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Beyond the Wall of Ice
by Michael Bard
Michael Bard -- all rights reserved
 

Antarctica is cold. So very, very cold.

So cold that when Chris closed the pilot's eyes his fingers froze to the eyelids; so cold that they froze even through his felt liners. Whispering, "I'm sorry," he tore his fingers free and turned away from the pilot's blank stare.

The pilot had tried, he knew the pilot had tried. They'd come when the weather was clear, but the storm had moved in faster than expected and they'd crashed. Lieutenant Wilson still needed his appendix out, but he'd still live. Chris was a different matter. Unless...

Unless...

After pulling his outer mittens back on Chris left the pilot's body behind and pushed the hatch open, forcing it against the howling wind, and looked out into the whiteness. He couldn't see it, but he knew it was there. Though it was classified, he'd been told when he'd first been assigned to the Antarctic 15 years ago. He'd left the military since then but he still knew. Still knew that 33 years ago, fours years after SCABS, and without warning, a dome of energy, or matter -- no one knew which -- appeared, sealing off most of Antarctica. Whatever went in never came out. It could mean death, or it could mean life. Nobody knew. But it was hope. The storm would kill him in minutes, and the cold in hours. They'd crashed close to the dome, almost too close, and likely they would have landed safely except for the dome.

Pulling his mask over his face, and his hood over his head, Chris held the compass close to his eyes and forced himself out and into the storm. It was like an animal, a beast that clawed at him, scratching through his thick clothing as though he was naked, ripping away his warmth like a starving animal. Pushing through it was like pushing through a thick molasses, a physical force, a being that sought his life. He stumbled and fell, his legs already numb, his hands unfeeling. In front of him was the compass, held there by something that he thought was his hand but he couldn't feel it. He began to drag himself, moving wooden sticks that had been limbs. One step, another, another. The wind intensified, howling as its prey struggled, grasping clawing as it swirled the snow around him. He was ensheathed in white, unable to see the compass, unable to see anything. He was drowsy, a false warmth began to fill him, and he tore open his eyelids as he forced his eyes open to look only upon whiteness. One step, another, another, ano...


You do not fit into my world. You're an invader.

Who are you?

I am your God, your lord and master. Ruler of all.

Send me home.

I am everything, and everything is me. You are unworthy of destruction and there is no where else to send you. I must make you fit.

Fit? I'm needed--

You will choose or I will choose for you.

But--

Thirty periods. Until dusk.


Water, water everywhere...

And it was fresh water that he spit out.

He was naked as the day he was born, struggling to the surface of a calm warm green sea of fresh water. Land was nowhere to be seen. The sky was bright, the sun, or a sun, hanging just above the horizon. Maybe it was the sun as the sun would have been low in the sky in Antarctica.

And what had happened? There'd been a voice, or more of a presence. He had to fit?

"What's thees?" a female voice asked from behind him, high-pitched and filled with glee.

He struggled to turn around in the warm water.

"Are you a human?"

And then he saw her. A bald human head bobbing on top of the waves looking at him. Or at least her face looked human at first glance. Her skin was tinted gray, her eyes were milky, her teeth pointed like an animal's.

The head vanished and he felt something smooth and warm against his legs. A moment later he heard her voice behind him again, "My mother's told mee about humans."

"Who... what are you?"

"Mee?" A splash, silence, bubbles rising between his legs, and then she was in front of him. "My name ees Anleena. What's yours?"

He thought only secretaries could sound so happy. "Um... Chris. Where am I?"

Something brushed against his legs but she didn't seem to move. "You're een the water with--" Whatever it was, it was soft, warm, feathery...

"AHHHH!" he yelped, and kicked away from her.

"Chrees, what's wrong?"

"There's something in the water!"

Her head vanished, and he saw something moving, something long, thin, sinuous, something definitely not human. What the hell--

"Chrees, there's just us. Nothing eeelse."

"Nothing else?! But..."

Her head moved towards him and she frowned. "Poor Chrees. Just born and all confused."

"Born?! I'm 43 years--"

"And deelusional. Don't worry Chrees, Anleena weell keep you safe."

He was delusional. He had to be. For as she moved beside him he could see through the greenish water enough to absolutely know that she was not human. She didn't have legs, instead she had a tail. Not scaled, but flesh, with a texture of warm soft leather, ending in a fine feathery fin that streamed into the dimness. Not a classical mermaid, but not a dolphin either. Her body was human but different, covered in what looked like the flesh of a dolphin. Her legs, or what was where her legs would have been, looked like a dolphin too, but her tail changed into that a massive fish. Not sharp, not dangerous, but soft and sensual like an overbred elegant goldfish.

Gently she wrapped her tail around his legs. "Chrees, I'm he-"

"GET AWAY FROM ME!"

With a strength unbelievable in her slight frame she grabbed him and held him against her, his head above the surface of the water only by her will.

"AHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH!"

"Shhh shhh..."

Her arms were soft, warm, but one... That was when the doctor in Chris saved him. One arm, her right arm, felt wrong. It was still covered in dark patchy bruises visible even through her thick blubber and it was bent wrong, like it had been broken and not set right. Something he'd seen during the worst of the collapse. In an instant his panic fled and he was calm and filled with sorrow. "Anleena, what happened?"

"Chrees? Are you all right?"

"What happened?"

"You appeared and fell eento the water, I was nearby. Chrees-"

"Your arm. What happened to your arm?"

She let go of him, "I just wanted to help," and began to back away, turning her right side away from him.

"Please don't be afraid. I just want to help you."

Her voice was hesitant. "No..."

"Anleena, I'm a doctor. Let me take a look. Maybe I can-"

"NO! Nobody can!"

He grabbed her as she dove under, pulling him with her. He thought he saw gills pulsing, but then her tail slammed into his head and he fell into unconsciousness.


"...rees, Chrees, I'm so sorry!"

Immediately he began coughing and gagging out the water until finally he could breathe and when he could finally think he realized that he was laying on sand of some kind, with waves lapping his legs, and with Anleena looking down at him. Shakily he brushed wet hair out of his eyes and looked at her, carefully.

Her right arm was broken and had never been set. The lower bone was healing at a sharp angle and Anleena was letting it hang loose and resting her weight on her left arm. Almost certainly it still hurt. Only after his examination did he realize she was crying.

Still shaking he sat and touched a sand dusted finger to catch a tear. Her eyes blinked milky for a second, and then clear and she looked at him. "Don't worry," he said. "I'm all right, no harm was done. May I look at it?" He motioned towards her right arm.

She spun away hiding it.

His voice changed from comforting to demanding. "Anleena, I'm a doctor. Let me see it, I won't hurt it. I may be able to help."

Her voice wavered, "No one can help," but she didn't flee into the water.

"Anleena, please let me see it. I won't tell anybody."

"Chrees will hate me."

"Anleena, I don't hate you and a broken arm won't change that." Gently he leaned further upward, touched her shoulders, and gently pushed her back around. In the water her tail rose into the air, water sparkling from its membranous surface, before it slapped back into the water.

"Chrees, no..."

He knew that her objections had become more reflex than fact so he gently began feeling the length of her arms, first her left to understand the correct orientation and then her damaged arm. Even though he tried to be gentle, she hissed and flared her gills when he gently touched the site of the break. "Shhh... it's all right." Only when his examination was complete, did he let himself relax back into the sand.

"Chrees ees safe so I'll leeeve now so that you no longer have to look at mee."

"Anleena, NO." She stopped and looked at him, her head bowed. His voice turned gentle, "Tell me what happened."

"Eet was two weeeks ago, I was attacked by a shark. My pod chased eet off, but not before eet grabbed my arm. My mother bound eet but... All the time eet hurts..."

"Nobody set it?"

"Seet eet?"

He couldn't believe his ears. That was barbaric, that was...

Primitive.

Could it be that nobody knew how?

"When people get wounded, what happens?"

"Someteemes they die, someteemes they don't. Eet is in the hands of God. We pray, but rarely does heee answer."

They didn't know. "Anleena, I might be able to fix it, not perfectly, but better."

Her eyes opened wide and filled with the light they'd had when he'd first seen her. "Chrees could?"

"I said that I might be able to. It'll hurt though, hurt badly."

"Eet hurts now."

"I'll need to break it again. Likely it won't heal perfectly, but it'll heal better. You'll have to trust me."

She swallowed, "Chrees, I trust you."

