Muchlo's Secret

Editor's note. Parthney crafted this story for his grandchildren who grew up with some knowledge of the world where Parthney was born since their father (Boswei) was also born on Hemmal. I've inserted some additional background information into Parthney's narrative specifically for the benefit of Earthlings who will also find it useful to refer to the glossary

Parthney was very happy living at Demon Lodge. I've come to believe that Demon Lodge was specifically crafted as an environment where Parthney could constructively participate as part of the Buld culture on Hemmal. When Parthney arrived at the Lodge he was on a quest to hike across all of the region of Hemmal that was inhabited by the Buld. He traveled light, carrying only his hand-crafted musical instruments and his childhood pet, Bakeko...all of which could melt into his backpack for easy transport. As had been the case for all the other places he visited during his wandering across Pelis Kel, Parthney expected to only stay a short time at Demon Lodge, but weeks turned into months and he stopped making plans to continue his journey across Hemmal.

Parthney began his story with the events of the day at Demon Lodge when he first met Izhiun's grandmother.....

Our conversation was interrupted. Reginal and I had reached the causeway at the edge of the temple complex and could now see some guests of the Lodge who were returning from the ski slopes. Ario, the pek trail guide was with them. They called out boisterous greetings to us and said that they were looking forward to our performance that night. When they reached the cleared path near the temple their skis automatically evaporated away, dissolving back into their invisible nanite components. On Hemmal, skis were automatically generated by the clothing nanites whenever anyone needed to travel through the snow. Recreational skiing was very popular across all of Pelis Kel. The skiers were going to the temple baths and they invited Reginal and I to join them.

I raised my free hand to wave off the invitation from the ski party and I told them that I was going to eat.

Then I saw Sophis who had apparently been waiting for me. Thon stood by the temple gate.

The temple complex was an architectural chimera. When seen upon approach along a path of the forested cliff rim the soaring timbers of that side of the Lodge matched well the structural form of the modest outbuildings and cabins. When seen from the valley floor, the Demon Lodge temple was like an ancient mountain top castle of Earth. Of course, it was not until I left Hemmal that I could fully appreciate the extent to which the pek borrowed from Earth when constructing cultural artifacts on worlds in the galactic core. When I lived on Hemmal the temples seemed as old as the mountains and inflicted on me an oppressive sense of changelessness.

When we neared the gate Sophis greeted the skiers and when they had passed on into the temple grounds thon nervously asked Reginal, "Well?" By that one word I could tell that Sophis had been informed that a transmitter was coming to Demon Lodge.

Long distance communication is one of the aspects of life on Hemmal that is shrouded by religious ceremony. Temple pek function like oracles and the Buld take for granted that pek can be aware of distant events. The Buld think of transmitters as religiously ordained people who have been selected to communicate musical performances from Pelis Kel to the Prelands. The idea of a mechanical or electronic communications device is a concept unknown to the Buld of Hemmal. I don't think I was unique in assuming that the pek had some form of telepathic communication by means of which information rapidly moved from temple to temple. Those Buld who functioned as transmitters were known to visit the Preland territories and facilitate cultural exchange between the Buld and the Prelands. I just assumed that the function of the transmitters was to identify newly created music and deliver it to the Prelands. Where the transmitters went and which performances they transmitted to the Prelands was always of interest to the Buld, particularly among the majority of the Buld who strove to devise new music that would be of interest to the Prelands.

When we stepped inside the temple our outdoor clothing evaporated and I released Reginal's hand. The ski party headed off in the direction of the temple baths and I went directly to the conitorium. Reginal and Sophis fell in behind me and I heard Reginal reply, "I've asked Parthney to perform a traditional Georgiana's Lament."

D'hab, a temple pek, was waiting just inside the conitorium. As usual, there were no Buld present at that time of day, but is was growing late and hungry Buld might start arriving at any time. I had no desire to participate in the traditional feeding ritual with D'hab that would require me to wait for my wishes to be relayed on to Ephkru.
Editor's note. According to Izhiun, Parthney's intended audience (his grandchildren) was already aware of the Buld temple rituals for meals; their father had explained that aspect of life on Hemmal. Therefor, it falls to me to explain this to Earthlings.

For the Buld who live on worlds like Hemmal, obtaining nourishment is a process that is as fully automated as is the way that their bodies are clothed. Above, Parthney mentioned that the Buld are constantly supplied with nanoscopic devices that clothe them and protect them from illness. Nanites also automatically provide the Buld with nutrients (and, incidentally, nanites unobtrusively remove wastes from the bodies of the Buld). The Buld do not bathe in order to clean their bodies, but they do participate in temple bath rituals that are concerned with symbolic washing of the soul. According to Preland religious tradition, a ritual bath is needed after physical exertion and prior to a meal. The true Buld do not consume bulk food, but they participate in ritual meals at the conitorium in the temple complex.

Three times a day the Buld assemble in their temples for eating rituals. At the start of these rituals the traditional chants are recited and the Buld are subjected to wonderful food aromas that are designed to stimulate hunger sensations. Usually small cups of tea are served, although during the most solemn rituals only steaming pots are placed before the Buld and the vapors inhaled ritualistically. Invisible swarms of nanites then begin to shuttle microscopic particles of water and synthetic food into the alimentary canals of the Buld. The Buld ritualistically give thanks to the Creators for relieving them of the animal need to kill living things in order to eat. The end of the ritual is a celebration of Buld transcendence over the primitive human battle against hunger. While learning the Buld ways of life after going through the Change (taiuoro), Buld are taken on "field trips" away from the temples and allowed to experience severe hunger and thirst. That training very effectively establishes Buld dependence on the temples.

The midnight temple ritual is not overtly concerned with food, but feeding does take place during that phase of the quadalia.

The Buld stomach is very small and the Buld have almost no capacity to store body fat. On worlds like Hemmal a Buld cannot long survive without having access to a temple and a regular schedule of feedings.

Some Buld are skeptics who refuse to give thanks to the unseen Creators, but all Buld on worlds such as Hemmal are dependent on the temples for food. These alien aspects of Genesaunt culture will start to become more comprehensible for Earthlings in the later chapters.

Since I was in a hurry, I nodded to D'hab and crossed the conitorium to the archway where I could see Ephkru in the kitchen. "Just a bowl of fruit, Ephkru, I'm in a hurry."

Ephkru turned around and pulled open the oven that was reserved for producing bulk food. Ephkru extracted a bowl of fruit and brought it to me.

I looked at the assortment of fruit and said, "My knife, Ephkru."

Ephkru commented, "Nothing here really need be cut," but the pek humored me and extended thons hand over the bowl. As if by magic a knife dropped into the bowl, its structure having been quickly assembled from nanite components.

"Thanks, Ephkru." I took my bowl of food and went to the table where Reginal and Sophis were now seated.

Sophis, like many of the Buld at Demon Lodge, enjoyed bulk food even if thon could never consume very much of it. As soon I set the bowl on the table thon grabbed a grape and popped it in thons mouth. Sophis asked Reginal, "What is known about our visitor?"

Reginal replied, "The transmitter's name is Muchlo. Thon will arrive soon with an assistant named Kach. They left Stony Creek Lodge early this morning."

For a minute Sophis watched me eat, thons hands twisting against each other on the table in front of thon. I used the knife to cut up an apple and then I started eating the slices. After having a chance to see how nervous thon was, I felt certain that Sophis was not happy to have a transmitter on the way. Sophis nervously asked me, "Are you going to take Reginal's advice and behave this evening?"

