"Do you think he knew this would happen? That his cells would attack hers and infect her with mycelium and cause this mutation?" Ifchah asked Cirelem as the two stood at Archlivz's bedside, shocked by the apparition before them. Their sister had become something other than Mundrichu by some odd transformation. Her appearance still feminine but not even vaguely sapien. Her body seemed fused to the mattress where she had given birth to that thing the Wools had taken. Cirelem had researched the creatures in the archives at Townshend, the nearest village to the orchards. Wool, in this strange case, stood for Walk On One Leg, which is just what the hideous intruders that stole Archlivz's newborn had done. Hopped more than walked, though. A blessing it may indeed have been when they took the grotesque baby but not something they would have wished for. Now this. Archlivz was not only fused to the bed, but her body had developed tendrils of fiber strong enough to constrict the mattress and cut into it, all the way to the frame of the bed, making it appear that she lay upon a meshwork of cables and straps, all of which emanated from her body. Her eyes were wide open, her chest heaving for breath, her mouth open too, but not empty. In it were more fibers, like cotton or webbing, dense and impervious to fluids which Ifchah had tried to administer to her clearly dehydrated sister. It seemed hopeless. Archlivz could not even speak, though her hands ~ or what still resembled them ~ occasionally tried to make signs of communication. Ifchah could make out only a few words amid the often jumbled sounds and gestures: Kill me. Please.
"We cannot let her suffer, sister. This is not right," Cirelem said, shaking his head. A tear fell from his blinking eyes onto his younger sister's hand and he saw it twitch a bit at the touch.
He took it in his, as best he could within the confines of the fibrous growths which encased it now. She gripped his hand tightly and coughed. The webbing burst from her open mouth like a plug of white wool. She gasped and yelled, "Kill me! I cannot be this!"
"Be what, dear sister? What?!" Ifchah cried.
"Like Trace! How can he stand it?! I am full with him. I know everything he knows. Everything! What has happened to me?" Archlivz struggled against the fibers emanating from her own body until she overwhelmed them and tore free of the bed, fragments of mattress ripping apart, the frame creaking with complaint as it fell to pieces beneath her. "Ungh!" she shouted, as her body ripped away from the garments it had worn, hidden beneath a mass of mycelium that had grown out from her like a fungus on a piece of decaying fruit. The unattached mycelium withered at once and that which still formed part of Archlivz went into her as though being reabsorbed. Like water into a dry sponge.
"This is . . . terrible. Wonderful. Painful. Ecstasy!" Archlivz exclaimed, as though she were experiencing an orgasm of mind, body and spirit so intense that it caused her great pain and great pleasure both at once.
"Where is he? Where is your faithful Earthman friend now, dear brother? Where?!" Ifchah demanded, her eyes filled with a fire only a woman might have in her heart towards the male of all species. Every man was to blame for all the suffering any female had ever experienced in life or in death and Ifchah's eyes now expressed that emotion perfectly.
Cirelem had nothing to say.
Archlivz arose from her destroyed bed, brushed off some loose, clinging bits of fabric, bed fiber and dried mycelium and stood there naked in front of her siblings. She looked a decade younger, though she had never looked fully her age before. The thirty years of life she had lived were erased as though belonging to someone else, loaned to her by mistake. A breeze came in through an open window panel and Archlivz let it blow her hair ~ an amber red with tones of brown through it ~ blow it lightly as her mind crossed the expanses of space just as lightly and she smiled unlike any smile she had ever shown.
"What is it, sister? Does it hurt so terribly now?" Ifchah asked in a trembling voice, unable to grasp this transformation in her sibling. The mundrichan looked fresh, new, complete and confident. Her body was elegant, smooth, supple and as perfect as any Sapien body or Mundrichu body had never been. Like Ajax. Ifchah's eyes opened wide in realization. "You, you are Nauplius!"
* * *
"There it is, the beautiful Galaxy Andromeda, ready for the taking!" Trace said, holding his arms out toward the view of the vast spiral form of the magnificent sister galaxy to The Milky Way. Fabled as something almost alive, untouchable, unreachable for its great distance from every station planet in the only galactic home Mankind or the Others had ever known. Or had they known more? Trace held his arms out as though embracing the new place, still so far but looking so huge in the screens of the quill now. Murex spun like a screw toward the galaxy, making the image spin beautifully, as though the quill itself were excited at the sight. But it was merely responding to its pilot's mood, which was as close to a kind of elation as anyone with him had ever witnessed.
"How far do you think it is, Mr. Exide?" asked Joe Boy, his hand warm in the hand of Ajax, who had tears streaming down her cheeks. She felt something like her father's sentiments just then. Or perhaps his were so strong that they filled her up with their own power. Bea was in awe and Frank was staring as though seeing a cosmic beauty for the first time. Bethbetta was not looking at the celestial shape before them, still hundreds of thousands of light years away. She was staring intently at Trace. At the love of her life. She felt his joy, his curiosity, his anxious, boyish wonder then. For him, Etherspace travel was like brushing one's teeth would be to an ordinary man. Trace simply did it with ease and familiarity.
Bethbetta saw her man become a boy for a moment, then that moment disappeared as his arms came down. The ship stopped spinning and the others realized that the brief glimpse of a wondrous galaxy like this, close enough to touch, far enough away to lose a lifetime in pursuing it ~ would be a sight they'd all grow tired of in the lengthy process of flying towards it through the stifling blackness of space around then ~ would likely take years to reach. Reality always intrudes on fantasy in the end.
"Far enough to wish we'd never done this I'm afraid, Joe Boy," Trace said, finally answering the lad's question. "Now let's see if that theory of yours really is as sound as the math seems to suggest." Trace entered a few flurries of finger work into the console of his quill, Murex purred like none of them had ever heard her do before and the galaxy began to grow bigger. Bigger like a balloon before their eyes! "Etherspace is a constant. It is as vast and as compressed as anything one can imagine, both at once," Trace said, almost to himself. The others heard him and were staring at the galaxy which was taking on remarkable dimension. In it were eddies and whorls and living cells the size of solar systems, all beckoning the courageous crew to come join the life forms of this island world in space. For just as a planet is an island between the stars, so too a galaxy is an island between the vastness of dark energy where each one may be millions of light years from another. But knowing how to fully decode the magic of Etherspace makes the distances seem trivial, though clearly, they are not to the lay person, nor are they accessible to anyone but a man with a ship like Murex and the right equation. Or to a non-man like Trace Exide.