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Chapter 7

Even Indira had been doubtful. The other adults were totally unconvinced.

"I tell you, they're intelligent," insisted Julius. It was five days after the discovery of what they would eventually know as "childfood." The adults of the colony were sitting around the campfire where they made a habit of gathering every night, after the children were asleep. This night, and for two nights past, the sound of hungry weeping was mercifully absent.

It wasn't much of a fire. They had found no substance on the planet which burned well. Dry wood, or its equivalent, did not seem to exist. On the lush, verdant world of Ishtar, everything seemed to be full of succulence. When vegetation died, it never had time to dry before it was consumed by "mosses" and what looked for all the world like toadstools. (The resemblance was not superficial—the colonists had discovered early on that the pseudo-mushrooms were highly toxic.)

The mosses, when "ripe," burned the best. But it was impossible to sit in the pungent fumes without gagging, so the colonists were forced to move constantly about the fire as the soft winds in the mountain valley shifted.

"That's nonsense, Julius!" expounded Dr. Francis Adams. (He insisted on the title. Indira thought it typical of the man, whom she considered a pompous ass. To her, "doctors" were people who healed people. Adams had a Ph.D. in physics.)

Privately, she thought Adams was right. But her dislike for the man drove her to speak.

"You can't say that. I'm not sure if Julius is right, but you have to admit that it's striking how these creatures have come to understand our needs."

Adams waved a dismissive hand. "Means nothing. Pure instinct. Julius already explained that these things are chromatophoric. They react to colors as indications of emotions and needs. Khaki just happens to be the color of hunger. That's what tipped Julius off—he saw that the child's clothing was almost the same color as the one which the creatures' young turn when they want to be fed."

He made it sound as if Julius had finally figured out that two plus two makes four. Indira clenched her teeth. She had no doubt that if Adams had been the one to have discovered Manuel, he would have been paralyzed both in mind and body.

"Pure instinct. Not uncommon, you know. Newly-hatched fowl will imprint on humans, if that's the first thing they see, and—"

Julius interrupted. "That's nonsense!"

He overrode Adams' splutter of protest.

"Look, folks, I know you've all heard stories about the marvelous power of blind instinct. And there's certainly a lot of truth to many of those stories. But instinct is not magic. It does not derive from some supernatural power. Every instinctive behavior on the part of an animal is the product of its evolutionary history.

"It's true, there are many examples in natural history of instincts being short-circuited. Adams mentioned one. I can give you a better example. Cuckoos lay their eggs in the nests of other birds. When the cuckoos hatch—they're big chicks—they expel the rightful hatchlings out of the nest. The parent birds instinctively feed whatever chick is in the nest, and ignore anything outside of it. So the cuckoos get to eat, while the legitimate heirs die of hunger.

"But the reason the cuckoo's stratagem works is because it fits so perfectly into the life cycle of the other birds. The parent birds are expecting a hungry chick to feed. There—in the nest. At that time. The cuckoo hatchling bears a reasonably close physical resemblance to their own chicks, and it's at the right place and at the right time, acting the right way. So it gets fed.

"None of those criteria apply to this situation. These—will somebody think up a name, for Chrissake?"

"Lobsterpusses," proposed Hector Quintero, the pilot of the first landing boat.

Julius glared at him.

"You will burn in the fires of eternal damnation," he predicted.

"How about 'land-squids'?" suggested Janet Mbateng, the chemist.

"Never mind!" Julius exclaimed, throwing up his hands in disgust. "I should know better. I will name the critters, drawing upon my vast store of professional learning."

He winced. "Even though, in so doing, I will bring down upon my head the most ancient and feared curse known to Man."

"What's that, Julius?" asked Hector.

" 'Hell hath no fury like an amateur scorned.' "

When the laughter died down, Julius sat erect in a magisterial pose, his index finger pointed to the sky.

"I pronounce these critters—Maiatherium manuelii. We can call them 'maia' for short."

"What does it mean?" asked Indira.

"Manuel's good mother beasts."


She had liked the name, as had the others. (Adams had snorted, but even he adopted the name within two days.)

Still, Julius was unable to convince them of his thesis. As much as the colonists had confidence in him, there just seemed too many facts about the maia which pointed in the opposite direction.

First and foremost, the maia used no tools. None. Even Julius was forced to admit, after carefully studying them for weeks, that he had not observed even a temporary use of casual tools, such as chimpazees exhibit when they dig for ants with a stick.

Second, there was the placidity of the creatures. No one for years had believed in the preposterous concept that humanity evolved from "killer apes." Dart's thesis—popularized by Ardrey—had been exploded two centuries earlier, when more careful study had shown that the australopithecenes were prey rather than predator. But still, it was difficult to imagine a species evolving into intelligence without some instinct for aggression. And, for all their size and strength, the maia exhibited not a trace of belligerence.

Adams had explained the phenomenon, in his inimitable style, as being due to the fact that they were herbivores.

Julius was no longer even pretending to hold Adams in anything but contempt.

"Is that so, Doctor Adams. Tell me something—are you a big game hunter?"

"Certainly not!"

"Didn't think so. Neither am I. But I know my natural history. Are you aware, Doctor Adams, which of the earth's great animals was most feared and respected by the old big game hunters?"

Adams sniffed. "The tiger, I suppose."

Julius sneered. "No, Doctor Adams. The Cape buffalo. A pure vegetarian."

"Is that a fact, Julius?" asked Hector with interest.

