakfast." She spoke Standard without a trace of an accent.
"What happened to your necklace?" Boots heard herself asking. Her feet hadn't moved. Warm sunshine was falling on her back through the still open doorway, but just under the skin every part of Boots' body was as cold as glacial ice. I'm having another nightmare. Like the night on top of the temple-
"No you aren't," Daughter Night replied, taking a spoonful of egg, then feeding her bird a bit of muffin. "This isn't a dream. Both you and I are really here. Pekki Garanesset, king of the Lizard Riders, took my necklace and my organs. He threw them into the sea because he thought it would prevent me from coming back to life. Sit down, Boots." She patted the bench beside her. "You're making me tired standing there like that."
"After being dead for two thousand years I can't imagine you being tired," Boots said.
Daughter Night laughed. She bounced to her feet and twirled gracefully; her tail was fluffy and full- and for some reason Boots found that surprising. Of course she had a tail; she was a Tabaqui. It's just that none of the statues or other representations had showed a tail-
"Tails are hard to carve in stone," she replied.
"You can read my mind?" Boots asked.
"Of course. Didn't Pashket say that it was one of my powers?"
"What about the others?" Boots asked.
"You mean walking through walls, controlling people's minds, and all that? And my..." She licked her muzzle; her tongue was pink, slightly pointed, and very long. "appetites? All very true. More or less."
Boots felt hirself beginning to shake. Hir body felt hollow, an empty sack with nothing inside. Hir point of view seemed to be floating slightly above and beside it. "What did you do to R'marl?"
Daughter night grinned. Her teeth were sharp, white, and perfect. "I did what you asked, Boots."
"What... are you talking about?"
"You prayed to me to strike him down. So I did." She stroked the bird's head with her finger. Boots suddenly realized that it had the face of a cat.
If there had been anything inside Boots' body at this point she would have fallen to the floor, voiding it in uncontrollable spasms from every orifice. But there wasn't so shi didn't. Hir feet started to walk forward. Shi moved right up to the table and looked at the bird. It had R'marl's face. It looked at hir with the blank impassivity that birds usually have when they look at things.
Boots pulled a bench out sideways and settled onto it. At this point shi realized that shi was still eye to eye Daughter Night. "You've grown," shi said. The mummy, even allowing for shrinkage during the embalming process, couldn't have been more than one hundred and sixty centimeters tall. This Daughter Night was clearly much larger.
"R'marl had a big body," she replied. "By the time I'd shaped it to my needs, it ended up rather tall. But it's rather nice, don't you think?" She lifted her breasts and thrust them forward. They were huge, and the nipples poked through the fabric of the shirt. Much to hir disgust Boots found hirself being excited by them, so she looked at the bird. Then she reached out to touch it- but hir hand passed right through it, as if it were a hologram.
"He's not physical," Daughter Night explained, continuing on her breakfast. "He's, um-" she searched for a word. "That's his ba."
"That's sort of like a soul. It's the closest I could find in any of your languages. Actually, it's ancient Egyptian. Terran, that is. Rather a pity they aren't around anymore. I think I would have liked them."
"What do you want with me?" Boots asked.
"Isn't it obvious?" Daughter Night leaned forward, reaching out to stroke Boots' cheek. Her hand was warm and solid, everything living flesh should be. "You are the soul of my beloved Son Day, come back to me."
For the first time during this horrific encounter Boots felt on the verge of passing out. She fought it back. "You're insane," shi gasped.
"I'm insane?" Daughter Night snorted derisively. "I'm not the one talking to a three thousand year old undead." She smiled at Boots' reaction. "Oh, yes. I was queen of the Three Rivers for a long time." Her face clouded. "That is, until King Pekki came along and fucked everything up. I told him not to go, that it was all a setup. But no. Mister high-and-mighty warrior thinks he can fight his way out of every damn thing." She shook her head sadly.
"How did he manage to kill Son Day?" Boots asked.
Daughter Night snorted. "You think I'm going to tell you?"
N'trem and L'sal walked in. They nodded to Boots, fetched their breakfast from the food synthesizer, then took seats nearby. "'Smatter, Boots?" L'sal asked. "I thought you said you were hungry."
Boots stared at them, then at Daughter Night. "Why don't they see you?"
