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My last night of childhood began with a visit home. T'Gatoi's sister had given us two sterile eggs. T'Gatoi gave one to my mother, brother, and sisters. She insisted that I eat the other one alone. It didn't matter. There was still enough to leave everyone feeling good. Almost everyone. My mother wouldn't take any. She sat, watching everyone drifting and dreaming without her. Most of the time she watched me.
I lay against T'Gatoi's long, velvet underside, sipping from my egg now and then, wondering why my mother denied herself such a harmless pleasure. Less of her hair would be gray if she indulged now and then. The eggs prolonged life, prolonged vigor. My father, who had never refused one in his life, had lived more than twice as long as he should have. And toward the end of his life, when he should have been slowing down, he had married my mother and fathered four children.
But my mother seemed content to age before she had to. I saw her turn away as several of T'Gatoi's limbs secured me closer. T'Gatoi liked our body heat and took advantage of it whenever she could. When I was little and at home more, my mother used to try to tell me how to behave with T'Gatoi - how to be respectful and always obedient because T'Gatoi was the Tlic government official in charge of the Preserve, and thus the most important of her kind to deal directly with Terrans. It was an honor, my mother said, that such a person had chosen to come into the family. My mother was at her most formal and severe when she was lying.
I had no idea why she was lying, or even what she was lying about. It was anhonor to have T'Gatoi in the family, but it was hardly a novelty. T'Gatoi and my mother had been friends all my mother's life, and T'Gatoi was not interested in being honored in the house she considered her second home. She simply came in, climbed onto one of her special couches, and called me over to keep her warm. It was impossible to be formal with her while lying against her and hearing her complain as usual that I was too skinny.
"You're better," she said this time, probing me with six or seven of her limbs. "You're gaining weight finally. Thinness is dangerous." The probing changed subtly, became a series of caresses.
"He's still too thin," my mother said sharply.
T'Gatoi lifted her head and perhaps a meter of her body off the couch as though she were sitting up. She looked at my mother, and my mother, her face lined and old looking, turned away.
"Lien, I would like you to have what's left of Gan's egg."
"The eggs are for the children," my mother said.
"They are for the family. Please take it."
Unwillingly obedient, my mother took it from me and put it to her mouth. There were only a few drops left in the now-shrunken, elastic shell, but she squeezed them out, swallowed them, and after a few moments some of the lines of tension began to smooth from her face.
"It's good," she whispered. "Sometimes I forget how good it is."
"You should take more," T'Gato' said. Why are you such a hurry to be old?"
My mother said nothing.
"I like being able to come here," T'Gatoi said. "This place is a refuge because of you, yet you won't take care of yourself"
T'Gatoi was hounded on the outside. Her people wanted more of us made available. Only she and her political faction stood between us and the hordes who did not understand why there was a Preserve - why any Terran could not be courted, paid, drafted, in some way made available to them. Or they did understand, but in their desperation, they did not care. She parceled us out to the desperate and sold us to the rich and powerful for their political support. Thus, we were necessities, status symbols, and an independent people. She oversaw the joining of families, putting an end to the final remnants of the earlier system of breaking up Terran families to suit impatient Tlic. I had lived outside with her. I had seen the desperate eagerness in the way some people looked at me. It was a little frightening to know that only she stood between us and that desperation that could so easily swallow us. My mother would look at her sometimes and say to me, "Take care of her." And I would remember that she too had been outside, had seen.
Now T'Gatoi used four of her limbs to push me away from her onto the floor. "Go on, Gan," she said. "Sit down there with your sisters and enjoy not being sober. You had most of the egg. Lien, come warm me."
"Nothing can buy him from me." Sober, she would not have permitted herself to refer to such things.
"Nothing," T'Gatoi agreed, humoring her.
"Did you think I would sell him for eggs? For long life? My son?"
"Not for anything," T'Gatoi said, stroking my mother's shoulders, toying with her long, graying hair.
