Read The mendel experiment Online

Authors: Susan Kite

The mendel experiment

 

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously and are not to be construed as real. Any resemblance to actual events, locations, organizations, or person, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.

World Castle Publishing, LLC

Pensacola, Florida

Copyright © Susan Kite 2015

Print ISBN: 9781629892283

eBook ISBN: 9781629892290

First Edition World Castle Publishing, LLC April 15, 2015

http://www.worldcastlepublishing.com

Licensing Notes

All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission, except in the case of brief quotations embodied in articles and reviews.

Cover: Karen Fuller

Editor: Eric Johnston

{Gregor Johann MENDEL was an Austrian monk and biologist whose work on heredity became the basis of the modern theory of genetics.}

Chapter One

 

It was a small place with hard, sharp corners. What bothered her most was the smell. It was the smell of death.

The old one beckoned with a skeletal finger. The air wheezed in and out of the old man’s chest. The breath was death; the dry, wrinkled, spotted skin was death. The beeps, hisses, and chirps that flew at her from everywhere in the cold room were death. Even the air felt dead. Nothing in the room lived except Corree and the old one, and he was almost dead.

“Come here, girl,” the dying man croaked.

Corree didn’t move, but something pushed her forward. The wheezing filled her ears.

“Remember.”

“Re-remember what?” she stammered, her voice barely above a whisper. She was shivering now. Goose bumps looked like mountains on the smooth flesh that was protected by the pelt she had now. The old one didn’t say anything for a long, long time. “Remember?” she began again, trying to coax the old one.

“Remember you are human. Always you are human.” It took in a shuddering, wheezing gasp. “You…are…human.”

What a silly statement, Corree thought. She was a girl. She was with lots of other girls. There were also boys. All of them in sharp corner rooms, some big and some small. They had lived forever in the place with cold, hard corners.

“Whatever happens to you, you are human….”

****

Corree’s eyes popped open and she saw darkness. There was no hard place and no old man. She shivered in her arboreal nest as she came to total wakefulness. Raising her head, she sniffed the air. Normal scents. The death that crossed her awareness now was natural. A ground dweller, most likely a snake, had fed a swooper. Her high, rounded ears pivoted. A tiny butterfly crawled under a nearby leaf. An orange-spotted cheeper rested on the edge of her nest, calling for a mate. It had no fear of her, despite its tiny size. Its skin was toxic.

The moons were not up, so the dark was thick. Corree listened more carefully and detected nothing nearby that would harm the group. She leaned out of her nest and listened for the others. Soft snoring sighs told her they were asleep. Tanna whistled softly from a limb below the group’s nests, signaling everything was well.

Except for the dream. Corree shivered again. They were coming more often now. Each time she saw a little more. Each time she remembered more. Now she wondered at the old one’s words.Human.So what was that anyway? She was human, but she was not the same as she had been in the dream. Was that what the old man meant? Did that mean she was no longer human? If that was the case, what was she? What were they all? They had changed so rapidly, but that hadn’t been bad. That was the only way they could survive in the forest. She had understood that from the first.

Why did the old man tell her those things if she wasn’t supposed to change? Didn’t he know what the forest was like? Did he know Migo had died because he didn’t adapt? Corree pulled herself away from the place her thoughts were going and focused on the sounds of the forest. The rustling of fringe leaves usually soothed her, but it was difficult to focus on anything other than the memories and dreams.

Before this season, Corree would have figured she was having one of those strange fantasy dreams; the ones where she could fly above the canopy or where something horrible was chasing her. She knew these latest dreams were real. As weird as it seemed, it was something that had happened to her long ago. While she dreamed, Corree remembered more and more from the before time. It was as though she had been in a fog of forgetfulness for the past five years and now it was lifting. She knew now what she had only guessed before—she and her group had not always been in the forest.

With a gentleness that belied the iron-hard strength in her long, calloused fingers, Corree stroked down the velvety smoothness of the gray-green pelt that covered her body. The darker places blended with the lighter like the rippling waves of a gentle stream. The downy-soft fur was just long enough, the width of her index finger, to repel the stinging rains of the hot season and protect her against the humid chill of the brief cold season. It also reflected the intense rays of the blue-white sun when she ventured near the top of the forest canopy. Only on her head was it longer, a green and black streaked length tied out of her eyes with a strip of scaled whistler skin.

Corree thought back to the girl in the dream—her. She had been covered in soft white under-skin that wouldn’t have protected her from the sun or the rain for long. Her eyes had once been a bright blue. Now when she ventured close to a pool, she noticed they were deep green. What had made her change? Where was that place of death she had dreamed about? Who was the old one? How had she gotten from the hard place to their comfortable forest?

Vague answers formed even as she thought the questions. She remembered the pod that had sustained all of them except Migo.Migo.Hot tears stung the corners of her eyes and she blinked them away. She knew he was supposed to be her nest mate, but he had died shortly after their pod came to the forest.Pod?Ah, it was a pod that had brought them from the sky; from space. That sudden revelation startled her.

Like the dreams, she knew it was true. The pod had been their home at first; a safe refuge until their bodies had changed and they learned the secrets of the forest. Once their eyes became strong enough to see what lurked in the gloom of the dense forest understory and their ears adapted to pick up the tiniest sounds, she had led them away. Corree could not stay in the place that had been the death of her nest mate.

By this time, she had the skin flaps that allowed her to glide from one twisted forest giant to another. Her fingernails had lengthened and strengthened to allow her to climb any tree quickly. She, as well as the others in her group, was more agile, stronger and tougher. Each member developed a sense of balance that made it almost impossible to fall.

Why had the old one sent them here? If she was supposed to be human, why had she changed? In her dream, she remembered many other kids in that place of hard corners. What had happened to them? Were there other groups in the forest? They had seen no others in all the time they had lived here. Of course, they hadn’t explored beyond the territory they had lived in for the past five years. Corree shook her aching head. A howler screamed above her in the canopy. The first moon would soon rise. She tried to settle back down in her nest to sleep until both moons were up, but the dream wouldn’t let her.

When the dreams began, so too did the pulling restlessness. The group was headed toward the place where the great river met the mountains. Why? That was a place of danger. The little voice in her mind that liked to argue with logic piped up.Why is it a place of danger?Just because it is, she mentally snapped.Because you are afraid of the place where Migo died….Corree ignored the annoying voice this time.

Regardless of the danger, she was following the call and the others were following her. The answers to her questions and the dreams were in the place they had fled from. She shivered and curled up, her arms and skin flaps trying to keep out the fear that made her cold.

As the second moon rose, so did Corree. She dropped to Tanna’s limb. He studied her with luminous blue-green eyes. In the light of the twin moons, it was hard to see anything but his eyes. His pelt was darker than hers, but then his under skin had been darker, too. Now mahogany-colored fur covered his body. His tool belt had been woven together from the skin of a scaly brown tree snake. He had killed it himself. The belt not only wrapped around his hips, but he had fashioned straps that extended up from his belt over his shoulders and down his back. Anything he made or found that was useful was attached to his belt.

The rest of them also had belts, but none were so intricate or heavily laden. They had made their own, however. Corree remembered the forest cat that had attacked their group one night. She had killed it with a sharpened stick and a great deal of luck. Its pelt now fit snugly around her hips, a spotted trophy attesting to her courage and her dedication to those who followed her. Her arms belt, not as wide as Tanna’s, had been fashioned from the skins of several sinuous water skimmers, their food of choice.

“We keep going to the mountains,” Tanna said. It had ceased being a question several nights ago.

“I think we can get there by the time the sun rises.”

“What will we do then?” he asked.

She shrugged. “See what our dreams are leading us to.” They had all experienced the dreams, although none as strongly as Corree.

“I think we’re better off here in the forest.”

“How long do you think we could ignore what is in our heads? If for no other reason, I want to get rid of the annoying insistence that we be therenow.”

“I know, Corree, but after all this time, why now?”

“Hmm. That’s only one of the questions I have been asking myself,” she replied. “Perhaps we’ll find the answer to that, too.”

“I hope so,” Tanna growled. “I’m getting tired of the weird dreams.”

Corree laughed. It was true. Life was so much simpler before the dreams began.

****

“What is it?” Breka asked, staring at the vine-covered mound below them. She was about three years younger than Corree, as was Joshee. Tanna was a year younger than Corree, who figured she was fourteen now. Mora, Tanna’s nest mate, was almost Tanna’s age. Kollin and Mendee were the youngest, five years younger than Corree.Years. That was another of the words that had come recently. Not from the dreams but suddenly in her mind. Before the “word,” the concept of spaces of time was a little vague and based on the dance of the moons around their world, as well as the sun’s journey across the sky.Day.Why had they been able to talk with each another from the beginning and yet some words had been hidden in their memories for five years?

“What is it?” Breka repeated.

The thing sat just beyond the edge of the forest. It was too perfectly uniform to be anything natural. The center was peaked, as though it was pointing to something in the sky. Beyond the sharp-cornered mound, the ground rose sharply into heights wreathed in clouds. A great river tumbled in front of the building, forming a miniature canyon.Building. Like a pod, only much bigger. A living place.Corree knew it was made of the same material as the hard-cornered thing of her memories. There was no sign of the pod they had arrived in. She was relieved, while still wondering what had happened to it.

“It’s scary,” Joshee said, squeezing between Corree and Breka.

“It’s all covered with forest and mountain plants, but it’s not natural,” Tanna observed. “I wonder how long it’s been here.”

“I would guess a couple of years,” Corree answered. “Those kuzu plants grow quickly.”

“Do you think there are others inside?” Mora asked.

Corree considered and then shook her head. “No, I don’t think so, but it wanted us to come.”

“How could a thing like that,” Joshee protested, “want anything? How could athingeven know we’re here? That’s like saying a rock could tell us what to do.”

“Why would a building want us?” Mendee asked.

Corree started. So the strange words were coming into the others’ heads, too. “I don’t know,” she admitted.

They continued to stare at the silent mound as the small blue sun rose behind them. Its light shone onto the mound and everyone gasped as bits and pieces of the building seemed to erupt into blue-white fire.

Corree gasped in pain and threw up her hand to shield her eyes.

“Get down!” Tanna ordered. They all squatted low on their limbs, behind screens of thick foliage. Kollin and Mendee dropped to the next limb. They all stole glances through thinner leaves as light continued to dance and flash.

“It’s like the hard cold place we came from, isn’t it?” Breka asked, her voice trembling.

Even though they had all been having dreams, the younger members of the group had not said anything about the times before the forest. They had only admitted to dreaming about the hard times when they were all changing. “What do you remember?” Corree asked.

“A cold, hard place,” Breka replied. “With shiny halls.”

“What else?”

“Hairless people.”

Corree looked at each of the others. Kollin, Mendee, and Joshee shook their heads.

Tanna shrugged. “I dreamed about lots of hairless people. I was without my pelt, too.”

“Me, too,” Corree admitted. “I remembered the pod in someplace far away. I also remember how hard it was getting to the forest from space. Now I am remembering much more.”

“Do you think that’s the big pod?” Tanna asked. “Where we grew up?”

Again, Corree considered. “It could be. That’s probably why it’s calling us.”

“Maybe that’s why we came, too,” Kollin added.

Corree realized no one had argued with her decision to come here, despite the fact they all feared being away from their home place deep in the forest. “I think it wants us to go inside,” she thought out loud.

“Why?” Joshee asked.


Page 2

“I don’t know,” Corree admitted.

“Are we?” Mendee asked.

“How do we get in?” Tanna, the voice of reason piped in.

Those were good questions, Corree thought. She didn’t have any good answers.

The building still sparkled as the sun rose, but it was no longer reflecting in their eyes. Corree studied the situation. They all felt the compulsion to go inside, but it would be a stupid move. “I’ll go down and check it out. The rest of you wait here,” she finally said.

Tanna protested. “No! You shouldn’t go alone!”

“I’m the leader,” she began and saw Tanna bristle. “Besides, the rest of you are nest-mated.”

Tanna scowled.

When he opened his mouth to say something else, Corree shook her head. “We’d be idiots if we all went in at the same time. Or even two of us. One of us needs to check it out first. Then if it’s safe…” She pulled off her bow from where it hung on her back and handed it to Tanna. The small quiver of arrows followed.

Mora snorted. “I don’t see how you’ll get in.”

“I don’t either, but it seems crazy to entice us here and then leave us to stare at it.”

There were multiple nods.

“Maybe I’ll see something from the ground. Tanna, you and Mora are in charge until I come back. If I can get into the pod, I’ll check everything out.”

Kollin looked like he wanted to say something, but he didn’t. He was the one who needed to know everything, but Corree didn’t have any answers to his “what if” questions now.

She pulled on her thin leaf goggles, then extended her arms and leaped out from the limb, dropping toward the riverbank. Air filled the skin flaps and slowed her fall. Her legs were tight together and worked the same way a tail did for the monkeys that lived in the canopy. Corree curved her body and gathered her legs beneath her as the ground approached. Her landing was automatic, learned from cautious experience and from watching the other forest dwellers. None of the group members thought about it anymore, except for Joshee who loved to try acrobatics when he was gliding.

Corree’s feet made only a whisper of sound as she landed on the open, pebbly surface. She crouched and studied the area near the plant-covered building. The sounds of the forest seemed muted. It was like she had walked a long distance from the edge of the great trees. Only the river seemed to have voice. It gurgled and splashed below her. Walking to the edge of the bank, Corree saw that it would be impossible for her to wade across the wild water, nor was there room or wind enough for her to leap or glide across this time of day.

Stymied, Corree paced along the edge of the riverbank. She signaled for Tanna and the others to remain in the trees. At that moment, she heard a whining sound, like a horde of angry honey wasps. She stared at the oversized pod as two pieces of the building split apart to form a doorway. It stopped and Corree shaded her eyes, trying to see into the strange, yet familiar structure. Nothing happened for several minutes.

Without warning, a strip of metal began sliding toward her. Corree backed up, watching the ramp.Ramp.Another new word that popped out of that deep place in her mind.

Tanna whistled a warning. Corree signaled an okay back to him without taking her eyes off the ramp. It stopped with a grinding thump on the bank near her feet. She waited, not knowing what else to expect. Nothing happened. The sun beat down, and her eyes smarted in the glare, despite her goggles. A trickle of sweat ran down the middle of her back. She knew what she was supposed to do, but she was afraid. Rustling behind her was motivation to make some kind of decision. The group was getting restless. Corree sucked in her breath and stepped onto the ramp. It was cold against her calloused feet. She didn’t hesitate as she crossed the river. Water splashed over the rocks, sending spray up against the bottom of the ramp.

Corree reached the other side of the river and stopped at the open door. It was cool and dark inside. She could see nothing, nor could she hear anything. The smell was similar to what she remembered in her dreams, only…older. Corree stepped in.

The light in the pod was muted as though she had stepped back into the forest. Corree heard insects humming and rain dripping from leaves. The smell of dampness and decomposing vegetation relaxed her. She stepped farther into the pod, marveling that such a place could feel so much like her forest home. The temperature rose until it was as comfortable inside as it had been in her nest.

Corree shook her head. It was still a metal building, despite the comforting scents and sounds. She needed to examine it and then get out. Corree took another step and a small amount of light filtered down from the sky, mottled like sunlight through layers of leaves. She looked up. The light wasn’t from the sky and there were no leaves. She was still in a pod.

Corree was almost in the middle of the building now. A small whispering of sound caused her to pivot in alarm. She was shocked to realize the outer door had closed. Fear gripped her and it was all she could do to keep from running to the door and trying to rip it open.What an idiot walking in here like a rainbow spider into one of Tanna’s traps!

“You will not be harmed,” someone said behind her. The voice was low, deep, and soothing, but Corree jerked around into a low crouch, her stone knife in her hand. There was no one there.

The voice continued. “Put away your weapon. You are only here to be taught.”

Corree looked directly at the spot from which the voice was coming. A beam of white light shone from the ceiling. As she watched, the light seemed to gather together into a form several feet in front of her. It continued to coalesce into a man taller than her. He had none of the changes that had altered Corree’s little group.

“I am your teacher. It is time to learn your purpose for being here,” the voice continued.

The man was complete except Corree noticed she could still see things behind him. He had wavy, light brown hair on top of his head, fair skin, and bright blue eyes. The man smiled and gazed down at her as though he knew her…and cared for her. For the space of several heartbeats, the man stood looking at her, the smile fixed and the eyes seeming to look inside her—or through her. “Why didn’t you bring the rest of your group with you?” There was the flickering of a frown and then the set smile returned.

Corree snorted. “You may have called us, but I’m not stupid enough to bring everyone into a place we don’t know.”

“This is the learning place. It was established for all the mutant humans. You must learn…” The voice trailed off. He studied the closed door.

Corree realized why his eyes seemed to focus at some point beyond her. This man was not real. He was something made by the old ones. How they did that, she had no idea.

“Call them in, please.”

Corree shook her head. “I won’t do that until I know it’s safe for them.”

The light figure didn’t move for several heart beats. His eyes were now fixed on her and his smile unchanging. Then he seemed to lean toward her, his hands opening in front of him as though offering something. Like the rest of him, they were empty. “But itissafe!”

“That’s easy for you to say. You have me in a closed pod with no way out. They won’t come in until I…” Corree stopped. What if this empty man had something in here to force her to do his will?

Again, the man stood without moving for several more moments. It was as though he had to think about it. Corree remembered something else from her before days and realized this was not the home pod. For one thing it wasn’t big enough. They had lived in a huge building in another place. Could the light man be something coming from the home pod? “What did you want to teach me?” Sweat trickled down her back and she glanced at the rounded walls anxiously. “I can tell the others after I learn.”

“The education is for all Mendel human mutants.”

“So there is more than just my group?” That would explain why she remembered so many other people, even if it was vague remembrances.

“Many more colony pods landed. Not all survived.” The man stopped talking and waved a hand toward a wall of blinking lights. In front of the wall was a large place to sit. There had been similar ones in the smaller pod that had brought them.Chairs.

“Please sit down and I will be able to show you your history…and your future.”

“And then I can go back to my group?”

“Yes, of course.”

Corree looked dubious, but she walked over to the chair and studied it. She walked around it and, satisfied, sat down…and immediately jumped up, her fur on end all over her body. The chair had seemed ready to envelope her.

“It is only adapting to your form to make you feel comfortable,” the man said. He was still standing in the middle of the room. Corree assumed the light could only make him there. “It is while you are in the chair that you can learn.”