"Because I don't choose to let them. Would you like me to?"
"Um... not just yet, anyway. Look- ah, what should I call you, anyway?"
"Daughter Night is fine."
"Okay. Look. I don't think a relationship between us based on the fact that you think I'm the reincarnation of your dead husband- brother- whatever- is really going to work." L'sal and N'trem continued eating, oblivious to the exchange.
"You doubt?" Daughter Night got to her feet. "I saw you coming, Boots. For a thousand years I dreamed it. It was the only thing that kept me sane, that kept me from letting go and allowing my spark to float away into the eternal darkness. You even took a form that I couldn't help but recognize." She leaned across the table and took Boots' face in her hands, drawing it close.
Boots pulled away violently; the bench toppled over with a crash. Shi scrambled to hir feet, growling deep in hir throat.
"Boots, are you all right?" N'trem asked in a concerned tone.
"I just figured it out," Boots hissed. "You can't pass the autoguns."
"Oh, please." Daughter Night threw up her hands. "I got the activation codes from R'marl's mind. For that matter, I could get them from you. The reason I haven't left is because what I want is here. That is, you." She gestured to L'sal and N'trem. "Grab hir, would you?"
The two Caitians abandoned their breakfasts and got to their feet. Their expressions were set with determination. Boots backed slowly, glancing from one to the other. L'sal made a grab-
A vicious underhand punch to N'trem's diaphragm folded him like a cheap card table. At the same instant Boots swept L'sal's feet from under him with hir forepaw. Once they were down an elbow strike to L'sal's midsection took the fight out of him. Boots' marks in Command Procedures might have been marginal but hir scores unarmed combat had never been anything but superb.
Daughter Night was shaking hir head sadly. "You still doubt? Didn't you ever wonder where your affinity for combat came from? Your family? Hah. Accountants and secretaries. Middle managers at best. What a bunch of pussies." She grinned. "Pun intended. Or your strength? Your size? You tower over your mom and dad. You could break them in half without working up a sweat. The reason your folks sent you to that special school is because you started beating up the other kids for calling you dickless. Even that wouldn't have been a problem, but you were so good at it. People were getting hurt. Even your fur pattern. Representative of the fact that you are the very embodiment of deadly power." Her eyes narrowed. "What about your penis, Boots? Why do you think you were born without one?"
Boots leapt. Claws extended, teeth bared, yowling like the Furies. Daughter Night couldn't have evaded even if she'd bothered to try-
Boots and the next two tables went crashing into the wall in a great big heap. Daughter Night turned on her heel; she had crossed her arms under her chest and looked down in the same haughty pose Boots had seen on the catryid in the entrance hall. "The warrior spirit shines out of you like a beacon, Boots. How can you continue to deny it?"
"Because I will not be your patsy!" Boots shouted, shoving the tables and benches roughly out of the way. Several of the furnishings, though formed of hardened industrial plastics, had cracked or broken. "I don't care if you are a goddess!" Shi circled slowly, hir eyes and Daughter Night's locked together. "I figured you out. How King Pekki Garanesset defeated you. By getting Son Day out of the way he took away half your power. Because yours only work at night."
"You can't kill me," Daughter Night replied in a matter-of-fact tone.
"Oh, yeah? Come over here and let's find out."
"You still don't get it, Boots. Even when he had me in his power Pekki Garanesset couldn't kill me. He knew that even if my body died, I'd just move to a new one. The best he could do was trap me."
"Oh, yeah? If it's all so easy, how 'come you haven't twiddled your fingers and turned me into a frog or something?"
Daughter Night heaved an exasperated sigh. "That's not the point. Oh, Boots, if only you could see how you're acting like him right now-"
"I am going to find a way to destroy you," Boots growled. Hir eyes were narrowed, hir tail lashing. No one, hearing that terrible voice, could possibly doubt the certainty of its intent.
Daughter Night narrowed her own eyes, then began to grin. the effect, with her black face and bright eyes and teeth, was disconcertingly skull-like. "You're welcome to try, of course. You've got until sundown."
