The riders came flying down the road in a swirl of hooves and desperation. Not often did an emergency arise, but when it did, one did not hesitate to answer it. When the owner of the plantation had seen the signs over his land, he immediately organized a team of hands and householders, men and women, to ride out with him and lend what assistance they could. He did not see, however, that this would be the most extraordinary rescue ever.
The team pulled up on the crest of a medium sized hill that the road crossed; the grateful beasts took the time to rest, blowing hard and foaming at the mouths and bits, from their hard ride. The leader and his foreman scanned the horizon, the overseer using a pair of binoculars he always carried on his saddle. He asked, "Are you certain it came down near here, lord?"
"Positive, Heran," the master nodded. "It looked no more than a few kimiters from the house; it can't be much farther away from here.... Wait," and he pointed to the southwest; "what's that over there?"
Heran turned to stare at the sight, and slowly drew in his breath. "A smoke plume! Maybe...maybe a half-kimiter off."
"That's the way, then. Follow us, people," he shouted over his shoulder to the rest of the group; "ride hard!" He spurred his horse and led the way toward the distant smudge.
They arrived in twenty minutes or so, and the sight they found made them pause and gape for a time. The object was as large as a river ship or good-sized house, and resembled a huge, bulky bird with stubby, swept-back wings. It seemed to be covered in some thick substance like glass except in the back, where a gaping, blackened hole made a grotesque relief. In the bulbous nose were several squares and oblongs plated in a substance similar to the thing's body, but transparent instead of white. Midway down, one man-high upright oblong was outlined, with a smaller door beside it no larger than a handspan.
"You say this fell from the sky, Lord Maril?" Heran breathed. "It looks like no flying craft I've ever seen before."
"It came from the skies," Maril answered, memories stirring, "and I have a rough idea about from precisely where. Don't you remember any of our ancient history? Of where we came from?"
"You don't mean --"
"Yes, I do. This is a vehicle of some kind for traveling in the void beyond our planet; it's not too dissimilar to the old pictures in the archives and histories. And if it is a...a spaceship...then it probably has a crew inside! If they survived, they're lucky," and he pointed at the long gouge in the earth, hundreds of miters long, that the craft had cut as it fell. He turned to a couple of field hands. "They may still need help, too. You pair, get that litter ready, and the first-aid kit."
"How do we get into the thing, lord?" Heran asked practically.
"I wager I have a good guess, at least," Maril answered. "Follow me." He led the foreman up to the craft's side, where the large oblong was, and tentatively touched the smaller square. It suddenly snapped aside, like a sliding door, into the vehicle's side, revealing a green and red protrusion and familiar looking glyphs. Heran said, "The letters are right, but the words are wrong. Can you read them, lord?"
Maril shook his head. "They're just on the edge of recognizable, but not close enough. I think one of these buttons, though, should open a door...." He waffled for a moment, then set his shoulders. "Green has always been for turning on things. Let's try green." He stabbed at the green button.
The large rectangle slowly recessed into the craft's side, then drew away on thick hinges. Maril and Heran cautiously peered inside, then hoisted themselves in.
The chamber here was small -- maybe one other person could fit inside. Two doors with spoked wheels were in the walls; above the wheels were thick windows. Peering through one, Maril cried out: "An arm; someone's sitting in there, and they're probably knocked out!" He and Heran struggled for a minute, until they accidentally discovered how the wheel locked the door. They hauled it open and dashed inside to a long room with a pair of chairs at the front. One was empty, but the other held a figure with a long mane of silvery-blonde hair, a strikingly beautiful color. The men hurried forward, others crowding in behind them to assist as the door cleared.
Maril carefully raised up the slumped head and smoothed back the hair -- and his gasp of shock could be heard to the back of the compartment. "A woman!... And not just any woman; look, Heran."
Heran complied; unlike his friend and master, he uttered no sound, but only because he was too stunned to cry out. Aside from visible bruises where straps secured her wrists to the arms of the chair, the woman's skin was a creamy pinkish-brown, lightly dusted with faint freckles of a darker brown. He looked back to his master, who met his gaze. "It's at least a hour back to the manor house.... She won't fry right away, but she'll take enough of a sun-dose to make a very uncomfortable death in a few weeks."
"She's lucky the shell of this vehicle is metal on the inside; it shielded her. And the sun's on the other side, so she hasn't caught much through the windows. All that's irrelevant, though; we need a way to get her home...." Maril glanced about, then snapped his fingers. "Wait; the emergency survival blankets have a foil layer in them for insulation."
"Terribly thin, lord, and only aluminum."
"Then we'll use at least two of them, and wrap them over her. She may get warm, but no worse. Help me undo these straps and ease her out of the chair."
The deed was done, and the woman stretched on a litter. Doing a quick check,
they found a swelling wrist as the only obvious sign of injury, and dressed
it with an inflatable field splint. Then, completely swathing her from head
to toe in three of the blankets and belting her onto the stretcher, they carried
her out the door. They laid the whole burden in the padded bed of a wagon and
Seeing a pinprick of light in the sea of darkness she floated in, Lorene scrabbled toward it with all her might. Slowly, ever so slowly, it grew larger and closer, and finally was close enough to clutch to her.
She fluttered her eyes for a second before cracking them fully open. She found herself covered in softness, and for a wild moment thought she was wrapped in an angel's robes, but then orientation sank in with the dim lighting; she was laying in a bed, in some kind of room with strangely gleaming walls. The luxurious softness came from the bed's "linens" -- finely woven blankets; and a quilt, sheets and pillowcases in satin, all in dark colors undecipherable at the moment.
A soft coughing came from one side before Lorene could absorb more of the room than this. She spun where she lay, to view a woman in a voluminous robe sitting near the bedside; she seemed to have a concerned smile on her face, and her skin glistened oddly in the low light, like the room's walls. Beyond the skin, she seemed quite humanoid -- at least as far as Lorene could tell.