The sneer was replaced with a smile. Julius liked Hector. The pilot's skills were utterly useless now, but the young Mexican had proved to be an energetic and resourceful member of the colony.

"Absolutely. It's one of the great myths, this idea that you can directly derive a creature's temperament from its diet. Absolute nonsense! 'Carnivores are mean and nasty, herbivores are sweet and kind.' " He said the words in a childish sing-song.

"You ever seen a bullfight, Hector?"

"Hey, c'mon, Julius. We don't have bullfights in Mexico anymore. Haven't had for almost a hundred years. Believe it or not, we've even given up human sacrifice."

Julius grinned. "I know, Hector. But don't lie to me. I'm sure you've seen videos. I have. One of the cruelest pastimes our species ever invented, but you can't deny it's fascinating."

Hector nodded.

"Okay. Does a bull eat meat? Nope. Would that make you feel any better, climbing into the corrida with just a cape and a sticker?"

"Hell, no!"

"Me neither."

Indira had interjected herself into the discussion.

"But those fighting bulls were bred that way, Julius."

The biologist shrugged. "True. So what? You can't make a silk purse out of a sow's ear. Evolution isn't magic. The potentiality has to be there in the first place. The fighting bulls of Spain were the product of a breeding program, true. But the program wouldn't have succeeded if bulls didn't have a capacity for violent aggression in the first place."

He poked the smoldering moss with a stiff reed, stirring it back into sluggish flame.

"What I wouldn't give for a cord of pine," he muttered. "Hell, I'd settle for a bagel. Burn better'n this crap."

Laying the reed down, he continued.

"It's true down the line, folks. Carnivores are aggressive in a particular way because they have to be to survive. But they have no monopoly on the trait."

"I agree," said Adams firmly. "It is well known that human beings are the most aggressive animals known, and we are omnivores."

Julius couldn't resist.

"We are, are we? Tell me something, Doctor Adams. You're close to forty years old, I estimate. When was the last time you got in a fist fight?"

"I have never been involved in a violent altercation."

"No kidding? Boy, what a sheltered life you must have had. I myself got into several fights when I was a teenager. How 'bout you, Hector? You come from the land of machismo. Bet you've been in more fights than you can remember."

Hector grinned. He enjoyed helping Julius bait the Doctor.

"You ain't gonna believe it, Julius, but I don't think I've been in a fight since I was fifteen. My brother."

Julius nodded. "I'm not surprised. It's probably the oldest myth of all, this idea that humans are filled with instinctive violence and aggression. Pure bullshit. We are probably the most peaceful species among the mammals."

He smiled, observing the looks of disbelief around the campfire.

"Sorry, folks. It's true. The fact is that the vast majority of human beings go through their entire lives without being involved in violence. Other than a mild experience as adolescents. Hell, most people nowadays don't even personally witness an act of violence. Whereas the vast majority of mammals—even rabbits, believe it or not—routinely commit acts of physical aggression against fellow members of their species. Human beings, on the other hand, are the most social of all animals. Cooperation, not conflict, has been the key behavioral pattern in our evolution."

"But Julius," protested Janet, "think of all the wars we've fought—all through history. Well, not for the last fifty years or so, I admit, but before then it seems like there was never a time when we weren't fighting a war. Someplace."

"Yeah, Julius," added Hector. "I hate to say it, man, but the old barrios were a rough place to live."

"I don't deny that human beings have a capacity for violence," he responded. "And when that capacity is triggered off—for social reasons, not biological ones—the violence which results is appalling because of our intelligence and our technological capability." A laugh. "I always got a kick out of those old horror movies. You know—Godzilla tramples Tokyo. What a lot of crap. If Godzilla had ever really wandered into Tokyo, there would have been a new item on restaurant menus the very next day. Godzilla soup."

He pointed a finger at Adams. "There's one thing I do agree with the Doctor about, however. It is, indeed, true that we are omnivores. But does that explain anything about our history? Human beings are omnivores, therefore—therefore what? Therefore the Inquisition? And the conquistadores? Therefore St. Francis of Assisi?"

He snorted. "Therefore nada. Zilch. When I say the name 'Inuit,' does that bring visions of slavering killers to your minds?"

People shook their heads.

"And yet they were an almost purely meat-eating people. The most carnivorous culture ever produced by the human race. Necessary, of course—not too many rice paddies in the Arctic. Now, let me turn the question around: who, in your estimation, was the most murderous single human being our species every produced?"

A brief, animated discussion followed. Various candidates were nominated, but within a short time agreement was reached.

Julius nodded. "Yeah. Adolf Hitler. A vegetarian."

Indira spoke up.

"I'm puzzled by something, Julius. If I understand you correctly, what you're saying is that the reason the maia are feeding us has nothing to do with instinct. Right?"

Julius nodded.

"Then why are they doing it? It's not as if there's anything in it for them. They give to us, without getting anything in return. How do you explain that?"

"I don't know, Indira. I'm just a biologist. I've reached the limit of my understanding. These creatures are not animals. You can't explain their behavior by pointing to their biology. I know the rest of you aren't convinced of that, but it's true. What that means is that they are feeding us because of something in their culture."

Years later, she could still remember the intensity of his stare.

"So you figure it out. You're the historian."


Eight months after that discussion, a maia died. And Julius finally won the argument.

