Commonwealth Universe, Age 3: Volume 17: The Meruk Episodes VI-X by Michelle Levigne

Vidan was again reaching out to the stars: sadder and wiser…and cautious, unwilling to repeat the mistakes of the ancestors. The Commonwealth was born, reaching out to lost colonies and establishing new ones, rediscovering lost technology and how to navigate the star-ways. Many of the lost colonies not only survived but thrived–and they remembered their abandonment and the harsh centuries of the Downfall….

 

Meruk Episodes VI - XMeruk Episodes VI - X Book reviewMeruk undertakes a quest to find other Hoveni by heading out into the desert, following clues and legends to hiding places deep under the shifting sands. His journey is impeded by the elements and by the foolishness of greedy Humans who can’t even be allowed to guess that Hoveni are real, much less that the remains of ancient technology and knowledge lie in the wastelands. Meruk encounters the insane, the fearful and cruel, as well as the innocent, wise and gentle.

His quest takes him from the desert to an Order outpost, further on to an amusement park the size of a city, and back across the sea where he faces more remnants of the Hoveni’s ancient enemy, the Set’ri.

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GENRE: Science Fiction    ISBN: 978-1-921636-46-2      ASIN: B003ZUYT2C     Word Count: 61, 770

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VI: DUEL

 

“Secure channel, Doctor.” Lt. Syking moved out of the pickup field of his com-screen, to let Meruk take over. He gave the younger man a sardonic grin and an raised eyebrow as they exchanged places.

“Are you out of your mind?” Rostarius growled from his side of the communication link.

“Secure channel,” Meruk repeated. “If you can’t trust the head of security for Port-town, who can you trust?”

“Point,” Rostarius said after a moment. He made a point of looking Meruk over, as if the viewscreen could allow an in-depth examination. “What have you found out about Joax? Your last communication was clever, full of suspicions and not enough details for anything except to make me worry.”

“You haven’t gotten the news yet, have you?” Meruk felt sick. Dr. Joax, head of the Gemar Natural History Museum in Hubbeston, had been Rostarius’ friend. He had trusted him. Why else would his university advisor have suggested Meruk go to Dr. Joax to follow up some clues on the legend of the Shelter Cave for the Hoveni in the Gadaran desert area?

“There was some ruckus at the museum, but nothing official has come out.” Rostarius sighed, “Which should be a clue, now that I think about it. Especially with you down there and the Set’ri on your tail.” He snorted, offering a crooked grin. “Whatever shape of tail you’ve been wearing most recently.”

“Skrill and qlintanillary don’t have tails,” Syking muttered. He sat back in his chair and put a foot up on the table in front of him when Meruk glanced over from his seat in front of the com-screen.

“What did he say?” Rostarius demanded. “You haven’t been risking your life taking on complicated shapes,”

“It’s been dangerous down here. You do what you have to, to protect yourself and…” Meruk sighed, feeling sick again as he remembered what had happened only a day ago.

It had been a long, strange day. The strangest part had been going into the Peacer headquarters with the officers who had responded to the alarm at the museum, and finding Lt. Syking talking with the Peacer lieutenant in charge of Hubbeston’s security, laughing with him like they were old friends. Syking had taken one look at him, spattered with the blood Dr. Joax had sprayed on him when he coughed up his life, and he had taken over. Meruk still wasn’t sure what would have happened to him, where he would be right this moment, if the Peacer lieutenant hadn’t vouched for him. Despite the evidence of the security records at the museum, proving he hadn’t been anywhere near Dr. Joax’s office during the attack, and that Dr. Joax had turned off all the sensors when his visitors had come in–the same visitors who had killed him–Meruk thought he wouldn’t be anywhere so comfortable as this private office, speaking on a secure Peacer channel. He knew, even though all evidence said he was innocent, he should be in a cell several stories underground, undergoing several different kinds of scans as he was questioned again and again about the events leading up to Dr. Joax’s death at the hands of genocidal madmen who were either Throwbacks among the Gen’gineers, or Set’ri.

“Joax was working with Set’ri.” Meruk knew in the final analysis, anyone who wanted to capture and destroy Hoveni was a Set’ri, no matter what label they wore, no matter what the history books said about the ancient enemies of his race. “I destroyed some bone fragments reputedly taken from the graves of Hoveni from before Humans came to Gemar. Joax was supposed to help them get DNA samples from the bones and build up a pattern to use with scanners, to detect us. No matter how diluted by Human blood and genetics.”

“That could be ugly. Destroying artifacts? I can’t see you doing it except in dire circumstances.” His teacher nodded, his expression becoming graver under his disreputable, bushy black beard, his eyes half-shuttered. “Was the ruckus from him discovering the artifacts were destroyed, or when his Set’ri friends found out?”

“His work with the Set’ri was unofficial. He turned all security systems and pickups off and worked after hours when his contacts came in. As far as I could tell, the officials didn’t know what was going on.” Meruk swallowed hard. “Until now. They’re going through all his private files. I pointed out to them the Set’ri and radical Gen’gineer symbols on the communications Dr. Joax received and they…”

He wanted to put his head down on the desk where he sat, close his eyes, and go to sleep–and maybe when he woke up this would all be a bad dream. Meruk wondered if some of the really outrageous fables about Hovenu psionic powers were true somewhere, and they were able, with individuals, to travel through time. He would give anything to go back to the dig last summer and prevent that moment when he had shifted shape for the first time in front of witnesses. He could be sitting in a lecture hall at the university right this moment, or meeting with Dr. Rostarius after classes to get more lessons in what it meant to be a Hoven. Not fearing for his life.

“Meruk?” Dr. Rostarius’ voice softened and he leaned as close to the com-screen pickup as possible without touching it.

“Dr. Joax is dead.” Meruk felt as if he forced the words past a thick, sharp-edged blockage in his throat. “His Set’ri friends killed him for treachery. Over the bone fragments I destroyed. And I killed them.”

“How?” Rostarius’ gaze flicked over to the area off-screen where Syking had stepped.

“I confessed to him, first,” Meruk offered. He glanced at the lieutenant, who nodded, his expression just as grave as Rostarius’.

“We’re at war, Doctor,” Syking offered, not stepping into the pickup range of the screen. “Self-defense, justice, preventive action. My small network of contacts includes some friends among the Order of Kilvordi, several of them advocates at the highest level of the judiciary system, and we’ve had discussions about things like this. The bottom line is that we Hoveni are living, sentient beings with souls granted by Fi’in, and those who want to reduce us to the level of animals and destroy us because we don’t fit their narrow definition of Human…they’ve lost their souls. They are guilty of crimes against the entire universe, just as much as if they stood with their philosophical ancestors and brought on the purges and genocidal waves that brought on the Downfall Wars. For the sake of defending the innocent and the future, and when there is no other choice…killing is not a sin, but a necessary evil.”

Dr. Rostarius thought for a moment. “Does that reasoning help you feel any better?”

“No,” Meruk said, again feeling that drop in his stomach, when the images of what he had seen the Set’ri do, and the things he had done, the risks he had taken with his own life and the security of all Hoveni on the planet, almost without thinking, came back to haunt him.

“Good. You’re still Human in all the ways that matter. So…tell me what happened, and then tell me what you’re going to do next. Since you lost your job at the museum, obviously.”

Meruk realized later that the old saying was true, that he had learned in devotionals with a sweet-voiced little Sister from the Order–sharing a burden reduced it. He felt a little lighter, a little less dirtied by evil necessity, once he had told Dr. Rostarius about the time he had spent with Dr. Joax at the museum, the things he had learned, and the information he had managed to dig out of the doctor’s secret files with Lt. Syking’s help–right under the noses of the Peacers they were ostensibly helping to gather information on the doctor’s murder. The growing network of Hoveni had a little more ammunition to use in their defense, a little more information to help them avoid the ancient enemy who still hadn’t given up on their unholy quest to eradicate the ‘impure’ blood of the Hoveni race.