Boots bolted through the doorway. She slammed into the security shack at a dead run, then grabbed two rifles and a bundle of power cells. When shi emerged Daughter Night was leaning against the wall of the mess hall. Boots snapped the rifle to hir shoulder and thumbed off the safety in one smooth movement. Daughter Night's grinning face was centered in the sight picture, the pipper resting between her eyes-
For some reason the pipper kept wanting to drift to the left. Boots closed hir eyes and pulled the trigger. The weapon hissed venomously as tightly focused energy roared downrange. There was a scream.
Boots' eyes snapped open. Daughter Night was crouched on the ground, rubbing her arm. There was a deep, bloody gash on her left shoulder where the phaser's razor-like force fields had slashed through it. But the beam had not met enough resistance in the tag of flesh to fork outward as it was designed to do, ripping Daughter Night's torso apart in a spray of tattered meat and bone. That was on the lethal setting, of course. Boots fired again; the beam passed right through the center of Daughter Night's chest, exactly between those two enormous breasts, and cut a smoking furrow in the ground behind her.
"Now you're starting to piss me off, Boots." Daughter Night got to her feet. Then she was just- gone. Vanished as if she had never existed.
The R'marl bird was standing on the ground, watching. It spread its wings.
"Wait!" Boots leapt down the stairs. the bird took off, vanishing through the wall of the mess hall. Boots dashed to the door but it wasn't inside. She hurried around the corner-
And ran smack into Pashket and a dozen Tabaqui.
"Boots?" Pashket exclaimed. "What's-"
Something caused Boots to snap the rifle to hir shoulder. Only after the pipper was centered on Pashket's chest did shi realize that his hand was halfway into his robe.
Pashket was frozen like a statue. All the others were as well. They were watching Boots.
"You knew, Pashket," Boots said. "You fucking knew! You brought us here to dig her up!"
"Yes, I did," he replied. He was using the exact same tone Thor has used the previous evening. "You see, it's not true that there aren't any temple builders left. Where do you think I got that book, after all? We just had to wait for an opportunity to move when the lizard riders couldn't stop us. Your people provided us-"
Boots' right ear twitched. Suddenly shi was falling, twisting. When hir shoulder hit the ground shi fired, then was on hir feet before Pashket and his crew had taken more than a step. Behind hir a Tabaqui fell to the ground, thrashing and screaming, clutching his shoulder. His arm, still gripping the slender throwing dagger, was laying on the ground nearby.
"You morons!" Boots shouted. "If I really am the reincarnation of Son Day, the greatest warrior that ever was, then exactly how long do you think you clods are going to last?"
Pashket didn't move, didn't react in the slightest. But not all of his men shared his unshakable faith. They shifted uneasily. Pashket couldn't respond; he didn't dare take his eyes off Boots-
"Boots! What in the world is going on here?" Thor demanded.
Whatever it was, that force that had moved Boots' body with inhuman skill and speed, wavered. The old Boots, the insecure Ensign of security, reasserted itself. And it was scared to death. How the Hell am I going to explain this-
Pashket's hand was a blur of motion. The warrior spirit returned, but it was too late. All it could do was move hir torso slightly so that the blade sunk into Boot's right breast instead of the left. It missed hir heart by centimeters.
"Boots!" Thor screamed.
Pashket's men were keyed up to the very limit. One of them snapped. His hand flashed-
Thor blinked in surprise. He picked at the hilt protruding from his chest as if trying to convince himself that it was real. Blood burbled from his mouth and nose. His eyes turned glassy and his knees buckled.
Boots spun, finger mashing the trigger, firing the rifle on continuous beam. Pashket had started moving almost at the very instant his man had begun his throw, but even that was barely enough. As the phaser beam slashed through his men like the scythe of grim Death it clipped off the end of his tail. He vanished under the mess hall.
Boots gasped and staggered. Hir chest was on fire. The blade was working in the wound, inflicting more damage. Pulling it out would be worse; shi'd bleed to death in minutes. Thor had sprawled on his face and knees, not quite supine. Boots moved to him, checking his pulse at the neck. She felt one, then no more.
"You're wasting time, Boots." Daughter Night was sitting on the edge of the bath house roof.
