Chapter 12 (part 2 of 3)

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"Then we will at least have established a precedent that would give humans the right to battle for succession," Veriasse answered. "I have provided key people on several worlds with tissue samples from Everynne. Thousands of clones could be made. In time, one of her escorts could win the battle."

"Would you then detonate the Terror on Dronon?"

Everynne shook her head. "We couldn't. Our best hope for success in this contest is to fight the dronon within the bounds of their laws. My mother and the Tharrin considered this course of action for many years. This is the best way to win back our worlds. Otherwise, billions of innocent people will die on both sides of the battle. Surely you see that this is how it must be?"

"But if you don't win," Maggie said, "you will be subjecting your people to years of domination by the dronon. You can't let that happen. The aberlains are making such far-reaching changes that in another generation, our children will no longer be human. You can't let that happen!" Maggie's eyes went wide. Though she had appeared calm over the past two days, Gallen could see how her experience on Fale had devastated her.

Veriasse sighed, and Everynne tried to comfort her. "It will be a sad day, even if we win," Everynne admitted. "Under Tharrin law, we also permitted upgrades on humans—but only within the limits agreed upon by their parents. We wanted all people to be decent and free, and earn the right to immortality. Sometimes we allowed upgrades of whole civilizations so that a people might become better adapted to their own world. But these sad creatures the dronon are forming—my heart bleeds for them. I fear that there will be little place for them in our society. We will give them the opportunity to go to Dronon, if they so desire, carve a niche among the hives. Those who choose to remain with us may have their children reverse-engineered. And I promise you, the aberlains will be punished."

Gallen could see that Everynne was not gambling with the future of her people. She would either win and live, or she would die and give her people new hope in the process. In either case, Gallen suddenly yearned to go to Dronon to see what would happen—even if it meant dying in the nanotech fire of a world-burning Terror.

Gallen thrust his incendiary rifle into its sheath, pulled his sword from the sand, and began to dry the dripping blade by whipping it over his head in complex patterns.

"Veriasse," Maggie said, "I have been wondering. Even in my short time working for the aberlains, I concluded that your guardians could have been engineered better. They could be more heavily armored, could be virtually invincible. Since they were Lady Semarritte's only police force, I find it odd that they are this weak. Orick killed one with his teeth."

"Lady Semarritte did not rule with an iron hand," Veriasse said. "The Tharrin rule by the will of the people. Yes, the guardians are imperfect. Part of their weakness stems from the fact that they are based upon models that are very old. But we have always known that someday, someone like the dronon could gain control of an omni-mind. Since guardian officers wear Guides and receive orders directly from the omni-mind, any usurper who controls the omni-mind also controls fleets and armies with billions of warriors spread out across ten thousand worlds. Isn't it a comfort to know that a human has some hope of beating them?"

Gallen thrust the blade into his sheath. "Let's go," he said as he turned and began walking toward the distant shore.

They chugged through the warm water for the next three hours with only one brief rest. The sea had little salt in it and remained marvelously clear. By picking a trail through shallows, they spent most of their time in water that didn't reach their hips, though they could often look out into deeper pools. In places, rock formations thrust up to create submerged islands. Here, fish swarmed in great silver schools that darted out to the depths and then raced back to the shelter of the rocks. Twice they saw great beasts swimming in the depths, chasing fish. Veriasse warned Gallen to watch for the creatures. "Puas, they are called," he said. "They feed on fish and anything else they can swallow."

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