* * * * *

“I know the old saying is that innocent men don’t have to run away, and running away only proves I’m guilty or I have something to fear, but…” Meruk sighed, rubbed his eyes, and slouched in the chair in the surprisingly large room where the authorities investigating Dr. Joax’s murder and the destruction in the museum had been questioning him for the past five days.

“You did the right thing, staying there instead of shifting shape and fleeing. You are innocent and you’re upset over what happened, and you’re blaming yourself because you knew he turned off the security systems when he had his private meetings. It’s all truth.” Syking toyed with the light green recorder wand that also doubled as a jammer, so no one could listen in on their conversations.

“Preventable truth. And he’s dead because of what I did.”

“You didn’t agree to work with those men, knowing how dangerous and unstable they were. You didn’t carry an illegal needler gun through security scanners that had been turned off to let you into the building. And you didn’t shoot Dr. Joax just because he said the wrong words and hurt your feelings.”

“No matter how many times you tell me it wasn’t my fault, I still feel like it was. Because I destroyed those bone fragments. I did, didn’t I? Enough that someone else from the Set’ri can’t come in and get hold of the dust and take it to another scientist to get DNA?” Meruk nearly leaped from his seat as that thought occurred to him.

“One of my contacts here in Hubbeston’s crime analysis lab got to work on it, as soon as you told me that part of the story. He verifies that the skrill’s sonics tear organic material apart down to the molecular level, when the blast is concentrated like that.” Syking grinned, his teeth a bright slash against the dark cinnamon of his skin. “Not bad for a first try.”

“Desperation gives you a lot of skills and accuracy you wouldn’t have if you could think and really mess yourself up,” Meruk offered. His smile in return didn’t last long. “My biggest worry now is that being associated with me will get you in trouble. You could be in the gun-sights along with me.”

“If anyone is suspicious, our names are already linked, since that maneuver at Megavissy. Before the murder, I had already established with my counterpart here that I came over here deliberately on my vacation to see if you had made any headway in your search. Lucky timing? I don’t think so.”

“Fi’in’s grace,” he whispered, nodding.

“It’s already been established that Hovenu history is a hobby of mine,” Syking added. “People would be suspicious if I didn’t follow up on a new contact I made. Especially when a cursory check shows you’re an archeology student, and you were working here. We made friends when those people attacked your parents. Nobody suspects anything deeper.” He shrugged again. Then he tipped his head to one side and grinned crookedly. “Will it make you feel any better to know that the evidence we uncovered, indicating we’re dealing with a radical sect of Gen’gineers, has made this such a high priority issue, your identity as a witness has become part of sealed records?”

“Sealed?” Meruk knew what that meant, just from watching adventure drama serials on the Tri-V, but he had a hard time applying it to his situation. For about two heartbeats, he felt giddy with hope. Then all the things he had learned about sealed records and witnesses involved in high-level security crimes crashed down on him. “So I’m pretty much living in a cage for the rest of my life, or until the case closes. No real difference from being accused of the murders myself.” He spread his hands, which had been spattered with Dr. Joax’s blood when he came into the Peacer headquarters five days ago. He could still feel the heat and warmth, the strange stickiness as the blood dried, and smelled the copper tang of it.

“People are only put in protective custody in adventure dramas. It’s boring to say someone got their identity changed, sometimes even their faces and fingerprints and retinas, and were dropped in another location halfway around the planet to be someone else. We’re very good at what we do, and we also have an agreement with the various writers at the networks across the planet not to give details of how we change people to protect them. As soon as you and I found that Set’ri glyph in Dr. Joax’s communication file, your situation got upgraded to highest priority and all records and documents were limited to physical–no crystal or silicon data storage, which can’t be entirely wiped clean no matter what those bad writers might try to tell you in the adventure serials.”

“So except for the officers who brought me in and escorted us…I haven’t been here?” Meruk felt something hard and knotted inside his chest loosen. He breathed a little easier for the first time in days. “Am I getting a new face?”

“That’s not so easy with Hoveni. We have a tendency to over-write any kind of cosmetic surgery. The genetic memory that lets you return to your own true shape will make any work we would do to change your appearance a waste of time.”

“That wasn’t in Dr. Rostarius’ lessons,” Meruk muttered.

“He probably never had to know. Besides, you’re your own cosmetic surgeon.” Syking stood and gestured for Meruk to do the same. “Dinnertime. Hungry?”

Meruk grinned. For the first time in days, he actually was hungry.

“So, how much longer are we stuck here? When do I get my new life? And who’s my contact, if they need to call me back for more testimony?” he asked as he followed Syking to the door.

“That’s a stupid question. I’ll blame it on the stress of the last few days.” Syking grinned and tapped his chest. “But learn to do better, Meruk Syrus. Your life depends on it.” The lieutenant raised the recorder wand and thumbed the jammer control. The secondary green light went off, meaning the security recorders around them could now pick up their faces and voices again.

Except in Meruk’s case, the identification bracelet he had been given the moment he walked into Peacer headquarters had tagged him for the security computers. His features and voice were blurred by every visual and audio sensor that caught him while he was anywhere near or inside the building, the moment that high-level security classification was put on him. He had learned that from the adventure drama serials, too.

At least, he thought that was true. He couldn’t ask Syking about that until later, when they were outside of pickup range of the security systems.

It comforted him to know that Syking would be his contact, someone he could turn to no matter where he went on Gemar. He didn’t feel quite so adrift as he had in the last few lunars since he started his quest.

* * * * *

Syking checked the docks of Gadara where Meruk had disembarked from the Hurricane just under a lunar ago. Cayn Trevvor and the remainder of his crew were still there, preparing for their return voyage. The Peacer lieutenant chose not to make contact with Meruk’s friends. He shifted to a kreeghee, a shore bird that got its name from its soft, incessant cry, and flew to the Hurricane just after nightfall to deliver Meruk’s written message, telling his friends to go home to Romblu without him, that he had made other arrangements. Meruk suspected Syking enjoyed playing little tricks like that, mystifying people, getting into places unseen–because no one noticed animals, especially animals that belonged there.

Meruk wondered, though, if Pike and Cayn weren’t a little more alert, especially when it came to animals that belonged in the area, now that they had proof that Hoveni were real and still inhabited Gemar.

“Now what?” he asked Syking, when his ally returned to the safe house the Hubbeston Peacers had given them while they made arrangements for Meruk’s new identity papers and entry in the system.

“Vacation.”

“You’re on vacation. Or do you get time credit for being involved in a murder?”

“Unsolvable murder.” He stretched out his legs on the long couch and toed off his shoes. “Don’t you have research to do?” he asked as he tipped his back and closed his eyes.

“Speaking of–”

“There is no machine known to Humankind that can do that kind of damage to a body without destroying half the building around it–portable, that can be brought in and removed without the rest of the museum’s security catching it. No one could ever pin the execution of those Set’ri on you.”

“If there’s no known machine, what can they blame?”

“Someone will eventually hypothesize a qlintanillary…but what are the chances of one coming all that distance from the jungles where it lives, to kill three men in a sealed laboratory high above the museum, and kill no one else, coming or going–and not be seen?” Syking opened one eye again. “No one will ever figure out what’s obvious to us, until Hoveni someday reveal we’re still alive. So stop worrying about it.”

“How much have you done, shifting, that is still classified as unsolvable?” Meruk asked softly.

“We’re at war, son. Keep that in mind. Ninety percent of the population of this world doesn’t know there’s a war on, and the other ten percent will do all they can to make sure they never learn. Too much is at risk, for both sides.”

“What happens when there are enough of us gathered together, we’ve made enough contact, found the ones who escaped to the stars, and we’re strong enough to reveal we exist?”

“Will we ever be that strong?” Syking shook his head and crossed his arms under his head to pillow it. “One day at a time. That’s the only way we can survive without going insane.”

Meruk wondered what Syking’s idea of sanity was. Since the murders at the museum, he woke at least once every night from dreams about Dr. Joax’s death, where he dropped down in front of the Set’ri in Human shape and they realized who he was and captured him. Now he settled down at the table on the other side of the comfortable common room of the safe house and picked up the first book chip to try to study–not that he thought he could. Instead he stared unseeing at the table of contents on his reading screen and thought about Syking’s words. He seriously doubted his sanity, from the moment he first involuntarily shifted shape.