The humans had begun mixing freely with the maia since they began eating the "childfood." (Which Julius persisted in calling upchucksalad, or pukewurst, or barfburger—to the vast irritation of Indira and the other adults.) The maia had seemed edgy around the adult humans, at first, even though they continued to feed them. Then Julius ordered everyone to start wearing as much green-colored clothing as they could find. From studying the creatures, he had concluded that green was the color of tranquillity—and love, he suspected. Thereafter, the maia seemed to relax around the adult humans.

Adams argued that their behavior stemmed from pure chromatophoric instinct. Julius insisted that the reason the color green calmed the maia was because the creatures realized that the humans understood what it meant.

"I don't think the maia are actually all that intelligent," he'd said to Indira in private later. "Sapient, yes; bright, no. Like austrolopithecenes. No, more than that—say, roughly equivalent to Homo habilis, or maybe even Homo erectus. But they're sure a lot smarter than the Doctor. At least they understand that we're intelligent."

The children, once they got over an initial hesitation, fell in love with the maia. Like giant, walking teddy bears. At first, the adult humans grew nervous at the sight of swarms of children romping around the maia—especially after crawling under a maia became a popular game. But it soon became obvious that the creatures were conscious of the childrens' actions. The maia never harmed a human child, not even inadvertantly. And they never seemed to become irritated at the children's antics—even after the children invented a new game, which they called "ride-the-maia."

The day came when Indira saw a maia pick up a child and gently place the girl on the cowl of its mantle. And she wondered.

Then the day came when Joseph Adekunle, the son of the Magellan's electronics officer, came running to her.

She watched him approach with fondness. She would never admit it to anyone (for she maintained a public stance of being an impartial mother who loved all her children equally), but the truth was that Joseph was one of her favorites. He was one of the oldest children in the colony (six, now), and big for his age. Big, and extraordinarily athletic. Only Jens Knudsen, among the boys, and Ludmilla Rozkowski, among the girls, came near to him in physical prowess. But Joseph never abused his strength, never acted the bully, never boasted or bragged. To the contrary. He was invariably helpful to the smaller children. And on two occasions that Indira knew of, when Joseph had witnessed a larger child abuse a smaller, the boy had taken the perpetrator aside and quietly informed him that if he thought he was such hot stuff Joseph would be glad to prove him wrong. He was a charismatic figure, even at the age of six, and he had become, almost as if it were a law of nature, the central figure in the children's generation.

He was also—it was obvious to Indira, even at his age—extraordinarily intelligent.

You would have been so proud of him, Susan, thought Indira, as she watched the boy race across the valley floor and begin climbing the hillside toward the camp. She remembered the electronics officer of the Magellan, with some sadness, but not much. It had been over a year since the disaster. She had even finally been able to stop grieving for her own children.

She had not known Susan Adekunle well, but on the few occasions when they had met she had taken an immediate liking to her. It was impossible not to. The Yoruba woman had been invariably witty and cheerful, in her inimitable big and booming style.

Big. Susan Adekunle had been at least six feet tall, and not at all slender.

And judging from the evidence, thought Susan, Joseph's father must have been even bigger.

The boy was now halfway up the hillside.

He certainly inherited his mother's color.

Joseph's skin color was something of a rarity in the modern age, after two centuries of unparalleled war and migration (and then, blessedly, a world at peace for the first time in millenia) had thoroughly mixed up the human gene pool. The majority of the human species had blended into various shades of brown, usually accompanied by dark hair and, more often than not, at least a trace of epicanthic fold to the eyes.

Joseph, on the other hand, is going to look like an ancient Ashanti king when he grows up.

Among the children in the colony, only Jens Knudsen and Karin Schmidt exhibited the same kind of extreme racial differentiation. They were by no means the only white children in the colony, but they were the only two who would grow up looking like Nordic stereotypes—yellow hair, bright blue eyes, skin as white as milk.

Indira's idle musings vanished as Joseph came near. Tears, she suddenly realized, were pouring from the boy's eyes.

She rose to her feet hastily.

"What's the matter?"

"There's something wrong with one of the maia!" cried Joseph. "With Wolugo!"

She had time, before she started hurrying down the hillside, to wonder at Joseph's use of the name "Wolugo." Since they began playing with the maia, the children had begun imitating the creatures' hoots. Over time, they became adept at producing the strange sounds. They even began mixing maia hoots into their own conversations.

The children began insisting that the hooting was a language. Excited, Julius had immediately experimented with his own attempts at hooting. But he had given up, after a few days, in total frustration.

"There's no way I can do it," he'd grumbled to Indira. "I had a hard enough time with Spanish, and if that hooting's a language it's totally unlike any language on Earth. Although I think it's tonal, like Chinese."

Then, snarling: "And if I have to listen to one more snotty little brat make fun of me, I'll commit mass infanticide."

Indira's interest had been aroused. She herself, unlike Julius, had an extraordinary aptitude for languages. She was fluent in seven, including all four of the global tongues (English, Spanish, Arabic and Chinese), and could make her way fairly well in a number of others.

But when she tried learning "hoot," she hit a brick wall. It did, in fact, remind her in a certain way of Chinese. (A very vague, generic, way.) But she couldn't wrap her mind around any concepts. More than once, she felt she was on the edge of grasping the inner logic of the hoots. But, always, the moment slipped away.

In the end, she gave up. Had she been certain that the hoots were really a conscious language, she would have persevered to her last breath. But she was still not convinced that Julius was right.