I was about to reply when I saw Yandrey enter the conitorium. Thon came to our table, followed by D'hab. D'hab began the ritual questioning that was part of the Buld temple food ceremony. Sophis was not interested in participating in the ritual, but Yandrey patiently made known thons preferences and D'hab retreated to the kitchen.

I had grown very fond of Yandrey during my time at Demon Lodge. Unlike most Buld, Yandrey understood what it meant for me to be male. I'd been told by others that thon was the oldest person on Hemmal as judged by the fact that nobody had known Yandrey to go through the Change. Because of the close bond that I felt with Yandrey I sometimes fantasized that thon might have been my father.

In any case, I'm getting ahead of myself, and that (using terms like "father" or "mother") is not really how any Buld on Hemmal would have described someone's biological origins. When a biological relationship between Buld was suspected then terms like nepot were used.

It was not until later that I knew much about biology besides the confused folk tales that circulated among the Buld. Yandrey had tried to educate me, but I foolishly treated his stories as little better than fantastic myths. I certainly knew nothing about the reproductive practices of the Prelands and how far they have been pushed beyond human biological existence.

The Buld are just one step along the evolutionary path that has been taken by the Prelands. Preland reproduction is an almost completely artificial process controlled by the pek. The Buld still actively participate in their reproductive process, but on Hemmal that participation is usually guided by temple ceremony. That guidance is the job of temple pek like Reginal and to help facilitate and stimulate Buld reproduction the bothets are allowed to have a more Buld-like appearance than a typical pek. Bothets are designed to appeal sexually to the Buld and as a young male there should be no surprise that I was attracted to Reginal. Most Prelands and Buld have sleek bodies like girls, but bothets usually adopt a more curvacious womanly appearance. Of course, until I reached Earth I had no real understanding of women and reproduction as practiced by Earthlings.

Most of the Buld believe that they are immortal. The Buld are not immortal, but I later learned that Yandrey is more than 15,000 years old. For me, in my state of profound ignorance, Yandrey was a reservoir of experience and knowledge; thon seemed to know everything, but thon still looked like a girl and spoke with an odd lisping dialect. When D'hab turned away from our table, Yandrey asked me, "Well, Parthney, what are you going to do about this transmitter?"

I shrugged and looked at the faces of my companions. Sophis looked truly anxious and sat across the table from me, still twisting thons hands together. Reginal sat close beside me on the bench; I glanced into her unreadable pek eyes, but I knew perfectly well that she expected me to do a traditional musical performance for the transmitter. As usual, Yandrey was in a playful mood and seemed genuinely curious about what I might do. I said, "I still don't understand what's happening. Why would a transmitter bother to come all the way out to Demon Lodge?"

D'hab returned to our table with Ephkru and they placed ceremonial trays with aromatic vials of food scents on the table in front of Sophis and Yandrey. Yandrey, thons desire for food having been satisfied, had reached the limit of thons patience for temple ceremony and rudely dismissed D'hab and Ephkru, "Leave us in peace, save your chants for the faithful."

Sophis glared at Yandrey and observed, "Such poor examples you and I set. No wonder Parthney has never learned to gracefully do what is wise."

Yandrey giggled, "I've carefully trained Parthney to mock nonsensical traditions and think for himself."

Reginal fired back at Yandrey, "If you don't like the traditions of Hemmal, why don't you leave?"

By that point in time I'd had months of experience watching the antagonism that existed between Yandrey and the temple pek. Sophis had little interest in religion, but the temple was integral to Demon Lodge and thon made an effort to get along with everyone. Yandrey was blunt and never tried to hide thons contempt for all things religious. I later learned that Reginal and Yandrey had been at each others throats for thousands of years. I now know that in a very real sense the planet Hemmal had been designed so that I would witness those two each arguing their own side in an eternal debate. Reginal voiced the conventional perspective of the Prelands and she would have been pleased to see me live out my life on Hemmal, even though I had no sympathy for the Prelands and their effort to become one with their Creators.

Yandrey did not even cringe in response to Reginal's mean spirited suggestion. Thon replied, "In order to defend the important work of the Buld Clan I've learned to tolerate the religious delusions that you pek force upon the people of Hemmal."

Reginal put an arm around me and said to Yandrey, "Maybe Parthney wants to stay here regardless of your efforts to drive him away."

Yandrey wrinkled thons nose, "Reg, it truly is not fair for you to take advantage of the boy." Yandrey leaned forward and reached across the table, took hold of my hand and said, "Just because you like it here and Reginal is your willing slave, you should not imagine that in all the universe there is no place better for you than Demon Lodge."

I did enjoy living at Demon Lodge, but it was not hard for me to imagine and fantasize about improvements and alternatives. Nothing ever changed on Hemmal so I tried to express my ideas and dreams in my music. As much as I had moved away from the traditional musical style of Hemmal, I still felt uncomfortably constrained in my art. And equally constrained by my emotional attachment to Reginal. Looking back, it is obvious that I clung to her because I wanted a soul mate, but she was more like my mother than a lover. I assured Yandrey, "Have no doubt about that, Yandrey, your tales of other worlds have filled me with dreams." At that moment, even while entranced by my dreams, I could not really imagine leaving behind the way of life I had known on Hemmal. For me, the idea of other worlds was the stuff of legends and dreams.

I picked up the bowl of fruit and thought about one of my typical fantasies: having the freedom to keep a supply of food in my cabin. I said, "I could just stay in my cabin for a while. Maybe Muchlo will go away."

Sophis complained, "That would accomplish nothing. I'm sure that the transmitter is here to see you perform, Parthney. Just take Reginal's a conventional performance and everything will be just fine. In a day or two Demon Lodge will return to normal."

I said, "Very well, but I despise Georgiana's Lament. We'll perform one of the Druidic Ballads."

Yandrey took thons hand away from mine and snorted in disgust.

I was not happy at the prospect of taking Reginal's advice and compromising my artistic sensibilities. I left the details to Reginal, "You decide. Which is your favorite, Jenet?"

Reginal suggested, "The Orchard of Maponus. We can do the Knot of Roots...the magical sprites will lend themselves well to your instruments and we pek need offend nobody by opening our mouths on the stage."

Sophis sighed gloomily, "The sight of a pek performing on stage would be offensive enough, as is Parthney's obvious male form. Reginal, for tonight it will be best if you exaggerate your role as bothet and pass yourself off as a female human. Have Ario and D'hab pretend to be Buld...put those two under the lights and let them dominate the performance. Do as I suggest and the Prelands might ignore the presence of Parthney and the blasphemy that he is sure to utter."

I could not suppress a guilty laugh in response to Sophis' pessimistic expectations for my performance. I was satisfied with Reginal's choice. In The Orchard of Maponus, Maponus is explicitly described as son, husband and father, terms that have little meaning to the Buld of Hemmal, but Yandrey had explained to me that as a false Buld I was male and the labels "son", "husband" and "father" all identified Maponus as a male. I'd often asked my mentors and confidants why so many of the epic poems of the Prelands identified the heroes as men or women. Most people on Hemmal had no concept of "man" or "woman" and could not seriously reply. Yandrey brutally mocked the Prelands for honoring their biological origins with their Songs of Life while at the same time they were religiously fanatical in their ritualized denial of their biological nature. Reginal insisted that it was important for the Prelands to remember the horrors of their biological past; doing so was a constant source of motivation in their efforts to transcend physical existence and spiritually become one with their Creators.

