by Mary E. Lowd
Originally published in The Furry Future, January 2015
The air was too cold and the gravity too strong. But, Druthel liked the cave-like architecture. He was on the moon-world of Kong-Fuzi, a naked rock without even an atmosphere — only a few small atmo-domes, a scattering of boxy, airtight buildings, and a subterranean tunnel complex connecting them all. It circled the planet Da Vinci, capital of the Human Expansion, and it hosted the renowned and arrogantly named Wespirtech, the Western Spiral Arm Institute of Technology.
As if humans were the only species with a science institute in the western spiral arm of the galaxy…
Druthel stretched his long arms, unfurling their expanses of leathery wing-skin, and refolded them about his narrow body in the other order. He lost some of the warmth that his winged arms had been holding in, but the bite of the chilled air against the thin fur on his outer arm had simply become too much.
“Are you uncomfortable?” the small human administrator asked. It wasn’t the first time he’d shown concern for Druthel’s physical comfort, but there was nothing he could do about the gravity. And there was nothing he chose to do about the temperature.
“I’ll be fine,” Druthel said, quietly in his own language. A translator clipped to his inadequately warm waistcoat repeated his words in the Solanese that the human would understand. “My home world, however…”
“Right,” the human said, bristling. “We’ve been working as quickly as we can. This all would have gone much faster if your planet had established terms for scientific trades with the Expansion before… well…”
Before we needed to, Druthel thought.
“Nonetheless, my superiors seem to think we can accept the contract in the form we hammered out yesterday,” the human said. “As a preliminary contract anyway.”
The human’s strange Solanese words, a bizarre, continuous, monotone in Druthel’s tufted black ears, came to life for him as he heard them repeated by the translator. The human smiled thinly as he waited for Druthel’s response. He was expecting a thank you, perhaps. Instead, Druthel said simply, “Then we can begin?”
“As soon as the team’s ready,” the human said.
Druthel twitched the leathery nose at the end of his long, brown-furred muzzle. “I will go prepare the ship.” The translator at his waistcoat was still droning away in Solanese as Druthel shuffled, awkwardly in the heavy gravity, out of the administrator’s office. He wandered down the tunnel-like hallway of that foreign moon towards the starship bay where his vessel waited to take him and the team of human scientists he’d come to fetch back to Wrombarra. When the humans were ready, he would fly them triumphantly from this moon to the empty lunar cavity, many light-years away, where the moon that once orbited his homeworld used to be.
Thinking of the task that awaited them there, Druthel’s arms loosed around his cold body, and his wings began to drag.
* * *
The human scientists with their flat-yet-knobbly pink faces appeared one-by-one in the open door of the airlock to Druthel’s spaceship. He watched each of them spring up the steps from the airlock to the ship’s antechamber as if the gravity here was nothing to them — which, of course, it was. Gravity isn’t especially noticeable until it’s wrong.
He checked each scientist off in his mind as they arrived. He’d been thoroughly briefed on the scientists he was being sent to fetch. In fact, he’d been intimately involved in picking them. From the holos included in the bios on their various academic publications, he was able to recognize them each on sight: Jon Einray, the hulking male chrono-physicist; Anna Karlingoff, the dun-haired female string-theorist who had invented the elasti-drive; Ivan Bower, the male chemist clinging possessively to Anna’s hand; the four male geologists whose addition to the team depressed Druthel to no end; and, finally…
There was one scientist missing.
Druthel followed the group of humans inside to where they were settling into hammocks slung about the spaceship’s central lounge, stowing their bags into netting around the edges of the room. “Excuse me,” Druthel said. “One of you is missing. The one called…” He tried to annunciate the strange Solanese name, but his mouth and tongue simply weren’t formed for it.
The human called Ivan spoke, and a moment later the translator told Druthel, “Rhiannon? She says she’s not coming. We should go without her.”
“That is not acceptable.” Druthel shuffled his arms, flapping the expanse of wing stretched between them and his narrow body. The human named Rhiannon was a quantum chemist, one of the least distinguished scientists he’d been sent to fetch, but the one whose previous work had the most bearing on the problem at hand. “One of you will take me to her, yes?” he said.
Ivan shrugged, but Anna nodded. “Sure,” she said. Then, turning to the chemist who was clearly her mate, “Ivan, go show Druthel the way to Rhiannon’s room.”
Druthel was inexperienced with human facial expressions, but Ivan seemed less than pleased. The edges of his mouth turned downward as Ivan unwrapped his arms from Anna’s shoulders. “Yeah, sure, it’s this way,” he said, climbing out of the hammock and heading for the ship’s airlock. Druthel followed him off the ship, through the docking bay, and into the corridors of Kong-Fuzi.
Druthel lost his breath, trying to keep up with the bounding Ivan. He leaned against the hallway walls with unfurled wings, but Ivan only slowed down at the ends of corridors, looking back to make sure Druthel didn’t completely lose his way.
“This one,” Ivan said, knocking on a slate gray door that sported a scribble-screen on it, covered in colorful, indecipherable Solanese writing. “Hey Rhiannon!” Ivan called through the closed door, “The wrombarr wants to see you!” To Druthel, he said, “The rest’s up to you.” Ivan disappeared back down the hall at the same time as the door to Rhiannon’s room slid open.
* * *
The young woman sitting on the bed was clearly sad. Her wilted posture transcended culture. “You can come in,” she said to the furry-winged alien standing in the door. She heard her voice translated into a series of high pitched chirps and squeals by a device clipped to his clothing. “Sit down,” she said, gesturing to the empty bed across the room from her — another single-size bunk, but this one unclothed with sheets or blankets.
Druthel shuffled in and contrived to fold his body up onto the strangely flat, horizontal surface. His long, slender limbs angled awkwardly inside the flaps of his wings, but he managed a passable approximation of the way that the human Rhiannon sat on the mirroring bunk.
She was small. Smaller than the other human scientists, and the long fur that crowned her head was thicker, frizzier. It fell to her shoulders, framing her pale, naked face and completely covering her ears. Druthel’s own ears flicked on the top of his head, reflecting his thoughts as he wondered at what emotions those buried ears might hide.
“You are not ready?” Druthel asked. Her side of the room was filled with alien looking belongings. But there was nothing that resembled the packed bags that the other scientists had carried onto his ship. “I can help you pack, yes?”
The slight pink of the lips on Rhiannon’s strangely flat muzzle thinned. “I’m not coming,” she said. “I’m sorry. I thought the others would tell you that.”
“They did,” Druthel said. “But that is not acceptable.”
His own lips, along his narrow muzzle tightened as well. For the first time, he felt the layer of fur that covered his face as a kind of shield, hiding the vulnerable expression of emotions beneath. In contrast, flickers of expression danced across the vulnerably bare skin of Rhiannon’s face. Her delicate lips turned down; the skin between her eyes tightened into creases. But for only a moment.
“There’s nothing you need from me,” she said, “that Anna, Jon, Ivan, and the others can’t provide.”
“That’s not true –” Druthel began, but Rhiannon continued to speak, the translator chirping away after her.
“I’ve read the abstract you submitted describing…” she said.