I would like to have touched my mother, shared that moment with her. She would take my hand if I touched her now. Freed by the egg and the sting, she would smile and perhaps say things long held in. But tomorrow, she would remember all this as a humiliation. I did not want to be part of a remembered humiliation. Best just be still and know she loved me under all the duty and pride and pain.
"Xuan Hoa, take off her shoes," T'Gatoi said. "In a little while I'll sting her again and she can sleep."
My older sister obeyed, swaying drunkenly as she stood up. When she had finished, she sat down beside me and took my hand. We had always been a unit, she and I.
My mother put the back of her head against T'Gatoi's underside and tried from that impossible angle to look up into the broad, round face. "You're going to sting me again?"
"I'll sleep until tomorrow noon."
"Good. You need it. When did you sleep last?"
My mother made a wordless sound of annoyance. "I should have stepped on you when you were small enough," she muttered.
It was an old joke between them. They had grown up together, sort of, though T'Gatoi had not, in my mother's lifetime, been small enough for any Terran to step on. She was nearly three time my mother's present age, yet would still be young when my mother died of age. But T'Gatoi and my mother had met as T'Gatoi was coming into a period of rapid development - a kind of Tlic adolescence. My mother was only a child, but for a while they developed at the same rate and had no better friends than each other.
T'Gatoi had even introduced my mother to the man who became my father. My parents, pleased with each other in spite of their different ages, married as T'Gatoi was going into her family's business - politics. She and my mother saw each other less. But sometime before my older sister was born, my mother promised T'Gatoi one of her children. She would have to give one of us to someone, and she preferred T'Gatoi to some stranger.
Years passed. T'Gatoi traveled and increased her influence. The Preserve was hers by the time she came back to my mother to collect what she probably saw as her just reward for her hard work. My older sister took an instant liking to her and wanted to be chosen, but my mother was just coming to term with me and T'Gatoi liked the idea of choosing an infant and watching and taking part in all the phases of development. I'm told I was first caged within T'Gatoi's many limbs only three minutes after my birth. A few days later, I was given my first taste of egg. I tell Terrans that when they ask whether I was ever afraid of her. And I tell it to Tlic when T'Gatoi suggests a young Terran child for them and they, anxious and ignorant, demand an adolescent. Even my brother who had somehow grown up to fear and distrust the Tlic could probably have gone smoothly into one of their families if he had been adopted early enough. Sometimes, I think for his sake he should have been. I looked at him, stretched out on the floor across the room, his eyes open, but glazed as he dreamed his egg dream. No matter what he felt toward the Tlic, he always demanded his share of egg.
"Lien, can you stand up?" T'Gatoi asked suddenly.
"Stand?" my mother said. "I thought I was going to sleep."
"Later. Something sounds wrong outside." The cage was abruptly gone.
My mother recognized her tone and got up just in time to avoid being dumped on the floor. T'Gatoi whipped her three meters of body off her couch, toward the door, and out at full speed. She had bones - ribs, a long spine, a skull, four sets of limb bones per segment. But when she moved that way, twisting, hurling herself into controlled falls, landing running, she seemed not only boneless, but aquatic - something swimming through the air as though it were water. I loved watching her move.
I left my sister and started to follow her out the door, though I wasn't very steady on my own feet. It would have been better to sit and dream, better yet to find a girl and share a waking dream with her. Back when the Tlic saw us as not much more than convenient, big, warm-blooded animals, they would pen several of us together, male and female, and feed us only eggs. That way they could be sure of getting another generation of us no matter how we tried to hold out. We were lucky that didn't go on long. A few generations of it and we would have been little more than convenient, big animals.
"Hold the door open, Gan," T'Gatoi said. "And tell the family to stay back."
"What is it?" I asked.
I shrank back against the door. "Here? Alone?"
"He was trying to reach a call box, I suppose." She carried the man past me, unconscious, folded like a coat over some of her limbs. He looked young - my brother's age perhaps - and he was thinner than he should have been. What T'Gatoi would have called dangerously thin.