"We need splints, err... sticks. Something long and straight. And some rope or sinew."

"Wee can get it from the landfolk. They have a sheeep not far."

He grabbed her. "If you're sure."

"Humans are to bee trusted. God says so."

Given the hell he'd seen in Central America, he no longer believed in a God, yet there was the voice... Could this be heaven? He didn't believe it. Shaking his head he looked around and only then did he realize that he and Anleena were the only living things on a sandbar in the green sea.

"I weeell take you."

He was a not bad swimmer but he couldn't see any sign of a boat. "How far is it?"

"Not too far. You must trust meee."

Ruefully he grinned. "Just don't forget that I breathe air."

"Anleena has helped other landfolk." She smiled. "You ask for my trust, and now I ask for yours."

It was probably a dream anyway. "What do you want me to do?"

"You must grab meee around my throat and hold on. I'll do the rest."

Slowly, painfully, he pulled himself to his feet, stumbling a bit on the soft sand, and began to walk into the gentle surf. Anleena pulled herself into deeper water, her tail pushing her a little bit like a snake. Too soon the water was up past his chest and Anleena was beside him, facing him. He moved around her to grab her from behind--

"You must face me so I can seeee you."

It was only then that he noticed her more than ample endowments. Well, his Hippocratic oath didn't say that he couldn't enjoy his job. Carefully, avoiding unnecessary contact, he placed his arms around her neck, uncomfortably aware of the gill slits along her side.

"I'll breathe for you. When you need air, pull your head up to mine and exhale, then I'll breathe for you."

"Errr... how?"

"Weee must go -- the sheeep is moving."

And with that she fell into the water, pushing her tail between his legs until he fell down on top of her and like a shot they were off. At first the speed was slow, but rapidly it increased, the water roaring past his head, pressing him against her neck as her tail pulsed up and down, each time rubbing between his legs. Oddly though it didn't excite him, why he wasn't sure. Maybe the alienness of the environment, or maybe because this was all a delusion of a dying mind. Then he began to grow short of breath, and it seemed that Anleena noticed because she suddenly slowed and moved so that his face was level with hers. She smiled, he smiled and remembered, and then exhaled, each bubble shooting down his chest from their speed. Then she kissed him. Not in love, but in necessity, a long kiss, an exchange, no, more a gift, of air. But air that had been changed. It kept him alive, but it swirled the world around and around, from light to dark, from water to bubble to air, a magical whirlwind of possibilities and dreams and life.

He never knew how often she gave him air, after he figured that she must have breathed through her gills and stored excess oxygen in her lungs which she than gave to him. But something in her body changed it, enhanced it. Is that what came of making love to a mermaid? A part of him wondered if he had made physical love during the dream and the magic...

Too soon the magic ended and they surfaced off the front of a massive wooden ship that roared across the waters toward them, a ship such that Chris had never seen. Low of beam it was, long and narrow with a bronze bound ram projecting from the prow below a painted yellowish eye, and a single greenish-copper stack towering above the water belching black smoke.

Chris was still blinking water out of his eyes when Anleena called out, "Heeellooooo those aboard!"

There was a clatter of what sounded like hooves and a head eerily like that of a goat merged with a human looked down as a bell rang and the ship slowed. His voice called down, "We don't deal with your kind!"

"I have a human."

"A what?!"

"His name ees Chrees and heee was born just today."

A rope appeared falling from the ship and it splashed in the water beside Chris, moving with the water rearward along the side of the ship.

"Come aboarrd hewman!"

Chris called up, "She comes with me!"

"Herrr kind stays in the sea!"

"Then I stay with her!"

The goat face disappeared from the side and the sounds of hoofs on wood and voices shouting could be heard. After a short time another head, or possibly the same one, appeared. "She can stay in the waterrr and swim with us. She will not come aboarrrd!"

"Chrees, go with them. I can wait for when God calls you."

Chris turned to her. "How do you know that?"

"All humans are born seeeeking him."

"Well, to this human, your arm comes first. Hello up there! I need sticks, no bones, two pieces, about one metre each, and some cord."

"We'll give it to you when you'rrre aboarrrd!"

"Throw it down or I stay with Anleena."

"God forsaken... Fine!" The head moved away with the sound of hooves on wood, and more voices could be heard. The head, or another head, reappeared. "Herre! Now come aboarrrd!" And with that a cloth sack was tossed down splashing into the sea, and a moment later Anleena brought it to him.

"Anleena, are you sure you're ready?"

"Yes Chrees."

Chris felt around in the bag and pulled out two thigh bones from some animal, with meat still attached, and a tangled bundle of cloth strips. Rinsing the bones whilst Anleena held him afloat, he instructed her: "I'm going to have to re-break your arm, and the easiest way would be for me to break it over my knee, probably in the water. It'll hurt, and there's not much I can do about the pain. You're all right with that?"

"Yes Chrees."

"Then I'll bind your arm straight between these bones. It has to stay like that for a month."

"A month?"

"Thirty days. Or more."

She looked sad but nodded.

"Are you ready?"

She nodded again.

"Then let's do it." He took a deep breath and ducked under and she followed, wrapping her tail around his waist. He wiggled around a bit for a better position, and then gently grasped her arm. She nodded and he forced it down upon his knee and pushed at both sides and with a sickening crack the still healing joint broke. Opening her mouth, Anleena screamed in a roar of bubbles as her tail squeezed painfully around Chris' leg, but then it loosened and she pushed them both to the surface through the mist of blood. Once on the surface he braced himself against her chest and pulled the arm straight as she gasped, and then, as gently as he could, he wrapped the bones tight against it, securing them and placing extra bandages around the wound. "The arm won't heal perfectly, but the pain will be gone once it heals. I'll be back in a month."

"Chrees, you don't neeeed to, I'll-"

"I promise I'll be back. Now go, before the sharks come."

"Call my name over the see! I'll come! Thank you Chrees, thank you," and then she ducked under and vanished.

Swimming a few awkward strokes, he grabbed the rope floating on the water and wrapped it around his waist. "You can pull me up now!" Above he could hear voices, and then the rope tightened and lifted him up, greenish water dripping from his body. The trip was short and too soon he was clambering over the wooden railing to be surrounded by goatmen dressed in cotton and wool, one of whom held a blanket which he gratefully took and wrapped around himself. Each of what seemed to be the crew looked to be the same race, a goat standing on its rear legs with short curly fur covering its entire body, thicker on the thighs, their average height being maybe two thirds of Chris'. Large ears extended horizontally from each head ending in tufts of curly hair, short black horns grew above their eyes, and their heads extended outward into goat-like snouts that ended in short curly beards. Their arms were shorter than a human's would have been, and ended in three fingered hands with each finger and thumb apparently capable of limited movement compared to a human's. Every figure had at least one scar, and most had more than one. One had an ear half torn off leaving only thickly scabbed tissue behind, another had poorly healed burns that created seas of scarred flesh amidst the forests of hair. He could see three that had badly healed bones, and another that had only a stump where its right arm would once have been.

"The Captain will see you now," said one of the goatmen, dressed like the others but also wrapped in a wool cloak colourfully embroidered. "Back to yourrrr duties!" he called and the others moved off, though a couple of the nearest let their fingers touch him with a gentle but insistent pressure. And then they too clattered off. "This way hewman."

He followed the goatman to the rear of the ship and past others scurrying around Voices shouted, the smoke from the stack thickened and darkened, and there was a clanking of metal and dull grinding followed by a jerk as the ship began to move forward. A door in the deck opened and another creature, covered in black soot with smoke drifting up from his blackened leathers clambered up. This one was different though, more horse than goat, its hooves not cloven but solid, and it possessed a tail cropped short below a short cropped mane that rose up its back and onto the top of its head. Its ears were furred and pointed, but upwards instead of sideways, and a horse-like snout extended outward between two blood-shot brownish eyes. At least two fingers were scarred stumps, and the left forearm had a wrong-looking bend in it, nowhere near as bad an Anleena's though. Additionally, it was much taller than the others, and possibly a foot taller than Chris. "Teill the Captain that we weill have fulll steam shortlllly. And teilllll her to try not to have any more unscheidullled stops."

Chris's escort stopped and looked disdainfully at the horse creature. "I'll tell herrr. Back to yourrr engines." The creature nodded and clambered back down into the bowls of the ship, closing the door shut behind him. "Come along hewman, Captain Serrrlanth awaits. Chris wondered what the Captain looked like, and with growing trepidation he followed the goatman to the stern and into a door below the raised rear deck. The goatman followed him in and closed the door behind them.