“And I’ve read all your papers,” Druthel said, not waiting for either Rhiannon or the translator to finish speaking. “They are brilliant…”
“… the terrible predicament that your world is in…”
One wromabarr, one human, and two electronic voices from the translator continued to speak until the word “predicament” reached Druthel’s tall, pointed ears.
“Predicament!” he exclaimed, slicing Rhiannon’s voice to a halt, although the translator continued to chirp and drone away. “You call it only a predicament?”
She must have heard the distress and despair in his tone, despite the alien nature of his voice. “I’m sorry,” she said. “I didn’t mean to…”
“Our moon is gone,” Druthel said. “The hole it left behind –” His chirpy voice choked away, as he thought of all his friends and family back on Wrombarra. He quickly composed himself. He had a task to do. He must right what had gone wrong. To do that, he needed Rhiannon. “Do you know what kind of effects it has on a planet to suddenly remove such a massive source of gravitational pull?” he asked her.
Rhiannon lowered her dark eyes.
“Earthquakes, tsunamis, volcanoes… massive geological instability.” The words were hard to say. He felt that each time he named one of these horrible side-effects that he might be conjuring one to crush loved ones, light years away, back on Wrombarra. “And that is only the beginning…”
In the silence after his voice trailed off, Rhiannon whispered, “I know.” Her eyes were still downcast. “But, I’m not a geologist. I can’t help with any of that.”
“Geologists won’t fix this!” Druthel exclaimed.
“The geologists can suggest ways to counteract the seismic shifting…”
“Bandages,” Druthel said, ignoring Rhiannon’s and the translator’s words. “We need a cure not a bandage. We need our moon back or, over time, our whole world will die.”
Rhiannon didn’t tell Druthel what a long shot that was, pulling their moon back from the depths of hyperspace. They both knew he was hoping for a miracle. A miracle to counteract a catastrophe. But, then, the Wromabarran Empire, a single planet’s worth of reclusive winged sapients, wouldn’t have given up their pride and come asking for help if they weren’t at the very end of their options. Druthel had been sent to the Human Expansion; another ambassador was sent to the Lintar Oligarchy; a third had been sent to wrangle any possible help from the diffuse and disorganized Srellick Mercenary Syndicate.
Of those options, Druthel truly felt that the small female primate in front of him was his people’s best hope.
The reptilian srellick were brilliant, but it was unlikely that their most relevant scientists could be located in time. The methane-breathing lintar were simply too alien. Druthel didn’t think that their scientists and his own could learn to work together… perhaps ever. And that’s assuming they’d deign to come. Nonetheless, his people were losing their independence, merely to ask for the unlikely chance of help.
“My planet needs you,” Druthel said.
Rhiannon wrapped her stick-like arms, bare of the expanse of wing-skin on a wrombarran, about her body. Her shoulders lifted and dropped. Her down-turned mouth, her downcast eyes… everything about her bespoke depression.
More importantly, Druthel realized, his pleas weren’t working. “Fine,” Druthel said. He would change tactics. It would help if he knew what was upsetting this human… There were so many possibilities, and he wasn’t even an expert at understanding the emotions of his own race. Let alone the emotions of an alien. “You do not wish to help an alien race,” he said, testing for her reaction.
At that, her eyes flashed up. She stared at him for a long moment before speaking. “Your people have their own scientists.” The words were slow, measured. “You’re a scientist.”
“Then you fix it,” Rhiannon said.
Druthel didn’t know if her tone was harsh, but her words certainly were. “I am doing everything I know how,” Druthel said, fighting the pain and anger. “If I can fix this, believe me, I will.” His tall ears were flat against his head, but his eyes held steady on her alien face. “Right now, Rhiannon, that means convincing you to come to Wrombarra.”
Rhiannon twisted her short, webless fingers together. “Scientists trifling with science got you into this,” she said. “What makes you think one more scientist will help?”
Druthel’s ears straightened. He rearranged his long arms on the uncomfortably flat surface. With nothing for his fingertips to cling to, the expanses of his wings were forced to rest, distorted on the mattress. He wanted this conversation to be over. He wanted Rhiannon to be safely ensconced in a hammock on his ship, so he could take her back to Wrombarra, where he could show her the records of his work — his fateful work — and pick her brain for ideas at leisure. Well, as much leisure as the death throes of his world would afford them.
“What else,” Druthel said, “do you suggest? I came all this way, at a time when my world needs me more than ever, to hear your suggestions. So, please, tell me. If you have a better idea than pleading for help from the Wespirtech expert on hyper-spatial quantum chemistry, then I would be honored to hear it.” The sarcastic ring to his voice would not translate, but Druthel hoped she’d infer it. Assuming these humans understood sarcasm.
Rhiannon’s mouth opened as if to speak, but she hesitated instead. Then, too quietly for the translator to pick up, she mouthed the words, “Quit trifling with science. But, then, that’s not really an option for you now. Besides, it’s really advice for me.” When she raised her voice, she simply said, “I’ll come.”
Though, she thought, this may be the last work of science I commit.
* * *
Back on the ship, Druthel made sure the humans were all settled in their hammocks before take-off. The sensation of gravity rose and then fell as Druthel piloted the ship up to the proper speed for threading its way into the shallowest layer of hyperspace, barely skimming the surface of that parallel dimension. He set the controls on auto-pilot, and then he went back to join the humans.
The hyperspace trip would take three days, and he hoped to learn a little about the different personalities of the human scientists in that time. Ideally, he would have liked to begin working with them, but, realistically, they’d need at least that much time to catch up on the records of the state of wrombarran research concerning their missing moon stored in the ship’s computer banks.
Druthel helped the humans out of their hammocks, and he showed them how to work the computers. All the records had already been translated into Solanese, albeit quickly and shoddily. There wasn’t time for anything better. So, for a start, that would have to do. Druthel could help them when they got stuck.
“Well, look at –”
“Huh, that’s really–”
Druthel’s ears skewed. One flattened against his head, and the other, he forced to stand tall. He tried to listen to the human scientists. He really did. But, his little electronic translator simply couldn’t keep up with so many different voices talking at once.
The longer Druthel listened, the more he began to panic. He could tell that the geologists were excited about something, and the scientist named Einray seemed from his posture to be in a deep debate with Ivan… But, Druthel simply couldn’t make out their words. This would be a big problem, presenting an insufferable bottleneck to communication when they were all back on Wrombarra. There would be twice as many scientists speaking at once there — all these humans, and even more wrombarrans. Hopefully a few srellick or lintar…
It would not be good. They would all have to take turns, speaking slowly, and it would take forever to get anything done.
Deeply troubled, Druthel left the humans to their incomprehensible confusion of work and headed to the helm. He couldn’t help them directly, but, he could try to make them more comfortable. The human scientists looked awkward in zero gee. They had trouble grappling with the wrombarran hammocks, and their wingless arms gave them little traction against the atmosphere.
After his stay at Wespirtech, Druthel sympathized, but he didn’t have artificial gravity to offer them on this ship. So, he turned the temperature down lower than he’d have liked in deference to what he knew of their preferred climate. He adjusted their course, and then set the controls back on autopilot.