"Gan, go to the call box," she said. She put the man on the floor and began stripping off his clothing.
I did not move.
After a moment, she looked up at me, her sudden stillness a sign of deep impatience.
"Send Qui," I told her. "I'll stay here. Maybe I can help."
She let her limbs begin to move again, lifting the man and pulling his shirt over his head. "You don't want to see this," she said. "It will be hard. I can't help this man the way his Tlic could."
"I know. But send Qui. He won't want to be of any help here. I'm at least willing to try."
She looked at my brother - older, bigger, stronger, certainly more able to help her here. He was sitting up now, braced against the wall, staring at the man on the floor with undisguised fear and revulsion. Even she could see that he would be useless.
"Qui, go!" she said
He didn't argue. He stood up, swayed briefly, then steadied, frightened sober.
"This man's name is Bram Lomas," she told him, reading from the man's armband. I fingered my own armband in sympathy. "He needs T'Khotgif Teh. Do you hear?"
"Bram Lomas, T'Khotgif Teh," my brother said. "I'm going." He edged around Lomas and ran out the door.
Lomas began to regain consciousness. He only moaned at first and clutched spasmodically at a pair of T'Gatoi's limbs. My younger sister, finally awake from her egg dream, came close to look at him, until my mother pulled her back.
T'Gatoi removed the man's shoes, then his pants, all the while leaving him two of her limbs to grip. Except for the final few, all her limbs were equally dexterous. "I want no argument from you this time, Gan," she said.
I straightened. "What shall I do?"
"Go out and slaughter an animal that is at least half your size."
"Slaughter? But I've never - "
She knocked me across the room. Her tail was an efficient weapon whether she exposed the sting or not.
out in reprisal back during the assassinations.
I went out to the cages and shot the biggest achti I could find. It was a handsome breeding male, and my mother would not be pleased to see me bring it in. But it was the right size, and I was in a hurry.
I put the achti's long, warm body over my shoulder - glad that some of the weight I'd gained was muscle - and took it to the kitchen. There, I put the gun back in its hiding place. If T'Gatoi noticed the achti's wounds and demanded the gun, I would give it to her. Otherwise, let it stay where my father wanted it.
I turned to take the achti to her, then hesitated. For several seconds, I stood in front of the closed door wondering why I was suddenly afraid. I knew what was going to happen. I hadn't seen it before but T'Gatoi had shown me diagrams and drawings. She had made sure I knew the truth as soon as I was old enough to understand it.
Yet I did not want to go into that room. I wasted a little time choosing a knife from the carved, wooden box in which my mother kept them. T'Gatoi might want one, I told myself, for the tough, heavily furred hide of the achti.
"Gan!" T'Gatoi called, her voice harsh with urgency.
I swallowed. I had not imagined a single moving of the feet could be so difficult. I realized I was trembling and that shamed me. Shame impelled me through the door.
I put the achti down near T'Gatoi and saw that Lomas was unconscious again. She, Lomas, and I were alone in the room - my mother and sisters probably sent out so they would not have to watch. I envied them.
But my mother came back into the room as T'Gatoi seized the achti. Ignoring the knife I offered her, she extended claws from several of her limbs and slit the achti from throat to anus. She looked at me, her yellow eyes intent. "Hold this man's shoulders, Gan."
I stared at Lomas in panic, realizing that I did not want to touch him, let alone hold him. This would not be like shooting an animal. Not as quick, not as merciful, and, I hoped, not as final, but there was nothing I wanted less than to be part of it.
My mother came forward. "Gan, you hold his right side," she said. "I'll hold his left." And if he came to, he would throw her off without realizing he had done it. She was a tiny woman. She often wondered aloud how she had produced, as she said, such "huge" children.
"Never mind," I told her, taking the man's shoulders. "I'll do it." She hovered nearby.