I pushed away the fruit bowl and pulled Reginal away from the table. "Let's find Ario and arrange Knot of Roots for our megepi." Would we have time to prepare for the performance? As I hurriedly turned away from the table I could see a look of relief on Sophis' face. I suspected thon was pleased that I would not bring disrepute upon Demon Lodge by insisting that my megepi perform one of my heretical works in front of the transmitter.

Yandrey had a sly grin on thons lips and called after me, "Have the courage to make it your arrangement, Parthney."

Reginal and I hurried out of the conitorium and crossed the central atrium of the temple complex. We went directly to the performance hall and found Ario already there and arranging the conventional props used for The Orchard of Maponus. These were mostly cloth backdrops that established the settings. In hindsight, it is obvious that the pek have a means of communicating with each other. In all the years I lived on Hemmal I never questioned the fact of that communication. I imagined it was a telepathic communication and sometimes I wondered if the pek could read my private thoughts, but at that moment I was not at all concerned with the pek and their powers. Racing through my mind were ideas for how I could change the canonical text of the Knot of Roots and adapt the verses to my personal experience of being male. Warping Buld music and making it my own was simply what I did, and I could not merely sing unchanged the lines of a traditional epic. Reginal looked up at me and said, "Parie, don't go changing the songs. If you must, follow one of the Buld adaptations, but please don't improvise...not tonight."

"But if the transmitter is here to hear me, then word of my performances must have spread to the Prelands. If I hide my artistry tonight I'll fool nobody-"

Reginal impatiently interrupted me. "Parie, don't confuse yourself. This is very simple. Go ahead and show off your hand-crafted instruments; that is why your music is discussed among the Buld. The Prelands could never understand the music of your instruments, and they will easily dismiss it from their thoughts after tonight, but they could not fail to be offended by your songs that celebrate male sexuality and what you call the womanly art of birthing. Your interest in sexual perversion titillates the childish Buld who have followed you to Demon Lodge, but among a wider audience, for the majority of Buld, the typical reaction to your poetic creations is revulsion. Give them a rest, just for tonight."

I knew that Reginal was correct, but for me the only fun to be had performing the Preland classics was the act of twisting the presentation so as to glorify the primitive biological nature of the characters. For the Prelands, the biological nature of their distant ancestors was something to be reminded of, acknowledged with a shudder of horror, and then ignored. I asked Ario, "Would you be willing to sing the part of Maponus?"

Ario seemed surprised by my suggestion. "I know that Maponus is something of a hero to you, Parthney. I thought we were performing The Orchard tonight because you will enjoy it and identify with Maponus."

"Yes, but Reginal does not trust me to open my mouth. We all know that I'll not find it east to resist the temptation to change the thrust of the story. It will be safer if I just content myself to instrumentally improvise the sprites."

Ario nodded in understanding but said, "We risk offending the Prelands unless we pek perform the instrumentals."

Reginal shook thons head. "I agree with Sophis. Tonight you and D'hab must take on the appearance of Buld. I can pretend to be a woman and the Prelands will not care if we pek sing as long as we take pains to hide our pek identity. Parthney is correct: it is safest if he limits his performance tonight to only improvising instrumental parts for the sprites."

Ario morphed thons face from the small jawed-features of a Preland to the human appearance of a Buld. I was amused to see that the pek were so afraid of offending the Prelands.

Reginal nodded with approval at Ario and turned to me. "I've described how you can get through this night without alarming the Prelands, but it is for you to decide on your own role in the performance."

For a second it seemed as if I stood in front of two windows. Through one window was a future in which I limped through life allowing Reginal to decide what was best for me. Through the other window was a future where I made my own choices. "I know myself. I won't be able to keep my mouth shut. However, the transmitter is here to hear me, so I will sing the Maponus role according to tradition."

My memory of Reginal's smile at that moment has long haunted me. That was the last time I saw joy on her face. Reginal took hold of my hand, "The Knot of Roots is perfect because it is the lament of Maponus and we pek can do all of the minor parts with our instruments. All you need do is recite the lament. If you forget some stanzas or are tempted to improvise then just shift over and improvise on your harp. Say nothing that will offend the Prelands! Remember, you Buld are guests on Hemmal."

I had been taught to think of myself as a false Buld, but Yandrey had made it clear to me that biologically I was not a Buld. Yandrey had told me tales of distant worlds where living beings evolved naturally; in contrast, the Buld and Prelands are synthetic constructs. Not as artificial as the pek, but artificial just the same. Yandrey insisted that I was a "human", that there was a distant world full of humans, a world that was the origin of all humans as well as the Buld and Prelands. By Yandrey's logic, I did not fit into the synthetic culture of Hemmal and I had no obligation to adhere to Buld custom or honor Preland religious bigotry.

I had no way of knowing, beyond my own intuition, if Yandrey was correct about thons theory of human biological origin on a distant world thon sometimes called "Earth". According to Preland beliefs, which I had been indoctrinated with by the pek who raised me, the Buld Clan was a special type of Preland Clan and all Prelands as well as the pek were the work of the Creators. For Prelands, the purpose of life was to live according to the wishes of the doing so, Prelands, as imperfect biologicals, could work towards an ultimate, and inevitable, spiritual unification with the Creators.

For me, the problem with the Preland religious mythology was that it said nothing about "false" Buld. Mutants like me were widely viewed as biological mistakes and I could not help wondering if I was just a throw-back to a biological form that the Prelands had evolved beyond. However, when pressed, the pek, including Reginal, had little to say about my personal predicament as a false Buld. The pek had persistently worked my entire life to help me find a place within Buld society, but no matter how hard they tried to accomodate me, it was not easy for me to fit in.

That evening, with the imminent threat that a transmitter would broadcast the performance of my megepi to the Prelands, I was not feeling very rebellious. Most of the time I had great fun letting myself be driven to rebelliousness by Yandrey and the other religious heretics who congregated at Demon Lodge, but I could understand that Sophis was correct, that it was wise to not provoke the Prelands. All these thoughts swirled through my head, but it was the soft warmth of Reginal's hand that truly swayed me. Yandrey was certainly correct about one thing: I was at Reginal's mercy...she could coax me into anything. She was pek, but I was her willing servant.

I said, "Okay, Ario, lead me once through Maponus' lament, line by line." I stationed Reginal to one side of the small stage next to the collection of instruments I had crafted. "While I practice my lines, Reginal will find ways to perform the sprites through instrumental interpretation." We began our quick rehearsal of Knot of Roots mainly to allow me to refresh my memory of the poetry. We experimented some with the magical sprites, but mostly we just quickly assigned an instrument to each of the sprites. We'd have to improvise the instrumentals during the actual performance.

About three quarters of the way through our rehearsal I became distracted. I could not stop thinking about Muchlo. Had a transmitter actually gone to the trouble to travel through the deep winter snow to reach Demon Lodge just to witness my music? Some of my old performance anxiety, which I had not suffered for months, swelled up inside me. I started to lose confidence in my ability to remember all my lines and even in rehearsal, with me just repeating what Ario sang, I began to simply replace some stanzas with harp music.

When Ario and I finally sang the last line of Knot of Roots, the door of the auditorium opened and D'hab ran up to the stage. "The guests have started to assemble in the lobby...I would not let them come in here until you were done."