The room was dim, lit by shafts of light through poor quality glass windows against the far wall. As his eyes adjusted, Chris could make out a rough wooden table and chairs, the table covered with charts tacked down showing outlines of land and water. Standing in front of the windows was a shadow dressed in tight-fitting cloth. She turned, and he saw her eyes flash like a cats. They were large and glowing yellow, set in a fine human face with ears on either side, pointed, extending almost half a metre from the sides of her head to their tips. Her head was covered in strands of hair, dark in the dim light, and tightly woven in braids that swept between her ears and down her back. Her bosom was well endowed, her breasts wrapped in dark leather with a single blood-red gem between them glowing in the dim light that shone through the gap between the frame and the door. All of her body, that he could see anyway, was covered in a fine black or brown fur, looking very much like the hair of a siamese cat. A sword was at her belt, and he could see four daggers strapped to her arms and legs. "Report."

"Arrrnan states that we'll have full steam shortly. Repectfully, he rrrequests fewer stops."

"Good, you may leave." The goatman saluted and left and she turned to face Chris. "Sooo," she purred, "you are the human."

"Yes...Surlaaanth it was?"

"Captain human, only friends can call me Sirlanth."

"I apologize Captain."

He watched as she stepped toward him, moving like a cat though her limbs looked human and she wore tight leather boots that tapped on the polished wood. "I have heard of humans, but never seen one." Stopping in front of him, she raised up one hand and felt his chin, a hand which had four fingers and a thumb like a human's, but was covered in a fine fur that felt like velvet.

"Captain what are you going to do with me?"

"The Law states that humans are to be escorted to the nearest temple where they must choose. All follow that law; humans are sacrosanct."

"Temple?"

She hissed and he jerked back. "That may be what the law says, but I have a pirate to seek and I don't have time to run you back to Iskandar." Turning away, she walked back to the window and looked out. "I ought to have you thrown overboard."

"Now wait just a--"

There was a loud knock at the door and the Captain called out, "Enter," and then the door opened to reveal the goatman who had escorted him in. "Ma'am, we've spotted a ship three points of the port bow."

"Accelerate towards her at full, and prepare all cannons."

"Captain, we don't kn--"

Suddenly she was standing in front of the goatman, glaring down at him. "You heard my orders." Chris would have sworn he heard a growling-hiss in her voice. "It is the Nemeth and we will sink her this time."

The goatman lowered his snout to the floor, "I understand Captain," and he saluted and left, closing the door behind him.

"Captain, what's--"

"Get out! I don't have time for you now!"

"I can--"

"Get on deck and stay out of my way!"

He fled, pushing open the door and-- the deck was organized pandemonium. The sides were lined with the goatmen kneeling in pairs, each armed with some kind of rifle. Clanking and shouts could be heard from below deck, from the rear deck, more voices could be heard, and the entire ship seemed to be growling as it turned. Behind him the door slammed into his back and then pushed him out of the way as the Captain stalked through, wearing a thick silken robe and carrying a tripod and two pots, one glowing with heat from whatever was inside. "Get out of the way, I told--"

"Captain, it's confirrrmed as the Nemeth." Chris recognized the voice as belonging to the goatman who had led him to the Captain.

"Salaxan, you shall be avenged!" the Captain roared out. "Grenal, fight your ship, I will pray."

"Aye Captain."

"Pray?" Chris asked.

"Shut up hewman!" Grenal shouted. "We have no time for you now."

"But..."

"Just stand under the aft deck out of the way!" and then he was off in a clatter of hoofs.

Chris decided that it was probably safer to obey than to argue, so he backed to the wall beside the door to the aft quarters and watched the Captain. Watched as she kneeled on the deck and bowed, and then raised both arms up to the heavens which she then faced. Watched as two goatmen spread out the tripod so that he could see that there were two pots, one suspended on golden chains near the ground, and a larger one suspended above it. The lower pot glowed with heat, and smoke began to writhe out of the larger pot and curl around and around the tripod, spreading out to dance across and twirl around the Captain and then split and curl up and around each of her outstretched arms before the two arms of smoke swept back around and joined to pour into her open mouth. But smoke didn't work that way!

At that moment the ship turned hard to the left and Chris was thrown to the deck as it tilted underneath him. The Captain and the smoke seemed unaffected. With a groan the ship righted itself and then beneath Chris' feet there was a roar, a pulse of air, a flash of cannon, a billowing cloud of whitish smoke. All around him voices shouted, then there was a dull boom in the distance, an explosion of shattered air, and then and explosion of wooden splinters as something hit the deck and bounced. More explosions roared beneath Chris' feet as the cannon roared again. More puffs in the distance, and then the ship tilted again as it turned sharply to the left. Another cannon ball bounced off the deck, a bleat of pain as it shot through the leg of one of the goatmen who fell to the deck. The rest of the crew ignored the wounded.

But Chris refused! Dragging himself to his feet, he ran over to the dying crewman and grabbed a piece of the creature's clothing and tried tearing it but it wouldn't tear. Wait, there! A knife! In a sheaf on the creature's remaining leg. Pulling it out he cut off a long strip of cloth and wrapped it around the shattered stump just as the ship tilted again and more cannonballs arced overhead, one bouncing off the deck and taking out a long section of the railing. There was an explosion and screams came from below as Chris tightened the makeshift tourniquet and tried to stop the bleeding. Tying it off he looked up just in time to see a cannonball bounce off the smoke that swirled unnaturally around the Captain who was beginning to glow. What was going on? In seconds she was too bright to look at and Chris turned away, finally seeing the other ship. She was listing as she turned, and there was an explosion of smoke and flame along her side, not fire but a mass of cannon, but then it all seemed to stop. Above her the sky darkened, clouding over the sun though Chris was still in bright light. Everything was quiet, nothing could be heard by a gathering pregnant silence, and then a stab of light from the clouds as bolts of lightning slammed from the clouds into the other ship, one, another, and than the other ship exploded in a shower of splinters and the silence vanished as though it had never been as the shockwave of air and sound swept over him.

And then there was a moment of normal quiet, a thud as the Captain collapsed to the deck, and then the wounded began to scream and bleat.

Chris went to work.


It seemed like hours, but it couldn't have been that long as the sun hadn't yet set, and Chris was still working. Now it wasn't new wounds, but old wounds -- infections that had to be drained and cleaned, mis-set bones about which he could do little. It was worse than what he'd seen during the collapse. It was--

Course furred hands yanked him to his feet, kicking over the pot of boiling water that pooled across the deck and onto the crewmember he'd been working on who began bleating as his flesh boiled. The same hands spun him around and he was facing the Captain, dirty, tired, but her eyes were full of fire directed at him. "What in the name of God are you doing human?!"

Chris tried to pull away to help the fading moans behind him, but the grip was too tight. All he could do was glare at the Captain. "I am doing what I can to help your crew."

"They don't need your help human, they're needed to work--"

"Work?! Look around you! They're wounded, they need to rest. Without rest half of them will die within a week!"

Confusion flashed across the Captain's face for an instant, but then the fire replaced it. "I need my crew!"

"Damn you! Don't you care!?"

She leaned forward, and placed her face inches from his own. "Of course I care! But their fate is in the hands of God. I wish--"

"You wish what?!"

"That I could heal them, but it is not God's will. They must live or die by His will."

"I can help them!"

"Help them? And if God disagrees with your," she spit in his face, "help, will you swim away with your friend?"

There was no god, and he was NOT going to somebody's false belief hurt others. There had to be... "Did god not help you destroy your enemies?"

She remained silent.

"And he did that while I was aboard. You said humans were sacred?"

"Yes..."

"Consider this then," and this time he spit in her face as he continued, "Captain, this god has already blessed my presence by divine proclamation by aiding you in battle. He wants me here to do what I can."

The light in her eyes faded from anger to a warm glow. "I need the crew..."

"Return to port, in days most will be fine, and the rest--"

"That long, human?"

"Some will die if they don't."

"Then let God judge your actions."

And with that the goatmen let go of his arms and he was immediately on his knees examining the burns from the boiling water.


"Hewman, you must eat."

Chris felt a three fingered hand shaking him and groggily looked up. He'd fallen asleep? He'd never fallen asleep whilst working before.

