Chapter 24

Only moments before, Elilu had been leaning on Zamin for comfort. Now she found their roles abruptly reversed.

She could feel him trembling against her. The symbols on the hologram in front of them were incomprehensible, something she'd have to work on fixing as quickly as she could, but she understood what they meant to him. She turned around in his arms so that she could see his face.

He was staring at the hologram, his eyes wide and his jaw held rigid. She pressed her hand to his cheek. "Zamin? Zamin, look at me. Look at me!"

He blinked and his eyes moved to her, unfocused as if he was seeing through her, a look of bewildered fear spreading over his face. His shaking was intensifying.

"I need you to calm down for me, all right? Please. Calm down. Are you listening to me? Listen to me!" Without even realizing it, she stepped into an older and more familiar mode: the college professor handling the panicked student. "I want you to tell me all of the possible reasons for radio silence. All of them."

He swallowed and his eyes finally focused on her. After another second, he answered her. "Reasons for radio silence…" The tremor in his voice was severe, almost making it difficult to understand him. He swallowed again and his voice firmed a little. "They include damage to a transmitter or relay which has taken it offline… a political situation which requires parties to cease transmitting… uh… loss of technical competence in a local population…"

He closed his eyes and shook his head, but he seemed to be calming down. The shaking was subsiding.

"All right," she said when he didn't resume. "So there are at least three possible explanations. Which one would be most likely here? How many relays are we directly in contact with?"

His eyes opened and she felt his whole body abruptly relax. "Just one."

"And we're getting no signal from it?" He nodded in answer to her question, so she pressed it further. "Could it be offline?"

"Could it…?" A hopeful look appeared on his face. "Yes. Yes, it could."

"Tell me how they work. Can we test it?"

Zamin frowned, putting his arms around her and slipping one hand into her hair. He seemed to be touching her for comfort and reassurance. That was fine with her!

"It transmits in two ways." His voice had taken on the rote tone of a student reciting a textbook passage from memory. "It picks up narrow-beam hyperwave signals from the other relays and passes them on, and it simultaneously broadcasts those transmissions in the surrounding space. The broadcasts have a solid range of approximately one light-year, but after that, the signal deteriorates. The narrow beams can travel at least ten light years before they begin to deteriorate, so that's generally the maximum distance that the relays are placed from each other."

"That makes sense," David said quietly. He'd hurried over to the bar while she was trying to calm Zamin down, and had returned with a glass of water. Zamin accepted it with a grateful look and drank it down. "That's a typical dispersal rate for electromagnetic transmissions. Until about eighty years ago, humans on Earth thought that they were sending their radio and television signals out to distant worlds, until SETI – sorry, that's the 'Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence,' Zamin – SETI discovered that broadcast signals deteriorated back to white noise before they were two light-years out. On the way here, I sent a regular transmission to this world in the hopes that someone would receive it, but each time I sent it, I had to target a precise set of coordinates and hope that there would be a receiver at the other end. The closer we came, the broader an area I could target. But even then, someone would need to be listening for a signal. I wasn't really surprised to get no response, although I know that Dr. Holloway was disappointed."

Zamin nodded, looking even calmer.

"So the ship's listening for a broadcast and not finding one, right?" Meredith asked. When Zamin nodded again, she responded with a nod of her own. "Okay, I can think of several reasons that would be the case. First, I'm betting that the world we just left behind was the only inhabited world within a light-year, right? So as far as anybody knows, there's been nobody to pick up a broadcast near here for the last two thousand years. Could the relay have been reset to pass along signals on the narrow beam without broadcasting them, to conserve energy?"

"Maybe." Zamin sounded dubious about that idea, but Elilu could feel him regaining even more of his calm.

"Second, maybe the broadcasting hardware broke down and nobody bothered to come fix it. Because, again, who was listening anyway? Third, maybe the whole relay broke and all of the signals just got rerouted, since this system was considered a write-off. So here's my question. How do we check? I don't just mean asking your ship to listen for transmissions again. I mean, can we query the relay?" Meredith's face had taken on the cool, shrewd, businesslike expression that Elilu remembered from the staff meeting on the ship, but she understood it so much better now. This was her method of helping Zamin to focus.