Corree eyed the chair thoughtfully. In her brief flashes of memory, she felt the sticks of many needles and hard bands of restraints. Even thinking the words left a taste of bile in her mouth. If she had seen these memories before entering, she would have gone back to the forest without a moment’s hesitation. “No needles or restraints.”

The see-through man scowled and snapped, “If you do not sit quietly for the learning there will be restraints.”

“Then you don’t have anything I want to learn. Let me out!” She stalked to the door and pushed against it. “Let me out!” she repeated when the door didn’t budge. A soft mist curled around her feet and Corree turned to the man in shock. The mist had a peculiar odor. “Open the door!” she demanded, as her limbs seemed to get heavier and less responsive. She thought of the anesthee plant and knew where the name had come from. The room began to spin and tilt, and Corree fell to her hands and knees. She tried to hold her breath, but it was useless. She was so glad the others had not come in with her.

Chapter Two

 

Tanna paced the limb. The others watched from above and below him, saying nothing, their large eyes round with worry. Kollin finally voiced what each was thinking. “What do we do now?”

Tanna smacked the trunk with the palm of his hand, growling like a spotted cat. He paced again and finally stopped, facing the pod. The ramp was still out, but the door was closed. He glanced at the blue-white sun. Corree had not been inside long, but when the door slid shut, Tanna felt a helpless wrenching inside his chest. It hadn’t lessened in the time the sun had moved a hand span (an hour? Another of those words that kept coming into his head recently),since she disappeared. “I don’t know,” he muttered, disgusted to admit his inability to do something. “If Corree doesn’t come out by the time the sun is forest-set, I am going down and see if it will open for me.”

He pictured the traps they built to capture tree-hoppers and rainbow birds for food. The building had not enticed them here for that purpose, he was sure, but it had captured Corree. Why? Did it want all of them inside? If so, it would open for him. He had to be ready, though, to make sure the door stayed open after he had gone in to rescue Corree.

“Corree said to stay here,” ever-reasonable Breka reminded him.

“I know that, but I am not going to stay here forever.”

“Why…?” Kollin began.

“I don’t know,” Tanna snapped.

“You didn’t let me finish,” Kollin pouted.

“I know what you were going to ask.”

“No, you don’t.”

Tanna just snorted.

“I was going to ask why the old ones would put us here, leave us here without memories for all this time and then call us to the big pod.”

Even for Kollin, that was a remarkably deep question. “I’m sorry. I don’t know the answer to that, either.” Tanna had wondered some of the same things. Why would the old ones put them in a dangerous place with no information to help them survive?

After foraging, the younger members of the group dozed while Tanna and Mora took turns watching.

When the blue-white sun touched the tops of the trees in the east, Tanna stood up on his limb. “Stay here,” he ordered the group. “And if we don’t come out by moonrise….” He bit his lip. “You can’t stay here. If Corree and I aren’t out of there by second moonrise, go back.”

“We can’t leave either of you!” Breka protested. Then it registered what Tanna had said. “You think it will let you in?”

Tanna said nothing. As he prepared to leap out of the tree, he saw movement up one side of the mountain. He squinted his eyes, but still couldn’t see that well. They were large figures. “Move back,” he ordered, pulling Kollin and Mendee into the deeper foliage. Whatever they were, they were moving toward the pod.

*****

Corree walked through long metal-encased corridors. She was with others of her kind, all smooth skinned. Those who walked beside her were her height and apparently the same age. She was startled to see Migo next to her. In that instant Corree realized she was seeing something from her past. These were eight-year-olds, not the changed tree dwellers she and her group had become.

They continued down a corridor until they reached a large door. After a slight hesitation, the door slid open, revealing a huge room with more seats than she could count. She remembered the large groups becoming smaller at the various selections. The created kids went into different classes and she only saw some of her friends at mealtime.

Corree grimaced as she remembered the med-bay. Every day they had to go there. Some days the doctors just examined them, listening to their hearts, looking in their eyes, mouths, and ears. Other days they were waiting with needles and machines that poked and prodded her until she ached for hours. All of those doctors were sitting in chairs at the front of the assembly hall.

When everyone had sat down, an older one rolled forward in a wheel chair and cleared his throat. Doctor… Doctor Windemere! That was his name. Dr. Windemere cleared his throat and spoke.

“You are the leaders who will take the Federation into the next galaxy as well as the next century….”

Corree hadn’t paid much attention to the leader then. What she did listen to, she had not fully understood.

“As environmental mutant pioneers, you will populate planets previously uninhabitable by humans. You will create colonies for the Federation and provide resources that will make the Federation the greatest force in the universe!”

Corree still didn’t comprehend everything, but she understood enough to realize what Doctor Windemere was saying. She wasn’t all that happy with it. That they had been changed to live on the blue sun world she understood; now she understood the reason why. Corree wondered how in the world they expected seven kids be a colony.

“Each group will mutate to adapt to different environments on Mendel. Groups will become self-sustaining. Eventually the groups will become large enough to form cities that will dot the continents of Mendel. You and your children will be valuable members of the Galactic Federation!”

Windbag!thought Corree. Even though she understood more of what he was saying now, her opinion of him hadn’t changed. He and the other old ones had sent Migo to his death. All of them in her group could have died.

She still didn’t understand why they hadn’t been able to remember anything from before their landing on Mendel? She thought of her terrible fear the first days on their new world. Corree had hated being in charge of seven others when she didn’t have a clue what was going on.

They had been lucky the changes were swift. During their transformation, ideas popped into their heads about what was good for them to eat and what was dangerous. Maybe that was part of their mutations, too. Not just their bodies adapting, but also their minds. Within days it was as though they had always been a part of the forest on Mendel.

The memories continued. There were so many that Corree found it hard to keep them straight. She opened her eyes to see the man still standing in the middle of the room gazing at her. She was sitting in the chair.How did that happen?“What did you do to me?” Corree demanded. “How did I get from the floor to the chair?”

“You were given the sleep gas so you could remember. Under the influence of the gas you can follow simple directions.”

They could make her do things when she was asleep?The idea made her feel queasy. What else could they make her do? “You made me forget before. Why? Why make me remember things now?”

“You were made to forget so you and the others could learn to live on this world.”

Corree scowled. “We could have done that without being made to forget. Do you realize we could have died eating something that was bad for us? Or…or walking into some danger.”

“Perhaps, but the Federation scientists felt you would learn to live on this world easier if you didn’t remember how you lived before. During your first training, you relied on others to take care of you. Your group succeeded, didn’t they? That shows the viability of our assumptions.”

Corree scowled and then a thought occurred to her—could one of the reasons they didn’t want them to remember was because the scientists didn’t have enough information about Mendel to give them detailed instructions? “But why wait until now to tell us?” she repeated.

“So you would be old enough to understand who made it possible for you to live here. You owe the Federation scientists your lives. It is essential to follow our directives and pay back your debt.”

Corree almost snorted her disgust, but stopped. She remembered the teaching sessions and all the times they were told to obey, follow orders, and do what they were told. Even after the years of their forgetting, those who had created them still expected her to obey.

“You were made to adapt.”

Corree moderated her tone to hide her irritation. “Why? Why bother with Mendel? Why make us come here if no one else can?” Her mind was whirling more and more furiously with every piece of information she remembered. She didn’t wait for his answer but got out of the chair and strode around the room studying the machines that softly hissed, clicked, and whirred.

“This planet occupies a strategic position for the Federation.”

Corree didn’t remember that bit of information. “I don’t understand,” she replied.

“By establishing occupancy on Mendel, we will have control over the entire system. That includes three datronium rich planets besides Mendel, maybe all of the planets in this system.”

Corree frowned. That was new. All she remembered hearing was how wonderful and glorious their mutations would be for the Federation. They would pave the way for many others to live on other, previously uninhabitable, worlds. Her training, as she now recalled, consisted of building strength, dexterity, learning weaponry. She had played simulation games to increase her mental and decision-making skills. She had been taught to obey the old ones and to expect obedience from those under her. With her recollections, Corree realized she was a citizen of a Federation that stretched across a good part of the galaxy. However, she knew very little about that Federation.

She had been born and raised on a colony ship. That was the cold, hard place of her early dreams. The old one, Dr. Windemere, was her creator, the scientist who had come up with the mutations/adaptations that allowed her and her group to live on a planet like Mendel. Corree needed to know more. “Explain, please. Tell me more about why this planet is so important.”

The man beamed in satisfaction. “This planet, Mendel, is rich in several elements that make up the fuel blend needed to power intergalactic space craft. And those are the things we know about. We believe there are many other elements and resources here the Federation could use.” The man pointed toward one side of the room and a diagram appeared in mid-air showing stars, some with planets wheeling around them. A bright red and blue cloud seemed to hover over everything else. A lighted pointer indicated the various parts of the holo-diagram as the man spoke. His voice was animated and the figure’s fingers jerked like baby tree snakes.

Corree stared at him. She had already figured out this man was also some kind of projection—a hologram. Someone was controlling him. Who? Who was sending her these messages? The scientists? Just what did they want her to do?

“This is your planet. Mendel is a treasure chest of untapped resources.” The holo-man paused and his face became more impassive; like it had been before. “Mendel is the only planet in this star system that has an atmosphere that humans can be adapted to. This is the system nearest to several other valuable planetary systems.” The light pointer continued flickering around the holo-diagram.

“Why is that important?”

“These systems also have worlds rich in many resources the Federation needs. If the Federation owns Mendel…” He stopped.

“Then what?”

“I told you,” the man said without emotion. “The Federation will have resources they need.”

Corree had her doubts but said nothing. She had to think, but even more important, she needed more information. “How many of us are there on this planet? On Mendel?”

The man was very accommodating. “There were groups sent to each of the twelve equatorial forests. There are also groups in the east continental mountain range and the west range. There are several underground groups and a polar group. There are some coastal and sea groups and groups in the temperate forests of the northern hemisphere.”

Corree did the math and figured there had been at least one hundred and seventy-five of them sent down here to adapt or die. Resentment flared again. “And how many died?” she snapped.

“That is unknown.”

She reined in her emotions. “Uh, can you tell me the history of the Federation?” she asked, her voice meek. “If I had been told before, I don’t remember.”

He obliged her again. “It had seemed peaceful at the beginning. Humans were curious and resourceful enough to explore beyond their own system and in much of the galaxy. They continued until they met other beings who were doing the same thing. Somehow the curious exploration turned into rivalry and then aggression. After some serious warfare, humans beat the other beings and assimilated their systems into the Federation group. Recently there was contact with another group even more different than humans. There was a serious battle.”

“What did these Ologrians do to make human hate them so much?” Corree asked after a considerable time studying the history.

“They destroyed one of our colonies, slaughtered the colonists.”

“Why?” Corree asked.

“That, too, is unknown.”

“Didn’t anyone bother to ask?”

“It is much more complex than simply asking.”

Corree didn’t understand why it would be, but chose not to press the issue. Instead she explored a thought that suddenly popped into her head. “Mendel is near the Ologrian’s, uh, territory?”

The holo-man seemed to do a double take, but he answered her question. “Mendel is between the Federation and the Ologrian Empire.”

“So we are here for more than just finding resources for you,” Corree said, her voice as impassive as the man’s had been. She had other thoughts but wasn’t going to venture them right now until she knew more. “Just what are we supposed to do here after we find all this fuel stuff?”


Page 3

“With so many environmental mutants sent here, it was assured by the planners that there would be enough humans to create viable Federation colonies.”

Corree could guess what viable meant; this was the second time he had used the term. “And then the Federation can claim the planet.”

“The Federation has already claimed Mendel,” he explained.

She was confused. This holo-man seemed to talk in circles. “Then why did we have to come here? What else do we need to do here for the Federation?”

“The claim was made after you were put here. To answer your last question, you are to grow prosperous in your new home. Watch…” He showed her more of the projections showing mutated humans testing everything in their habitats and sending samples in unmanned pods to humans on other worlds. As the members of each group grew up, they had children. The groups grew bigger until they occupied large areas of their habitats.

When he was done, Corree had a pretty good understanding of what she and her fellow mutants were supposed to do. “What will the samples be used for? Besides fuel, that is.”

“Whatever is useful to the Federation.”

“If something is useful, how will the Federation get it? Normal…” Corree winced at the word. “Normal humans cannot live on Mendel.”

“The scientists will figure that out, but most likely by using special transport pods.”

Corree wasn’t totally satisfied, but had the feeling she wasn’t going to get much more. “Is that all?”

“The rest of your group needs to be educated as well as others who have been called.”

Corree would take that issue up with Tanna when she saw him. “Can I go now?”

The man smiled. “Of course. We would never hold you against your will.”

“Oh,” was all she said.

The door opened.

Corree had a sudden thought. “Wait a minute. Why was I chosen to be leader of my group?”

“Leaders were chosen from among those with the strongest survival skills and the greatest ability to make quick, but sound decisions.”

Corree walked to the door calmly, even though she wanted to run out of the pod as fast as she could. As she stepped onto the ramp, she noticed Tanna and Breka sitting with a group of shaggy furred people on the other side of the river. Corree figured them to be another group of “environmental mutants.” She heard whistles coming from the trees. Tanna’s head shot up and he saw her. With a grin, he motioned for her to join the group. She trotted over the ramp without looking down. A glance over her shoulder showed that the door was still open. The ramp did not pull back when she was across the river.

“Corree, this is Riss and Meeka and their group. They came down from the mountains.”

Riss and the members of his group were covered with thick shaggy, off-white fur, mottled in places with gray, brown, and black. Their ears were higher on their heads, pricked up to points. Their eyes were where the individual members differed most. Riss’s eyes were light blue, but the other’s eyes were darker, a couple almost black. His hands flexed, claws extending and retracting. Corree was sure any one of his group was capable of disemboweling anything that threatened them.

“Dreams?” Corree asked. They all nodded. Corree motioned for Riss and the rest of his companions to meet just inside the forest.

Corree vaguely remembered Riss. He had been a pale, light-haired kid. He was smart, too, coming up with solutions to almost impossible problems. As soon as they introduced each other, Tanna wanted to know everything that had happened in the pod. “I can’t help feeling the holo-man left something out,” she concluded.

“Do you think it would be safe for us to go in there?” Riss asked.

“If it’s the same learning that I had, sure. I don’t like us all being in there at the same time, though. I told him I could tell all of you what I was taught and he wanted everybody to get the teaching.”

The two groups mulled the problem in silence for a short while.

“After I began having the dreams, I remembered the teaching from before. Do you remember how they talked all the time about doing things for the good of the Federation?” Meeka asked.

“I remember…in my dreams, I was told to obey. Nothing specific,” Riss said. “Just to obey. I’m sure there’s more to it.”

“I don’t like it that we’ll have to take things from the forest,” Joshee stated.

“Or the mountains,” Meeka added.

“I think he was surprised that I didn’t want the learning and refused to get in the chair at first,” Corree said.

Riss looked thoughtful. “They didn’t give you any shots? Just the gas?”

“I don’t think he could give shots,” Corree replied. “He wasn’t really there and there were no robots around.”

“But they expect us to obey,” Riss mused. “Maybe we should let them believe we are.” He grinned at Corree. “You be the defiant one.”

Corree laughed. “I think I was even then.” She sobered. “But what if they do something different?”

“Like you said, they can’t physically do anything to us. He was a hologram, right?”

Corree nodded. “Humans can’t live down here. At least not unless they are like us.”

“So they really couldn’t do anything except close us in, and what good would that do?” Riss asked. “I think we need to take a chance.”

“Okay,” she agreed and walked back into the pod with the rest of the group.

Corree had watched as the others meekly took seats around the inner walls of the pod. There were no needles, no restraints, and no sleep gas. She wondered if they were receiving the same information she had. The holo-man pointed to a chair, and this time she complied without complaint.

“I did tell you no harm would come to you, did I not?” He almost sounded smug.

“Yes.” This time there was a screen in front of her where she was shown more information about the training they had received before their mutations. It seemed to repeat a great deal of what she had seen in her dreams.

Then came information about the Ologrians. They were stick thin and tall, with fur only on their backs. The skin was a dull bluish-gray and looked scaly to the touch. The pelts were orange-colored and short, much like hers. It was very soft, beginning from the base of the Ologrians’ skulls all the way to the tips of very long tails. Even the tails looked like weapons. They were jointed, sinuous and covered in something that looked hard and smooth, ending in a sharpened point.

As she watched, the Ologrian turned and stared at her, its enormous, ruby-red eyes boring into hers. Its mouth was wide, with thin lips that barely covered its dark teeth. Even though it seemed almost ridiculously thin, the creature exuded great power and Corree didn’t doubt that it could easily kill her.

An off-white cloth covered the front of the Ologrian, reached over its shoulders, and draped down its back on either side of the pelt. It was tied at the waist with a thick blue corded belt. Several weapons hung from the belt. They all looked deadly. Even as she studied them, Corree was given a demonstration of their effectiveness. The holo-Ologrian drew one and fired. It shot a hole in its holo-victims. Another totally disintegrated an object. One weapon rendered its victim helpless to move or speak.

Within seconds of demonstrating its weapons, the Ologrian joined others of its kind, all similarly dressed. They marched, in long-legged precision on a group of human men, women, and children, their thin red lips drawn back into grins of pleasure. None of the humans appeared to be armed. Weapons spat, mainly the ones that burned holes in people. Corree heard screams of pain and terror. The Ologrian warriors made clicking squeals of laughter; their longish teeth glittering in the reflection of their weapon fire. Men tried to shield their children, but they were cut down. Some of the Ologrians burned off hands and arms before killing their victims; others mowed down large groups and then went on to do the same with others.

Soon the scene was one of silent horror. The Ologrians finally put away their weapons and stepped among the dead humans. If they found one alive, they shot it. Occasionally an Ologrian would bend down and examine something, then toss it back down. What appeared to be Ologrian doctors went through the carnage taking samples, putting them in pouches at their belts. When the doctor had finished, the soldiers dug through the bodies, throwing corpses aside with casual disregard. When they found children, the Ologrians… Corree felt bile rising in her throat. They ate them. She closed her eyes, but the picture stayed in her mind. They were eating human flesh.

The scene began to fade, to Corree’s immense relief. She felt sick to her stomach and her head pounded. The panel came back into focus. If the object of the demonstration was to scare her, it succeeded. It also angered her. The holo-man appeared on the screen in front of her.

“Now do you understand why you are here?” He paused and then shook his head. Corree couldn’t tell if it was a sign of sadness or something else.

“Did they really do that?”

“Yes.” He repeated his question.

“If we are here the Ologrians won’t be?” she asked.

The holo-man nodded. “We have to do whatever we can to keep the Ologrians away from Federation settlements.”