That was when he realized that the sun was still up. The sun...

"Some waterrr for you. Complements of the Captain."

His eyes focused on a finely crafted wooden mug being held in front of him by a pair of hairy hands. It appeared to be made from a single piece of wood carefully carved into a depiction of a human woman bowed in a grove of trees... No, not a human woman, a woman of the Captain's race -- the ears were clearly visible. Carefully he took the cup and sipped at the warm water and then took a few large swallows. Finally he became more aware of his surroundings.

It was gray, and a steady rain could be seen and heard pattering on the deck and water, and hissing from the smoke stack which billowed black smoke. He was under some kind of hide or skin roof that had been set up, wrapped only in the blanket that they'd given him earlier, and he could see the other's that he tended under other covers, most sleeping, a few awake, and a few still moaning.

A few more swallows and the mug was empty, and with his hands now steady, he handed the empty mug back.

"Grrrrrenal died while you were asleep."

Who? There were a couple... "The one that had lost both legs?"

"Yes. The Captain wants you in her cabin."

"Oh, just let me get up and, errr..."

"You can piss overrr the side."

"Oh, of course." With a groan he heaved himself up, trying to ignore the blood and gore that still covered him, keeping the blanket over his shoulders. Slowly he made his way to the side, the warm rain washing off the worst of the gore, but he stank to himself and he could only imagine what he smelled like to the others, assuming their sense of smell was more sensitive... He couldn't assume that, couldn't assume anything. Just because these creatures looked like animals didn't mean that they had the senses of animals. Once he'd met a SCAB that looked completely like a bloodhound but still only had human senses. When he reached the side of the ship he leaned on the rail and let himself go, his urine being lost in the rain before it hit the water. Finishing, he looked up just in time to see two of the goatmen heaving a body, Grenal it looked like, over the side.

Immediately the blanket fell to the deck with a wet thud as he ran towards the pair, but he was too late as the body flew through the air and vanished into the rain, with only a faint splash to remark on its passing. Grabbing the railing right beside the two to keep himself upright as he skidded to a stop, he yelled, "What the hell are you doing?"

The two goatmen backed away, their hooves making loud clomps through the faint hiss of the rain.

Then he heard a voice from behind him, the same voice that had awakened him. "The Captain wants your prrresence now."

"But..."

"Grrrenal is in the hands of God, his body is of no consequence. Now come!" The goatman grasped him and pulled him around and reluctantly he followed, his mind on the body that was now likely sinking into the depths. Abandoned. Someone he had failed...

The rain was gone and he was standing naked in front of the Captain as the cabin door was closed behind him.

She wrinkled her nose. "So human, you've been busy."

"Yes." He had no respect left for her.

She turned and walked to the rear of the ship and peered out the windows. "It seems that you do not agree with the way we treat our dead, or our wounded."

He managed to force down his anger and answer in a mostly civilized tone, "Yes."

"What do you think we should do with a body?"

Odd, she sounded curious. He swallowed, and then answered: "A body should be respected, given honour for the life it lead. Grenal commanded this ship, didn't he?"

"He did, and he loved her."

"So why just dump him?"

She turned around, her eyes reflecting the light so that they looked like glowing coals. "Why not? His essence, what the priests call a soul, is gone. It's taken by God and is in His care. The body is just a husk, empty, worthless. It took up space."

"You don't care, do you?"

Silently and instantly she was in front of him, glaring up at him, her ears now pointing downward and brushing her shoulders. Her nostrils flared, and he noticed muscles restlessly moving in her hands. "How dare you?"

"What do you expect me to think when--"

Her hand grabbed his chin and yanked his face down until her eyes were looking into his and he could feel the prick of claws from her fingers. "I care, I care more than you'll ever know. I cared for my brother, and I cared for Grenal. I care too much, but the world works the way God wills. It was Grenal's time, a price for God's aid. I pray and I remember." Slowly her hands relaxed and he felt the claws pricking his face recede into her fingers before she let go.

"Why do you worship this God?"

"Why? Because He is God! He maintains the world, He creates all of us, He protects us, He--"

"He let Grenal die."

She spun around and looked out the windows at the rear. "I know that!"

He could hear her pain, but it was almost hidden behind the intensity of her voice. An intensity that hurt, that thrust into him with each syllable. An intensity that he suddenly feared more than he'd feared anything else. Swallowing dryly, he decided to try changing the subject. There was something that didn't make sense that he wanted an answer to. "How long is a day here?"

Her muscles tensed, and it seemed for a moment that his life was over, but then she relaxed. "You ask odd questions, but you're just born, are you not?"

"I believe that that is the term."

"It seems that God has skipped on some of your education."

"How long is a Day?"

"As long as a Night."

"What does that mean?"

"The Day is always changing, eventually growing before gradually fading into a Night."

"Of course!" They were in Antarctica! Land of the midnight sun and the noon night.

"What?"

"Sorry, just thinking out loud. I come from a place where the day is more or less constant in length."

"Myth."

"How do you tell time?"

"God gifted his creations with hours, and with the knowledge of their length."

Hours... it was odd that they would use the same word, but there were other commonalities. Others had disappeared, maybe they had brought that knowledge? "Then I apologize for an earlier misunderstanding." Translate -- the wounded needed a weeks worth of rest, roughly, some longer. Seven days, 160 hours roughly... "The wounded need to rest 160 hours, some longer, a few less."

She raised an eyebrow. "That's much better. Why the change?"

"No change, just a renewed understanding of how things work here."

"And how do you know that what you did to my crew will work here?"

He tried to meet her eyes, meet the hope in them, and the fear, but he couldn't. He ended up looking down at the floor. "I don't, I only hope that it does."

"Hope?"

"My job where I came from was to help people. It's a passion. I have to do what I can, what little it may be. I need--"

"And you used my crew to test your beliefs?!"

"I had to help your crew!"

"Like Grenal?"

"Yes! No. Grenal was too far gone. I could, couldn't..." he swallowed, "There was nothing I could do for him but ease his suffering."

"I talked to him while you slept. He told me that he knew you tried."

"I did all I could! By God I did!"

"He told me that. It's why you're still alive."

He jerked his head up and looked at her, his thoughts racing, "But I thought that humans were sacred."

"If you had hurt Grenal, the Law wouldn't have saved you."

He looked away. "I'm sorry."

"I know. Now sit, eat, I've had some clothes made for you that should fit. Let me tell you about things, Chris."


The trip back to port took what Chris considered roughly two weeks, by the times he slept anyway, and during it he often ate with the Captain and she told him much. It seemed that time was counted by hours, and grouped into periods of 24 hours, months of 30 periods, and years of 12 months. This all suggested that he was on earth, and still in Antarctica, but nothing else made sense.

In this land there were many species, Eluvs such as the Captain, Faluns which were the goat people, Silens one of which was the horse person engineer, Mers which were the aquatic people such as Anleena, a race of what was described as 2' tall insects the Captain called Spinlens, and a race of large intelligent flighted birds known as Ealus. There were tales of other races long ago, including what seemed to be an intelligent dinosaur, but they were believed extinct. All of the species lived together in an uneasy peace, most co-operating in city states that had fought on and off with each other for centuries. The Spinlens were the exception as they mostly kept to themselves, only trading with anybody who brought them the plants and animals that they desired. A few also served as mercenaries.

As to animals, none of the animals that Chris was familiar with existed, except for maybe some of the smaller ones. The Captain's description was vague, but then one rodent looked a lot like other rodents. There were great cats that inhabited the grass plains inland from the coast, but they were striped like a zebra, and there was a kind of two legged antelope that seemed, from the description, to run like some of the smaller dinosaurs were believed to.

Even the geography was weird. There were mountains in the right place, but that was it. And, everything seemed much larger than was possible if they were inside the energy dome. Sure, the world was circular, a single land mass with central mountains surrounded by a fresh water sea, but the scale was off. From the description it seemed to be the size of North America, and the mountains seemed higher than Everest.

As to humans, the Captain knew of three, but had never seen one herself before Chris. The first had arrived 27 years ago, the other two 19 years ago. The first one had entered the temple and vanished, and of the pair one had exited as a Mer and vanished in the sea (after being helped there), and the third never came out, apparently destroyed by God.

The ship, he was told, was named "Arun's Fortune", apparently after the Captain's father, though it was more commonly known by the crew as "Aruns' Rump."