The woman spoke quietly in a language that seemed just on the edge of understandable, almost a mutated form of Basicspeak with enough slurring to stay beyond comprehension. Lorene slowly sat up with a puzzled frown, trying to sort it out. The woman spoke again, the same phrase, but repetition didn't help. Lorene said, "I'm sorry, I don't understand," touching and shaking her head in a pantomime of incomprehension.
As she shook her head, her glance fell across a bedtable, and a familiar shape caught her eye. My wristcomp! Let's hope it survived whatever happened as well as I did. She slowly reached for it, keeping eye contact with the woman, and picked up the long unit. The stranger tensed slightly, but made no move to interfere. Sighing in gratitude, Lorene squinted in the gloom at the keys, then tapped on the translator function. She said the incredibly obvious, "Do you understand me?"
"Yes, I do," said the woman with relief and wonder. "And you?"
"Okay now," Lorene grinned.
"Praise the Highest for that device, lady! Do you feel well? I was asked to take you in and watch over you for my lord. My name is Tamra."
"I feel just fine, I guess, despite crash-landing here. I'm called Lorene, by the way."
"Lady Lorene," Tamra said with a bow of her head. "I must go and call the master at his manor house now; he wished to know when you awoke." She rose to leave.
"Wait!" Lorene said. "Could I have a little light before you go? I'd like to see where I am."
"Oh, of course. We left it off while you slept." Tamra reached to the bedtable and turned a dial slowly, raising the lighting in the room gradually. Lorene looked up to thank her, and then she stopped in mid-sentence as she took her first good look at the alien. Most of Tamra's facial characteristics did not surprise: she had wrinkles that matched the slight age in her voice, and her hair was liberally sprinkled with white. Lorene would have figured her for about sixty or seventy before the light came on. But now all guesses were out the window for this race, for Tamra's skin did gleam -- literally. It shone in the warm red-brown hues of polished copper, face, hands and the exposed flesh of her arms, protruding from a red-and-green caftan gown. Circling eyes of a faded china blue was a heavy black liner that would have made her resemble the ancient Egyptians of so many thousands of years ago except for that skin tone. Try as she might, Lorene could not avoid staring, and Tamra noticed it. She paused in puzzlement, then asked, "Is something wrong, lady?"
"Uh...no," Lorene quickly recovered. "If I can say this without offense, I've just never met your species before."
"I understand. My lord can explain about this. Please let me send him to you."
Lorene followed her with her eyes; and then she finally noticed the walls of the room. They were seemingly covered in aluminum foil! "Tamra.... What is this stuff on the walls??"
Tamra's smile turned solemn as she paused. "It's there for your protection, lady. Lord Maril can explain this too. In the meantime, I beg you, don't disturb the foil, and don't leave this room. Your life absolutely depends on it. I'll return with Lord Maril as soon as I can." She opened a door in the wall and quickly slipped through.
The reassurances did little to answer Lorene, and planted a seed of apprehension instead. What's this all about? Am I a prisoner in here?? Or is somebody hunting me, and this foil is shielding me from then? She fidgeted in the bed as she looked about. Even the ceiling is covered. And it looks like a hasty job.... Maybe someone is looking for me. The thought was not a comforting one. She flipped the blankets open and slid out of bed, looking around the medium-sized room and hunting for the equipment she had been wearing. She half-wished she had been wearing a blazer too, but there hadn't been a need....
She had stopped looking some ten minutes later, and was pacing instead, when a warning tap came at the door. Tamra slipped in and said, "My lord is outside, lady; he'll wait while I give you a robe to put over your shift."
"Am I a prisoner, Tamra?" Lorene asked bluntly as the cuprum-skinned woman went to a wooden press against one wall and drew out a green slubbed robe.
Tamra turned to stare for a second. "Heavens, no, lady! You must simply stay in this room, at least until we can get the doctor back here. As I said, it's for your protection...or your health, if you prefer. Here, put this on; then I'll get Lord Maril, and all your questions will be answered."
Lorene grimaced and sighed, but pulled the robe over the light white shift she was already dressed in and tied it off. Tamra nodded, poked her head out of the door for a moment, then left completely. She was replaced by a man -- a man that left Lorene flabbergasted as she stared at him. He was tall, and handsome as a virt-vid star, with wavy black hair and dark brown eyes, also ringed with thick black liner -- and he was gold. She could see his exposed skin outside a set of scuffed and stained leather tunic and trousers, and every millimeter of that flesh gleamed as if he were covered in liquid sun.
A vague corner of her mind was sure she must be gaping like a lackbrain, but she could not help it. The man, however, apparently took little notice or chose to ignore it. He sketched a bow at Lorene as he closed the door, and said, "Hello, lady; I am Maril Jastrow. I'm told you have a device that lets you understand our language?"
"Uhh...ah...." She could do no more than shake her head dumbly.
Maril nodded back, but wryly and with sympathy. "I think there are many explanations owed, aren't there...on both sides, by your courtesy. Won't you please be seated." He motioned to the bed.
"Aahh...uh, yes, please...yes, lord," she stammered out, and let herself fold onto the bed's satiny edge.
"Maril, please, lady; I don't stand on ceremony, even if the servants do...in fact, most of them are my friends as well as employees." He dropped onto the one chair in the room after turning it toward her. "And Tamra says your name is Lorene?"
"Yes.... Uh, Lorene Kilroy, Humanoid Confederation, Deep Scout Corps. I'm sorry if I stare; I've just...just never seen...." She groaned as she realized what she was saying, and added, "I'm sorry again. This is not the way I was trained to handle a first-contact situation."
"We may not be as unfamiliar as you think," he said vaguely, "but more on that as we go. By the way, I took the liberty of ordering a light breakfast for you; you were unconscious for most of a day. And when Dr. Funkner arrives, he'll wish to re-examine you thoroughly. He fused a broken wrist yesterday after we brought you in from your ship."
"And just where is my ship, if I may ask, sir?"
