Chapter 12 (part 3 of 3)

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"No—I know it will end," Everynne said. "My mother was far older and wiser than I. The dronon had been lurking on her borders for thousands of years. She had millennia to prepare for her battle with them, and still she died. I think my chances of winning are nil. But even if I win, I will be changed. You know what it is to fuse with a personal intelligence, the wonder and pain that all burst in on you in a moment. But an omni-mind is the size of a planet and stores more information than a trillion personal intelligences combined. I am ... less than an insect compared to it. My mother and it grew to become one, and when her body died, it would download her personality into her clones. It stores everything that was my mother-all her thoughts, her dreams, her memories. And if I fuse with it, I will no longer be me in any way that matters. Her experiences will overwhelm me, and it will be as if I never existed."

"You would still be you," Gallen said, hoping to comfort her. "You wouldn't lose that." But he knew he was wrong. As far as the omni-mind was concerned, Everynne was just a shell, a template of the Great Judge Semarritte, waiting to be filled. In the space of a moment, Everynne would grow, learn more than he or billions of other people could ever hope to know. Yet her personality, her essence, would be swept away as something of no importance.

She turned and looked into his eyes, smiled sadly. "You're right, of course," she said, as if to ease his mind. The wind blew her hair; Gallen looked into her dark blue eyes.

"Maybe," Gallen offered, "someone else could take your place. There are other Tharrin. Perhaps Grandmother would reign in your behalf."

Everynne shook her head. "She is a grand lady, but she would not take my place. A Lord Judge must earn that position, but Grandmother could not earn that title. All of the Tharrin knew of Semarritte's plan to return as a clone. I sometimes wonder if I am worthy to become a Servant of All, but the Tharrin treat me as if I am but an extension of Semarritte. They say that once I join with the omni-mind, my own short life will have meant nothing. I will be Semarritte." She paused, took a deep breath. "I want to thank you for what you did today."

"What do you mean?"

"When you pulled the incendiary rifle on us. I'm glad that you're not the kind of person who would follow me blindly. Too few people question my motives."

"Do you feel that your motives need questioning?"

"Of course!" Everynne fell silent for a moment; Gallen heard someone laugh in the distance. It was growing dark, and Gallen felt he should go, but Everynne was standing close to him, only a hand's breadth away. She gazed into his face, leaned forward and kissed him, wrapped her arms around him.

"Question my motives," she whispered fiercely. Her lips were warm, inviting.

Gallen took her request literally. "You're afraid that you will die soon," Gallen whispered, and he kissed her back. She leaned into him, her firm breasts crushing into his chest.

"I think I'm falling in love with you," she whispered. "I want to know what it's like for me to be in love."

Gallen considered the way that she had said it, pulled back. "Veriasse was your mother's escort. Was he also her lover?"

Everynne nodded, and suddenly Gallen understood. Once the omni-mind downloaded its memories, Everynne would become Semarritte in every way. Veriasse was not just trying to restore the Great Lord Judge to his people. He was rebuilding his wife. "He has never touched me, never made love to me," Everynne said. "But I can see how I torment him. I'm but a child to him, a shadow of the woman he loves. Sometimes he watches me, and I can see how his desire tears at him."

Everynne leaned close for a long moment. Gallen could feel her heart hammering against his chest. "Give me this night," she said. "Whatever comes later, let me stay with you tonight."

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