The Iirian tourist bureau, in the interests of preserving their planet's good reputation, had provided Mark and the S'pht with a roosting ledge in one of Kiio's finer hotels. It was basically a big bowl filled with pillows and attached to the wall of a particularly tall oval building, with a window to the outside for easy take-off and access to the rest of the city; as alien hotels went, Mark would give it five stars for comfortable sleeping, five more for the great bar at the top of the building, and zero for anything like privacy and security. Also, like all the other windows in the city, his window had no curtains and the sun managed to hit his eyes first thing in the morning no matter what position he slept in. The S'pht, who rarely needed sleep, had spent little time in it so far besides the occasional check-in, so when Mark woke up the next morning with purple robes floating almost directly above his face, he figured he could be forgiven for jumping. "Christ, don't sneak up on me like that!" he said, and the robes backed off enough for him to recognize F'tha. "Something the matter?"

"There are no failures," F'tha said; the morning sun gleamed so brightly off their metal carapace that Mark had to squint. "Durandal requested that we cease our searching and instead aid you in seeking the technology of Iiri."

Mark pulled one of the pillows over his head and groaned into it. Fucking Durandal, couldn't just trust him to go looking on his own, had to sic the S'pht on him like he was a kid cutting class... Well, fine, he could probably use the extra set of sensory organs anyway. "I don't guess any of you have an idea where to start looking, do you?"

"Our search has been a failure," F'tha said.

"Great." Mark started to roll over, remembered the wings just in time, and decided to just get the hell up. He felt around the pillows for his helmet and said, "We'll start from scratch then. Let me get some breakfast first and we'll go find Durandal his goddamn tech."

Half an hour and a breakfast of smoky-tasting alien fish later, Mark and F'tha were hovering next to the gigantic cable that trailed from the base of the hotel and disappeared with all the other building-cables into the heavier clouds a thousand feet below. It was hard to get a really good, solid look at the cable while constantly bobbing up and down, adjusting for every shift in the breeze, but Mark was doing his best. F'tha had broken out some kind of S'pht scanning device to use, though judging from the frequent adjustments they were making to it, it wasn't finding much. Neither was Mark. The cable really did seem to be just a power cable, humming constantly with a disturbingly off-key buzz, and there was nothing special about the connection to the hotel's base, either; it just hooked into straight into a great big plug in the pumice-like stone.

"Total bust," Mark said, after a few more minutes of valiant examining. "Oh well, it was worth a shot."

"I find nothing of interest," said F'tha. "I experience a failure to understand. It was known that the cables are for power, and the fact did not require investigation."

"Hey, you never know for sure." A sudden draft almost sent Mark headfirst into the cable, and he hastily put a couple meters between himself and it. The way that thing buzzed, touching it wouldn't do his health any favors; taking a look around, he could see that pretty much everyone else who was out and about kept a good distance away from the cables, particularly the Iirians. Oh yeah, he was on a real roll of great ideas this morning. "At least we can definitely cross these things off the list of interesting possibilities," he said, maneuvering a little farther away from the cable. "Next stop - hmm..." His eyes drifted down towards the clouds, and his mind lit up with an idea. "Next stop - F'tha, you guys haven't checked out the actual source of the power yet, have you?"

F'tha put away their scanning device. "No. It is known that the Iirians make use of hydroelectric power, but power facilities are not considered of interest to visitors."

"Then I'd say we have our next destination," Mark said, grinning. "Let's take a dive."

"I experience a failure to -"

"Ah, never mind. Just follow me, I'll take point on this one." Mark beat his wings to get a little more height and more distance from the cable, then folded them and dove downwards.

The cool morning air whistled past his helmet as he plummeted down towards the source of the cables; the motion sensor on the inside of the visor read F'tha keeping pace just behind him. He almost let out a whoop of sheer exhilaration at the speed of the dive, but the wind would have snatched it away, and he didn't need to attract any more attention than he already might have. Within moments - okay, maybe he was going a little too fast - they'd hit the cloud bank, and he unfolded his wings enough to start slowing down. The clouds were thick and grey with a greenish tinge, dense enough that he could only see a few feet ahead of and around him; he spread his wings out further, slowing to a near-hover, though the motion sensor wasn't picking up anyone besides F'tha. Motion sensors didn't pick up things like solid walls or giant rocks, unfortunately, and he found himself sticking closer to the cable despite its unhealthy buzz just to have something to guide him through the fog.