It was working. The slack, lost look had faded from his face and his expression had become purposeful. "We could, but we wouldn't get an answer. We're traveling faster than hyper-radio waves right now. In hyperspace, everything outside of the ship's stabilization field inverts. Smaller particles move more slowly than larger ones, and waveforms move the most slowly of all. It's all going a lot faster than the speed of light in normal space, but it means that a ship can beat a hyper-radio transmission by a lot. We'll pass the relay before it gets our transmission, and its response won't catch up with us."

"And the greater the mass of the ship, the faster it can move through hyperspace?" David asked. His expression was one of delight. "No wonder your craft are so large. I've been trying to understand why you would build such ships, but now it makes sense. Our propulsion drives have always required a very strict use of weight limits, but the opposite would be true here, wouldn't it?"

"Now this? This is technology I wouldn't mind Earth having," Meredith added. Zamin glanced over at her, his expression assessing and slightly wary. "How many light-years are we traveling to get to Apsu, anyway?"

"One hundred," Zamin said, his tone offhand as he touched some of the arcs of light on his console.

"And we're traveling that far in three months?" Elilu gasped. It had taken the Prometheus more than two and a half years to go a little over one-third that distance!

"Most impressive," David said, tilting his head to watch Zamin's gestures more closely. "Zamin, is it possible for you to show us the scope of the Myriad Worlds? I observed your other ship's navigation array and it showed a great many systems, but they weren't actually to scale. How much of the galaxy are the Myriad Worlds spread over?"

Zamin's expression took on a bemused look and Elilu shot David a grateful smile. "Not all that much. We've stayed in this arm of the galaxy… here."

A new hologram appeared, showing a beautiful, exquisitely-detailed spiral galaxy—the Milky Way, she realized after a second. Zamin's hands moved like a symphony conductor's as he manipulated the display, zooming in on one quadrant of the image.

"There… that's where we are, isn't it?" David pointed to a thin band of stars in between the enlarging arms. "The Orion-Cygnus arm, in between the Perseus and Carina-Sagittarius arms."

"Interesting names you've given them," Zamin said, one hairless eyebrow quirking at David. She wondered what meanings the names might have for him that had been lost to people on Earth. She wondered if he knew any of the names' original owners, and if she might see some of them on Apsu. "The entirety of the Myriad Worlds is contained in your Orion-Cygnus arm."

The holographic image continued to expand, most of the galaxy winking out so that the one arm could be seen more clearly. Zamin touched another control and a lattice of violet light superimposed itself on one large area of stars, forming a complex web.

"Are those the Myriad Worlds?" David asked.

"They are. And the lines are the hyperspace corridors between them."

"Interesting… Earth is here, if I'm not mistaken." David reached forward and pointed to a tiny star near the edge of the web. "And LV-223 is here…" He moved his hand to the right, pointing to another star near the edge. "I would have thought that, if Earth had been your starting-point, the Myriad Worlds would be spread more evenly around it. Was there some reason that your people confined themselves to exploring the inner part of the arm, and not the outer?"

Zamin nodded slowly, frowning as he looked at the map. Elilu had the funny feeling that he'd never really noticed that anomaly before, or at least, hadn't given it much thought. "Exploratory ships that went outward along the arm generally didn't come back. The few that did hadn't found anything worth settling on, anyway. We went where the habitable worlds were."

"That can't be right," Meredith said. She was frowning at the star map, too. "We've been sending out survey drones for the last four decades, and we've found several hundred planets with potential within a forty light-year radius of Earth, and there are just as many on the other side."

"But no signs of life on any of them?" Zamin asked. Elilu noticed that he'd tensed up against her once more.

Meredith shook her head. "None. No organized transmissions, and no organisms more developed than prokaryotes on a few of the planets. Most samples came back completely negative."

"Even," Zamin asked slowly, "on the worlds that overlap with my map?"

For a moment, there was complete silence.

"Well, fuck," Meredith finally said. She sat down in front of the lifeboat console and started pressing the touch-screen. "Let's see if we can figure this out decisively."

