"He's been asleep for hours," Peregrine said. He stood watching Howl sleep. The big man's hands and arms splayed outwards lifelessly. "There's something wrong. He doesn't look like himself.."
"They would have found any anomalies by now," Gill whispered, looking in. "They've run every test we've got."
"But look at him! Does that look like the Captain? For one thing, he snores like a bull."
But Howl lay silent on the table. When Medical came to check his pulse, he seemed to wake, but did not register that the doctor was there. She came outside, looking perplexed.
"No injuries," she said. "He's had a bad shock, but he doesn't seem to be in shock. He's just gone. It's unusual." She shook her head. Her dreadlocks were piled high on her head inside a pale blue wrapper. A strand had fallen forward and now shook itself sadly over her eyebrow, as if it having come to its own prognosis.
"What's your personal opinion, doctor?" Gillian said.
The woman paused. "Let's see what happens when he starts to speak again."
Outside, people were gathered in the shadows of the ships. Some were packing; checking their vehicles, preparing to leave. It was time, that seemed plain enough. But none of them could agree where to go or what to do next. In fact, the only thing anyone could agree on was that there was safety in numbers. People began to shout and argue.
They were travelers by nature. They believed in going forwards and not looking back; in exploring new galaxies; in finding New Earth. But the Mituants were out there, waiting somewhere in the Frontiers. And Phyrnos itself was a fine place.
"We could stay here," some pleaded. "The Mituants may pass us by." But even if that happened, others argued, staying on Phyrnos was certain death. The Phyrnosians were too hostile, too dangerous. Did anyone want to see their loved ones sliced in half like the beautiful Demma?
Yet to go backwards, to turn away from the Oup Hind system, was to waste everything they'd worked for.
Starless stood listening. She'd only wanted to feel the sunlight, to feel her feet on the ground--and then she felt the Shepherd follow her outside. People looked at her foggily, trying to place her. After a few moments, they looked away again as if she were not there at all.
The Shepherd was veiling her. Why?
"You don't have to be frightened of these people," she told it. "They will not hurt either of us."
"I am not frightened," it said. "But this way your options are open. If they do not see you. If you do not want to stay with them, Cat Starless."
"What, and go back to Phayara?!"
"The priests will give you sanctuary."
She looked at it. When the Shepherd held itself still, she could almost see its edges. They rippled in the light. "Do you know them?"
"They have been in communion with my people for millennia," the Shepherd said.
"Huh." She wished she knew how to send it away. Go and live with the priests then, she wanted to say. I'm just fine on my own.
But she knew it would refuse to leave her. It wouldn't leave until it believed its debt to her had been paid.
"Howl!" More shouts. People thronged the boards, where the captain rocked unsteadily on feet that no longer seemed to belong to him. Catfish Blitchridge steadied him. "You need to be in bed, old friend," Catfish said, trying to help him back into the safety of the ship.
But the one-eyed man refused to go. He lifted his face and looked out at his fellow travelers with a blank gaze.
"Yes," he said, loudly, "the Frontiers. Arrrre we men. Arrrre we afraid of insects? We are explorers! We explore forwards. Forwards, orrr we die!"