The children, on the other hand, for all that they had teased Julius' hopeless attempts at hooting, often expressed the opinion that—at least on the subject of the maia—Julius was the only adult in the colony who had any brains.

And for the past three months, the children had started referring to individual maia with proper names.

Even as she ran through the valley alongside Joseph, Indira could not help but smile at the memory of a conversation between the boy and Francis Adams the previous month.

Joseph had casually referred to one of the maia as "Yuloc." Adams had smiled, in his condescending way, and remarked:

"Is that what you've decided to call it?"

Joseph had given the man a look which belied his years.

"Yuloc's not an 'it.' She's a she—like almost all of the maia are. And I didn't give her the name. It's her own."


"People don't decide what to call other people. You call them by their own names."

"Is that so?" mocked Adams.

The next words, coming from a six-year-old, had astonished her.

"Yes, Francis, it is."

Adams shot to his feet like a rocket.

"You will call me Doctor Adams, young man!"

Joseph had said nothing. He had simply stared back, and up, at the man looming over him. Without a trace of fear or cringing, his face filled with a dignity she would never have imagined possible in a boy that age.


Gasping for breath, she and Joseph reached the spot in the valley where the boy was leading her. As she drew near, she saw that a large number of maia, and what looked like every child in the colony, were clustered near a grove of tubular, fleshy plants. She recognized the plants. They were the favorite food of the maia. The humans had called it "sortasaguaro," until, beginning a few months earlier, the children had started calling it "oruc," insisting that that was the proper name for the plant according to the maia. Julius immediately adopted the name, with the other adults eventually following suit.

She edged her way through the throng. At the center, she came upon a pitiable tableau. One of the maia had collapsed. The creature was lying on its side, hooting softly. Indira immediately knew the position was unnatural. She had never seen a maia lying on its side before. When the creatures slept, they simply lowered themselves straight to the ground.

Brown tones rippled through the mantles of the maia observing the scene. If the children were to be believed—and the scene she was watching gave strong support to their opinion—brown was the color of misery. The stricken maia herself was also dappled with brown hues, although the predominant color was ochre. Then, as Indira watched, the ochre faded. A few brown stripes continued to move slowly across the maia's mantle, but now green rapidly appeared and spread.

The maia surrounding the scene began hooting. There seemed, somehow, a questioning tone to the hoots.

The stricken maia herself had stopped hooting. Suddenly, to Indira's astonishment, the color of her mantle deepened—first to dark green, and then to midnight black. She had never seen that color on a maia before.

As if it were a signal, three of the maia moved to the fallen one's side. Using their cowls like great shovels, they levered the creature upright. Two other maia moved forward, one on each side of the stricken one, and leaned into her. Then, most of her weight being carried by the two helpers—

No, realized Indira suddenly, pall-bearers.

—the trio began making their slow way north. Everyone followed, maia and human, the maia softly hooting and the children sobbing.

On the way, they met Julius and Korecz, who had come to see what the commotion was about. The biologist and the doctor fell in with Indira.

"What—" Julius started to say, but fell silent at the sight of Indira's sharply upthrust hand.

Slowly, the procession made its way north, until they arrived at a grove of striking green plants, twisting vine-like things that curled and wove into each other like an enormous free-standing ball of spaghetti. The color of the stricken maia's mantle, Indira noted, was now very close to that of the vine-plants.

The "bearers" gently set the stricken maia—

Wolugo, thought Indira fiercely. Her name is Wolugo.

—down to the ground. Then, they edged back. Silence followed, for minutes. Wolugo was motionless, except for a faint movement of the fleshy flaps deep within the recesses of her mantle cavity, back of the octopoid head. Julius had often speculated that these were the inhaling orifices for some kind of lungs (or their equivalent).

The rest of the colony's adults arrived at the scene during the course of that long wait. Adams was the last to appear. The metallurgist examined the scene for a moment, then said loudly:

"Yes, of course. The elephant's graveyard."

Indira was shocked at the expression which flooded Julius' face. For a brief moment, she thought the biologist was actually going to strike the man with his fist.

She was even more shocked when she discovered that she was hoping he would.

But the moment passed.

Not long after, Wolugo died. Indira had no doubt of the moment. Deep within the mantle cavity, she could see the maia's flaps stop moving. And, in the space of but a few seconds, all color fade from her mantle, until there was nothing but gray. It seemed, to Indira, the dullest gray she had ever seen.

She found herself fighting back tears. When she realized what she was doing, she stopped fighting, and let the tears flow freely. All the humans, adult and children alike (except Adams), were doing likewise. And she saw that, across the mantles of the living maia, stately waves of brown and green were slowly moving.

A few minutes later, the maia began behaving strangely. Several of the maia left, heading back toward the oruc grove. One of those remaining began a peculiar movement on a patch of soil next to the vines—a kind of slow side-to-side two-step, dragging its peds.

After a minute or so, Indira saw that two mounds of earth were slowly piling up on either side of the patch.

Understanding struck her like a bolt of lightning. Her mouth agape, she turned to Julius.

But Julius was not there. He was already striding up the slope of the mountainside, heading toward the shell of the shattered landing boat. The place where the colony stored its tools.

Not long after, she saw him return. He was carrying a shovel in each of his hands. And over his shoulder were draped strips of various types of cloth and fabric. Green fabric. Brown fabric.