* * * * *

Inspector Wijt showed up the day before Meruk and Syking were scheduled to leave Hubbeston on a cargo transport. The Peacer lieutenant was out picking up supplies for Meruk–power cells, non-reflective thermal sheets for desert camping, food that wasn’t dehydrated. Meruk had thought his supplies were adequate, until Syking pointed out that dehydrated food in the desert would only cause more problems. He would have to locate enough water for his daily intake, as well as for cooking. When Meruk admitted he didn’t have much information on desert dwelling animals, not nearly enough to help him choose a shape to shift into if he ran into problems with food, water and shelter, he got a long lecture on being foolhardy and optimistic to the point of being suicidal. Then Syking called up data used by Scouts to prepare for desert survival missions and sat him down to study while he went out to get better supplies.

Meruk wouldn’t have opened the door, but he recognized Inspector Wijt from the first two days going over the murders at the museum. The wrinkled, dusty-looking man hadn’t said much, to him or to any of the officers dealing with the evidence. Meruk had the impression that Wijt’s specialty was observing and thinking and putting together all the pieces–and when he did speak, everyone listened.

“Is that smart?” the inspector asked, when Meruk opened the door and stepped back, letting him come in.

“You’re alone. I know who you are.” Meruk paused until the man stepped far enough down the little entryway that he could close the door and make sure it was locked. “And this is some kind of test, so I’m not going to tell you if I have a com-link open with Lt. Syking or if I have any weapons within reach.”

A brief chuckle, just as dusty as the rest of him, escaped Wijt. Now that he was close enough to see details, Meruk decided it was the man’s squinting expression, his wrinkled face, hunched shoulders and baggy clothes that made him seem old and frail. He shuddered a little and wondered if Syking’s intensive lessons on disguise and changing his mannerisms and voice had made him paranoid, so he suspected Wijt of play-acting to make people think he was harmless.

“Every Hoveni has the equivalent of a thousand different types of claws and fangs and venoms, natural armor and appendages to be used as weapons,” Syking had said. “You’re a walking armory, the most dangerous weapon on the planet, because no detection system ever made by Humans could betray you. Your only limit on the damage you can do to an enemy is your memory, your speed, and your imagination.”

“And your willingness to kill or be killed,” Meruk had said, after several long moments of thought.

Now, looking at Wijt, Meruk wondered if he was paranoid from all the lessons Syking had been jamming into his brain, or if his instincts had picked up something dangerous about the Peacer inspector.

“Is there something you need?” Meruk asked, and gestured for Wijt to take a seat in the main room of the safe house.

Here on the first floor, and from the street, the house looked like a typical small house, made for a newly married couple or retirees. Room enough for comfort, but not for crowds or for an active, growing family. A living room, two bedrooms, a kitchen, back porch, washroom, and an enclosed shelter for the cart that Syking had taken into town for shopping.

Meruk noted that Wijt didn’t ask if Syking was there. A prickle of apprehension raced up his back, feeling as if defensive spikes or plates wanted to emerge from his skin to shield him. He weighed the options that Wijt knew Syking was gone, had sat in a shielded spot to observe, saw the lieutenant leave more than two hours ago, and waited to make sure he wouldn’t come back right away.

Meruk decided to say nothing. Two could play the game of silence, trying to force the other to say something. Syking had told him that silence was a more potent weapon than drugs or a club to break bones, to get someone to say something better left secret. So Meruk sat down and waited for Wijt to finish looking around the pleasant, clean, somewhat sparse living room.

“Planning on traveling?” Wijt said, gesturing at the books spread across the low round table, around which the easy chairs were gathered.

“I’m an archeology student. Wastelands are sometimes the best places to find remains of lost civilizations.” Meruk’s fingers twitched, and it was hard not to reach over and flip closed his charts. At least his sketcher and datapad and the screens of the newer books turned off after no activity for a short amount of time. Wijt would have to walk over and turn them on again to see what Meruk had been doing, the notes he had been taking, the maps he had been drawing to help pinpoint the possible location for the Shelter Cave.

Unfortunately, the old-fashioned books and printed records Meruk had been permitted to take from the museum, and all the flimsy printouts he had made in his studies, could not be turned off or blanked. They were strewn across the table and piled up on some of the unused chairs. Meruk could only thank Fi’in that the most dangerous ones had been closed or turned over once he finished gathering data from them.

“Were,” Wijt said. His smile was thin, just as dusty as his voice, but some new alertness and intensity in his eyes made a lie of his seeming harmless, distracted appearance. He finally settled in the chair directly opposite Meruk and sat forward, elbows resting on his knees. “You were an archeology student. If you’re going to vanish, you’ll have to change more than your appearance–which you haven’t done yet. Why not?”

“I will when I’m away and not needed here anymore. I thought part of the idea was that no one here could describe me. If anyone here knew what my new face looked like, that would kind of ruin the whole reason for a disguise and going into hiding, wouldn’t it?”

“True.” Wijt nodded and his shoulders shook. From the flicker of his lips, Meruk thought maybe the man had laughed, but the sound hadn’t escaped his dry throat that time. “So you’re just keeping busy while you wait for your new life to start?”

“I came to Gadara for research. I don’t plan on leaving without having learned something. When enough time has passed, I plan on coming out of hiding and picking up my career.”

“Devotion. That’s pretty rare in someone your age.”

“Not when you have something you believe in.”

“Archeology?” Wijt snorted and sat back in his chair, crossing his arms over his chest.

Meruk fought a flinch, and the need to get up and pace. For a moment, he thought Wijt would reach inside his jacket and pull out a weapon of some kind. He wished he knew how far the shopping district was from the safe house. With enough force and tight enough control over the sonic levels of his voice, he could conceivably send up a distress signal that Syking would hear. Unfortunately, that was something that needed practice and control, and Meruk was still too new to being a Hoven to have either. Communicating on the sonic level required constant association with other Hoveni, and so far he only knew two.

“The truth. I’ve always been fascinated by the Hoveni. Some mysteries get under your skin, so you can’t ever let them go.” Meruk shrugged and decided he had said enough. Time for Wijt to give some information. “Is there something I can help you with? I can’t imagine you came out here for a social call. We don’t have any drama cubes and the food is all take-out.”

“An attitude like that can be a weapon,” the inspector said, nodding, the corners of his mouth quirking up in another brief smile. That alert light grew stronger in his dark eyes. Meruk wondered that he had ever thought the man looked sleepy and harmless. “Just make sure the weapon is used against your enemies and not yourself.” He tugged open his jacket, making Meruk brace for that expected weapon, and brought out a single sheet of flimsy. “What can you tell me about this?” He held it out, making no effort to toss it to Meruk or get up to hand it to him.

Meruk hesitated a moment, then got up, walking around the table to get just close enough to take the flimsy. He braced himself to run or throw his massive stacks of printouts at the man to distract him, if he attacked. His muscles felt bruised from the tension when he only took the flimsy and settled back in his chair again before he unfolded it.

The flimsy held several copies of the glyphs the Set’ri had included in their communications with Dr. Joax. The largest was the glyph that had caught Meruk’s attention, indicating that the little old man was associating with very dangerous, insane, extreme people. The glyph was a Set’ri power sign, warping and combining several Hoveni glyphs.

“Based on what happened in the lab and Dr. Joax’s nervousness when I asked about them, I’m pretty sure these are Set’ri symbols.”

“Set’ri don’t exist anymore,” Wijt said, his voice just a few notches softer than before.

“As long as someone follows their beliefs and practices, they do. Gen’gineers might like to belief they’re better, more advanced, more merciful than the Set’ri. That they’re smarter, using genomes that the Set’ri wanted to destroy because they weren’t pure Human, but they’re just as dangerous. Who gave them the right to decide what Fi’in intended when he made all the sentient races?”

“There are some who will argue that Fi’in didn’t make all the sentient races, that he only made Humans, and everything and everyone else, all the variations, are just dangerous mutations. For the sake of purity and survival, mutations should not be allowed to breed. Especially not interbreed with true Humans.” Wijt slouched a little bit and crossed his arms over his chest.

