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Volume 6073

  Log, Gemini Wanderer, Day 27, Transmission interrupted]
Personal Memoir

      Confirmed city dweller that I was, I must at some point have wondered aloud what an intelligent boy of noble parentage and an enquiring mind does to maintain his sanity alone among pro-hominid primates in a world without humankind contact.  According to the Admiral, the wanderings of Ta’el’s band had never brought them close to any of the settlements of Chimurians or Arenes.  During the boy’s brief lifetime the band had not even come in contact with any of the numerous atavistic tribes scattered about the continent on which he had been born.

      If the boy gave any thought at all to the skeleton near his find, he probably dismissed it as folk.  Ta’el’s exclusive experience with humankind was limited to the mysterious tapes and other artifacts among his parents’ belongings.

      My initial reaction was that he was none the worse for the absence of humankind influence.  The qualities with which Southerly and Sabratha had been endowed are rarely found in this universe.  The Admiral argued that to us at least, the sense of deprivation would have been acute.  But Ta’el knew only the ways of the hunterfolk.  Other than the tantalizing but undecipherable messages of the tapes, he was wholly unaware of what it was he was missing. Surely, his unique jungle training took the place of some of it.  But the boy’s restless urge to wander and explore on his own was just as surely a manifestation of his hopeless search for the companionship only his own kind could offer.

      Aside from the absorbing hours while away among the treasures of the Southerly flyer and crude shelter, there was not much variety or inspiration in the young life of Ta’el.  Of course, most of us civilized types would find more than enough inspiration in the constant need to hunt in order to eat.  And if that was insufficient motivation, there is the never-distant danger of being attacked and eaten oneself.

      But these were commonplace events worthy of little abstract contemplation to Ta’el of the Hunterfolk.  The boy obviously sensed the undefinable void in his existence.  But worst of all, it appeared to young Ta’el that he would never earn a true name of his own.  Jer’anda-ta might be accurate, but the boy recognized it as more title than name, seldom used by the band who still knew him simply as child.

      The Admiral and I talked much of this aspect of Ta’el’s youth.  Of course, no one will ever know what actually stirred his eager young mind.  Once he was brought to civilization, the man lost touch with the inchoate mental images of his boyhood.

      Once, the Admiral grinned and nearly laughed aloud.  I grinned, waiting for him to explain his amusement.  As it turns out, there was something from the tapes that added a certain spark to the boy’s jungle life.  Upon immersing himself in the tapes for some hours, Ta’el began to study his four-legged companions of the savannas with a new eye.  Only one reminded him of the beast the Jer’anda leapt upon, but not to bring the creature down with a sudden twist of its neck and then feast  upon.  Instead, Ta’el’s people  – for that was how he now perceived the strangers from the stars – actually remained on the creatures’ backs and rode them with a graceful ease the youth envied.

      Eventually, the boy had to try this feat for himself, but the mounts he selected from among Ashtar’s pony-sized proto-equine herds would have none of it.  “Eos” as the Admiral dubbed him smelled the dangerous scent of the Aranda predator.  Whenever the k’aranda landed on his back, however gently, Eos went into a squealing frenzy of bucking, rearing, and biting.  No more than a few episodes of landing on shoulder, haunch, or spine were sufficient to convince Ta’el that there was something to be said for limiting his relationship with this deceptively timid creature.  Moreover, it did seem somehow wrong to eat the flesh of Eos on one occasion only to seek out the companionship of a mount on another.  And Ta’el did relish the flesh of Eos almost as much as that of Lopus.

      Many a near dark found Ta’el studying the creatures as they came to drink at one water hole or another.  None seemed any more likely a companion than Eos.  Then he remembered lumbering Muthus.  There was something about this great hulking beast – something more than the prohibitive size.  Ta’el had never eaten the flesh of Muthus, and the great mastodon of Ashtar seemed almost gentle . . . .

Log, Gemini Wanderer, Day 30, Begin Transmission]
Narrative Transmission 3

      TA’EL OF THE HUNTERFOLK was sprawled on his belly on a flat rock rising high over the water.  Sanjera, the sun, was slipping softly away.  It was almost dusk, when the beasts would begin to find their way to drink before commencing the activities of the darkness.