He knew he couldn’t understand what the humans were saying, but, maybe he could learn more about their personalities by observing them. He was about to go back to the hold to check on the humans when three brightly colored avians, each about the size of his head, came flapping into the helm of the ship.
“No pets!” Druthel exclaimed. “No pets!” He realized immediately where they’d come from: one of the geologists, along with his backpack of personal affects, had brought a large, gilded cage when he boarded the ship. Druthel would have objected when he first saw it, but the cage had been covered with a cloth. And Druthel lacked the cultural knowledge necessary to realize what was inside.
Of course, the ship was already threading through hyperspace now, so it was too late to take the birds back. They would have to stay, but Druthel planned to tell the humans they had to keep the birds in their cage.
Before Druthel made a move, however, the first of the three birds, perching with its claws clasping the netting of Druthel’s hammock said, “We’re not pets.” The bird, with its brilliant red-and-green plumage, spoke in Solanese, but Druthel’s electronic translator repeated the words in Wrimbrin.
The second bird — this one had flat gray colored feathers — said, “We’re here to learn your language.”
“We’re called Keats,” said the third bird, a blue-and-gold creature. “We’re genetically engineered for facility with languages. If you’ll talk to us in yours, then we can learn it before we reach Wrombarra.”
Druthel looked at the little animals. They were, in a strange way, less alien than the humans. Despite their diminutive sizes, the Keats’ winged bodies made them more similar to wrombarrans. “Can you really do that?” Druthel asked, barely daring to hope. He didn’t see how a pet bird could do better than his electronic translator, but, if there was even a chance…
All three birds bobbed their heads enthusiastically in the gesture humans used for ‘yes.’ “Oh, definitely!” the blue-and-gold bird said.
“All right,” Druthel said. It was certainly worth a try. “What am I supposed to talk about?”
The red-and-green bird cocked its head, listening to both Druthel’s words and the translation. “Anything!” it said.
“Everything!” the blue-and-gold bird added.
The gray bird introduced the three of them as Coco, Lulu, and Joni, gesturing with her beak toward the red-and-green bird, the blue-and-gold bird, and herself, respectively.
* * *
True to their word, the three Keats listened faithfully to anything and everything Druthel felt like telling them, and they quickly began to pick up his language. To begin with, Druthel tried to tell the Keats useful stories about the history of his world, but, before long, he found himself rambling to them about his own life.
While he was talking to the Keats, though, Druthel was watching Rhiannon. Her thick, dark mane shielded her pale face from him. She didn’t look at him. But, then, she didn’t look at the other humans either.
Druthel knew only the smallest fragments of Solanese himself, so he couldn’t catch any of the meaning in her infrequent conversations with the other scientists. But, he could see the patterns in her body language.
She sat apart from the others. She spoke less. Her shoulders stayed hunched; her limbs held close. She was a being turned inward, and Druthel found the mystery of what was happening inside that withdrawn, alien mind enthralling.
When they arrived at Wrombarra, Druthel’s living cargo — Keat and human — would be swept away in a storm of other wrombarran scientists. Ideally, the humans’ addition to the storm would spark lightening flashes of brilliance that could be used to save his planet by recalling their lost moon from the depths of hyperspace. But, Druthel was worried that Rhiannon, who he felt could be instrumental at the center of that storm, would instead keep to herself.
“Do you know the scientists you work with well?” Druthel asked the Keats on the last day of their flight. If he could only figure out what troubled her, maybe he could incite her to participate in the coming storm of scientific creative energy.
“I’ve worked with Karlingoff!” Joni answered. She’d learned enough of Druthel’s language already, the dominant language on Wrombarra to answer without the help of his electronic translator.
The other two Keats demurred. “We’re younger,” Coco explained, arching her red-and-green wings. “Lulu and I, this is our first mission.”
“Though, none of us Keats have worked much with some of them,” Joni said. “Einray, for instance, almost never leaves Wespirtech.”
“What about Rhiannon?” Druthel asked, pressing for more information.
Joni turned to the other Keats. They conferred quickly in a language that didn’t sound like Solanese to Druthel, and his electronic translator certainly had no luck with it. He’d heard the Keats use it with each other during the last few days, and, his best guess was that it was some sort of pidgin, combining pieces of the massive number of languages each of the Keats knew. They were proficient not only in Solanese and now, largely, in Wrimbrin, but also in dozens more languages used by species scattered throughout the galaxy and many sub-cultures of the Human Expansion itself.
“Rhiannon is usually reclusive like Einray,” Coco said, switching back to Wrimbrin. “But, recently, she’s been working a lot with a biologist–”
“Her roommate,” Lulu interjected.
“–and their project involved more travel and networking,” Coco said, without acknowledging the interruption from her blue-and-gold compatriot.
“None of us three worked with them, though,” Joni said.
Druthel thought about the empty half of Rhiannon’s room back at Wespirtech. “Did her roommate leave?” he asked.
“Leave? Leave where?” Coco said.
“She’s a biologist,” Lulu said. “She didn’t leave with us, because she couldn’t help with your moon.”
“Unless it’s not really a moon!” Coco said. “Maybe it’s a giant space animal…”
“Like a Starwhal?” Coco asked. “They float through space subsisting on nebula dust and background radiation! I heard some of the scientists talking about them once.”
“Are you sure your moon wasn’t a Starwhal?” Coco asked, bobbing her head about, giddy with amusement. Her talons danced about on the mesh of the hammock. “Maybe it went away to take a nap in an asteroid belt and didn’t get pushed into hyperspace at all!”
“None of that makes sense!” Druthel snapped. He felt his tall ears turn backward, and his face twisted into a snarl. “Nor is it helpful,” he said, turning away from the giddy, cheerful little animals, trying too late to hide his unhappiness. The offense he felt at the way they made lighthearted fun of his world’s impending destruction was massive. At another time, under different circumstances, their jokes might have been funny. An epic tragedy, however, deserves a measure of solemnity.
Joni took charge of her younger compatriots, pecking each of them in turn on the nape of the neck. She screeched a few words in that pidgin language, and, suddenly, the younger Keats apologized.
“Please keep talking to us,” Joni said. “We need to learn more Wrimbrin before we get to Wrombarra. This is why science is for scientists. Language is for Keats. That’s the rule we live by, but it’s easy to forget. We learn a lot of science, superficially, through translating it. Sometimes, younger Keats, forget how small our world on Wespirtech really is and how little we really know.”
Druthel’s posture relaxed, and his ears straightened out again. These little creatures — somewhere between genius pets and a species in their own right — had clearly meant no harm. And they would be invaluably useful. “True perspective,” he said, “is a hard-earned trait. My world has gained a lot of perspective in the wake of the disaster we continue to ride.” I hope, he thought, that we survive it. “But, let’s not talk about that,” he said. “There will be more than enough of that when we get to Wrombarra…”
* * *
The planet Wrombarra loomed in front of Druthel’s small ship of alien visitors. He’d studied their worlds, and he knew his own planet was smaller, drier, and duller than most the humans chose to inhabit. Instead of emerald continents and sapphire spreads of ocean, dotted with thin webs of white clouds, Wrombarra was covered with swirls of thick gray masses, masking the dusty brown land. Very little of Wrombarra photosynthesized, and none of the wrombarran cities sparkled like diamonds at night, like the cities Druthel had seen shining up from planet Da Vinci. Wrombarrans saw with more of their senses than eyesight, relying a great deal more on sound and vibrations than humans, and they hadn’t the same need to light up the night.