“We’re not even grown. Why would they be afraid of us if they wanted to come to Mendel? What if they decide to do the same thing to us they did on that colony you showed me?”

“We have ships near the system to protect Mendel.”

Somehow Corree wasn’t reassured. Could it be the Ologrians weren’t able to live on Mendel either? She looked at her fellow Mendelians. They were still watching some of the same things she had seen on her first visit. She took a shuddering breath and noticed that the holo-man was standing in the middle of the room with his arms folded. He still watched her, but left her to her thoughts.

What could have made the Ologrians want to kill like that? Even with their forgetting, Corree’s group didn’t kill more than what they could eat. She shuddered. Were the Ologrians hunting humans for food? They hadn’t seemed to be doing that in the instructional film, though.

Why hadn’t there been any human soldiers there to protect their people? They didn’t look like it, but were the humans like the Mendel mutants? Sent without knowledge of a before time? Something just didn’t seem right, and she figured there were huge chunks of information the holo-man had not shown her. Corree was about to ask, but for some reason, decided not to, even though she was still curious about the Ologrians, despite the gruesome scene she had been shown.

Chapter Three

 

Later the two groups sat just inside the fringe of the forest, comparing notes.

“First, did they tell us the truth?” Tanna asked.

Corree nodded. “I believe so, but I still think they left some things out. Even the extra stuff they showed me didn’t seem complete. It’s like they were just showing us….”

“The things that make us want to do anything they ask,” Riss finished. “They created us to live on a world they couldn’t live on. Why? They say it’s so they can claim a world close to the boundaries of the Ologrian Empire and to get stuff from the planet they need to make fuel for their space ships. That’s probably true, but there has to be something else.”

Corree felt the same way, but said nothing.

“They want samples of different minerals and plant life,” Riss mused.

“And if there’s something they want, they’ll send their pods to get it,” Meeka grumbled.

“They’ve spent a great deal to create, uh, develop our abilities,” Corree said. “The way the holo-man talked, I don’t know why they couldn’t have claimed Mendel using bases in orbit just outside the solar system.”

“That doesn’t get them their space ship fuel,” Tanna offered.

“True,” the others agreed.

“So what’ll we do?” Meeka asked.

“I think we should contact other groups. We need to know where all the others are and who they are. I think the key to living here isn’t just trying to build up our own little families, but for all the families to communicate and learn from each other,” Corree said.

“In case we ever have to band together for protection?” Joshee asked.

Corree wasn’t going to say protection from what. “And to compare what each of us has learned since we’ve been here.”And maybe we can figure out what we haven’t been told,she thought. She felt uneasy, but couldn’t figure out exactly why. Corree remembered the map of Mendel she had seen in the pod and realized what a daunting job it would be to find the different family groups.

Riss must have been thinking the same thing. “My group can go to the colder habitats.” He plucked at his long hair. Sweat was dripping down his face. “I don’t think I am well adapted to the rainforest.” His fangs gleamed in a wolfish grin.

“We will find the other rainforest groups and the sea groups. If we can, we’ll try to contact the cave people, too.”

“When the two moons converge, we’ll meet at the base of the mountains beyond the river.”

Corree could see the wisdom of not meeting near the pod. She wondered if the ship’s computer was watching them now. Could it hear them talking? She turned her back on the domed building. “Two days after,” she mouthed.

Riss and the others nodded their agreement. Waiting for the convergence would give them a quarter of a year to locate other family groups. Still, it was going to be difficult.

“We will find the other rain forest groups first.”

“While I contact the ocean groups,” Corree said, knowing that Tanna was capable of leading the group for a short time.

Now there was little left to do other than saying goodbye. Corree and her group watched silently as Riss and his family crossed over the river on the still extended ramp. They climbed back into the mountains without looking back.

She motioned everyone back into the rainforest. An amber drop of sweet dew splashed on her arm. She licked it off and tasted the bitter and then sweet flavors as she swallowed.

“Why are we splitting up?” Joshee whined.

“Time,” Corree said tersely. “It will take too much time if we don’t try to find more than one group at a time.”

“When are you going?” Breka asked.

“Shortly.”

“Where are these sea people?” Tanna queried.

“The ocean where the river meets it.”

“How in the blue sun haze are you going to locate people living out in the ocean?” Mora asked.

“I will figure that out when I get to the shore. Perhaps they have been called by the pod, too. Maybe they will already be on the way.”

Several of the group members looked doubtful, but no one had any better ideas. A quick flash of fear made Corree wonder if she and Riss were doing the right thing; but they had lived in ignorance too long. She resented that more than anything else.

Kollin and several others tried to hide yawns. “Tanna, after everyone gets some sleep and something to eat, take the group back home, then move west to the other locations we saw on the map.”

“You’re going now?” Tanna asked.

“Yes.” She knew the surest route would be to follow the river to the ocean. From the map in the pod, Corree knew the forest grew fairly close to the ocean’s edge. By the time she reached the sandy beach area, the sun would have set. She could rest a short while during the heavy dark and set out across the ocean when the first moon rose.

Tanna enveloped her in a tight hug. His gliding flaps folded around her in comfort. They nuzzled each other’s necks and then pulled away. The others did the same. Corree knew they would be all right. Her only worry was if she would. She wanted to say something else to them. She wanted to imprint them in her mind—just in case. Then Corree felt the urge to stay and forget all the other groups. Before she could follow through on that thought, she turned and loped through the under story east toward the lowering sun and the ocean.

When she was well beyond sight of the others, Corree nimbly climbed up a hollow core tree. Halfway up the tree, she spread her arms and leaped toward the next tree. Heated updrafts carried her slightly higher, as she knew they would. She had barely touched the next limb when she was leaping toward another tree. When she got too close to the ground, Corree climbed up gnarled trunks. Then she began the process again. The sun was setting when she reached the mouth of the river.

The yellowish tint of the river slowly gave way to the green of the ocean. It stretched before her eyes in an endless expanse. It was huge! Even as the tropical forest had seemed almost endless, this body of water really was. Corree watched the waves washing in and out on the shore. The blue-tinted foam bubbled on the fine shore gravel before winking away. They looked gentle but she saw smooth pebbles rolling with each wave. In the last lingering light, she could see the rocks in the distance. It seemed very far out, but it was where the map had said that the closest sea group lived.

Corree sighed and tried to figure out how she would get out there. While she could swim, if she had to, she could count on one hand the number of times she had been in water deeper than her thigh. One didn’t splash around in forest pools. Forest creatures lived in the water, too, and some could be quite nasty. Others liked to wait near pools and prey on animals that went there to drink. She began thinking about what could live in the ocean and shivered. There had to be something to ride on. Corree had a rudimentary idea of a raft, but wasn’t sure how to go about building one. Her knife could help strip leaves from vines to tie wood together, but it wouldn’t cut the tough hardwood branches.

Then she saw a dead tree lying at the edge of the forest. How to get it to the water was the next problem. The log was as thick as her waist; gnarled limbs jutted out in all directions. As she pondered, Corree saw smaller logs, most not much more than the diameter of her arm. She gathered a half dozen and laid them in a row. She hacked several lengths of sticky vines and used them to tie the logs together. The light waned to blackness and Corree climbed into the nearest forest giant to get some rest. Sleep was hard coming. Mostly she dozed, but was awake when the first moon rose beyond the western horizon. Even though she wasn’t hungry, Corree foraged. She suspected it would take all the energy she had to make the trip to that island.

When she returned to the raft, she checked her lashing. There were only a couple of knots that needed tightening. She took the two logs she had kept aside and laid them in front of her raft. With some effort she was able to push the raft onto them. It was fairly easy to roll the raft to the water’s edge after that. A long piece of bark would serve well enough as a paddle. A final shove and the raft slid into the ocean.

Wavelets splashed against her face, the caustic elements stinging her eyes at first, but the protecting film slid down over the lenses and she felt better. Corree splashed aboard her makeshift transportation and immediately felt the raft tilt upward on one side. Her feet slipped, but she finally managed to make it to the middle. She eased the makeshift paddle into the water and pushed away from the safety of the jungle. Experimentation showed her the best way to propel the raft through the water toward the island. Soon she was beyond the reach of the shore waves. The swells were larger and farther apart and she paddled in their rhythm. A warm breeze ruffled her pelt. It was soothing, even as the patter of rain was soothing in the great forest.

When the second moon rose, Corree groaned in disappointment. She wasn’t even halfway to the little island. With a frown, she dug her crude paddle deeper into the water and stroked as hard as she could. She eased closer and closer to the rocks. Her shoulders were sore, but still strong. Corree felt the tug of a new current; one that pulled her toward the rocks.

She stopped paddling. The rocks loomed closer and closer. Corree saw the water crashing against their sides and realized her peril. She tried paddling her raft parallel to the shore, but now the current was too strong. Her heart thudded painfully against her ribs. A huge wave picked her off her raft and drove her toward a massive boulder. She tumbled under the foamy water, felt one foot scrape against the rock. She swept over the boulder and banged against a smaller one just beyond it. Another wave picked her up and carried her farther onto the shore, rolling her like one of the pebbles she had watched earlier in the night.

Corree choked on seawater, gagging at the cloying, biting tang. Her fingers dug into the sand, trying to stop her tumbling progress. She rose to her feet, only to be knocked back down by the next large wave. Finally, she was able to crawl forward and beyond the reach of the punishing waves.

She coughed water out of her lungs and lay panting in the moons’ waning light. When she had gathered a bit of strength, Corree stood up. Her legs were wobbly and she leaned against a smooth boulder. After wiping brine from her eyes, Corree studied her surroundings. It looked desolate. There were no signs that anyone other than herself had ever been on this jumbled mass of rock.

She walked the beach just beyond the water line, occasionally having to climb over crustacean-covered rocks. The interior sloped upward to a gentle rise covered with a few windswept trees. How anyone could live here was beyond her. Not even a pod could have sustained a family for the years they had been on Mendel. There was no pod now. It didn’t look as though there ever had been. Could the holo-man have been lying?

The wind whistled mournfully and rattled the limbs of a scraggly little tree a few feet up the rise. Corree shivered and wrapped her arms around herself. The loneliness was crushing. She had always had the group nearby. Even when she was scouting alone, she could hear or sense other creatures nearby.

A new thought struck her. How would she get back? Corree scanned the beach for the raft. There was no sign of it. Not even one log. Panic made it hard to breathe. What had possessed her to do this? This group was either dead or they had moved somewhere else. She had been crazy to do this! Corree sat against the base of the tree. The noise of the surf warred with the whistling of the wind. Both sounded mournful and lonely. She slid down onto the sand and curled up into a ball. Thinking about anything was too tiring right now.

Corree lay on the sand until the moons had both set and the bright glow of the approaching sunrise brought new anxiety. She was in the open. Scrambling to her feet, Corree looked for shelter. She studied the few stunted trees at the top of the hill. They were less than useless. There was a small copse of bushes on the other side of the island, halfway to the shore.

The shade was scant, but she was exhausted. Sleep came quickly. The sun beat through the brush and she would wake just enough to move to a more shaded spot. It was dark when she fully woke. The moons had not risen. Her eyes made out tenuous movement. Wind still whipped the trees, but the motion was more than that. Then Corree looked at her feet and saw a shell. It was round with up-turned sides and filled with several different things. The scent told Corree that everything was from the sea.

She reached out and touched one of the objects. It was prickly outside, but contained something soft inside. Corree dug it out with a long nail and popped it in her mouth. The taste was sour and sweet at the same time; quite pleasant, she thought. Her stomach demanded more. She had not realized how hungry she was in her misery at being stranded. The other offerings joined the first.

When she was finished, Corree sat back and considered. This didn’t just blow in on the wind. “Hello,” she called out. “Thank you for the food.” She paused to see if anyone would answer. Only the surf did. “I’ve come to see you. To talk to you.” More silence. “I’m not here to hurt anyone.” Nothing moved, except the skeletal limbs of a nearby tree. Frustrated, Corree got up. She paced a small area around the brush, avoiding the tumbled mounds of rock.

A slight glow on the western horizon told Corree the first moon would soon rise. Occasionally she called out her reassurances, but no one answered. She was sure her invisible benefactor was long gone by now. Picking her way down to the beach facing the mainland, Corree tried to figure out how to return. There was nothing here sturdy enough to build another raft. She couldn’t swim and even if she could, there was no telling what might be waiting to eat her.


Page 4

As the moon rose, Corree finished her exploration. She watched the pale-green orb lift above the horizon. The foam appeared luminescent and little lights winked at her from under water. She stepped closer to the water to investigate. It was almost as though the glow bugs of the forest had undersea cousins. Corree walked into the foam, curious. The lights retreated and she stood still. They approached cautiously. Something tickled her ankle, and then a whisper of touch worked around her legs and feet. She stepped back, tripped, and fell into a shallow pool.

The lights gathered around her. They didn’t touch her but seemed to be waiting for something. The water rose slowly as the tide moved in, but she remained motionless. The glowing creatures fascinated her. Why were they interested in her? She knew they didn’t mean her any harm. They approached and touched her again, tickling every part of her that was underwater. Corree allowed the investigation until the tidewater reached her chest. Afraid she might be dragged out to sea, she scrambled back onto shore. The glow creatures retreated just far enough into the depths for her to know they were still there.

The glow bugs’ departure brought Corree back to the problem at hand. She wondered not only how she would get back to the mainland, but also how she could survive the prolonged effects of the blue sun. She swept her hand down her arm and felt the sting of sunburned skin underneath. Her pelt protected her from the acidic rain that dripped through the trees, but the forest was her protection from the harsh sun. Even her eyes smarted from the excessive sunlight. There had to be better protection than a small stand of bushes.

Corree explored again, this time with an eye for some kind of cave or crevice where the sunlight couldn’t reach her. The second moon had risen by the time she found what she was looking for. Two boulders were leaning against each other. There was a small, triangular crevice near the ground that she should be able to squeeze through. The only problem was that Corree had no idea if anything lay beyond. Her ears caught no sound of anything moving or breathing. Her nose detected nothing either. Still, she was wary. Corree imprinted the location in her mind and continued her exploration.

This time she hoped to find some evidence of the person who had brought her food. Why would he or she be frightened of her? They had all lived together in the large space pod. Until the dreams, though, Corree hadn’t remembered that. What if this group had not had remembering dreams?

Two more trips around the island showed nothing else. The brightening western horizon sent her back to the crevice in the rocks. Corree got down on her stomach. She realized her tool belt would hamper her so she took it off and shoved it in the opening, using a stick to push it out of her way. There was still no sound from within. She slithered into the crevice, feeling the morning sunshine on her back. Corree stretched her fingers to grab onto anything that was inside, but only clawed sand. The surfaces of the rock seemed to have a sticky-bark hold on her. Corree grunted with the effort to squeeze in. She exhaled and pushed with her toes. Finally, minus a little bit of pelt, she was in.

The inside opened up into a fairly roomy corridor that led downward. She was surprised to hear dripping ahead of her and smell vegetation more suited to the rain forest than to this wasted wind-blown island. Corree put her belt back on and crept down the low passageway, mindful of any sounds that would indicate occupancy. Only a short distance and she was gasping in wonder. The cave was three times her height with a small waterfall at the far end. It flowed to a pool that smelled salty/acidic like seawater. The falling water was fresh.

Only dim light filtered in behind her, but she was able to see quite well. The little glow lights from outside were gathered so thick they were like a thin covering over the whole pool. Corree walked around the edge to the waterfall and tasted a few droplets. It was good water; as fresh as any in the rainforest. Standing underneath the flow, Corree let it soothe her burned skin and fill her empty belly. Now that she was safe, she felt fatigue deaden her limbs. She curled up on the sand, her back to a rock wall, to rest. If she could stay awake long enough, maybe she might see who had brought her the food the night before.

Corree felt something different inside her body. Could the water have been poisonous? She looked at her hands. The claw-like fingernails had receded. There was skin between her fingers when she spread them apart. She looked at her arm. Her soft protective pelt had coalesced into a rubbery, supple covering, almost a second skin. Water beaded on it even faster than it did on her pelt.

What was happening to her?

Chapter Four

 

Corree woke with a gasp and sat up in the near darkness, feeling her hands, her ears and up and down her pelt-covered arms. She had been dreaming! It had only been a dream. Corree shuddered her relief and looked around her shelter.

The little lights had congregated near the water’s edge and a person was sitting cross-legged in the water. Luminous eyes gazed at her. In the dark it was hard to determine if this was a male or female. He or she was silent.

Corree saw no evidence of ears. “Can you hear me? Can you talk?”

It raised a webbed hand and beckoned her closer. That was exactly what she had seen in her dream! She held her hands close to her face and examined them again. They had not changed. Despite the differences—the overly large eyes, no ears, and sleek rubbery skin—she knew this was one of the created people like her. Corree scooted closer to the edge of the pool. The little glow creatures seemed to edge closer too, adding more light in her part of the cave. She could see a smile on the sea person’s face.

“Yes, I can hear very well.” The words were a bit stammering, as though they weren’t used much. “I can speak, too.” The smile grew broader. “Even though I usually don’t.”

The voice told her he was male. “Oh,” was all Corree could think to say.

“I am Lenden.”

Corree remembered Lenden. He had been a prankster back in the large pod. She also had a crush on him. “I’m Corree.”

“I know. I remember you. You were a bit different then.”

She giggled. “So were you.”

“Why are you here?” he asked bluntly.

“To let you know what the creators want us to do.”

“The creators? So you have had the dreams, too?”

“Most of us in our group have.”

“Me and Breeann and Tira are the only ones among us. I have always remembered.”

Corree shook her head. “I haven’t,” she admitted. “Only in the past full moon cycle. Now I remember everything.”

Lenden snorted. “So what do you think our creators want? As though I couldn’t guess.”

She told him about the meeting with the hologram man.

This time he shrugged. “I wonder what they would do if some of us…well, some of us chose not to follow their directive?”

Corree really hadn’t thought of that. She had only assumed they could not do much of anything since regular humans couldn’t survive on Mendel. She said as much.

“They could send drones,” he suggested.

“Drones?” Evidently she didn’t remember everything.

“Robots.”

A picture of them entered Corree’s mind, then more memories. “If they could survive down here, why send us?”

“Good question.” His webbed hands stroked the surface as he considered. “I’m not sure, but even as difficult as it has been for us here, I will not take anything from the oceans for soft humans to use on other planets!” The words rang with heated conviction. “This is our world now.”

Corree understood. She remembered her indignation during the “teaching.”

