(Copyright) 1997 - 2006  G. Dallman
March 14, 1997 Version 3.01
Revision Date: 05/30/2006



True Colors

Aarrl was clearly impatient to be about his duties by the time Howard was finished dressing, Aarrl was clearly impatient to be about his duties. Having come all this way, he was sure those duties didn't include a study of Human sartorial habits.

"Hurry" he growled. "Alignment will be upon us and you will still be applying you foot-gear."

There it was again. That word - 'Alignment'. What did it mean? Alignment of what? Howard was still sitting on his pallet, head halfway between his knees, trying to unravel a knot in the lace of his right boot. If he'd been in a more dignified position, he would have asked. As it was, all Howard could do, with his diaphragm compress to uselessness, was grunt, cursing whoever (or what-ever) it was that tied about sixteen knots in his laces.

After a few more seconds, the Ursine started making a 'huffing' sound through his half-open muzzle. If ever there was a sound that screamed 'Impatience', that was it! Giving up on lacing his right boot, the Human got up and headed for the door, laces flagging behind him.

As he turned into the corridor to follow Aarrl, Howard thought at first they were going back toward the airlock and landing bay. Instead, at the first cross-corridor before the airlock, they turned left to follow another tunnel-like passage that ran parallel to the port (?) side of the landing bay, if they were indeed heading forward. In the short time he'd been aboard the Dirhal ship, Howard still hadn't figured out forward from aft, as his only point of reference, the landing bay, seemed to be about in the middle.

After about a kilometer of corridor, they came to a large juncture where the passage intersected ramps leading both up and down. Taking an up ramp, they trudged upward through eleven or twelve switch-back turns. The Human had no idea how much vertical distance they had covered, but it seemed they'd been slogging upward for several kilometers. In all this time, he hadn't seen another being save Aarrl. It was as if they were alone on the huge ship.

After interminable hiking, the two finally reached the summit of the ramp, which exited into a large open space with corridors, like the spokes of a wheel, radiating out in all directions. Unerringly, Aarrl angled off to the right, into a corridor running at a forty-five degree angle from where they stood. This new passage was in almost every way like the ones before: The same height and width, and the same yellow-green painted walls and ceiling. The one difference was that here the doors lining the corridor were closed, as though vast areas of the ship had been sealed off.

In his considerable travels through tens of kilometers of corridors and passages, Howard had yet to see any dust or other signs of disuse. It was as though an unseen army of janitors constantly swept every centimeter of floor, dusting every corner. The only sign of wear was the occasional claw mark in the smooth wooden floor.

It still seemed strange to the Human that a starship should have plank floors. After a moment, a childhood memory came to him of his dog 'Dingey', spinning about on the polished kitchen floor, her legs splayed. It obviously wouldn't do to have masses of Dirhal and Sasskal slipping and sliding about in the heat of battle!

At last, the corridor ended in a large pressure door, very much like the one on the shuttle bay air-lock. Even with his ferocious strength, Aarrl had to exert considerable strength to open the massive portal. As the door swung silently open, Howard looked into a darkened room. A faint illumination emanated from its farthest interior. As he stood at the threshold, Aarrl nudged the Human's elbow, prompting him to enter. Howard took a step inside and cool darkness enveloped him.

After a moment, as his eyes adjusted, the dim illumination resolved into a transparent wall about six meters tall and twice as wide. A railing about 130 centimeters above the floor ran the full length of the window and was mounted directly to the its surface. Howard stood enthralled as he realized that most of the light was radiating from a near-full Earth, small and pale blue in the distance. Even more distant was the moon, partially obscured by the Earth. Judging from pictures he'd seen, and the angle of the unseen sun, Ripley estimated they were sunward, perhaps two million kilometers from Earth.

Aarrl stood silently, as he had in the shuttle, letting the Human take in the extraordinary vista. To Howard it was as if his old life had passed away and all had become new. At that moment, Howard knew, metaphorically, he could never go back. The path of his new life now lay in a completely different direction from that distant blue orb . That first exhilarating moment of discovery now seemed long ago, but in truth it had been only two days before that he'd boarded the shuttle on that cold mountainside.