"Specifically, about ninety minutes southwest of here...and I'm not very certain about its condition. I must leave that to your judgment. However," and Maril sighed reluctantly, "if you cannot repair it yourself, Lorene, then I'm afraid you will be marooned here for the rest of your life...unless the greater galaxy has expanded far enough in twelve hundred years to make passing ships a routine thing. We haven't the technology here, from a quick look, to do the job for you."
A cold knot formed in Lorene's guts, and Maril saw her face pale with the fear of the shipwrecked. "How soon can I see my ship, Maril? I've got to know!"
"I understand, lady; but there's difficulty in that for you. Perhaps it's time I gave you the story of this place, so that you understand your situation.
"We call our world Arjorum, and, though you can't see it right now, it's a beautiful, fertile world. Our histories say that it's very much like our old world once was, before overpopulation and pollution made life intolerable for our ancestors."
"Then your species didn't originate here?"
"No. And you may know of our mother planet; it was named Terra, or Earth."
"Earth?" Lorene gasped. "I come from Earth! Then you --"
"Are human, just as you are," Maril nodded, "despite the obvious differences." He held up an arm with a grin. "And how that came about is a core part of our story.
"Our ancestors, as I said, fled old Earth's problems. Some 30,000 people departed in a ship which allowed the majority of them to sleep through the trip. I'm sure you know, though, that planets are few and far between, and inhabitable ones even rarer. No new world was discovered until the ship was nearing the end of its own life. The planet itself seemed almost perfect for colonization as a mainly pastoral world...an oxygen atmosphere, wide and fertile growing zones, few bacterial nasties that couldn't be controlled.... It was incredibly tempting to my ancestors.
"The planet's sun, however, was found by -- I think the word was 'sensors'?"
"Probably so," Lorene said, fascinated despite her fear.
"It was found to put out an unusual, deadly radiation that the planet's atmosphere couldn't shield them from. The plants and animals already here had found a defense against the radiation over the years, and so the ship's scientists raced to find a way to duplicate that defense, while those who maintained the ship struggled to restore it, or keep it alive long enough for the scientists to succeed. Ironically, using materials harvested at night from the planet, the mechanics succeeded in their restoration a few days after the scientists' own triumph.
"With the luxury of choice at their disposal now, the ship's captain and council decided to wake the population up and allow them to choose their own fate. Given a way to actually live here, and wishing to end the journey, the overwhelming majority chose to settle. The radical fringe of the minority chose to take the ship after the rest had departed; they haven't been heard from since.
"And so here we are, generally happy, prosperous by our standards, and mostly at home with being stewards of our world. It's prospered along with us; and I think that, with the Highest's assistance, we'll continue that way for some time to come."
Lorene sat and considered as her host finished. She eventually said, "So it's this solar radiation that's trapping me in here? And that's what this foil on the walls and ceiling is for?"
"Yes to both, Lorene. It's not a matter of holding you a prisoner here; it's purely a question of your survival. The doctor took no chances when he arrived yesterday, and gave you a radiation blocker, even though you were covered with three aluminum sandwich survival blankets while you were outside. Aluminum isn't as dense as the heavier metals, but enough layers of it will do the job."
She glanced at the walls nervously. "How many layers are on the walls?"
"Six," Maril grinned, "although the wood is native. It leaches some radiation since it's no longer living, so we cleaned out several area markets of their aluminum foil to cover a room in Tamra's house on my land. She and her late husband used to work for my family as servants until they retired on pension. She was kind enough to put you up...though I suspect that it's as much the 'for the master' complex as kindness. In any case, you're quite safe here; you just can't step outside until night comes. To do so in the daylight, even on a cloudy day, would give you enough exposure in just a half-hour to mean your death; and a very nasty, painful death, too, in anywhere from a few weeks to just a few days."
"I see," Lorene grimaced. "Well, that leaves me with a problem. I need to see my ship to determine how badly she's damaged, else I'll never have a chance of lifting from here. And, to be truthful, taking off by myself is the only hope I have of rescue; the Confederation hasn't expanded out this far. I was searching for habitable planets in this sector, and I hadn't found a single one, like your ancestors. Even this world, if I could report back, would probably be quarantined because of the radiation...never mind set aside because it's already inhabited."
"The last is good to know," he replied dryly, "especially since I'm on the Planetary Council. But, in any case, we can get you to the ship. You'll just need to put up with some early hours. And Dr. Funkner must say if you're fit to do it; I insist on that. In the meantime, though," and he motioned to Tamra, who had entered with a laden tray, "you should have your breakfast. And while you eat, you can tell me about yourself, and about modern Earth."
Lorene did so, describing for Maril how she had administered the family farming business with great success for eight years, until she longed for adventure like a desert traveler for water. The mood had been aided by the far greater pollution Earth suffered since the Arjorum had left, coupled with severe competition with large ag-conglomerates for what scarce water and arable soil remained. She had handed the reins to her younger brother, trained as an exploratory scout, and was flying her twenty-eighth mission when....
"I don't know what happened, except that the proximity alarms started screaming just before the world went haywire. I was eating lunch in the back of the cabin, and made it to the controls to strap in when the ship was hit. It may have been a meteor shower penetrated my hull in just the right place; I was running out of power except for maneuvering and braking. Then I spotted your world just in time. A quick scan showed that it was livable enough...I didn't have the chance to check for background radiation...and here I am."
Maril shook his head in wonder. "The Highest must have watched over you, Lorene, especially to have us rescue you."
"I'm thanking God myself," Lorene said fervently.
The doctor, Erl Funkner, arrived a few hours later, and pronounced her sound enough; however, on hearing Lorene's plans, he frowned and gave her a strip of capsules. "Take one a day of these," he said, "until you're done with whatever you're doing. They're radiation blockers; you're bound to get some exposure without knowing it."
