"Why not come ahead with us?" Howl said.

They sat in the bodywriter's private quarters around his dinner table. The table was made of living flesh. It had splayed hands for pedestals and a flaring, broadly muscled back to hold their plates; when they entered the bodywriter's private quarters, he'd had to call it in from another room. The table had lurched through the door and patiently stood before them ever since; although the writer had assured them it was not sentient, Starless still cross-legged in her chair, fearful of stepping on its fingers.

The Iceman shook his head. "It's dumbfounding. All of Phyrnos, gone. Just gone."

"We don't know that for certain," the Knife said.

"What could possibly survive a blast like that, so close to its surface?"

They had no answers. It was true that Phyrnos no longer emitted signals of any kind. At the very least all communications had been shut down. At the worst...

"Supposing this Phado were no goddess," Howl said. "Supposing she was a demon. A harbinger."

"The Phyrnosians who evacuated, they're orphans now. Like us," Gill said. "They can't go home again."

"Somehow, I can't see that changing anything," the Knife said. He bit warily into a cracker from a skin-covered bowl on the table, worried that it would taste as strange as its container looked.

It was crab-flavored, tasting faintly of marshmallows. He handed one to Gill.

She smiled and tasted it. "Mm."

"Time will tell," Howl said, watching them. He looked at the Iceman, then at Jacques. "I am sorry about 'Nna and Martine."

Jacques leaned against the wall, his arms tightly folded. He continued to stare up at the ceiling, as he had since they'd learned the femmebots had taken off in a shuttle on their own.

"Well, friends," the bearded man said, slowly. "It's time we were going. There's much to see and na' many of us left to see it. I hope if you change your mind," he said, shaking the bodywriter's hand, "you'll be letting us know."

"Goodbye," the Iceman said.

"Goodnight. Go gently," Howl said.

"Go gently."

They left him there, with Jacques still staring up at the ceiling.

Once they'd returned to their ship, Howl sat quiet. "Everything all right, captain?" Gill said.

"Sad I lost me ship," he said. "But this will serve. Ready launch?"

"Ready launch."

They rose into the waiting dark. "Radio around, will you," he said to Starless. "Let's see what's out there."

"Roger, sir." She smiled. "I've been waiting to say that."

"You're a good lass."

"Thank you."

He held her hand and she blushed. "Starrless? Something came to me while I was on that table," he said. He swallowed. "It's strange to say."

She paled.

"The thing was with you, calls itself a Shepherd? It came and stayed with me a while, while me brains were under sway. Says things to me. Says 'ee saved you from V." He squeezed her hand. His fingers were cold and dry. "Says 'ee never meant to do you harm. Shepherds only wanted to understand more about people. After their study was over, they tried to speed up evolution, only things went sour."

AstraRead this story for FREE!