He smiled at her crookedly, but said nothing. He made a gesture to Koresz with one of the shovels. Koresz took the shovel without hesitation. And the doctor did not have to be told to drape strips of colored fabric over his shoulders.

That done, the two men advanced slowly onto the patch of cleared soil, facing the maia who was creating it.

The maia stopped, stared. Ochre bands were added to its coloration. Julius made shoo-ing motions with his hands, which, to a human, would have signaled: "Move back."

When he saw that the maia wasn't moving, Julius sighed heavily.

"Ever play football?" he asked Koresz.

"Please! I am not a barbarian."

"Well, rookie, lend me a shoulder anyway."

So saying, Julius stooped and lowered his upper body until his shoulder was butted gently against the cowl of the maia. Koresz, uncertainly, followed suit.

Then, slowly but with as much strength as he could muster, Julius attempted to push the creature back.

It might have moved an inch. Maybe. But the hoot which it emitted carried a clear tone of surprise.

Julius straightened up, grimacing, rubbing his lower back.

"As I feared," he muttered. "It's like trying to block Lawrence Taylor."

"Who?" asked Koresz.

"An ancient legend from the dawn of time, Vladimir, whose name is known only to barbarians like me who happen to be the few football fans left on Earth in these effete modern days. A hero, from the Golden Past. A demi-god. Think of Hercules, or Theseus. Or both rolled into one. Sorta like that."

He stared at the maia, chewing his upper lip.

"I guess we'll just have to try to dig around—"

Suddenly, the maia edged back until it was clear of the patch.

"Well. Thank you. Took you long enough, dimbulb."

He started digging. He and Koresz.

It took a long time to dig a grave big enough to accommodate the body of Wolugo, especially since Julius insisted on what he called "the regulation six feet." Indira, when she took her turn with the shovel (all the adult humans took a turn in the grave, even Adams—although he only lasted fifteen minutes), suggested to Julius that the maia were probably accustomed to shallow graves. But Julius had been unmoved.

"Yeah, probably so. But I finally found something that humans can do for them that they can't do very well for themselves, and I'm not about to do a slipshod job of it."

Despite her aching muscles, she found herself suddenly in agreement with his point of view.

By the time they were finished, it was late in the day. Indira was not surprised to see that, while the humans had dug the grave, the maia had been gathering clumps of oruc.

Food, to sustain the dead in their voyage.

Nor was she surprised to see that Joseph had organized the children to provide their own gifts. And so it was that when the body of the maia Wolugo was lowered into her grave, she was accompanied not only by clumps of oruc but by strips of cloth, small tools (whose use she would not have understood), toys, trinkets, and several of the small bowls that the colonists had made to eat the maia-food.

It was those last gifts, more than anything else, which brought tears to Indira's eyes.

Bowls. So that the gentle giant, if she encountered starving children in the afterworld, could once again give life to the dead.


The next day, Indira left the human camp and went to live with the maia. She remained there for months, refusing all contact with adult humans (even Julius; but he was not hurt, because he understood), and refusing to speak to the children if they used any Terran language.

When she returned, the adults gathered about the evening campfire. Her first words were simply:

"The name 'maia' is wrong. They are called owoc."


When she told Joseph, he nodded, and corrected her pronunciation.


Interlude: Nukurren

For Nukurren, the first two days after her capture were a blur. She recovered consciousness briefly, at several intervals. But beyond a vague awareness of Dhowifa, she recognized nothing before lapsing again into darkness.

Then, just after dawn on what she would learn was the third day since the massacre of the caravan, she awoke clear-headed. Very, very weak. But clear-headed.

The first thing she saw, out of her good eye, was Dhowifa. He was nestled under her cowl. From his closed eyes, and the way his beak and arms twitched, she thought he was dreaming.

"You're so cute when you're asleep," she whispered softly.

His eyes popped open, glaring at her balefully.

"I am not asleep. I'm thinking."

She began a retort to the effect that, the last time she remembered, he was as mindless as a snail. But the look of love in the curl of his arms, and the green hues which rippled across his mantle, stopped the words in her sac.

"Where are we?" she asked. Then, feeling a strange motion, she looked around.

She could only see to one side, but she saw that she and Dhowifa were being carried on a litter held by two of the hunnakaku. They seemed to be part of a caravan of demons and hunnakaku, climbing a trail on the side of a mountain. On the slopes above, she could see three demons stick-pedding alongside.

Those strange peds are very effective in rough terrain, she thought. Then, seeing the shades of brown in their skins: But why are they so miserable?

Her attention was drawn by another demon, who was stick-pedding alongside the litter. The demon was very large. Not as tall as the demonlord, but heavier. Nukurren was mostly struck by its color. The demon's skin was almost pure white, under the strange yellow armor which covered the top of its head and the rear of its upper torso.

That armor looks too soft to be much good. And this seems a strange time and place to be consumed by passion.

She voiced the last thought aloud. Hearing the sound, the demon looked down at her. The bright blue color of its eyes made her instinctively tighten her muscles. Only pure fury could turn a gukuy's eyes that color. But the creature did not seem enraged, and the tension brought pain to her ravaged body. She slowly relaxed.

"I don't think their emotions show on their mantles," said Dhowifa softly. "I have been watching them for days. They all looked the same to me, at first, except the big one. The terrible one who hurt you so badly. But now I can tell them apart, and their colors never change. Most of them are brown-colored, of one shade or another. But there is this big one"—he whistled amusement— "who looks like it's in perpetual heat. Some of the others are like that, although none is as white as this one. And there is the other big demon, who is always pure black. Nobody can be that implacable. Not even that monster."