To Meruk, he looked as if he planned to settle in for a long, pleasant discussion.

The only problem was that Meruk didn’t consider Set’ri philosophy and Humanity’s long history of genocide and prejudice a pleasant topic of conversation.

“Anyone who thinks they’re smart enough to know what makes a true Human and what Fi’in started out with, and what’s dangerous and what isn’t…they usually end up with another Kleintran. Innocents are killed.”

“Is anyone truly innocent?”

“Is it a crime to be born with different genetics? To be able to do things the kid next door can’t? If that’s true,” Meruk said, tossing the flimsy sheet down on top of his sketcher pad, “then who decides if an aptitude for mathematics is dangerous or safe? Someone who has healing talents or empathy–is that helpful or deadly?”

“It all depends on how you use that talent, I suppose. A sonic scalpel in one man’s hand can cut away tumors, and in another man’s hand can slit a throat.”

“The fruit proves the quality of the tree,” Meruk said, and could almost hear the Order Sister speaking in his mind, who had spent nearly a lunar discussing ethics and geno-history in school. “If some talents benefit the Human race, does it matter if the people who possess them have three eyes or two, and if they can breathe underwater or need an environment suit because ordinary air will kill them?”

“That kind of an attitude could belong to someone who sympathizes with the Gen’gineers and their goal of creating the perfect superhuman. Or who totally disagrees with the Set’ri, if you follow the line of thought that the Gen’gineers are only the illegitimate philosophical children of the Set’ri. Which is it for you, Master Syrus?”

“After what they did to Dr. Joax?” Meruk shook his head. He had a hard time not sighing loudly in relief and smiling when Wijt looked toward the front door and levered himself up from the chair, moving slowly, like a tired old man.

Meruk knew that dusty, slow, quiet appearance was exactly that and nothing more–an appearance, a shell, something to distract and fool those around him so Wijt could do his job. The question was: What job had Wijt just done? What information had he come for?

“You might consider that kind of attitude would be a perfect disguise for a Gen’gineer who had been left behind to clean up after his comrades fumbled an important mission,” Wijt said.

“It might be,” Syking said, coming in through the door that led to the back porch. “Except that I know Master Syrus here from long before he came to work for Dr. Joax. For him to be a Gen’gineer plant, I would have to be also. And I assure you, I most definitely am not.”

The two Peacers met each other’s gazes for several long moments. Meruk shifted his ears, fully expecting to hear some sonic communication. He heard nothing, except that irritating whine in the cold box, which threatened to be a problem with the mechanism if it wasn’t recalibrated soon. He couldn’t understand the silent communication between the two men, because not a muscle in their faces twitched.

Meruk knew he would have to learn the kind of mindset that Peacers had–the mindset of all soldiers. Essentially what he had chosen to do, searching for signs of Hoveni, to someday unite all their people into one network instead of loosely scattered, isolated cells, was a kind of war all its own. A war against prejudice and fable, silence and isolation and fear–and the ravages of time. Multiple generations of breeding with Humans hadn’t diluted his Hoveni genetics, but eventually the race wouldn’t breed true anymore and Hoveni would disappear from Gemar, maybe already had disappeared from the Commonwealth. They had to become a visible, identifiable race again before that happened.

“Thanks for your help,” Wijt said, shrugging. Meruk half-expected to see a cloud of dust drift off the man’s shoulders. “Just a few last details to clean up.” He sauntered toward the door.

With a glance, Syking indicated Meruk should stay where he was. He walked with Wijt to the door, and he stood there a long while, the door open, until Meruk heard the whine of a cart gliding down the street. He picked up the flimsy Wijt had brought and turned it over and over until Syking closed the door and came back into the room.

“What did he want?” the lieutenant asked, speaking in the sonic level.

Meruk was surprised. And more surprised when the flimsy vibrated in response. As if there was more to the material than just thin, durable plastic. He handed it to Syking.

“He asked me about these symbols, and we had a little discussion about whether Set’ri beliefs were right or wrong,” he said, speaking in sonics. He grinned when Syking’s eyes widened in response to the vibrations in the flimsy.

“I think we’ll only be here another day or two,” Syking said in his normal voice. “Let’s go over your travel itinerary, once we split up in Port-town.”

Meruk realized the flimsy was some sort of spying device, because Syking laid out a completely different plan of action for Meruk than they had previously discussed. The new plan had them traveling to Romblu and Meruk staying for a lunar in Port-town with Syking, helping him with some research, and then he would go to a far northern extension of the university, to take up his new identity as a social work student.

The most important part of the original plan was that Meruk wouldn’t go back to Romblu and Port-town with Syking. He had to stay on Gadara and get out to the desert area where he believed the Shelter Cave would be.

The Peacer transport they would ride on from Hubbeston regularly flew in a wide circle around the desert in the center of Gadara continent, servicing all the Peacer outposts that kept people from going into the worst part of the desert–and rescued those who were foolish enough to venture past the warning markers and sonic barriers meant to keep the poisonous animals from entering Human-inhabited territory.

Meruk already wore a miniaturized transponder tucked into the layers of the sole of his new boots, which would create a blind spot in the sensors and recorders of the transport and all the Peacer installations where the transport would land. The power cell would only last for two days, theoretically giving him plenty of time to get out into the desert beyond all the sensors and watch posts set up to keep Humans alive.

Meruk had already shared with Syking all the research he had done to narrow down the territory he thought he needed to explore. Syking used his security access and pulled up information, scans, exploration records and rescue records from disasters in the desert area, to help narrow down the target area even more. Finding people lost in the desert, especially during flash floods or dust storms, required higher intensity sensors than usually employed, and those sensors picked up readings dozens of meters into the ground. The Peacers had more accurate geological surveys of the bedrock underneath the desert than most geologists did. Most geologists didn’t have survival gear worthy of the Scout Corps.

Discarding areas where the underlying ground was too dense, solid and unchanging to allow for the entrance to the Shelter cave, even if it had been filled in to prevent discovery, Meruk estimated he would need half a year, maybe more, to explore the possible sites that were left. And that was with proper archeological survey equipment and a team. How long it would take if he did it all by himself and his first dozen targets were wrong, he had no idea.

“The more you mark off the list of possibilities, that’s less ground the rest of us have to investigate,” Syking had responded, when Meruk told him how long it might take. “It’s not hopeless, but you’ll eventually have to admit that it’s too big a job for you. If you don’t find anything in two lunars–and that might be too much even for a Hoven who finally has the right survival information,” he added, a scolding growl dropping into his voice, “I want you to promise me you’ll call a halt to the search. Temporarily. Come back out and devote your time to finding more of us, then go back in with a team. Things may quiet down by the time you emerge, and Rostarius can send a team in with you. Maybe he can lead a team, if you can give him enough information to satisfy the History Authority.”

“Wouldn’t that be something?” Meruk grinned at the thought of a dig based on information he had gathered. “It’d probably be unfriendly enough conditions, we wouldn’t be bothered by the HA the entire time we worked, no matter what we found.”

* * * * *

There was no sign of Inspector Wijt for the remainder of Meruk’s stay in the safe house. Syking had no contacts on Hubbeston he could trust with his suspicions, to ask to watch the man. The investigating officers were skeptical enough when Meruk told them all he knew of Hovenu glyphs, how the Set’ri had warped them and the Gen’gineers had adopted them, so he and Syking doubted they would get any help at all if they said they feared Wijt was a secret Gen’gineer sympathizer. Syking obtained help from another Peacer Hoven in Tratchekton, to search the system and put a discrete watch on all Wijt’s movements. If the man suddenly requested a vacation or leave time and vanished from his post at the same time Meruk and Syking were to get on the long transport ride to the coast, they would be alerted.