Wrombarran civilization stretched in giant nets between ancient magma spires, riddled with caves that had grown in a long passed era on their world. Wrombarran pre-history. Within their recorded history, volcanoes were extremely uncommon on Wrombarra. Until recently…
Druthel’s heart ached to see the smears of sulphurous yellow, marring his planet’s face above all the newly resurrected volcanoes. There were giant new cracks, visible from space, that rent whole continents, as if an evil creature had raked giant claws across the planet. That creature was gravity, and it was tearing the planet Wrombarra apart from the inside.
As he tore his small ship down through the atmosphere, Druthel saw the bloody red magma spurting and dripping along the face of his world. And, in his mind, he saw the small human scientist, her naked arms wrapped bizarrely around her knees, sitting quietly in the corner of his ship’s main hold. She’d written a paper called, “The Hyper-spatial Quality of Isotopic Variation: An Investigation of the Layers of Hyperspace.” He knew she was the key. He would make her work with the other scientists. He would find a way.
The interstellar craft landed in what used to be an empty airfield, many miles from the nearest city. Evacuations had been underway the entire time that Druthel was gone, and whole cities of temporary, tent-like buildings had sprung up in the wilderness. As the grumbling growl of gravity awoke the burning heart of their world, fresh magma had bubbled up from the ground, filling in their cities in the ancient spires, and burning the edges of their net cities, which tore and collapsed, hanging like broken spider webs, dragging unnaturally down to the ground. It did not seem so wise, anymore, to build their homes on the husks of dead volcanoes. Lest those volcanoes arise, zombies intent on mindless killing. If only they’d known. If only they’d been more careful.
Druthel landed the spaceship and then led the human scientists and their three Keats through the tacky, temporary lean-tos of the refugee village to the premier wrombarran science institute. A conglomeration of cutting edge technical building spires, designed to mimic the shape of the giant magma spires that once housed their cities, surrounded the largest acoustiscope dish on the entire planet and an array of smaller echometers. The acoustiscope and echometers were parabolic dishes, shaped and colored like the discarded tips of broken eggshells. Except, they were arranged too neatly, too regularly, and were too massively large to truly be the remnants of eggshells in an abandoned nest.
Druthel walked along the ground through the shanty town beside the field of echometers, instead of flapping his powerful wings and taking to the sky. He wished it were only out of deference for the humans’ own incapacity, but, in truth, he was returning to a broken society, spread sadly across the horizontal face of his planet, instead of stretched proudly through the air. A few nets had been strung from the peaks of the spire buildings, but, there hadn’t been time for much.
Officials met them; bureaucrats screened them; and assistants guided them, finally to the quarters the humans were being offered. They’d been built a domed insta-concrete building at the base of one of the spires, little more than a hardened tent, but still luxurious compared to what most of the refugees were living in. In addition to basic bedding and a washroom without proper plumbing, the dome contained an ad hoc laboratory, stuffed with computers and other scientific equipment frantically saved from the burning spire city.
“Is this what we’re expected to work with?” Einray complained to the group of wrombarran guides watching them. “We should have stayed at Wespirtech,” he grumbled. “I can’t do anything with this junk.”
“Well…” Ivan Bower said, looking at the wrombarrans with their wings folded, “we could try… to…” He clearly wanted to please them but was as deeply troubled as the angry-looking Einray. “No, he’s right.” Ivan turned to Druthel, the wrombarran he knew best. “This isn’t going to work. We need a real laboratory.”
Joni was perched on Druthel’s shoulder, translating for the room. Druthel said to her, “Tell them this is only their quarters. The equipment here is for them to use, if they want it, but the main laboratories are all in the spire building. When they’re settled, I can take them there.”
As soon as Joni finished repeating his words, Ivan said, “We’re settled. Let’s go.”
The other humans all agreed, except for Rhiannon who had begun looking through the equipment that had so offended Einray. Druthel and the other wrombarran guides led the rest of the humans to a ground-level entrance to the main spire building, but Rhiannon stayed behind as Druthel feared she would.
Druthel turned to one of the wrombarran aides, a woman he knew well. “Will you guide them?” he said, speaking lowly so Joni would know not to translate. “I need to go back and talk to the human who stayed behind.”
“Sure,” the aide agreed, flicking her ears lightly.
The rest of the group, including the three Keats, followed the aide into the base of the spire. Druthel turned around, planning to rejoin Rhiannon in the human quarters. Instead, he saw her already leaving.
* * *
The small human had shed her outer layer of clothing in the wrombarran heat. Now her slender, pink-skinned arms were bare to her shoulders. The shirt she wore scooped loosely at her neck, and her thick mane of hair was pulled back behind her head.
Druthel took his electronic translator out of its waistcoat pocket, clipped it on, and turned it on. “You must be hot,” he said.
Rhiannon startled at the sound of his voice, before the translator even began to speak.
Druthel realized his heart was racing and his wings were restless. He should be angry. He’d brought this human many light-years to ascend into the spire and begin work. Instead, she slipped away from the rest of the group and tried to disappear into the refugee city. He didn’t have time to look for her if she got lost… Yet, he wasn’t sure that anger or impatience were what he was feeling. “Where are you going?” he said.
The small primate woman stared up at Druthel. Wrombarran eyes had no whites, and the dark and light contrast of her eyes captivated him. “I’ve never been to a planet other than Da Vinci and its moon, Kong-Fuzi,” she said. “Besides… I don’t think they’ll need me. I told you that back at Wespirtech.”
“I think they will,” Druthel breathed, almost a reflex. On an impulse, he clicked the tip of his tongue, wanting to feel the shape of Rhiannon with the reflection of that quiet sound. The space she filled in the air in front of him. Wrombarrans used echolocation mostly for navigation while flying, but, it could also be intensely personal. It let him touch her without actually touching her. If another wrombarran had been there… But none was. And Rhiannon didn’t know the significance of the quiet click. Nonetheless, Druthel felt embarrassed.
“I’m sorry,” Rhiannon said. “I know that you and your people have gone to great expense to bring me here… And, if I thought I could help, I would. But, I think you’ll find that the others are much more qualified. They have some interesting theories…”
Rhiannon tilted her head, and Druthel clicked his tongue again, tasting the shape of her subtle gesture. His embarrassment was fading because she was so clearly unbothered. Druthel had always been an awkward man. It was part of why he’d thrown himself into his work. His science. Why did it feel easier to talk to a woman of a different species? A woman he couldn’t even understand without an electronic box clipped to his vest?
Rhiannon saw the flickering movement in Druthel’s ears. She didn’t know what he was thinking, but she knew how important it was to him that her colleagues save his world. So, she kept talking, trying to reassure him that the other Wespirtech scientists were more than competent. “They think they can construct a replacement moon for you. The mass of the outer asteroid belt in your solar system is approximately the same as the mass of your missing moon. So, if we could design a… well… a scoop for a spaceship… like a space tractor…”
Druthel flattened his ears, and Rhiannon’s words tripped to a stop. “That won’t work,” Druthel said.