Staring out at the unblinking stars, Howard though upon what he now considered his old life. Of all the billions of souls below, there was only one he would really miss. In the rush to make his rendezvous with the unknown, he'd never said goodbye to his father. Even though they'd grown distant over the years, sorrow blossomed. Ripley threw it on the mounting heap of regrets and pain that was, aside from The blessed curse of The Dream and the clothes he wore, now the only remnant of his former life.

Howard didn't know how long he stood staring out the window, but when he again became aware of his surroundings, there were again tears running down his cheeks. A hazy palm-print on the glass showed where he'd touched it as though reaching out to distant Earth. Howard realized Aarrl had shown marvelous insight in bringing him to this place. Aarrl watched the Human, saying nothing.

After a few more minutes, Howard was able to shake off his blanket of pain. Looking out at the wondrous scene before him, it was impossible for Ripley to hold back the questions that had been accumulating, like an electric charge, since the first moment of his incredible adventure.

Turning away from the window, Howard took a half-step to stand next to Aarrl, who was still patiently watching, as though observing the Human's reactions and gauging when the moment would be right to ask a difficult question or reveal a painful truth. As he approached, Howard reached out and put his hand next to the Ursine's, just touching it where the large, clawed, appendage rested on the rail. Aarrl looked down at him, but didn't react otherwise to this slight familiarity.

"You have questions," he rumbled. This was said as a statement. He already knew the answer.

"Oh yes. So many, I don't know were to start," Howard whispered.

"Let us then start at the beginning. I will tell you about who we are and where we come from. Is this not one of your questions?"

Howard nodded. Suddenly, he couldn't speak, so great was his desire for answers.

For a moment, Aarrl was silent. Then he growled a short phrase in his own language, as to an unseen listener.

"I have asked ShipSoul, the T'Roann of SoulRipper, to come-about to face our Home world, Taahas."

Immediately, the Earth/Moon slued to the right and disappeared from view, leaving only velvet blackness, sprinkled with brilliant stars. Howard could detect no sensation of movement. Aarrl touched the window with one black claw and a green reticule appeared, bracketing a faint yellow star, in the middle of the constellation Pegasus.

"Behold. Senn. Center of our empire, the star you call '51 Pegasi'. It burns forty-two light-years yonder. Most of the star systems of our empire are yet further beyond. Until our probe found your world, we had long avoided travel into this region of space because it brought us closer to the Feltah."

"Who, or what, are the Feltah?" Howard asked. The strange name somehow seemed... foul on his tongue.

Aarrl paused for a moment, staring out the window, gathering his thoughts.

"They are our ancient Enemy. Before The Patrons created us, for almost fifteen thousand years, they fought a never-ending war with the Feltah. That war continues even now, in the distant past it cost The Patrons the very Jewel of their Soul."

Aarrl paused, once again lost in thought.

"Long ago, before The Patrons brought us forth, Taahas was the sixth planet form our sun, a frozen, desolate world. In its place as the fourth planet was Lovely Teehem. Treasured Teehem was Sacred to the Ta-Kee, as The Patrons called themselves. They literally worshipped the ground they walked upon. Originally, before its loss, the meaning of 'Teehem' meant 'Sacred Home'.

"Then came the Feltah.

"The Feltah are a race of star-faring Cephalopodal beings. Though they are air breathing, they retain an invertebrate, seventeen tentacled form. They are without mercy, an implacable enemy, almost never knowing defeat. Never has one been found alive, for they will destroy their entire fleet, rather than smell defeat. At the first scent of anything short of complete victory, they always destroy themselves. They come in such numbers, this is considered a trivial sacrifice. It would be easy to call them evil, yet Life knows no Good, or Evil, only Survival."

Here, Aarrl stopped for a moment, as though continuing brought painful memories.

"Once the Feltah infest a planet, they are impossible to remove. Their technology allows them to burrow to its very core, like star-traveling worms. In your language, the meaning of the Ta-Kee word Feltah is Burrower.