      It was late in shadow death.  A rumble in the far distance warned the young hunterfolk that Jera, the lightning, and Ok, the thunder, would soon fill all the jungle folk with terror.  They would again know the misery of the cold rains of one shadow.  But Ta’el was unconcerned.  His keen senses and nearly innate jungle craft told him the storms would not come today.  Tomorrow would take care of itself.  Today Ta’el would make his First Kill.

      The true folk, the Aranda, would at last bestow upon Ta’el a name of his own.  He would cease to know the humiliation of being only Ta’el, child.

      As he awaited his unsuspecting victim, Ta’el required every parcel of the patience he had learned among the Aranda.  But his active mind never seemed to heed the stillness demanded of his body.  Often, Ta’el’s mind would wander seemingly with a will unhampered by conscious direction by its owner.  The disturbing pathways of his inner self were pursued with special vigor at times such as this when he must not betray his presence by the slightest motion, lest it occur at the very moment when his alert quarry was watching.  This was only one of the many experiences the youth was unable to communicate to his Aranda companions.  Like so many others, imagination was an experience for which the Aranda have neither vocalisation nor gestures.

      As he pondered his inability to make known to his people the myriad of activities surging in his head, the youth suddenly found himself missing Char.  Lael’s mate had seemed to be closer to him than any of the others.  Yet he had always seemed uneasy at his son’s struggles to explain what was trapped there in his head.  Today Ta’el shook his head in dismissal of the untoward distraction.  Sometimes the action would clear away the confusing welter of images within.

      The young Aranda went back to the matter of his First Kill.

      Still wandering, however, Ta’el’s mind next paused to dwell on that which the Aranda, on those occasions when they wished to show a certain begrudging respect, called him:  Jer’anda-ta.  None, not even Lael, had ever seen fit to explain why Char-ta was also Son of Starfolk.  It did not occur to the youth that the explanation might be beyond his dama's communicative abilities.  Ta’el was forever curious about his differences from his people, but his own strangeness also disturbed him more than a little.  It was not enough to have discovered the shadow-folk in his private lair.  They truly lacked substance.  Their own reality was suspect.

      Absently, Ta’el pressed one hand against his forehead, then against the place where the constant thumping within him emanated.  He even ran the hand down the length of one leg.  He had a reality like that of the Aranda.  He was no mere shadow like what he believed to be the Jer’anda.  How could he be of them?

      Yet again the Aranda fosterling found himself wondering hopelessly about his origins.  Perhaps some incomprehensible fear touched his lonely heart.  Could it be possible he had been deserted by the starfolk for some reason he would never know?  Except for Ta’el’s unique ugliness, despite its similarity to those shadows, there was no reason to suspect his sire and dama were any other than Char and Lael.

      The orphan had only recently begun to recognise his odd features as akin to the Jer’anda of his private lair.  But were they truly as ephemeral as a shadow?  If so, he could not be of their kind, after all.  But that oddity could be what set him apart from them!

      The thought that he might have been rejected for some unrecognised wrong by the only possible alternative to the Aranda caused the youthful Ta’el much inner anguish.  The hurt was only magnified by his inability to express it and by the reluctance of Lael to reveal more of his origin.

      When pressed by her ta, Lael merely repeated that Ta’el was the son of Char and of Jer'anda as well.  If he persisted – in the manner of curious young throughout the known galaxy – she would walk away from him.  When his importuning intruded on an already impatient mood, Lael would cuff him with her huge hand.  It was, however, always a gentle blow.  The Aranda she loved her seemingly helpless son with a devotion which matched that of Sabratha before her.

      Ta’el’s smooth brow furrowed with the intensity of his deep concentration.  But, despite his brisk mental activity and the lingering hurt of an ineffable aloneness, the youth had not for a moment allowed his vigilance to diminish in the slightest.  The fate of the unwatchful of Ashtar is both swift and final.

      Ta’el was far from ready to join Char in long sleep.  Before the first of the creatures of the forest came within view of his carefully chosen outlook, the waiting Aranda buck-to-be had identified them and rejected them as quarry for this, the most important hunt of his life.

      No timid representative of Ashtar’s herbivorous fauna would serve Jer’anda-ta’s quest for a real name.  Only the mighty predators were worthy in his young mind – uncomplicated by unpleasant visions of possible defeat.  Ta’el knew the great carnivora would soon follow their intended prey to the edge of the small lake that served the endless need for water of all the creatures.  One or another of them was almost certain to pass beneath Ta’el’s lurking form, if not this night, then another.