It didn't take much more than a few minutes by the time readout in his visor before the clouds started to thin out, but it felt like longer, with the world silent and dulled all around him. When the first hints of brighter light began to pierce through, Mark beat his wings to speed up, eager to get through the cloud bank and see where the damn power cable led. A few strong wing-beats later and the air was clear enough that he could finally see what lay below the clouds; immediately he back-winged and felt the brush of F'tha's cloak over his shoulders before the S'pht floated down to hover beside him.

"A curious wonder," F'tha said, and Mark couldn't disagree.

Another few thousand feet beneath them was a long sweep of the deep blue ocean that according to Durandal's records covered most of Iiri, almost entirely dark and empty - except for a thing like the shell of a tremendous navy-blue horseshoe crab that was crawling over the surface, surrounded by the white foam of breaking waves and trailing a bundle of cables that disappeared into the clouds above, including the cable that Mark and F'tha had followed down. It was difficult to gauge the thing's real size from their current height, but Mark was going to go with his gut instinct of fucking huge. If he was estimating right - and he had a good eye for estimating measurements - it was probably at least as long as the Rozinante and almost as wide, more than big enough to provide power for Kiio. Too big for a single city that didn't even use that much power, actually... "Hey," he said, "how would you feel about getting a closer look at - whatever that is?"

"I experience curiosity," said F'tha, which was basically a yes, and they headed down again.

The air was thicker, warmer, and unpleasantly humid below the clouds, with a strong smell of salt and rotting fish plus a chemical undertone Mark couldn't place. No wonder the Iirians preferred to keep their cities - and the tourists - up top, where the air was cool and clear and the sun shone. For the first time since his second arrival on Iiri, he was working up a hell of a sweat, wings laboring to push him through the damp, heavy air.

As they approached the giant shell, Mark was able to make out more details of its construction. Despite its smooth appearance from above, a closer look revealed that it was actually sandpaper-rough, pitted, and rugose, covered with thick criss-crossing ridges and lumpy, barnacle-like growths that showed signs of attempted removal; just beneath the water's surface, three long narrow tails trailed from the thing's sides like the arms of a windmill or a fish's fins, drifting with the motions of the waves. A ring that looked to be made of the same coarse material as the shell encircled the gigantic bundle of cables that sprouted from the thing's approximate center.

What Mark didn't see was an entrance. How could a thing the size of a goddamn spaceship not have any doors? After half an hour or so of fruitless circling, he landed on a relatively flat part of the shell near the cables to give his aching wings a break and gagged as his boots squished some of the lumpy growths, releasing a truly disgusting acidic smell. "Durandal, I sure hope you're watching all this," he grumbled, "because I ain't making this trip again."

"Oh, are you actually working now? Wonders never will cease."

"Smartass. Now who's not paying attention?" Mark looked around for F'tha, spotted them a few hundred meters away scanning the shell, and waved at them to join him. "Can you get a sensor lock on this thing I'm standing on? I can't find a way in, but I've got a hunch it has what you want."

"There's a little atmospheric interference, nothing that I can't deal with," Durandal said. "Let me patch in a visual link from your helmet to round things out - got it. It certainly looks dreary down there."

"No kidding, I can see that for myself. So can I get in or what?"

There was an uncomfortably long silence from Durandal before he said, "There's an entrance, but there's a couple of things you're not going to like about it."

"Well, thanks for the heads-up," Mark said. "What's not to like?"

"Whatever that shell is made out of - it'll take a while to analyze, get me a sample if you can - it can block teleporter fields. No rescues, no ammunition, you'll be on your own."

Mark rolled his eyes. "Been there, done that, lived somehow. What's the other problem?"

"It's underwater," Durandal said. "Hope you haven't forgotten how to swim."

"Oh, hell." The bastard knew he could swim just fine under normal circumstances, but Mark was really not in the mood for jumping into an alien sea with giant wings to get soggy and drag him down. On top of that there was no way he was getting into the air from this position, which meant trudging at least half a mile to the shell's edge to jump off... This day was getting better and better. He shifted his weight to look around for the nearest side and accidentally squished more of the smelly barnacle-things. "You sure there's no other way in?"