"At a time fourteen thousand, two hundred years before the present, the Feltah gained a presence on Lost Teehem, the now-dead Home planet of The Patrons. Their technology ate the heart out of Doomed Teehem, throwing it back at the Ta-Kee as mighty weapons. Long they fought, with terrible weaponry, until Beautiful Teehem was reduced to utter ruin. Still, the Feltah remained, their mighty bastions penetrating to the planet's core.

"The Patrons, now decimated and Home-less, mourned their lost world, but vowed never to cede it to the Feltah. Better, they said, to see it dissolved in the sun than home to the Reavers.

"With all hope of regaining Precious Teehem gone, an empire-wide effort was mounted to build a Gravity Lance the size of small moon. For seventy years, The Patrons labored, secreted away at the far edge of our solar system. At long last, the Gravity Lance was complete and with great hope and unutterable sorrow it was dispatched to a position equidistant between Teehem and its primary, Senn. With heart-wrenching prayers for forgiveness, the Gravity Lance was activated. Within one-eighth part of an orbit, Sacred Teehem was ripped from its plain and flung Senn-ward, to be deposited in an orbit but two million glem from its chromosphere.

"Martyred Teehem now boils with the heat of molten iron. Its seething atmosphere, now a brew of gaseous metal and silicon. Thus, the Feltah infestation was removed from the Senn system, though at such a terrible price."

Howard thought Aarrl would not be able to continue, as large tears rolled down his dark furred muzzle, his huge hands crushing the railing before him. They stood in silence for several minutes, Aarrl, near overcome with grief for a long-dead world, the Human not knowing how to comfort him. Howard watched Senn burn silently in the distance, beckoning him, its photons forty two years older than when they left. It was a long while before Aarrl could continue. However, with a huge sigh, he pulled himself together and continued his narration.

"In the depth of their grief, The Ta-Kee swore a mighty Vow that they would never, because of their own weakness, suffer such loss again. Long they searched this region of the galaxy, looking for creatures suitable to become the Progenitors of a new races of Warrior Beings. Thus, thirteen thousand years ago they found your planet, abundant with the most vicious and cunningly intelligent predators to be found anywhere."

Gradually, as Aarrl told of the birth of his home-world, he was able to shake off the terrible pall of sorrow that threatened to consume him.

"With The Progenitors of the Sennal secured, The Patrons once again used their massive Gravity Lance. This time, it was to bring life to the lifeless, frozen planet Taahas. With the Gravity Lance, Taahas and its moon A’semmis were were gently moved inward from their previous orbits and installed in the vacant orbit of Perished Teehem. Coincident to this, the orbit of A’Semmis was adjusted to match the lunar cycle of the Progenitor World.  Also, for the benefit of the new Warrior species, the rotational period of Taahas was adjusted from thirty-seven to twenty four hours . Thus began the mighty work of terraforming of Taahas and the creation of a new Home for themselves and their new Warrior Races. For The Ta-Kee, it was an act of racial penitence, which they gladly undertook."

"You've mentioned The Patrons many times," Howard asked "could you tell me about them?"

His request seemed to have a very agreeable effect on Aarrl, as the Ursine relaxed his strangle hold on the railing and once again looked directly at Howard rather than staring morosely out the window.

"The story of Ta-Kee is very long, for they ruled their small empire of stars for over one hundred and twenty thousand years. If anywhere in the Universe there was a Golden Age, it was while The Patrons were in their prime.

"The Ta-Kee, were a bipedal, Reptilian race, small of stature. They averaged about a meter in height. In disposition, they were much given to trade and scientific exploration. Violence appalled them, for they had not the temperament or physiology for it and saw it as an Evil waste. Profit was an article of their religion. They believed God put them in the Universe to create wealth, and this they did, splendidly.

"Their trade routes once extended throughout this arm of the galaxy. When they departed, they took that knowledge with them. The T'Roannal will not reveal what they know.  By the command of the patrons, that knowledge is a forbidden subject."

"They just… left?"