The trickiest part of their plan was that Meruk could not seem to disappear from Syking’s presence until they reached Port-town. The Peacer transport’s sensors had to be tricked into recording that he was there, riding in the secret, life-support outfitted compartment, with Syking the entire time. For the last three days in the safe house, Meruk wore a bracelet that recorded his bio-signs, creating an impression of his presence. Syking would plug the data chip into a transponder in his equipment as soon as Meruk turned on the blocker transponder in his boot, creating a seamless picture of his presence in the compartment. When Meruk went ‘invisible’, no alarms in the Peacer sensors would be triggered, because to all intents and purposes, he would still be there.

“Someday, I really have to meet all your friends in the tech labs who give you these great toys,” Meruk told Syking, when the midnight hour had come and they had slipped out of the safe house and were safely whisked across Hubbeston to the Peacer supply depot.

“Your friends now,” Syking said, speaking in sonics just like Meruk. “And you’ll meet them eventually. When it’s safer.”

“When will it ever be safer?”

His comment earned a grin and a snort from the Peacer lieutenant. Someday, when Meruk had more information, when he had found more Hoveni, when their network of contacts around the world was a little stronger, they might be able to all meet in one place, dig through the fragments of history each group had carefully preserved or recreated, and find some common history. Meruk had rented a postal slot in Hubside and a secured data drop in the planetary Weave. He sent hard copies of information to the postal slot, of everything he learned, every diagram and map and video that might mean something in his quest. He sent datastream copies of everything to the data drop. His foster-brother, Ryc, had access to both, in case something every happened to him. Meruk took the precaution now of making sure Syking and Dr. Rostarius both had the access information. The Hoveni might be a stronger, more solid contact network right that moment, despite being scattered into underground living across the planet, if they had taken simple precautions like that. In the Set’ri attacks, entire cells were wiped out and information was lost, so that those who survived had to get by on rumors and fragments of conversations and stories passed down by in bedtime stories, rather than solid facts. And some stories turned out to be Set’ri traps, to lure the desperate and lonely to capture, torture–to betray other Hoveni–and death.

That wouldn’t happen anymore. Meruk intended to spend the rest of his life creating a network of Hoveni that would bring them all into unity and security, and gain them contacts, not only on Gemar, but throughout the Commonwealth. One day, they could reveal their presence and be just as safe from fear and ridicule and attack as Spacers and Leapers and the other talents that had once been classed as mutations, either wiped out by the uneducated and terrified, or turned into slave classes by the ruling class of First Civ.

“What we need,” Syking said, when they had been more than an hour into their journey, and the transport had already made two supply drops, “is to find some Hoveni bio-scientists. I gathered up all the information Dr. Joax was using to work on those bone fragments. If we can isolate what makes us different from Humans and identify the specific genetic structure or chemical or whatever it is…we can identify people who never had any idea they were Hoven, and bring them into the circle before they get into trouble like you did.”

“More important…” Meruk wondered if he was just tired, to suddenly feel so depressed. “We can weed out the ones who know the right words to say and the right signs to make, to trick us into thinking they’re one of us, so they can trap us.”

“Don’t you wish they’d find each other and wipe each other out, instead?” Syking’s smile looked just as weary as Meruk felt. “Enough depressing philosophy and war games in our heads. You’d better get some sleep. Five more stops, and then you’re on your own.” He didn’t wait for Meruk to respond, but stretched out in the reclining seat built into the hidden compartment and closed his eyes.

Meruk reclined his seat, but he lay a long time watching Syking, silently praying to Fi’in in gratitude for the friend who had found him at just the right time, and asking for Syking’s safety while he traveled alone. To make sure nothing happened to him that would reveal Meruk’s absence from the transport and warn their enemies that something dangerous needed to be hidden.

* * * * *

The Peacer supply transport ran on automatic pilot, and most of the drops made during that night run were handled by remote control, with conveyor belts extending from the Peacer stations. The crates and pallets were lifted from the belly of the transport by more conveyor belts and cranes and lift carts. The transport had gone west in its circuit of the edge of the desert and move into another time zone by the time it reached the spot where Meruk needed to disembark. It was still night, despite six hours of travel, but dawn was a faint, soft gleam of silver on the far eastern horizon. Meruk climbed out of the compartment, feeling his skin buzzing a little from the shielding field generated by the chip in his boot sole and activated by his body heat. He pulled a dark hood over his head and moved slowly, so that the more primitive sensing units in the supply area of the Peacer station wouldn’t pick up his presence visibly or audibly. By the time the supply transport had finished unloading the pallets of supplies for this station, Meruk had slipped out of the building and was already to the edge of the pavement surrounding the Peacer station. Ten more steps would take him from hard ground to sand, sheltered by scrub bushes. By the time there was enough light to see his footprints in the sand leading away from the station, into the dangerous and prohibited part of the desert, the morning winds would have erased those footprints.

Meruk had already slid down the first slope into a narrow gully where the sand shifted treacherously underfoot, revealing the uneven rocks underneath, when he heard the hum of the Peacer transport lifting into the sky.

“Fi’in guard you, Syking,” he whispered, and paused to look up. The transport moved away from the direction he headed, and he couldn’t see it past the slope that rose over his head now. Meruk told himself that was a good thing–it meant he was indeed going in the right direction.

A frill lizard crested the top of the slope he had just come down and hissed, the umbrella folds of loose skin around its neck raising in threat. Meruk stumbled backwards, startled at the sound. Weren’t they nocturnal? Or was that the shilliak lizard? He wasn’t in any position to sit down and check his datapad. Besides, at this part of the day–or more accurately, night–it didn’t matter. Nocturnal creatures were heading for their dens and day creatures were stirring.

Although, from what he knew of this part of the Gadaran desert, Meruk couldn’t imagine why any animal would want to be moving when full daylight came. As far as he was concerned, animals were much smarter than Humans, because they had never taught themselves to ignore the common sense Fi’in had given them.

He turned and trudged down the narrow gully, following the map he and Syking had studied and memorized. According to the geological surveys and Peacer surveys, this gully would widen and deepen and provide shade and shelter long after the sun rose. Meruk would be able to get a good three hours of travel in, and put that much time and distance between him and the Peacer station, before the sun beat down on him, baking the air and forcing him to sleep through the worst part of the day. He would be safe in that gully, which would take him dozens of kilometers into the desert before it ended, unless a flash flood came. If he didn’t climb out to higher ground at the first sign of rain, Meruk would be caught in the raging floodwaters and dashed to pieces on those same rocks and bends in the gully that now made travel by foot so treacherous.

Still, despite all that, this was the safest, fastest, most sheltered and convenient path into the area that he needed to explore to find the Shelter cave.

Meruk hoped someday he and Syking and Dr. Rostarius would be able to sit down and laugh at all the trouble and impossible situations they had endured.

The frill lizard scampered along the lip of the gully above him, making pebbles and sand fall down on his head. Meruk pulled the hood up, even though he didn’t need the shade yet, and it kept the sand from falling down his shirt and back. A hissing that ended in a squeak erupted from the frill lizard, sounding as if it understood what he had done, and why, and was peeved. Meruk started to laugh–but larger pebbles hit his head. He tipped his head back and skidded to a stop, badly balanced. He nearly didn’t catch himself before he slid forward and hit his head. He hadn’t actually seen the frill lizard stop and roll a chunk of rock the size of his fist over the lip of the gully. Had he?

Meruk decided he was getting a paranoid, or the heat affected him already. Maybe he hadn’t gotten as much rest as he should have on the transport. Time to find a spot to curl up in the shade and rest, instead of walking until the sun was directly overhead.

The map from the geological surveys that he and Syking put together showed some likely spots where large niches–not large enough to qualify as caves–in the sides of the gully promised shade even at the worst part of the day’s heat and light. Unfortunately, the closest one was another twenty minutes of walking away. Meruk glared at the frill lizard and it stopped and hissed at him, spraying the pale pink venom from the glands on the tips of its frill.

“Believe me, I’m trying to get out of your territory as fast as I can,” Meruk grumbled, hunched his shoulders, and moved over to the other side of the gully.

That stopped the frill lizard’s harassment for maybe three minutes. By then, the edges of the gully came close enough together overhead that the lizard could leap to Meruk’s side and resume the mini avalanches. Meruk increased his pace, even though that contributed to his unsteady footing. He considered running, but the last thing he needed was to fall and sprain an ankle or break a leg or arm, and be at the mercy of the frill and all his vicious cousins.

