Molt Brother Wildside Press 2003, Playboy, l982  Berkley, 1985 paperback 

For other editions, see Bibliography.

Front pages from BERKLEY edition

COULD ARSHEL'S PSYCHIC ABILITY
LEAD HER TO THE 
CITY
OF A MILLION LEGENDS?

She sat down between two pillars, a string of beads in her hands. She imagined that the last monolith was in place and the whole crystal circle was ablaze with light. Time rushed past her, back to when the world and the galaxy were new.

Then tall crystals arrowed out of the sky like missiles. Their pointed ends buried themselves deep in the ground, precisely on target, forming the crystal circle where she sat.

How long ago? The beads answered by swinging slowly in a circle, once, twice, three times; the right ones swung five times before coming to rest.

Three hundred and fifty million years. No, impossible. A star could be born and die in that time. The old priest had said. "Your future--if you are brave enough--lies with the stars." How could he possibly mean the stars that no longer existed . . . ?

-----------------------------------------------------------------

"A whole new approach, fresh and genuinely emotional to interaction between human and alien."

--Marion Zimmer Bradley

"New and very intriguing."

--C. J. Cherryh

 

 

JACQUELINE LICHTENBERG

MOLT

BROTHER

(Berkley "B" symbol)

BERKLEY BOOKS, NEW YORK

 

 

To Bradford Butler, Sr.

To Cecil Brice

May they Rest in Peace

and to Beth Hallam

for showing me Stonehenge,

getting me there at just the moment

when I could meet MZB

between the circle and the heelstone.

 

MOLT BROTHER

A Berkley Book / published by arrangement with the author

PRINTING HISTORY

PBJ Books edition / April 1982

Berkley edition / January 1985
All rights reserved.

Copyright 1982 by Jacqueline Lichtenberg

Cover illustration by David Mattingly 1982 by PBJ Books, Inc., formerly PEI Books, Inc.

This book may not be reproduced in whole or in part,

by mimeograph or any other means, without permission.

For information address: The Berkley Publishing Group,

200 Madison Avenue, New York New York 10016.
ISBN: 0-425-07452-8

A BERKLEY BOOK TM 757,375

Berkley Books are published by The Berkley Publishing Group,

200 Madison Avenue New York, New York 10016.

The name "BERKLEY" and the stylized "B" with design

are trademarks belonging to Berkley Publishing Corporation.

PRINTED IN THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA

Chapter One

 

"But, Arshel, committing yourself to a human? They don't even molt!"

A great whistling roar shook the house as the noon space shuttle set down at the new spaceport the humans had built at the far end of the island. Arshel was grateful that conversation was impossible for several minutes. She had expected her parents to be hostile to her choice of a life companion but had not expected this total incomprehension. After all, it wasn't as if she were planning to mate with a human.

Abrupt silence made the faint lapping of the waves of the hatching pond loud. Outside, the boom of the sea formed a constant background. How am I going to tell them the worst of it?

Trying to make her voice calm, Arshel said, "Others have taken bhirhir among the humans. It's done all the time on the mainland, in the mountains. . . . I mean no disrespect, Surmother, but I am of an age to make my choice, and I've done so."

As Arshel moved, the sun glanced off her skin, displaying the mature fineness of her scales and their new silvery coloring. Her breasts were budding at last, filling out the light yellow shirt she wore. Anyone could see that she'd experience her first adult molt soon.

Her surmother moved nervously into the shadows, as if unwilling to look at Arshel's new maturity. "So, you've taken a human molt sister. Arshel, I don't even know if the molt sister's oath is valid with a human. What if she turns on you--on us? To bring a human into our family--you have no idea what it's like to be adult and helpless in molt. How can you give a human such power over you? Just look what they've done to our island, our world!"

Another, clearer voice called from the archway of the family room, "What's all this?" Arshel's mother came into the room, going directly to the other woman and adding, "Don't agitate yourself so, my bhirhir. You'll raise venom for nothing."

For the first time, Arshel saw the strong resemblance between herself and her mother. She's beautiful. Maybe I'll be, too.

Her mother looked up from trying to comfort her molt sister. "What have you said to upset your surmother like this? Was it something you picked up from the humans at that hole in the ground?"

Ashel's part-time job at the Cross-Species Archeological Society's dig had been a sore point in the family for almost a year. She took a deep breath, determined not to stir that up again. "I said I'd taken bhirhir among the humans."