My mouth was dry and I wanted to step over to the conitorium for a drink before it would be time for the evening performances. Reginal told Ario, "We are done rehearsing, they can come in now." Reginal and D'hab began discussing how they would divide up the sprite parts. Ario pulled closed the curtain at the front of the stage and I could see some members of the audience already taking seats.

I stepped off stage and exited out the performer's door at the rear of the auditorium and made my way across the temple atrium. My legs seemed to twitch erratically while I walked and I told myself that my jitters were simple nervousness. I tried to ease my racing thoughts into a tranquil pattern. Approaching the arched entrance to the conitorium, Ephkru met me with a flask of water. I guzzled some of the water then looked around to see if I had offended any of the Lodge guests. Ephkru said, "All the guests have gone on to the auditorium. Everyone is excited about the transmitter's visit."

"The transmitter has arrived?"

"Yes, indeed, about thirty minutes ago. They had a hard, slow slog in today with the high temperature and threat of avalanches."


"Muchlo and the assistant, Kach."

"Oh, yes. Where are they now?"

Comming from the lobby of the auditorium, Sophis entered the temple atrium. Seeing me, thon came to the entrance of the conitorium. Sophis was dressed formally for the evening performances in a wispy gown that fluttered as thon walked quickly towards me. I handed the water flask to Ephkru who said, "I have a few more trays to put away, then I will come to your performance."

Ephkru returned to the kitchen and Sophis said, "I've scheduled your megepi first, Parthney."

For the past two months my megepi had been in the lead off spot, so it I had expected to go first that evening. I asked Sophis about the transmitter.

Sophis took my hand and we walked towards the auditorium. "Upon arriving Muchlo wanted to relax in the baths, but I just saw thon in the lobby of the auditorium"

As we approached the lobby my clothing morphed into the traditional costume of Maponus. It seemed that with each step forward my anxiety grew. I became dizzy and I could hardly walk straight. Sophis asked, "What's wrong?"

I shook my head and tried to clear my mind. I looked at Sophis and thon seemed to glow and radiate pride. I said in surprise, "You are enjoying this!" From the day I first arrived at Demon Lodge Sophis had seemed quiet, calm, confident and competent, but almost shy. A visit by a transmitter to a lodge was typically viewed as an honor by the Buld, but it had never occurred to me that Sophis would desire recognition from the Prelands. Demon Lodge was well known as a den of heretics.

Sophis squeezed my hand and laughed with a bit of hysteria in her voice. "I might as well enjoy tonight. I won't deny that I'm proud you came here and stayed here so long."

I took a deep breath and still felt strange, but not quite so dizzy. I was exerting all of my attention to the task of placing one foot in front of the other. Had I been less distracted I might have noticed that Sophis expected me to offend the Prelands with my performance. She was already saying goodby.

We entered the lobby and I followed Sophis' gaze to a clot of guests where they surrounded Muchlo who was looking right at me. My dizziness and the strange -whatever- I was experiencing seemed to intensify and I felt a strange warmth in my body and tingling up my spine. The most distinctive thing about the transmitter was thons clothing which looked like the stiff formal Preland costume that was used in Buld plays which depicted the lives of Prelands. There was a roaring in my ears and everything that was happening seemed to take place at the far end of a tunnel, but I realized that Sophis had introduced me to Muchlo. Slowly Muchlo's shiny blond hair and blue eyes came into focus before me.

Muchlo was saying to Sophis, "A bold choice to feature an artist so young." Muchlo seemed to look critically at our clasped hands. Sophis and I let go of each other. By noting my age, Muchlo had found a polite way to question Sophis' wisdom in featuring a false Buld in performances at Demon Lodge. Then turning directly to face me, Muchlo asked, "Do you plan to perform with your..." She made a waving gesture with her hands.

"Instruments," I completed thons sentence.

"Yes, your instruments."

"I hope you will be charmed. My instruments are most musical, really magical reflections of a voice, particularly when in the competent hands of the pek in my megepi."

Muchlo said bluntly, "Can it be anything but perversion to involve pek in the creation of music?"

There was a collective gasp from the Lodge guests who surrounded us. I could see Sophis' eyes glittering and thon seemed to be struggling to remain silent. I laughed. "Many of my life choices are viewed as perverse by the Buld. That is why I am here at a Lodge where wise transmitters never come."

Muchlo asked me, "Is it wise for someone so young to make pronouncements about wisdom?" I had no reply to that, and Muchlo continued, "So, you don't view yourself as a Buld?"

"I've been labelled a false Buld, but as a man I prefer another categorization entirely."

Muchlo sniffed with obvious skepticism. "Really. What is your alternative view of reality?"

Having no way to know how wrong I was, I assumed that Muchlo was a Buld. "I prefer to think of both you and I as humans. In my reality, I am a true human male. You are a modified, artificial human, a Buld."

Muchlo giggled. "A childish game of semantics. Do you mean to call me a false human?"

I nodded in acknowledgement. "As you say, childish. However, from my human perspective, the joy of being a child is to learn." I was feeling very strange, as if waves of heat were spreading through me. Was I about to vomit? Until that moment I was wondering if the strange sensations I was experiencing were provoked by anxiety over Muchlo's visit, but I started wondering if something was emanating from Muchlo. Before I could grasp that thought, just then I thought I heard a voice say, "Yes!" I turned my head and saw a stranger, who had to be the transmitter's assistant, Kach.

Kach also wore the brightly colored Preland costume. Also, Kach held a large boxy container in front of thons chest. Kach's eyes met mine for only an instant then thon looked down at the box and I immediately felt my head start to clear. There had been something warm and friendly in thons eyes, so much so that when I looked back at Muchlo I could sense that something was not right about Muchlo. I'd tried to adopt a sense of amusement at Muchlo's blunt remarks, but now I could not suppress a growing visceral dislike for Muchlo that seemed to swell up inside me.

The lights in the lobby dimmed and Ephkru, who now stood beside the entrance to the auditorium, announced, "It is time for all guests to take seats for this evening's performance. We will begin with a novel rendition of The Orchard of Maponus."

The clump of Buld around us broke up, but Muchlo seemed determined to get in the last word. "Ah, The Orchard! Perhaps you also know Carataco and Cartima."

Muchlo and I were now the last people in the lobby and our voices echoed on the ancient stones. We turned and walked slowly towards the auditorium. I replied, "One of my favorite poems. Perhaps you know that Carataco was a male, like me, and Cartima is the woman who bore his son?"

Muchlo replied, "Yes, but remember, it is a tragedy. Cartima sacrificed Carataco."

I was surprised that Muchlo knew the same interpretation of the story of Carataco and Cartima that I had heard from Yandrey. Mention of the idea of birth was taboo on Hemmal, although Buld epics used a dozen poetic metaphors to make possible stories about such objectionable biological processes. The traditional Preland version the tale was known as Carat, Carti, Carly and was the story of a struggle between Carat and Carti for the affection of Carly. In the Preland version, Carat, Carti and Carly are all hermaphrodites. Carat, Carti, Carly is traditionally told as a moralistic warning against the danger of investing too much affection in any one individual rather than loving everyone equally.