"Yes. Another very sad story." Aarrl continued. "Three thousand, three hundred and seventeen years ago, The Patrons vanished, completely. They never announced their departure. It was as though one day Taahas teemed with Ta-Kee and the next they were gone… All gone. We think the T'Roannal know where they are, but are forbidden to share this also."

Aarrl looked about the chamber, in a conspiratorial manner, as though checking for unseen listeners.

"ShipSoul knows for certain, but will not discuss it. We have asked the T'Roannal often, but the answer always is that if they tell us everything, it would spoil their fun. The T'Roannal gain no greater pleasure than watching the other Children of Senn rediscover their creators' secrets."

It was a relief for Howard to see that Aarrl had recovered from the dreadful sorrow brought on by the telling of Teehem's Loss. As though lecturing a class, the Ursine continued, one hand on the rail before him, once again staring out the window into the limitless Void.

"In all the Age of The Patrons, before the coming of the Feltah, there was but one war. About twenty-two thousand years before the Fall of Sacred Teehem, a race of methane breathing Beings, who's name is now but a pebble in the stream of Existence, contested the ownership of a system containing nine gas-giant planets. While this system was well within the sphere of the Ta-Kee Empire, it was of little use to The Patrons themselves.

"Propelled by a fear of losing more star systems to the Methane Breathers, the war continued. Lives and profits were wasted. Finally, after over twenty years of intermittent conflict, The Patrons ceded ownership of the system rather than sustain further loss.

"However, the Methane Breathers' ownership of their new worlds was short lived. They abandoned them less than two hundred years after their annexation when their Home-world was destroyed in the accidental explosion of its primary."

The thought of a race both powerful, and foolish enough to have exploded their own sun in some sort of titanic industrial accident, simultaneously excited and repelled the Human.

"How did they do that?" he asked.

"The Methane Breathers thought they could gain considerable economic value form a very small increase in the output of their sun. A process had been discovered and was implemented, which seemed to work quite well for about fifty years. Suddenly, over a span of only a few hours, an instability developed in the photosphere of their sun. Spreading inward to its core, it caused their sun to flare with a power a hundred-thousand times its normal output.

"In a brief period, as the expanding shock front and radiation from the exploding star swept throughout their system, all perished. Their entire Home system was immolated all the way to its outermost cometary cloud.

"Very shortly thereafter, their civilization collapsed, bringing a cessation of contact with the remainder of their empire. Their remaining colonies quickly succumbed from a lack of materials that could only be supplied by their Home-Worlds, and in less than thirty years, they became extinct as a species."

"Do you have any other enemies?" Howard asked, totally enthralled by the scarcely imagined richness of alien cultures.

"Such as the Feltah and the Methane Breathers? - No. And it is a good thing too. For the Feltah are more than enough to keep all the Dirhal and Sasskal alive permanently employed. However, we do have an annoying number of client worlds which occasionally clamor for independence. It is for their own good that such cannot be allowed to happen. Many are very marginal worlds, having no real economy of their own. Their trade with the Sennal Races is their life's blood, though frequently the more naive fail to see this. Their naiveté leads them to a lack of appreciation for the Gifts of The Patrons."

If Howard had thought the Sennal Beings were going to turn out to be Utopians, it seemed he was destined for disappointment. While they were overflowing with Idealism, they likewise seemed far from perfect. In the back of his mind, Howard still wanted to believe the Sennal were the benevolent, all-knowing type.

Sensing that bubble about to burst, he *had* to ask, "what happens when a colony world insists on gaining its independence?"

"We do not allow it," Aarrl rumbled.


Aarrl growled with impatience. "It is a matter of greatest Pride amongst the Sennal that we have never failed to curb such foolishness. Almost always, it is just a matter of visiting the offending world with a ship such as this. Dirhal and Sasskal most often never need set foot on a planet before the inhabitants offer up their misguided leadership. Otherwise, there must be payment, in blood."

Howard found that the sort of blood payment the Sasskal would exact wasn't hard to imagine. However, he couldn't help himself. He felt compelled to ask what the next step in this evil progression might be. Sensing the drift of his question, Aarrl gave the Human a stern look.