"Bhirhir, you--" Her mother choked off the words, too shocked to do more than hold her molt sister tightly.

"I did not say," Arshel added, "that my bhirhir is female. I've taken a molt brother."

Her surmother stared at her in renewed shock. Her mother's mouth fell open, and her venom fangs unfolded from their sockets.

Arshel backed away until the water of the hatching pond lapped her sandals. After an initial surge of alarm at the sight of her mother's fangs, she felt strangely light-headed.

"Kill this human," said her surmother, "and come back to us. We'll find you a male, if that is what you really want."

They'd really go that far? She felt confused. The fresh-water spawn, people of the mainland, often took bhirhir from the opposite sex, but it was a practice shunned on the islands. They love me in spite of everything. Her venom glands ached. "I can't kill him. We've already sworn bhirhir."

"He's immune to your venom?" her mother asked.

"Yes," she lied, surprised at how easy it was. She had never yet raised true-venom, only the watery prevenom. But she had inoculated him with it often. "Yes, of course he's immune, or how could we have sworn bhirhir?"

"Then he is immune to the whole family," said her surmother. "Why didn't you bring him here to speak for himself?"

"I only thought it would be kinder to warn you!"

"Then you knew how we'd feel!" said her mother.

"How you feel isn't important. He's my molt brother! It's how I feel that's important." Panting, she was gripped by the most peculiar sensations. "Dennis has been my only friend for all this year, my only real friend ever. He's never made fun of me because I look too young. He's fought for me--and I for him. And the venom doesn't come when he's with me. He's the only one who does that for me. Isn't that what bhirhir is?"

She looked from mother to surmother as they stood together facing her. Although the atmosphere was charged, neither of them had raised venom, while her own venom sack was straining at the neck of her blouse. With a savage jerk, she pulled open the top button, tearing the fabric.

In unison, they backed away two more steps, acknowledging her volatile condition.

"You don't realize," said her mother, "the power you're granting this offworlder over you."

"Dennis is not an offworlder!" Nobody seemed to notice the trouble she was having pronouncing Dennis's name. The "s" sound was as difficult and alien to them as it was to Arshel. In sudden relief, she thought, Is that all they're worried about? "He is from the colony. His grandparents were on the first ship, and both his parents were born here. He's not an offworlder--he's only human."

Her mother looked slightly relieved, but her surmother said, "It makes no difference. I will not have this within my family."

"It's too late," Arshel insisted. "It's done." This lie was the hardest thing she'd ever said, but the saying of it made it true.

Her mother made a small gesture of resignation, and hope surged through Arshel. But then her mother stepped to the edge of the hatching pond and dipped the toe of her sandal into the warm water. Her venom sack quivered with the power of her emotions as she looked into the water from which Arshel had emerged. Then, softly chanting the hundred repetitions of Arshel's name in mourning, she turned and left the room, her back straight and her head held high.

Her molt sister looked after her until the sound of her voice had faded among the pressed-sand archways and vaulted chambers of the family home. Then she turned to Arshel.

"You have struck out for your adulthood, Arshel, and must now be counted as an adult, but not of Holtethor. If you can choose and be chosen, then be also welcome at the home of your molt brother, for he is not welcome here now or ever. Nor are you welcome. We mourn your loss in Holtethor, but death has taken our children before. We will go on."

Moving to the edge of the gently lapping water, she touched it with a toe. Chanting, she too turned and without another glance went to join her molt sister in mourning the loss of a child.

Arshel was left alone in the silent house, with the noon sun barely glancing in the window through which the pressed-sand domes of the city could be seen glittering hotly. In all that city, there was only one place for her, and that was among the drylanders.

She went to her knees in the shallow water of the hatching pond where she had struggled for and won the right to life. Never to be allowed to touch these waters again, never to see her spawn churn their way to life from the waters that had served her mother and mother's mother for more than ten generations. . . . Her venom sack stretched painfully as emotion raged uncontrolled through her. She had never been happy in this house. They had never understood her. Why should leaving hurt so much?

As she made her way across the island, back to the dig for the afternoon's work, it was as if she were seeing the city for the first time: the domes, the lofty spires, the sweeping arches blending together like the waves of a stormy ocean frozen in midrage and suspended forever, forbidden to strike. And the people, dressed in their floating veils, drifting from place to place among their buildings, seemed suddenly alien.