"There are multiple entrances, but they're all underwater. It's swimming or nothing."

"You always know how to make my day," Mark said. "All right, I'm going, keep an eye on everything because this is the only look you're gonna get - ready to go diving, F'tha?"

"As you request."

Mark spent the long trudge to the sea with F'tha filling his ears about the results of the scans, roughly all of which went right over Mark's head. He'd never been a science geek, and his S'pht wasn't nearly good enough for him to understand all the technical terms F'tha was throwing at him; he just nodded and made the occasional "go on" noises and wished that he'd landed somewhere closer to the shell's edge. He had long since given up on trying to keep his wings from dragging along the surface, and the tips were getting disgusting from the squishy barnacles. He was getting disgusting with sweat and the general humid, fishy miasma of the air; jumping into the ocean was actually starting to sound like a pretty good idea.

Then he put his boot down without looking and slipped right off his feet, banged his ass against the shell and slid the rest of the way directly into tepid, heaving, and incredibly bitter-tasting water. For a few frantic moments he sank like a stone even as he thrashed around like a drowning animal, and then somehow he got his legs and arms coordinated enough to bob up to the surface and take a spluttering breath so he could curse loudly, fluently and at length.

In his ear, Durandal was laughing. "Oh, relax, you've gone swimming in worse," he said, as Mark took a breath between curses. "It's just seawater. Mostly seawater."

"You know what, fuck you." Mark treaded water, paddling away from the waves lapping at the shell, and tried spreading out his waterlogged wings to help keep him afloat, but they didn't seem to make much difference. "You can't even fucking taste things! Or smell them! I'm the one goddamn person on the whole goddamn ship who can and I'm the one you dump in sewage and fucking oceans and every other shitty stinking armpit of the fucking galaxy you can find while you - you just sit up in space all clean and shiny like a goddamn princess, so fuck you!"

"You certainly are cranky," Durandal said. "Do you need a little time-out?"

"I don't need a goddamn time-out! I need a fucking time machine so I can go back and - and fucking shoot myself before you can fucking kidnap me! Shit, before I even get assigned to the fucking shit-ass hellhole Marathon in the first goddamn place! Fuck you and fuck your tech and fuck this planet and fuck every - fucking - thing!"

An ominous silence reigned on the other end of the comm link; F'tha hovered above the low waves close to where Mark was floating, and eventually said, "Mark? Are you functioning?"

"Yeah." He took a deep breath, then let it out in a weary sigh. "Sorry, guys, it's just - it hasn't been a great day so far, I didn't mean all that. Just most of it." He did feel a little better for having gotten the rant out of his system, for all the good it would actually do.

"I know someone who's getting nose plugs for his birthday," Durandal said.

"It's been eight years. I kinda gave up on getting birthday presents a while ago." Mark took another deep breath, checked his suit's oxygen levels, and said, "Okay, I'm cool, let's go."

The water was reasonably clear but dark as hell, with so little light making it through the heavy clouds; by squinting Mark could just make out that the shell's edge extended a few meters underwater. It was easy enough for him to sink below the edge and get a view of the thing's underbelly, and what he saw made him - all right, he didn't groan because it would have been a waste of oxygen, but he was sorely tempted. Hundreds of thick mechanical tentacles hung down in front of him, illuminated by spiralling patterns of glowing blue spots and stirred by the ocean currents. At least the lights meant he wouldn't accidentally swim into any of the tentacles, but trying to find a way through them without touching them was going to be a pain and a half. And where the hell was the entrance?

He struggled through the dark water anyway, his wings dragging uselessly behind him - he vaguely remembered that there were birds back on Earth that could use their wings to help them underwater, but damned if he knew how they did it - and getting battered by the currents, one eye keeping track of his steadily decreasing oxygen supply, the other peeled for any signs of a way into the behemoth, and a vague desire in his mind for a third eye like the Pfhor to watch out for the lighted tentacles and possible sea monsters. He wasn't running into anything yet, but he figured it was just a matter of time.