      Time is of little consequence to the forest dwellers.  Each day is much like the last, unless one encounters a foe or suffers injury sufficient to interfere with feeding or the finding of water or falls victim to any one of a number of cruel traps the jungle sets for the unwary.  But these events are rare.  And more often than not, the hapless individual encounters such an event but once.

      Without the slightest shame, Ta’el silently admitted to the hope it would not be Thera, the sabre-toothed tiger, who passed beneath his place of concealment.  But if Thera should stray within range, the youth resolutely determined that even he should feel the bite of Ta’el’s strange weapon.

      For now the crystal knife that had been Leede Southerly’s lay easily in the right hand of the savage youth.  The late Lord Charwick might have been hard-pressed to accept this young creature as blood of his blood, for all the undeniable testimony of form and feature.  But he would have been proud of his offspring, and the noble Tuathan would have fully understood his son's quest for a name.  It was not so different from his own mission to become a member of the Hua and then,
perhaps, more . . . .

      At the reassuring feel of the haft in his hand, Ta’el’s mind went out along yet another excursion of its own.  To his own bemusement, the youth found vivid the memory of his wondrous find.  He allowed his irrepressible mind to dwell on the discovery as his other senses awaited whatever was to come this night.

      The blade of the knife, reflecting the light of Sanjera, had first caught the boy’s quick eye.  When Ta’el had first approached and then touched the object, he was startled by a slight response dimly felt as he grasped it by the end which had seemed so dull and lifeless.  He had instantly released his tentative hold to scrutinise the object from a safer distance.  When it offered him no harm, Ta’el’s jungle-bred caution yielded to his curiosity.  The boy reached forward and experimentally touched the dull surface, this time without grasping it.  When nothing untoward followed that action, he proceeded to lift the beautiful thing in his hand.  This time the dimly perceived movement was far more noticeable, but Ta’el had persisted.  To his
astonishment, it felt as though the object was actually becoming part of his hand.

      At the time Ta’el had experienced no flicker of understanding of the crystal knife’s utility.  Only curiosity coupled with recognition that the object was unique in his experience prompted him to retain it.  The singular object was carefully hidden away deep in the splendid lair that lay deserted nearby.

      Later Ta’el’s keen observations of the almost-living shadows he had learned to create with the treasures of the lair revealed the intended function of the knife.  Soon the boy was making constant use of it in obtaining the red meat of Lopus, the deer, whose delicious flesh he craved above all other foods.

      Now Ta’el never allowed the precious possession out of his sight.  He had even twisted and woven the strong fibres of a water plant Char had once shown him into a belt from which the weapon always depended at his right hip.  Its warmth against his sleek thigh was exceptionally reassuring.  Today, however, Ta’el would for the first time use the knife against one of the few enemies feared by his Aranda.

      Fortunately for Ta’el it was not Thera who slunk out of the forest to take up his vigil beneath the lofty rock upon which the untried youth was waiting to take his fate into his own strong hands.  But Pardu, the panther, is no less worthy a foe for such a one as the Aranda fosterling.

      Strong young muscles gathered for the spring.  With less time and conscious thought than is required for the recounting of it, the youth noted where his fading shadow would fall, reassessed the direction of Mael, the wind, and judged with perfect accuracy the necessary effort to place his landing precisely where he had the best chance to defeat the wily cat below.  Indeed, there would only be one chance.  Mistakes are rarely forgiven by Ashtar.

      Ta’el sprang!

      His landing was perfect, but Ta’el had little time to devote to the pride of accomplishment.  To his profound regret the youth discovered that the strength of his magnificent muscles was not yet quite that of a full-grown Aranda buck.  Though he straddled the writhing and spitting cat and clutched the vicious jaws firmly in his left hand, Ta’el just lacked the power needed to twist the sinewy neck in the mighty wrench he knew would result in the instantaneous cessation of the violent struggles. As the ambitious youth strained in the silent intensity of his desperate straits, the beast's struggles threatened imminently to overwhelm him.  Ta’el knew without the slightest question that he was finished if his grip should be broken or his place astride the sinuous body be lost.

      So did Pardu, who was far more experienced in such matters.