My thoughts about Muchlo were then interrupted by the transmitter installation ceremony that was taking place in the auditorium. All of the temple pek were in a circle on the stage, all dressed in the traditional temple uniform. For the moment, Reginal, D'hab and Ario all looked like Prelands. They chanted, "May the performance on this stage bring us closer to the Creators". Muchlo marched to the stage and gave a signal to Kach. Kach opened the box that thon held and a sparkling orb flew out of the box and took up a new position above the stage. Muchlo said, "All that happens on this stage tonight will be seen and heard by the Unetic Clan." There was the usual ritualistic chanting in the old Buld language then the non-performers left the stage and I joined my megepi backstage.

Reginal, D'hab and Ario all changed their clothing and appearance. I was still feeling nauseous and I briefly squatted down and bent my head between my knees. When I looked up I was amused to see Reginal had adopted the body form that I had only previously seen her use in private when she was trying to please me. The others were waiting...I picked up my instrument and we went on stage. Ario and D'hab went to the front of the stage and stood on little platforms that lifted up out of the floor. They set up their instrument stands and looked out at the audience, glowing in stage light. When they began to play music their clothing transformed into rippling sprite costumes that seemed to be gently tugged by a wind. Reginal and I stayed towards the back of the little stage, our harps in hand.

Twice previously I had seen a transmitted musical performance. I thought no more about the mechanism of transmission that I thought about any of the other every day miracles of life on Hemmal. Only later did I learn about cameras and microphones and electromagnetism. In any case, with the advanced technology available to the pek it is doubtful that anything as primitive as cameras and microphones were used for a transmission. The eye-catching orb that floated above the stage was probably just a glaring reminder for the primitives that transmission was taking place. I now know that the pek could effortlessly record all events on Hemmal without any of the bumbling Buld ever noticing what was happening.

For the first half of the performance I concentrated on my singing and struggled to contain my nausea or anxiety or whatever it was I was feeling. Finally I looked out at the audience and noticed that Kach was watching me intently. Muchlo seemed bored with the performance, but I found myself basking in Kach's attention. I got some smiles from thon by making some harmless improvisations and that emboldened me. My mind was able to grasp the entire structure of the Maponus saga and I knew how the knot could be untangled.

I began making some rather startling changes to the poetry and Reginal began hissing in disbelief and glaring at me. My friends and acquaintances among the Lodge guests began laughing and applauding my little jokes and digs at conventional Preland attitudes. After what had been a stiffly conventional beginning to the story, my performance began conforming to my usual style. For Prelands, The Orchard of Maponus is full of warnings about the dangers of close personal relationships, or, what is better described as -what I would later learn to understand as- family relationships. The problems that Maponus faced all arose from denial of his maleness and misguided efforts to treat everyone he knew as equals. Much of the conventional version of the performance involved the sprites chiding Maponus for his efforts to develop close personal relationships. According to Preland religious doctrine, the Creators want people to love everyone equally, but in our performance the sprites were voiced only by musical instruments. As the only one singing, I was free to twist the story completely on its head. In my version, I allowed Maponus to discover the joy of his special feelings for women. Reginal could only glare at me and make her harp chatter in alarm.

Of course, at that point in my life I had no real understanding of what a woman was. Yandrey had tried thons best to explain such things to me, but as a Buld, thons knowledge was too theoretical. Reginal had been almost like a woman to me, but it was impossible for our relationship to take the form of a normal romance...she was a pek, not a woman.

When we finally concluded Knot of Roots there was polite but nervous applause from the audience. When Ario pulled the curtain closed to cut my megepi off from the audience, it was obvious to everyone present that I has gone much too far in turning the story into a fantastic celebration of monogamous sexual attraction. I looked up at the transmitter globe and would have smiled, but I could not shake the unsettled feeling in my gut. My megepi retired backstage and the second megepi moved to the stage with their props and began arranging the backdrops for their performance. One of the performers said to me, "For a while I thought you were going to knuckle under. I'm proud of you, Parthney."

It was intermission time and Sophis, Muchlo, Kach and several guests of the Lodge including Yandrey came backstage. With the transmitter globe still visible above the curtains we stepped out through the back door of the auditorium.

When the door closed, Reginal was immediately brutal. She hissed at me, "Why did you do it? And to go out of your way to humiliate Sophis!"

I looked carefully at Sophis and thon gave me a small smile, or, possibly, a grimace of pain? I replied, "That was who I am. I could not bring myself to hide from the Prelands."

Yandrey threw thons arms around me and said, "Very thought provoking, Parthney. I doubt if even the most religiously fanatical Prelands can fail to appreciate the truth...The Orchard of Maponus is, in its original manifestation, a love is a travesty that Preland tradition warps the story into a farcical mocking of Maponus."

Muchlo objected, "What do you mean when you speak of its original manifestation?"

Sophis spoke with a calm certainty that surprised me, "At one time, Yandrey was a scholar...that is how thon knows so much about other worlds, including Earth."

Reginal scoffed, "Earth! Atlantis! And the Land of Oz, too, no doubt!"

Yandrey nodded, "The Buld Clan travels to all the worlds and we scholars share knowledge from all the worlds. It is no miracle that we have a deeper understanding of reality than other people who are restricted to just one world."

I'd never previously heard Yandrey describe thonself as a scholar. Before I could speak to Yandrey, Muchlo said, "By the terms of ancient treaty, Buld scholars are not allowed on Hemmal."

Yandrey shrugged, "If you prefer, think of me as a retired scholar. I retired long ago and took up residence among the Pelis Kel. This is my home."

Muchlo gave a harsh titter, "It will be interesting to see how much of this den of demons and heretics and scholars survives tonight's transmission to the Prelands."

Sophis said, "No matter how the Buld are bullied and persecuted and brain washed some of us will stay true to our Clan. We came to this frozen world to study the Unetic Clan, not become adherents to their weird religion."

Muchlo nodded, "Remember, childish antics like Parthney's put all the Buld on Hemmal at risk. The Prelands could terminate the treaty tomorrow and evict every single Buld from Hemmal."

One of my Buld friends, a guest at the Lodge who had come backstage said, "That is an empty threat. The Unetic Clan depends on we Buld for new music."

A tone sounded, calling the audience back from intermission. After performing, my megepi usually went to the conitorium where the pek could wait until the second performance was over. We went into the atrium of the temple and Muchlo and Kach came with us. Sophis, Yandrey and the others returned to the auditorium for the next performance.

I asked Muchlo, "What about your transmission?"

"The transmission continues, but it is because you are at Demon Lodge that I came to Demon Lodge."

"Did you get what you expected?"

Muchlo's shoulders produced a gentle twitch and there was a subtle smirk on her lips. "Based on what I had heard about you and your music I have so far not been surprised."

"So far? What more do you expect?"

We had reached the entrance to the conitorium and we all stopped walking. Muchlo said, "In my position, there are some topics that I cannot freely discuss." In a very quiet voice thon added, "Transmitters have a special trusted relationship."

I knew transmitters as points of contact between the Buld and the Prelands, but I had no deep understanding of their relationship with the Prelands. I asked, "So trusted that you would put Unetic Clan ahead of Buld Clan? What do you get in return?"

Muchlo was reluctant to say. "Come with me to my cabin and we can discuss these matters in private."

Reginal stepped close and put her arms around me. I was surprised to see that she had still not morphed her body back to its usual bothet form. She said, "You don't have to go with Muchlo. Come, let's go-" She tried to pull me into the conitorium.

With some urgency and a commanding tone Muchlo suggested, "Bothet, don't assault the poor boy here in the heart of the temple."