The capsules were firmly in a side pocket of a pack Maril loaned to Lorene as they drove off very early the next morning, about 2 a.m. of the Arjorean 26-hour day. Food and equipment that might prove useful were in the bed of the wagon they rode, pulled by a pair of adapted Terran horses. Lorene, when she saw their coats shine in the moonlight and lamplight, gasped in wonder; one was more golden than a palomino under its hair, while its hitch-mate's coat glittered below with the silver of the stars. She had thought them statues, despite the hours with Maril and Tamra, until the silvery mare tossed her head as they approached.
Heran also rode in the bed, coming to serve as an extra set of hands and legs. But he slept during the ride, being well past the middle age of the long-lived Arjorum; so he did not know of the undercurrent of events as they traveled. For as the wagon jounced over a rut in the dirt road, Lorene was bounced across the seat-board and hard against Maril, who was driving. He threw out a golden arm to steady her; at his warm touch, Lorene felt another kind of warmth, shooting from her shoulders to her breasts, and then down deep inside her. She caught her breath for a moment, then quietly thanked him and slid back over.
They reached the ship not long after, nose down in the wheat field it had plowed into. Waking Heran, they pulled out a brace of heavy hand lights; each took a pair and played them on the hull as Lorene walked about, even climbing a set of handholds onto the upper surface. Maril watched her carefully, keeping all his senses open to her, and so he quickly caught her soft, despondent, "Oh God," as she spotted a large hole near the port stern. "That's near the base of the fuel tank...and it goes right on in, as big as my fist," as she shone one of her lights up the cavity. There had been even more damage on the starboard side, penetrating into the engine compartment and probably destroying power couplings and other equipment; she had not yet examined inside. But it was not necessary to examine those parts now; the one stroke on the fuel tank was enough to put paid to her hopes of escape.
"No fuel at all?" Maril asked sympathetically, guessing what Lorene was feeling.
"None of what matters. Maybe there's still some in the maneuvering tanks, for the jets that steer me in local space. But I can't even lift this bird off the ground, let alone power the hyper-reaction drive."
"I don't know what a 'hyper-reaction drive' is, lady," Heran said, "but can't we find a way to make some fuel for you?"
Lorene shook her head, shoulders shaking and despondent tears starting to leak from her eyes. "It's a very special kind of fuel, Heran, made to release the amount of power needed to send the ship between star systems. From what Maril said as we talked, your world's about twelve hundred years behind Earth technologically, as well as having abandoned manned space flight." She barked a mirthless laugh. "I guess I'm about par for the course; the academy said the average deep pilot lasts thirty missions before something knocks them...knocks them out of the sky!" Control was abandoned then; she wept unashamedly. Maril moved to hug her, standing there condemned to the life of a night-haunting castaway. He caught Heran's eye and motioned him away .
She's almost like a child this way, he thought as he stroked her thick silver-gilt hair comfortingly; or almost like -- Then he saw what shade he was starting to invoke, and what he was starting to feel toward this visitor. He chopped the thought off short, and began to stiffen before he realized how Lorene might take it. He forced himself to relax while she clung to him and cried her pain out.
Exhaustion finally made her stop, still snuffling and sobbing dryly. As she did, Maril looked toward the south, where the sun rose on this world, and he said, "We have to go, Lorene; it's almost daybreak. You need to take your blocking dose and shroud yourself."
"Leave me here," she rasped.
Maril stared, then shook his head. "No; that's not the way."
"It's my life, dammit, and my choice!"
"And what about options?"
Lorene snapped her head up and scraped a tangle of hair from her eyes. "What options are there?? As far as I can see, I've become this planet's equivalent of a vampire...if you even remember what a vampire is."
"You can tell me later, Lorene. But I tell you that there are options; and if you come home, the doctor and I'll explain them to you." She still made no move, so he sighed and added, "If you still want to kill yourself after we've talked with the doctor, I'll ask him to help you exercise that option, less painfully than letting yourself fry with rad-sickness."
She held out a long moment, but finally assented, and suffered herself to be led back to the wagon, where Heran discreetly waited. Maril had already anticipated a chance of daylight travel, and had ordered a set of survival blankets be sewn together; they were six layers thick, and wide enough to completely enfold Lorene; she resignedly wrapped herself up after taking a blocker capsule. Maril, meanwhile, led Heran aside. "Pull out your cell-link, old friend, and call Dr. Funkner. Tell him to hop a flyer-cab and get to the cot in an hour, and to bring an infusion pack."
"Yes, lord," the foreman nodded. "I overheard what you were saying; I hope she'll accept the offer, for her sake."
"I hope so too," Maril replied as Heran turned away...but is it
for her sake...or for mine?
It was starting to get warm in Lorene's aluminum cocoon as the wagon drove on. She did not particularly care, though, or even really notice, lost as she was in mourning over her fate-imposed exile. She had only her brother back on Earth, and she was not overly close to him, so loss of contact with her family did not hurt much. She had few friends, too, even among her fellow scouts; the profession tended to attract semi-solitary types in love with solo adventuring, at least for a portion of their lives.
No, what she would miss -- already missed, in fact -- was the world of light and the outdoors. Lorene was a physically active woman, and loved to walk through the fields and forests of the worlds she had found. The loss of much of Earth's natural world to pollution and development had been another reason she had jumped at the scout program. Anybody with sense would escape that planet of almost solid concrete before they went insane. Now here she was, maybe not about to lose nature in toto, but probably never to see it in the light of day again. To be locked within four walls again for most of her life, like back on Earth....
Whatever Maril's "option" was, it had better be damned good!
Pulling up before Tamra's cottage, a half-kimiter from the manor house, Maril and Heran saw the flyer-cab, rather like a Terran veetol, sitting in a clear patch nearby. Dr. Funkner stood waiting in the cot's door; he was a small man with salt-and-pepper hair and mustache, and skin the ruddy gold of autumn leaves. Frowning at the pair on the seat, he waved them down: "Get her in here, man! Blockers or no, I don't want her getting more exposure than she has to." He stepped aside as Maril passed Lorene's completely muffled form down to Heran and guided her in and through the bedroom door, then followed them. Heran withdrew to the front rooms to wait.