For all his careful searching, it was F'tha who suddenly darted upward to the belly of the beast, transmitting a calm "Entrance located" over the comm link. Mark's oxygen was low enough by then that he didn't bother whining about it, just clawed his way up towards the lighted spot in the shell's underbelly where F'tha was hovering and pounded on the control panel he could just make out through the gloom, then hauled himself up through the round door that lensed open and onto a smooth, slippery wet floor. F'tha floated up after him and hovered nearby, dripping seawater from their soaked purple robes, while he yanked his helmet off and sprawled flat on his stomach and enjoyed breathing regular air again. There'd better be some kind of oxygen dispenser in this monster, or he was never getting out of here...

Gasping for breath on the wet floor got uncomfortable quickly, particularly with his wings growing sticky with whatever minerals were in the ocean as they started to dry, so Mark got to his feet with a groan and a stretch to have a look around. The wings dragged even worse at his back once he was up, but he gave them a quick shake to get some of the water out and took in his surroundings.

As entrance halls went, he'd seen better. The room was small, low-ceilinged by Iirian standards, and made of the same cream-colored, polished coral-like material that he'd seen in most buildings in Kiio, with no obvious technology besides the door in the floor and a control panel next to it featuring a big bird foot-shaped button, plus small globes of golden light attached to the ceiling. There were several narrow open doorways in the rounded walls, all leading to identical hallways; Mark considered asking F'tha for a guess at which one might be the most promising, decided there wasn't much point, and after getting his helmet back on headed for the nearest one, unholstering his pistols as he went and checking that they hadn't gotten too wet during his swim. He was hoping not to use weapons against a peaceful species like the Iirians, but if shit went pear-shaped - and it usually did - he meant to be prepared.

He started down the hall he'd picked, then realized F'tha wasn't following him. "F'tha? C'mon, buddy, let's go."

"I am considering," F'tha said. "Would it be wisest to part ways, in order to explore a greater area?"

"Huh." Mark wasn't crazy about the idea, but on the other hand, if it meant getting out of the place sooner... "Durandal, we're in, what do you think? Split up or stick together?"

"Stick together," Durandal said, without hesitation; there was a little static on the line, but not enough to make Mark worry about getting cut off. "I know how you get around exposed circuits. Punch out the wrong one down there and well, let's just say you wouldn't like the consequences - particularly not if you destroy what I'm looking for. F'tha, keep an eye on him."

Mark rolled his eyes. "Give me a little credit, I can keep my fists to myself when I need to. What's the real reason?"

"That is the real reason." Pause. "Fine, one of the real reasons. I'm reading a lot of life signs down there - mainly Iirian, presumably handling maintenance, but there are some I can't identify. Don't let your guard down, either of you."

"Understood. I will remain with Mark," said F'tha.

"We'll be quiet as a pair of church mice," Mark said, starting down the hallway again, and this time F'tha stayed with him. "In, get samples of the tech if it's here, and out again, no -"

The hallway took a sudden sharp turn to the right while he was talking; he rounded it without thinking and ran face-first into the shortest Iirian he'd seen yet. The Iirian squawked once indignantly, then got a real look at him and squawked louder, flaring its wings in an automatic defensive gesture.

Mark muttered a curse, stepped back and bumped into F'tha, then held up his free hand to show it was empty as he dredged up his few words of Iirian to chirp-whistle "Tourist! Accident!" and tried to sneak his pistol back into the holster. "Accident tourist? Accident?"

The Iirian gave him a three-eyed beady stare, which was pretty much what the vague not-actually-an-excuse deserved, and squawked at length. "Don't bother, I know your type," Durandal translated. "You had better come with me, right now." And an addition that could only have been Durandal's own personal touch, "You ape-brained idiot."

"I don't know why I even bother getting up some days."

Mark and F'tha followed the squat Iirian - who was still a good two feet taller than Mark - through what felt like miles of hallways that twisted around in a looping sort of maze. Two more Iirians joined them along the way, after more irritated whistling from the first; they both had the same shorter, less elegant build as the guide, more like seagulls than the crane-albatross look of the Iirians in Kiio. Mark was keeping his eyes peeled in case they went past anything useful, but he couldn't pick up much when the Iirians set an amazingly fast pace despite their waddling gait. The main thing he noticed was the change in the walls, which went from the usual off-white stuff of the entryway to something with an even rougher, porous texture, veined with deep and brilliant colors like gold-laced ore. Throw in some fish somehow swimming through the air and it would be like going diving in a coral reef, or what Mark imagined that would be like, anyway. He caught a few glimpses of actual rooms through the occasional doorway, but the Iirians hustled him past before he could get an impression of anything more than color and light and snatches of mechanical humming.