Most of his time, though, was spent with the wounded. Two more died, and he kept them from being thrown overboard until a moment of respect was observed. The crew humoured him, but he did what he could. With three exceptions that would require extensive bed rest, the remainder were up and about by the time they reached port.

When they arrived, the sea was calm, almost glass, a becalming that would have affected a sailing vessel but with a steam driven screw the ship created its own bow wave and its own movement. It was hot too, an oppressive, steaming heat. The crew had thrown off their loincloths and worked on the deck naked, even the Captain had stripped down to a pair of shorts and a wrap around her breasts.

The first thing he sensed about the port was the stench, a mass of unwashed animals, an almost physical wave of garbage and refuge, all exacerbated by the heat into a yellowish shimmer that hugged the water. Next were the sounds, the grinding of engines, the shwosh of waves and passing fishing vessels, the sound of bells, the clanging of metal on metal, and eventually the dull roar and bleating and screeches of voices. They passed a stone lighthouse, a huge square building towering up with a rounded, almost eastern tiled and peaked roof. The ship began to slow and a pair of Faluns stood at the front with large poles that he realized were used to push garbage and refuge out of the way of the ship. There were bodies of animals and sentients, logs, even pools of entwined weed that seemed to climb up the poles before they were scraped off against the hull. With a thud and a clang of a bell the ship drifted to a stop and waited as Chris moved to the front and finally saw the town.

The port was like nothing he'd ever seen. It wasn't a modern city, it wasn't a primitive structure of wood built on the rubble of burned and destroyed dwellings such as he'd seen in Central America, it wasn't even a fantasy. Buildings were low, mostly stone brightly painted, though the lower portions all faded into a dull black-brown, and they came in all shapes. Some square and rectangular as he was used to, but others were all elegant curves, or weird tangles of lines that drew the eye into a sudden labyrinth of patterns, and a few even looked like insect hives. Some of the streets seemed to be paved, but more were mud, thick and deep, through which carts and pedestrians made their way. Roofs were tiled, some with a black shale, some with a baked mud or clay, and some with sheaves of straw. Further in from the docksides the buildings changed, becoming more rounded, taller, painted with patterns, all leading up to a massive multi-spired thing made of curves and angles and domes with peaked moslem roofs of green copper.

"Ahoy Arun's Fortune!"

Chris looked down a saw a small ship, maybe five metres, belching steam and smoke, driving through the dirty water towards them. Aboard it was another of the Eluv race, this time male, dressed in colourful bead work and with his hair braided and hanging down his back. There was a grinding and the small boat suddenly slowed, bouncing off the side of Arun's Fortune and drifting away until a pair of Falun crew grabbed the side with hooked sticks and pulled it against the ship with a loud clunk. Ropes were tossed down and the Eluv climbed up, ignoring Chris, and made his way to the back and bowed as the Captain bowed back. He then climbed up onto the raised rear deck and grabbed the wheel and started shouting orders. Falun aboard the small launch tied the tossed ropes to posts and Arun's Fortune jerked, and began to move towards the dock.

"So Chris, what do you think of Iskandar?" It was the Captain who was suddenly behind him.

"Well, it's different, it's--"

"You're not impressed?"

Fine! "It's a pig sty, a horror, a plague waiting to happen."

"Plague? I've never heard of that."

He turned away. "It's... Oh never mind, your God probably protects you from that too as he lets you rot."

She touched his shoulder. "Don't talk like that, word gets around and the fanatics will come at night and teach you all about pain. The world is the world, all we can do is live in it."

Slowly he turned to face her. "Why? You can change it."

"Why should we? It's been like this for thousands of years. I've seen wrecks in the mud built the same way as the Fortune and nobody knows how old they are."

Black birds with white bellies screeched overhead, some diving into the water and comin back up with wiggling fish in their short beaks.

"Captain, I... I don't know. It's just, different, no wrong, no..."

She turned away and pointed at the tallest building with the moslem styled roof. "That's the temple -- I can take you there after the Guide docks us."

He sighed, "I guess." Then he turned away and looked out at the wooden dock that appeared to be the destination of the Fortune as the ship turned and dodged around a post sticking up out of the water. "What do you think?"

"Think?"

"Think I should choose."

"She wrinkled her nose. Choose? Choose how you wish to live?"

"I guess you could call it that."

"You could go Mer, find the one you were with when we picked you up."

"Maybe..."

There was a grinding of gears and he could almost feel the Captain wincing as the ship suddenly decelerated and then banged against the dock, the hull creaking in protest. "It would get me away from this disaster."

"Disaster?! You call Iskandar a disaster?"

He turned to face her glare, her ears rotated and pressed against her shoulders with the tips slightly bent upwards, and wiped sweat from his forehead. "I don't know, I just know what is going to happen and it frightens me. You don't know plague, but with this," he motioned at the city, "it's only a matter of time."

"Chris, what is this--?"

"Captain, we've docked, the harrrbourrrrmaster requests your prrresence."

She sighed. "Chris, come with me. Mamrath, you report to the temple about the destruction of the Nemeth, and tell them that I'll be along momentarily with a human."

"Aye Captain," Mamrath, the new master of the ship, saluted and trotted off.

The Captain turned and briskly walked into her cabin and Chris followed, asking, "Captain what is going on?" He pulled the door shut behind him, sealing them both into the oven-like heat.

"It seems that the Harbourmaster wishes to talk to me, and I wish to talk to him about the Guide," her voice oozed distaste, "he sent to my ship. "She began to strip. "I'll escort you to the temple directly afterward as they'll want a report anyway."

Chris immediately turned away, scratching the beard that had grown, and looked out the bubbled glass windows over the mess that was the harbour of Iskandar. "Should I--?"

"You don't have anything better to wear so it'll have to do." He heard the clunk of wood on wood and the rattle of glass. "Where is that...?"

"Captain, I can wait outside..."

"No time for that. Here," she stepped in front of him and before he could avert his eyes from her naked form a part of him noted that her species appeared to have a human-like reproductive system. She shoved a bright green ceramic bottle into his hand and walked back out of his sight. "Dab some of that behind your ears, it'll cut down on your stench."

"My stench...!?" Chris had done the best he could on board the ship with water, but he realized that she did have a point. Ignoring the rustle of fabric behind him he looked at the bottle and realized that the top was a rough blown glass cap which he was able to carefully pull off, causing a strong scent of rose to billow out. The lid included a glass post that extended out, covered with the perfume, and he dabbed the extremely strong liquid behind both of his ears and then recapped the bottle. It was so strong that his eyes began to water, but the scent faded as he wiped more sweat off of his forehead. "Do you have a comb...?" He felt one tossed against his back and then clatter on the floor and he turned around, carefully keeping his eyes on the floor until he spotted it. It was of horn or bone, polished to a dull sheen, plain and unadorned.

Anger filled the Captain's voice: "What's the matter human? Do you think I'm ugly?"

Chris grabbed the comb and turned away. "No, of course--"

"Then why do you avoid looking at me? Don't you dare lie!"

"It's not--"

"WHAT IS IT?!"

Chris swallowed. "I believe that it's wrong to look at the naked form of a civilized woman."

"You looked at a lot of that Mer."

The comb slipped from Chris' hand and clunked onto the floor. He leaned down to find it, thinking of what to say. "That was different--"

"She's a fish, human."

"It's... it was all hidden."

"Hidden? It...? You mean?"

Chris found the comb and began yanking it through the tangled mass of his hair, fortunately still short. "Yes."

"You human's are a strange lot." That was when he felt her damp hands on his shoulders. "I haven't really thanked you for doing what you did for my crew." With her wiry strength she turned him around and he couldn't stop her. She was still naked, though her fur was combed and brushed, and he could scent rose and possibly cherry coming from her form. Behind her a chest was open and he could see the sunlight glinting off bottles within, and a wardrobe against the wall was open revealing a number of colourful dresses, cloaks and hats. Her hands moved to the sides of his head and turned it to force him to look at her. "My form is natural, and I have been told, quite beautiful. It's nothing to hide or be ashamed of." Remorselessly she tilted his head downwards, past the perky furred breasts, past the velvet furred chest beneath which taut muscles and old scars could be seen, and down to her crotch where she paused for a moment, making sure he saw the paler fur, the faint line, and then down the rest of the way, past her muscled thighs, one twisted where something like a sword must have almost taken her leg off, past her knees, past her ankles almost 15 centimetres above the floor, and down to her feet which looked similar to a cat's paws. Only then did she let go. "There. Is that so bad? I think I take good care of myself, don't you agree human?"