Lorene unclenched her death-grip on the blankets, letting them hang like a rough-sewn hooded cape off her head and shoulders. She made no move to shuck the "garment" off, but simply sank onto the edge of the bed. Funkner glanced at Maril, who shook his head and said, "Her ship is damaged, and needs fuel that we can't manufacture."
"I see," Funkner said, and turned to Lorene. "And so you're stranded with us?"
"So it appears," she responded hollowly, "at least for as long as I live."
The doctor threw her a sharp glance; he had noticed the phrasing. "You're afraid you're trapped away from the light and outdoors as well?"
She whispered, "Yes," then finally looked up at the men. "Unless you have this option Lord Maril mentioned to me."
"I do." He turned and retrieved a carry-case from the other room; for a flippant moment despite her depression, Lorene wondered if physicians across the universe all carried little black bags. Funkner extracted a large vial from the case and held it out for her to see. Lorene flicked a glance at the contents, and started to frame a dismissal of blocker doses before the image really sank in. Her mouth dropped open and she finally rose off the bed, the blankets falling behind, to examine the vial more closely: "What in hell is this stuff??"
The substance in question was mainly a darkish brown in color, but glittering streamers and filaments could be seen coursing through it, like holos of a spiral galaxy or nebula. The stuff literally spun within the vial and pulsed with light, almost as if it were alive, and Lorene somehow knew that this was the case, that it wasn't merely shaken up from riding in the bag.
Dr. Funkner let her examine in silence a bit longer, then said, "This is the savior of our ancestors and the secret of our survival. This is what joined with the indigenous fauna and allowed their continued life. It's a microbial lifeform that bonds with the host's cells, especially the skin, and forms a completely symbiotic relationship. The organism takes no nutrition from the host; rather, it literally consumes the radiation thrown off by our sun. Do you understand this?"
Lorene nodded, amazed but comprehending. "It's sort of like photosynthesis in plants, right?"
"Exactly! This merely operates on a different wavelength of radiation. And what radiation it doesn't eat, the metallic component of its cell membrane deflects away. The host is thus rendered completely safe, and can live its own life in peace.
"Since our ancestors landed and took on the original infection, we've been happy partners with the organism. All but two percent of us acquire it in utero, for it can cross the mother's placental wall as she carries her child. For the remaining children, they must be injected with an infusion on delivery. That's why most doctors like me carry this in our offices and hospitals. Occasionally, too, for reasons of sickness, the host's body may start attacking the symbiont as a disease bug, so they must be given a booster to ensure their survival; they take rad-blockers until the disease has passed, then are re-infused. So, even after twelve centuries, we still have need of our ancestors' discovery."
Lorene slowly turned to Maril. "This is the solution, then?"
He nodded. "The symbiont won't repair your ship, Lorene, or restore anything you're losing by being exiled here...but it will give you a full, unlimited life on this planet. It's your choice in the end, of course; you might not wish to have your body invaded...." He faded off, realizing all the possible meanings.
She did not notice, for she was chuckling. "As if I had much choice! It's either this, or become one of the Children of the Night." She Lugosied the last, and collected a bewildered stare from Funkner, while Maril winced at her perceived resignation. Lorene did catch that; she smiled more softly before adding, "I don't really mean it like that, Maril. In fact, the idea intrigues me.... What other effects are there, Doctor?"
"None, as far as we've found," he said. "We live longer lives than was once the average, but that comes from healthy diets and lots of exercise, and the lack of pollution as compared to old Earth."
"You're forgetting something, Erl," Maril said, and twitched his brows.
The doctor thought for a bit, then caught his breath with a smile. "Oh, yes! There's one thing I did forget, since I'm fairly past that stuff. I'm 90, after all.... But those who receive an infusion shot have reported it as being rather...pleasant." The smile became definitely knowing.
"'Pleasant,' Erl, is an understatement, from what I've heard," Maril snorted.
"I wouldn't know," he shot back primly. "However, many married couples have been known to ask physicians for joint shots, usually on their anniversary nights. Although how much pleasure they get from each other and how much from the symbiont is usually debated. Children don't feel a thing when they're born or sick...but, then again, their shots are buffered."
Lorene stared in awe. "You really mean --"
"Well, let's say that, for adults, the infusion process is one of the more erotic experiences you can go through."
"Indeed it is, lady," said Tamra from the door. The others spun around to her; they had not heard her enter and shut the portal. She went on, "My late husband, Highest bless and keep his soul, and myself did just that on celebratory occasions at times. And it's perfectly safe, too; we were told by our own doctor that the new shots act as boosters. Any excess symbiont just gets passed out of your system. And what the symbiont did for those nights...." Her voice trailed off as her eyes lit up with passionate memories.
Lorene found herself lighting up -- from radiation of heat, which she was sure Tamra could feel two meters away. She was changing color, too, without benefit of esoteric, erotic injections. "That's really...uh ...wonderful, Tamra. I'm glad it was so good for you." Then her eyes slid back toward the vial that was still in Dr. Funkner's hand. She caught a glimpse of Maril's handsome golden face in her eye's corner, and let herself fancy for a moment of who she would like to spend such a night with. Dreamily, she said, "Now it's not just a necessity...it's a temptation, too...." She fell silent, until the doctor's soft cough snapped her out of it. All three Arjorum were smiling with varying degrees of amusement and understanding...but did she imagine a little more than that in Maril's eyes?
Hastily covering her feelings, she said, "All that as it is, survival's more important than libido right now. I guess you're waiting for me to say yes or no, right?"
"Quite so, child," Funkner smiled more widely.
"You've got it, then. Do you need to prepare me in some way?"
"Not at all. This room should be prepared, though, since the symbiont will need to begin feeding once it's settled in."