“You don’t want a replacement,” Rhiannon said. “You want to reverse the disaster. Bring the original moon back. From hyperspace.”
Druthel flared his wings. “Yes,” he said. “You understand me.” The translated echo of his voice filled his ears with irony, but he didn’t care. “All the other strategies — a replacement satellite, counterbalancing the quakes with controlled explosive bursts — they’re incomplete. Unstable. We need to reverse the catastrophe… the mistake… when the acoustiscope…” Druthel’s enthusiasm drained away as his thoughts drew back to his horrible act of hubris. It hadn’t been his act alone.
The whole institute had been devoted to the project for months — using half-phased quark beams to map the topology of local hyperspace. They’d hoped to magnify the power and trace the contours of the cartography of hyperspace much further afield. They’d hoped to develop a map of a deeper layer of hyperspace that would allow them rapid travel — more rapid than human, srellick, or even lintar technology. Instead, the burst of phased quarks had pushed their moon onto a different physical plane. And their home planet quaked with its loss.
As little as a month ago, Druthel had been a vociferous supporter of wrombarran isolation and independence. He’d studied the alien cultures who reigned supreme in their arm of the galaxy, and he knew that small worlds, early in their scientific development, had a way of being consumed by them, only to be regurgitated as tourist planets — dead-ended by the exodus of their greatest minds to join the intellectually exciting, further advanced society of the Human Expansion or the Srellick Mercenary Syndicate.
Druthel hadn’t wanted that for his world. He’d hoped that his institute’s work on hyperspace cartography would protect his world from ever suffering that fate. It would put them on equal footing. Instead, it had left them crawling, crippled and begging for help.
He should hate this human. This whimsical creature who he knew had the intelligence and insight necessary to help him. But, instead, she sulked and demurred. Yet, all he wanted was to reach out and touch her.
“Take me somewhere on your world,” she said. “Show me something — some place — that’s special to you.” Rhiannon tilted her head and looked up at him. “Your eyes,” she said, “they’re so dark, I hadn’t realized that they’re blue.”
Druthel blinked and looked away, but the steadiness of her gaze drew him back. Could she be feeling the same strange attraction that he felt for her? It made no sense to him, having feelings like this for another species. But, then, he’d never met another sentient species before… “When we come back,” Druthel said, “you’ll work?”
Rhiannon nodded her head, swinging the hair gathered in a ponytail behind her head. “Yes, I’ll work with you.”
Druthel couldn’t help thinking that they should already be working with the other scientists in the spire. Yet, the trip here had taken three days. Another few hours wouldn’t hurt.
“Come with me,” he said, reaching out a winged arm. His furry fingers at the hinged joint of his wing wrapped around Rhiannon’s bare-skinned fingers. Her skin was smooth like the skin of his wings, just like his sonar had told him it would be. “Where we’re going,” he said, “I’ll have to fly, so wrap your arms around me.” He guided her around his back, where she grasped his neck with her thin, flightless arms. “You should be light enough to carry.”
* * *
As soon as his wings began to beat, Druthel started clicking his tongue in a rhythm. He felt the shape of the empty air in front of him, and he pulled them both through it, ascending to the sky. Once they were high enough above the makeshift city, drawing further and further away from the artificial spire housing the other scientists and all their work and equipment, Druthel relaxed his wings into a glide. Air cut above and below him, but he caught the wind of a powerful current. His body felt out of balance and heavy with Rhiannon clinging to his back, so he tilted his shoulders forward to compensate.
He marveled as they flew together that Rhiannon had willingly put herself in such a dangerous situation — many meters above the ground — for a flightless creature. He couldn’t help but feel a rush at the power it gave him over her, but he also felt himself intrigued by her trust. And drawn to protect this helpless creature that was a silent, warm weight upon his back.
For her part, Rhiannon buried her face deep in the fur on Druthel’s neck. The whistling rush of air around her was exhilarating but also terrifying. But, then, so was the feel of his fur against her arms and face.
When she risked looking out over his shoulder again, Rhiannon saw that Druthel was flying them toward a canyon. The base of the gorge was a pool of bright colors, all pink, chartreuse, and neon. Alien plant life? Rhiannon wondered, but Druthel turned swiftly about before she could get a good look at it. She buried her face in his fur again.
“We’ve landed,” Druthel said, his translator echoing his words in Solanese. “You can let go.”
It took Rhiannon another moment to trust the sensation of being stationary again. She relaxed her hold on Druthel’s shoulders tentatively. She didn’t let go entirely until he hunched down low enough for her feet to firmly touch the ground.
Druthel watched Rhiannon as she looked out from the cave in the cliff face of the canyon that they’d landed in. It was a mere pocket in the rock, big enough to hold the two of them but not much more. Druthel thought it might have been a large bubble in the magma when this igneous rock had formed millions of years ago. Since then, the chemotrophic lifeforms — analogues to the photosynthetic lifeforms on most human worlds — had eaten their way down through the rock, revealing the underground bubbles beneath.
Although Rhiannon’s specialty was quantum chemistry, she had been exposed to enough biology to make a solid guess as to what she was looking at. “Those plumes of color in the pools down there…” she said, “…that’s chemotrophic life?” She wasn’t sure if the translator would know scientific words like that. But it did.
“Yes,” Druthel said. “The bacto-bogs are the building blocks of life on my planet. They convert heat in the spring water and iron from the rocks into energy. Then the swarmers eat the bactoforms; avians eat the swarmers; and we eat avians. The chain of life.”
Rhiannon cocked an eyebrow, that thin semi-circle of fur. “Your species is carnivorous, then?”
“And you eat birds…”
Druthel saw immediately where she was heading. “The Keats are safe. They are so different from our own avians — anyone can see in an instant that they’re alien. It would be dangerous to eat them. It might insult their owners –”
“It would insult their owners,” Rhiannon interrupted.
“– and their bright plumage might even mean they’re poisonous. But, yes, I did think they might have been brought on board as snacks.”
“That must have offended them,” Rhiannon said, lowering herself to the floor of the cave. She sat down and leaned her back against the cave wall.
“Apparently the words for pet and snack are very different in Solanese,” Druthel said. He folded his knees up, trying to sit down beside Rhiannon. He simply wasn’t built for it, and his wings crushed uncomfortably against the ground. “They’re essentially the same word in Wrimbrin.”
“Fortunately, my electronic translator happened to pick the less offensive option until I figured out what was going on.” Druthel shifted his wings and accidentally hit Rhiannon in the shoulder.
“Here,” she said, taking the edge of his wing — his thickly muscled arm — in her hand. She helped him stretch out and refold the wing less awkwardly. In the process, his arm ended up around her, draped over her back.
“Thank you,” he said.
“Why do you come here if it’s so uncomfortable for you?”
Druthel pointed up with one of the fingers at the joint of his other wing. Rhiannon looked up and saw a metal bar installed in the ceiling.
“Usually, I hang upside down,” Druthel said.
“I don’t mean to stop you…” Rhiannon said, starting to shift her body under the light pressure of his leathery wing as if she meant to stand up.