"Don't worry," I said. "I won't shame you. You don't have to stay and watch."
She looked at me uncertainly, then touched my face in a rare caress. Finally, she went back to her bedroom.
T'Gatoi lowered her head in relief "Thank you, Gan," she said with courtesy more Terran than Tlic. "That one ... she is always finding new ways for me to make her suffer."
Lomas began to groan and make choked sounds. I had hoped he would stay unconscious. T'Gatoi put her face near his so that he focused on her.
"I've stung you as much as I dare for now," she told him. "When this is over, I'll sting you to sleep and you won't hurt anymore."
"Please," the man begged. Wait . . ."
"There's no more time, Bram. I'll sting you as soon as it s over. When T'Khotgif Teh arrives she'll give you eggs to help you heal. It will be over soon."
"T'Khotgif!" the man shouted, straining against my hands.
"Soon, Bram." T'Gatoi glanced at me, then placed a claw against his abdomen slightly to the right of the middle, just below the left rib. There was movement on the right side - tiny, seemingly random pulsations moving his brown flesh, creating a concavity here, a convexity there, over and until I could see the rhythm of it and knew where the next pulse would be.
Lomas's entire body stiffened under T'Gatoi's claw, though she merely rested it against him as she wound the rear section of her body around his legs. He might break my grip, but he would not break hers. He wept helplessly as she used his pants to tie his hands, then pushed his hands above his head so that I could kneel on the cloth between them and pin them in place. She rolled up his shirt and gave it to him to bite down on.
And she opened him.
His body convulsed with the first cut. He almost tore himself away from me. The sound he made . . . I had never heard such sounds come from anything human. T'Gatoi seemed to pay no attention as she lengthened and deepened the cut, now and then pausing to lick away blood. His blood vessels contracted, reacting to the chemistry of her saliva, and the bleeding slowed.
I felt as though I were helping her torture him, helping her consume him. I knew I would vomit soon, didn't know why I hadn't already. I couldn't possibly last until she was finished.
She found the first grub. It was fat and deep red with his blood - both inside and out. It had already eaten its own egg case but apparently had not yet begun to eat its host. At this stage, it would eat any flesh except its mother's. Let alone, it would have gone on excreting the poisons that had both sickened and alerted Lomas. Eventually it would have begun to eat. By the time it ate its way out of Lomas's flesh, Lomas would be dead or dying - and unable to take revenge on the thing that was killing him. There was always a grace period between the time the host sickened and the time the grubs began to eat him.
T'Gatoi picked up the writhing grub carefully and looked at it, somehow ignoring the terrible groans of the man.
Abruptly, the man lost consciousness.
"Good," T'Gatoi looked down at him. "I wish you Terrans could do that at will." She felt nothing. And the thing she held ...
It was limbless and boneless at this stage, perhaps fifteen centimeters long and two thick, blind and slimy with blood. It was like a large worm. T'Gatoi put it into the belly of the achti, and it began at once to burrow. It would stay there and eat as long as there was anything to eat.
Probing through Lomas's flesh, she found two more, one of them smaller and more vigorous. "A male!" she said happily. He would be dead before I would. He would be through his metamorphosis and screwing everything that would hold still before his sisters even had limbs. He was the only one to make a serious effort to bite T'Gatoi as she placed him in the achti.
Paler worms oozed to visibility in Lomas's flesh. I closed my eyes. It was worse than finding something dead, rotting, and filled with tiny animal grubs. And it was far worse than any drawing or diagram.
"Ah, there are more," T'Gatoi said, plucking out two long, thick grubs. You may have to kill another animal, Gan. Everything lives inside you Terrans."
I had been told all my life that this was a good and necessary thing Tlic and Terran did together - a kind of birth. I had believed it until now. I knew birth was painful and bloody, no matter what. But this was something else, something worse. And I wasn't ready to see it. Maybe I never would be. Yet I couldn't not see it. Closing my eyes didn't help.