Reginal snapped back, "You came here uninvited...your advice is not welcome."

Muchlo reminded everyone, "Transmitters need no invitation." Muchlo looked carefully at how Reginal pressed her body against me and then asked, "Why don't you want me to talk to Parthney? What are you trying to hide?"

Reginal took her hands off of me and said, "There is nothing to hide, but remember, the treaty between the Unetic and Buld Clans only involves the Buld."

Reginal was saying that I was not a Buld, so the treaty did not apply to me. It was strange to hear that from Reginal because the pek had insisted through my whole life that I was a false Buld, born of Buld, and welcome to live my life among the Buld. I said, "I want to hear what Muchlo has to say."

Reginal turned and went with Ario into the conitorium.

I waved farewell to my megepi and went out into the night with Muchlo. I realized that I did not know where we were going, so I stopped walking. D'hab had followed along and said, "Sophis asked me to make sure that the transmitter is comfortable." Muchlo had never stopped moving along the path. As a group we walked along the rim pathway; with my long stride I quickly caught up and Muchlo and I took the lead, D'hab and Kach followed along behind.

The night was cooling off rapidly under a mostly clear sky and our clothing rapidly thickened around us. Our hot breath made small clouds as we spoke and we walked along the cliff rim path, now going in the uphill direction. I asked, "Were there avalanches along the scarp today?"

Muchlo replied, "We skirted around one large slide, it looked like it had let go during the last storm."

I was still feeling jittery and the idea of flirting with avalanches sent a cold shiver up my back. When I had traveled through the wilderness I carried only my few personal belongings like my musical instruments and a small supply of food and knew I would be protected by automated clothing nanites. I'd been told that like all Buld my health was guarded by medical nanites, but I also knew that while the true Buld were renowned to be immortal, the same could not be said for false Buld. I'd once seen a Buld ski face first into tree. The next day thon was healed and as good as new. I had no confidence that I was as durable as the true Buld so I was never as reckless as they were. I never took risks with avalanche danger.

We strolled casually along the path. Muchlo seemed not to be in a hurry and I still did not know where we were going. It occurred to me that all winter Demon Lodge had been full to capacity. When we reached the narrow path that led to my cabin I asked, "Which cabin did Sophis make available to you?"

"Cedar House. Sophis said it is at the end of the cliff path."

I pointed, "That's my cabin." I took it for granted that if another cabin were needed then the pek had the power to make one. It was no more surprising to me that a new cabin could be made in a day than it was that warm boots could form around my feet when I stepped out into a cold night.

Now knowing where to go, I set a faster pace through the cold and Kach seemed to be struggling for breath. Muchlo said, "I'm afraid that Kach wore thonself out today...the thin air up here takes some getting used to."

For the first time I heard Kach's voice, "Yes, I'm tired, we hit the trail well before dawn this morning."

I stopped walking, turned and looked back at Kach. Muchlo had continued on and said, "That looks like the end of the path."

I turned back and said, "That must be Cedar House, I've never seen it before."

Kach nodded, "Sophis said it is new, made just for us. I brought our portable trail kitchen out here earlier this evening." I was well adapted to the high altitude, but when I looked at Kach I suddenly felt my heart pounding in my chest. I took a deep breath of the cold kel air and looked up at the stars. Some thickening clouds were now visible....a new storm was arriving.

When Buld traveled and would not be fed at a temple conitorium they carried feeding nanites with them so they could be nourished on the trail. My preference was to pack some bulk food and water and avoid using a trail kitchen. I'd never really grown comfortable with the idea of invisible devices shuttling food and wastes in and out of my body.

Kach and I caught up to Muchlo and we entered Cedar House. Muchlo, Kach and I went the hearth while our clothing melted back to its usual indoor style. D'hab and I found ourselves in the comfortable, lightly skin-covering layer of clothing that was typically worn by the Buld, but Muchlo and Kach were once again dressed in stiff and bulky Preland costume. D'hab had gone to the cabin's kitchenette and soon brought us warm drinks: tiny ceremonial cups of tea that was the only food normally found in the guest cabins. It occurred to me that in the excitement of the day I might have allowed myself to become dehydrated, something that had sometimes happened to me on the trails between lodges. I did not feel thirsty, but I quickly drank the tea.

We settled into cushions near the fire and there was some small talk about the Lodge and its high elevation on the side of Kel Stoen, but as soon as Kach drained thons cup thon got up and said, "I'm very tired."

Muchlo said, "Rest well. We'll have another long day tomorrow getting out of here."

Kach said good night and went to one of the bedrooms. I asked Muchlo, "Why are you in such a rush? Stay here at the lodge for a few days and let Kach rest."

"No, we have appointments to keep. And nobody would be sympathetic if we tell them why we were delayed...after tonight, when the Buld across Pelis Kel think of Demon Lodge they'll wonder why a transmitter could have wasted time coming out here. Worse than a intentionally insulted the Prelands."

D'hab brought us another serving of tea and asked, "Do you need anything else, Muchlo?"

"No, thank you, D'hab. Good night."

Now alone together by the hearth, for a while Muchlo and I watched the flames of the fire. I swallowed my tea in a gulp. Muchlo did not touch thons tea. I asked, "So, what are the Preland secrets that transmitters are privy to?"

Muchlo said, "I suppose you've never actually seen a Preland."

I never had. "Is it true that they dress in the kind of silly clothing that you are wearing?"

Muchlo tugged at the thick jacket thon was wearing and it opened to reveal much of her neck and chest. "Yes, this is close to typical Preland dress. They try to hide their body contours since they view their animal form as repugnant, if not obscene."

The Preland-style costume looked stiff and uncomfortable. "And as a transmitter you think you should dress like they do?"

Muchlo shrugged. "Why should I not dress this way? Perhaps doing so will remind childish Buld that when they deal with a transmitter they are really dealing with the Prelands."

I laughed. "Yandrey has suggested that when Buld make fun of children they are overcompensating for their innate desire to have children."

Muchlo frowned. "Yandrey's little nuggets of Buld wisdom are not relevant in this case."

"Why not? Do you think that your special relationship with the Prelands makes you immune from human instincts?"

"No." Muchlo gazed into the fire for a while and said nothing. Finally thon explained, "I'm generally skeptical about attempts to account for complex behaviors with appeals to instinct, but, more to the point, I'm sure that the Creators never endowed me with human reproductive instincts." In the low light next to the fire I was not sure, but it seemed to me that Muchlo's eyes had taken on the polished sheen that was characteristic of the pek. Muchlo noticed my reaction. "Yes, I am pek."

Because of something Yandrey had told me I'd been wondering if the Buld in the village where I grew up were actually pek in disguise, but the only pek I'd known who routinely disguised themselves were bothets who pretended to be human when I requested that they do so. All Buld knew that pek could change their physical form, but that was usually done in subtle ways that did not attract attention. For our performance Ario and D'hab had taken on Buld facial features, but that was an effort to avoid angering the Prelands: they had not tried to trick any Buld by doing so. I was startled by the idea that Muchlo was a pek who had intentionally tricked many people by pretending to be Buld. Seeing Muchlo's eyes was enough to convince me, but in my surprise I just said, "I don't believe it."

Muchlo said, "Believe." While I watched, Muchlo morphed thons face from its conventional Buld shape and thon took on the small mouth and small jawed appearance of the Prelands. "You see, I can take on any form, so you should believe that I am pek."