      With appalling speed the lithe panther, still spitting and screaming his disdain for the hairless creature who had dared attack him, rolled and twisted.  In vain, Pardu sought to reach his obstinate foe with his cruel hind claws or his dripping fangs.

      Ta’el suffered the incredible beating in utter silence.  He did not waste valuable breath on returning the castigation in kind.  He dared not waste the strength.  Even so, he was already starting to weaken.  A sharp rock dug into the hand that had never lessened its grip on Pardu’s jaw.  Another blow like that and Ta’el’s nerveless fingers would slip away.  His brief career would be terminated before it ever was properly initiated.  He would die as he had lived on Ashtar – alone and nameless.

      But the very pain of the cut inflicted by the rock jolted Ta’el’s mind into cunning thought.  For the first time he understood the response of the weapon in his right hand.  It was as if the awesome object sought actively to serve him.  Tightening the grip of his left hand and locking his long legs around the heaving creature beneath him, Ta’el almost instinctively raised Leede Southerly’s crystal dagger and thrust it with deadly accuracy not once but many times into the very heart of Pardu.

      Or was it the knife itself that sought the lifeblood of the huge cat?  Even in the extremity of the moment, Ta’el himself was mystified by the sensations.  Crystal knife or he who wielded it mattered not.  The result was all, at least to the one who sought his naming, not to mention survival itself.

      Pardu suddenly collapsed to the mangled grass and became very still.  Though his enemy did not move, the young Aranda was not one to be easily misled.  He was well aware of the wiles of Pardu.  Ta’el dared not release his hold and roll free until he was certain of the profound alteration in the heavy weight which had borne him to the ground.  Only then did Ta’el, Son of Char, accept his victory.

      At first the victorious youth lay nearly as still as the slain cat.  Only the victor’s broad chest, rising and falling with the effort to restore oxygen to the overtaxed thews, revealed to uncaring Ashtar the tremendous effort that had at last earned for Ta’el of the Aranda his name.  His new-found pride quickly restored the youth to his wonted vigor.  In an effortless motion he rose to his feet and turned to Pardu's still form.  With savage dignity the youth placed one foot on the neck of his slain enemy.  Without conscious thought he slipped the knife into its makeshift sheath and raised his fine young head to the darkening skies.

      His expression was eager, but Ta’el did not attempt the Aranda cry of victory.  He had no right until the Aranda accepted his adulthood with a name signifying his true place among them.  Ta’el remained silent though his throat ached with the intensity of his pride.  But, Jer’anda-ta or Ta’el of Char, he would remain faithful to the ways of the Aranda.  He would disgrace neither Lael nor his sleeping sire.  The youth gazed skyward.  Perhaps he took the moment to ponder just what his place actually would be.

      In an unusual darkness the early stars were becoming faintly visible as Sanjera dipped beneath the treetops, eager now for his rest.  Ta’el found himself wondering how the Jer’anda might have reacted to his feat and to his admirable self-restraint.  How did the Jer’anda reward a young one who had slain his people's ancient enemy to become a buck worthy of a proud name?  Might they reward him with the name of his sire?  Were it to be offered, Char was a name Ta’el would bear with pride.

      THE SAVAGE YOUTH could not know that, many millions of kilometres away on another planet, another boy stood by his first kill, shining eyes looking to his living father for approval.

      Young Rand Southall held his rifle close as he examined the beautiful trophy at his feet.  He heard the rest of the hunting party approach and felt his companion's strong hand on his shoulder.  His throat ached with pride when he heard the deep voice speak low for his ear alone:

      “Well done,”  Lord Charwick, the pretender, pronounced; “you are a skilled marksman, my son.”  And the man smiled.

      But then he looked up, and his eyes were hard as he scanned the sky as if Chimur’s atmosphere could be pierced to reveal another planet and the secret it protected.  The smile altered, but young Rand was never to see ought of his father’s cruelty.

      On Ashtar Ta’el’s pensive mood passed swiftly.  He looked down at the magnificent beast at his feet.  The sounds of the deepening jungle night reminded him that it was unwise to lower his guard thus.  Pardu’s mate might even be nearby, seeking sign of her lord and master.  She would be as formidable an enemy as he had been.

      Ta’el’s quick eyes darted about.  Neither they nor his sensitive ears and nose revealed the presence of a fellow creature, harmless or deadly.  All the animals had swiftly departed when the antagonists first entered their battle to the death.