Closer to the dig, buildings gave way to open hillside crisscrossed with footpaths. She encountered other young people dressed as she, in shorts and shirt of the human style, moving in pairs back to work on the excavation. They were coming in to check the bulletin board for the afternoon shift assignments. Then they'd march out into the pit, toolboxes in hand, to begin the delicate work of dusting away layers of sand and soil, charting, recording, and mapping.

They were uncovering an ancient city, perhaps built by long-dead aliens from another galaxy. Here, on Vrashin Island, they might find the key to translating documents pertaining to the City of a Million Legends.

Known by many names on every planet of the Hundred Planets, it was called by Dennis "Shangri-la," "Atlantis," or "Camelot." It was the long-ago place where people had once achieved perfection. There, people knew how to avoid war, social crime, and poverty. But the City of a Million Legends, Arshel felt, had been a real place during the First Lifewave occupation of the galaxy. If only half the legends were true and they could bring all that alive again today--oh, how good life would be.

Standing in the shade of the open shed, she squinted against the glare to watch Dorsan, the human who was the dig's official computer Interface, sitting cross-legged on a huge stone cube they had uncovered a few days before. He was sorting through a large tray of minute items, turning each in his hands to examine it and then staring off into space with that glassy-eyed, frozen stare that meant he was using the circuitry implanted in his brain to enter data into the computer or to correlate data. She always found it disconcerting when he did that, and today she found it frightening when his wooden stare chanced to light on her.

She looked around anxiously for Dennis, knowing that he'd be reporting for shift now. When they'd parted, he had said that there'd be no trouble telling his parents about the bhirhir. At home on the mainland, he had said, lots of his friends had taken bhirhir. But what if his family too, rejected them? Where would they go? She felt her venom sack tighten until the skin of her throat felt as if it would split.

To distract herself, she picked up a toolbox and looked around for a spot nobody was working. There was a wall at one edge of the pit that would have to be dismantled, but the stones had to be peeled away microlayer by microlayer.

Arshel took down a medium-weight molecular sifter, caressing the worn handle familiarly. What they were looking for was behind that wall. She had convinced Dennis of it, but he had not been able to convince his parents, who ran the dig. Yet it could do no harm for her to begin the long task today. She was good for little else at the moment.

She looked around again for Dennis, but he was still nowhere in sight. He had to help her express her venom before the tightness drove her to strike someone. She couldn't ask her surmother to do it for her anymore.

She climbed to the top of a huge, rectangular block that made a nice working platform near the top of the wall and then sat down on the rock, folding her legs under her. She began to peel the wall away, recording after each pass of the sifter and watching carefully for any sign of an emerging artifact. At intervals, she took specimens of the rock and put them in the recorder for analysis. She dug out a large chip to save for display and had the recorder label it.

The work was boring and repetitive but soothing. Arshel let her mind drift out of focus, dreaming of what it would be like to make a big find and have everyone come running over to congratulate her. Would they like her any better then, she wondered? Probably not, but it would be fun, anyway.

"Arshel?" called a deep human voice.

Startled, she dropped the molecular sifter as a spasm gripped her throat; her jaw dropped as her fangs swung out.

At the edge of her vision, his bare arm moved, and she struck. Her fangs sank deep into the human flesh, venom pumping through them in quick, satisfying spurts. He snatched his arm away, clutching at the elbow to cut off the flow of blood. Thick yellow venom dripped from her fangs.

"Arshel. you've raised true-venom!"

Pride and delight lit Dennis's eyes as his own blood mingled with her venom in the dust. But she couldn't control the voiding spasms. Weak, she sank to her knees, terrified that she had killed her bhirhir.

Shaking, his hand sought her venom sack to express her as a bhirhir should, just as they'd practiced when she raised prevenom.

At last her sack was empty. He hadn't spared a drop of her first venom from which to make a serum. Stunned, she watched her molt brother scuffing at the dusty rock to wipe out all sign of the venom stain there so that her first venom would be joined forever to the earth itself. In the distance, she heard the warble of the humans' emergency hopper. But all she could think was that her molt brother was giving his life for a custom that held no meaning for him. This was the man her surmother had urged her to kill--and she had killed him.

