Chapter 20 (part 2 of 2)

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The old warrior lay on the pallet, put himself in a meditative trance to slow his breathing as they traveled. The ship was light and fast. With its antigrav drives, it moved fluidly between worlds, its rapid acceleration apparent only as one looked out the windows and watched Dronon shrink to a tiny glowing ball, lost between the stars. Forty dronon fighter ships escorted them.

After two hours, they swooped low over the omni-mind, and Everynne got her first glimpse of the great machine. It glowed with a soft silver light. Trillions of computer crystals lay upon its surface, reflecting sunlight like a sea of molten glass. Here and there across the planet, vast tachyon communication towers rose above the plains, pointing like metallic daggers to the heavens. Beyond that, there was no hint of the monolithic processors built into the planet's interior, no sign of its power supplies.

It was beautiful.

The dronon ships flew in a V to a great city, perhaps thirty kilometers across, ringed with light. Everynne watched from the portals. The city was built under large domes, and parts of it were green with grass, blue with pools of water. She could see hills and forests under the glass, and clear streams.

The dronon ships hissed low over the city, taking nearly half an hour to make their slow procession. Everynne gazed down on small estates that had once belonged to her mother's Tharrin advisors. Hundreds of thousands of people could easily live there.

The dronon went to the interior of the city, circled the largest central dome. There was a small palace beneath it situated in some woods. Nothing exotic or costly, simply a functional building where her mother had sometimes performed her duties.

The dronon fighters circled this building twice, then dove toward a gray docking portal at the dome's edge and landed so softly in the docking bay that Everynne never felt them touch down. She went to Veriasse, stroked his cheek and whispered, "Come, Father. We're here."

Unaccountably, Veriasse had fallen asleep. They had not really rested much in nearly twenty hours, and Everynne herself was exhausted. She felt a bit dizzy, unconnected from her body, but she could never have fallen asleep with the end of the journey so near. She jostled him again, and Veriasse woke, blinking. "Yes, yes. I'm coming."

She got him up, and he stretched, walked straight and tall through the ship's exit. Gallen, Maggie, and Orick followed them down a long glass corridor into one of the domed cities.

The dronon waited at the entrance to the dome. A wall of dronon vanquishers had formed under the clear canopy, and it seemed strange to Everynne to see their black carapaces shining in the pristine daylight.

Everynne breathed deep in amazement at their sheer numbers. She estimated that at least forty thousand vanquishers had gathered to meet them. Their acidic stench filled the dome, overwhelming the scent of the green grass that they trampled. In the distance, beyond the woods, she could see the palace, a building of purple-gray stone with ivy trailing up its sides.

Atop the wall of living dronon stood their leader, a Lord Escort with facial tattoos that looked like white worms strung beneath his eyes. Veriasse had talked of him often. Xim.

Xim shouted insults in dronon, and Veriasse gave his ritual hand signals, shouted insults in return and challenged the vanquisher to ritual combat, so that he and Everynne could take their rightful place as Lords of the Swarm.

Whereas earlier she had been terrified, now Everynne felt some sense of calm. She controlled her breathing. Xim called for the Rite of Examination, flew down and stalked around her. Unlike Dinnid, he was thorough. He used his whiplike sensors, grasped her dress and pulled it up to examine her skin. Xim tasted her scent thoroughly and stopped at the back of her neck, his sensor brushing against her small scar.

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