On the plus side, Durandal stayed quiet. Small favors. He probably just didn't want to get caught as the mastermind behind the break-in.

Eventually the coral hallway they were in wound its way to another arched doorway, larger than most of the ones Mark had seen on the way; unusually for Iiri, it had an actual seamless metal door in it, not just the bare arch or thin curtains. The first Iirian lifted one foot to press against the control pad set low in the wall beside the door, then paused and twisted its head back to eyeball Mark again, giving Mark a chance to see it had the black collar of a male - at least, if these Iirians had the same gender markings as the other ones, which he probably shouldn't assume but whatever. The Iirian started squawking at him again, and Durandal resumed translating. "Before I take you in," he said, "let's be clear - you are here because you are interested in our technology, right?"

"Uh." Was this supposed to be a test? Was there a wrong answer? "Yes?" F'tha echoed him with a whistled affirmative.

"Very well," the Iirian said, fluffing his wings irritably, and set his foot against the control pad. The door split in two, and each half slid into the walls with a slight grinding noise. "Iiko, go back to work, Aaki, you can stay to watch the door - you, tourist, go on in, and I, Yhaarra, will be your guide." One of the other two Iirians gave a disappointed whistle and waddled off; the other nudged Mark gently towards the doorway, through which the first Iirian, Yhaarra, had already disappeared.

"You charmer, you," said Durandal, but not as flippantly as he might have. "This is too easy, stay on your toes in there."

"Don't have to tell me twice." God, he wished he'd brought more guns. He really didn't want to go hand-to-hand with people who had beaks the size of his forearm. At least F'tha was always armed, and Mark dropped into S'pht to warn them to stay cautious; F'tha gave him brief consideration with a distinct tell me something I don't know air and glided ahead of him through the arch. Mark followed them, so intent on watching the Iirians for a single suspicious movement that he didn't even see the room they'd entered until Yhaarra stopped and spread his crest with a sharp chirp that Durandal translated as "There, look."

Mark looked. And gaped.

Even taking into account the maze of halls surrounding it, the room they were in now had to occupy the bulk of the overall construction. The ceiling's gentle slope wasn't much higher than the top of the hallways, but it arched off into the distance in a way that indicated the chamber stretched farther than Mark could see in the dim yellow light. Floor and ceiling alike were a streaked mixture of golden coral and dark metal, rough and smooth, swirled together like both materials had been melted in a gigantic pot; amber and red lights blinked in spiral patterns in the metal on the floor, while yellow globes like those in the hallways hung from the ceiling coral. Between both twisted strange sinuous pillars of white and black and steel scattered through the room at random, wrapped with cables and wires that connected each pillar with the others and to the streaks of metal.

"I knew it," Mark said, "I goddamn knew it. There's no way this is just a power station - Durandal, are you seeing this? I don't know what they use this shit for but it's incredible, it's got to be something big -"

"I see it," Durandal said, but there was something odd in his voice. "I think you need to take a closer - heads-up, translating."

Yhaarra was talking again as he led Mark and F'tha closer to one of the sinuous pillars. "This is the true heart of Kiio," Durandal translated. "Here we convert the ocean's power into energy for the city. Here we produce the aari and other necessities. Here we collect the resources of the ocean for all of our needs, and here we keep our cities floating and flying smoothly. And here -" The Iirian paused, closing two of his eyes and staring at Mark and F'tha with the central third eye for dramatic effect. "- we pay the price of the Iarro's gift."

"Price? The hell is he on about?"

"Look at the pillar, you unobservant moron," Durandal said.

Mark stared at it, wondering what the hell Durandal was on about. Okay, so the pillar was a funny shape, not like they'd never seen funny-shaped pillars on any other planets, though it was true they didn't usually have so many wires plugged into them. And the wing-like arches that extended from the center of the pillar to the ceiling did seem like an unusual design choice given how smooth and sleek most Iirian architecture was. Odd how there was a ring of red around the narrowest bit of this one, too, just like -

"Oh God."

"Now you get it."