"Such mass delusion is very infrequent. The Dirhal have little patience with fools. If after landing pacification forces and surrender is not immediate, the next step in the Standard Procedure is the orbital bombardment of the offending population centers with relativistic projectiles. This need only be done once in a great while. It is very effective as the Imperial Watchers make no secret of their activity. It serves as an object lesson to other worlds which would seek to reject the Blessings of The Patrons."

Howard stared at Aarrl in disbelief. Where moments before he was deeply moved by the Ursine's heart-felt sorrow, he was now aghast at the thought of such brutality! If he understood correctly, launching a small relativistic mass at a planetary target would yield the same results as nuking it! E=MC2 in spades! The Human knew that as soldiers, the Watchers were dour and determined, but he never imagined them to behave like furred Nazis!

Ripley was dismayed by the seemingly off-handed way Aarrl appeared to condone the mass slaughter of innocent populations. While he resigned himself to the fact the Sennal were not perfect, he was sickened by the thought that they were so... barbaric...  in the service of their long-dead creators!

"How could you be so, so - Inhuman?" he shouted, "they…"

Aarrl cut the Human off, a mixture of pity and anger in his eyes.

"Silence! We... Are... Not.. Human!" he roared, enunciating each word separately. "Do not measure us by your own flawed standards. Though we are imperfect, we serve the Purpose of our creators."

As he spoke, the Ursine reached out and tapped the window in front of him with the back of one black claw. In the space where distant Senn had been bracketed a moment before, a large rectangle formed. Instantly images appeared. Ghastly scenes of Earthily war and death reeled by, as though live via CNN. One moment it was the horrific depiction of bloated, fly infested bodies at the side of an African road. The next a burning village in Asia. One nauseating scene after another, the all too familiar panoply of Human misery flashed by in two second intervals.

"Does this bring you joy?" asked Aarrl, his voice low and menacing. The left side of his muzzle was illuminated, strobe-like, by the fleeting scenes. The Ursine's fierce stare sought to penetrate to the core of the Human's soul with its intensity.

Even though he knew the gesture would be meaningless to Aarrl, Howard could only shake his head. Words were useless.

"Do you think all Sennal do not weep for the innocents slain by their misguided trust in fools?" Aarrl demanded.

The Gashka's burning gaze immobilized him. Aarrl didn't wait for the Human to answer.

"The room opposite from where you slept is the Ker-Rruh, The Chamber of Atonement. Countless are the tears that stain its floor. On a pedestal in every Ker-Rruh, on every Sennal vessel, is a fragment of a destroyed world. Each one is there to prevent us from ever forgetting the cost of our duty. While the Ta-Kee were gentle and wise, they created the Sennal to compensate for what they perceived as their own inner weakness. That weakness, they believed, caused the loss of Sacred Teehem. We are not weak, yet we do not lament any less, that which we are compelled to do by the dark side of the Sennal Pattern. For one hundred and twenty thousand years, the Empire of the Ta-Kee has flourished. Now, it has been left in our claws to preserve."

Aarrl leaned forward, his muzzle inches from the Human's face, one blunt claw stabbing at his chest. The Ursine's round ears were laid back against his skull with the force of his anger.

"Do you imagine us such poor servants that we would relinquish our Sacred Duty, before Their Return?"

Howard was taken aback, literally. Fear prompted him to retreat before Aarrl's smoldering anger until his back was to the window, the rail pressing into his spine. What he had mistaken for politically motivated genocide, was in fact genetically mandated Holy War!

Totally speechless, Howard was torn between opposites. On the one hand, these were the people with whom he was prepared to sever all ties with Humanity in the name of an incomprehensible interstellar compulsion. On the other was their seeming total disregard of Human (oh, there's that word again) rights. Was he wrong, as Aarrl insisted, to hold the Sennal to Human standards? If Howard understood Aarrl correctly, Sennal behavior was far more than duty to their Patrons. It was hard-wired into them, written by their creators into their DNA.