"You are really starting to chap my butt." Boots rose to hir feet. The extra rifle had slipped off hir shoulder; shi gripped the first one in hir right hand like a pistol while catching the other in hir left. Shi squeezed the triggers while shi was still half turned. Daughter Night was gathered to jump but she was too slow; the paired beams slashed through the thin sheeting and the front supports holding up the bathhouse roof. The whole structure flopped forward like a falling trap door; Daughter Night was spilled on the ground. The beams, still on continuous fire, scissored toward her-
She was gone. Both her legs, sheared off just below the knees, were laying on the ground.
"I'm getting closer!" Boots screamed. Pain in her chest made hir gasp and stagger. The whole front of hir body was matted with blood.
"It doesn't matter." Daughter Night was standing right in front of Boots, her hand on the dagger. She jerked it out in a sharp, smooth motion. "You won't live long enough to exploit it."
Boots gagged as fresh blood began to pour from the hole in hir chest. Shi tried to swing the rifles but hir arms felt rubbery, and in any case Daughter Night was too close. She punched viciously, right then left, knocking the weapons out of Boots' hands. She was a lot stronger than her soft, curvy exterior would suggest. Boots launched a jab at Daughter Night's midsection; hir fist passed through with no resistance at all, but hir arm suddenly felt as if shi'd plunged it into a bucket of ice water. Daughter Night was just standing there, making no effort to grab the rifles, so Boots reached for one-
Geni launched himself from under the mess hall, catching Boots in the side and bowling hir over. He had a long knife out and was preparing to shove it between the ribs of Boots' lower body. A fast jab to the chin rocked his head back and stunned him long enough for Boots to grab his knife hand and slash him across the abdomen with hir forepaws. Hir claws ripped the front of his robe and tore bloody gashes in his flesh. Rather that get up Boots jerked him forward, hir jaws snapping shut on his throat while shi rolled on top of him, using hir greater mass to pin him down while hir teeth crushed his windpipe. When he stopped struggling Boots got to hir feet.
"See?" Daughter Night said. "Face it, Boots. You like the taste of hot blood."
Boots reflexively licked hir muzzle. Only part of the blood shi tasted was Geni's. "I will find a way to kill you," shi growled.
"Better hurry, then. You don't have much time left." Daughter Night raised her hand. "Once you die, well... see for yourself."
Boots yelped and jumped back as Geni quivered. He struggled to his feet, staring at Boots with glazed, bloodless eyes. His head flopped to one side because his ruined neck wouldn't hold it upright. His mouth moved; he was trying to speak but his breath only frothed and burbled in the blood pouring from his shattered larynx. Behind Daughter Night Thor twitched, sat up, then plucked the knife from his chest. His skin was gray and his wound did not bleed. From around the corner came the rest of the Tabaqui men, crawling because in most cases their torsos had been severed from their pelvises, trailing slimy pink coils of intestine.
"This isn't a cheap horror movie, Boots," Daughter Night continued. "My powers work fine during the day. The reason I'm called Daughter Night is because of the association of death with darkness. But you are right about one thing. My power over you does begin at sunset. Which, for you, is going to be very soon."
Boots grabbed Geni and threw him right through Daughter Night, then doubled over and vomited up a distressing amount of blood. Hir vision was starting to blur and the ground seemed to be rolling. Shi turned and shambled toward the security shack.
"Boots, please stop," Thor called. His voice was distorted by the fact that bloody froth burbled from his mouth as he spoke
Daughter Night watched quizzically as Boots grabbed another rifle and loaded it. "Boots, you aren't going to try some sort of grand, futile gesture, are you?" Her calves were golden furred and the wrong shape; as she started forward they re-formed to match the rest of her.
"Why not?" Boots set the rifle on stun and fired at Thor. He paused a moment but otherwise didn't seem to be affected. "What have I got to loose?" Shi switched the weapon to full power and shot his legs off. He fell to the ground and continued forward, dragging himself with his hands.
"I can help you, Boots," Daughter Night said. "On top of everything else I can heal, too."
"I'd rather... die honestly than... live is your patsy," Boots growled. Geni was nowhere in sight. Shi lurched to her feet, sidestepped, and fired straight down through the floor of the shack. Plastic bubbled and smoked; from somewhere below came a sickly squelching sound.
"I can give you what you've always wanted," Daughter Night said.
"No, you can't." Boots activated the tactical shield generator and disabled the emergency shutdown protocols. "You... have no idea what I want."