Yhaarra fluffed his feathers and squawked something, and Durandal resumed translating. "They are the true pride of Iiri," he said. "Oh, we technicians do our part to keep the stations clean and functioning, but without them the stations would be little more than islands. They are the nerves and brains of our cities, the brightest of our kind, and in many ways the hearts of our world, as well... It would take years you do not have to fully explain what they do, but I'm sure you understand now how essential they are."

"Oh God," Mark said again. He couldn't take his eyes off the Iirian body contorted in its - in her column of wires, cocooned in circuitry that ran beneath feathers and skin. "Is it - are they alive? Does it hurt? Jesus..."

Yhaarra squawked curiously, but Durandal didn't translate Mark's questions, which was probably a smart move. F'tha chirp-whistled something and the Iirian answered, "Yes, it is irreversible. When their consciousness dies, the station absorbs their bodies fully for materials, and another consumes the aarhi and takes their place. It is a great sacrifice, but it is always made willingly..." Yhaarra placed his beak gently against one wing of the pillar. "Never to fly or dance or sing again - but thanks to their service, all of us prosper in health and comfort."

"I see - I think," Mark said, and then repeated it in Iirian before their guide could ask. "God, I can't believe - it's some kind of symbiosis, I guess? Cyborg symbiosis? Why the hell would they do something like this?" Shit, he'd only had wings for three days and the thought of losing them like that - getting rooted into a giant mechanical complex or whatever and never moving again - was giving him the creeping horrors; his wings had involuntarily drawn up close against his back, but the soft pressure was only slightly reassuring.

"You have no imagination," said Durandal, sounding oddly distracted. "The possibilities for technology this powerful are endless - they've barely tapped its potential..."

Well, that sure didn't help stop Mark's skin from crawling. "Yeah, I wouldn't throw a party just yet," he said. "Ask them if they'll actually share this - wait, isn't the aari the thing I ate? Oh shit, am I going to -"

"That's aari, he's talking about an aarhi - you have no ear for languages, either. You're fine for now." Then Durandal switched to Iirian and projected his voice to ask something that sounded more complicated than what Mark had meant to say.

F'tha was regarding the pillar with an undefinable air; if Mark had to put a name to it, it might be sympathy. "It is a curious form of life," they said after a moment. "To be still and apart, yet connected and functional, and to produce for others; to have the machine coursing in one's self like blood."

"Sounds more like a goddamn nightmare to me." Yhaarra was responding to Durandal's question, but Durandal wasn't translating, and Mark felt a bad premonition settle into his spine. "Hey, Durandal, what's he saying? Are they going to share or what?"

"Shut up, I'm concentrating."

Yhaarra chirp-squawked on for another minute, then stopped, gave Mark a long look, and whistled something short. Before Mark could tell Durandal to quit stalling, Durandal said, "As even you must have guessed by now, you're not the first person to find your way down here; they don't like having people come and gawk at their most respected citizens, but they're used to the occasional visitor. And lucky for us, they have a spare pill or two, which they would be willing to share with us - if we're willing to accept the consequences of using it."

"Shit." Mark's wings bunched up even tighter against his back. "You have any idea what that thing'll do to us?"

"Obviously it wouldn't affect me, as I have no biological components for it to work on," Durandal said. "Based on preliminary data, I can say that it would have roughly the same effect on you or a S'pht as it does on the Iirians, but likely more painful since it's not adapted to either of your physiologies."

"Somehow I knew you'd say that," Mark said, rolling his shoulders to try and get his wings to relax a little.

Yhaarra whistled; F'tha said, "Yhaarra inquires about whom you speak with. Shall I explain Durandal?"

"No! Uh - tell him it's someone on my ship who hasn't come down to the planet, okay?" The last thing he needed was to try explaining why he'd lied about the ship's AI and just who was in charge of the whole operation. "Durandal, you're the one who was so hot for this shit, it's your call. You want to take this aarhi thing?"

"Would you swallow it? Knowing what it can do?"

"Hell no," Mark said, "I like all my bits the way they are right now, thanks - but nothing's going to stop you slipping it into my booze or something if the mood hits you, or testing it out on some poor bastard of a S'pht, so I just want us to know up front if we have to start checking the food."

"I see," said Durandal. "Fine, tell him no, then."