A moment later, a star map appeared on the wall screen, also detailing the Orion-Cygnus arm although this map labeled it the "Orion Spur."

"Have all of our explorations been confined to just this area?" Elilu asked.

"This area is thirty-five hundred light years wide and ten thousand light years long," David told her. "We've sent out probes to the other arms of the galaxy, but none of them have reached their destinations yet, much less come back from them."

She could feel herself blushing. The maps had made it seem like such a tiny part of space until David put it like that.

"From the looks of things," David continued after a moment as he glanced from map to map, "the Myriad Worlds occupy a region with a rough diameter of four hundred light years, yes? So a ship of this type is able to travel between any point in a year or less?"

Zamin nodded, but he didn't look entirely comfortable. "There are outlying worlds even farther out than that, but those are the ones we tend – or tended – to lose contact with the most. And most ships can't go as fast as this one. Even with this one, we wouldn't be able to do a straight-line route from one side of the perimeter to the other, so a year and a half would be more accurate."

"That's some impressive technology," Meredith muttered as she looked between the two star maps, herself. She pressed the panel under her hands some more. "Okay, the Le Verrier probes have visited about a dozen of the systems that also appear on your map. That's not good news."

Zamin flinched against Elilu and closed his eyes. She reached up, touching his cheek. "No signs of life?" he asked after a moment. He opened his eyes and pressed his hand over hers.

"I'm afraid not… looks like all of them have potential for supporting life, but the only one that even had prokaryotes on it was LV-391. The readings… this is weird. They're a lot like the readings we got from LV-223 as we came in." Meredith frowned and shook her head. "Practically identical."

Zamin winced and closed his eyes again. The word he muttered was one Elilu didn't recognize, but she was pretty sure he'd just sworn. "Acid dragons."

She could feel his body tensing again. "All right," she told him, tapping his cheek with her fingertips and locking eyes with him once he opened his. "Ereshkigal Šagtum probably wasn't the only world they hit. But that doesn't mean they got every world. Your people may just have had to write off this region of space. Will we be passing in range of more hyper-radio relays on our way to Apsu?"

He wrapped his arms around her and leaned forward, studying the holographic image in front of him. "We'll pass close enough to four more to pick up broadcasts. The next one's about three weeks away."

"Then let's not get worried until then, all right? There's no way that the Anunnaki could have been killed by acid dragons, anyway. They have to still be around, and if they are, others will be too." When Zamin drew breath to argue, she cut him off. "You know I'm right. You've fought acid dragons, and lived. Did the dragons?"

He shuddered, but slowly shook his head. "All the ones that came after me died."

"How many was that?" He hadn't told her anything about the battle. She was curious, but the look on his face now told her that she would probably never learn many details.

"Seven, that I saw."

Both Meredith and David made impressed sounds. "You personally killed seven of them?" David asked.

Zamin shook his head. "Five… maybe six. I shot the sixth, but it and the seventh probably died from nerve gas poisoning. If any others tried to follow me into the tunnel, I was too out of it to see them. But they would have died, too."

"That's still most impressive. But it confirms Elilu's thought. If the acid dragons got far enough in-system to encounter the Anunnaki, they wouldn't prevail. Therefore, while they may have taken some of your worlds, they cannot have taken all of them." David looked pleased with his deductions. But Zamin's expression stayed bleak.

"That's still billions of sentient lives lost… and trillions of life-forms destroyed." Watching him in this moment, it was hard for Elilu to imagine that he was the same man who had tried to launch an extermination mission against part of the Earth. She wondered if he'd have ended up grieving the same way about all of those lost lives, had he succeeded in taking them.

This is why I love him, she thought, still a little shocked at just how readily the word came to mind. It was a word that she'd grown chary of using after she and Charlie had grown estranged. Part of her still wondered if it was reckless to use it now… until moments like this. She wondered how many women of the Myriad Worlds had swooned after him during his hotshot pilot days, and how oblivious he had been thanks to his fixation on Šena. For all his intimidating, ruthless ferocity in battle, he had an equally compassionate and principled side.

"It's interesting that they never made it to Earth," David mused.