"Or you could move up to the manor house," Maril suddenly interjected. "I was planning on offering should the situation arise; you can stay for as long as you wish.... Uh, of course," he added a little lamely as Lorene arched her brows in surprise, "the choice is up to you."
Dare I hope?? "That's alright," she said softly, "I'll accept the offer. Thanks much."
"We can leave when you're ready then," and he rose from the chair.
Funkner packed the vial in his bag and made to follow, while Tamra helped Lorene
shroud herself in the blanket-cape, guided her to the wagon, and hopped in after.
The sun was well up now, turning the ride in the blankets into a sultry affair, but Lorene endured it with both stolidity and excitement instead of despair. Maybe ten minutes later, she was lifted down from the wagon bed, then sensed the change from outside to indoors. She uncovered her face enough to see a beautifully appointed room; it was decorated in bright-colored paintings and wall hangings and curtains on white-washed stone walls, while the chairs were comfortable looking and upholstered in leather. Large windows looked out to lands she was finally seeing in daylight -- well managed, their fertility proven by the amount of cultivation she spied up to the roll of obscuring hills. The plants all had a slight sparkle to them, but no more than that; apparently the symbiont expressed itself more in animal forms of life than plant.
A female voice came from behind: "Hello, lords, Tami. Is this the woman you mentioned?" Lorene turned in the "hood," and found a woman rather like Tamra, appearing in her early elderly years, but with shining silver flesh instead of Tamra's warm copper brown.
Maril replied, "Yes, she is. Lorene Kilroy, Janefra Roth, my head of household. Jan, please take Lady Lorene to Lady Anya's old rooms; she'll be using them for as long as she wishes, and she has equal footing here with me."
Janefra perked her thick brows at the name of Anya. But she nodded and led the shuffling Lorene ahead of the others to her new quarters, down a long hallway with carven doors. Opening one, the servant revealed a large, luxurious bedchamber-sitting room, hung in sky blue and dark pollen yellow. The upholstered furnishings -- two chairs and a chaise-lounge daybed -- were covered in a rich silk velvet of tan, while a king-size bed was spread in blue satin trimmed with pollen satin ticking. Darker blue curtains covered the windows, which was just as well for now, Lorene thought. "This is beyond perfect, Maril!" she breathed; "thanks so very much."
"I'm glad," he said just as quietly, staring at her, then cleared his throat. "If Tamra would be so good as to see to your needs...." Maril led Janefra out of the room, leaving the doctor and the old retainer. Funkner re-opened his bag and began to prepare a spray hypo; while Tamra asked Lorene, "Is there anything you would like, lady?"
Lorene shrugged in bewildered wonder. "I don't know what I would want.... A glass of water, maybe? I'm a little dry."
"Very well; but I was thinking of anything that might...enhance your experience."
She started to laugh nervously, then broke off as the thought settled into her brain. A slow smile spread across her lips. Why not? If I can't have a partner, then I might as well do what I can. "Do you have any robes or pieces of material in silk or satin?"
"Find it fast, please, Tamra," rumbled Funkner, holding the filled hypo. "The blocker is good, but I prefer to get the child safe." Tamra simply smiled and opened a wardrobe closet, returning with a long robe in shimmering teal silk, crosshatch-shot with thin silver threads on the diagonal. She lay this out on the bed and said, "I'll hurry back with the water," and left.
Lorene looked at the robe with a smile. "Lady Anya does...did?...like strong colors. Who is she, Doctor?"
Dr. Funkner looked at her thoughtfully. "She was Maril's late wife, killed in a riding accident a few years back...." She stared, stunned, but the doctor went on, "Hold out your arm, please." Unthinking, she did so, and he fired the hypo against her sleeve. "There; you'll start feeling the effect in about ten minutes. I'll step out now, since you'll probably want some privacy...I think," he added with the barest hesitation. He bowed slightly and swept up his bag, starting to withdraw.
"Wait! Do you know what color I'll turn to? Don't I have a choice?"
He shook his head. "The 'choice' is the organism's, if it can be said to choose. Some researchers think that the fairer you are, the more protection you need, and will then turn silver or platinum or gold rather than copper. I'll be with Maril in the front when you're done; come back out as soon as you're ready." He closed the door behind him.
Lorene rubbed her arm absently, lost in thought; she was so far gone that the tap of Tamra's hand on the door, returning with her water, made her jump a little. Tamra smiled as she came in and said, "Would you like some quick help changing, lady?"
"Oh.... No, that's alright," Lorene replied.
"Very well, then. Enjoy, lady; we'll see you soon." And Tamra, too, left her.
In truth, Lorene had forgotten the robe on the bed, startled as she was by the doctor's remark about "I think." Now she looked at it again, and finally quirked a smile before removing the wristcomp from her arm. She placed the unit on a fine wooden dressing table for safekeeping; if that thing broke before she learned the language, she'd be totally at sea. Then she kicked off her flat-soled boots and unzipped the work jumper she had been found in. It took a few minutes to shuck the garment, then slide out of her bra and panties, laying them on top of the jumper on the satin bedspread.
The teal color of the robe was rich and lovely, and the feel of the silk -- or whatever was the local equivalent -- was deliciously sensuous against her skin as she slid it on. She hugged it to herself across her breasts, and sighed with delight at the sensation. A whim seized her then, and she refrained from tying it up. Rather, she stepped before a full-length mirror bolted to the wall and examined herself, from the face that everyone told her was beautiful, to the supple firmness of her athletic body, to the mid-back cloud of white-gold hair that was far longer than worn by most other deep scouts, her one vanity.
Attractive enough, I suppose, she thought. Heaven knows, the men have flocked to me since I was a teenager. But do I interest Maril? I think I've seen signs here and there, and the loaning me of this room...and its goods, I guess...seems to be another one. Yet it could also be simple courtesy on Maril's part to a castaway. How do I find out? 'cause I'm attracted to him as surely as I'm marooned here.... Oooohhh! Her thoughts broke abruptly off and her body twisted in surprise as a soft wave of very pleasant sensation shot through her breasts, into her groin and on to the soles of her feet. It was exquisitely sweet, lingering for long seconds and leaving her a little breathless in its backwash.