“Would you be willing to come to our home and relate what you have learned? There is little we can do to pass along your message, but we will know.” Again he paused. “And knowing is everything.”

“You could at least tell the other sea people,” Corree pointed out.

“Our group is all that remains of the five pods that landed in the oceans.”

“What?!”

“There are nine of us now.”

Corree did the math. “Nine out of forty? What happened?”

“The oceans are very treacherous with many dangerous creatures.”

“But, but…” she sputtered.

“How many did you lose?”

“One. It was at the beginning.” Corree wondered why the old ones; the scientists would have sent some of them to such dangerous places. The forest had its share of predators, but certainly nothing as bad as what Lenden had dealt with.

As though reading her mind, he explained, “I would like to think someone was stupid, didn’t research well enough, or really wasn’t worried that some habitats would be more dangerous than others.”

She remembered the briefings before they came to Mendel. No one mentioned any particular dangers.

“But I suspect they wanted to experiment for their own purposes,” he added sourly.

Corree didn’t say anything.

“Come,” he said when the silence became uncomfortable.

Corree gazed at the dark waters. Despite the dancing light creatures, the pool looked ominous; ready to swallow her up. “How do you all live underwater?”

He smiled. “We can as long as we have an air supply nearby. We have a place of safety like this only bigger.”

“Is it far?” Corree was dismayed to hear trembling in her voice. She had to get a grip on herself.

“It’s not too far for you to hold your breath. I’ll lead you.”

She couldn’t back down now. Swallowing nervously, Corree edged to the side of the pool. Lenden held out his hand. Soft light showed through the webbing. Tiny veins pulsed. Corree took his hand and found it to be warm.What did you expect?Corree berated herself.

And smooth. He tugged gently and she walked into the dark water. It stung briefly at her ankles and then she was in. The water was cool, but it wrapped around her like a tarpa leaf blanket. Corree wondered about that. Tarpa leaves, when woven together, kept the heavy rains from soaking through their pelts. Despite the acidic quality of all the waters on Mendel, right now the water in this pool felt cushiony.

“Take several deep breaths, letting all the air out in between. Then take a last breath and hold it. Nod when you’re ready.”

“You won’t let go?”

“Of course not!”

Corree did as she had been instructed and they were in darkness. Then the little light creatures gathered ahead of them, lighting their way. Lenden’s hold was reassuring; the strength of his fingers equally reassuring. Corree was conscious of her lungs protesting. They wanted her to open her mouth and give them fresh air. She forced the urge down. They became more insistent and Corree’s brain sounded an alarm. Her chest hurt as Lenden continued swimming, pulling her deeper and deeper. Just when she was about to pull away from Lenden, her head popped above the surface.

Corree heaved in a lungful of air, choked and drew in a shuddering breath. Several other heads popped out of the water around her. Webbed fingers touched her soaked pelt. On the bank of the grotto, someone beckoned her. Corree did not see any place where the blue sun could shine into the cave, but it was bright enough to see every corner. She paddled the last few feet and felt her toes touch the bottom of the pool. By the time she was out of the water, Corree realized that the walls themselves shone with a soft greenish light.

“Welcome,” the girl on the bank greeted her. “I am Breeann.”

Breeann, like Lenden, had gray-green skin that appeared smooth and slick. She remembered her dream and suppressed a shudder. To not have a soft pelt… Corree also noticed that none of them had the outward vestiges of ears. They wore belts much like Corree’s group did, made of skins that were smooth, but darker.

Corree reached back into her memory and tried to remember a Breeann, but couldn’t. “I am Corree.”

Breeann patted a mat of some kind of woven material. Corree sat down.

“Lenden says you have been taught recently.”

Corree started. How, under the blue sun, did Breeann know that? She gazed at Breeann before turning to Lenden.

“I’ll explain later,” he said. “Go ahead.”

“Yes. A teaching pod called us. We met others, a mountain group.” All of the sea people had gathered close to her. Corree told them everything she had learned from the teaching computers. “They want us to grow in numbers and create large colonies wherever we have been planted. They claim this would ensure the Federation holds its claim on this world, so they could get the minerals and other resources Mendel has.” Corree thought out her next words carefully. “I think there is more to it than that, but I can’t figure out what. Riss…” She saw a few blank looks. “He is the leader of the mountain people we met,” Corree explained before continuing. “Riss felt the same way and we thought it would be wise to try and meet with as many of the other groups as we could. To see what others know and see if we can figure out what our creators are not telling us.”

“I agree they are hiding something,” Lenden concurred.

“You aren’t telling us anything you haven’t said a hundred times before, Lenden,” a younger voice said in a teasing tone. “And I’m hungry.”

“You’re always hungry, Matak,” Breeann answered, not without a soft chuckle. “But you are right. We have neglected our guest.” She motioned to several others. They jumped up and ran to a far corner of the cave. Within a few minutes large shells filled with a variety of foods lay at their feet. Corree sampled everything. When one shell was emptied, someone filled it up. She ate until she could eat no more.

“How did you know what I told Lenden?” Corree asked Breeann.

The girl tapped the side of her head. “When we learned to hear each other’s thoughts, we stopped dying.”

Corree gaped. “You can talk to each other in your heads? Without speaking?”

“Yes. It does not happen with you and your group?”

Corree shook her head. “We use hand signals when we need to talk over long distances.”

“What if you can’t see each other? Or in the dark?” Breeann queried.

“We hunt mostly during the night as soon as the first moon rises. We have very good eyes. We are also seldom out of each other’s sight.” Then Corree thought of those few times when someone in the family was out of eyesight. She always seemed to know where they were. Still it wasn’t the same thing as actually hearing someone speak in her mind.

“I guess each of us adapts to live wherever the creators put us,” Lenden stated the obvious.

“I guess.”

Corree noticed that, not only were everyone’s hands webbed, but their feet seemed somewhat overlarge, and there was webbing between their toes.

“What is it like where you live?” one of the younger sea people asked.

Corree told them about gliding through the trees in the moonlight, feeling the air whistle in her ears. She told them about howlers and whip snakes, herds of ground crawlers, and scaly hooded tree lizards. Corree told them how she leaped down on the lizards and used her hooked, hardwood stick to flip them over. The other end of the knobbed stick killed the creatures before they could scramble over and attack. Their meat was the most succulent of any animal in the jungle.

Lenden and Breeann told her of the wonders and terrors of the undersea world. The alliance of the little glow creatures fascinated her most. The group fed them the lichens from the walls, and the little creatures provided light in the darkest caves and deepest parts of the ocean they swam in. The glowies, as they called them, also warned them of the huge sea lizards that hunted in packs. It was fascinating to Corree after years of feeling they were totally alone in an often cruel world.

Breeann finally called a halt to the conversations by stating it was sleep time. Corree wondered how they could tell, but she had to admit she was still tired. She lay down next to Breeann and pondered all that had happened this past half-moon cycle. Before they had almost no remembrance, then suddenly they had complete lives in an incredible place. It was as though the creators were playing with them. It was just like when Kollin and Mendee used twigs to turn over leaf beetles and then laughed when the bugs waved their long legs in the air.Is that what the scientists up in their cold offices are doing? Are they watching? Are they putting things in our paths and laughing at us when we fail?


Page 5

Chapter Five

 

Corree woke from her sleep, pain knife-sharp in her chest. She took a shuddering breath, feeling the air whoosh into her lungs with almost explosive force. The pain subsided into a steady ache, and Corree noticed the throbbing in her hands and feet. She flexed her fingers in the darkness, and that pain eased as well. Still, her body was stiff and her muscles sore. Her joints popped audibly and her head pounded in protest to her movements. She sat up cautiously, wondering what had caused all this. Something she had eaten? Corree scratched under her chin where the skin itched horribly and realized that she itched all over.

The light glow on the walls was diffused and dim, as though the little creatures were sleeping, too. The underwater glow creatures had disappeared. She counted only six sleepers. Breeann was gone. Several of the group lay near her, so Corree eased from her place in the warm sand as carefully as she could. The walls nearest her sensed her movement and brightened.

Corree knelt over the dark, still waters. She reached her hand toward the surface and then jerked back in shock. Her almost claw-like nails had receded and there was webbing between her fingers. She gasped when she saw that her pelt had disappeared or flattened into a smooth, rubbery skin. She was changing. She had changed. Just like in her dream!

Her chest felt strange, almost hollow; but Corree could breathe all right. She touched her ears and was relieved when she felt the rounded appendages.

There was a light touch on her arm. It was Breeann, seawater sluicing down her body. “You have changed! I would not have thought it possible after our first change.”

“I wouldn’t have, either.” Corree was dismayed to hear her voice crack slightly.

“I think the color is very pretty,” Breeann commented, lightly stroking Corree’s new skin.

“But I didn’t want to change again,” Corree retorted, jerking away from the touch. She felt tears prickling the corners of her eyes and she blinked hard to stop the embarrassing display. It didn’t do any good. How in the world could she live in the forest now? Like this? Tears slid down her cheeks. Corree was ready to throw herself on the sand and bawl.

Instead she forced herself to draw in a deep breath. Before she could say anything else, Lenden popped above the surface. The glow creatures accompanied him. Another sea person surfaced next to him. He sat down next to Corree.

“You have changed,” he stated the obvious.

“Yes,” Corree said and twitched at a quick pain in her chest.

Lenden’s luminous eyes bored into hers. “You are feeling something inside?” he asked, concern in his voice.

She rubbed her chest and the throbbing eased.

He smiled, which only frustrated her more.

“What I am thinking is that now you’ll be able to swim with us.”

“I swam with you yesterday,” she pointed out. All she wanted now was to be back in her rainforest with her family. All those wonderful ideas about finding the other mutated humans seemed so stupid now.

“No, we led you here. You don’t know how to swim.”

She deflated. “That obvious?”

He nodded. “No place to learn in a forest.” He put his webbed hand on her arm. “How quickly did each member of your group change when you…landed in the forest?”

Corree wondered where he was going with this questioning. Her thoughts returned to that early time when they woke up in the pod in the middle of the forest. She had changed almost immediately. By the second day she had her pelt. Her eyes were more sensitive to the movements in the under story. By the end of the second day her gliding flaps had begun developing, as had her claw-like nails and strong fingers and toes. Within three days the changes were completed. Most of the others were still changing. Corree had buried Migo alone.

She had wondered about that back then, but not for long. There had been no time to consider anything except how to avoid being killed. “What are you thinking, Lenden?”

“You adapted quicker than anyone else back then; you have adapted very quickly here....”

“Do you think I will change again?” she asked.

“Maybe. I think so.”

Corree frowned and looked down at the cave floor. That was not what she wanted to hear. She wanted him to be positive and say “absolutely!” To be honest, though, that was the only thing he could say.

“But since you have changed…” He pulled her toward the water. “I can teach you to swim.”

She allowed herself to be led to the water’s edge, but didn’t go in. “I have to return to the forest soon.”

“How? Even though you’ve developed the ability to stay in the water, there are too many predators to swim to the mainland alone,” Lenden reminded her. “You were very lucky on the way out.”

“What would you suggest,” she snapped. “I can’t stay here. You know that.”

“Yes, I know,” he replied soothingly. “As much as I would like for you to stay, you’re right. Everyone possible needs to be contacted. They need to know what you’ve learned, especially if they don’t have communication with a pod. You need to know what everyone else feels.” Lenden rubbed the back of his head absently. “They want us to be a viable member of the Federation, but they send us to so many different habitats. At the rate we’re going, it will take generations before we have enough population to have a secure claim on Mendel. With all of us so separated… That doesn’t make sense to keep us away from each other.”

“Easier to keep us under control?” Corree shrugged. “Maybe they expected more of us to live through our change and first years.” If we could adapt to each place, we could gather together somewhere.”

“Where would that be? Your place or mine?” Lenden rebutted. His eyes held a twinkle of humor.

“Good point,” Corree conceded. “Maybe what they want is for us to have separate colonies but with a central meeting place.”

“Then why didn’t they say that?”

“I don’t know.” Corree chewed her lower lip. “Maybe they wanted to see if we could figure it out on our own.”

“Maybe it’s also because they can’t come down and punish us if we do something wrong,” Lenden laughed. “They taught us to survive and obey. They succeeded in neither, at least not with us.”

A sudden inspiration almost made her gasp. Could the scientists still be experimenting on them; seeing if they could mutate more than once? Perhaps they had wanted her to visit other groups. But why? How would they know? Would they expect her to just trot back to the teaching pod and tell them?

Lenden studied her carefully. Could he read her mind? She didn’t have any clear answers to anything right now, so it was useless to worry. “Whatever they want us to do for them, we still need to know each other and figure out how to work together despite our physical differences.”

Lenden’s face was impassive. “Somehow, I am thinking that no matter what we do, we’re playing into their plans.”

“Maybe. Regardless, we can’t pretend they aren’t out there and we can’t live alone anymore. I mean we can’t ignore each other.”

For several heartbeats there was no sound except for the dripping water. “I feel we should visit this pod,” Lenden mused. “We already know a great deal, but I think we need to know more.” He rubbed behind the back of his head again. “You don’t believe they did anything to you?” he asked.

“Other than the sleeping gas, no. In fact, the man could not touch me, and I didn’t see any robots or machines that could move.”

“It’s nice they can’t send anyone down to do anything to us.” He grinned.

Corree laughed. It felt good joking with someone her own age. How old did the holo-man say she was? Fourteen? Despite the lack of a pelt, Lenden was very handsome.

“Besides, if we all go to the mainland together, you will have a much better chance of getting back alive.”

“Your group won’t be in any more danger?” she asked

Lenden shrugged.

“No more than usual,” Breeann interjected. “I’m tired of hiding in the caves, anyway.”

“I am, too,” Matak chimed in. “When are we going to eat?”

“Matak! Your appetite is the reason we need to leave,” Lenden complained.

Matak didn’t look the least bit penitent. “Still hungry. Bet you are, too.”

“Would you like to come to the feeding grounds and help us gather, Corree?” Lenden asked.

“As you said, I’m not a good swimmer,” Corree admitted. “Wouldn’t I put your family in danger?”

“You will learn as we go,” Breeann told her. “It will be a simple adjustment.”

Corree certainly hoped so. This time when Lenden motioned toward the water, Corree didn’t hesitate. She took several deep breaths exhaling completely between each one. Breeann nodded her approval.

“We won’t go far at first,” Lenden instructed. “Take in a lungful of air and see how long you can hold it.”

“It wasn’t very long before.”

“You weren’t changed before,” he reminded her.

Corree did as she was told and was surprised when her lungs seemed to swell beyond its previous capacity. She walked into the water, and when it was chest high, she ducked beneath the surface. Corree blinked and gazed around. Multi-colored seaweed caressed her legs. The small light creatures were much brighter this morning, or whatever time it was. Her webbed fingers propelled her along the bottom of the cave pool so that she swam almost as fast as she had glided in the forest canopy. Her gliding flaps didn’t impede her progress. Rather they acted as extra propulsion, pushing her along. Watching the others, Corree kicked her feet rhythmically. She exulted in the free movement, unimpeded by gravity. Following Matak, Corree circled this way and that. When he shot toward the surface, Corree was reminded she needed to replenish her air supply. She was not desperate though, as she had been when Lenden led her here.

Corree rose leisurely and broke the surface. Breeann and Lenden were waiting for her.

“Well?” Lenden asked.

Corree had a pretty good idea what Lenden was wanting, but she wasn’t going to let him know just yet. “Well, what?” she asked.

His smile told her he already knew. “Lot easier this time, wasn’t it?”

“Yes. How long can you stay under?”

“Long. We don’t have any way of telling time other than the sun and we don’t go out very often. I’d guess if we aren’t swimming, we can stay under for the space of…” Lenden held his hands apart. “This amount of time the blue sun takes across the sky, I think.”

Corree gaped at him. That was the length of one of their rainforest nap times. Until she had changed this time, she wouldn’t have dreamed of such a thing.

“Being able to trance has allowed us to stay alive many times,” Breeann added.

“Trance?”

“We’ll explain after we have finished gathering,” Lenden told her. He sucked in a deep breath and ducked under the water.

The others followed his example, including Corree. She felt her lungs press against her rib cage. Still, she didn’t think she had gotten enough air. Corree exhaled and breathed in more air. She also felt a surge of energy. This time she glided underwater and looked for the others. She saw Breeann near the bottom of the pool waiting for her.

As Corree approached, Breeann turned and swam through a cave toward more open water. Several of the light creatures accompanied them. She was able to examine one and saw that it was only as big as her thumbnail. It had ten tiny legs or arms that flowed in a circular motion. Right in the center of its body were two tiny black dots. Corree assumed they were eyes, or something similar.

She followed Breeann out of the cave to a semi-dark canyon where most of the light was supplied by luminous plants that grew in clumps on the walls and floor. The sea group ignored them and concentrated on small animals that scuttled in the more shadowy parts of the canyon. Matak grabbed a squirming grub-like animal and popped it in a pouch at his side. One of the others pried a shelled animal from the bottom of a rock.

Corree swam closer to the bottom, scanning for anything that moved. The little light creatures stayed above her, well away from any outcropping. She saw something wiggling in front of her and grabbed for it.

Don’t touch that!she heard in her head. It sounded like Lenden. Corree snatched her hand back in surprise. She had not “heard” that. It had been in her mind. Lenden had sent her a message from his mind to hers?

Yes,he thought to her.

How?she thought back.

Later.

With that, Corree went back to her foraging. With each breath, she seemed able to stay under longer. She became more comfortable swimming among the rocks and tall pipe stem plants that grew in clumps on the bottom. Her eyes picked out slight variances in color among the sea plants, even in the dim light. The tall plants weren’t just blue; they were variegated with slightly lighter shades in the middle and darker near the edges. Red flower-like plants clung to the rocks that lined the entrance to the cave, waving long fronds in a rhythmic cadence.

Ten-legged shellfish, the front four legs ending in over-sized claws scuttled into shadowed corners trying to escape the humans’ darting fingers. Corree snatched at one and rapidly jerked her hand away. The creature was hanging on to her index finger with an iron-hard grip. She almost sucked in a mouthful of water in her pain and surprise.


Page 6

Matak grabbed the creature just behind the fore claws and squeezed. The vise-like claw opened, and Corree stuck her finger in her mouth, trying to ease the throbbing pain. She rose to the surface to examine it.

Breeann joined her. “It didn’t break the skin,” she said after studying the injured digit.

Her finger throbbed. Corree wiggled it and found it wasn’t broken.

Other heads broke the surface. Matak laughed as he waved the offending creature in the air. Lenden grinned, but his thoughts were concerned.You are all right?