"Don't I? You've spent your whole life wishing you had a penis, Boots. I can give you one."
Boots licked hir lips, which were as dry as old paper. "Look... why do you need me? Can't you just... take over the world or whatever on your own? Besides... Pekki Garanesset and everyone else... have been dead thousands of years! Why does it matter?"
Daughter Night looked down and to the side, scratching the side of her head. "That's a very good question, actually," she allowed, speaking so quietly Boots could barely hear. "The people who wronged me are dead and dust, beyond even my reach. Just like the kingdom I once ruled. The only people who even know my name are Geni and his tribe, and they're the only ones left." She looked up again. "So why does it matter? Let me ask you this, Boots. Your lover, Tuftear. If shi were taken from you, what would you do to get hir back? How long would you wait? On your first night here, Boots, you asked me if I could imagine what it was like to be half a person, to wonder if the one who gives your life meaning is ever going to come back. Well, Boots, I know. Believe me, I do."
Boots shuddered. If two thousand years of sorrow and loneliness could fit into a few words....
"Now you're here." Suddenly Daughter Night was right in the door of the shack, her hands on the frame. "You've come back to me." Her voice quavered; tears were running down her cheeks.
"But-" The rifle's pipper was centered between Daughter Night's breasts, but it wavered as Boots' hands shook. "I... I'm not him! I can't be!"
"Then why did you come here?"
"I didn't!" Boots shrieked. "It was all- an accident!"
"Was it?" Daughter Night leaned forward, her eyes gleaming like the vent holes in a furnace. "Why did you quit business school, where you were doing well, and join Starfleet, where you didn't? Why did you work so hard to get into Command if you didn't care for it? You did well enough that your instructors sent you to Security instead of washing you out completely- and they had enough faith in you that they posted you to the Asimov. But not so much that Captain Walker considered you indispensable when Thor suddenly needed a new security officer. Everything you've ever done in your life has led to this moment." Her eyes narrowed to fiery slits. "You even left Tuftear, the love of your life. You knew you weren't going to make it into Command, but you stuck it out anyway. If you'd quit the program and gotten married you'd be with hir on Voxxa right now, pregnant with your first cub. Instead... you're here. With me." She caressed Boots' cheek and chin.
"You... you... murdered Ensign Wilkes," Boots gasped. "Just like... R'marl... and Thor... and everyone else... who got in your way!"
"No, Boots. They gave themselves to me. Jim Wilkes wanted to live forever. Thor wanted sole credit for unlocking the secrets of this temple. And R'marl... well, he wanted sex. I gave them each what they wanted, too. I divorced Jim's ba from his all to ephemeral flesh. I showed Thor where to find the best discoveries, and occasionally helped him eliminate troublesome rivals. I serviced R'marl with all of my not inconsiderable skill. In each case I preserved their ba, the sum of all they are, intact. To bring them back to life all I have to do is insert them into new bodies. No need even to worry about taking over an already occupied one. I could use a body that's in a coma or brain dead, whose spirit has already fled. In fact, you and Tuftear could make them the old fashioned way." She patted her belly. "If they don't like being Chakats I could shape them into something else. But I can't do it without you, Boots."
Daughter Night was on her knees in the doorway. Her sternum was pressed against the rifle's discharge port, the flesh of her chest dimpled slightly from the contact. Boots' vision had darkened around the edges until all shi could see was a disk of light framing Daughter Night's head and chest. The rifle felt like it weighed a ton; if Daughter Night hadn't been leaning against it, jamming the stock against Boots' shoulder, shi would have dropped it. The pain in her chest had gone away because it, like hir extremities, had gone numb. Hir head sagged forward- and shi saw, between Daughter Night's legs, out into the yard. Dozens of birds had collected there, birds with very un-birdlike faces. Thor, Pashket, Pashket's men... and may more. They stood, silently and impassively, watching.
Except R'marl. His eyes were fixed on Boots'. He didn't seem to be merely waiting for the outcome; Boots felt that he was trying to convey some vitally important message-
With a sob Boots clamped the rifle's trigger and held it even after the weapon shut down from thermal overload. Daughter Night sagged forward, impaling herself on the rifle as it slipped into the hole it had ripped through her torso. The weight of her body dragged the weapon out of Boots' hands and shi slumped beside it.