It's beginning! Lorene turned back to the mirror in excitement. Was her flesh -- darkening? Yes, it was; even as she watched, all her visible skin was deepening in hue, shade after shade, until she more resembled a woman of African heritage than European. And with each darkening, a new bolus of pleasure tingled through her. At first they were soft as a feather tickling across her nerves; then the intensity gathered strength, and she arched backwards frequently, as though a lover of deftness and power was inside her, pushing her ever nearer to ecstasy with every stroke.
She was almost past the point of thought, yet somehow managed to stagger back against the tall post of the bed to support herself as she watched. She wanted to watch this take place, this ultimate in re-creations. She wanted to know what it felt like as your body was seemingly remade in precious metal, with you conscious and within it like a person encased in a living statue. She had seen archive pictures of men and women who painted their bodies such colors for artists and photographers; the best weren't blatantly obscene, yet were still incredibly beautiful and erotic. Now Lorene was finding out to just what lengths the experience could go.
Another rushing jolt of excitation hit her. She was almost lost; it was like climaxing again and again, without the pain of a lover hammering away at her until she was sore. The intensity nearly bowled her off her feet; gritting her teeth while still moaning with pleasure, she gripped the bedpost until she felt her knuckles threatening to lock. Her eyelids had fallen shut in her passion, so she forced them open to look into the mirror. What she saw nearly made her collapse. The flesh of her body was shimmering -- she could see sparkling tendrils forming across her skin from face to under her pubic hair, through the visible insides of her thighs, through her exposed lower arms -- twisting together and splitting apart just as they had done inside the vial. Daring a fall on her face, Lorene let go of the bed and pulled the silken robe from her body to let it fall at her feet. All thought of playing with it across her flesh was gone.
She looked again. It was as if her body was filled with thousands of stars from head to toe. Even her eyes seemingly glittered and sparkled with myriad pinpoints of light, and the whole was beginning to flash and pulse slowly. If anything, it was even more glorious than the final transformation would be. As if just the experience wasn't glory enough! she thought dimly as she caught her breath in enraptured pants, for the waves of pleasure had abated.
This state did not last for long; as Dr. Funkner later explained, the symbiont was merely settling in briefly before the final process began. Soon the erotic waves began again, like ripples on a seashore, building in size and intensity as a storm builds the water into a crashing surf. Along with the crescendo of ecstasy came an increase in the pulsing of her body, until her body pulsed no longer but shone. What part of Lorene's mind that could still think saw that she was now a creature of light; she literally threw off brilliance like a sun, bright enough to cast deep shadows about the room. And still the pleasure grew within her, until it was impossible to stand anymore. Somehow she stumbled over to the daybed and collapsed on it, caressing and squeezing her breasts with one hand, reaching between her legs to touch herself with the other. She knew she cried out at least once, a long ululation of sheer rapturous joy --
And then it was past, and she was slowly spiraling back into herself, completely sated from the experience. But along with the falloff came an odd new sensation, as if her skin were partially solidifying around her. Tired as she was, Lorene opened her eyes, then caught her breath and shivered again.
Her body no longer glowed. But the creamy peach color that had returned was becoming yellower and shinier each second. Enthralled, she watched the transformation finish, unfolding from within her core and spreading outward in slow, warm, palpable ripples. She reclosed her eyes and caressed herself again, running hands up and down her arms, then across the still erect peaks of her breasts and her firm belly as the living flesh transmuted under her fingers. This is like being wrapped in satin or soft fur, then rubbed all over! Now I see why some do this again.... You could become an addict on this!
At last, after long, timeless minutes, Lorene was certain that it was over. She had lost all track of true time -- she later found out that it had only been an Arjorean hour since she received the infusion -- but that was irrelevant to her right now. She had even almost forgot that there were people waiting for her. She opened her eyes and slowly rose from the chaise, and just as slowly walked in front of the mirror.
And there she found that the old Lorene was no more. The same personality was still there as far as she could tell, the same memories and thoughts and reactions that were what truly mattered -- but the exterior woman was gone forever. Now she saw a glittering, golden creature of Faerie staring back at her in the lamplight. Suddenly realizing, and not caring about her nakedness, she stepped just to the side and flung open the curtains that had covered the windows. A shaft of sunlight now slanted across her when she returned to the mirror; the reflection from her sumptuously golden body nearly blinded her for a moment before the room suddenly darkened to a tolerable level. Then the smile that had played at her lips since thinking about sunlight blossomed fully, and she slowly spun, laughing in delight at the play of sunbeams across her gilded flesh and muscles. She giggled with self-deprecation at the fleeting thought, My nipples weren't frozen erect; I guess I'm not a statue, then.
And then, coming down slightly from the clouds, Lorene began noticing the subtleties. Her hair had not changed color in the slightest, for one thing; it was still the same gilt silver that had been her one beautiful feature in her own eyes, though everyone she had known on Earth had insisted otherwise. Similarly, her short nails were still clear. I wonder if keratin takes up the symbiont after a while?... No, she added, thinking of Maril's wavy black hair, no, it doesn't. I think I'm glad about that.
Her eyes wee the most fascinating. At first she thought that they had become orbs of solid gold in the sockets of her head, and wondered how she could see. Then she took a closer look in the mirror, and found with fascination that she could still detect the hazel irises and black pupils underneath the gold's gleam. The symbiont had somehow infected the cornea. And then she realized that the drop of light when she opened the curtains had been that infection blossoming with the increase in light and this sun's peculiar radiation. A built-in sun-shade; makes sense on a world where every living animal's skin casts a glare. It'll probably ease off when the light level drops.