"The demonlord."

Dhowifa glowed ochre.

"I am not sure they are demons, Nukurren."

Nukurren started to whistle amusement, but the rippling in her sac caused a wave of pain.

"And what do you know about demons?"

Exquisite turquoise—irritation, leavened by affection—rippled across Dhowifa.

"Would demons be friends with hunnakaku?" he demanded.

Nukurren pondered the question.

"It does seem unlikely," she admitted.

"And there's more, Nukurren. The—demons, whatever they are—you won't believe this, but I've seen it with my own eyes. They eat the hunnakaku ogoto. In fact, as far as I can tell, that's all they ever eat."

Nukurren was stunned into silence. "Ogoto" was the Anshaku word. The Kiktu called it "putoru." The hunnakaku themselves, in their own language, called it "childfood."

Gukuy spawn only lived on ogoto when they were newly born. Within a few eightdays, they were able to feed on soft meat. But the tough plants which were the exclusive diet of hunnakaku were much too difficult for the young sub-gukuy to chew and digest. So they lived on childfood—the regurgitated contents of the adults' stomachs—for years. Until they were half-grown.

"Are you saying these monsters are children?"

"I'm not sure, Nukurren. It would seem so—but if there's one thing I've decided, these past two days, it's that there are too many peculiar things about these—demons—to jump to any conclusions. But I'm sure I'm right about the ogoto. For one thing, there are seven hunnakaku in this party. They freed the four who were in the cages, but where did the other three come from? They must have brought the hunnakaku with them. Why would they do that if not for the ogoto? Hunnakaku can't fight."

A sharp pain stabbed through Nukurren's ruined eye. She reached up an arm, felt a strange thing covering it.

To her surprise, Dhowifa pulled her arm away.

"Don't touch that!" he cried.

"What is it?"

"I don't know. Some kind of thing made of plants." He hesitated. "One of the demons put it there. On the first day. It put similar ones on your other wounds. I tried to pull the things off, of course, because I thought it was trying to poison you. But it wouldn't let me, and it's much stronger than I am. Then, it got this other one—" Dhowifa gestured toward the large white demon who was still stick-pedding alongside the litter "—to talk to me. It speaks Kiktu. I don't understand Kiktu as well as you do, and it's got a horrible accent, but as near as I can make out, it was telling me that the things will help you heal. And I noticed that it's wearing one too. I think it's one of the ones you injured."

Nukurren looked again at the white demon. On one of its upper—tentacles? no, they were jointed like its peds—its upper limbs, a large poultice was strapped.

"So I decided to leave them there," continued Dhowifa. "I think you should leave them alone."

He doesn't understand, Nukurren realized. Oh, Dhowifa, now I must cause you more pain. But better that than to lie.

"It doesn't matter, dear one," she said softly. "I am going to die, anyway."

She started to explain about the diseases which mantle-rupturing wounds always brought in their train. Dhowifa, the poor emotional little thing, tried to interrupt, but Nukurren plowed on. Better that he should face the truth now than to live in the fairy-tale world that truemales preferred.

Suddenly, to her astonishment, the truemale started slapping her with his arms.

"Will you shut up for a moment—you, you clamhead!"

Nukurren stared at him. The azure irritation which suffused Dhowifa's mantle was not, this time, mottled by any affectionate traces of green.

"I know about those diseases," said the truemale angrily. "Do you think I haven't been filled with anguish, worrying about it? Self-righteous fool. Snail!"

He took a deep breath.

"But this big white demon says—well, at least, I think that's what it's been trying to tell me—that you can be healed. When we get to where we're going."

"And where's that?"

Orange surprise. "Didn't you see it? We've already started up the slopes."

He stretched out a tentacle, pointing up and ahead.

"The Chiton."

Nukurren twisted, looked where he was pointing. The sight was awesome.

"We're going there? Why?"

"Because that's where the demons live. Or come from, I'm not quite sure. That's where the ones live who it says can heal you."

After a short silence, Dhowifa added:

"And, if I understand it, that's where the one lives who will decide what to do with us."

"And who is that?" She felt dread at the answer.

"The Mother of Demons."

Suddenly, a voice spoke in Kiktu: "How do you feel?"

Swiveling her remaining eye, Nukurren saw that it was the large white demon who had spoken. Its Kiktu was crude, and, as Dhowifa had said, the accent was horrible—harsh, and sibilant. But Nukurren had no difficulty understanding it.

"Better," she replied. "Very weak, but my brain is clear." She gestured at the demon's injured limb.

"And you?"

The demon flexed its limb—its right limb, Nukurren saw—and examined it.

"It will heal," replied the monster. "But it is painful. You almost tore it off."

For a moment, Nukurren and the demon stared at each other in silence. The bright blue color of its eyes was distracting. Despite Dhowifa's opinion, Nukurren automatically reacted to that color as if she were facing an enraged enemy. But, in truth, the whiteness of its hide never showed the slightest trace of blue fury. And, though the demon's shape and posture was like nothing Nukurren had ever seen, not even in her worst nightmares, there seemed something—

A memory came to her suddenly. Long ago, shortly after Dhowifa and she had sought refuge among the Kiktu, a young Kiktu warrior had challenged her to single combat. The cause, according to the warrior—Kokokda was her name—was her outrage at Nukurren's sexual perversity. But that had been a mere pretext, Nukurren knew. The truth was that the young warrior could not resist the challenge of fighting such a fearsome-looking gukuy, especially one who was reputed to have been a great Anshac warrior.