"It's ironic, is what it is," Meredith countered him. "Earth had just been cut off from the other Myriad Worlds, presumably until after the sentence against the Roman Empire was carried out, right? So that nobody could interfere with it, I'm guessing. Which would have also stopped infected ships from accidentally contaminating Earth. Unless one had already been underway and didn't get word of the interdiction, but since none of Earth's dragon legends involve acid, we can rule that out."

"Those ships would have been warned away too," Zamin told them, his voice still pained. "There are message capsules that can travel from one end of the Myriad Worlds to the other in under a day. They're hideously expensive and no living organism would survive riding in one, but they're used for critical emergencies. Most worlds have at least one, and usually a few. Ellil knows how many Apsu has. But they would have been sent to all ships in transit to Ers—I mean, Earth—as soon as the interdiction was declared. Pliny the Elder used my brother's capsule to send me word of the murders." He shuddered against Elilu. "Now that I think of it, the fact that he knew how to do it tells me that Šukarak may have had a better sense of how much danger he was in than I realized."

She wanted to reassure him, to tell him that it was long ago and far away, but she knew that it wasn't. Not for him. For Zamin, his brother's murder had happened less than a fortnight ago, and all of the now-dead worlds had been alive and vibrant that recently. The pain of those sudden changes was almost unimaginable to her.

Something else, though, struck her abruptly and freed her tongue. "Wouldn't those emergency capsules have been in use during the outbreak of acid dragon infestations? Wouldn't the worlds under attack have been able to warn Apsu, or at least call for help?"

"They should have been," Zamin replied, frowning but nodding.

David had come forward and was examining Zamin's control panel with an intent look. "Zamin, you have recordings of all communication between your world and the rest of the Myriad Worlds, yes? Inbound as well as outbound?"

Zamin glanced at David and nodded, his expression a little baffled.

"Well, an easy way to resolve a lot of our concerns is to go back to the final inbound transmissions and review them, isn't it? That will tell us what the situation was when communication was lost, and possibly even why it was lost. Can we do that?"

"…Yes," Zamin said after giving the android a look of astonishment. His hands began flying over the panel while David, she noticed, watched every movement intently. "I know Ereshkigal Šagtum was still receiving hyper-radio transmissions ten years after I went into stasis, because that's when my orders from Enki arrived. But it never occurred to me to check for anything else."

He looked embarrassed. Elilu stroked his cheek again. "You had a lot on your mind, Love."

He paused, covering her hand with his and pressing it even closer to his face. Then he turned his head and kissed her palm, making it tingle, before releasing her hand and getting back to work. The star map vanished, replaced by an orderly list composed of the symbols she'd seen written all over the walls of the First Tower. Some of them looked much like symbols from tablets Charlie had found stored in Aratta's Great Library, she suddenly realized. Their existence had set up quite the furor among archaeologists and classicists alike: yet another lost language rediscovered. The last she'd heard, only a tiny handful of words and symbols had been reliably translated. David undoubtedly had the tablets in his memory cores, and must have used them to figure out Zamin's written language.

Had the people of Aratta been speaking a language directly descended from Zamin's?

"It looks… as if communication had almost completely ceased by the time Enki's message arrived," Zamin said as his eyes scanned the list. "There's just one more message that came in system after that. I'm calling it up now."

The list vanished, replaced by a hologram of a large, pale, athletic man whose musculature – even concealed under his silken robes – made Zamin look slim by comparison. Hairless and cat-eyed like Zamin, he was clearly also of Igigi stock. Elilu wondered if all of the Anunnaki had been Igigi before they had changed, or if any of the other races had become immortal, too. Would she be the first human among the Anunnaki?

"Ellil," Zamin whispered, staring at the hologram.

So. This was the god among the gods, the scientist who had created Azalla and who had ruled first Earth and then the Myriad Worlds for sixty millennia. His face, Elilu thought, was stern enough for the part. She half-expected him to glow and to speak with the voice of a thunderstorm.