Lorene was still examining herself -- admiring herself, she admitted later with amusement -- when a knock came at the door, making her smile sheepishly. She snatched up the robe and slid into it before calling, "Come in." She was greeted by Tamra, whose own smile was of unmixed joy as she looked on the younger woman. "You were beautiful before, lady, but now...."
"Thank you," Lorene said, dropping her head shyly. She did not yet know if the Arjorum -- and she was one of them now -- could blush visibly, but she could feel her cheeks burning. "Is he...everybody waiting for me?"
Tamra raised an eyebrow slightly and smiled a little more, but only nodded. "Let's get you dressed, and we'll.... No, not that!" she suddenly cut in, stopping Lorene from shaking out her old clothes before pulling them on. "You're one of us now, lady, and a member of the household of Jastrow; you need better than that old stuff."
"Well, what else? All my other clothes are back on the ship, and I don't have anything finer than a uniform to wear in that stuff."
"Leave that to me, lady. I was Lady Anya's personal servant before she died, poor child, so I know this room. And it doesn't look like Lord Maril ever packed much away. Let me see what's suitable for you and the time of day."
"Tamra, they're waiting for me!"
Tamra would not budge. She simply changed course to the nightstand and touched a button on a panel. "Lord Maril, all's well here; but we'll be a little time yet." She firmly shut the commpanel off, then reached into a pocket of her caftan to extract a small lidded cosmetic pot. "The first thing you'll do, lady, with or without your leave, is to kohl your eyes. The symbiont helps much, as you've probably seen, but you'll still go blind from your own skin-gleam without some extra protection."
Smiling bemusedly, Lorene sat down on the big bed and closed her eyes, while Tamra dipped a coppery fingertip in the dark blue-black ointment and gently circled Lorene's lids, drawing out the lines from the outer creases. "You'll get used to doing this every morning. If I remember my history rightly, we started this after the first settlers began getting a lot of cataracts.... There; you're finished."
"And what now, my mistress?" Lorene grinned, straining for a look in the wall mirror.
"Oh no, lady," Tamra laughed, and snagged a rich fur throw from the daybed to hang over pegs on the mirror's sides. "I want to surprise you, too. I won't fuss much with hair right now, since we are taking some time. But give me a few minutes, and I'll find something in here that will knock Lord Maril back into his chair."
Lorene started at that. "Why would I want to do that, Tamra?"
The older woman softened her smile lovingly, and said, "Child...anyone
with eyes can tell. Now let me work, and we'll see if we can't set a little
fire under Maril's kettle."
Maril was pacing back and forth before the great wood-framed fireplace in the manor's living room-study. He paused for a moment to take a cigar from a humidor on the kaf table, fit it into his holder and light it; then he was off again, smoke swirling about his head in the speed of his passage.
Funkner's eyes twinkled as he watched the younger man from his chair. "Maril, I've seen broody hens less nervous than you. You're going to walk a rut right through the hearth rug and into the paving stones. And you usually don't smoke until after supper; isn't that your second this hour?"
"Huh?" Maril said abstractedly. His pacing never slowed.
The doctor chuckled softly, murmuring, "Perhaps I should give you a little Hyperadryl to calm you down.... You certainly don't need a love potion!" More loudly: "How are your strawberry mines in Mosca doing?"
It took a few seconds longer, but that one penetrated; Maril suddenly stopped dead with a double take. "Wotnhel?"
"Well, I had to wake you up somehow. Relax, Mar; it's only been ten minutes since Tamra called, and she said all was well."
"Well, what are they doing, having a tea party or something?"
"I have no idea, but I'm sure we'll find out...soon enough for even your love-struck heart."
Maril threw him another sharp glance. "What are you talking about, Erl?"
"Mar, it's fairly obvious if you keep your eyes and ears open; and I've been trained for that."
Funkner shrugged. "I leave that to you to decide. But, if it helps, I think it's reciprocated."
Maril stared at the doctor again, then up the hall toward where Lorene was closeted. He said no more; but Funkner could swear that Maril's soul was leaping out of that gaze.
A few minutes later, someone cleared their throat in the hall's archway. The two men glanced over to find Tamra standing there. "My lords," she said, bowing slightly, then stepped aside and waved her hand toward the door. Out from the shadows stepped Lorene, radiant in the glow of her golden flesh, the gleam of her dazzling white smile, and the beauty of her garb.
Tamra had indeed worked quickly; she had found a pair of emerald-green pants piped in thin gold at the seams, then topped it with a blouse of white silk into which a floral design in a finer silk had been woven. The blouse was just a shade tight, and was slash-necked low, revealing the swell of Lorene's breasts; while the collar was half a miter high, wide and stiffened, framing her elegant face and cloud of hair. Tamra had twisted those tresses up on top of Lorene's head and pinned them up to keep them out of Lorene's face; it was fast work, but it still made her look incredibly sophisticated, such was Tamra's skill.
Through a fog, Maril heard the elderly doctor complimenting Lorene and saying that the symbiont looked well established. He himself said nothing at first, but finally laid aside his cigar and slowly crossed the room to her. He took her hand and bowed over it, his gleaming eyes never leaving her face, and he softly said, "Welcome to Arjorum, lady."
"Thank you, my lord," Lorene returned as softly. She could again sense, dimly but there, that he was attracted to her. And she knew all too well how much she was attracted to him; she could feel it in the root of her now glistening body, the flame that erupted when she saw or heard him and that roared even higher when he touched her.
Somehow, strangely, she could see beyond the auric flesh to know what Maril would look like without the symbiont. And she felt that he was the handsomest man she had ever known, almost unattainable in his masculine beauty. Add to this the exotic appeal of his seeming to be a living statue, cast out of the finest of precious metals -- Lorene could feel herself clenching her toes to keep from throwing herself onto him before the others in the room, to find out what it would feel like to have his glistening flesh deep inside her.
She could care less about his wealth, his title and power; she wanted him, Maril the man. And now that she was safe from his star's harm, now that her flesh glowed as much as his did -- now was the time to start hunting for him.
Lorene's Saga Continues...