T'Gatoi found a grub still eating its egg case. The remains of the case were still wired into a blood vessel by their own little tube or hook or whatever. That was the way the grubs were anchored and the way they fed. They took only blood until they were ready to emerge. Then they ate their stretched, elastic egg cases. Then they ate their hosts.
T'Gatoi bit away the egg case, licked away the blood. Did she like the taste? Did childhood habits die hard - or not die at all?
The whole procedure was wrong, alien. I wouldn't have thought anything about her could seem alien to me.
"One more, I think," she said. "Perhaps two. A good family. In a host animal these days, we would be happy to find one or two alive." She glanced at me. "Go outside, Gan, and empty your stomach. Go now while the man is unconscious."
I staggered out, barely made it. Beneath the tree just beyond the front door, I vomited until there was nothing left to bring up. Finally, I stood shaking, tears streaming down my face. I did not know why I was crying, but I could not stop. I went further from the house to avoid being seen. Every time I closed my eyes I saw red worms crawling over redder human flesh.
There was a car coming toward the house. Since Terrans were forbidden motorized vehicles except for certain farm equipment, I knew this must be Lomas's Tlic with Qui and perhaps a Terran doctor. I wiped my face on my shirt, struggled for control.
"Gan," Qui called as the car stopped. "What happened?" He crawled out of the low, round, Tlic-convenient car door. Another Terran crawled out the other side and went into the house without speaking to me. The doctor. With his help and a few eggs, Lomas might make it.
"T'Khotgif Teh?" I said.
The Tlic driver surged out of her car, reared up half her length before me. She was paler and smaller than T'Gatoi - probably born from the body of an animal. Tlic from Terran bodies were always larger as well as more numerous.
"Six young," I told her. "Maybe seven, all alive. At least one male."
"Lomas?" she said harshly. I liked her for the question and the concern in her voice when she asked it. The last coherent thing he had said was her name.
"He's alive," I said.
She surged away to the house without another word.
"She's been sick," my brother said, watching her go. "When I called, I could hear people telling her she wasn't well enough to go out even for this."
I said nothing. I had extended courtesy to the Tlic. Now I didn't want to talk to anyone. I hoped he would go in - out of curiosity if nothing else.
"Finally found out more than you wanted to know, eh?"
I looked at him.
"Don't give me one of her looks," he said. "You're not her. You're just her property."
One of her looks. Had I picked up even an ability to imitate her expressions?
"What'd you do, puke?" He sniffed the air. "So now you know what you're in for."
I walked away from him. He and I had been close when we were kids. He would let me follow him around when I was home, and sometimes T'Gatoi would let me bring him along when she took me into the city. But something had happened when he reached adolescence. I never knew what. He began keeping out of T'Gatoi's way. Then he began running away - until he realized there was no "away." Not in the Preserve. Certainly not outside. After that he concentrated on getting his share of every egg that came into the house and on looking out for me in a way that made me all but hate him - a way that clearly said, as long as I was all right, he was safe from the Tlic.
"How was it, really?" he demanded, following me.
"I killed an achti. The young ate it."
"You didn't run out of the house and puke because they ate an achti."
"I had ... never seen a person cut open before." That was true, and enough for him to know. I couldn't talk about the other. Not with him.
"Oh," he said. He glanced at me as though he wanted to say more, but he kept quiet.
We walked, not really headed anywhere. Toward the back, toward the cages, toward the fields.
"Did he say anything?" Qui asked. "Lomas, I mean."
Who else would he mean? "He said T'Khotgif."
Qui shuddered. "If she had done that to me, she'd be the last person I'd call for."
"You'd call for her. Her sting would ease your pain without killing the grubs in you."
"You think I'd care if they died?"
No. Of course he wouldn't. Would I?
"Shit!" He drew a deep breath. "I've seen what they do. You think this thing with Lomas was bad? It was nothing."
I didn't argue. He didn't know what he was talking about.
"I saw them eat a man," he said.