I struggled to imagine why a pek would pretend to be Buld. What could possibly be gained? "But why? What does this charade accomplish? Wait, are you telling me that all transmitters are pek?"

"No, don't make foolish generalizations. You are not a typical Buld, so you should not expect to attract the attention of a typical transmitter."

"Yandrey warned me that my whole life has been a charade, a kind of play, designed to make me yield to pek propaganda."

Muchlo laughed the usual pek laugh, a stuttering chatter, purposefully made distinct from the more musical laughter of humans. Muchlo asked, "Does it make you feel special to imagine that you are singled out for that kind of attention?"

"I feel special because I'm male."

"Yes, you are the only male on Hemmal, but we pek have worked hard to give you the opportunity to merge yourself into Buld society. You threw that all away today."

"I did nothing today that I have not done every day for the past couple of months. If I lost something today it must be because you came here and took it from me."

"Interpret events as you like. Sophis has already received your official eviction notice from the Prelands. You are no longer welcome on Hemmal. Tomorrow Sophis will deny you access to the temple. You might as well ski out of here with me in the morning." Muchlo rose from thons cushion and came to sit close to me. The stiff Preland costume melted away and now Muchlo's body was only lightly clothed in a tight body stocking. At that moment Muchlo had the slim body contours of a Buld. Briefly I wondered if there were ways to distinguish the bodies of Buld from those of Unetic Clan members.

The strange sense of anxiety that I had been feeling for hours suddenly drained out of me just then. I said, "So, it is over."

Muchlo nodded and morphed thons face back to human form. "Your life on Hemmal is over. No temple will give you food. This is what Yandrey wanted for you, that you would leave Hemmal and find your destiny among the stars."

For a moment I gazed into the fire then I looked back at Muchlo. Muchlo's appearance now reminded me of Reginal. Rather than retain the body form of a Buld, Muchlo now had the womanly curves of a bothet. "I'll miss Reginal. Can she go with me?"

"No. You will leave this world as you arrived...alone. I will only go with you as far as the nearest space elevator."

Muchlo was sitting very close to me and I was very much aware of her curves. "You remind me of Reginal."

"I can take on any form." Muchlo morphed thons features to more closely match those of a woman, but with a unique pattern that was distinct from that used by Reginal and the other bothets I had known. Muchlo explained, "I watch your reactions and use them to guide me to the physical form that most appeals to you. Will that make this easier for you?" I noticed that Muchlo's arms had found their way around me and that felt strange because a bothet must be asked to become physically intimate with a Buld. Muchlo's magical transformation was complete; I wanted to think of her as a woman, in the same way I had come to think of Reginal. Muchlo leaned her head next to mine and whispered in my ear, "When you leave Demon Lodge you'll find it easy to forget Reginal. I can help you begin to forget."

I felt myself relaxing under the assault of Muchlo's soft caresses, but something Yandrey had told me would not let me surrender completely to her. "Yandrey warned me that nanites can be used to erase memories."

Muchlo placed her hands on my was clear that she was intent on pleasing me even though I had asked nothing of her. By this point I had to think of her as a woman, but I had no idea what to expect from her. "Parthney, in a few weeks, Hemmal will seem like an old dream. I'll take you away to a better place. In time you will forget all of the pain you have known here, the fact that you just do not fit in with the Buld. On Oib you will learn much from the scholars. Only then will Parthney, the lonely boy, truly become a man."

Muchlo kissed me and her body seemed unusually warm. "Now, for what's left of your time on this world think only pleasant thoughts...think of me and your rebirth into a better life." Muchlo had truly made herself beautiful in my eyes. I must describe her as a "her" now because she had taken on the form of a woman that exactly matched my tastes and fantasies. Yes, I knew that it was all artificial, that she was a pek and using her magical powers to bewitch me, but I was quickly passing into a state in which I would not care about why this was happening. It was thrilling to have a woman actively seducing me. Her clothing had completely melted away and in the firelight she was a vision of enchantment. If she had set out to enthrall me and take me away from Demon Lodge she had succeeded in capturing my soul. I knew that what she said about my past on Hemmal was the truth. My attempts to adapt to Hemmal were failed efforts to fit a square peg into a round hole. I was fascinated by the idea that Muchlo could take me away to a better life, to the other worlds that Yandrey and legend both told of.

There was one thought that came to me and for another minute shattered Muchlo's spell. She seemed to sense that I was distracted and she pulled away from me and went to stand close to the fire, looking intently into the flames. I said, "I've always wondered if you pek can sense my thoughts."

For a long time she was silent...eventually I realized she was slowly shaking her head side to side. Her golden hair flickered like flame in the shadows. "No, no. Parthney, you never've always known, but it is not that simple. You see, we are not allowed to let the Buld know that we can see into their minds. Of course, they can tell. And yes, it is a trivial thing for us to make them forget that knowledge. Again. And again. Eventually there is a...tangle of nanites that forms in their brains that ....immunizes them against the thought. Really, anyone is happier not knowing such a thing."

I knew she was telling the truth, but I was confused and scared...was she going to erase my memories?

She replied even though I had not spoken my question. "No, are not Buld. We pek must follow different rules with humans. For this reason, there are special pek for the task."

I had no idea what she meant. I guessed, "Bothets?"

She laughed and kicked a cushion at me and then she jumped on me and pinned me to the floor, showing me her awesome pek strength. "Silly, boy! Is that how you see me? A bothet that you can make use of, the way you used Reginal?"

Of course that was what I was thinking. "I don't know. Ever since you arrived I've felt strange. All evening I felt like I might vomit."

"Charming. For the first time in your life you are feeling alive and it just makes you feel ill? Well, for you humans love is a kind of sickness." She released my arms and tickled my ears with her silky finger tips. I had to think of her as a bothet. Most pek used a non-human appearance: Preland facial structure, glassy artificial eyes, skin that felt like cool apple skin, not warm human skin. I'd seen Muchlo morph back and forth between human and pek. In my experience bothets were the only pek who took on human-like form and made their skin soft and warm like human skin.

Muchlo kissed my nose, lips, chin and then whispered, "You don't feel sick now, do you?"

"Not really." I put a hand on my head. "Something new is still there, like a hummed song. But now I feel intoxicated, like you cast a spell on me."

"Parthney, your every thought has been watched and analyzed since when you were still inside your mother. Any pek could befuddle you as I have done."

"Yandrey says that most pek and the true Buld are my sisters. I feel different about bothets...I always have."

"Yandrey exaggerated to make a point. Think back to your childhood. Until just a few years ago you had never seen a bothet."

"I mean, as soon as I left my home village I...I discovered bothets..."

"You matured sexually and you were sent away from your home village, sent out to discover your path in life. Bothets function to please and facilitate the Buld reproductive function. Bothets like Reginal imagine that if they use their skills on humans then you will be happy and stay on Hemmal, that you might be satisfied to live like a Buld."

"I have been happy with Reginal."

"No. No! That's not your path in life. You proved as much tonight. If you really wanted to be with Reginal then you would not have stood next to her and humiliated her with your talk about men and women and their special love."

I complained, "Humiliation? You pek can do anything. Why can't Reginal accept what I feel?"