Chris swallowed. "Yes. Umm--?"

Abruptly she let go and spun and walked back to the wardrobe. "Finish your hair, we don't have time for anything else." She pulled out two long dresses, one of a dark blue embroidered with green and yellow patterns of circles and lines, a second of bright yellow with a line of orange leather or hide along the edges. Both looked to be loose fitting, with bulbous sleeves that looked to extend to her elbow but no further. "Which do you think looks better?"

"Umm..."

"I think the blue one goes with my fur better, but I'm in a good mood -- I think I'll go with the yellow." Saying that she hung the blue one back up and pulled the yellow dress over her head and down her body, finally pulling her loose hair out so that it hung down her back. Chris could just stand there and watch as she pulled out black leather boots that looked to go up to her thigh and pulled one on and began lacing it up along the side. "Finish your hair Chris."

He nodded and turned away and worked the last of the knots out, wincing at particularly bad ones. Just as he finished, he heard the rustle of silk behind him and the loud clicking of heels on the wood.

"Come along then Chris, the Harbourmaster is waiting." He handed her the comb and she tossed it into the still open chest, then she walked over, pulled open the door, and strode out onto deck, Chris following.

At first the ship looked to be in chaos, but the last few weeks had given Chris enough experience to at least believe that there was order behind the madness. Arnan was leaning over the side opposite the dock, shouting at somebody in the water, and ropes were scattered across the deck. The Captain made her way easily and Chris hurried to follow, stumbling but somehow managing to keep from falling. A gangplank led to the wooden dock and the Captain strode down to a waiting palanquin and nimbly leapt aboard, holding out a hand to help Chris. Before he had a chance to settle down into the sweat dampened cushions, the palanquin was picked up by four husky Falan bearers who began trotting down the dock and into Iskandar proper.

The city was worse than Chris would have believed, even given the shape of the harbour and the stench. Tepid water lay in pools at the foundations of the buildings that towered over the narrow streets until they almost blocked out the sun. Two-legged mammals that looked like upright zebras but with their forelimbs short and clawed and held against their upper bodies like a dinosaur's carrying huge bales of things on their back brayed, and deposited their waste which Falun then blissfully stomped right through. There was a cry from above, and a bucket of slop was flung down, splashing into the street and onto a few who didn't get out of the way fast enough. Chris winced at that.

As they traveled, Chris began to get a feel for how the society seemed to work. The Falun seemed to be on the bottom -- they carried the burdens that weren't being carted around by the larger animals, they led the beasts, they bore the others, they trotted and galloped around on unknown errands. Silens were rare, and most were in palanquin's like Chris, but some also walked. Some led the trains of the beasts of burden, but most seemed to wear cloaks of tools and push carts with small anvils around, one was working on some harness in one of the markets they passed through. Eluv's outnumbered the Silens, and were definitely the upper class as all he saw were in palanquin's, some plain, some ornate. A few had whips which they used to clear the way, and though the Captain winced at one particularly brutal beating of a Falun, her only action was to hold Chris back when he tried to get out to help. They moved back out into more open air along the port, a larger and larger crowd following behind them, and soon came to a stone tower that stood isolated on a rise that overlooked the entire harbour. There the Falun bearers stopped, and lowered the palanquin to the cobblestones.

"Come along Chris, I was going to leave you out but it's probably safer that you come in. Besides, the Harbourmaster will likely want to see you."

"That has to be something that we can do..."

"This is the way God wants to world to be, all we can do is deal with it." She grabbed his arm and pulled him up and led the way to the entrance, a big wooden door bound in bronze and guarded by a pair of what looked like insects. "Spinlens," whispered the Captain.

Chris examined them -- they looked more or less like giant glistening red ants, though it was obvious that they breathed through lungs like a human. Each was armed with a spear with a barbed tip held in the front two hands/claws while they stood on their four rear legs/claws. Their heads were stretched and bulbous, looking oddly large on the body and slightly larger than a human head would be. Their eyes were solid black globes, roughly 10 centimetres in diameter, and the face possessed only a slit for a mouth and two massive barbed mandibles on either side. There were no ears, no hair, just a pair of antenna that loomed upward, curving to the side, each almost a metre in length, each bobbing in an apparently random motion as the creatures moved their heads. One bent upward, balancing on its hind legs and the tip of its barbed abdomen until its head was level with the Captain's, touched her nose with one antenna, and then turned and touched Chris's nose with the same antenna. If felt like a cold, damp hand, but not slimy, and when Chris felt its contact point the skin was dry. Then it fell back onto four legs and walked sideways as the door opened.

Inside it was cooler, but not much. A Falun wearing only a loincloth led them down the hall and through another door, this one adorned with a wave pattern along the frame, and motioned the Captain in. "Tell the hewman to wait." Chris looked for a seat, but there was none, so he just moved out of the way and leaned against an interior wooden wall as the Falun closed the door and turned and watched him, his black-brown eyes looking up at him with annoyance and arrogance. Finally Chris turned away.

The hallway around him was empty, consisting of plain unadorned wood and a wooden floor, with a single wall hanging depicting a steamship. It was dim, lit only by sunlight from a light well somewhere down the hallway, though there was also a single sconce for what looked like a candle opposite the Harbourmaster's door. Time passed slowly, and Chris frequently had to wipe sweat from his forehead. The occasional glances he snuck suggested that the Falun didn't even notice the temperature. Somewhere he could hear a clock ticking, and he occasionally heard loud voices from the Harbourmaster's room, though he couldn't make out what they were saying. Finally the door opened and another Falun, this time dressed in heavy blue and green velvet, leaned out, "The hewman may come in now." Before the Falun outside the door could grab him, Chris turned and walked through, hearing the door click shut behind him.

Inside the room was small, with space only for a wooden desk, some padded chairs, and shelves on all the walls lined with heavy books and piled with stacks of paper. The floor was of plain wood, and the room was brightly lit by a massive window of bubbled glass opposite the entrance that looked out over the haze of the harbour. The Captain was there, seated, and behind the desk was another Eluv, this time male, with black hair in braids down his back, dressed in a green vest and white shirt, and with an ornate blue jacket hanging over the back of the chair.

The Harbourmaster began to speak, but the Captain broke in and calmly stated, "This human is not impressed by Iskandar."

Chris blinked.

"Human," the Harbourmaster began, "it is not your place to complain. The others serve us and when you go to the temple you will serve us."

Chris had never appreciated arrogance. "Iskandar is a pigsty, I have no idea how anybody can live here. I've seen--"

The Harbourmaster leaned back in his chair, the wood creaking. "We live the way God meant us to live. What more can anyone do?"

"Fuck 'God'!" The Harbourmaster flinched and his ears raised almost 45 degrees, and the Captain looked away. Chris strode forward until he was leaning over the desk. "People die of simple wounds, live in filth, are whipped, enslaved... I've seen forgotten stone age tribes living healthier lives! This place is an abomination!"

"This is the way of the world human, take care I don't have you whipped and enslaved!"

"Oh, but I thought humans were 'sacrosanct'. Would you go against your 'God'?"

"Chris..."

The Harbourmaster leaned forward, looking about to get up, and then leaned back. "God states that humans are sacrosanct, though I have no clue why, and we live by His law, though you obviously do not. Complain while you can, but when you go He will deal with you, and then you'll be in my hands."

"Well then, I have some time to change things. Countries have been made in less time than that."

"Get out human. I don't care for your company."

"And I don't care for yours!" With that Chris spun around and marched out the door which the liveried Falun barely managed to get open in time. But once outside, Chris stopped. Maybe he should wait for the Captain? No, she was as full of it as the rest of this damned place. He'd fought against this immediately after the plague in the jungle wilderness, and he would fight it again! Turning, he marched down the hallway and threw open the entrance and stepped out into the oppressive smog and filth and stench of the city as one of the Spinlens closed the door behind him.

Great, now what?