Instead, when he spoke, his voice sounded tired. His accent was different from Zamin's, but the words still made sense to her after a moment's adjustment. "This is the final transmission to Relay 7426. Ereshkigal Šagtum will observe complete radio silence from this point forward. No personnel are authorized to enter the system or land on the planet, with the exception of Admiral Ludubĝara Zamin. All other clearances are hereby revoked. All navigational beacons are to cease operations immediately. All relayed transmissions will cease as well. References to this world have been expunged from all databases as a safeguard against the Sons of Zal and their predations. All references to the location of Ersetu are to be expunged as well. All other worlds within the combat zone are either lost or interdicted at this time. Signals to and from them are forbidden. The interdiction extends across the following coordinates…"

The numbers that he recited made no particular sense to her, but she could feel Zamin draw a shuddering breath and release an equally shaky sigh.

"All worlds within that zone are permanently interdicted, with the exception of Ereshkigal Šagtum and Ersetu. May the Sons of Zal never find either one. Destruction of the relay will commence once receipt of this transmission has been acknowledged by the Tower of Inanna. I, Aadinath Yoveh Ellil, on this day, the Akiti Zagmuk of the year 67,452, for the protection of the Myriad Worlds and all of their inhabitants, do order this. All contact with the Interdiction Zone will now cease."

Zamin had gone completely still. Behind them, Elilu could hear David whispering an English translation of Ellil's words to Meredith. As the hologram faded away, Zamin took another unsteady breath and leaned forward, touching the controls again. The star field reappeared. He touched more controls and several stars turned red on the hologram, one at a time, until they formed a perimeter that enclosed a small area of the Myriad Worlds. Both Earth and Ereshkigal Šagtum were within it, along with—

"Seventy-eight worlds," David murmured.

It was, Elilu thought, a very small sliver of the Myriad Worlds, which contained thousands of inhabited planets and tens of thousands of stars. But when she focused in on the zone itself, and just how far it spread out around Earth, she knew why Zamin was shaking. Was the Earth really surrounded by so much death and destruction?

"No wonder the Le Verrier probes didn't find any signs of your people," Meredith said. She was tapping at her own screen, overlaying the zone on her map. None of the probes had ranged past it into Anunnaki territory.

There were tears brimming in Zamin's eyes. "Two hundred billion people, wiped out in just five years," he whispered. His expression was tight with a mixture of horror, grief, and rage. "Those monsters."

"Who?" Elilu asked him. He pulled her closer, burying his face in her hair. His grip on her was tight enough that she might have been frightened, if she hadn't known that the Azalla would protect her from harm.

"At a guess," David said when Zamin didn't speak, "the 'Sons of Zal' that Ellil mentioned. Perhaps a revolutionary movement, or a religious order of some kind?"

"Nihilists," Zal grated out, the words half-muffled by Elilu's hair. He lifted his head. "A cult. They want to bring about the end of existence. They've been trying for hundreds of years, but the worst they ever managed was the destruction of one system. We thought they were gone. They hadn't tried anything for almost a century."

"Could they have been responsible for the spread of the acid dragons?" Meredith asked.

Zamin nodded. "If they figured out how to transport eggs without activating them, they could use them almost like Zal missiles. And if they found the Ganapati ship, they'd have an almost endless supply to draw from."

"The what ship?" Meredith, for a moment, sounded completely human, as if she was struggling to suppress laughter. Only days ago, the name would have been hauntingly familiar to Elilu, but nothing more. Now she found herself instantly connecting it to the elephant-headed god still revered in parts of India. No wonder Meredith was trying not to laugh.

Zamin touched his controls again, and a hologram of a huge, strange-looking creature appeared. Oddly enough, it almost looked like the Igigi suits of armor, only even larger and somewhat bloated… and entirely biological. She found herself studying it with fascination. The hologram appeared to be a recording of a living creature, rather than a static model. She watched as it waved its long, spindly arms with astonishingly human-like hands, and observed the undulations of its strange trunk, which connected and disconnected itself from a long, rigid tube that ran the length of its chest and abdomen. The eyes, deep-set and tiny, reminded her of the eyes of elephants at the zoo. Its ears did as well, but only partly; they spread out and seemed to be as thin as the gossamer wings of butterflies.