He nearly laughed when, out of nowhere, an image of the frill as a Hoven protecting its territory filled his mind. Somehow, Meruk couldn’t make himself believe that a Hoven trying to protect the Shelter Cave from detection would be so stupid as to act out of character for the animal form he or she wore. But what if that particular Hoveni was as new to the experience of shape shifting as he was?

“Hey, look,” he said, stopping and tugging back his hood. “If you’re Hoven,”

The frill leaped, straight at him, talons spread and a haze of pink venom filling the air. Meruk ducked and rolled, bashing his ribs against a protrusion in the jagged sides of the gully. Just his luck–it made a sharp turn at this point.

Maybe it was luck. He scrambled on hands and knees, almost dropping his packs, and got around the bend. Then he looked back to wonder why the lizard hadn’t scampered around and up on him. Where was it?

Inspector Wijt stood there, sweat dripping off his flushed face, holding a beam burner with both hands, trained on Meruk.

“Yes,” he said in his dusty voice. “As a matter of fact, I am.”

Meruk listened to the flare of warning along all his nerves, flinging himself backwards around the bend in the gully at the same moment he saw Wijt’s finger tighten on the trigger of the beam burner.

Liquid fire bounced off the rock face. Meruk felt his skin sizzle from the reflected heat, even though the beam didn’t actually touch him. It was all his imagination. He didn’t want to find out how accurate his imagination could be.

The beam stopped spewing liquid fire at him. Meruk stopped, watching that point in the jagged rock wall where Wijt would appear at any moment. He tried to hold his breath. Moving would make too much noise.

Stupid! he silently scolded himself, and changed his hearing to sonic, to pick up Wijt’s movements, maybe even hear his heartbeats and breathing. It was a given Wijt, who was so much older and had to be more experienced, was doing the same thing to him.

“Look,” Meruk called. “We’re on the same side.”

“I don’t think so.” Wijt stood above him on the lip of the gully. The sweat had dried and he didn’t even aim the beam burner this time. Somehow, that didn’t encourage Meruk at all.

He had an image of shifting into a kree hawk or another lizard, and as he emerged from the tangle of his bag straps and other equipment he couldn’t shift with him, Wijt would calmly raise the burner and follow his path and turn him into charcoal with one flick of his finger. Or worse–if Meruk managed to escape, he would incinerate all those supplies that were necessary to survive out here. Even for a Hoven who could become any animal necessary.

Thinking about those supplies got Meruk thinking along different directions, what Rostarius had referred to as the Hovenu facts of life, in the long section on rules for shifting shape safely and without injury to self. Meruk couldn’t shift all his supplies. He couldn’t shift anything more than the clothes he wore and his torque and equipment wristband–but that beam burner was big and heavy and dense.

“How did you get that thing out here?” Meruk asked, gesturing at the weapon with a jerk of his chin. The longer he could get Wijt to keep talking, the healthier and happier he would be.

“You don’t really want to get into a discussion on physics and conservation of energy and discipline and control, do you?” Wijt raised the beam burner a dozen centimeters, then dropped it back to his side before Meruk could decide which direction to fling himself. The choice of cover to duck into was pretty sparse.

“Actually, yeah, I do. I need to catch up on a lot of things my folks couldn’t teach me.”

“Too late. School’s over, and you failed the test.”

Meruk inhaled sharply, hearing the ear-aching whine of the generator for the beam burner kick into life–at the sonic level, only Hoveni could catch it. He realized Wijt was going to simply drop it on him and let it create a crater the size of the safe house. Meruk snatched up double handfuls of sand and rock and flung them hard at the man above him. Then he dove headfirst into a gap in the rock maybe twenty centimeters wide, shifting to a skitterzin before his head hit the too-narrow opening. He prayed the gap was as deep as the darkness of the shadows indicated, and he hadn’t trapped himself.

Above him, Wijt let out a roar of frustration as the sand and rocks hit and temporarily blinded him. Meruk would have laughed in semi-giddy relief when the whine of the beam burner switched off, but skitterzins didn’t have vocal chords. The spiny lizards communicated with ultra-sonic tapping and chiming noises made by the glassy tips of their spines.

He realized this was the wrong choice of shape when he left a trail of shrill chimes from his spines scraping on the rock passageway around him. Meruk aimed upward instead of down, and concentrated on light to guide him out again. He moved so fast, he erupted into daylight and kept going, several meters into the air. When he landed, he was a gyphellak. And Wijt was nowhere in sight.

Now what? Meruk inhaled deeply, although tracking the other Hoven by scent would be nearly impossible if he didn’t know what shape the man had taken. He held perfectly still, stretching out all his senses, claws extended and piercing the rock and sandy surface under him, wings half-spread, ready to beat downward and rise a dozen meters into the air in any direction.

There was a reason a gyphellak was the emblem of the royal family of the Hoveni, and its speed and agility and fierceness in battle were only part of it. Its invulnerability to a vast variety of weapons was another. Beam burners hadn’t been brought to Gemar by the time the Hoveni had gone into hiding, so Meruk had no idea if a gyphellak could stand up to one. He didn’t want to find out the truth on that score, one way or the other.

He couldn’t smell the beam burner, meaning Wijt had shifted it with him when he took another shape. According to Rostarius’ notes and what Syking had been teaching him over the last few days, the ability to change something that big and dense–especially with all that metal and the chemicals for the liquid fire–was something only the very old and experienced and strong Hoveni could do.

Wijt had to be very old. Probably alone for a long time. Meruk thought about how he would feel another ten or twenty years into the future, if he couldn’t make contact with anyone, thought he was the only Hoven left on the entire planet. Would he slowly go insane? Would he think that everyone he saw, especially those who knew about the Set’ri and their power glyphs and other details, was the enemy?

Meruk had played with Rostarius’ theory that various animals became the emblems for the different family lines among the Hoveni because those were the creatures the families tended to turn into the most, with the greatest ease. He had hoped that since his first shift was into a gyphellak, without thinking, that he was related to the royal family.

What he needed was to be related to Melafyxia’s family, because her line had telepathic gifts along with the visionary. It was a given he couldn’t communicate with Wijt without shifting back to Human, so he had vocal chords and a mouth that could form words.

And the longer he stood there on the flat land above the gully, the better target he presented. Meruk snarled silently at himself and slowly, all his senses strained for the slightest whisper of movement, padded to the edge of the gully to look down.

His equipment lay where he had dropped it maybe two minutes ago. Undisturbed. Un-burned. He would have grinned in relief if the gyphellak’s beak would have allowed it. Meruk sensed no movement, and not the slightest hint of body heat in the gully below. He paced down another couple meters until the gully opened wide enough for him to jump down without becoming trapped. The gully stayed wide for a few dozen meters. The last thing he needed was to walk into a trap with his eyes open. What good where the strong, wide wings of a gyphellak if he couldn’t spread them to batter his enemies or fly to safety?

Still no response from Wijt. If not for the reek of burned stone and sand melted to glass, and the residual heat in the air, Meruk might have considered, just for a moment, that he had hallucinated the attack. It was too early in his journey for sunstroke. He hadn’t reached a decent campsite and fallen asleep and dreamed the danger.

After another ten seconds of waiting, thinking, considering alternatives and wishing his older brother was there to suggest strategies, like they had done playing Scouts and Rangers as children, Meruk decided to do something. Force Wijt to move.

The most important thing was to get his equipment out of harm’s way. His claws let him scoop up everything by the various straps, and he immediately leaped up, out of the gully. He stayed as close to the ground as he could and flew fifty meters further down the course of the gully until he could smell water, and found the caves he and Syking had marked on the geological surveys as a likely camping spot. He tucked his equipment into hiding and marked the spot on the rocks above with long scrapes of his claws. Then he flew back to the gully where he had encountered Wijt, took a deep breath, shuddered under his feathers and fur–and shifted back to Human.