Yes,she answered, still astonished at this ability.

We have enough,he announced to everyone.

Once back in the home grotto, the spoils of their gathering were piled on a flat rock. Corree emptied the pouch Breeann had given her and looked over her meager contribution. She had only three of the rock hugging shells. Even worse, they were closed tight. She could not get a fingernail into the openings. Bilor pulled an old shell from his tool belt and showed her how to use it to pry open the stubborn bi-valve. He made it look simple.

Matak stacked his shellfish in a neat pile at least two hand spans high. One of them crawled off the top of the pile. The boy snatched it and put it back, laughing.

“Not bad for a first time,” Lenden assured her. “How’s the finger?”

“Better. Can you all talk inside each other’s heads? Can you tell what someone is thinking?”

“We don’t pry unless we’re away from safe ground,” Lenden explained. “This talent has kept us alive. I just wish it had developed sooner rather than later.”

That was something else Corree wished she could confront Windemere with.

“We will eat and then rest,” Lenden told the group. “Tomorrow at the first moon rising, we’ll head for the learning pod with Corree.”

Several people fixed the meal. They dug out the shellfish meat into a large shell. Breeann squeezed some kind of plant juice into the “stew,” and then sprinkled a powder over it. Corree found the meal even tastier than the one that had been left for her on her first day on the island.

It was a restless night. Corree spent part of the sleep period staring at the subdued light creatures on the wall. A scant five days ago she had been living peacefully with her group in a forest she knew. Now? Now she didn’t even know if she could go back to the forest again. That Lenden thought she could was reassuring. She respected his opinion. Still, until it actually happened, there would continue to be doubts.

Corree evidently slept because she awoke with the dregs of a dream about flying in a pod through darkness.

She saw Lenden staring at her from the other side of the room. His eyes glowed his excitement. He was looking forward to this excursion. After everyone had eaten a mixture of sea plants and the remainder of the previous day’s hunt, they set out. The pod traveled through dim caves and grottos toward the surface of the island.

Chapter Six

 

Corree’s eyes noticed details she had missed when she came this way with Lenden. Plants grew in tangled profusion all over the walls, but the bottom was almost bare. Why, she wondered.

We cleared bottom plants. Less chance to be attacked.That was Breeann.

Why not on the walls?Corree thought the question.

Normally local predators prefer the bottom.Besides, we haven’t had a chance to do it this season,Lenden added.

Corree’s eyes were drawn to a part of the wall where the plants didn’t seem “right.” Something hid there. It was some kind of animal.There is something in the clump of yellow and red broad leaf plants,she informed her companions.

Lenden’s luminous eyes studied the plants she had pointed out. He pulled out a short spear from his belt, pointing it at the wall as he carefully approached. A short mental order sent the others back. Corree hesitated, not sure whether to help Lenden.

It “felt” like something enormous. With a flurry of debris and dark fluid, a sinuous yellow and rust-colored creature shot toward her, its long, sharp teeth bared, red eyes glowing. Lenden’s spear went all the way through the animal’s body. It thrashed and sent pain and anger messages into her head.

Corree slashed with her knife. The sea snake ducked her first blow, but when it attacked again, Corree knew just where to strike. The point of the knife struck one of the creature’s eyes. A pain in her head almost caused her to black out. The creature’s tail slapped her leg and more pain lanced up her thigh. She wanted to scream, but couldn’t.

Corree felt Breeann next to her. She was singing something in her mind. It was calming. Corree felt her heartbeat slow and her mind empty of all thought. She didn’t feel her body anymore and it didn’t bother her that she couldn’t.

 

Corree woke up to see Breeann’s concerned eyes staring at her. Her head was above the waves. How in the world had she come from the cave to the surface? She didn’t remember anything after the attack of the undersea creature.

Are you all right?

“Yes. I am now. What happened?”

“I put you in Trance, Corree. The rock snake had injured you and we were still a long way from the surface,” Breeann explained. “I had to do something so you wouldn’t run out of air before we got here.”

“So that is a trance? That feeling that everything is far away?”

“Yes. When we do Trance, our bodies need less air. We can stay under longer. Especially if someone is there to help us back.”

“You mean to help come out of the trance?”

“Yes.”

Breeann continued to swim next to her until they reached the tiny cave on the island. The group, with Lenden at the rear, followed. It was crowded, but everyone managed to fit inside. With great difficulty, Lenden lifted his spear out of the water. Corree saw the size of the snake. The head alone was almost as large as her head! The pale eyes still seemed to follow her, even though Corree knew the snake was dead.

“Wish we had time to butcher it forlater,”Toya muttered.

Lenden grinned. “Me, too, but there’s no time, and it would attract other predators.” He turned to Corree. “How did you know it was there?”

“I felt it.” She tapped her head. “I could feel its hunger.”

“You could feel…?” Lenden’s voice trailed off.

For the space of several heartbeats the only noise in the tiny cave was the drip, drip of water from above. Corree wondered if it had rained outside.

“You really have changed,” Breeann stated. “You couldn’t even hear us at first.”

Corree just shrugged. “I could see him, too, as soon as I knew where to look.”

“I have always wondered why some of us mutate faster than others.” Lenden mused. “And that is the first time one of the rock snakes has hunted in the first moon rising.”

“When do they usually hunt?”

“During the day.”

“Maybe they’re adapting, too,” Corree suggested.

“But we were the ones made to adapt,” Lenden protested.

“Could the scientists have created other animals?” Breeann asked.

“I don’t think so. I didn’t see anything in the memories,” Corree said. “Besides, it would be stupid to have other predatory creations here when they want us to make colonies and get resources from Mendel.” Corree paused, thinking. “I just think the sea snakes are smarter than the scientists thought they were, if they even knew they were here. You said you haven’t lost any members since you developed the ability to ‘hear’ each other,” Corree said. “How long ago was that?”

“About thirty tide cycles,” Lenden replied.

That translated to about three years. The sea groups had been forced to outguess their enemies for a little less than half of the time they had lived on Mendel. She did some more math. The number of deaths was staggering. Corree had changed as soon as she came to her new habitat. What if some of their changes were meant to come later? For the sea people it had been disastrous. Why would the old ones—the scientists—want to do that? What was worse was the nagging thought that they were all experiments. Was that why she changed so quickly? Did they try something different with her?

The others were gazing at her questioningly. Were they listening to her thoughts? If they did, they chose not to say anything.

The journey to the mainland was without incident. Corree felt her gliding flaps undulate as she swam. She adjusted the motion of her arms to accommodate this new change. It made swimming much easier.

Despite her pleasure with her new abilities, Corree stepped on shore with a sense of profound relief. The forest giants sat quiet and dark several body lengths ahead of them, their limbs held out like welcoming arms. It was all she could do to keep from running to the nearest tree and climbing into the canopy to watch the moons rise in the velvet sky. The sea people gathered around her, Matak hanging on her arm.

“The pod is that way.” Corree pointed. She broke into a trot, then slowed. The others weren’t used to running. They weren’t used to being on the land much at all. “The first moon will set soon, then the second one not far behind. If we hurry, we might make it to the pod before the sun rises.”

Lenden just nodded as Corree led the way. When they reached the river, everyone dived in and swam as far as they could before the rapids forced them out again. It took longer than she expected since they were swimming against a strong current. They found a cave just above the water line and rested during the day.

At sunset, Corree showed Lenden the path that would take them to the teaching pod. She would have preferred going all the way with them, but she didn’t want the holo-man to see that she had sought out the sea people, even if she thought that was what they had in mind. She also didn’t want to meet the rest of her family the way she was right now. It wasn’t that she thought Tana or any of the others would freak out. She didn’t want to go back now. She wanted to find the other groups as well as test Lenden’s theory that she would be able to change back to her forest form.

In order to get to the caves, she’d have to go into the mountains. She wondered why Riss hadn’t volunteered to contact the cave dwellers; they were closer to him. Maybe he was afraid of caves, even though he didn’t seem like the type to be afraid of anything. Still, there was something foreboding about going to see these people.

As the first moon rose, Corree found a narrow pass into the mountains. The height of the peaks kept everything in twilight. She was leery about going on, but even more leery about waiting here until the moonlight reached all the way into the pass. Corree sniffed the cool air blowing from the mountains. No indication of any predators. She detected no movement other than the waving of wind-whipped grasses and sharp-needled shrubs. Her ears caught no sound of footfalls.

Corree started up the steep path. It was rocky and she slipped on loose gravel. Several times she felt the bite of sharp rocks when she fell. Her feet, then her legs became one large ache. Her pace seemed to be slower than that of a fuzzy leaf crawler, but it couldn’t be helped.

Corree knew the second moon had risen from the light on the mountain tops. The path was still almost as dark as the forest in the moonless time of the night. Her eyes, adjusted to the dimness of the ocean depth, were able to make out some detail around her. No creatures moved on the path ahead or in the rocks above her. Tough grass lined either side of a rock-strewn path. The peaks towered high above her on one side; almost as high on the other side. Swirling wind whistled all around. She shivered in the biting chill. How in the world could two such different places exist so near each other?

Corree wished for her pelt right now. While the ocean-tough skin kept much of the cold out, she still felt the raw bite of the winds. She licked her dry lips and rubbed her arm. To her surprise, the rubbery skin she had developed underwater was slightly rough. She rubbed the other way and felt individual hairs rise at her touch. Her pelt was returning. Corree rubbed all the way up both arms and grinned. She was changing! Shecouldmutate back.

As she continued on the path, she felt the soles of her feet toughen. As before, her joints ached, but not as much as the previous mutation. Her palms itched, telling her that something was happening to her hands. She was probably losing the webbing between her fingers. The soreness lessened as she adapted.

When the moons had risen enough for her to study her changes, she noticed her pelt was darker than before. Her fingernails had lengthened, but not quite as long as they had been originally. The wind continued howling down the gorge, but Corree felt warmer. She looked down at her arm and noticed the pelt was longer than even a few minutes ago. So quick! The palms of her hands were tough and leathery, but the hair on the back of her hands had grown thicker.

Corree reached the end of the gorge and was confronted by huge boulders strewn haphazardly in her way. The map had shown a cave somewhere near the end of the second valley, but where was it?

She searched around each rock. After what was beginning to seem like an impossible quest, Corree found it. The opening was barely large enough to admit her. She squeezed through and stood in the almost complete darkness wondering how she was going to navigate through the caves to find the mutants who lived here. How could anyone adapt to living in a cave? She opened her mouth to call out, in case they had someone near the entrance, but then she stopped. There was something spooky about this place. It wasn’t just the darkness; there was something else here. Corree started down the tunnel, feeling with her hand, but stopped after a few tentative steps.

As much as she hated to admit it, this time she may have taken on more than she could handle. If she continued on, she would probably get lost. The only thing to do was to go back and help Tanna find other forest groups. It rankled to come this far and not be able to accomplish what she wanted.

Right now she was exhausted. The swim, the climb, the changes—she had to rest. Corree felt around for a place that might be suitable to take a brief nap; something less rough. She settled down, facing the mouth of the cave. Within minutes she was asleep.

Corree jerked awake, feeling someone or something nearby. He or she—no she, was to her left. “Who are you?” Corree asked, keeping her voice low. Still, she winced. It echoed and sounded as loud as a shout. The girl in the cave answered her voice barely audible.

“I am Esteya,” the cave girl whispered. “Who are you? Why are you here?”

“I am Corree and I’m here to meet you and your family.”

Esteya was silent for some time.

“Did you hear me?” Corree finally asked when the silence became uncomfortable.

The girl nodded. To her surprise, Corree was able to see the movement, or rather feel it. Or maybe she was hearing it. It was like another part of her brain had opened up and she could hear Esteya’s heartbeat, feel the vibrations or some kind of an aura from the other girl that allowed Corree to see her. Esteya was thin, but not quite emaciated. Her eyes were weak, but her ears were large and attuned to Corree. Esteya radiated heat but was not as warm as Corree. Her pelt was almost as long as Riss’s. It was white, as was her skin. Esteya was afraid.

I won’t hurt you, Corree thought.

Esteya only nodded.

Have you had dreams?

There was more fear aura.Yes. At first we were told to leave the caves and go somewhere beyond the mountains.

The fear spiked. There was something else with it. Sadness.

But we cannot leave the caves. The sun is dangerous.

That is why we travel at moonlight,Corree explained.

We? There are more of you?

They are not with me. They are back in the forest trying to find other families.

Esteya took another step toward her. “Weren’t you afraid to come alone?” she said out loud.

Even as Corree thought about it, Esteya must have felt her emotions.

“You were afraid and still came,” she whispered.

“Sometimes you have to do things…” Corree let the sentence hang. “I thought it was important to tell everyone why they were having the remembering dreams. And why we are being pulled to the learning place.”


Page 7

“Pulled to the learning place?” Esteya asked. “Is that the place our dreams wanted us to go to? Beyond the mountains?”

“Yes. It is a pod.” There was confusion coming from Esteya. “It is something that was sent to teach us,” Corree explained, trying to show her a picture of the ship.

“Oh!” Esteya exclaimed. “So shiny!”

Corree knew Esteya had understood her mental picture.

“And remembering dreams?”

“Are you dreaming of more than going outside to a learning pod?”

“Yes, when we dream, some are remembering things from the past. Others are dreaming about where we came from and what we are here to do. Some have been dreaming for some time.”

“Whatareyou here to do?” Corree asked, wanting to know if these people had been taught the same thing as she had.

“Find the important rocks from deep inside the caves for our creators to use.” Her voice rose in excitement as her fear melted away. “When we do, they will send us wonderful things to eat and things to keep us warm. The creators will send others to help us.” Esteya paused from her happy chatter and thought a moment. “At first I thought you were one of the creators or one of the ones that would be sent.”

Corree frowned.Why the different dreams?Why did Esteya seem so… clueless?“No, I’m not one of the creators. I haven’t been sent. I came on my own. The members of my family decided to meet and get to know other groups. To find out things.” She hesitated.

“What things?” Esteya coaxed.

“Like what each group remembers about the old…about the people who put us here. The Federation…”

“Our Creators? Is that what they’re called? You know a lot more than we do. You must come and talk to the rest of my family!” Esteya reached out in the darkness and took Corree’s hand. Before she knew it, Corree was being led into the dark interior of the cave.

Even though it was totally dark, she knew where the walls and ceiling were and could avoid the rough spots on the floor. Corree noticed an almost inaudible clicking in her ears. She was startled to realize some of the sounds were coming from Esteya. She was even more startled to realize that she was making a similar sound, something deep in her throat. How could she be changing so quickly? Each mutation came faster and faster. Her head pounded, but that eased as she followed Esteya.

The cave tunnel seemed to go on forever. Esteya held on tightly as though she thought Corree would bolt and run. After what seemed an incredibly long time, Corree felt/saw the walls widen, the ceiling rise and finally disappear. She felt the moon beams before she actually saw them.

The tunnel continued to widen until Corree walked into a cavernous valley with rock walls rising straight up. She paused and stared toward the sky. The light of the first moon shone at the tops of the black walls. Very little reached down to where she stood; still Corree detected eighteen people ahead of her. They were huddled against the rock walls where the cave opened to its widest; maybe twenty feet across. Esteya drew her closer to her side.

Most of the cave dwellers were about her size. Some were smaller, more like Joshee and Kollin when they first came to Mendel. There were children small enough to be held in the bigger kids’ arms. One of the tiny ones began crying. A baby? They had sent babies down here? Corree had never seen a baby, but from what the holo-man had shown her, she knew that was what these littlest ones were. Corree leaned forward to look at it. The baby gazed at her with huge eyes, and then it opened its mouth. The high-pitched cry echoed back and forth from one wall to another. The girl turned her back to Corree and the baby stopped crying.

The girl hunched over her charge. Slurping sounds told Corree the baby was nursing. The girl was its mother? How long had these people been here?

“Why are you here?” a deep voice said from behind her.

Corree spun around and stared at the squat, heavily muscled man facing her. His pelt was dense and, like Estreya, very light. He held a club in one hand and a stone knife in the other. Putting the knife into his belt, he reached out with a hesitant finger to touch her pelt. It had grown longer since her arrival into the cave, but was still much darker than anyone else’s in the group.

Corree wondered that this man seemed much older than her. He was more the age of the younger scientists of her dream. Then she saw a flash of memory. As she and her friends moved from room to room, she saw older people. They were coming out of the teaching rooms as Corree and her friends went in. There weren’t that many of them.

“Where did you come from?” he asked without waiting for her first answer.

“I came from the rainforest west of here.” She gestured with her hand. “I’m here because I wanted to see who else was sharing Mendel with us. I think we should know each other.”

“Why?” he snapped.

She was taken aback by the question and had to gather her thoughts for a moment. “The creators made us forget. I want to remember. I want to know who’s still alive and who died.”

“The Creators didn’t tell us to go find others. They told us to grow here and build a mountain colony in the caves.”

Corree realized the truth. These people had been here longer than she and her family had. Perhaps some of these had been here even before the older kids of her dreams.

His voice grew stronger. “We were the first. I was the age you are now when we came.”

Esteya appeared to be the oldest of the kids. She was probably only five or six when she came. So these people of the cave had been here for more than ten years, by her best guess. She couldn’t imagine living in the dark for that long.

“How can you come here?” he asked, breaking into her thoughts.

“How did I get here? I walked from the seashore. Before that I was in the…”

He cut her off. “But how did you survive? Benji tried to leave. He came back to die.”

“You mean going outside will kill you?”

The cave dweller folded his arms, his frown deepening.

Corree thought furiously. It seemed that these people could only change the one time. The way the holo-man had talked, the creators had wanted them to stay in their habitats; to have babies, become numerous and provide resources for the Federation. How was it that she could continue mutating when these people didn’t have that ability? “I survived mostly because I have been able to mutate wherever I go.”

The man looked at her like she was some kind of freak. “Why would you want to do that?”

Corree repeated her reasons.

He frowned. “The Creators put us here for a reason and gave us the means to live here. We are going to do what we were sent here to do.” He glared at her. “Go back home to your group. Do your duty.”

Any further talk with this guy was useless. “I’ll leave. Can Esteya come with me to make sure I don’t make a wrong turn?” Corree managed to keep the sarcasm out of her voice. She had noticed on the way in here that her sense of direction had become even more acute than it usually was. There was no chance she would get lost, but the ruse gave her a small amount of time to talk to Esteya.

The leader snorted in disgust. “Go home where you belong,” he repeated. He made some clicking noises, and Esteya touched her shoulder. She motioned to Corree, and they left the chamber.

