It's early evening. The Tono tribe, like the Gilkesh everywhere, prefer to sleep during the daylight hours, and work, play, and travel at night. And the Tono, like all the tribes of the planet Taras, always feel that the day/night cycle of their world (about eighteen hours by an Earthling's clock) is a bit too short, but they can't say why. Now, with the glare of the sunset fading over the waters of Borian Bay and the familiar constellations coming into view above the mountains on the eastern horizon, the two factions take their final leave of each other.
Like beings everywhere, they are united in their awareness of a common problem, and divided in their counsel.
Now the Wanderers, who make up about a third of the Tono, are gathering to begin their journey. There are maybe six hundred of them, from old women to young mothers to baby girls. They take only what they can carry, as there are no domesticated beasts in this region of Taras. Their leader, Sethna, is the highest-ranking Priestess of the Tono. She wears the traditional emblem of the Priestesses, the skull of a large reptile called a kharakh, around her neck on a leather cord. She pretends she doesn't see the looks of the other Priestesses who've chosen to stay behind with the Fire Keepers, and who see her as a traitor. She pretends she doesn't know that they've declared a curse on her.
Food is scarce, bellies are aching, and tempers are short. But Sethna has her own reasons for joining the Wanderers.
From the portholes of the Event Horizon, the planet is still a small blue disk against the stars. A carefully calculated, painstakingly executed hyperspace jump has gotten them to this point, they will need to travel the rest of the way in normal space.
"Evolution," Densis is saying, turning the word over in her thoughts. In the Gilkesh language, the word also encompasses the meaning of "creation". Densis says the word again, and gazes intently into the holographic globe of the planet that hangs in the center of her study.
Sirp wonders where the Science Chief is going with this latest meditation; she just nods politely and looks into the globe of Taras, wondering if there is something she's supposed to be seeing in its intricate multicolored patterns. She waits for Densis to continue, as she's certain to do.
"Our ancestors evolved from the primates of the Southern Continent, Molom, back on our homeworld, Shakti," she muses. "Over millions of years, they evolved, and developed the features that make us what we are now - upright posture, toolmaking ability, night vision, intelligence, parthenogenesis, language. And yet, even now - even in our civilized, technologically advanced age - there lingers a force that wants to reverse that process. And some of them ... may have followed us here."
Sirp waits for more, but Densis is silent.
"This one's alive." The scout's voice seems deafening in the platoon leader's earpiece.
In another corner of the Galaxy, on a world ruled by empresses and petty queens, a world with cities and roadways and bureaucracies but lacking electricity or complex machinery, a special combat team moves carefully through a silent building in a small village. Outside, a safe distance away, the mayor of the village waits nervously with the CO of the offworld combat team.
"Got something, ma'am," the platoon leader calls over the radio to the CO.
"Put your camera on it," the commander says in a monotone through her radio set.
"It's moving." The squad leader motions for her women to accompany her to the corner where the motion was seen; they pick their way silently among the lifeless bodies. The squad leader turns her camera and helmet lamp (to human eyes, it would look like a weak penlight) to the source of the motion.
She is dressed like the others, who all wear identical grey skirts and tunics. Unlike them, she is, as the scout said, alive. Her eyes are wide and haunted looking.
"I didn't take the poison," she murmurs, her voice a whisper that seems to carry the echo of a graveyard. "I didn't ..." The survivor's voice trails off, and for a minute the squad leader thinks she will say no more. Then she speaks again.
"I know where it is," she says. "I know where the thing is that you're looking for. I know where you can find the Link of Atubis."