The combat had been swift and brutal. Kokokda had been quite good, very fast and strong, but much too full of bravado and incaution. It had not taken Nukurren long to leave the young Kiktu dazed and bleeding on the ground, even though she had been handicapped by the need not to kill or cripple her opponent. (It would have been tactless to slaughter Kokokda, given that Nukurren and Dhowifa were seeking sanctuary among her tribe.)

Days later, after recovering sufficiently from her wounds, Kokokda had entered the yurt occupied by Nukurren and Dhowifa. For a long moment, she had stood there, saying nothing. At first, Nukurren had thought Kokokda was seeking to renew the conflict, until, from the subtleties of color and posture, she realized that the young Kiktu was simply seeking to acknowledge a worthy foe and, in the confused way of youth, to gain her victor's respect.

Diplomacy had worked well then, and, Nukurren decided, would possibly work now also, even with a demon.

"You fought well," she said to the white demon.

"I fought like a fool," came the instant reply. "I'm lucky to be alive. I wouldn't be if you hadn't been outnumbered."

It was the simple truth, of course, but Nukurren tried again to flatter the demon with reassurances of its awesome prowess and skill. She had not gotten far into her peroration when the monster's—beak?—gaped wide and began emitting ghastly noises, like a swamp haktu barking in heat.

"I think that's the way the demons whistle when they think something's funny," whispered Dhowifa. Nukurren swiveled her eye back to examine her lover. Her arms made the gesture of skepticism. Ochre uncertainty rippled across Dhowifa's mantle.

"Well, I'm not sure of it, but I think so. As I told you, I've been watching them. They do it a lot."

Nukurren gazed back at the demon. The monster had ceased the hideous barking noises, but Nukurren saw that its—yes, she decided, it is a beak—was still gaping open. Within, on the top and bottom both, were a row of strange little white—stones?

"You are the biggest and ugliest gukuy I ever saw," announced the demon. Nukurren heard Dhowifa's hiss of displeasure at the insult to his beloved, but Nukurren shared none of it. Truth, after all, was the truth. Nukurren was the biggest and ugliest gukuy she had ever met.

"And you are also the biggest liar." A short, sudden burst of barking. "I fought like a stupid young fool, and that's the simple truth." More barking, very brief.

"Do not be offended. I'm the biggest and ugliest"—here came a word Nukurren couldn't quite grasp— "that I know. I'm not the quickest, but I'm the strongest. I rely too much on it." (A word, again, which Nukurren couldn't make out, but she thought it was a name) "is always warning me that my overconfidence is going to get me killed." The demon flexed its injured limb, and a strange crunching motion seemed to briefly flit across the features of its bizarre face. "And sure enough, it almost did."

A long silence followed. Nukurren tried to think of something to say, but she was feeling very weak and her mind was becoming foggy again.

"You were very brave," said the demon suddenly. Then, a moment later, its harsh accent somehow even harsher: "Why are you a slaver?"

"I am not," Nukurren replied.

"You were with them, and you fought for them."

"That is true. I was hired by the caravan master as her bodyguard. I did not like the work, but it was all I could find for Dhowifa and myself."


Nukurren hesitated, then, too tired and weak to think of a clever answer, responded with the blunt truth: "We are perverts." She heard Dhowifa hiss with displeasure, but ignored him. "We are despised and outcast because of it," she continued stolidly.

Again, the features on the monster's face crunched, although it seemed to Nukurren, in some way too subtle for her to grasp clearly, that it crunched differently. She heard Dhowifa whisper: "I think that weird thing it does with its face is the way demons gesture." Nukurren decided Dhowifa was probably correct. Other than the colors of their mantles, gukuy used their arms to express sentiments and attitudes. But the faces of the demons were armless.

The demon spoke. "I do not understand that word you used." Here the monster fumbled with the term, trying to reproduce it.

"Pervert," said Nukurren slowly and clearly. Dhowifa hissed again. "I am too tired to lie, dear one," said Nukurren softly.

"What does that word mean?" demanded the demon.

Nukurren explained, briefly and bluntly. Dhowifa was hissing like a kettle.

After hearing Nukurren's explanation, the monster fell silent. Nukurren examined it closely, but could see no indication of its attitude.

I think Dhowifa's right. Their—mantles?—never change color.

Suddenly, the monster moved away quickly, stick-pedding ahead toward the front of the caravan. Soon thereafter, a few loud and sharp commands were uttered in some utterly strange language and the caravan came to a halt. Moments later, Nukurren saw a number of demons approaching the litter. At the forefront was the white demon and—she felt Dhowifa flinch at her side—the demonlord. Black as night, implacable.

Seeing them side by side, Nukurren saw that the white demon was larger than the black one. Not quite as tall, but wider and more massive. The other demons—there were a total of eight in the approaching party—were considerably smaller. Four of them seemed to be flushed brown with misery. The remaining two were colored a very light brown, almost white, but not the same pale hue as the biggest demon. And as they came nearer, Nukurren suddenly realized that the strange attachments on top of their heads which she had thought to be soft armor were some kind of natural growths.

Parasites? she wondered. Some kind of skinny worms? No, that doesn't make sense. They must be part of their bodies.