Once into the narrow cave, Corree asked her the question that had been bothering her. “How can you stay in the caves, in the dark all the time?”

“Oh, it’s all right. I can’t imagine going outside. All that openness and the light. The sun burns; makes you blind and causes your skin to peel off.” She made some clicking sounds similar to the leader’s. “Besides, we have some light from glow plants.”

Corree felt Esteya’s fear. “It’s not that bad, Esteya. You’re right about the sun; it can hurt us if we are out in it too long. We are careful not to be in the open when the sun is in the sky. But I do love the forest.” Her voice was almost wistful.

“Maybe you should stay there then,” she suggested in a kinder version of the man’s command.

“Haven’t you ever been curious about the outside?” Corree asked.

Esteya shook her head. “Oh, no, I couldn’t.”

Corree thought about the leader’s earlier comment. “Who was Benji?”

Esteya made some more throat noises, but these sounded very sad. “He was my brother. My older brother. He was very curious and wanted to know where all the tunnels went. He found the jeweled cavern where the tiniest little light from outside blossoms into so many colors. We go there to feel the stones; to let them fill us with warmth and happiness. We dance and sing there.”

“But you don’t,” Corree stated.

“No, I don’t,” Esteya admitted. “Not after Benji died. It is sad for me, and the colored gems can’t ever make me happy.”

Thinking of Migo, Corree could understand.

“How did you know what I was thinking? Are you like the small ones who can tell what we are thinking?”

“The small ones?”

“The babies. They put thoughts into our heads. If they are hungry, cold, or frightened. Sometimes they comfort us with happy thoughts. It is harder for them when they are older, but they are still better at it than the rest of us.”

“I guess I am a little bit like that. It was mostly the change I made when I was with the sea people. Even before, I could pretty much tell where the members of my group were all the time.”

“Sea people?” Esteya made more of her clicking sounds.

“Yes, there is a group that lives in the ocean. It’s very beautiful there, but there are many animals that want to kill you in the sea. They have the ability to talk to each other in their minds. Those clicking sounds you make—do you talk to each other with those sounds?” Corree asked.

“Yes, and they help us find our way around in the dark,” she explained.

“Ah,” was all Corree said. She had felt some of the sounds bounce back to her. That was how she knew what was ahead of her. “You can’t really see in the dark, then?”

“I thought you could read my mind,” Esteya said with a laugh.

“I’m not as good as the sea people.”

“How does it feel to change?”

“At first it was scary—and it hurt. When I went to visit the sea people I felt things changing inside. My lungs got bigger, my fingers shortened, and webs grew between them. That really hurt at the beginning, but now it mostly feels funny—strange. When I saw what those changes let me do…”

Esteya waited. Corree explained the freedom of being able to fly through the water just as she glided between trees. Corree realized that each change brought a new kind of wonder. Even here in the cave she was amazed at how she could find her way through the dark coolness. It was exhilarating to feel the vibrations in the rock walls that came from far below. Corree wished she could go to that gemmed cavern. It was then she realized they were going a different way. Before she could open her mouth to say anything, Esteya spoke.

“Even though it is sad for me, I thought you might like to see Benji’s discovery.”

“Yes, I would. Thank you, Esteya.”

Chapter Seven

 

When they entered the cavern, Corree almost stopped breathing. There was the tiniest point of light from the small opening in ceiling, but each jewel embedded in the wall seemed to gather it in and multiply the light a hundred times. They changed the blue-white of the sun into more colors than Corree could name. The beams they sent out were charged with emotion. Almost all were happy emotions.

She walked over and touched a large red gem and felt its throbbing beat of power flow through her veins. She could do anything! Corree barely touched a deep yellow, fist-sized gem. She instantly imagined herself soaring through the tree tops. The wind flowed through each hair of her pelt and penetrated her skin. It surged through her body and filled her heart with joy. She dropped fruit on a howler and plucked a finger snake from a tiny twig, dropping it into a water-holding flower.

Motes of light danced around her head, and she laughed and sang. Corree danced with the lights as they sang their song. She continued to touch gems and feel their different songs, saw different scenes, and experienced many happy emotions. One imagining let her glide from tree to tree with a grown Migo. They touched fingertips as they glided, separating to go around the trunks of forest giants. She touched fingertips with him again and realized it was Riss gliding along with her. Corree laughed, and he laughed with her. He plucked a flower growing at the end of a vine and handed it to her in mid-air.

Corree felt a hand on her arm and ignored it. Her time with Riss was so happy. She didn’t want it to end. The hand was insistent, and Corree looked around to see Esteya pointing. Tears coursed down the cave girl’s cheeks, and Corree realized the gems had the power to multiply and return a person’s emotions. She felt happy when she entered the cavern, but Esteya was sad because of her brother’s death. Now Corree felt ready to cry because she knew she had to leave the cave.

Reluctantly she allowed Esteya to lead her down the corridor they had come up. “Thank you for letting me experience this. I know it was hard for you.”

“Mata says we will take some of the stones when the Creators, the Federation, asks for them.”

She wondered how the stones would react to being dug out of their home.

“That will be sadder than the way they make me feel now. The stones have life even though they are not living as we are.”

“I know. The Federation wants us to take things from the forest and the sea. I really don’t want to.”

The pair said nothing else until they came to the cave leading to the outside. Filtered light told her it was near the end of the day. She would wait for the sunset before continuing on her journey.

“I wish I could go with you,” Esteya said, and then she was gone.

“Esteya?” Corree called after her. There was no answer. “I will come back someday.” As soon as she said it, Corree wasn’t sure she could keep that promise, but she would try.

The sun had barely set when she stepped out of the cave. Sunlight still showed on the mountain peaks above her, but it was chilly in the valley. The frigid air felt good, and she sucked some in to overcome the oppressiveness of Esteya’s sadness.

“If I were a snow bear, you would be half-digested by now,” a voice boomed above her.

Corree nearly jumped out of her pelt. She whirled around and saw Riss perched on top of an outcropping of rocks above her. He was grinning broadly.

“Did you find the under-mountain people?” he asked.

“How did you know I was here?” she countered.Why would he be following me? I thought he was locating other mountain groups.

Riss dropped down beside her. “I felt something new in the mountains and came to investigate. When I realized it was you, I was worried.” He held up his hand when she began to bristle. “These are unknown places. You’ve never been through here and I thought it would be wise for you to have someone at your back.”

Corree could see the wisdom in that. “How did you find me? I was inside the caves.”

“I already had a fair idea where the cave people’s access was,” he began.

“You were following me then?”

“Most of the time I was following your scent, once I figured out it was you. I tried to catch up before you entered, but you were too far away.” Riss gave a wry smile. “I was too big to get into the cave, so I had to wait and hope.”

“I can take care of myself,” she muttered. Corree remembered the happy dream she had had of being with Riss in the cavern, but those feelings were gone now.

“I know, but I thought you might also like some company. At least until you get back to your own family.”

Corree’s irritation fled, and she grinned. “So is Meeka looking for other mountain groups?”

He nodded. “The holo-man showed me a desert group on the map. Just beyond the mountain passes.”

Corree hadn’t considered going that far, but with Riss… “Did you want to go there? It just seemed so far away.”

“I know, but I think we need to meet them, too.”

“Oh.” She didn’t know what else to say for a minute. She would be going with Riss! “So are you ready to tackle hot and dry?”

Riss grunted. “I just hope I can mutate as fast as you do.” He ran his fingers through the thickened pelt on her shoulder.

“I hope so, too.” She eyed the thick fur covering his body. “Or we may have to get a sharp stone and shave you.”

Riss’s laughter echoed off the mountainside. “Come on. We need to get through this pass and find shelter before total dark.”

“Do you know this part of the mountains?”

“Not that well, but I remember the map the holo-man showed us and the terrain is similar to where we live.”

Corree and Riss walked side by side when the paths were wide enough. When they weren’t, Riss usually took point. Corree didn’t argue with him. The mountain air grew colder, and she was increasingly glad for her longer pelt. She touched the hair on her arm and noticed it was even thicker in the short time she and Riss had been together. She felt a quick shot of pain, then an itch on her head, and she reached up. Instead of rounded ears that could pick up the creeping of insects hidden under leaves, Corree felt pointed ears high up on her head. Tiny muscles jumped and one ear swiveled to hear slight noises behind her. She listened more intently and heard only wind among rocks.

Her still keen nose picked up the smell of cold and the acrid fumes of fungus growing on the undersides of rocks. There was a slight wafting in the air telling her something had made a kill recently. She tapped Riss on the arm.

Riss whispered, “Mountain snow cat. Far away. We should be okay as long as we keep heading out of its territory and don’t make too much noise.”

She grimaced when her stomach rumbled loudly. Riss pointed to a pouch hanging from his weapon belt.Soon, he mouthed.

Corree picked up hints of other creatures she knew were less than benign. Her ears swiveled forward and she caught the whisperings of noise ahead of her. She had thought her hearing was acute before, but now? She heard even the slight sounds of things under her feet.

“We’ll hole up soon. It’s almost too dark to walk through here.”

“Something’s ahead,” she muttered.

Riss nodded. “Rock rabbits.”

Corree wondered if they were as good as the forest variety. They traveled until full darkness and then waited under an outcropping of rocks until the first moon rose. She could still smell whiffs of rock rabbits but had to be content with the dried meat Riss carried. The air was freezing and she was glad Riss was sitting next to her. His warmth not only dispelled the cold; it also comforted her. Corree enlightened him of her failed adventure in the caves.

“You didn’t fail,” Riss said. “Now we know the scientists have tried different tactics before we were sent here.” He handed her some more meat. “I sure wouldn’t want to live under a mountain all my life.”

They fell into silence. Corree tried to stay alert, but her eyelids kept drooping.

“I’ll watch. You get some sleep. From what you told me, you didn’t get much of a chance in the caves,” Riss told her.

He was right. It was going to be a hard trek to the desert. Corree closed her eyes, but sleep wouldn’t come to her. She kept remembering everything that had happened recently. So Corree was surprised when she woke with full moonlight in her face and her body snuggled close to Riss. She pulled back in embarrassment. He had a questioning look in his eyes, but didn’t say anything. After grabbing another quick meal from his pouch, they set out.

****

For the next two days, she and Riss trudged through narrow rocky valleys and along barely discernible paths through high mountain passes. Twice Riss killed rock rabbits with his sling. The hot meat filled her limbs with energy. Corree caught several rock crawlers, which she cracked open. After hooking the claws together, she hung them from her belt. The meat would dry as they walked and provide sustenance while they were in the desert.

The valleys became hotter while the passes remained frigid. On the last night in the mountains, they snuggled together for warmth in a high mountain cave. Riss’s musky odor heightened Corree’s feelings of aloneness. She knew this time with Riss was temporary. After they had contacted the desert people, Riss would be going back to Meeka and she’d be going back to her family…a family where she’d still be alone. Corree suppressed a sigh.

“What’s wrong?” Riss asked.

“Nothing.”

Riss snorted. “You might as well talk to me. I can practically touch your emotions.”

“Huh?”

“You’ve been…well, down for some reason. What? You don’t like my company? I smell bad or something?”

“I do like your company, Riss. That’s the problem.”

“Uh? What?”

“I mean we’ll be going back to our families after this is done. I love my family, but sometimes I just want someone my own age to talk to…to be with.”

“Oh, yeah. I forgot your life mate died after your pod landed.” Riss didn’t say anything else, and Corree was able to discern his consternation.

They were both silent for a long time. Corree thought Riss might have dozed off.

“If we can all change like you have, I could come and visit you every once in a while,” he offered.

Corree laid her head on his chest. “I appreciate that, Riss. I don’t think Meeka would, but I do.”

“Or your group could come live with mine and…”

“And what? I wouldn’t ask Meeka to share her nest, uh cave. That wouldn’t be fair to her or anyone else.” Again there was a long silence. “I’m just going to enjoy your company while I have it.” With that, Corree terminated the topic.

“We’ll figure something out.”

Corree snorted, but she wished he could.

He pulled her closer and held her with his long muscular arms. She felt his heartbeat, smelled the heady musk of his pelt, and temporarily forgot about their dilemma.

****

The pair entered the dry regions through a mountain pass high above the desolate plain before them. A narrow path, carved out by wind and sporadic rain showers, switch-backed down the side of the last mountain. A light breeze indicated what would greet them when they left the mountains. Corree began sweating. Hopefully they would acclimatize by the time they reached the plain below.

“The map showed a group in that direction.” Corree pointed to a small hill in the distance, lit from behind by a rising moon.

“It will take half the night to get there.”

“And that’s only if we don’t run into something that wants to eat us.”

Riss chuckled deep in his throat. “We need to quit exercising our jaws and get going.”

Corree’s only response was to start down the rocky path. Riss followed close behind, grabbing her arm when she stumbled or slid. When he was ahead, she did the same for him.

By the time they reached the plain the first moon was a hand-width above the eastern horizon. During the trip, Corree had felt the itch of fur changing to something else, but she hadn’t looked closer than to verify that her pelt was receding.

“I think we can do it,” she muttered.

“What if they won’t let us stay?”

“I don’t know. Why wouldn’t they let us stay?”

“I think we’d better spend the day here,” Riss suggested. “I would hate to be caught out there at sunrise. We need to rest anyway.” They found a dusty cave barely big enough for both of them before the second moon had set.

“If I hadn’t seen it I wouldn’t have believed it,” Riss breathed.

He was staring at her, and she knew she had made another quick change. The tingling all over her body told her. Now, though, she took a close look. What was left of her pelt had changed color to match the grayness of the bleak desert ahead of them.

His pelt was still quite long, although she could tell Riss was changing, too. “Do you think they made me this way, or is this just some kind of fluke?” she asked.

“No way to know. If the creators did make you able to change more quickly than the rest of us…why?”

Corree shrugged. “I don’t know and to be honest, I don’t really care. I wish the Federation would leave us alone like they did for the past five years.” She tried to sleep, but the heat was stifling. The wind blew grit and dust in their faces. Thankfully, their noses had developed flaps that filtered out most of what blasted them out here.


Page 8

At first moonrise, they were trotting across the hot sand toward the distant hill. As they traveled, Corree felt the soles of her feet harden. Soon she wasn’t feeling the sharp gravel. Her eyes were no longer affected by the dust. An extra lens covered her eyes, but still allowed her to see. This time she took the lead.

The first moon set and the second moon was directly overhead. There were no shadows to confuse them. They drew close to the hill of the desert settlement. Corree was puzzled by a soft glow and wondered how this group could have gotten the same kind of power she had seen in the teaching pod.

She felt ill at ease. Without thinking, Corree reached up and scratched behind one ear, something she always did when she sensed something wasn’t right. Except now there was no ear and her hair was short, thick fuzz. Each change seemed to come quicker as well as easier. That brought no comfort.

To her surprise, Corree could see the hill was not natural. Around it were smaller mounds near the large one. They weren’t natural, either. It was more like pods of varying sizes had been half buried in the sandy soil. Her skin prickled and her mind screamed an alarm.

As she reached out to stop Riss, the smaller mounds seemed to erupt. Towering figures burst from yellow-white openings. Tall and gaunt, Corree recognized them immediately. “Ologrians!” she shouted, grabbing Riss’s arm, spinning him around. He snarled a curse, hesitated a split second before following her. They ran back toward the mountains but got no more than a half dozen steps before something seemed to make all her muscles go limp. She fell without being able to put her hands out to break her fall. Her shoulder banged painfully against a rock, and her cheek scraped on the rough sand.

As she lay there fuming, Corree heard the low click clack she knew from her pod training was their language. She tried to call out to Riss, but couldn’t get her tongue to work. Without a great deal of hope, Corree attempted to contact Riss with her mind. Even as she did, her lungs yammered for air. She stopped trying to communicate and concentrated on her breathing. It was useless. Her muscles, her lungs; everything except her mind was asleep. Was she going to die? If she was, why struggle? Corree felt the darkness thicken and then she was aware of nothing.

****

A wizened old man sat quietly in his servo-chair. The only part of him that seemed alive was his eyes. They glowed bright with triumph. Tiny servo-bots hovered like flies around the old man’s body. They checked his breath, heartbeat, making sure he continued living. The light in his eyes finally reached his lips. They thinned and drew into a smile. Deep in his chest, gurgling laughter formed and pushed up his throat. It bubbled from his mouth and continued until he was gasping for air. The little bots squeaked in alarm, buzzing toward the life support devices. The old man slowly regained his breath but continued chuckling softly.

“What is it, Dr. Windemere?” one of his human aides asked, his voice anxious.

There were three of them standing behind their leader. The “aides” were scientists of incredible standing, geniuses in their own right, but they were like children next to him. If they didn’t believe it, Windemere was only too happy to point it out to them. These were the three, who along with Dr. Windemere, had created the hundreds of children sent down to Mendel. Now they gazed blankly at one another. Only Windemere knew everything that was going on.

One of them turned back to the data screens. “Doctor!” he cried out in alarm. “They’ve been captured by Ologrians!”

“Yes,” Windemere hissed. He paused to breathe. “They will take them to the Ologrian mother ship.” Before any of the scientists could say anything, he continued. “Where the dormant virus within the girl will awaken.” Another breath, but one more dramatic than necessary. “And spread a killing plague that will destroy every Ologrian on board.” He began chuckling again. “If we are lucky, one or two will escape to the home world and begin killing them all. If they don’t, the home world will eventually be curious enough to send someone to check out their derelict ship. The virus will still be viable and ready to infect anyone who goes on board.”

All three scientists looked ill at ease, but no one was surprised.

“A whole race,” the youngest scientist said under his breath.

“Eh, what was that?” Windemere snapped, touching the controls that whirled his chair around to face the speaker. The blotched face appeared stormy.

“I was reflecting on what a stroke of genius that was.”

Windemere turned back to the panel of readouts with a satisfied grunt. It was obvious he didn’t believe the underling, but he was satisfied at the fear he still wielded. “Do not ever forget how much the Federation has put into this project. Into all of it!” he thundered. “This is not just about one planet.” Once again his eyes studied the readouts and again he smiled in triumph. “It’s about much more than one planet.”

Chapter Eight

 

Corree woke up to pain stabbing deep inside her body, pulsing with each beat of her heart. She remembered what had happened and jerked around, expecting to see Ologrians. There was no one. She was unrestrained, lying on the floor of a small cubicle about twice her height long and half that wide. There was nothing on which to sit, no water or food, not that she was interested in anything to eat. Her stomach lurched, and she swallowed in an attempt to put it under control.