A thought came, unbidden: They serve their creators' Purpose. Who's Purpose does Humanity serve?

All this sped through Howard's mind as he stood before Aarrl, silently trembling. The Ursine's angry stare was given physical presence by the clawed finger still pressed to the Human's sternum. After a moment the Gashka stepped back a bit, easing the pressure on Ripley's chest. As Aarrl moved his huge hand back, he raised it to Howard left shoulder, easily turning the Human about once again to face the window so that he was forced to watch the virtual wide-screen as it continued to reel off prime examples of H. sapiens' less glorious moments. Howard looked into the face Humanity showed the Universe, again questioning his right to hold the Sennal to a supposedly higher moral standard.

Ripley stood silently, Aarrl behind him, his heavy hand resting on the Human's shoulder, forcing him to face the window and its nauseating montage. Finally, the Ursine felt Howard had seen enough. With a single word the virtual display vanished and once again the constellation Pegasus returned.

Ripley was shaking, fear scented sweat staining his underarms as it ran down his sides. He was afraid to speak, lest he set Aarrl off again. Slowly, the huge hand on his shoulder exerted pressure, turning him about to face its owner.

"Child of Gendas, I am sorry to have frightened you." Aarrl's spoke as softly as his voice would allow, as he stared down at the Human, "It is essential that you understand us. Your world-view, even of your own kind, is too naive."

'O God,' Howard thought, 'now he's sounding like my father!'

Considering his words for a moment, Howard recalled previous conversations with his father, where the older man had said much the same thing concerning his son's sheltered existence.

To his own amazement, Howard was inspired with a quotation that he thought summed up the entire situation. "We have a saying on our world. Actually, its a quotation from a fictional character.

'I yam what I yam and that's all what I yam.'

Aarrl removed his hand from the Human's shoulder and stood back a pace, regarding him with one of his head-to-the-side, questioning looks.

"We have one that is much the same, I will not bore you with its attribution."

As he spoke, the Ursine's voice was distant, as though he was distracted. After a few seconds he turned away from Howard once again to stare out into space, his huge hands again gripping the rail before him.

'Well,' Howard thought, 'welcome to the Real Universe. Ok, so they're not perfect. Who is?'

In a way, the Human envied the Sennal their unwavering certainty of purpose. No questions. No divided allegiance. They all served a common goal, even if doing so seemed at times to tear their hearts out.

* * * *

Howard still had a million questions to ask, but his outburst seemed to have poisoned the atmosphere as far as his conversation with Aarrl was concerned. He had no way of telling what damage his ill-considered accusations may have done to his relationship with the Ursine. Aarrl seemed to have again withdrawn into himself. While he no longer appeared angry, neither did he display interest in continuing their conversation.

Ripley always found it difficult to apologize, and apologizing to an eight foot tall, seriously pissed-off Ursine wasn't going to be easy. With considerable trepidation, Howard slowly moved to his left, until he was close enough to put his left hand on the rail next to Aarrl's huge paw, sliding it over until he made light contact. After a minute passed, the Ursine hadn't moved or otherwise acknowledge Howard's presence. His gaze was locked on the window, staring intently at distant Senn as though it comprised his entire universe.

Another minute passed, Aarrl's slow, deep breathing was the only sound above the steady susurration of the ventilator. Howard knew he had to make the first move. He moved his hand again, placing it gently on top of Aarrl's. He could feel tight tendons under the coarse fur, as the Ursine gripped the rail. At last, the Human tweaked his courage up enough to speak.

"Aarrl. I'm sorry. I didn't think - I didn't know."

Howard's mind went blank. What could he say that would make any difference? He'd obviously hurt Aarrl beyond what mere words could mend.

It was another minute before the Ursine responded in any way. At last, Howard felt Aarrl's tension lessen slightly, as he shifted his gaze from the window to look down to where the Human's hand rested on his. Ripley thought at first Aarrl would pull away, but after several seconds, the Sennal relaxed further and blinked rapidly several times, as though waking.