I turned to face him. "You're lying!"
"I saw them eat a man." He paused. "It was when I was little. I had been to the Hartmund house and I was on my way home. Halfway here, I saw a man and a Tlic and the man was N'Tlic. The ground was hilly. I was able to hide from them and watch. The Tlic wouldn't open the man because she had nothing to feed the grubs. The man couldn't go any further and there were no houses around. He was in so much pain, he told her to kill him. He begged her to kill him. Finally, she did. She cut his throat. One swipe of one claw. I saw the grubs eat their way out, then burrow in again, still eating."
His words made me see Lomas's flesh again, parasitized, crawling. "Why didn't you tell me that?" I whispered.
He looked startled as though he'd forgotten I was listening. "I don't know."
"You started to run away not long after that, didn't you?"
"Yeah. Stupid. Running inside the Preserve. Running in a cage."
I shook my head, said what I should have said to him long ago. "She wouldn't take you, Qui. You don't have to worry."
"She would . . . if anything happened to you."
"No. She'd take Xuan Hoa. Hoa . . . wants it." She wouldn't if she had stayed to watch Lomas.
"They don't take women," he said with contempt.
"They do sometimes." I glanced at him. Actually, they prefer women. You should be around them when they talk among themselves. They say women have more body fat to protect the grubs. But they usually take men to leave the women free to bear their own young."
"To provide the next generation of host animals," he said, switching from contempt to bitterness.
"It's more than that!" I countered. Was it?
"If it were going to happen to me, I'd want to believe it was more, too.
"It is more!" I felt like a kid. Stupid argument.
"Did you think so while T'Gatoi was picking worms out of that guy's guts?"
"It's not supposed to happen that way."
"Sure it is. You weren't supposed to see it, that's all. And his Tlic was supposed to do it. She could sting him unconscious and the operation wouldn't have been as painful. But she'd still open him, pick out the grubs, and if she missed even one, it would poison him and eat him from the inside out."
There was actually a time when my mother told me to show respect for Qui because he was my older brother. I walked away, hating him. In his way, he was gloating. He was safe and I wasn't. I could have hit him, but I didn't think I would be able to stand it when he refused to hit back, when he looked at me with contempt and pity.
He wouldn't let me get away. Longer legged, he swung ahead of me and made me feel as though I were following him.
"I'm sorry," he said.
I strode on, sick and furious.
"Look, it probably won't be that bad with you. T'Gatoi likes you. She'll be careful."
I turned back toward the house, almost running from him.
"Has she done it to you yet?" he asked, keeping up easily. "I mean, you're about the right age for implantation. Has she -"
I hit him. I didn't know I was going to do it, but I think I meant to kill him. If he hadn't been bigger and stronger, I think I would have.
He tried to hold me off, but in the end, had to defend himself. He only hit me a couple of times. That was plenty. I don't remember going down, but when I came to, he was gone. It was worth the pain to be rid of him.
I got up and walked slowly toward the house. The back was dark. No one was in the kitchen. My mother and sisters were sleeping in their bedrooms - or pretending to.
Once I was in the kitchen, I could hear voices - Tlic and Terran from the next room. I couldn't make out what they were saying - didn't want to make it out.
I sat down at my mother's table, waiting for quiet. The table was smooth and worn, heavy and well crafted. My father had made it for her just before he died. I remembered hanging around underfoot when he built it. He didn't mind. Now I sat leaning on it, missing him. I could have talked to him. He had done it three times in his long life. Three clutches of eggs, three times being opened up and sewed up. How had he done it? How did anyone do it?
I got up, took the rifle from its hiding place, and sat down again with it. It needed cleaning, oiling.
All I did was load it.
She made a lot of little clicking sounds when she walked on bare floor, each limb clicking in succession as it touched down. Waves of little clicks.
She came to the table, raised the front half of her body above it, and surged onto it. Sometimes she moved so smoothly she seemed to flow like water itself She coiled herself into a small hill in the middle of the table and looked at me.