The color of the growths varied, she saw. The growths on top of the big white demon were pale yellow, very bright. One of the other whitish demons also had yellow head growths, although the color was much darker, almost ochre. The growths on the remaining demons was dark brown, except for that on the heads of the demonlord and one other. Their growths were pure black. And there was something different about the shape of the demonlord's head growths—like thousands of tiny slender worms, also, but worms which were tightly coiled.

The eight demons drew alongside Nukurren's litter. Now that she could see them together, standing still in clear daylight, Nukurren saw that there were other subtle differences between the demons as well. The body shapes of three of them were somehow different, and the front of their mantles, under the light armor which covered them, seemed misshapen.

"Tell him what you told me," commanded the white demon, gesturing to the demonlord.

"Him?" thought Nukurren, astonished. This monster was a male?

Not possible. The white demon's Kiktu must be worse than I thought.

But then, again: "Tell him."

Could it be?

"Are you a male?" Nukurren blurted to the demonlord.

All the demons began that horrible barking noise. Nukurren decided that Dhowifa was right—they were laughing. She was relieved to see that the demonlord was laughing also, and, when the barking ceased, that its—his—beak was gaping open, with those peculiar little stones exposed. The stones in his beak, she was interested to note, were every bit as white as the ones in the white demon's beak.

Yes, Dhowifa's right. And that must be their gesture of amusement.

The gesture seemed even more pronounced on the part of the white demon, and then, as if the creature could read her mind, the demon said:

"This"—it gaped its beak wider— "is our gesture of amusement. We call it a—" Here came a bizarre word.

"Gurinu?" asked Nukurren.

"Close enough," replied the white demon. "And I am also a male. These"—here the demon pointed to the three whose body shapes Nukurren had thought to be somehow different— "are female."

One of the three females stepped forward. She was light brown in color. Her eyes, like the black demon and one other, were very dark brown, almost black. Her head growths, like those of the demonlord, were also pure black, although hers were very straight and long. Now that she was close, Nukurren could see that her head growths were tied back behind her head by a cord. She was almost as tall as the black and white demons, although much less massive, especially in her upper mantle.

The female demon reached up with her tentacles—upper limbs, rather—and untied the cords which bound together the strips of lacquered yopo stems which made up her body armor. She drew the armor aside, and Nukurren could see that beneath, protruding from the light brown skin of her mantle, were two bizarre, soft-looking growths. Looking over at the male demons, Nukurren saw that no such growths protruded from their mantles.

"There are other differences," said the female demon, in a voice which, though harsh, was much lighter in tone than that of the male demons. Her Kiktu was better than that of the black and white demons, with a less pronounced accent.

The female demon retied her armor. "But we won't get into that now. Or else we'll waste half the day while" (here came a strange word, which Nukurren was sure was a name) "shows off."

All the demons except the big white one began barking loudly. The big white one, to Nukurren's amazement, suddenly changed color. It was a subtle change, but there was no mistaking it—the monster was turning pink!

Apprehension? wondered Nukurren. That doesn't make sense.

It made even less sense when the white demon's beak slowly began to gape wide open, in the gesture of amusement.

He's embarrassed, Nukurren suddenly realized. But, I think, not displeased.

The white demon spoke again: "Tell him what you told me."

To the demonlord, Nukurren repeated the explanation for her presence, and Dhowifa's, among the slavers.

For a moment, the demonlord was silent. Then he made a peculiar jerking motion with his head and turned away. He said something to the white demon in the strange-sounding demon language, and began rapidly stick-pedding away, barking out commands. Moments later the caravan was in motion again. All of the demons left the vicinity of the litter, except the big white one and the female one who had stripped away her armor.

"I think you just saved your life," said the white demon softly. (Here a strange word, but Nukurren was sure it was the name of the demonlord) "was beginning to have second thoughts about not killing you immediately when we captured you. Now he won't."

Dhowifa began to speak, but Nukurren cut him off.

"Why not?"

The white demon did something odd with its mantle, as if quickly raising and lowering its upper torso—where its cowl would be if it had one.

"You were not entirely with the slavers by choice. He hates slavers. We all do. And besides, he's curious."

"About us?"


Dhowifa now spoke, very softly, in his broken Kiktu. "You is—are, not by us, offended?"

"Offended?" asked the white demon. "Because you are"—he struggled with the unfamiliar word— "perverts?"

Dhowifa made the gesture of assent, and it was obvious to Nukurren that the demon understood the meaning of the arm-curls.

Again, the two demons gaped wide their beaks.

"It means nothing to us," said the female one. She moved closer to the white demon, and reached out one of her limbs. Then, with the odd little stick-tentacles at its tip, she began slowly caressing the back of the male demon's head, under the long, soft, bright yellow head-growths.

"My name is"—here she spoke slowly, carefully enunciating— "Ludumilaroshokavashiki, and this is Dzhenushkunutushen. We have often been lovers. More and more often, now, in preference to others." Her beak gaped. "Soon I think he will ask me to be his mate, if he can muster the courage."

The male demon's white hide was again suffused with pink.

"And what will you say?" asked Nukurren.

"I will say 'yes,' " replied the female demon, very softly.

Nukurren stared at the big white demon, Dzhenushkunutushen. The demon stared back at her.

And suddenly, uncertainly, deep within a monster's eyes, eyes the color of insensate blue fury, Nukurren caught a glimpse of something she had never thought to find in her bleak and lonely existence.


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