"All right, I'll - what? You don't want it?"

"Was I unclear in some way? No, I don't want it," Durandal said. "It's all theirs. Make some excuses and get out of there."

"Uh, right, fine." Mark chirped the politest form of "no" he could remember, and Yhaarra squawked something with a definite I told you so tone. "So - is that it? We can just walk out of here?"

"You can for all I care. I'm done here."

The comm link clicked off, and Mark rolled his eyes. Thoughtful and courteous as ever. "F'tha, would you mind translating? Durandal's off sulking, I need to know if it's all right for us to leave. And if they've got oxygen around the place in case we have to go diving again."

"Certainly," F'tha said. They chirp-whistled at Yhaarra, who gave a disgruntled squawk that sounded like a yes and started to stalk off, then whipped his head around to look at Mark and said something that sounded almost threatening.

"What was that about?" Mark said, following the Iirian as he led them back towards the door.

"Yhaarra requests that when you leave the station and Iiri -"

"Yeah?" There it was, the inevitable tell anyone and we'll hunt you down and kill you spiel he'd heard in at least ten different languages by now.

"- that you inform others who have curiosity about the nature of our technology," F'tha said, "so they will be aware of its dangers and cost, and perhaps avoid disturbing the stations."

"That's it," Mark said, "I'm declaring this the official most anticlimactic mission ever of all time."

After seeing the source of the city's power, most of Kiio's charm was lost on Mark; he was happy enough to round up the other S'pht who had teleported down, return the tiny magnetic gadget that had somehow been his room key to the hotel, and let Durandal beam him back to the Rozinante.

Okay, so he might have also taken his wings out for one last spin around the golden clouds and warm winds. He was stuck with them for another five or six days anyway, might as well get a little more use out of them.

That accomplished, he was then left sitting in one of the Rozie's engine rooms while Durandal plotted their next destination and a bunch of S'pht who hadn't gotten a vacation or a chance to stare earlier poked and prodded at his wings. It wasn't the most fun he'd ever had, but he found it hard to begrudge the S'pht their chance to play around; Durandal worked them almost as hard as he did Mark, and would probably work them even harder if it weren't for the S'pht'Kr keeping an eye on him.

One of them hit a sensitive spot under the feathers with some instrument or other, and Mark winced. Definitely not as pleasant as when that Iirian at the concert had been doing the same. To take his mind off it, he said, "Hey, Durandal? You sure you don't want me to go back down there for that airy stuff?"

"Aarhi, and yes, I'm sure."

For having wasted three days on failing to get something he wanted, Durandal sounded surprisingly chill, and Mark decided to push things a little. "Come on, I heard the guy say 'Iarro,' and even I can figure out that's just another way of saying Jjaro," he said. "You're really going to walk away from that?"

"Watch me. It's a big galaxy; there will be other opportunities."

"I got to say, that doesn't sound like - ow, Jesus, watch the pin feathers, S'hral! Doesn't sound like you."

"You're not going to drop this unless I explain, are you," Durandal said.


"Fine, whatever. The pills are damn near impossible to analyze while inactive, and once activated whoever swallowed them would be rooted in the Rozinante. I don't need another mind trying to take control of my ship, particularly not yours." There was a slight pause before Durandal grudgingly added, "Besides, you're marginally more useful to me mobile."

"Aww, really?" Mark said, starting to grin in spite of himself.

"I know what you're thinking, and stop it."

"I'm touched, buddy. That's almost sweet of you."

"I wouldn't start gushing just yet," said Durandal. "You're still not off the hook for that 'Andy' business, and I did take the liberty of helping myself to a few of the tourists' aari - just in case we run into any other planets where wings might come in handy."

"Oh, fuck. At least tell me you got the ones they were working on for humans?"

"I was in a hurry and forgot to check the labels; you'll be lucky if you don't end up with tentacles like a Bhorbh."

Mark groaned, and his left wing twitched at another poke in the wrong spot from a curious S'pht. "That's what I love about you," he told Durandal, "your sheer dedication to making my life hell in ways I never dreamed of."

"I could say the same for you," Durandal said. "Cheer up, our next stop is known for its textiles, so I can finally get you that angel robe I've been designing for the last few days..."

"Go to hell, asshole."