“No, that’s okay,” Druthel said. He liked the feel of Rhiannon close to him. “If you don’t mind my wing over you, this configuration works for me.”
Rhiannon didn’t answer, so Druthel assumed she must be okay. They sat together, staring out at the bacto-bogs. Fist-sized swarmers with glittery exoskeletons flitted about above the pools. Sunlight glinted off the swarms as they flew in formation, first one way then the other. Their aimless flight patterns were soothing to watch. It’s why Druthel liked coming there.
“This is peaceful,” he said. Though, as he said it, he felt the rumble of a minor quake in the stone around them. He knew the quakes were much worse at the city spires, and the gentle rumble he felt here could be shaking homes and property to rubble farther away. While his people cowered in a makeshift city in the desert, he was secluded with a member of an alien race so far advanced that the fate of a single world seemed small to them.
“I’m going to tell you why I don’t want to work with you,” Rhiannon said.
Druthel’s wings constricted, pressing against her, for her words filled him with anger. But, she continued to speak as the translator echoed her, so Druthel forced himself to be calm and listen.
“The last project I worked on was an algae pack air convertor,” she said. “Highly compact. Highly efficient. It’s so much better than the current state of the art that every station and spaceship in the Expansion will fork over the money to have their systems upgraded before the year’s over.”
“That’s… good?” Druthel said. They were both still staring out of the cave at the lazily drifting colors of the bacto-bog, but Druthel could feel bitter laughter shake Rhiannon’s body.
“You’d think that, wouldn’t you?”
The voice of the translator stayed the same, but Druthel could hear a change in Rhiannon’s tone. She sounded sad and a little angry.
“My roommate and I developed them,” she said. “I don’t usually work on projects with so much biology, but Keida’s a biologist, and, well, the idea just kind of came together. One night we were lying in our room in the dark, talking across the space between our beds about how Einray was collaborating with a biologist to grow chrono-accelerated trees, and the next thing we knew, we’d come up with our own bizarre bio-physics collaboration.”
Druthel remembered the empty bed in Rhiannon’s room. “Your roommate left Wespirtech?” he asked.
“Yes,” Rhiannon said. “She found out that the algae we gengineered for the air convertors releases a low level toxin. It’s nothing really… It can be filtered out. Though, the filters do take up more space than the original algae packs… and they’d need to be scrubbed every few months…”
Rhiannon trailed off, and the two of them sat in silence until another tremor shook their cave. Druthel shifted his weight restlessly. “If it’s nothing,” he said, “why did she leave?”
Rhiannon’s voice was very quiet when she spoke, but the translator managed to pick it up: “Most people aren’t allergic to the toxin. In fact… We haven’t found any humans who are. The only people allergic to it that we’ve found are members of a species called Hoilyn. Some of them work at Wespirtech. In low level jobs. They’re not powerful. No one will listen to them. No one will install the filters just for them.”
“So don’t publish your research,” Druthel said.
“Too late.” Rhiannon laughed again. It was a sad laugh. “We didn’t realize the problem until the algae packs were installed in Wespirtech. Hoilyn workers and some of their children went into anaphylactic shock. We got them shipped down to Da Vinci in respirators — the ones we got to in time — but, once these algae packs are installed everywhere, we’ve essentially cut their species off from space. Me and Keida, single-handedly.”
“So you work to fix it!” Druthel declared.
Rhiannon’s head lowered. “That’s not my area,” Rhiannon said. “I did the chemistry, designing the catalyzation process in the algae chloroplasts. Keida’s the one who understands the biology. And she’s gone off to be a doctor in the asteroid belt of Hegula Hephasta. Somewhere she can do some real good.” The final words were ones Keida had said to Rhiannon the last time they’d seen each other. They still stung.
“Then she’s a coward,” Druthel said simply. “A scientist doesn’t abandon research entirely because she’s made… a mistake.” The translated word hung in the air between them. A horrible, horrific understatement when sitting on a world that once again rumbled with the symptoms of the wrombarrans’ own mistake. A mistake that Druthel had played a part in.
He understood the impulse that Rhiannon’s roommate felt: leave research behind and find a simple, straightforward way to do good. But that didn’t make it right. “I hope you’re not planning to follow your roommate’s example,” Druthel said. Though, they both knew she was. Rhiannon’s behavior had made that abundantly apparent. “But, if you are, then I have to remind you of your promise: I brought you somewhere special to me. Now you must work with me to save my world.”
“Yes, I’ll help.”
Druthel couldn’t help feeling a measure of sympathy for the small human huddled under his wing. They had more in common than he would have thought. More than their disparate biologies and electronically translated languages would suggest. “Let’s go back, then,” he said, and Rhiannon meekly complied.
* * *
Back in the lab, Rhiannon became a different person. No longer the scared, uncertain creature that had huddled under Druthel’s wing, whispering grave confessions, she stood tall. As tall as her stature, barely half Druthel’s height, let her. And she spoke with confidence.
The flurry of voices — human, Keat, wrombarran, srellick, and electronic — made it hard for Druthel to keep up with any particular individual’s contributions. It was more a question of following the zeitgeist of any particular line of research. Geologists shouted out ideas for stabilizing fault lines on Wrombarra’s populated continents. Physicists exclaimed discoveries about how to tune the array of echometers. And in the middle of it all, Rhiannon was the spark of insight and inspiration that Druthel hoped she would be. He was in awe of her. His instincts about her had been right, and he took pride in every contribution she made, if only for his small part in bringing her here.
She didn’t speak often. And, when she did, Druthel often missed the exact words, for she spoke quietly and with brevity. Only a few words. Yet, the storm of ideas would morph around her. The other humans would grow quieter for a moment, tilt their heads, stand a little straighter. Subtle changes. Then the cacophony of voices would start again, and it was all Druthel could do to follow in the wake of the wave.
Joni, Lulu, and Coco were in high demand, flying from shoulder to shoulder, trying to translate where ever they could be most useful.
The storm of ideas lasted from morning until late at night, for days on end. Scant time was taken for hastily rushed meals. And all the while, quakes grew more powerful, ushering the scientists to work harder, concentrate more fiercely. Find the solution.
While the team of geologists focused on stabilizing Wrombarra without a moon and a splinter group continued to work on methods of constructing a replacement moon out of asteroids, the bulk of the physicists followed Druthel and Rhiannon’s lead. Probes were constructed that could send carefully modulated signals back through hyperspace, and a series of them — each larger than the last — was sent across the threshold between normal space and hyperspace, chasing after the moon, ever deeper into that parallel dimension. The automated signals sent back data that proved unequivocally several things.
First, although Wrombarra was no longer affected by the gravitational pull of its moon, the moon continued to be affected by the gravity of Wrombarra. It was still orbiting, only in a different dimension. Gravity passed into hyperspace but not out, like light through a one-way mirror. Second, the solar radiation from Wrombarra’s sun passed into hyperspace just as gravity did. So, even in the depths of hyperspace, Wrombarra’s moon was still touched with sunlight. And, finally, the massier the object sent into hyperspace, the greater the energy necessary to bring it back. So, while a spaceship could skip in and out of hyperspace, barely skimming the surface, an object as large as Wrombarra’s moon would have fallen to an almost impossible depth once breaching the barrier between hyper- and normal space. It would be almost impossible to bring back.
