The creek whispered past rounded rocks and sighed into a smooth, deep pool. Cold water sheeted clear downstream over the dam of rotting leaves and branches packed tight by a fallen scrub tree. The giant haavriathils frowned down from their heights on my tiny intrusion, massed around me in brooding green, ranked like sentinels of the forest’s silence.
I broke it, crashing naked through the smooth window of water, splashing across it, flinging drops like a wager’s challenge. Sparse sunlight filtered by the high weave of limbs scattered gaming crystals over the pool’s surface, shot for a clean sweep, and rolled out another play. The dazzles shifted and winked out as a cloud edged past the far ceiling.
I flipped over and dove deep into the clean shock of cold. Fingers nearly numb, I stroked quickly across it.
The icy stream was a jolt of adrenaline, worlds away from the slow, sensual glide of Sethar’s warm rivers. The hot tropical sun. The jungle chattering, barking, buzzing with life, rustling with birds, lizards, monkeys, insects, big sleek cats. The drowsy flow of the afternoon and Jaréd floating beside me in the current, dark hands sliding like the leisurely kiss of water on skin....
I dove quickly once more into cold and the answering rush of pulse. I thrust across the pool and heaved myself onto the wet, mossy rocks. Jaréd. I touched the scar of the knife down my cheek, seeing his warm brown face with its healed ridge across the high forehead, hearing his low, measured voice guiding my blind steps through the dreamworld’s dance of fear until I could meet the sharp reality with my flesh. I was learning to remember without that jab of guilt over my failure at his death bed.
But if I’d truly learned the lessons of Sethar’s Way, I wouldn’t need to fear the new dreams. It was Jason’s calm face waiting in them, amber eyes of the cyborg seeing everything as he offered himself without reproach to save David and me. What was in that smooth face? Human fear, pain? The passionless balance of the cybers? All I could see were my hands, shaking the broken machine in rage.
I blew out a breath. Pale sunlight shifted, and the knife edges of my shadow dissolved into a swimming green gloom, subdued hues of moss and fern. Shivers prickled my arms and legs.
I slapped drops from my thighs and shoulders, skin tight and tingling. 1 took in a cool, moist lungful. I looked down over the pale, smooth skin laced by trailing wet strands of red-glinted dark hair, the small, high breasts with their cold-stiffened nipples, the taut stretch below. Hips flaring into a bare hint of softness nearly banished by lean muscle. They might have been pared away by that dream knife, the body stripped of at least any visible weakness. The long, driven sessions on the lumiflex bars had almost translated effort, sweat, earthbound flesh into a focused pinpoint of being, a forgetting, a sufficient reality of the moment, the movement.
It had been a long time since I’d felt hands tracing those unyielding contours. Jaréd’s quick dark fingers. And then, peeling away the armor of Casino’s casual pleasures, Poindros. Jason’s large, sun-tawny, work-callused hands, opening me to hurt again. The hands of my mother’s quiet youngest husband, tearing the taboos, but touching me with such surprising sensitivity....
No. The hands of a cyborg, a skin of deceptive warmth enclosing meshed gears, complex circuitry, trained responses. If I’d betrayed Helen, Jason had betrayed us all. His reasons made no difference. He was dead, dismantled. It didn’t matter.
But my body was betraying me again. I jerked my hair back roughly and wrung it out, twisting it into a hasty knot, then tugged on trousers and boots and yanked the bulky sweater over myself. I hurried recklessly downstream over slippery rocks.
Thin fingers of sun groped through cloud, branch, and frond to sketch blurred shapes of shade. And another silent shadow, following.
I froze, catching a quick breath.
Moving carefully on, I avoided any startling movements. It had to be the same Anduran, though I hadn’t yet gotten a clear look at him or her. I was pretty sure it wasn’t one of Heinck’s “tame” natives. I hoped whoever it was would overcome the taboo and tell me why they were watching.
I eased through dense underbrush and squeezed beneath a fallen branch the size of any normal tree. I pushed into a tangle of berry vines, searching for the trail. There were no footsteps echoing mine, only one glimpse of a sleek shape flitting behind a stump.
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