"Ganapati," Zamin repeated. "The first and only aliens to discover and visit Earth. They were explorers and colonizers, the way we became. Fifty thousand years ago, one of their ships passed close enough to Earth to pick up our broadcast transmissions and recognize what they meant, and they visited us. Up until then, our technology was… well, a lot like yours is now. We could make ships go faster than light, but only at enormous cost. We hadn't found a way to interface with hyperspace. Their technology changed everything."

"You reverse-engineered their ships," David observed. "You didn't even adapt them all that much, did you?"

Zamin shrugged. "The first designs were just scaled-down versions of their ships. Ellil, Mami, and Enki did most of the re-designing. They built suits for hominids to wear so that they could interface with the controls in the same way that the Ganapati did. By the time they started adding their own innovations, the structural designs had become traditional. An empire with more than ten thousand worlds in it – even if it was only about twenty worlds at that point – needs a lot of tradition. At this point, the only similarities between our ships and theirs are aesthetic ones, aside from the ability to enter hyperspace."

"What happened to them?" Meredith asked.

"We don't know. During my first visit to Apsu, Hadad told me that he thought many of our colony worlds had once belonged to them, but there wasn't conclusive proof either way. The last time we encountered them was only a few hundred years after first contact. After that, our only other encounter was when we found one of their derelict ships on a moon. Here." He called up the star map again as he talked, pointing at one of the systems just to the outside of both the Interdiction Zone and the zone of the Myriad Worlds.

"That world's been surveyed by a Le Verrier probe," Meredith said, touching her own controls. "LV-426. Technically it's a world that could support life, but—"

"Stay away from it," David said, his voice sharp. He didn't sound like himself. Meredith's head, bowed over the console, jerked up and she stared at him with widened eyes.

"David?" Elilu found herself staring at him, too. She knew those imperious tones.

"That world is not habitable." David – was it David? She didn't think it was him anymore – jabbed his index finger down on the console table to punctuate his words. "You will not visit it. You will not attempt to terraform it. You will not enter the system at all, for any reason, ever. Do you understand?"

"Father?" Meredith's voice sounded almost – impossibly – breathless.

"There are plenty of worlds we can colonize. Write that one off. LV-426 is a waste of time and resources. Leave it alone." David sounded even more like Peter Weyland with each passing word.

"Get out of him," Elilu snarled, staring at the invader. "You don't have the right."

"Swear to me that you will stay away from there." Peter Weyland glared at her through David's eyes.

"As commander of this ship," Zamin growled, "I order you to relinquish control back to David. If you do not, you will be jettisoned."

For a moment, two sets of blue eyes – one set inhuman and the other unnatural – locked. Then David blinked rapidly, several times, and an appalled look replaced the imperious glare of seconds earlier. "What… what just happened?"

"Weyland," Zamin told him.

"David, how long has it been since we launched from Earth?" Meredith asked.

"Two years, four months, twenty-six days, ninety hours, forty-five minutes, and twelve seconds," David replied.

"Shit. We lost a third node." Meredith got up from the console and stalked over to Zamin's mainframe. "I hope my duplicate's been making good progress."

"Yes," David said after a moment, blinking. "We did. Just now. The moment you began speaking about LV-426, something broke through my containment measures, as if you tripped an emergency override. There's something about that world that Mr. Weyland considers very important."

"How do you know it's three synaptic nodes?" Elilu asked, looking between Meredith and David. Both of them looked grim and worried.

"One of the little programs I had Dr. Sebastian add to David before we left," Meredith told her, touching controls on the mainframe. "You heard his time count. Notice anything odd about it?"

"The hours." Elilu glanced down at the chrono embedded in the sleeve of her borrowed jumpsuit. According to its display, David had added seventy-two hours to the correct time.

"The program makes him add twenty-four hours to his verbal time count for each node my father alters. One node was already changed when we came out of cryo. I didn't worry all that much about it at the time, but I should have, given everything that ended up happening. Another node got changed sometime in the last week. Most likely, when his head got ripped off. Now we just lost a th—" Meredith stopped, sputtering with abrupt laughter. "I think she's ready."

"Who?" David asked.