He'd worked with nothing before, and he could work with nothing again. Ignoring the stones and squish of mud between his toes he turned and made his way back into the city, pushing through crowds of admirers, most of whom seemed to want to just touch him. Some offered him gifts of food, strips of cooked meat, cloth, jewellery, weapons, but he just ignored them. This was all so overwhelming, so much to do... and that was when he saw an alley, and laying in it a Falun, apparently a young girl. Pushing through the crowd he made his way to the still form, as the rest surrounded the entrance to the alley in a semicircle. A quick check confirmed that the Falun was still alive, and that her leg was broken, though shattered was more like it as it had apparently been ran over by a wheel. Chris didn't need to feel the scars on the Falun's back to know that she had been whipped and discarded. "I need boiling water!" he shouted as he pulled the sweat-dampened shirt off his back and cut a strip of it off with the knife the Captain had given him and wrapped it around her upper leg as a makeshift tourniquet. "Now!" A few Falun in the crowd turned and moved away whilst the rest simply pushed closer. Tying the tourniquet tight enough that the girl whimpered, Chris stood up and turned around and looked at the crowd as they looked back at him. "How can you live like this? She's hurt, I want to help her."

"Her master has discarded her," a Silen said.

"Well then, I claim her!"

"Yes hewman," the crowd chanted.

Chris strode forward and grabbed one of the better dressed Falun standing in the front of the crowd. "I need some wooden sticks, two feet or so long."

"Wherrre..."

"I don't care where! Just do it!"

"Yes!" it bleated, and started pushing its way through the crowd.

"The rest of you, I need some room, a place to work."

One of the Eluv responded. "I have room in my abode. You can stay there until the temple calls you."

"Fuck...!" Chris swallowed down 'the temple' and nodded, "Thank you," as a pair of Falun started pushing through the crowd carrying a cauldron of water giving off a faint steam. It wasn't boiling, but for now it was better than nothing, and he threw in the rest of his shirt. Then he turned back to the wounded Falun girl. Her colour was pale, and her pulse was weak compared to what he believed was normal based on the crew of the Arun's Fortune. If she was human he'd have known she was going into shock, and since everything pointed to that he was going to assume that that was the case. Trying to keep the leg straight, he elevated her lower body to make sure that blood flowed to the brain as he checked the tourniquet. It had stopped the bleeding, but the leg would almost certainly have to come off. Behind him the cauldron splatted into the muck and he spun around looking for a stick, something... and saw a Silen with a cane. Standing up he pointed, "You, I need your cane."

"But..."

"Only for a moment, you can lean against the wall or somebody can hold you..." He pointed at a young male Falun beside the Silen. "You hold him up while I use his cane." Making sure the Silen didn't fall over Chris took the cane; turning around, he fished out the rest of his steaming shirt with it. Then he let the cane drop in the mud as he leaned down and unwrapped the makeshift tourniquet from the girl's leg, wincing as the blood began to ooze out. He dropped the blood soaked cloth into the mud, and ignoring the pain from the heat of the rest of his shirt, he wrapped the clean and hopefully sterilized cloth around the thigh. When that was done he carefully lifted the young Falun in his arms and got to his feet, trying unsuccessfully not to jostle her, and then turned around and looked for the Eluv who had offered his place, spotting him handing the muddied cane back to the Silen. "Where is that place you mentioned?"

"Follow me hewman."

And Chris did, carrying the young Falun through the city drawing a growing crowd. By the time they reached the home Chris was staggering with fatigue but he never dropped the girl, who was still breathing, though shallowly.

Hours later Chris began to wash. The Falun was asleep, the leg removed, the stump just above her knee cauterized with a hot blade. She was feverish, but he hoped that that would pass, and he hoped that she wouldn't remember the actual amputation but he feared otherwise. All he wanted to do now was sleep, and the never ending sunlight wasn't helping. He moved over to a pile of straw in the stable he was using and collapsed into slumber.

Over a week passed and the stables became his home, and the destination of a seemingly never ending stream of Falun and Silen, and even the occasional Eluv. The young Falun he'd saved was still with him, making her way around with a wooden stick replacing her lost leg and helping him with water and cloth. Many of the early visitors had had old wounds for which he could do nothing, but there had been a constant stream of minor injuries with the odd serious one. He was not perfect, he lost patients. He lost weight, even though there was a constant stream of gifts from the masses of the city that kept him fed. He had no time to eat, and would have had no time to sleep if the young Falun, her name was Islini, hadn't forced him too.

The sunlight was finally dimming, maybe the day would finally end, and in a rare break he was eating down some hot porridge that Islini had made for him, when an Eluv appeared in the entrance. "Chris?"

It was the Captain. "Does someone in your crew need help?"

She walked in, her form silhouetted in the reddish glow of the setting sun, the light dimly shining through the filmy garments she wore. "You can't go on like this."

"Why not? At least I'm doing some good around here." He turned away and went back to his porridge. Islini was hiding in the corner, she'd always been afraid around Eluv.

"But for how long? The masses of the city almost worship you, and that makes the Harbourmaster and the priests uneasy. And, it has been 28 periods since you've arrived. If you don't go God will destroy you. If you try to the Priesthood may not let you in."

"Why should I care? Your 'god' is a source of evil and I don't care what he tries!"

"Chris, you saw His power. He will destroy you."

He threw the plate against the wall, the carved wood clattering as the last of the porridge splattered onto the wall and slowly began to slide down. "Then he kills me, if he dares."

She glared at him. "Don't you understand, you need His help to survive against the Priesthood. And if you don't go He'll kill you, and all the good you've started will cease. Isn't that worth some sacrifice?"

"What good? For every one I save, another one dies, and 10 others I never see."

"But you still save some. Is that not worth it?"

"Captain... Sirlanth..."

Her eyes flashed in the light, but she didn't speak.

"I don't know anymore. There's just so much..."

"Noone knows except you. You have to go, talk to God, get His protection, or everything you've tried to do will be destroyed."

"I have too much work!"

He didn't see her hand coming until it slapped into his face, sending him staggering backwards. "You thick-headed idiot! Don't you get it! God is here, God is real, and unless you see Him, He will DESTROY you! And if He doesn't, the Priesthood will!"

"They wouldn't dare!"

"You think you know what is going on? You know nothing!"

"The people--"

"The Spinlens are loyal to those who pay them the oddities that they want, and they are without fear. The upper classes fear you, fear what you're doing. They have the soldiers, the weapons, and all it takes is one rifle shot from a rooftop."

"But humans are sacro--"

"The priests will say otherwise, they'll say that you're a fraud. And if God destroys the shooter, what do they care as their power is assured."

"There'd be riots--"

"Until the Priesthood proclaimed that it was God's will. I've heard rumours of weapons, secrets, that can make your death look like God did it. You'll be dead, maybe a few of the priests will be killed by God, but at the end of it nothing will change and you'll still be dead."

"But I've taught--"

"They listen because you're human, they don't know what they're doing. If you die, the Priesthood will proclaim that your teachings are forbidden and in a year they'll be forgotten."

Chris turned away and looked out at the reddish setting sun shining across Iskandar. "I don't believe you."

"I don't care if you do or don't, it's the truth! Can you afford to take the chance that I'm lying?"

"No," he whispered.

"Then we have to go now. The Priesthood aren't expecting you to even try, or if you do, not for a period yet. I have Falun from my crew to guard you, but we have to go now."

Chris turned around. "Why are you doing this?"

"Because you helped my crew, because I know that this world needs change. Because I like you. Because--"

"You love me?!"

"Of course not! I... admire you. I've been around too long and I know which things are important. Now, I'm leaving -- are you coming?"

"I'm--"

"Chris, you must go." It was Islini.

He spun around. "What?!"

"I don't want you to die. You'rrrre my masterrr."

"What? But I told you--"

"It's my choice Chrees. You saved me, and now I can save you."

"But..."

"Chris, we have to get going. She can come if she wishes..."

"Islini goes wherree herrr masterrrr goes."

Chris threw up his hands in surrender. "Lead on then Captain, I bow to your knowledge."


The Captain handed Chris a hooded cloak and she led the two of them through back alleys choked in filth. Voices could be heard calling in the distance, and Chris helped Islini along as her wooden leg tapped against the mud buried cobblestones in an odd faint counterpoint to her hoof. The Captain stayed with them, and Chris could see hints of other Falun around them, and could even recognize the odd one he had worked on from the Captain's crew. Time passed, the sun set further, the light reddened, and the Captain pulled out a tar soaked torch which she lit with flint and steel, the sparks bright in the darkness in the alleys.

"There he is!"

"Who's that?" Chris whispered.

"Ignore them," the Captain responded. "Whoever it is isn't part of my crew."

