"Once you are in, don't move. Wait for me."
She pul ed the interface away from the hub. It stretched in spider-thin strands from her hand. Claire touched Charles's skin, letting the interface drip into the first opening of the unit. The dark-grey liquid fil ed the hole in the plastic, forging connections through the skin. Claire touched the left opening, letting it fil , then the right. Charles blinked. The band ensured that connections were made to the right areas of the brain. The filaments of the interface thickened, as more liquid flowed from the hub, reinforcing the connection.
Charles closed his eyes. His body straightened, aligning, and relaxed. He was in.
Claire moved on to Zinaida.
*** *** ***
"Am I doing it right?" Tonya murmured.
"You're fine," Claire said, feeling the prickling of the liquid interface at it fil ed the last opening in the cognizance unit. "Thank you."
She closed her eyes. Darkness flowed over her, as the synthetic neurons made connections with her mind. She lunged down a dark circular tunnel, faster and faster. She had done this thousands of times over the years and she knew what awaited her on the other end - sometimes it was a bleak cliff or severe steppe, but in the past two years it had been the dark forest, uniform tree trunks and pale green leaves. green leaves.
She welcomed it. She yearned for it. She missed the chase, the thril of the battle, the infinite possibilities the bionet offered. It probably said volumes about the hypocrisy of her morals, but in this moment Claire didn't care.
Light exploded and she landed, fal ing into a practiced crouch.
The ground under her was intense, shocking green.
Bright yel ow flowers, their petals thin and long, all but glowed in the silky grass. Claire raised her head.
Jungle breathed at her. Tal grasses with blade-shaped silvery leaves surrounded dark bushes, their foliage splaying out in wide rosettes. A patch of hair-thin stalks tipped by lavender crests of petals thrust through the spaces between wide oyster-shel plants, the inside of their leaves a blinding turquoise. Massive trees, a dozen meters wide, thrust to the sky, spreading their crown so high above, looking at them made her dizzy. Vines dripped from their branches in thick ropes, bearing large blossoms with triangular petals of deepest crimson. Ferns coiled by the thick roots. Emerald green moss cushioned the bark, interrupted by bubbles of some orange-red plants and ridges of lemon-yel ow mushrooms.
Claire stared, shocked.
Creatures crouched around her, a pale blue bul with six horns; a gazel e with golden hooves and wide antlers; a fox with three tails, her bright orange fur rippling with flashes of yel ow; a flightless bird on two sturdy legs with blue and green plumage; a slick lupine beast with black fur and six legs; and a bearded ape, fast and agile, his chocolate fur legs; and a bearded ape, fast and agile, his chocolate fur stained by rings of beige.
"Oh my god, oh my god, oh my god," the ape whispered and she recognized Kosta's voice.
Behind her the sound of fal ing water marked the hub: what was once a three-foot-tal metal sculpture turned into a ten-foot-tal stone fountain. Water spil ed from the top in clear sheets and fell into a mirrored basin at the feet of the three women.
Claire looked into the basin and saw herself in its depths. A giant panther stared at her. Her fur was blood-red, striped with slashes of silver. Her eyes glowed with bril iant gold. A mane of pale red streamed from the back of her head, flaring around two pairs of her long black horns that thrust up and to the sides behind the bright tuffs of her ears. Her wide paws bore black claws the size of swords.
She flicked her tail and saw it was tipped with long tuft of pale red fur, hiding a wicked black spike. Claire smiled and saw the sabers of silver fangs in her powerful mouth.
Sensory overload. She had suffered a culture shock after the planetfal . The province of Dahlia bloomed in her mind with all its colors, scents, and flavors and it reshaped the bionet. What once was a grim forest evolved into a lush jungle.
Claire bowed her head. "Is everyone with me?"
Voices chorused back in agreement.
"We go," she said.
They began their run through the jungle, leaping over the fal en trees and dashing past exotic flowers. She kept the pace brisk, but not tiring. They'd have to save their the pace brisk, but not tiring. They'd have to save their strength for later.
The path curled and they shot out onto a cliff. Far to the right an enormous tree rose, its branches glowing with bright purple lanterns.
"A castle," Saim-Wolf whispered.
Mittali-Bird laughed. "A spaceport!"
"That's where we're going," Claire said. "Fol ow closely, and remember the way. You will be retracing your steps on your way back."
They fol owed the path down the side of the mountain.
Half-way down a low rumble under her paws told Claire a trap had been set off. She felt the terrestrial shock rush upward, above them.
They dashed left and down, angling away from the slope. Above them enormous rocks shot out, spinning, and chased them down the slope. The boulders slammed into the side of the mountain with loud thuds.
They gal oped ahead off her.
A boulder landed inches from her tail.
Zinaida-Fox stumbled and fell . A rock tumbled from above, threatening to crush her. There was no way to avoid it. Claire lunged, shielding the Fox with her shoulder and snarled. The jungle shook. The blast of sound slammed into the boulder, knocking it aside, but not far enough. It slammed into her. The impact resonated through her powerful frame. Claire turned, scooped Zinaida into her mouth, and ran.
Five seconds later the animals col apsed on the grass on the side of the mountain, while the rocks continued to rol behind them. Claire careful y set Zinaida-Fox onto the ground.
"Thank you," the older woman whispered.
Kosta-Ape rol ed on his back and laughed in labored heavy gasps. "Let's do that again!"
"Why are we so tired?" Charles-Bul breathed. "Al this, it doesn't exist. We didn't real y run..."
"You've forced your brain to make connections at maximum speed," Claire said. "The mind can't do this indefinitely. It becomes fatigued just as your bodies do.
Come, we have to keep moving."
They continued through the jungle. Carnivorous plants snapped at their feet. Nooses disguised as vines reached for their necks. Leaves hid pits with spikes. Saim had fal en into a fissure fil ed with angry bees and Claire had to jump in after him and fry the insects with a focused mental blast.
Finally, scratched, bruised, and tired, they emerged from the jungle to the edge of another cliff, this time much lower. They lay down, hiding in the twilight behind the twisted network of roots clenching the mountain.