“We’re on the same side,” Meruk called, feeling like he had skipped backwards in a drama recording to replay an action scene. He hoped he had a better chance of rewriting the encounter than someone playing the same scene over and over in a scripted drama.

A flash of movement and a shimmer of energy in the air warned him before the whine of the beam burner erupted in the air. Meruk dove for shelter, trembling more with excitement than fear. Had he actually sensed the moment Wijt shifted shape? That was a useful skill. Especially if he was going to encounter more Hoveni who would label him the enemy without giving him a chance to prove himself.

Of course, there was always the chance Wijt could feel him shift shape, too. Maybe even follow his movements, no matter what shape he took. So that advantage might not be an advantage after all.

But logic said if Wijt could tell when Meruk shifted shape, then he had to know Meruk was a Hoven. So why was he still trying to shoot him?

Meruk shifted to frill lizard this time and skimmed up to the top of the gully, careful not to disturb even the grains of sand he ran across. At the top, he hugged the edge, trying to blend in and be as small as possible. As he sat and watched and waited for the first sign of movement from Wijt–and discovered that frill lizards had no sense of smell, not even in their tongues–he decided this was an uncomfortable shape to wear. Frill lizards sensed through their skin, ‘hearing’ the world through vibrations and heat waves. Meruk discovered that the glands full of pink venom itched faintly, and the glands were all over the frill’s body. No wonder the creatures always seemed to be in such a bad mood. It was like they were allergic to their own bodies.

He choked on the sensation that he wanted to laugh, but his new body wasn’t made for it, except to let out a rattling hiss that would give away his position. The heat grew stronger as the day grew older. Meruk felt as if he sat in a room where audio boxes lined the walls and someone outside slowly turned up the volume, a fraction with every passing second. No wonder frills and other animals sought out shade when the day was at its hottest–to try to turn down the ‘volume’ of sensory input into their skin.

People could go insane, trying to live inside animal bodies they had never worn before.

Maybe Wijt was insane from all his years alone, trying to survive, expecting a Set’ri or Gen’gineer to stumble onto him at any moment?

Meruk slid down into the gully and found the most sheltered spot he could, with piles of rock on several sides and a niche to duck into, hopefully to deflect the beam burner if he couldn’t persuade Wijt fast enough. How long had it been since that first attack? Maybe five minutes, eight at the most? His sense of time was totally warped.

No wonder Rostarius and Syking had both warned him to stay in Human shape as much as possible and not give in to the temptation to take an animal shape and live that way for the rest of his life. It might be easier, simpler, more peaceful to retreat from Human concerns and dangers, but his perception of the world, his grasp on time and his own identity, slipped a little with each transformation. Meruk wondered how many Hoveni had retreated to animal shapes for the sake of survival, stayed in those shapes for lunars, even years, and slid so far away from themselves they never thought to turn back.

Insanity held many shapes, he realized.

“I’m Hoven,” he shouted, once he was fully back in his own shape. “Just like you.”

Silence answered him. Somehow, he didn’t think that was a good sign.

“I’m a Hoven. I’m trying to find others like us. I’m out here to find the Shelter Cave. Have you heard of it? Or maybe you haven’t? Are you here to protect it, or just hunt me down? Just because I know the Set’ri glyphs doesn’t make me a Set’ri. You know them too, right? Does that make you one?”

For one sick moment, Meruk considered the idea that the Set’ri had kept alive some of the Hoveni they had captured down through the centuries, breeding them, indoctrinating them into the belief they could only save their souls–maybe even gain souls–if they helped hunt down and destroy all other Hoveni.

Why did he always think of theories like that when he was in bad situations?

Why had he left all his equipment in that niche in the rock so far away, including the emergency communicator that would let Syking know he was in danger? Meruk wanted it here, right now, to at least send a message to Syking and warn him, because there was no chance Syking could ever get back here in enough time to save him. If Wijt was a Set’ri hound, dedicated to destroying all Hoveni, then Syking was in danger next.

There was no way in the world Meruk was going to open his mouth now and endanger Syking by telling Wijt he was Hoven, also.

“I’m Hoven, just like you. All by myself. Trying to find others like me. For safety. It reeks being alone, right?”

“What would you know about being alone? You’re just a kid,” Wijt said. His voice echoed a little, making it hard for Meruk to determine where the man was hiding, even with the help of his ears tuned to the sonic level.

“I didn’t even know I was Hoven until I shifted at the wrong time, totally by accident. Now I’m on the run.”

“Prove you’re Hoven. Step out where I can see you and shift.” Wijt snorted, and that bit of dry laughter chilled Meruk more than anything he had thought of since this strange, slow duel began. “Shift into a skimmer.”

An ocean creature, in this dry, sandy place? Meruk would be even more helpless than if Wijt had managed to wing him with that beam burner.

That was exactly what the man wanted–maybe what he needed. Maybe placing himself at the other man’s total mercy was the only way to convince him that they were on the same side.

On the other hand, if Wijt was totally insane, or a Set’ri hound, that would be the stupidest thing in the world to do.

On the third hand–what creatures were there with three hands, he wondered for a moment–taking a risk was the only way to end this stand-off.

“Fi’in, guard me,” Meruk whispered, and stepped out from his sheltered niche. He held his arms out at his sides, away from his pockets, so Wijt wouldn’t think he was reaching for a weapon. Not that he had any. Meruk had put away the knife Pike had given him, because these desert survival pants didn’t have the seam sheath. He vowed to rectify that little problem right away.

The sonic-level whine of the beam burner coming out of sleep mode warned Meruk after only three steps. He flung himself toward the only bit of shade visible and the beam passed over him, scorching his back, making the ends of his hair crisp and shrivel. He hit the sharp blades of rock under the sand, jarring his shoulder. Meruk came to an abrupt halt, and that was the worst thing he could do. He flipped himself over and tried to keep moving, even when the landscape wouldn’t let him roll.

Meruk remembered one time when he and Ryc were playing in a situation that eerily reminded him of this–but they had water pistols and were both armed, instead of all the advantage being on his foster-brother’s side. The landscape was all roots and tree stumps, from an area that had suffered a devastating fire several years before. Meruk had fallen, smashing his hand hard enough against a stump that he broke his water pistol. He also knocked the breath out of himself hard enough that he lay perfectly still, just long enough for Ryc to get scared. He knelt over Meruk, shaking him, his voice getting frantic as he demanded that his little brother get up–or so help him, he would tell their father and then Meruk would really be in trouble. The shaking and pounding helped Meruk get his breath back, and he reacted to one particularly hard thump of Ryc’s fist by curling up, slamming his knees hard into his brother’s side and knocking him off his knees. They had resolved their battle by wrestling and tumbling, laughing and getting each other filthy in the mud from the broken water reservoir.

Meruk doubted he would end up laughing and wrestling with Wijt–but what if he convinced the man he was hit and dead?

A heartbeat after that memory finished flashing through his mind, and the idea came to him, another blast of the burner flashed across him. This time the fibers of Meruk’s shirt melted, scorching his shoulder. Meruk let out a yelp, curling up instinctively.

It took all his self-control and faith in Fi’in to watch out for him, to lay still and let himself go limp.

Now everything would depend on Wijt’s level of insanity. Would he actually believe his target was dead, without a stinking mass of burned flesh and bone? Would he be satisfied that he had killed the enemy and walk away to leave the corpse to rot, without being sure of the job and totally incinerating Meruk’s body?

Just at the moment Meruk decided his idea had been stupid enough to drop his IQ level in half, he heard footsteps in the sand, approaching the spot where he had come to rest. Fortunately, his death convulsion had flung one arm across his face, and he was able to open one eye and see the big man shuffling toward him, with the beam burner hanging limply at his side. That was a good sign. If Wijt was sane enough to be worried, to be suspicious that this was a trick, he would approach with the beam burner cradled in one elbow, ready to fire again.

Meruk counted the man’s steps and breathed softly, slowly, trying not to move, but not to be stiff, either. Playing dead was a lot harder when he didn’t know if his enemy was insane enough to ignore precautions, or so insane he would suddenly start burning everything in sight, starting with the dead body.