Druthel stared at the lines of numbers that streamed across the computer terminal. The data from the probes continued to stream back to them from hyperspace, but it was not heartening. Druthel could sense the tone in the room. The fragments of speech he caught through the electronic translator or through Joni’s announcements told him that the human and srellick members of his team were giving up. Most of his own colleagues, the other wrombarrans, had moved on, days ago, to helping the geologists or the splinter sect working with asteroids.
They were more scared of failing to stop the quakes than they were driven to succeed. Fear of failure made them short-sighted. Though, in this case, their choice might prove right: it would take the energy of a supernova, perhaps several, to bring their moon back. If he’d stopped chasing this dead end days ago, perhaps he could have sped up the work on building an artificial moon. He could have saved precious days. And saving days could save lives…
Then, in the midst of his despair and self-recrimination, Druthel heard Rhiannon speak. Her voice was soft but clear to him in the crowd of voices. He always listened for her voice carefully. Usually, the others — especially her own human colleagues — did too. This time, Einray laughed, and Karlingoff spoke chidingly. The conversation didn’t halt for her. Joni didn’t bother to translate, and Druthel couldn’t make out Rhiannon’s words from the jumble of electronic translation.
“Wait,” he said, looking up from the computer and seeking out Rhiannon’s gaze. “What did you say?” he said to her, but she stared back at him uncomprehendingly. Druthel turned to Joni: “What did Rhiannon say?” he asked. “Tell her to repeat it.”
Joni passed on the message, and then she passed back Rhiannon’s response: “She said, If we can’t bring the moon back, maybe we could drop Wrombarra into hyperspace with it.”
Druthel folded his wing, bringing the hand at the joint to his muzzle. His eyes were locked on Rhiannon’s, and he’d grown accustomed enough to her body language to tell that she was scared. He could see her hands shaking. She spoke in a whisper, but he had no way to translate the words. Everyone else in the lab was shouting, and even the Keats had got swept up in the heat of the argument themselves, breaking into and out of their pidgin language.
The only side of the argument that Druthel could understand was wrombarran, and there was no consensus from them. Half the scientists loved Rhiannon’s idea. The others were furious: “Wrombarra will be cut off from the rest of galactic society!” one of his colleagues cried. Another shouted back, “Who cares? We were isolated to begin with!” The argument raged on, and the only thing clear was that Rhiannon’s idea had taken on a life of its own.
Within the hour, calculations were completed for the exact power and frequency of an acoustiscope beam to push Wrombarra through the fabric of space, breaching the barrier into hyperspace. The planet’s own mass would carry it downward — metaphorically speaking — from there. It would settle to an appropriate depth, and then it would continue to orbit the sun as if nothing had changed, except for regaining its moon.
The only difference would be that no spaceship from Wrombarra would ever be able to muster the energy to escape from that depth of hyperspace. All of wrombarran society would be cut off from the rest of normal space. Forever.
The tone in the lab had utterly shifted. Instead of three separate groups competing to cure Wrombarra’s lunar cavity as fast as possible, now there were only two groups. A handful of scientists jubilantly worked on the design for a shipboard acoustiscope that the srellick ship could carry into space and aim at Wrombarra. Everyone else watched them in hushed disquietude.
Before the sect of scientists who wanted to sink Wrombarra into hyperspace could finish their designs, a delegation from the high government arrived. Someone must have slipped out of the lab and informed them.
All the scientists were sent home. Forcibly in a few cases. Quietly in most. The question of whether to sink Wrombarra into hyperspace had become a government matter, and the government didn’t want research continued that could lead to an irreversible situation. At least, not until the representative council voted on it.
* * *
Druthel didn’t know what to do with himself outside of the lab. His brain was buzzing, torn between elation at his triumph, shock at the twist their research had taken, and despair at the finality of their discovery. He had been right! Rhiannon was the key. And his planet was savable.
But the cost… It was one thing to spurn the society of the rest of the galaxy. It was another to be cut off from it forever.
Druthel found Rhiannon at the base of the spire, outside the human quarters and alone. He hadn’t realized he was looking for her, merely turning restless circles in the sky, until he found her. She’d disappeared from the lab so quickly when the officials came…
Druthel landed a few feet from Rhiannon. She was sitting on the ground with her arms wrapped around her knees in much the pose she’d been in when he first laid eyes on her.
“You did it,” he said.
She turned her face and looked up at him as the translator spoke to her. “Yes,” she said, in response. “I’ve cut another species off from space travel.”
“Is that so bad?” Druthel asked. “Besides, we won’t know that until we know what the council decides.”
“Well, then, maybe I haven’t done it,” Rhiannon said. “Either way… I don’t see how to be happy about this.” Rhiannon’s mouth turned down in a sad expression.
Druthel didn’t know how to cheer her. He understood feeling conflicted about this triumph. Yet, it was a triumph. Wasn’t it? “Fly with me again,” he said.
“Okay,” Rhiannon said, pushing herself up from the ground. “Take me somewhere new. Show me something I haven’t seen.” She didn’t say, something I won’t have the chance to see again.
Rhiannon climbed aboard Druthel’s broad back and wrapped her arms around his neck. She kept her eyes open this flight, despite the fear in the pit of her stomach. She couldn’t miss these sights. She’d never forgive herself once they were gone.
Druthel flew away from the bacto-bogs. He flew toward the city he’d lived in most of his life. The towering magma spire that had recently been a bustling city, thick with wrombarrans in flight. Now the air was empty, except for gusts of heat that singed his wings. He’d never seen the city devoid of wrombarrans circling it at every height.
It was a desolate cone of cinder and molten rock now. Red twisted down its sides, dripping hideously out of the caves that had once been entrances to the caverns and tunnels — his people’s homes — inside. Those would be gone now. Filled with new, molten rock. It would take his people forever to rebuild, even if their planet’s core settled down. Everything that hadn’t been brought with them to the refugee camps would be gone. From what news Druthel had heard, all the other major cities were the same.
Druthel circled the city, closer and closer, until he could take the heat no more. With a swoop to a higher, cooler current, Druthel abandoned the city. Rhiannon clung tightly to his neck, and he realized that he’d exposed her unprotected skin, bare of fur, to the same heat that he could hardly withstand. He was sorry, but he took a grim satisfaction in it too. She acted like a scapegoat, blaming herself for his world’s self-begotten misfortune. And he badly needed a scapegoat right then.
Druthel flew back to the shanty town, but a squeeze on his neck made him think that maybe Rhiannon didn’t want to go back yet either. So, instead of stopping, he flew on, bringing them back to the small cave overlooking the bacto-bog.
This time, after Rhiannon climbed down from his back, Druthel put all his weight on his arms and lifted his feet up into the air. He grabbed the metal bar in the ceiling and hung comfortably above Rhiannon who’d curled up in her knee-hugging pose. Their heads were close, only inches apart.
“Is your skin okay?” he asked.
Rhiannon looked flushed; a pink glow suffused her face and arms, but she said, “I’m fine.” It felt like a sunburn, but she didn’t mind. “How long will it take?” she asked. “For your government to decide.”