Panting, he noticed the still-operating sifter and scrambled to turn it off, knocking the recorder over but ignoring it. It was pointed at the hole the sifter had made.

The sifter fell from his grasp, and as his knees buckled he laughed. "Look at that! My father will think you're a better Lakely than I am!"

As his eyes closed, her paralysis broke, and she caught him and eased him to the ground. Without looking, she rummaged in her toolbox and picked the first signal gun that came to hand, firing it into the air.

A great puff of white smoke blossomed over her head--the find signal. All work stopped in the pit as everyone converged on her. But the hopper arrived first, its ground effect dissipating the smoke as it touched down beside them. Two humans and a kren jumped out of the ambulance, going right to Dennis's side. Another human appeared and then climbed over the rim of the building block they were on: Dorsan, the Interface. Of course, she thought. He'd seen and called the ambulance via computer hookup.

Arshel spared him only a glance, anxiously watching the doctors work over Dennis as if there were still a chance that he might live. They snapped a portable respirator around his chest and injected a general antivenom into his heart. In moments they'd rigged a blood exchanger and strapped him onto a stretcher.

Meanwhile, the Interface was examining the venom stain on the rock. He picked up the recorder she'd dropped and pointed it at the hole in the rock with an absent look that meant that he was in touch with the computer that the recorder was feeding.

As they were lifting Dennis into the ambulance, the kren doctor stopped to say, "I saw what you let him do to you as we approached."

His tone was so carefully neutral, she knew that he was revolted. She forced herself to meet his gaze straight on. "We had sworn bhirhir. It was my first venom. I couldn't help it."

He glanced at the hopper where they were securing the stretcher. "Come, ride with us. If he survives the afternoon, it will be only because of a specific made from your venom or that of your family."

My family wouldn't help him.

Below, people were gathering about the block. Nobody wanted to crowd the Interface while he was working. But now Dennis's mother climbed over the rim.

As the dust-covered woman was taking in the sight of her son in the ambulance, the Interface said, "This is it, Madlain. It's a metal box, densely packed with leaves of something organic. Must be books. They'll have to be recorded without opening the box, though. It's older than our scales can estimate."

Those gathered below heard most of what he said, and a loud shouting went up from the humans: a cheer. It hurt Arshel's hearing as she climbed into the hopper beside the doctors.

Madlain gestured the Interface to silence and forced her way into the hopper, saying, "I'll he back to attend to it later. Meanwhile, Dorsan, let my husband know."

Heavily laden, the hopper barely cleared the far rim of the pit, landing with a bounce beside the humans' health station. Quickly, Dennis was taken to the venom treatment unit. It rarely happened that a human was attacked by a kren, but the humans feared it so greatly that they drilled their medical teams in antivenom routine.

As she waited in the sparely appointed alcove for news, Arshel was grateful for the humans' phobia. Soon, Madlain Lakely joined her, taking a chair across the tiny room from her. For a while, Arshel kept her head down, eyes lowered to her lap in the human signal that she did not wish to intrude or be intruded upon.

But finally, Madlain asked, "You're Arshel Holtethor of whom Dennis was telling me this morning?"

She spoke the Vrashin Island dialect with a mainland accent. Arshel summoned her courage to raise her head and meet the woman's eyes. There was the intelligence there that she had always respected, but she sensed no acceptance.

The human pinched up her face. "I don't blame you for the strike, Arshel. It happens in bhirhir."

The grief and tear clutched at Arshel and made her breath tremble in her throat. But no venom answered her emotions.

The human's eyes traveled to the closed door at the far end of the hallway. It was a hard, square hallway with sharp, square doors and dim yellow lighting. "Arshel, do you want to tell me how it happened? Was it before or after Dennis set off the find signal? Did the signal startle you?"

That stung. "I may be an islander, Ms. Lakely, but I'm not a primitive."

"I'm sorry, I didn't mean to imply anything like that. I just want to know what happened to my son. Arshel, he's my only child. And I haven't mourned him. I--my husband and I don't yet know how to welcome you. But we won't cast you both out."

Something melted inside Arshel. "I'm sorry. I'm being hostile. I can't speak now. I feel too threatened, too afraid." She had learned that she had to say things like that in words to make humans understand, had to treat them as if their wits were impaired. "I mean no discourtesy."