"That was bad," she said softly. "You should not have seen it. It need not be that way."
"T'Khotgif - Ch'Khotgif now - she will die of her disease. She will not live to raise her children. But her sister will provide for them, and for Bram Lomas." Sterile sister. One fertile female in every lot. One to keep the family going. That sister owed Lomas more than she could ever repay.
"He'll live then?"
"I wonder if he would do it again."
"No one would ask him to do that again."
I looked into the yellow eyes, wondering how much I saw and understood there, and how much I only imagined. "No one ever asks us," I said. "You never asked me."
She moved her head slightly. "What's the matter with your face?"
"Nothing. Nothing important." Human eyes probably wouldn't have noticed the swelling in the darkness. The only light was from one of the moons, shining through a window across the room.
"Did you use the rifle to shoot the achti?"
"And do you mean to use it to shoot me?"
I stared at her, outlined in the moonlight - coiled, graceful body. "What does Terran blood taste like to you?"
She said nothing.
"What are you?" I whispered. "What are we to you?"
She lay still, rested her head on her topmost coil. "You know me as no other does," she said softly. "You must decide."
"That's what happened to my face," I told her.
"Qui goaded me into deciding to do something. It didn't turn out very well." I moved the gun slightly, brought the barrel up diagonally under my own chin. "At least it was a decision I made."
"As this will be."
"Ask me, Gatoi."
"For my children's lives?"
She would say something like that. She knew how to manipulate people, Terran and Tlic. But not this time.
"I don't want to be a host animal," I said. "Not even yours."
It took her a long time to answer. "We use almost no host animals these days," she said. "You know that."
"You use us."
"We do. We wait long years for you and teach you and join our families to yours." She moved restlessly. "You know you aren't animals to us."
I stared at her, saying nothing.
"The animals we once used began killing most of our eggs after implantation long before your ancestors arrived," she said softly. "You know these things, Gan. Because your people arrived, we are relearning what it means to be a healthy, thriving people. And your ancestors, fleeing from their homeworld, from their own kind who would have killed or enslaved them - they survived because of us. We saw them as people and gave them the Preserve when they still tried to kill us as worms."
At the word "worms," I jumped. I couldn't help it, and she couldn't help noticing it.
"I see," she said quietly. "Would you really rather die than bear my young, Gan?"
I didn't answer.
"Shall I go to Xuan Hoa?"
"Yes!" Hoa wanted it. Let her have it. She hadn't had to watch Lomas. She'd be proud.... Not terrified.
T'Gatoi flowed off the table onto the floor, startling me almost too much.
"I'll sleep in Hoa's room tonight," she said. And sometime tonight or in the morning, I'll tell her."
This was going too fast. My sister Hoa had had almost as much to do with raising me as my mother. I was still close to her - not like Qui. She could want T'Gatoi and still love me.
She looked back, then raised nearly half her length off the floor and turned to face me. "These are adult things, Gan. This is my life, my family!"
"But she's ... my sister."
"I have done what you demanded. I have asked you!"
"It will be easier for Hoa. She has always expected to carry other lives inside her."
Human lives. Human young who should someday drink at her breasts, not at her veins.
I shook my head. "Don't do it to her, Gatoi." I was not Qui. It seemed I could become him, though, with no effort at all. I could make Xuan Hoa my shield. Would it be easier to know that red worms were growing in her flesh instead of mine?
"Don't do it to Hoa," I repeated.
She stared at me, utterly still.
I looked away, then back at her. "Do it to me."
I lowered the gun from my throat and she leaned forward to take it.
"No," I told her.
"It's the law," she said.
"Leave it for the family. One of them might use it to save my life someday."
She grasped the rifle barrel, but I wouldn't let go. I was pulled into a standing position over her.
"Leave it here!" I repeated. "If we're not your animals, if these are adult things, accept the risk. There is risk, Gatoi, in dealing with a partner."