"My duplicate. Take a look." She touched another button and a small hologram appeared above the mainframe. It was Meredith, in miniature, dressed in a bathing suit and stretched out on a lounge chair… on a beach composed of stars, lapped by a nebular ocean. Words, spelled out in first Latin and then English, formed above her head.

Habeo tempus mirandus. Cupis ut hic.
Having a wonderful time. You wish you were here.

Elilu found herself sputtering with laughter, too. "We may need to brush up on your Latin."

"Could be," Meredith grinned. "Or maybe I'm just not creative enough. I read the whole Harry Potter series in Latin. And I tried to get my professor let me translate Star Wars into Latin for my Senior Thesis, but he wouldn't go for it. Looks like she's ready to start playing with your brain, David. And not a moment too soon."

"Not quite yet," Zamin said. "Something important just happened, and we almost didn't see it."

"What happened?" Elilu felt him give her a gentle nudge and climbed to her feet. He rose a moment after her and they walked over to join the others by the mainframe.

"Peter Weyland warned us away from Kišur – the moon you call LV-426," Zamin told them. "That's the world where the last Ganapati ship was found. And that ship was full of acid dragon eggs. One scouting party explored the ship after discovering it during a survey of the system. They died, very violently, as a result. Fortunately, they didn't try to return to Earth, but the last survivor launched a data capsule before she died. It contained all of the data from their explorations. Ellil ordered a warning beacon installed near the ship, to keep future adventurers away. If the Sons of Zal found a way to use acid dragons as biological weapons, then that's probably where they went to get them. Did your Le Verrier probes have the capability to pick up electromagnetic transmissions?"

Meredith nodded, frowning with dawning comprehension.

"Then he'd heard the transmission." Zamin glanced over at David, who had the same look on his face that Meredith did. "He heard it, and he had it translated. He knew what was on the surface of the planet."

Elilu felt stunned. It was the last thing she'd expected. "And he forbade all further exploration. No samples, no attempt to collect specimens…"

"He was willing to try to make a profit on LV-223 because he believed that we'd been invited there, so whatever we found there would probably be safe to take," Meredith said after a moment. "But… cripes. Hold on." She hurried back to the other console and started pressing controls.

"What is it?" Elilu asked.

"The date. The results from the fifth wave of Le Verrier probes – those would be the four hundreds – came back one week after you made your pitch to him." Meredith looked up, her expression stunned. "You came in talking about ancient aliens and interstellar invitations. He didn't believe a word of it but he humored you. Charlie tried to convince him to fund the mission with the idea that he could make a profit off of ancient alien tech, and still get a jump-start on deep-space colonies if there wasn't any tech to be found, and he still didn't believe a word of it. But then he got the results from LV-426." She sat back, her expression awed. "How was the warning coded, Zamin?"

"It wasn't. It's just broadcast in Eme, our official language," Zamin answered. "All official communications are. You just heard Ellil speaking it. The Myriad Worlds have used it for more than sixty thousand years."

"So my father's probe comes back with a recording of a message in the most ancient language ever found on Earth, which his best linguists have been trying to decode ever since Charlie dug up Aratta, warning him to stay away from a moon… and that's when he realizes that the invitation to LV-223 might be the real deal, too." Meredith whistled, the sound inhumanly pitch-perfect. "No wonder he turned into a believer overnight."

"Even more importantly, he intended to obey the warning, and he considered ensuring that we obeyed it important enough to force his way through all of the defensive protocols David's been using to keep him at bay." Zamin looked bemused, and a little uncomfortable. "That really wasn't what I expected of him."

Elilu had to admit that she hadn't expected it, either. In the last week, she'd gone from thinking of Peter Weyland as a harmless, eccentric, elderly philanthropist to… well, if she was being honest, a monster. She'd begun to think of him as a homicidally selfish creature who was willing to sacrifice anything and anyone to the altar of his solipsism, but this latest revelation was more in keeping with the man that she'd believed she'd known. Why couldn't these things be simpler?