"It seems when kren is involved with human, most of the conversation consists either of apologies or attacks," said Madlain with a faint smile. "Dennis has been telling me for weeks that he wanted to have a go at that wall. His intuition has made the find even our expensive Interface couldn't. Now he's lying in there at the edge of death, and you and I can't even talk about it without hurting each other."

At last the human fell silent, and Arshel wrapped herself in the tension of her emotions. Years later she would look back on Madlain Lakely's words and realize that this was the moment when she had surrendered to fate. But at the time, all she knew was her personal agony: Have I committed myself to bhirhir so deeply that I can't survive without him?

Her thoughts were cut off by the hunger cramps that inevitably followed such a full voiding as Dennis had given her. She was doubled over and gasping by the time the door to Dennis's room opened and the two kren from the ambulance came out.

The doctor came to her, saying, "We're ready for you now. Afterward, there will be a feeding."

Now, she thought, knowing that she had to raise venom and self-express it to save Dennis's life.

As they helped her to her feet, one on each side of her, the doctor added, "We could send an ambulance for your surmother--"

"No!" she said, gritting her teeth. "I'm old enough to do this myself."

Madlain rose. "We're not yet immune to her, but maybe I can help."

The kren doctor said, "It would be too dangerous for you."

"Just allow me a moment," Madlain pleaded, approaching Arshel cautiously. "Arshel, whether Dennis lives or dies, you're a Lakely now, and you always will be. You won't go nameless to your grave no matter what happens now."

They took her away then, stumbling because of the searing hunger cramps. When she was alone, she thought of Madlain Lakely standing in the square corridor, her brown hands smoothing back the white hair thinly plastered over her skull, and she knew what the human must be feeling.

She's given me the name to keep. I will live up to it. On that wave of emotion, venom came easily, but she had to force her hand to her own venom sack. Three times she failed. But on the fourth try, at the first touch of her own fingers on the sensitive skin, the voiding reflex was triggered, sending the thick yellow fluid through her fangs in painful spurts, setting every gland to a dry aching such as she'd never known before. In the end, she was almost unable to stop it long enough to devour the large, tender chunks of meat they had provided for her hunger.

Arshel moved into the Lakely home the day they released Dennis from the hospital. The family had rented a lovely kren dwelling on a hilltop overlooking the ocean instead of building a human-style house. She and Dennis took over the half of the house normally used by indwelling mates, and so they had their own sleeping rooms, studies, and a kitchen.

Life regained a smooth rhythm of school, work on the dig and long, lazy evenings spent with Dennis on the beach or at their private hatching pond. Soon, though, Arshel found it harder and harder to move about.

One morning, without fanfare, she was in molt. Disappointingly, it was no different from any childhood molt with her surmother. Dennis spent the whole day by her side, alternately expressing her molt-venom and laving it carefully over her splitting skin.

His hands were attentive and gentle. His touch was so different from her surmother's experienced firmness, yet she felt none of the deep pleasure she had expected from a bhirhir. She felt secure enough during her moments of helpless squirming and twitching as her body reflexively shucked the old skin. The raw shock of air on her new skin was deftly eased by the coating of venom he applied, but there was no real pleasure in that, either.

As Arshel lay exhausted from the ordeal, she realized that she had indeed grown up. The illusions of childhood were gone forever. There was no reason to be disappointed, for this was reality. It was as good as anybody ever had.

Shortly after she recovered, the standings of the graduating class were posted. She walked home proudly beside her bhirhir, knowing that so many eyes now followed her and that so many now were thinking: So, Arshel the baby is bhirhir to the number two student in the class. Surely some of them had learned not to underestimate anyone ever again.

But even over dinner, in the privacy of their own apartment, Dennis refused to share her delight over his achievement. He picked at his food, and when the intercom ticked quietly for attention, he jerked to his feet as if stung and keyed the relay with a stiff finger. His voice squeaked as he said, "Yes?"

"Son, I'd like to speak to you in my office right away."

"Yes, sir."

Nunin Lakely rarely put in an appearance at home in the evening. He had not even visited his son in the hospital, nor had Dennis expected him to attend graduation. Arshel had been puzzled over this, unconsciously expecting a father to be like a surmother. But everyone else seemed to take Nunin's absorption in the dig's affairs as normal.

Dennis said, straightening his shirt, "You'd better wait here."

She caught at his arm. "I'm your bhirhir," she insisted.

He sighed. "Well, let's not keep him waiting."