"R'marl wouldn't... sell his soul... for sex," Boots gulped between weak sobs. "You tricked him. You made him think... you were me."
The birds were gone. The bodies of Thor and the Tabaqui men were motionless on the ground, merely dead. I'm so sorry, Tuftear. I should have married you when I had the chance. Boots closed hir eyes and waited for darkness to take hir.
Don't be in such a hurry to die. It's no fun. Believe me, I know.
"No!" Boots clutched at hir chest. The knife wound was gone as if it had never existed.
I told you that destroying me wasn't going to be that easy.
The tactical shield generator was mushroom-shaped object about the size of an end table. Boots grabbed up the rifle and leveled it at the place where the stalk met the cap, which was where the power conduits connecting the fusion generator to the shield emitters were located. Boots' hands shook as if palsiated, and hir finger simply would not tighten on the trigger.
Come on, Boots. You know I can't let you do that.
"R'marl... help me," Boots gasped. Hir own muscles were fighting hir; it took all hir strength to keep the rifle aimed. "Please! It's... our only chance! She can't... jump to a new body... if there aren't any around!"
Boots, for two thousand years your soul has been adrift. You've wandered from life to life, always looking for something you couldn't seem to find, always a square peg in a round world- and always without a penis. Even in death you felt the loss of what Pekki Garanesset had taken from you... and you knew that only by my touch would you again be made whole. If you die now you'll just be casting yourself adrift once more. How many more centuries will have to pass before we find each other again?
Boots groaned. Hir flesh burned; she could feel it softening and reforming like hot wax. A new sensation exploded in hir mind, something even more alien than Daughter Night's presence. Shi was growing a penis. "R'marl!" shi screamed as the rifle wavered even more. "I can't hold out any longer!"
The bird with R'marl's face hopped across Daughter Night's fallen corpse and stood beside Boots, looking up at hir. Then it looked at the shield generator, hopped onto Boots' forearm, and stepped into the rifle.
Boots slumped in a twitching heap. The rifle remained floating in midair, firing on continuous beam. Its plastic parts began to discolor and smoke as the receiver got hotter and hotter until it was glowing cherry red. Then the power conduits failed, dumping the generator's output across a dead short. With the emergency protocols disabled it continued to operate until it went super-critical. Everything within a half kilometer radius was annihilated in an orgy of nuclear destruction.
Chief medical officer's log, F.S.S. Arthur C. Clarke: 0926 hours, 9 October 2333 Yesterday we arrived in orbit around Nelhut Three, an obscure planet at the very edge of the Caitian Expansion Zone. All communication with the research facility at New Karnak had ceased; our orders were to find out why. Solving the mystery proved exceedingly simple; where our records said the camp should be was nothing but a glass bottomed crater. Apparently a portable shield generator had overloaded and gone super-critical. All last night we searched for survivors. This morning we had a stroke of luck. Ensign Boots, the camp's security officer, was found wandering in the desert. Rescue efforts continue but I do not hold out any great hope; when Boots came to me shi was delirious and nearly dead from dehydration and exposure. Hir survival is nothing short of miraculous; any person of lesser constitution would surely had succumbed. I will have to submit a correction to Starfleet Bureau of Personnel. Ensign Boots' medical records incorrectly state that shi does not have a penis....
Yesterday we arrived in orbit around Nelhut Three, an obscure planet at the very edge of the Caitian Expansion Zone. All communication with the research facility at New Karnak had ceased; our orders were to find out why. Solving the mystery proved exceedingly simple; where our records said the camp should be was nothing but a glass bottomed crater. Apparently a portable shield generator had overloaded and gone super-critical.
All last night we searched for survivors. This morning we had a stroke of luck. Ensign Boots, the camp's security officer, was found wandering in the desert. Rescue efforts continue but I do not hold out any great hope; when Boots came to me shi was delirious and nearly dead from dehydration and exposure. Hir survival is nothing short of miraculous; any person of lesser constitution would surely had succumbed.
I will have to submit a correction to Starfleet Bureau of Personnel. Ensign Boots' medical records incorrectly state that shi does not have a penis....
Characters & Story ©1999 John R. Plunkett. Chakona & Chakats ©1999 Bernard Doove.
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