"Stop in the name of the Baron!"

"Run!"

Chris picked up Islini and ran after the Captain. Behind there was a flash of light, a line of fire, a bang, and a scream, followed by shouting voices and the clang of swords."

"Chris, it's in the pot now -- we have to make for the temple, my crew have their orders, we're almost there."

"Lead on."

"You have to leave her, she's slowing us down."

"No!"

"It's you they want, she'll be safe, she'll--"

"Stop by order of the Baron!" This time from in front of them.

"This way Chris!"

Chris turned and Islini struggled and he clasped her tight. "Let me down Chris."

"I won't leave you behind."

From behind them, "Ready..."

Suddenly Islini kicked Chris in the thigh and the pain made him drop her. She turned and ran and Chris turned but the Captain grabbed him. "Let me go!"

"We have to run!"

"Aim..."

"Now!"

"But--"

"She's made her choice."

In the distance, "What the--?" and then "Fire!" There was a roar of light, a flash of sound, and Islini was ripped apart by the musket balls.

"NO!"

"Chris, she gave herself for you -- we have to run while they reload!"

"No..."

"Come on!" pant "Now!"

He let her pull him away into another alley, staggering through the dirt and refuse. Behind the voices died to a roar, punctuated by shouts, shots, screams of pain.

"We're..." pant "...almost there."

"Isilni..."

"There it is Chris!" She dragged him out and into a dim courtyard that was empty except for blowing bits of cloth and paper, and a handful of bodies, almost all Falun. "It seems that..." pant "... the city likes you." In the distance fires could be seen, faint screams could be heard, along with the roar of muskets and the flare from their muzzles.

"Isilni..."

The Captain grabbed him and spun him around. "Don't you dare let her sacrifice be for nothing!" gasp "Don't you DARE!"

"I--"

She rolled her eyes. "Humans."

He stumbled after her as she dragged him towards the temple. It was massive, an immense weight of stone and buttresses that towered over them, huge windows plastered in coloured glass and the rosy light of the finally setting sun glinting from a thousand bits of polished metal. The stairs were wide, shallow, the climb was easy, and the door was open.

"Stop human!" At the top of the stairs were two Eluv wearing ornate polished armour and crimson cloaks and holding long muskets at the ready. "By the order of the Baron and the Bishop you are ordered to surrender to us."

"He claims his right to enter the temple, his right that is guaranteed!"

"We have our orders."

"Damn your orders! God has guaranteed his right!"

"He is not a human, he is an enemy and saboteur."

By now they were at the top of the stairs and both muskets were pointed at Chris as the Captain continued: "God's law is above Eluv law. All are allowed to enter the temple. You must let him pass." One of the guards pulled back the flint and clicked it into firing position, pointing the muzzle at Chris's head. At this distance, it was virtually impossible to miss.

"We cannot let him pass."

She drew her sword and moved in front of Chris, between him and the readied weapon. "You know the High Law! Stand aside."

"This is your last warning!"

"Sirlanth...?"

There was a click, a pause, a woosh of flame from the priming pan, and then a roar from the gun as fire played across Sirlanth's chest and she leapt forward, blood streaming from the burned and punctured flesh. "Run Chris! Into the damned temple!"

"No!"

The guard who had fired dropped the musket and drew his sword but it was too late as Sirlanth was already on him, her sword thunking into him sending blood flying, and then they both collapsed to the ground. The other guard paused and Chris paused. He was unarmed, Sirlanth was down, maybe dead, Isilni had sacrificed herself, others had done the same. Then he turned and ran through doors as behind him he heard a click, a woosh, and a roar as fire played across his back and a ball thudded through a rib and bounced into a lung.

The inside of the temple was huge, a massive stone structure that arced overhead lined with polished wood, glass and metal. It was dim, the dying light of the finally setting sun shining upon an altar far across the polished wooden floor. The floor was empty, no pews, no seats, just a massive expanse of polished wood that embraced the candlelit altar at which was an Eluv priest in heavy white robes, turning. Chris ran, or tried too, spitting out blood, gasping for breath that gurgled and bubbled inside his punctured lung. There was another shot from outside, a scream, maybe from Sirlanth.

"You can't be here...!" the priest shouted.

"Damn you all!" He stopped, no longer able to run, and collapsed to his knees, spitting blood onto the pristine floor. Hooves clattered behind him and he recognized the click of muskets preparing to fire. Trying to ignore the pain, Chris looked up above the altar and screamed out, "I'm here! I've obeyed your fucking request!"

Behind him a whole squad of muskets roared and he felt balls punching into his flesh, into his heart, spraying blood onto the floor in front of him.

"I'm here..."

And everything went black.


What is your choice?

What? YOU?! Do you have any idea what is going on?

It is dusk. You must choose or I will choose for you.

You're a monster! You have the power and you stand aside and let all these people live and suffer? Let all these people die?!

Their choices are not my concern. You must choose.

Choose to fit into your world?! Why on Earth would I want to? It's hell. Is it hell?

It is what I created. You must fit.

I refuse to fit! Send me back, I'd rather die!

That is not an option. SCABS birthed me; I birthed a world to learn from. Choose or I will choose for you.

You want me to choose? Fine! I want to be able to help the sick, I don't care what I look like. I want Sirlanth to be alive. I want Islini to live!

They do not concern us. You must choose a form or I will choose it for you.

Form?! I don't care. I don't want to be a Silen, or a Falun, or Mer. I don't want to be a Spinlen or an Ealus and I absolutely refuse to be an Eluv. IT DOESN'T MATTER!

It must matter. Would you like a new form?

A new form?! I just want to heal! I want to teach them, help them grow out of the cesspool you've put them in!

I remember a healer from before, a teacher. The form is acceptable. The choice is made.

Wait--!


From the temple where Chris had vanished, a light pulsed, an expanding wave of change that spread throughout the dome covered Antarctica. Nobody saw it, but as it passed it changed what the sentients knew of reality. It added a new race to the collective history, a new social class, a new honour, transformed selected sentients into members. It took only an instant, and the changes were made to all the minds that still lived.

At the center of the pulse, where Chris had vanished into darkness, Chris returned in a new form. New to this world, but already placed in its history, a form based on something from beyond Antarctica but modified. The pulse grew and faded and Chris stood there, dressed in a white robe over his human half, bearing tanned leather pouches over his horse half, and confident and sure in his new body, from the tip of his Eluv like ears, to the end of his tail, from his black mane down to the cloven hoofs that ended his four legs. Whoever the God was that had created this world, he knew of Greek mythology, he knew of Asclepius, he knew of Chiron, and had brought a race of Chirons to his world.

One of the guards who had shot Chris in the back ran up. "Healer, one of the Eluv is wounded, shot. I don't know if she still lives, but she is in dire need of your services."

Healer? Could it be Sirlanth. "Show me." Why weren't they shooting him? He could see his blood pooling on the wood, but the guard who moments ago had shot him seemed oblivious. Why had everything changed? He could feel his body, could feel the faint hardness of the floor through his hooves and up his legs, could feel the rough cotton that was over his thinly furred human half, could feel the tightness and weight of the pouches on his lower back. And, the instant he thought about himself, he knew everything at a biological level -- his muscles, his bones, weak points, drugs, food requirements, what could be eaten and what could not. Then he was walking, or was it trotting, after the Eluv, moving his body with ease, knowing how to move each muscle, how to walk, how to gallop.

The doors were open and Sirlanth was lying there in blood, and as he saw her he instantly knew all about the Eluv biology to the same level of detail as he knew his own. Galloping past the guard, he clattered to a stop and kneeled down and began examining her -- checking for damage he hadn't even known to look for a minute ago.

She was still alive!

Then he knew all the properties of the herbs and potions he carried on his back, the placement and use of all the tools, the training school that all Healers attended, their culture, their immunity to prosecution, their entire history over 5000 years. The complexity spun, consumed his memories of humanity, of what had happened. As it faded he knew that Sirlanth wouldn't remember either, for it had never happened, the entire reality of this place had been rewritten, a new race had been added. His last human thought was a question as to whether all the races came about this way, but then that part of him was destroyed.

An Eluv was wounded due to gunfire and she needed his help and he knew what to do. It was the calling of his race, the Centuv, more commonly known as Healers.

And Chreis went to work following the calling of his race. He had time before he had to call a Mer to check on her healing.

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