They passed through the family area with its central hatching pond and on into the other half of the house. Meant for the dwelling of bhirhirn, their relatives, and children, this side of the house was larger than the visiting mate's apartment. Dennis led the way through the atrium with its gaily splashing fountain, across the reception room where windows overlooked the sea, and down a narrow corridor to a sleeping room that had been converted into Nunin Lakely's office.

Several computer terminals lined one wall. His desk was banked with monitor screens and an interstellar communications tuner. As they entered, Lakely sat rocking back in his chair. The only window in the room was shuttered tightly.

Dennis stopped in the small space before the desk, his shoulders and back stiff. There were no other chairs in the small room. Arshel took her place at her bhirhir's side, facing more toward him than toward Lakely.

The man opened with, "You owe me an explanation."

"I honestly did my best, Dad. I was second by only three points, and there's no disgrace in being second to Omar Pichulo."

"You realize this may have lost you any chance at the Cuzco Scholarship to Camiat University?"

"There are other factors they judge besides school standing."

"Are you making excuses?"

"No, sir." If Dennis were kren, he'd be raising venom.

"Did you spend enough time on your studies?"

"Yes, sir. I let nothing interfere with that." He threw an anxious glance at Arshel. "Nothing at all, Dad. Omar's record was perfect. Somebody had to be second."

"Not a Lakely."

"Yes, sir."

"What do you plan to do about this?"

"I've almost finished a paper on the prehistory of Vrashin Island to submit to the Cuzco committee together with the essay on my choice of archeology as my profession. It's an original approach I'm sure Omar hasn't thought of."

Lakely nodded tentatively and then clicked his gaze away from his son to the array of monitors before him. "We'll see how it works out. Meanwhile, I've some things to go over here. Dorsan has made a little progress analyzing the contents of that box at last."

Back in their own quarters, Dennis collapsed into a chair. She could smell his nervous perspiration, and she could see his whole body shaking in reaction. Almost gagging on the smell, she sat on the edge of the chair and put one hand carefully on his shoulder, frustrated that her mere presence wasn't soothing him as a bhirhir should do.

"Dennis, does your mother know he treats you like that?"

Staring straight ahead, he said, "She's probably in her room, crying miserably over my failure."

"I can't believe this is really happening."

"Oh, it's real. I'm a Lakely, Arshel, and now so are you."

His bleak tone triggered off something deep in Arshel. "And we're going to live up to it," she said firmly, while privately she wished that she could have brought Dennis to Holtethor and left that man behind them forever.

Bitterly, Dennis said, "I should've sabotaged Omar's grade that one time I had the chance."

Her pride of the afternoon returned. "But you didn't because you're very much a Lakely. Omar wouldn't stop at anything to sabotage you if he had the chance. That kind of person can't win, not against a true Lakely."

It took another hour and several cups of coffee, but she infected him with her vision and enthusiasm. He went to work on his paper with renewed vitality. Now that she understood what was at stake for him, she curtailed their evenings by the ocean and preserved the serious mood of school during dinner. She let him talk on and on about his paper, building his confidence. Then, in a whirl, the writing was over, and graduation came. Before they had recovered from the celebrations, they were called to Nunin Lakely's field office at the dig.

They reported there covered with white dust and dressed only in work clothes. The field office was a small shack set on the rim of the dig, with one oversized window giving a comprehensive view of the pit. There was barely room for the two of them to stand before Lakely's desk. Through a door behind him, Arshel could make out the orderly room where Madlain Lakely worked, but it was empty.

Behind the desk and to one side stood Dorsan, the human Interface, his deep tan coated with a thick film of the same white dust that covered them. He had a packet in his hand. "I've got the tapes, Mr. Lakely. There are a number of good clear images, and I've done my best to clarify the rest."

Lakely took the package and said to Arshel and Dennis, "Just a moment, I want to check these."

He slid one of the tapes into a recess on the desk. Excited, Arshel strained to see the tracings of alien writing, meaningless to everyone alive today.

Lakely muttered, "Yes, Dorsan, this is a definite improvement. Has any word come from the Ortenaus yet?"

The archeolinguists Barinn and Hetta Ortenau had been asked to translate the find because they were the best in the business. But they lived high in the mainland mountains, in the city of Firestrip, where the renowned Camiat University was situated.