      The youth strode to the edge of the water, careful to remember his new maturity.  He suppressed the urge to run and leap with the exuberance that had marked his protracted childhood.  From this point on his gait would be more stately, befitting a true member of the hunterfolk band.  His posture became a perfect replica of the young bucks whom Ta’el particularly admired.  Then with a toss of his head Ta’el knelt with unconscious grace and scooped the water to his mouth.  He had not realised until now how dry his throat had become.

      The motion of his arm quickly reminded Ta’el that this victory over Pardu had not been without its price.  He was covered with a mixture of blood, matted grass and soil.  Not all the blood was Pardu’s.

      There were numerous scratches on Ta’el’s arms and legs.  As he tallied his wounds, the youth was honest enough to admit to himself that it was not entirely skill that had protected his soft belly from the deadly talons of Pardu’s strong back legs.  Perhaps the same power which long ago had maliciously caused Char’s hair to blind him while engaged in a fight for life today had intervened benevolently to protect Char’s son.

      Wasting no more time on that which can never be known, Ta’el impulsively entered the water to wash away the dirt and drying blood, all the while keeping a sharp watch over the scene of battle to ensure none came to steal his trophy.  As he swam a few strokes, he suspected he would be stiff and sore upon Sanjera’s return.

      After a refreshing swim and a noticeable relaxation of his stiffening thews, Ta’el emerged from the water.  He shook himself in the manner of the Aranda as he did so, despite the waste in the motion.  His smooth skin glistened with the clinging water.  He shivered and, not for the first time, regretted the absence of the fine silken fut that covered the massive Aranda bodies.

      The youth regarded his own slender body in despair as he shuddered off the coldness.  Perhaps he should cover his nakedness completely in the strangely indestructible stuff from which he had fashioned the covering he wore about his loins. Then only he would be aware of his ugly hairless hide.  Ta’el shuddered again and tore soft fronds from a nearby giant fern.  With these he vigorously rubbed his tawny skin dry.

      The magnificent muscles, so despised by the Aranda foundling, stretched and swelled with an agile power which would have been the envy of any of Ta’el’s Chimurian contemporaries.

      By now it had become quite dark even for late shadow death.  With a final glance skyward Ta'el lifted Pardu to one strong shoulder and began his triumphant return to the Aranda.  He would not be too early.  His band would proceed directly to the place of Pers-Alata, where Ta’el would at last become a buck.  When Sanjera returned, he would find not Ta’el, but another who had taken his place.  Soon Ta’el would fade away in the short, uncertain memories of the hunterfolk

      Ah, how great is the innocent optimism of youth!  How soon it is dashed away!

      TA’EL WALKED EASILY along the faint game trail, deeply engrossed in his thoughts.  He did not feel the heavy weight of Pardu.  He did not feel the stranger heaviness of the air or take note of the absence of Mael.  The unheard thunder rumbled closer now, and the lightning caused the sky to glow.  But Ta’el was aware only that the path to his people was free of beasts.  He returned to the Aranda without incident.

      BRAN, THE LEADER of Ta’el’s Aranda, reluctantly allowed himself to be persuaded that Char’s Ta’el indeed deserved his Naming Pers-Alata.  When tonight Solea, the moon, filled the jungle with her exquisite light, the primitive celebration of the Aranda would mark the passing of Ta’el and the birth of a new member of the band.  Those who begrudged the foundling his initiation kept their silence, for the Aranda love a celebration.

      The old alata stared at the ugly ta'el who was now a buck but for the ceremony of passage.  The inherent pride of one who was not of their kind aroused in the creature an aggression that was more defensive fear than jealousy of triumphant youth – inevitable successor to the powerful of today.

      Bran was not alone among the bucks; all nurtured the sly hope that the Jer’anda-ta would soon move to seek his place in their existing order.  The band would be better served were the peculiar creature driven away or, better still, should he soon enter long sleep.

      Only deeply ingrained patterns of behaviour kept Bran and the other mature bucks from attacking Lael’s peculiar ta without benefit of warning.  They still would refrain from attacking him after he became one of them, but they would be watching for the slightest signal from the young one that could be taken as a challenge.  Then the band would forever be rid of Jer’anda-ta.  The alata began to look forward to the ceremony.