"I want to know what else he knows," Meredith grumbled. "I had no idea about LV-426, which means my human doesn't know either, and she needs to. I wish we'd found this out before I launched the beacons so I could have warned her." She punched buttons, the speed and precision of her movements oddly incongruous with the scowl on her face. "With your permission, Zamin, Elilu… when we extract him from David, I want to keep him in here and find out what else he's been hiding."

Zamin nodded slowly. "That would probably be a good idea. The High Council might want to question him, too. Assuming—" His voice caught on the word and he grimaced.

"Assuming…?" Meredith asked.

Zamin's lips had flattened. He shook his head, his expression bleak.

Assuming Apsu hadn't somehow been destroyed too. Those were his unspoken words, Elilu realized. She walked over to him and took his hand in hers. "Come with me."

Meredith's and David's expressions were knowing as she led Zamin back to the bedroom. He seemed genuinely surprised when she started undressing him, but he was erect by the time she finished. She wasn't sure what to expect from him, given how lost and adrift he'd seemed since he'd discovered the radio silence. This time, she thought, she might need to lead. But he gathered her up and kissed her. His mouth felt desperately hungry against hers as he carried her over to the bed and lowered her onto it. The expertise of his touch and kisses was colored by that desperation as he explored her body. She could feel him shaking, just a little.

He was careful to be gentle with her, the way he always was. Still, she could feel a difference in his touch and movements, a need that hadn't been there before. And, as he pushed her into an oblivion of pleasure once more, she thought she heard a deep, heavy sob escape him.

She knew that she'd been right when she came to and found him holding her, his wet cheek pressed to hers.


Notes: Holy guacamole, everybody! Talk about radio silence – I had no intention of going that long between chapters! This semester has just been off-the-charts intense. Work on my thesis continues, but I also ended up being tapped for teaching duties and an editing position, and a few other things that shrank my free time down to thimble size. *facepalm!* Further chapters will probably be very slow to appear, but I am still working on the story. I swear.

So a few fun references and bits of vocabulary:

Hyperspace – The number of different theories about what "hyperspace" might be like is amazing; this one, in which everything inverts and the largest/highest-mass particles are the fastest-moving, is one that appealed to me.

Akiti Zagmuk – Although a little redundant, this means New Year's Day; Zagmuk signifies the transition to the new year, and Akiti signifies the festival held at that time. Both were used in Ur, and close variations (Akitu and Zagmukku) were also used in Akkadia. In the Near East, the non-Julian calendar New Year tends to fall on or shortly after the spring equinox.

LV and Le Verrier probes – Yeah, this is my explanation for the "LV" designations for both LV-223 and LV-426. There's no canonical explanation for what the LV, which first appeared in Aliens, means, although some of the related books and games have mentioned other planets numbered the same way (including LV-1201). Some speculation and discussion that I ran across, however, mentioned the possibility of a "Le Verrier catalog," using the last name of Urbain Le Verrier, the discoverer of Neptune. But people involved in that discussion pointed out that if future humans were going to use such a catalog, we'd already be using it now. My way of solving that is to have it specifically refer to planets surveyed by a series of probes named after Le Verrier, and thus part of a catalog that has yet to be developed because no such probe series has been launched yet.

David's weird hours – One of the "film flubs" some people griped about was David's odd time count when Meredith asked him how long it had been since they had launched. He answered her with "2 years, 4 months, 18 days, 36 hours, 15 minutes." Since a Martian solar day is only about 2.7% longer than a Terran solar day (not even 45 minutes longer), using a Martian clock wouldn't explain this, especially since NASA's current convention with its landers has been to simply assign a 24-hour day with seconds that are 2.7% longer than Earth seconds (and one of NASA's teams even had specially calibrated watches that followed that scheme). So this was my explanation for why David might have added extra time to the count.

Kišur – A grave or graveyard. A good name for a world that will ultimately kill anyone who lands on it.

Eme – This means "tongue, language." In this case, it's the idea that there's an ancient, official language, not necessarily the parent language of the world, but one that became the official language for a long period of time under the rule of the Anunnaki, and was just "the language" to people. With, heh heh, maybe a hint of the idea of angels "speaking in tongues" there.

Thank you to everybody for your patience and all of the lovely feedback you've been leaving! I'll try to get the next chapter out faster!