"Possibly it is I that should apologize. At first, I thought your attitude entirely hypocritical, considering the history of your species. But I also see, on reflection, much The Patrons would admire in your value of the individual. Alas, we are incapable of empathy for our enemies until after they are vanquished, and then all we can do is mourn them. It is what once sundered us and will forever separate us from our creators."

Aarrl paused to look into Human's eyes, the faintest hint of a Gashka smile parted his black lips.

"Perhaps it is this empathy that has kept your species from destroying itself."

"Perhaps," Howard agreed, "but I think it's the fear that we will destroy ourselves that preserves us."

The Human was flooded with relief that Aarrl's frightful anger had subsided. The possibility of being stuck on board the Sennal ship with an unstable Ursine was extremely unappealing!

'So many questions and so many pitfalls!' he thought, If only he knew the safe questions to ask.

Safe or not, Howard had one question he was dying to ask:

"You speak my language very well, for someone from out of town." Howard hoped that Aarrl would understand his feeble joke. "How did you learn so fast?"

The Ursine delayed answering for a few seconds, as he scratched the under-side of his jaw. Instead of answering directly, he parted the fur over his right ear with one blunt claw. As he bent down, Howard could see a thin line of new scar about three centimeters long, running in an arc behind Aarrl's ear.

"This is where a language enhancement processor is implanted." He said. "The T'Roann programmed it from its study of your species' vocal and data communications."

"And it translate for you?" Howard prompted.

"No. It is connected to the language and motor centers of my brain and acts as an extension. When you speak to me, or I to you, it is as though your language is native to me. This helps me to form sounds my jaws and throat were never designed to speak.

The Human reached up and lightly touched the scar line with one finger. There was no bulge or other indication of anything implanted.

Aarrl seemed to guess what he was thinking.

"The processor is only three millimeters long and is implanted directly in my brain. Observe."

As before, the Ursine reached out and tapped on the window, activating a virtual display. Inside the delineated area a recording depicted a synopsis of Aarrl's implant procedure. As it was being held by a small manipulator arm, Howard could see that the processor was indeed very small, no larger than a grain of rice. A fine filigree of silvery tendrils were tightly wrapped about the device, so that the whole thing looked like a small tangle of spider web. As the implant was inserted between the wet rogations of reddish-gray neural tissue, Howard could see the network of tendrils spread out, snaking over the surface of the exposed brain, making contact with the appropriate areas.

After a few seconds, Aarrl reached out and tapped on the display again, causing it to vanish.

"It is a very simple procedure," he said, as though selling the process.

Aarrl didn't seem to be the least bit concerned with the procedure, but Howard guessed that when your entire species was artificially created, a bit more twiddling with one's brain didn't make much difference.

"Are there any others on board with implants like yours?" Howard asked, wanting to change the subject as the sight of Aarrl's internal content was making him squeamish.

"No. The T'Roann felt it best, for the present, that I be the only one to directly communicate with you. This is good because your language has many words for which there are a number of different meanings. It is very confusing."

"It confuses me sometimes too," the Human confessed.

"Perhaps you should have a thought amplifier implanted. The procedure is the same. It would communicate with my language processor to eliminate ambiguity. I could summon a Field Surgeon and have it done now."

"No! Please don't," Howard nearly shouted, "Don't even consider it!"

The thought of giving unrestricted access to his innermost thoughts scared the hell out of him. Howard reasoned, if what he did say got him into so much trouble, what misfortune might his unspoken thoughts generate! Perhaps it was the idea of having his brain manipulated, by people that he'd only met a couple of days before, that really frightened him.

"As you wish" Aarrl answered, "Do not dismiss the possibility lightly. Much grief can be avoided through accurate communication."

Aarrl looked at the Human in a manner that left no doubt that he was referring to the mess he had made of things just a few minutes before. As much as he hated to admit it, even to himself, Aarrl was right. How many more times would he be putting his size twelve's in his mouth through sheer ignorance?