      BY THE HOUR of the darkest midpoint of Sanjera’s absence, the scattered Aranda had instinctively found their way to the clearing that formed a natural amphitheatre well hidden within the protective growth of nearly inpenetrable tropical foliage.  The air was deathly still.  The Stygian darkness was unrelieved by the silvery light of Solea or by the lesser lights of Jera, the distant fires in the sky.

      There was a tension in the air, but none, least of all Ta’el, knew that its source was not the coming Pers-Alata.  Ok continued his petulant rumbling, and from time to time the sky glowed with a strange light that had the appearance of lightning.

      The Aranda prepared for their celebration without heed for Solea’s absence.  Ta’el was too excited to be disappointed by the absence of the moon as witness to his triumph.

      The first three Aranda bucks to arrive at the place of Pers-Alata picked up a slow tempo on the hollow stumps.  The jungle night became strangely silent but for the rhythmic sound of their huge palms against the ancient wood.  The unnatural tension was reflected in the short tempers of the gathering celebrants as they vied for a position in the ragged queue that was forming around the central mound of earth, for the moment empty and waiting.

      Without conscious knowledge of numbers the three hunterfolk at the primitive drums instinctively knew when the entire band was present.  Their rhythm changed subtly without need for any overt signal one to the others.  In response, the band began to shuffle in a circle about the unmistakable altar.  Presently, a single opening occurred in the mass of swaying bodies.  Only then did Ta'el of the Hunterfolk emerge from the depths of the surrounding blackness.  With measured step he approached, straight and proud as though he dared believe himself the finest buck among them.

      The long black hair along the spine of more than one buck rose in answer to the unspoken challenge.  But the youth remained unaware – or uncaring.  High over his head Ta’el strained his arms upward, carrying his prize among them with the bearing of a Tuathan prince approaching the throne of the high king.

        Ta’el entered the opening of the circle to take up the rhythm of the dance.  His naked body glistened with the sweat of mighty exertion, and his thews and sinews reflected the glowing sky in sculptured splendour as they strained under the dead weight of Pardu.  One full circuit of the earthen mound he completed with his fellow Aranda.

      His unsuspected stamina brought grunts of surprised respect from the bucks who were eyeing him with measuring glances of malice.  At the precise point where he had joined the circle, Ta’el-That-Was suddenly moved forward and in a single motion of studied contempt dashed the defeated enemy of the Aranda to the altar-mound.  Instantly the beat of heavy hand against hollow stump increased in perfect unison, and many voices lifted in a wordless chant of praise.

      Loudest among these was the voice of Lael.  She was delighted to find that her son's position in the line of dancers was directly opposite her own.  Her eyes glistened with pride, and her mother’s heart was near to bursting for the joy of this occasion, long-awaited.  Among the Aranda it was she alone who had known what Jer’anda-ta would become.  She had accepted in silence her companions’ jibes at his sadly retarded progress.  Now she would accept their envious glances in equal silence, but all would know it was Lael who had been right.  Lael’s son was destined some day to be alata.  The she’s pride for his achievement nearly matched that of her son.

      The dance went on long into the darkness of this strange night.  Lael’s eyes never left the form of her son as he flung himself without reservation into the increasing madness of Pers- Alata.  Only his conformation betrayed him as non-Aranda. His behaviour could not be distinguished in the slightest feature from that of his fellows.  As Lael watched, it seemed to the she that his unique difference faded before her eyes.  It was as though her son was transformed into Aranda as he leaped and swayed in unstudied concert with the hunterfolk.

      Only she, the proud mother, took note of the response of Ok and Jera.  As the wild frenzy of Pers-Alata sped to its conclusion, the rumbling grew closer, as if Ok would deign to participate.  Lael’s racing heart missed a beat.  At first she did not recognise a fear which was insinuating itself at the side of pride.

      Now the eerie flashes of light above the heads of the unsuspecting dancers had taken up the pulsing throb of the three drums.  Presently, the final moment of triumph for Ta’el and for Lael was upon them.

      Drums and dancers abruptly ceased as though in response to some invisible director.  Out of the profound silence Bran stepped forward to present the offering to the band and to proclaim the name of the newest one among them.  Lael's lips parted in an Aranda smile of satisfaction as her Jer’anda-ta pressed forward to accept the honour so long withheld.