It was clearly hard for her to let go of the rifle. A shudder went through her and she made a hissing sound of distress. It occurred to me that she was afraid. She was old enough to have seen what guns could do to people. Now her young and this gun would be together in the same house. She did not know about the other guns. In this dispute, they did not matter.
"I will implant the first egg tonight," she said as I put the gun away. "Do you hear, Gan?"
Why else had I been given a whole egg to eat while the rest of the family was left to share one? Why else had my mother kept looking at me as though I were going away from her, going where she could not follow? Did T'Gatoi imagine I hadn't known?
"Now!" I let her push me out of the kitchen, then walked ahead of her toward my bedroom. The sudden urgency in her voice sounded real. "You would have done it to Hoa tonight!" I accused.
"I must do it to someone tonight."
I stopped in spite of her urgency and stood in her way. "Don't you care who?"
She flowed around me and into my bedroom. I found her waiting on the couch we shared. There was nothing in Hoa's room that she could have used. She would have done it to Hoa on the floor. The thought of her doing it to Hoa at all disturbed me in a different way now, and I was suddenly angry.
Yet I undressed and lay down beside her. I knew what to do, what to expect. I had been told all my life. I felt the familiar sting, narcotic, mildly pleasant. Then the blind probing of her ovipositor. The puncture was painless, easy. So easy going in. She undulated slowly against me, her muscles forcing the egg from her body into mine. I held on to a pair of her limbs until I remembered Lomas holding her that way. Then I let go, moved inadvertently, and hurt her. She gave a low cry of pain and I expected to be caged at once within her limbs. When I wasn't, I held on to her again, feeling oddly ashamed.
"I'm sorry," I whispered.
She rubbed my shoulders with four of her limbs.
"Do you care?" I asked. "Do you care that it's me?"
She did not answer for some time. Finally, "You were the one making the choices tonight, Gan. I made mine long ago."
"Would you have gone to Hoa?"
"Yes. How could I put my children into the care of one who hates them?"
"It wasn't ... hate."
"I know what it was."
"I was afraid."
"I still am." I could admit it to her here, now.
"But you came to me ... to save Hoa."
"Yes." I leaned my forehead against her. She was cool velvet, deceptively soft. "And to keep you for myself," I said. It was so. I didn't understand it, but it was so.
She made a soft hum of contentment. "I couldn't believe I had made such a mistake with you," she said. "I chose you. I believed you had grown to choose me."
"I had, but . . ."
"I had never known a Terran to see a birth and take it well. Qui has seen one, hasn't he?"
"Terrans should be protected from seeing."
I didn't like the sound of that - and I doubted that it was possible. "Not protected," I said. "Shown. Shown when we're young kids, and shown more than once. Gatoi, no Terran ever sees a birth that goes right. All we see is N'Tlic - pain and terror and maybe death."
She looked down at me. "It is a private thing. It has always been a private thing."
Her tone kept me from insisting - that and the knowledge that if she changed her mind, I might be the first public example. But I had planted the thought in her mind. Chances were it would grow, and eventually, she would experiment.
"You won't see it again," she said. "I don't want you thinking any more about shooting me."
The small amount of fluid that came into me with her egg relaxed me as completely as a sterile egg would have, so that I could remember the rifle in my hands and my feelings of fear and revulsion, anger and despair. I could remember the feelings without reviving them. I could talk about them.
"I wouldn't have shot you," I said. Not you." She had been taken from my father's flesh when he was my age.
"You could have," she insisted.
"Not you." She stood between us and her own people, protecting, interweaving.
"Would you have destroyed yourself?"
I moved carefully, uncomfortable. "I could have done that. I nearly did. That's Qui's away.' I wonder if he knows."
I did not answer.
"You will live now."
"Yes." Take care of her, my mother used to say. Yes.
"I'm healthy and young," she said. "I won't leave you as Lomas was left - alone, N'Tlic. I'll take care of you.
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