Pain shot through her legs, and she groaned out loud. Corree felt twinges in her fingers. They had lengthened, but with them there was only the stretching soreness like before. The pain in her lower limbs continued, echoing stabs going up and down her spine. After what seemed an eternity, it subsided into a dull ache that centered in her knees.

As the pain decreased, Corree found herself drifting into sleep. What else was there to do in this place? Troubling thoughts kept snatching her from full sleep. What if she woke more like an Ologrian than a human? What if she woke up wanting the taste of blood? She had changed before, but always into some variety of human mutation. While the outward appearance was different, her thoughts had not changed. She was still Corree. Would that happen when she turned all the way into an Ologrian? If she could just find a door. Then what? She felt groggy. So tired.I want to go home.But she couldn’t; she could only sleep….

****

Corree woke the second time, feeling tendrils of discomfort swirling in her head and across various parts of her body. It wasn’t sharp like before, and she was thankful for that. As before, Riss was not with her. Corree tried to stand and found it impossible at first. She was stiff and her legs were still sore, but the main problem was that she had an extra joint in each leg. It was like she had two knees and it was hard to get them to work together. One knee bent the way she was used to, while the other one hinged in the other direction. Holding on to the wall, Corree finally managed to pull herself up. Then there was the trick of remaining on her feet. She fell twice before she was able to walk more than one step.

After mastering that, Corree was anxious to examine the rest of her changed body. She held out her hands. There was no pelt, no smooth sea skin. It was more like the dry, scaly skin of the tree snakes. Her skin flaps were gone. The taller frame allowed her to reach up and touch the ceiling of her prison. Her fingers were now long and very slender. They also had an extra joint.

The light in the room seemed to have a rosy tint, Corree noticed as she continued the examination. Her weapon’s belt had been taken away. A soft, but durable cloth covering had been wrapped around her torso. A plain woven belt kept it from falling off. She finished her examination and realized her mutation to Ologrian was complete. How long had it taken? She was thirsty, but thankfully, she had no desire to drink anyone’s blood.

Carefully, Corree stepped off the perimeter of the room. It didn’t take that long, even as clumsy as she was. The hair on the back of her neck rose. She felt as though she was being watched, but there were no windows or peep holes where anyone could observe her. When she turned back from her exploration, she was surprised to see a tall container in the opposite corner of the room. How had they put that in there without opening a door? She studied the corner and walls behind the cylinder. There was nothing to show how the jug got there.

She examined the container and saw that it held some kind of liquid. There was no smell to tell her what it might be. She shook the container. It was the consistency of tree sap. Setting it down, Corree squatted in the corner and pondered. All the while her body clamored for her to take it and gulp down its contents. It was maddening. Finally, Corree decided it didn’t make any difference if she died of thirst or of poison. She drank the liquid slowly, not only trying to savor each swallow, but to see if it would do anything adverse to her body. It felt wonderful as it slid down her throat.

After finishing the contents of the jug, Corree practiced walking. She quickly got the hang of the rolling gait and paced around and around the confining room. When her mutated joints and muscles protested, Corree lay down and was soon asleep.

Another jug was waiting when she woke up. It held the same kind of nourishment. This time she didn’t hesitate. She picked it up and drank. Corree also noticed the ceiling was taller now. How did they do that?

Without warning a bright light shone on one wall. She saw an Ologrian drinking out of a container like hers. Clacking, garbled sounds accompanied the pictures. Every time she heard the words, the Ologrian took another drink. After several repetitions, Corree repeated the sounds and took a drink. The Ologrian faced her, much as the holo-man had done in the teaching pod and gave her a thin-lipped smile. They were teaching her their language!

Corree smiled back and said, “Thank you for the drink.” The picture didn’t move, but she heard a different string of sounds. Could that be their way of saying thank you? If so, that meant they knew her language. Why didn’t they just talk to her? And why didn’t one of them show himself? She wondered about Riss. Where was he? Was he all right?

The lessons continued. She was shown pictures of different objects and their accompanying word/sounds. The lessons seemed to go on forever, but Corree had no idea of actual time. When she had learned enough words, the unseen instructor began putting them together into sentences. It was at this point that the training became more intense. One day she found herself conversing rather effortlessly with her projected instructor. He began asking her questions. At first they were innocent enough; questions about her life on Mendel. They asked her what she ate, what she and her group did during their days, what the forest was like. After a while, the questions were about the Federation.

That was when Corree refused to say anymore. Despite the fact she felt she had been used, it was the Federation that had made them. She remembered the old one of her dream. What had he said to her? “Remember you are human.”She was human, despite her outward appearance. The Federation would help them as soon as they knew she and Riss had been kidnapped.

“I want to talk to someone real,” she snapped at the insistent holo-Ologrian. The Ologrian disappeared. It was silent inside the cubicle. She was left with her thoughts. Food and sleep came twice and still she was left alone.

She was surprised, then, to see a tall figure staring at her through a window. As soon as the Ologrian knew she was aware of him, he began to speak to her in his language. “Are you able to understand me?”

Corree could only nod, her surprise was so great.

“I am Greelon.” He added something she didn’t figure out until later in the conversation. When she did, Corree felt her insides twist around. Greelon was a scientist. He was an Ologrian scientist. What wouldtheydo to her? And when they were done, would they eat her? Corree tried to keep her features calm as he continued to talk to her.

“Why did you come all the way from the mountains to our base?” He had to repeat himself several times before she understood the question.

Corree ignored it. “Where is Riss?”

Greelon’s deep-set eyes looked puzzled for a slight moment. “Riss? Do you mean the one who was with you?”

“Yes.”

“He is in another room. We had to…him so he would not hurt himself.”

He must have seen the alarmed look on her face, because he reworded his statement. “He became angry and beat on the walls during the lessons. We had to give him something to…sleep. We had to do the same when he changed, to help him during his mutation. He had a great deal more pain than you did.” That was a statement, so Corree didn’t bother to say anything.

Corree felt a small bit of relief. Greelon cocked his head slightly, as though trying to figure out something he didn’t understand. She felt bad for Riss, but at least he was still alive. The Ologrian repeated his previous question.

“We wanted to visit others… We knew, well, we thought there were others in the desert, but you were—here instead.” Corree stopped abruptly, wondering if she should even be talking to Greelon. He was the enemy, after all. She should have done what the Federation wanted, but she couldn’t. To not know about the others; all those others she had grown up with.

Now she was a prisoner of Ologrians and Ologrians ate humans! She shuddered and pressed her eyes together to stop the sudden desire to cry. Corree realized there were no tears to leak from her eyes. Ologrians didn’t cry?

Corree forced her emotions down. She had to think logically. Greelon had not hurt her. At least not yet. She was locked in a small room, but… But what? How long would she be kept here? Corree wanted to move. In the forest she could climb, glide, and travel incredible distances in any direction she or the group decided to go. She was free. Or she had felt free until the trip to the pod. Here? She had been given food and water; that was it. “How long are you going to keep me in this tiny box?”

Again Greelon cocked his head and considered. “We cannot let you out until we know it is safe for us.”

“You’re bigger than I am. There are more of you.” Then in a small voice, before she could stop herself, Corree murmured, “I want to go back to my forest.” She clamped her thin lips shut before she said anything else.

“You are still very young, barely the age of learning,” Greelon answered, his voice subdued. Corree didn’t totally understand the last part of his statement, but his tone seemed different—sad? “You could have human…that could hurt us.”

What in the world was he talking about? Her confusion must have shown because he continued.

“Tiny things in your body that could make us sick.”

Corree still wasn’t sure she quite understood, but felt he wasn’t making anything up. She remembered the map in the pod. It had shown another group in the desert. What had happened to them? Were there other human prisoners here besides her and Riss? Could they have been eaten? “What happened to the others?”

Now Greelon looked confused. “Others? There was only you and your companion.”

“But there was another group there. A desert family. That’s who we were going to see.”

“There were no others. We saw no evidence that there ever had been others.”

That couldn’t be, she thought. Everything else was right that the holo-man had shown them. Her thoughts whirled around in her head, each one faster and more confusing than the other. She noticed Greelon had stopped talking to her. He was watching and only began to speak when she turned her attention back to him.

“I noticed how quickly you changed, while this…Riss, was much slower in his mutation.”

Corree noticed Greelon didn’t ask why she changed. He must have figured that one out already. She just shrugged, or made a close approximation.

Without saying anything else, Greelon left. Corree lay back down. The conversation had left her feeling tired and depressed. Eventually, she fell asleep.

****

Pounding in her head woke Corree up. The headache made her queasy and she sat up slowly. The queasiness rose into something Corree could not ignore. It was more than just the protests of an empty stomach. Gulping in air, she wondered if Greelon had put something in her food. Why would he do that, though? Were they experimenting on her? Maybe trying to kill her? But if they wanted to do that, they could just use their weapons, like they did on that colony.

The only other time she had felt something like this was right after they had landed on Mendel. Their stores in the pod had run out and they were forced to find food from the forest. Most of what they had tried was fine, but when they were very hungry, she would try other things she wasn’t sure about. Some of the things seemed right to eat and turned out to be good for them. The few things she had been doubtful about had made her stomach and head ache. One or two made her feel horrible. Like now, except this was worse. Corree heaved, and what little she had eaten the day before came up. Regardless, she continued being sick until her sides ached. For a long time she couldn’t stop.

“We made sure what we gave you was safe for you to eat,” Greelon said.

She hadn’t noticed he was there.

“Physiologically speaking you have changed into an Ologrian.” Greelon’s pinched features were emotionless.

“So, what’s doing this?” she gasped.

“Perhaps one of our organisms infected you before you entirely changed. That shouldn’t be so; we tried to keep you in as sterile an environment as possible, but there was contact.”

“Sterile?” she asked even as her inside roiled again.

“That means there is nothing to hurt you—germs—tiny organisms.”

If Corree hadn’t been so miserable, she’d have laughed at the irony of what he was saying. Four gray walls, gray ceiling, gray floor. It was sterile all right.

“It will not take long to develop vaccines to guard you from any of our bacteria….”

When his voice trailed off and he didn’t say anything else, Corree looked up. Greelon had vanished and the window was gone. She didn’t know how long she sat huddled in a corner, nursing her misery. Her stomach was still rebellious, but there was nothing left. She was left gasping at every bout. Her ribs ached. She almost missed the quick pain in her hip.

“Sit still,” Greelon commanded her from the other side of the window.


Page 9

Corree was too miserable to do anything else but sit. The pain was brief, but she finally recognized it. A shot. The needle was administered by a robot arm that was now withdrawing into the wall. “What was that for?” she mumbled. When she didn’t get an answer, she figured Greelon was gone again. She didn’t even look up to corroborate her guess. This time he really was gone a long time. There was no food or drink to judge time with, even if she cared. Sleep was restless and filled with terrible dreams of Ologrians tearing off her limbs and munching on them with great satisfaction while she watched. Bouts of nausea were accompanied with exhausting rocking in the corners of the tiny room. Moans filled her ears but seemed distant.

Corree didn’t care about anything now; all she could feel was her misery. Maybe she would die here, but if she did, she wouldn’t hurt anymore.

****

Greelon straightened up, rubbing the pelt at the small of his back. His spine creaked. “It is as I feared.”

The two other Ologrians watched him, but said nothing.

“There is a virus in her system that seems to have mutated into something deadly to us.” Greelon figured the eruption would be immediate.

“They allowed us to capture them! They wanted her to be captured,” snarled Merkom. “She knew! The human vermin knew!”

That last accusation had crossed Greelon’s mind when he realized the truth, but he had dismissed it immediately. He did the same now with a wave of his hand. “If you mean the human younglings—no. They didn’t have any idea we were there. I believe the female when she said she was looking for other human mutants.” He rubbed his long, pointed chin thoughtfully. “However if you mean the Federation meant for us to capture them, then I believe you are right. And if they meant for us to get this virus and die, you are probably correct in that supposition as well.”

“What?” Merkom and his companion, Issoril, spluttered.

“I mean the Federation was counting on us capturing and studying them. The male, Riss, was programmed to be aggressive and the female was given something that would multiply and react after coming in contact with one of us. They developed a virus that could cause a plague.”

“The caretaker has been in contact with her!” Issoril added, his jaws clacking their fear and indignation.

“Place him and anyone else in contact with him or the humans into quarantine,” Greelon ordered. “Put the humans’ clothing and any utensils they have touched in the laboratory isolation chamber. Anything might prove useful in the quest to stop a plague. Oh, and by the way, I believe each one of us has been in contact with someone who has been in contact with the caretaker.”

“The humans must be terminated!” the other two scientists chorused.

“No!” Greelon snapped. “She is important. Her ability to mutate is important. Why the humans have used her this way is important.” Issoril and Merkom continued to clack out their venomous desires.Why can’t they see this?The humans have figured out a means of adaptation so drastic and so phenomenal we can’t destroy these two specimens. Even The Head and The Claw can see that!“We have to develop a vaccine that will not only save us, but save her as well. I need your help, though. I believe the contagion will be fast acting. We don’t have a lot of time.” He glared his point. “If you want to live, you’ll stop wasting time complaining and help me.”

Despite their anger at the humans, Greelon’s fellow scientists began working with him to find the cure for the deadly virus.

Two days later, Greelon realized his guess had been right. The caretaker had almost died, as had the human female. Greelon stretched and felt joints pop and muscles protest. His eyes burned from fatigue, but he was confident his team had come up with the right antidote to the virulent contagion. The caretaker was not getting worse. In fact his fever had decreased by a fraction.

The human was also recovering. It was slow, but she, too, had shown improvement since being inoculated. Greelon blinked in surprise as he realized he hadn’t even asked her for her name.

Chapter Nine

 

Corree awoke in something much larger than the tiny room she had been taught in. She felt softness cushioning her mutated body, enveloping it almost like a nest in a forest giant. She had never felt such softness. Even the robe that was wrapped around her was softer than anything in the rain forest. Tiny tubes extended from her arms and soft restraints kept her from moving more than a finger length. She gazed around and saw a tall machine chirping near the head of her nest.

Corree realized she didn’t feel sick, nor was she sore. What had been wrong with her? Had the Ologrians been experimenting with her? But no, Dr. Greelon had acted surprised at the strength of the sickness. There was something about the equipment that told Corree they were trying to take care of her rather than experiment on her.

She heard a soft whoosh and looked up. Greelon stood in an open doorway. He clicked deep in his throat before walking in. Corree wasn’t sure what the sound was supposed to mean so she didn’t say anything.

“You are recovering nicely,” he said.

“What was wrong with me?”

“You had a virus that mutated the same time your body did. It almost killed you.” He paused, looking uncomfortable. “It would have killed all of us if we had not found the antidote.”

“I don’t understand,” she began. “You said something about one of your illnesses making me sick…”

“It wasn’t one of ours. It was something you carried. It was meant to kill us.”

“W-what?”

“I may be wrong, but I theorize that you were injected with a dormant virus. It was supposed to grow and multiply when you either mutated into an Ologrian or came in contact with one of us.”

Inject? The holo-man wasn’t able to do that. So…“How?”

“That was what I wanted to ask you when you feel better,” Greelon said, his voice showing not a hint of emotion.

Corree was confused. How could someone do that? “Regular humans can’t live on Mendel,” she snapped. “That’s why we were made. I have not been around a human since we were sent to live there, so how could someone inject me with something?”

Greelon make more clicking sounds. “I will have to ponder that…levret… I am sorry. I never asked how you are addressed?”

“Addressed? Oh, my name? It’s Corree.”

“Cor…ree.” More clicking, this time deep in his throat. “It is a…good name.”

“Why am I being held down like this?” She tried to raise her hands.

“You were moving too much while you were sick. It was the only way we could make sure you received the medicine and nutrition.”

“Can you…I am awake now. Can you remove them, Dr. Greelon?”

“Yes, of course.” He touched a button on the side of her nest and the restraints fell away. “Please do not try to leave the room, though.”

Corree came to a full realization of her situation. “How long will you keep me prisoner before you kill me and eat me?”

“What? Eat you?”

“Don’t your warriors eat their prisoners?”

He narrowed his eyes. “Where did you learn of that?”

“It’s true, isn’t it?”

“You said you had no contact with humans since your landing on Mendel.” Greelon paused. “Or perhaps this is something they indoctrinated you with before you were sent to Mendel?”

Corree seriously considered lying to him and telling him it was before, but she couldn’t. She didn’t sense any deceit in him. He was…he was trying to be kind. “I haven’t. I learned some things from a holo-teacher like the one that taught me your language.”

Again, Greelon looked thoughtful. “And this teacher told you we ate humans?”

“Yes.”

“There is a warrior ritual of ‘tasting’ one’s enemy. Nothing is eaten, but the warriors draw in the scent, feel and, yes, the taste of the enemy’s skin. It has been many generations since actual tasting took place.”

“But Ologrians were tearing off limbs and biting them after they killed all the people in a Federation Colony,” Corree persisted.

Greelon made more clicking sounds. They were strident as though he was angry. “Apparently you were only shown a part of the actual battle as well as some contrived scenes.” He straightened his robe. “You saw the fury of warriors stirred into revenge killing. What would you expect if one of your ships had been destroyed with many of your comrades aboard? It was not a warship; it was a contact ship. There was much killing, but believe me when I tell you that even in their anger, the warriors did not eat their victims.”

Corree couldn’t say anything for a moment. She remembered her question to the holo-man in the teaching pod.Didn’t anyone bother to ask?If Greelon was telling the truth, it seemed no one wanted to. “Maybe they were afraid. Or someone made a mistake?”

Greelon gazed at her thoughtfully. “Perhaps that is a possibility, Corree. It is something to consider.”

Corree decided to change the subject. She didn’t want to take a chance of irritating Greelon. “What is going to happen to me and Riss?”

“For right now, you are under my care until we arrive at Alogol. Then it is up to The Head and The Claw…our supreme leadership. I am hoping they will continue to allow me to have guardianship over both of you.”

“Why?”

“Why?” Greelon asked in surprise. “Because I am a scientist and despite your appearance, you are a different species.”

Corree couldn’t help it; she shuddered. He would do the same thing the human scientists did.

“What is wrong?” he asked, moving to the side of her nest.

“You are a scientist,” she answered in a small voice.

“I don’t understand….” His red eyes grew dark. “Your ability came because of what your scientists did to you; am I correct?” When she nodded, he continued. “They did things that hurt you?”

“Yes.”

“If I know something will be painful, I will let you know. I do not anticipate more than taking a little of your blood to make sure you are healthy.”