Howard glanced up to see Aarrl looking at him as though he expected him to say something. Deep down, the Human was praying that Aarrl wasn't going to bring up the Thought Amplifier business again. Mentally, he thrashed about, desperately trying to come up with something to steer the conversation somewhere else, but Aarrl beat him to it.

"There are important questions you have not asked. Why do you fear them? Do you hesitate for fear of me?"

Again, questions that cut to the core of Howard existence clamored for answers, buzzing around in his mind like a swarm of bees. Mentally, he caught one, but when he tried to enunciate it, the words that came out were far different from what he'd intended.

"Who am I?" Howard felt himself become lightheaded with dismay. He couldn't believe he said that!

Despite the cryptic nature of his question, Aarrl seemed to know exactly what the Human had intended to say.

"You are S'Challh, the Chosen. The One. You are he who was foretold by the Seer H'Settu, in his Ninth Prophecy."

"What does that mean?" Howard pled, "From the moment I met you, you've called me that, and despite what you've told me, I still don't really understand."

Aarrl paused for a moment, choosing his words carefully. Howard thought he could read in the Ursine's posture and expression, his vast relief that they had at last come to the heart of the matter.

"The Other you seek, and who likewise seeks you, is the eldest child of Empress Tirrnn. Of this One I am forbidden to speak, by command of Tirrnn Herself. Your souls call out to one another. This you know. Neither of you will have peace until you have become together. For the present, you shall have to be content with this. My Vow prohibits more."

As he spoke, Aarrl absently touched the curious lines of comma-shaped scars running in two concentric arcs about the upper orbit of his left eye.

"Can't you tell me more about her?" Howard implored.

Aarrl seemed to flinch, as though struck. "I cannot," he sighed.

The Human was surprised by the look of sadness or perhaps pity in Aarrl's eyes. Obviously, there was much more that his Vow forced him to withhold.

The Ursine was silent for a moment, as though fighting some inner conflict. "This I must tell you. As the moment of Alignment approaches, the quantum resonances of your minds will synchronize. You will soon find that your attraction to one another has also become extremely... physical. This aspect of your bond is mutual and cannot be ignored. It is called in Sennal, the S'trriff, or mating compulsion. Soon it will become all-consuming... an end unto itself."

Even as Aarrl spoke those ominous words, Howard could feel the truth of it. At the memory of the mysterious Other calling to him through the mechanism of The Dream, Passion's hormones surged! He was exceedingly glad he had his clothes back!

Clothed or not, the Human's involuntary reaction did not go unnoticed by Aarrl.

"So. It has began."

To cover his growing embarrassment, Howard asked what seemed an obvious and relevant question. "Are you going to take me there - To Taahas?"

"No. It is commanded by Tirrnn that you meet on your world."

"Well then, when is the other ship coming?" he prodded.

"There will be no other vessel," The Ursine countered, "Members of the Imperial Clan are forbidden by Imperial Law from traveling between worlds by mechanical means."

Howard was really confused now, "What other way is there?" he demanded.

Aarrl answered as though the solution was foolishly obvious, "you must forge a FoldSpace Portal."

"A what?" The Human blurted.

"If you are to become together, you must be taught how to open a Portal between Taahas and your world. This also, is commanded by Tirrnn as a test of your Absolute Desire. The forging of a Portal is a matter of will alone."

"Aarrl," Howard plead, "I still don't have the slightest idea what you're talking about!"

"It is a simple matter of what you call Quantum physics, though I do not possess the vocabulary to describe it," Aarrl countered, weary persistence in his voice, "One who does, has been summoned. A Portal Priest will soon arrive from the Imperial Monastery on Teff. Tomorrow we shall greet him at the Portal Chamber."

Howard was hopelessly confused, but saw no use in trying to get a further explanation from Aarrl. He felt his burden of unanswered questions had doubled since he arrived at the viewing chamber.

Unexpectedly, a prolonged *gurgle* resonated from the Human's middle regions and for the first time since they arrived, he looked at his watch. To Howard's amazement, he found that they had been in the Observation Chamber more than six hours.

"What are the chances of getting something to eat?" he asked.

* * * *

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