Druthel didn’t know, but he imagined they would decide quickly. Every day, the world was worse off. There was no incentive to wait. “If they decide quickly,” he said, “then your team will be leaving. It won’t take long to build that acoustiscope. In fact, I know they sent everyone home… but I’d be surprised if there wasn’t a functional design finished tonight.”
Druthel had been a staunch supporter of wrombarran isolation. Now he could have his wish, but it wasn’t his wish any more.
“I’ve enjoyed working with you,” he said.
Rhiannon was quiet for a long time. Then, she said, “I’m sorry I couldn’t fix it better.”
“At least you fixed it,” he said.
There were no more words shared that night, but, in the gentle glowing light from the bacto-forms, Rhiannon turned her face towards Druthel’s. Her mane brushed his muzzle, and he clicked his tongue to feel the shape of her alien body with his sonar. So close beside him. A moment later, she reached her hand towards his, and he found his fingers clasping hers. She stood up, moving her body, upside down compared to his, toward him. But she was small, and a slight pressure from his wing somersaulted her against him. He helped her hook her feet into the bar beside his own, and then he wrapped his wings around her.
They slept together, hanging in his cave, overlooking the bacto-bogs until morning.
* * *
The glow of the sun illuminated the orangey-hue of the bacto-bogs like fire. Unlike the magma, though, their light was life and giving.
Druthel and Rhiannon awoke groggy and confused. They flew back together in a silence less comfortable than the one they’d shared all night. Druthel was confused by his feelings for Rhiannon. All these years, he’d hated humans — an abstract concept, a species of conquerors. But if he had the freedom, he would have flown this one small human all over his world, showing her everything that made it beautiful. He would have followed her back to her own lunar home on Wespirtech, merely hoping to learn more about her.
This alien woman’s brilliance had set the wheels in motion that Druthel believed would save his planet. Her enigmatic brilliance that she herself felt guilty for… He wanted to show her that she had nothing to regret. Yet, if her plan was approved, he would barely have time to say goodbye.
Druthel and Rhiannon went straight to the lab and found it already filled and buzzing. Despite the government order to halt work, several of Druthel’s wrombarran colleagues had continued to work through the night. Much as Druthel expected. They’d finished the designs for a shipboard acoustiscope and built a haphazard, ramshackle prototype of the two meter wide dish. The srellick scientists were already outside, wiring it to their ship and cementing it to the hull.
“Where were you?” one of his colleagues asked Druthel. “You missed out on building the device that will save our world!”
Druthel looked at Rhiannon, but he didn’t answer. His wrombarran colleague didn’t really want an answer and was already regaling him with bleary-eyed boasts about the sleepless night of work.
“I guess, you didn’t feel like you needed any extra glory?” the colleague asked, rhetorically again. “You brought us the scientist who came up with the idea!” Druthel’s colleague folded his wings in an elaborate bow before Rhiannon. Within moments, every wrombarran in the room followed suit, and soon the humans joined in with their own custom, clapping their hands together in a cacophony of applause.
“You will be remembered as a goddess here,” a wrombarran woman told Rhiannon. Joni translated.
Other wrombarrans spoke up, thanking Rhiannon, congratulating her, and promising she’d be remembered forever in the depths of hyperspace. A mythical wise woman. A warrior of science. A few of Druthel’s wrombarran colleagues kept quiet — individuals who he knew had wanted to end the isolation of their planet. They would remember her always as a hellish jailer who locked their planet up and threw away the key. Thankfully, they were tactful enough to hold their tongues.
Druthel, however, knew that he’d always remember Rhiannon as the scared little girl, hiding under his wing. As the woman who held him through the longest night of his life. He realized wistfully that if the situation were different, he might be able to fall in love with her.
Before long, a delegate from the government council arrived. As all the wrombarrans expected, their government had indeed come to a conclusion overnight: time was of the essence, and isolation was not a significant concern. Since the acoustiscope was ready — the srellicks had finished attaching it — the alien scientists would leave at sundown. The srellicks could take the humans home. And Wrombar would be pushed through the barrier into hyperspace before the sun rose tomorrow.
“This is so fast…” Rhiannon said. If she hadn’t been standing right beside Druthel, his translator wouldn’t have picked it up. He’d turned the sensitivity down so that it wouldn’t flood him with the words of every human in the room.
“There’s no reason to wait,” he said. “Except for us.” He looked at her softly. “But that’s not a reason.” He traced a finger along the curve of Rhiannon’s triangular jaw. He clicked his tongue and felt the smooth, flat shape of her face with sonar. Then he lowered his own face to her height and nuzzled her softly with his furry muzzle. “Thank you for saving my world.”
He felt her smile against his fur. She whispered in his ear, and a moment later the electronic voice translated for him, “Explore hyperspace for me, okay?” Her alien voice was soft and melodic in his ear. “Maybe there’s something amazing down there. Something much more interesting than in normal space. If not… well, there will be soon.”
Druthel wrapped his wings around her, pressing her small body against him again. The embrace was brief. They were already getting looks from the other scientists in the room. As he pulled away from her, though, Druthel said, “Promise me that you won’t stop researching. You can do too much good.”
Rhiannon smiled thinly. She didn’t promise, but she did nod.
The rest of the day passed in a flash. The refugees in the shanty town pulled all their resources together and celebrated the impending launch of the srellick vessel with a parade. Wrombarrans, dressed in colorful flowing ribbons, flew across the sky in cartwheeling, crisscrossing chains. They showered the on-looking alien dignitaries in fallen feathers, a soft down gathered from native avians. Everyone feasted at a spontaneous pot-luck party held around the srellick vessel.
Then, as the sun set, Druthel watched with his people as the srellick and humans, his own Rhiannon included, filed onto the srellick vessel. She turned as she entered the hatch and looked over the crowd until she saw Druthel. She waved her delicate, wingless hand. Then, she turned again and was gone. The hatch closed behind the last of them, and the crowd waited, impatient and restless, for the engines to start.
As they waited, the wrombarrans began to sing, a folk song that even wrombarran children knew. Their voices trilled together, rising in harmony, until the field was filled with their song. The sound of srellick engines starting drowned out the singing, and the wrombarran voices morphed into an inarticulate cheer.
Druthel watched the vessel rise into the sky on a trail of white smoke. It dwindled to the pinpoint of a falling star, and then it disappeared altogether. The darkness of the night altered, however, and Druthel turned to see his planet’s moon shining behind him.
* * *
On a spaceship many layers of hyperspace away, Rhiannon watched the pale dun disk of Wrombarra wink out of existence as eerily as its moon had months ago. She could still remember the warm feeling of Druthel’s leathery wings wrapped around her, and the promise he’d asked of her echoed in her ears.
Rhiannon wasn’t comfortable with the solution her science had found for his people, but his people had seemed happy with it. Perhaps, she could find a similar solution for the last race she’d locked away from her own society. Rhiannon decided she’d send a message to Keida when she got back to Wespirtech. She’d need help if she was going to design portable, personal air filters for the Hoilyn. It wasn’t a perfect solution. But it would be better.