The Interface went into his blank stare for a moment, checking the comnet, and then said in a normal tone, "They're entering their reply now. A moment, and I'll fetch it for you."

"Good--"

"Nunin!" The Interface held up one hand. "There's something going into your file, a grant." His voice took on the flatness Arshel associated with all Interfaces. "The Interstellar Cross-Species Archeological Society, through the sponsorship of the Lantern Enterprises Affiliated Species Alliance for Progress, posts a full funding grant of six million to Nunin and Madlain Lakely to develop the Sorges River site on Pallacin." He came back to himself and repeated, "Six million."

Lakely was beaming. "We only asked for two! This is wonderful. Wait until I tell Madlain."

Arshel felt her world being flipped out from under her. Pallacin was almost half a year's travel from Camiat. What about Dennis's plans to go to Camiat University?

Lakely glanced Up at Dorsan. "With six million to spend we can afford an Interface. Would you like to go with us?"

"I've found the work with you interesting and pleasant, but I'll go where I'm sent. If you require an Interface on Pallacin, the Guild will provide one."

He spoke as if he had no personal opinion or existence. Arshel felt a deep chill and hoped that she'd never have to work with an Interface.

"Well," said Lakely, "all these details can be dealt with later. What about the Ortenaus?"

With barely a blink, the Interface said, "They accept the job of decoding the tapes, and the University accepts the offer of Lantern funds for the project. They've all signed the contracts."

Lakely said, "We're just about wrapped up on Vrashin Island, then." And when the Interface had left, he looked up at his son and then at Arshel. "I asked both of you here because I have news. Dennis, your find has won you the Cuzco Scholarship--not your lamentable grades, and not your passable paper on Vrashin, but your find! Your mother is so proud of you."

"But it wasn't my--"

Arshel interrupted, seeing at last something she could do for her bhirhir. "The Vrashin tapes will be a great credit to the Lakely name. Dennis has worked so hard for that."

Dennis looked down at her, his face displaying emotions she couldn't name. But his father said, "The Cuzco will pay all your expenses at the College of First Lifewave Studies at Camiat University. The timing is perfect. You can go back to Firestrip to school while we begin work. In a few years, you'll be fully certified, and you can join us!"

Arshel said, "But to Firestrip, all alone?"

The elder Lakely said gently, "Arshel, you'll go with Dennis, of course. I've arranged passage for both of you. And since we won't have to pay for Dennis's education, we can see to yours. Just pick your school."

With a flurry of determined activity, Lakely sent them to pack. Arshel had dreamed of leaving Vrashin some day, but the precipitate reality left her shaken.

Dennis stopped on the path overlooking the edge of the pit. It was one of her favorite spots, just at the edge of the tangled jungle foliage where she could feel the moist breath of the jungle and the dry heat of the sun at the same time. There's nothing like this in the mainland mountains.

"Arshel, who told them it was my find?? I never did. I never mentioned it on the Cuzco application forms!"

"I don't know who told them. The couple of times it came up while you were in the hospital, it just didn't seem important. I assumed your father would take the credit as head of the dig."

"It must have been Dad." Dennis's mouth made a straight line under his nose. "Arshel, you don't mind!? Giving up the honors and everything? It was your find. You sensed it was there; that's a real talent, Arshel. This could have established you as one of the greats in the field."

"It's a Lakely find. Does it matter which Lakely?"

His smile transformed his face into something alien, but she knew that it meant that he was pleased. He'd have done the same for Holtethor. He understood family, even if his father didn't.

Chuckling, he added, "You're too good to be for real. But I'm going to see that you get as much out of this as I do. There's a school in Firestrip that can make you into the best archeovisualizer that's ever lived. I'll bet you've heard of the Mautri school even way out here in the islands!"

Without waiting for her reply, he gripped her upper arms and swung her around, leaping into the air with explosive joy. "Maybe we'll be the ones who actually find the City of a Million Legends!"

Then he took off down the trail, talking in loud bursts. She let herself be pulled along while her mind could only produce her surmother's scathing remark about the Mautri: Their ideal is to live without bhirhir. Home wreckers!

END CHAPTER ONE 

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This Page Was Last Updated by JL  07/26/15 02:24 PM EST (USA)


 




 



First Lifewave novels copyright 1980, 1982, 1985, 2000 by Jacqueline Lichtenberg.  All rights reserved.