Chapter 18 (part 3 of 3)

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She ran laughing into the bowels of the city, and Gallen ran beside her, bearing the torch, sometimes touching her shyly. At last they reached a storage chamber and walked down a long corridor. Various implements of unknown intent had been piled along the walls, the machinery of a forgotten age. Enormous capacitor coils rose up for ten meters, sitting like huge thimbles. Spare legs for the hive city were strung from the ceiling. Bits of round, antique flying message pods lay heaped in a pile, and Maggie's mantle warned her to fill her pockets with them so she could disassemble them later. Things that looked like dronon heads made of glass-with three sets of compound eyes-lay in a heap, as if in some distant past the dronon had tried creating androids. Or perhaps, Maggie wondered, there were even now dronon-shaped androids running about in the hive cities. But her mantle whispered that if such things existed, they had never been seen on any world.

Much of what she saw her mantle could understand-bits of cabling, servomotors, a shelf heaped with mechanical brains, outdated egg-warming chambers. These things she would explain to Gallen. Yet much of it was equally mysterious to her. Most of the dronon equipment was bulky, five times as heavy as anything a human would use. The dronon seemed to prefer their machinery to be durable rather than lightweight or convenient.

In one vast chamber, they found what could have only been a spaceship. It was a small vessel, eighty feet long, forty wide, shaped like a Y. Maggie didn't know if she could fly it.

She opened the hatch, went inside, and her mantle whispered to her as she studied the engines. She told Gallen, "This has a gravity-wave drive. We couldn't take it out of the solar system. Still, I'll bet it's fast." She went to the control board. The chairs before the panel were saddle-shaped affairs meant to hold a dronon body, and various foot pedals on the floor looked too intricate for any being with less than four legs to operate. The hand controls were set on a dashboard nearly five feet away and could only be manipulated by something with long arms. Maggie grinned, realizing that this must be an ancient dronon warship, for only the vanquishers with their long battle arms could have worked those controls.

She was giddy with excitement, grinning in wonder. She laughed, then laid back on one of the saddle-shaped chairs and stretched. Gallen set the torch in a groove on the ship's control panel, then turned and looked at her, perplexed. "I've never seen you in this kind of mood before."

"What kind of mood?"

"So ecstatic. So free."

Maggie laughed. "That's because I've never been happy or free before," and she realized that there was more truth in it than she would have dared admit to herself.

"Your smile looks good on you," Gallen said. He swung his leg over the saddle, sat facing her, his legs wrapped around hers. He lay back with his arms folded behind his head. His half-closed eyes looked tired, and the flames from the torch flickered, showing only half of his face. She felt electric, wanted to kiss him now, make love, but Gallen only studied her a moment.

Maggie's mantle whispered for her to get up, look deeper into the storage chambers. She took it off and held it in one hand, not wanting to be distracted by its insistent promptings.

Gallen leaned forward, stroked her jawbone tenderly with his fingers, and kissed her. It was an odd kiss, she thought. It wasn't insistent with desire, nor was it one of the guilty little pecks that Gallen had given her back home. It was slower than dripping honey and tasted just as sweet. It spoke to her, saying, "I love you just as you are, and right now I am content with that."

They held each other and kissed for a few minutes, then Gallen leaned back again, pillowing his head with his hands.

"Damn you, Gallen O'Day," Maggie said. "It took you long enough."

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