Again, Corree felt he was telling the truth. Greelon left but very quickly came back with a small container of something nourishing as well as pleasant tasting. Almost immediately she felt sleepy and suspected there had been some kind of medicine in the liquid. She didn’t remember Greelon leaving.

The next day Corree was feeling well enough for Greelon to take her on a tour of the scout craft. It was much bigger than the pod that had taken them to Mendel. In fact it was many times larger than the teaching pod. When he took her to a large room where the ceiling showed a star-filled expanse, she gasped in wonder. Corree had seen stars in the sky before the moons rose on Mendel, but never had she seen anything like this. Clusters of bright orbs glowed dazzling spectrums of colors. Single stars vied for attention everywhere she looked and deepest black filled the spaces in between. Corree knew about stars, but had no idea they could be so varied in size and color.

“We are fortunate to be near a part of the galaxy where many stars are born,” Greelon explained. “The ship’s energy panels always face that direction. The astronomers can study whenever they choose even as the ship’s power cells draw in the radiation from the stars. The rest of us come here to feel the heartbeat of the gods.”

“Heartbeat of the gods?” Corree asked.

“We feel our souls are entwined with the stars. Their energy feeds us. There are many who feel the gods—the makers, reside in the stars.”

At his words, Corree felt a pang of longing for her own home; for her forest on Mendel. She looked for the blue sun. There were a couple of stars that were close in color, but none were hers. Corree thought she understood what Greelon was saying. “Where is Mendel?”

“It is behind us. We are traveling toward my home planet.”

Corree wanted to ask if she would ever go back to her home, but she didn’t. She was afraid of the answer Greelon might give her.

“Would you like to see what I am working on?”

Working on?she wondered. She couldn’t imagine what a scientist in a ship of warriors might be working on. Corree followed Greelon into his workroom. She was surprised to see that the walls were lined with small narrow boxes decorated with a variety of designs. There had been similar things during her days growing up under the care of the scientists. Corree knew they contained information, but had never had a chance to look at one.

“May I see one of those, please?” She pointed.

Greelon looked surprised, but he quickly pulled one down and opened it. There was a small, rectangular-shaped item inside and Greelon took it out. He slipped it into a machine and pointed toward the only section of the wall not covered with the shelves. Lines and squiggles showed up on the wall. They scrolled slowly up, showing more strange lines and shapes. A picture came up. Corree walked closer to study it before it disappeared. To her surprise, it stopped and she was able to examine it. There were several Ologrians, most of them large, but one quite small. The small one was held in the arms of a large one. It was different. The skin was almost white and its eyes were much smaller. There were stalk-like growths on the top of its head. There was no pelt and no tail. The legs seemed stunted and much too short to hold up its body.

“Is that a baby Ologrian?” she asked.

“A pre-morphic youngling,” Greelon informed her.

“Is the rest of what you showed me some type of communication?”

Greelon looked astonished and then shook his head. “I guess they wouldn’t have taught you how to read since you’d be going to a primitive planet.”

“To read?”

“The lines, marks and shapes all have meaning if you know what they mean.”

Corree thought of the times she had followed animal signs and wondered if it was the same. “Could you teach me the meanings?”

“You want to learn to read Ologrian?”

She pointed to the picture showing on the wall. “I want to know what this is all about.” Corree turned back to Greelon. “Do you think I can learn?”

“Do I think…?” He made a choking noise deep in his throat. “Of course you can learn! What you had to learn on Mendel to survive—you can learn anything!”

Corree was excited. If she could learn to read these information containers she could find out for herself what Greelon’s people were like.

Whatever else Greelon was supposed to do on the ship, he put it aside to teach her. She learned the names of the stars and star systems she had seen out of the observation port. Her favorite was Mulladar. It was a relatively close nebula that changed color and shape often. Sometimes it was a flowing green, other times it was tightly spiraled yellow. Sometimes it beat with a rhythmic cadence that soothed her. It made her feel better that there were even stars that could mutate.

On the other hand, the reading was almost impossible. After several days, Corree was ready to give up her quest to learn written Ologrian. There were so many different marks and symbols and she had learned a scant few dozen. Trying to remember that they were based on pictures didn’t help a great deal. Most of the concepts were totally alien to her.

As she grew more comfortable with Greelon, she asked about Riss. He was still confined, unable to get used to the Ologrians, ready to attack one at the slightest provocation. “Why can’t I go see him? He knows me.”

“You are also in the form of an Ologrian. We can’t take that chance yet.”

“He wouldn’t attack me.” But Greelon was adamant and she had to be patient.

****

Greelon had to constantly remind himself that Corree was human. It was uncanny how Ologrian she was in appearance; how Ologrian she acted. He found that reminding himself of her origins didn’t bother him anymore. She was a youth that had been used by her people and was still being used—this time by his. She had never had a chance for growth-play. The youth centers on Alogol allowed the young to play and explore, even for a period of time after their first metamorphosis. Their learning was steeped in play.

From what Corree had told him, she was barely out of her first stage when she had been sent to Mendel. Nine human years old? And responsible for a group of humans younger than herself? No wonder she felt guilt for the one they lost. However, would the The Head and The Claw consider that when they decided what to do with these youngling humans? The Claw, Supreme Commander Garinsh, and The Head, High Judge Mekron, had wanted Corree and Riss destroyed when they had learned of the Federation’s attempt to unleash a plague on their people. It was only his argument that the two humans might be useful that had saved them. Once the plague virus was isolated and countered, he had been directed to learn all he could from them. Their sentence had only been postponed, Greelon was told, not commuted.

Now that he had come to know Corree, Greelon felt himself pinched in the middle of a political rock slide. He had learned much and none of it was of threat to his people, at least from these two humans. What he feared was that Corree and Riss would be taken to the Palace of Science. Once inside, they would have no chance of doing anything except being specimens. Greelon knew that was the other motive of the leaders. They wanted to know more about this ability to mutate these humans had. They wanted to know more about humans.

There was a slight shudder beneath his feet.


Page 10

“What was that?” Corree asked, her eyes showing alarm.

“I told you we were going to my home world.”

She nodded, a human gesture he found strangely comforting.

“That is the ship adjusting to approaching orbit.”

“Do you have forests on your world, Dr. Greelon?”

He made a soft clicking noise in his throat. She continued to forget he had asked her to call him by the more familiar meta name.

“Sha-Greelon,” she corrected herself with a smile. “Do you have forests?”

“Not like what you are used to, Corree-levret. We have crystalline forests between the equator and the cities at the poles. The plant life has absorbed the mineral properties of the soil and water to harden and survive the harsh wind and dust storms. They are very beautiful, but only the hardiest go to actually see them.”

“Have you?”

“Yes, but I had the wind-sickness for an entire day afterward.”

“It was worth it,” she stated, correctly understanding his feelings.

“It was well worth it. I will show you pictures of it when we arrive at my home.”

“What will happen to me and Riss when we get to Alogol?”

Greelon had wondered when that question would come. “I don’t know, Corree-levret.” He realized he would have to do his best to argue for Corree being considered a diplomat rather than a specimen. He wasn’t sure if The Claw would listen to him. Most likely The Head would, but he couldn’t guarantee it.

“I am still a prisoner.”

“Technically, yes. But I consider you more like a student.”

“You have been very kind to me, Sha-Greelon. Why?”

Why indeed?In the instant before answering her, he thought of all the reasons. “You are still a youngling.” At her bristling demeanor he hastened on. “In our society, you are indeed still a youngling. You would be in an educational facility, but it would be one that allowed you to enjoy your youth even as you learned the things you need to live in our society. You would be with friends and not leading a group of pre-metamorphic younglings through life-threatening situations.” He paused, trying to be as diplomatic as he could. Most likely his quarters were wired for the listeners, as were hers. “I am impressed with your intelligence and your…adaptability.”

“You mean my mutating abilities?”

“No, I mean your willingness to understand my people…and me.”

Corree apparently understood she was being monitored almost every moment of the day. She took her time before answering. “What good would it do me to be…contrary? It hasn’t done Riss any good.”

The sound of a warning claxon sent them to their cabin’s landing couches.

Chapter Ten

 

“Your people have used you, Corree-levret.”

Understatement, thought Corree, continuing to stare out the huge, prismatic window in Greelon’s home. Her tail wrapped itself around her waist. It always did when she was pondering a problem. Greelon knew that, too. She frowned at the enormous, lowering red sun. The window’s side facets gathered the waning light and coalesced it in the middle of the room. Greelon sat in his oversized meditation chair in the ruby light, his thin fingers intertwined on his lap.

Corree knew he had spent most of the first six-day arguing in her defense with the leaders of the Ologrians. She was grateful for that, suspecting Greelon had put his own reputation on the line for her and Riss. She had spent that time in a cell wondering when she was going to be taken to the scientists of this world to be poked, prodded, studied, and possibly tortured. It had been a surprise to her when she was allowed to stay with Greelon in his house.

“Join us, Corree. You have a place in my house, and you would have a place in our society.”

Corree closed her eyes and tried to picture her warm, moist home back on Mendel. It was becoming more difficult. The pictures seemed vaguer; fuzzier around the edges of her memory. Why did everyone have to interfere in what had been a peaceful existence with her family? Why did the Ologrians want her to choose them and turn her back on her own kind? Corree knew they were both stupid questions, but she couldn’t help resenting everything that had happened in the past four moon cycles. “How is Riss?” she asked, trying to avoid deciding anything.

Greelon sighed. “He still fights us. Corree...”

“I want to see him.”

“You look like the enemy to him.”

“I know, so does he. I still want to talk to him,” Corree insisted.

“Perhaps you can break through the barriers in his mind.”

Her eagerness to see Riss was tempered with doubts by the time Corree reached the security door where he was being held. The guard motioned her through. Corree knew what was going to happen next, but she still cringed when the door hissed shut behind her.

“Riss?” Corree called out softly at the access panel. It had turned translucent so Riss could see her.

His eyes shuttered until they were vertical slits. “Corree?”

She touched an indention on the wall and it slid open enough for her to slip through. A slight whoosh told her it had shut behind her. Now that she was here, she didn’t know what to say. It was then she realized he hadn’t cringed away from her.

“They let you go where you want?” Riss asked resentfully. He was speaking in their language. She wondered again if the Ologrians could understand her language. They probably did. She didn’t want to take the risk.

She shook her head, feeling the stiff pelt hairs shake. “There’s a guard outside and I have to stay inside Greelon’s house. He’s working in his lab, trying to figure out something so you don’t have to stay here.”

“Lab?”

“Don’t you remember? Our dreams? The old ones and their labs?”

He shuddered.

“They haven’t hurt you, have they?”

He paused. “No,” he finally admitted.

“Maybe you’re getting used to them,” Corree ventured, wanting to steer the subject to something more positive.

“I can standyou. I still want to tear any of the others apart.”

“What makes me different? Even my voice is not the same as before.”

Riss pointed to her spiky pelt. “Closer to your real color on Mendel.”

Corree was confused. She looked over her shoulder at the bristly pelt showing under her riala. Itwaslighter. But how did that happen? And when? Her mutation to Ologrian had happened quite a while ago. Why change now? Did she do it unconsciously because it made Riss more comfortable?

Maybe now was the time to try what she had been able to do with Lenden and Esteya.Riss? Can you hear me?

Riss shook his head. He rubbed the spot where his pointed ears had been before his mutation.

Riss, I’m thinking to you. Can you hear me?

“Corree?”

Don’t talk out loud. Think to me.

Thinking? You can hear me think?

Only when you think to me,she replied.

Riss’s Ologrian mouth widened and turned up in a facsimile of a grin. She returned the grin. Ologrian facial muscles were not made for grinning, she realized, feeling the strain on her jaws. Ologrians had a click-clack to show pleasure.

They can’t hear thoughts.

Riss sighed and his shoulders sagged.What good is it?His whole body seemed tense from the effort of focusing his thoughts to her.

I don’t know, but I’ll think of something and let you know.

“Will you be able to come again?”

“I think Greelon will let me. He really would like you to be out of here.”

Riss looked dubious.

“He’s not all that bad,” she assured him.

“But this isn’t home. You are almost as much a prisoner as I am.”

“I know.”I want to go home, too, Riss,she thought.I promise, I’ll figure something out.

Riss said nothing. He huddled in a corner, his red eyes large in his misery.We’ll never get out of here!

Yes, we will! I promise!Corree wasn’t sure how she could keep that promise, but only that she would. “I have to go now.” She knew the guard was monitoring their conversation. He would be there to let her out in a moment.

I wish I knew how you did that.

She turned back to Riss, bewildered.How I did what?

Changed your pelt color.She looked over her shoulder and was startled to find the color had changed back to what it was before she came to see Riss.

I wish I knew, too,she thought ruefully. She considered her unconscious change all the way back to her living quarters. Her other mutations had occurred because she had been around different life forms or in different places. It had happened whether she wanted it or not. This time, though, she had changed becauseshehad wanted something. She had wanted Riss to feel more comfortable around her. How had she accomplished that? Could she will a mutation? Excitement bubbled up. Maybe if she could learn to change whenever she wanted to, Riss could, too. Her excitement faded. He was still a prisoner, regardless if he could change or not.

Later that night Corree curled up in the corner of her room trying to get comfortable in the nest she had constructed of the extra large coverlet Greelon had given her. It was his formal scientific robe. She had been even more grateful when she understood exactly what it was.

Ologrians normally slept like Mendelian sun bugs, their tails and arms curled around their bodies. They lay on flat, hard sheets of rock with no coverings. Even though she had mutated into an Ologrian form, she could not get used to sleeping like that.

Corree pondered the problem of mutating at will. How could she do it without being seen? There was always a little light, even during sleep cycle. Made it easier to keep an eye on her, she thought with a grimace.

What would she try to change? Fingers. She could more easily tell in the cramped confines of her bed if her fingers had changed. Corree concentrated. Webs. She’d try that. She made space under the robe, flexed and relaxed her fingers. Concentrate! She needed to concentrate. Twinges of pain in her shoulders told her she needed to relax.

Corree recalled Greelon telling her to relax when he taught her Ologrian martial arts. She had not been able to effectively learn Ologrian hand to hand fighting until she had controlled her breathing and thoughts. That was exactly what she needed to do now. Corree forced herself to breathe more slowly and empty her mind of everything that would distract her. Riss, home, all of that had to go. The breathing was easy. The other was harder. Corree focused on her hand, visualized the hard-substance skin of her elongated Ologrian fingers.

She mentally softened the skin, then stretched it, pulled it and formed webs between her fingers and thumb. Corree found herself panting from the effort. Strange feelings in her hands told her she was not just visualizing the actions. It was happening for real! She wiggled her fingers and felt webs fold and stretch. Corree almost shouted her elation.

Now to reverse the process. She calmed down, focused, and felt the changes. Reversing was easier. After returning to Ologrian normalcy, Corree let fatigue take over and she fell asleep, content with her progress.

Each night, she worked on her new found skill. One time she mutated her feet, another time her ears. When she was confident enough of her ability, she changed the hard outer covering to her old pelt. Then Corree made her skin flaps reappear; her air lung/reservoirs convert to over-sized lungs like she had enjoyed in the ocean. The lungs worked hard to suck in enough of the dry air and she quickly changed back. One glorious night, she changed to her undersea form.

When she was comfortable and capable of quickly making those changes, Corree wanted to mutate into something new. Could she transform to something she had never been before? To prepare, Corree studied one of Greelon’s specimens during his science lesson. It was a sand creature with short legs all up and down its armor-plated body. Its general shape reminded her of tree snakes back on Mendel. Corree felt up and down its body, even examining the deadly barb on the end of its tail. It was about half her size in length.

“Some scientists have theorized that we came from a common ancestor,” Greelon explained, breaking into her study of the animal.

Corree examined the head with its dead ruby-colored, bulbous eyes and sharp fangs that extended half a finger length beyond the closed mouth. She could see a few similarities between it and her Ologrian captors, but to be related? “Do you?” she asked.

Greelon clicked his teeth. “I haven’t decided yet, but I tend to think not.”

“Then where do you believe Ologrians come from, sha-Greelon?”

“The same way you did,” he answered thoughtfully. “At least that’s my theory.”

“Created from something else?”

“Yes. We have not been here that long. At least not as long as the creatures like this sand crawler.” He tapped the table with the end of his tail. “I feel that at one time we knew so much more than we know now.”

Corree gazed at Greelon to see if he was making comparisons with her situation; trying to pull information out of her. There was nothing in the Ologrian’s demeaner that suggested he was doing anything other than talking about his own species. Maybe that was another reason he was interested in her.

“I have thought at various times that Alogol is not our planet of origin; that we came from somewhere else. That is what I believe is most probable.”

“Where do you think you came from?”

“I do not know. There are no records that give any hints,” Greelon admitted, and then switched topics.

Corree continued her study of the lizard/snake while Greelon gave her all the scientific details of the creature.

The sand crawlers, lorgals were their name, survived all but the hottest temperatures. It could live in cold although more sluggishly. It ate the smaller creatures of the crystalline sands. When food was scarce, it could even digest the sand for nourishment. It breathed a little differently than Ologrians. Its air sacs were located up and down the chest rather than being located within the chest cavity. The air was pulled in through porous skin. The tail was for balance and defense. The fangs did half of the digestion. Venom broke down tissues amazingly fast, Greelon explained. She didn’t doubt lorgals could do everything he said. They could suck in broken down flesh while the victim was still alive. Corree shivered at the thought.

Still, such a mutation would allow her to move around freely without being detected as easily. She could scout and plan her and Riss’s escape. The thought startled her for a moment and Corree stopped listening to Greelon’s explanation. Yes, they were going to escape! This new ability, if it worked, made it possible to dream of a time when she and Riss would be back home on Mendel.

The next problem was transportation. It was one thing to get away from the Ologrian city. It was an entirely different thing to fly a space ship. Corree realized now that the Federation wasn’t coming to rescue them. She and Riss had, as Greelon claimed, been tools to destroy the Ologrians. Why else would Riss still be violent toward any Ologrian. Why had she almost died of a disease that didn’t manifest itself until she had changed to the shape of an Ologrian? Maybe that was why she had been able to mutate so easily—to ultimately destroy a Federation enemy.

So what were Greelon’s motives? Corree didn’t doubt his affection toward her. He wanted her to treat him like a mentor, or…or what was that term that popped up during her training in the pod? A father? A biological parent. He respected her for being her.

If that was the case, why did she want to leave? Because as kind as Greelon was, all she wanted now was to live peacefully on Mendel with her family and friends. Somehow she didn’t think that would be easy even if she did make it back.

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