      For the first time the violence of the night intruded on the fevered senses of the Aranda.  The tableau of grizzled leader and clean-limbed novitiate was highlighted for the briefest of instants.  Bran’s left hand rested on Pardu; his right extended toward the youth, for all the world the elder statesman promoting his protégé.  Bran’s mouth opened to proclaim the name of the new buck.  But the only sound to be heard was the incredible, ear-shattering report of Ok.

      Above the heads of the stunned Aranda many Jera of all sizes swooped and dipped in patterns that seemed to mimic the dance of Pers-Alata.  The Aranda waited and watched in awe, their own interrupted ceremony forgotten in unspoken deference to Jera’s.  Despite her fear, Lael commenced to wonder if it could be possible that the Jer’anda had returned on this night of all nights to reclaim their own.  The she stole a sidelong look at her fosterling.  Ta’el stood as he had before. Neither he nor Bran had changed position.  Both stared upward as astonished as the others.

      What could these awful Jera want?  Would they take a more active part in the ceremony?  Were they somehow offended by the events below?  Was Ta’el himself the source?  Was he to blame?  Nothing like this had ever been experienced in the lifetime of the oldest members of the band.

      Some put more distance between themselves and the Jer’anda youth.  Others moved closer, fear bringing an ugly glint to their eyes.  But there was none who dared to do but await the conclusion of the phenomenon and accept whatever must be accepted.

      Only Lael among them felt a very personal fear.  She knew it was Ta’el the Jera were seeking.  She only hoped the Jer’anda would approve of what he had become while entrusted to her and to her sleeping mate.  She dared not hope the starfolk would allow her to keep their child.  Lael had already accepted that, even without this terrible intervention, Ta’el would no longer be hers when Pers-Alata was complete.

      As if in response to Lael’s unspoken hopes and dreams, one of the largest Jera abruptly changed course.  Ok’s loudest roar yet followed all but instantaneously.  It was utterly deafening.  The huge fireball turned in its flight to threaten the terror-stricken Aranda.  None dared to move.  What was the being's purpose?

      It was not for the Aranda to decide.  Jera alone would seek out whomever had been chosen for whatever purpose.  Frozen in fear each Aranda watched the angry fire growing larger and larger in its deadly flight.  Then, when it seemed they were all to be consumed, Jera exploded into countless individual Jera much like those that had once been comfortable companions of the darkness.  Only one of these children of Jera remained on a course that threatened the folk.

      Some began to sense the heat of the speeding ball of fire.  Ok now roared so constantly, it was impossible to distinguish the beginning and end of each vocalisation.  Suddenly, the last threatening remnant of Jera appeared to slow.  Before the Aranda could react, there was a final stupendous explosion of multi-coloured light and ear-shattering sound.  Simultaneously, he who had been Ta’el was bathed in vivid green-white light.

      The others fell or were driven back by some invisible force beyond all comprehension.  Bran dropped to his knees.  The contact with the young Jer’anda-ta had been broken in the split second before Jera claimed his victim – or his child. None knew which.

      Lael heard a single scream.  She never knew it was her own.  Her beloved ta, her only child, arched in a soundless agony, unable to escape the cruel embrace of Jera.  Frozen in awe, Lael could not go to him.  Then, just as suddenly as they had appeared, the devastating sound and fire faded, leaving nothing in their wake but utter silence and the odd blackness of this night.  Only then did Lael recover her senses and race across the clearing to the body of her son.

      The others ignored Lael and her loved one as they nervously peered upward.  For, as their eyes grew accustomed to the return of darkness, they saw that the sky was still filled with many darting Jera unlike anything they had ever before seen. The lights had not quite yet become the friendly small, still fires of familiar night; nor were they the cruel jagged streaks of fire that are attended by Ok and cold Nea from the sky.  It was as though those two fires so familiar to the Aranda had combined into an intermediate and entirely malicious Jera, who hungered for the lives of the Aranda.

      At first the hunterfolk watched in rapt curiosity as the fires grew tinier, but, then, as each in turn remembered the hideous fate of the strange one, they slunk away to hide themselves until the danger had passed.  Soon only Lael remained.  Lael and her son, still as long sleep itself.

[Log, Gemini Wanderer, Day 30, Transmission interrupted]




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