Please, please, let him just walk away, Meruk silently prayed. If Wijt left him alone, or made himself vulnerable so he could be disarmed, then that would be proof the Set’ri were wrong–the Hoveni did indeed have souls and Fi’in did care about them and listen to their prayers.

Wijt came close enough to smell. His sweat stank of nervousness and that oily, dirty stink that came from starvation and dehydration and lack of basic hygiene for a long period of time. Meruk wondered that he hadn’t noticed the smell when Wijt visited the safe house. Then he realized he had started to hold his breath, and that was worse than breathing too hard. He exhaled softly, slowly, and thought his heart pounded louder and harder and faster than before. Why hadn’t Wijt noticed?

The wide muzzle of the beam burner jabbed Meruk in the ribs, and he almost let out a yelp. He went as limp as he could manage, which was hard when he braced himself not to flinch when Wijt poked him several times, in the ribs, shoulder, hip, before pushing hard enough in the ribs again to drive out what little breath Meruk had.

Meruk hurried to close his eyes as he felt himself shoved up onto his side. He fell onto his back, lying crooked when he fetched up against a spine of rock sticking up out of the sand. Wijt grunted and went down on one knee in the sand. Meruk almost shouted in triumph when he heard the crunch of the beam burner resting on the sand, touching his limp hand. Wijt had finally put it down.

A roar escaped his throat as Meruk shoved himself up from a prone position, swinging one arm out at Wijt’s face as he shifted to gyphellak, kicking at the beam burner with his hind leg. Wijt shrieked, the sound cut off as Meruk’s claws slashed across his face. He flew across the gully, just a few meters, to slam hard against the opposite wall. He hit crooked, and Meruk heard the crack of bones snapping. Wijt slid down to the jumble of rocks in the floor of the gully, limp.

Meruk shifted back to Human and picked up the beam burner, fumbling blindly with the controls, keeping all his attention on Wijt. He ejected the power pack and the chemical pack that provided the base for the liquid fire. He shifted back to gyphellak and crushed the muzzle of the beam burner between the ground and his forepaws, then kicked it back behind him. The weapon made a satisfying crunch as it hit the rocks and slid to a halt.

“Now do you believe me?” Meruk growled, before he had quite shifted back to Human. He settled down on a flat slab of rock and studied Wijt. The man was limp, bleeding from nose and mouth, and the air was curiously free of the metallic stink of pain. But Wijt’s eyes were open, and he had blinked a few times as he watched Meruk destroy the weapon.

“Traitor,” Wijt whispered. Even that little bit of effort brought up ragged coughs that spilled blood across his chest.

Meruk guessed broken ribs, punctured lungs. From the smear of blood on the rock face behind him, starting with a spur of rock where Wijt’s head had hit at first impact, there was a lot of torn flesh and profuse bleeding. He wondered why he couldn’t feel sorry for his enemy.

“I’m not betraying anyone. You’re the one who came after me to kill me. How do I know you’re not working with the Set’ri to destroy those of us who remain?”

For a moment, Wijt’s brow furrowed, as if he had a hard time digesting that thought.

“Dr. Joax was searching for a way to extract Hovenu DNA from bones dug from ancient Hovenu graves, to find a way to detect us now. I destroyed those bone samples, and his Gen’gineer friends killed him, thinking he was a traitor. I killed them,” Meruk added, wondering if anything could convince Wijt they were on the same side. The man just looked at him, frowning, his lids drooping a little lower over his eyes with every heartbeat.

He waited, the smell of blood growing stronger in the air, and still no stink of pain. Meruk looked again at that smear of blood marking Wijt’s trail down the rock wall. Maybe the blow from the gyphellak form had been strong enough to break Wijt’s back. The man was limp because he was paralyzed.

“Why didn’t you ask me more questions? Why didn’t you try to find out if I was on your side?” Meruk finally said, when Wijt’s breathing grew shallower and the blood on the stone dried to dullness.

“No one–on my side.” A little blood dribbled from Wijt’s lips. “Alone.”

“You’re not. I’m here. Syking is Hoven. He has contacts. There are others.”

“No others.” Wijt’s mouth trembled in a smile that left one side of his mouth crooked. “Child–betrayed. Six of us.” He choked, spat a mouthful of blood. “Hoven who worked for–Gen’gineers. Everyone–dead. Swore. Never trust.”

“That’s what the Set’ri want–for us not to trust each other. But we have to, if we’re going to survive. We’re going to get stronger, with more of us joined together, and we’ll be a nation again. Then we’ll be safe.”

“Never safe. Humans hate us.”

“The Order will stand with us, if nobody else does. And the Scouts.” Meruk found himself on his knees, reaching out to take hold of Wijt by his collar and shake some sense into him. The stink from the man’s body made him recoil, as if Wijt was long dead and half-rotted already.

Was that what insanity smelled like? Or was that the smell of death creeping up on him?

“Better–stay here–die–in peace,” Wijt whispered, bubbles of dark blood catching in the corners of his mouth.

“I’m never giving up. Help me protect the others,” Meruk said, taking a chance and getting up to move closer to Wijt again. If the man was faking his paralysis, just waiting for him to get within arm’s reach, that wouldn’t be a smart move. But it was a move of trust. He would have found it hard to trust Wijt, if their positions were reversed and Wijt claimed innocence and misunderstanding.

“Never,” Wijt whispered, with another gush of blood from his mouth and punctured lungs. A tiny smile twitched at his lips, then his eyes rolled back in his skull.

Meruk waited, listening, pushing his ears as far into sensitivity as they could go. He thought he could hear the last whistle of breath escaping Wijt’s lungs, the slowing of his blood streaming through his veins, and the last echo of the final beat of his heart.

He took his life into his hands to re-assemble the beam burner and use it to dispose of Wijt’s body. The damage to the muzzle concentrated the stream, making some of it clog up and heat the gun to the point of dangerous discomfort by the time Meruk was done. He had feared he had closed it off too much when he crushed the muzzle. He waited until the ashes of Wijt’s body cooled, then used a long spine of rock to stir them around and burn them again, just in case. The overhang of the gully where Wijt had fallen served to concentrate the main plume of black smoke from the burning of the body, sending it out in several directions before it could go upward. Meruk hoped no one was watching that particular section of desert and noticed the smoke. He couldn’t leave Wijt’s body to be scavenged by real frill lizards and other creatures, and he couldn’t leave enough for a forensic scientist to decipher who had died here, or how. Meruk played the beam burner over the smears of blood to char them away. There was nothing else he could do to remove the signs of battle. Only time and wind scouring the sands across the rock face could erase the marks his claws had made.

He was exhausted, feeling burned and gritty and wanting nothing more than to curl up in the shade and sleep for an entire day, by the time he got to the spot where he had hidden his supplies.

Meruk knew better. Only a fool would trust to luck and the odds of anyone not seeing the smoke from Wijt’s cremation. He drank cautiously, picked up his gear, pulled out the zap he had taken from his foster-parents’ house, slipped it onto his belt, and walked. The sensation of being watched, of someone creeping up behind him through the sparse shadows and blinding sunlight filling the gully, stayed with him until nearly sunset. Meruk never looked back, never slowed his pace, but he kept the zap ready and primed, hanging from his belt, and vowed he would never go anywhere without some weapon at hand. He might be Hoven, but he didn’t have the reflexes and the skill and speed to depend entirely on his ability to shift to defend himself.

His duel with Wijt had proven that.

When he finally stopped to make camp, Meruk recorded the battle and his suspicions and theories in his journal. What if other Hoveni he met along the way would label him an enemy first and not think to ask questions until after he was a mangled pile of torn flesh and shattered bones? What if Rostarius and Syking were the exceptions among the scattered Hoveni, and not the rule?

That was a depressing thought.

“All the more reason to make contact and get all of us together, in communication,” Meruk whispered. “We’re our own worst enemy, as long as we’re separated and alone and afraid.”

As darkness fell over his tiny nest among the rocks, and the chill of the desert pushed away the heat baked into the rock and sand, Meruk tried to pray for Wijt’s insane, wounded soul.

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