Muchlo shook her head. "The only thing we've taught you is to accept what we can give you. And we can't give you what you need. You need another world where you have the freedom to make your own way of life." A dozen questions crowded my thoughts, but she did not want me to speak. "Now...there is just one more task for us here at this demon's den...then you will go on your way and Hemmal will try to return to peace and equilibrium."

I laughed at her and said, "You make it sound like I am so special...disrupting the whole planet!"

She smiled, or grimaced. Sometimes with pek it is hard to tell which it is. I now suppose she was just trying to be seductive, but I was too innocent to know. "It does sound absurd. But you are the only male on Hemmal. Of course, the time came when you and I had to meet. The scene had to play out, but nobody had any doubt that you would snap." I started to protest, but Muchlo cut me off, "Please, I don't want to hear about your feelings for Reginal and the joy that your infantile musical games have given you."

I was stung by the word "infantile". Among the Buld, "childish" is an insult, "infantile" is a curse. Of course, I was cursed to have been born a false Buld. I had never wanted to admit that, the pek had all worked diligently to make me ignore that fact...until Muchlo told me the brutal truth. Now I pushed at Muchlo and rolled on top of her. I pinned her arms to the floor. She did not struggle as violently as she could have; just enough to make me have to work.

She tried to provoke me. "Yes, get angry! Go ahead. Think about how you have been pecked at and chiseled and worn down."

Her body was very hot against my skin and shiny with simulated sweat. She was wild, with flushed face, panting like no pek I had known. I gazed down at her in wonder. "Talking with you reminds me of Yandrey. 'Immunized'. 'Chiseled'. You use words as if you know their meanings...the real meanings that the Buld cannot imagine."

Muchlo giggled the pek chittery laugh. It seemed spooky to hear the pek laugh come from a lovely woman. It turned everything I thought I knew up-side-down to have a pek using my love of the womanly form to manipulate my emotions and send me reeling away from Hemmal towards a mysterious destiny among the stars. Muchlo explained, "There are many human words that are meaningless to the Buld. Soon enough you will have to concern yourself with the biological meaning of 'immunization' and all manner of biological functions, but here on Hemmal we pek shield humans from their biology. For the Buld 'immunization' it is just a synonym for protection...when you are away from Hemmal the word will finally mean something more to you. As a human you have no fear of tools. To the Buld a chisel is a blasphemy...they sit in the temple and watch you slice food with a knife and their hair stands on end. They listen to your musical instruments and feel shudders run along their spines."

"You are like Yandrey. You know things that no other pek knows."

"Well, I'm even older than Yandrey, so why should I not know? Yandrey and I are old friends. I knew thon when thon was lisden. And even then I was old...I came to Hemmal with the first Buld to reach this world. It has been my duty to deal with every human ever born on Hemmal."

"I still don't understand this game you are playing. Why pretend to be Buld?"

"Why do you ask? Is it not enough to remember that by ancient treaty transmitters are Buld?"

"I mean, why pretend with everyone else, then show me the truth?"

"Do you really want me to make you forget, to pull that question from your mind? Can't you just relax and enjoy our time together?"

"Can't you answer my question without asking more questions?"

"Silly boy, I just can't tell you some things, so don't ask. Shut your mouth, or, better, use it for something more fun." She slowly moved her tongue over her lips and wiggled her hips against me.

She expertly stroked and worked my body, playing me like an instrument. "Go ahead and think of me as a bothet if that will let you relax. I won't relax until I complete my remaining task for tonight, so stop fighting me." She pushed hard against me, rolling us over so that once more she was on top of me.

There was no way I could fight or resist. Who would want to resist? But she talked too much. As did I. I had to ask, "What is this task?"

"Silly boy, you know. If you like, think of me as taking Reginal's place. Yes, that is it! It is getting late. Think about what she is doing at the temple right now."

"I'd rather not."

"Don't be a coward. Oh, I know, your whole life you've been taught to accept the idea that everyone loves everyone, that a bothet's job is to be loved by everyone...literally. But it makes you angry. Parthney, don't hide that resentment any more. Are you a man or a pretend Buld?"

"Shut up!" She had found a good way to make me angry. She had provoked jealousy in me, even if I was too inexperienced with human relationships to know what was happening to me.

"No." She just seemed amused by my anger. "Don't hide from the truth."

I'd never experienced a pek being so brutally honest. "Why are you doing this to me?"

She pressed her body close and moved against me and spoke into my ear, her hot breath tickling me, "You could figure it out if you tried, but you are lazy. Living on Hemmal makes men lazy. Now you shut up and let's get on with this job." I did. And we did.

Muchlo had seduced me with the power of thousands of years of experience and loving her -the way she knew how- was a magical revelation. With Reginal, I always felt a sense of shame and lingering dissatisfaction from knowing that she was a servant doing what needed to be done to satisfy my biological urges. Loving Muchlo was liberation for me, a rebellious burning of bridges the light of which showed me that there was a way out. I now saw and truly understood what Yandrey had told me: I could just walk away from Hemmal. I had to walk away in order to finally grow up and start to live my life, the life of a human male.

When Muchlo was done with me I said, "So it is possible..."

"Of course."

"You know, I never could truly believed what Yandrey said about women birthing babies."

"I can appreciate your doubts, given your limited knowledge, only having experience with Buld anatomy..."

"Yandrey says that a human baby is very large, so how was I born to Buld parents?"

"Well, technically Buld can give birth, but that is really only an expulsion of a tiny early embryo that must then be further grown inside a pek."

"So my mother was a pek."

"If you want to apply the term in that way. A pek gestated you and gave birth to you."

"Do you know who my parents were?"

"Does it matter?"

"I suppose it would not matter to them."

"Oh, no, it would. Most Buld of Hemmal would be ashamed to know that they were the parents of a false Buld. But remember, there are other worlds and there are other types of people who would be pleased to know that they had a son on Hemmal."

I briefly thought of Earth and my mind flickered with the possibility that my parents were Earthlings. However, Earth was still like a fantasy world in my thoughts and I was more concerned with the world I knew and the people I had lived with. "Why didn't Reginal ever allow...ever completely take the form of a woman...why did you..."

Muchlo completed my thought. "Do to you what I just did? It would have been cruel for Reginal to reveal the truth to you if you were stuck on this world. Think, Parthney. On Earth there are billions of women. Think what it would be like to live on such a world, a world where doing what we just did had meaning, both for you and the woman."

"I must be thinking wrong. I don't want to go to Earth, I want to stay with you."

"Think again. What I did to you tonight I was ordered to do."

"Ordered? By who?"

"I can't tell you. Does it matter? Just be glad that you are not stuck on this world, a world where pek can only pretend to be women."

I did try to think. I had a hundred questions, but somehow sleep came crashing upon me.

Well before dawn Muchlo woke me up. Of course, she no longer was in the form of a woman, she had returned to her disguise. Thon handed me a plate that held some rich sugary cake that had been manufactured for me by the trail kitchen. "Eat, we have far to travel."

While I was eating I again felt the strange sensation I had experienced the previous day. It was not really anxiety, it was more of a racing of my thoughts that would not give me rest. My head swirled with a storm of thoughts about all that happened in the past day.

I finished eating the cake and the plate evaporated. I got up and went to the field kitchen for water.  The lingering tendrils of some dream images haunted my conscious thoughts. What had my dream been about? Kach? My mind held a dream image of Kach against a bright star field. Something that Muchlo had told me about Kach...why would anyone become a transmitter and use their position to...but the more I pushed to remember the faster the dream images fled.

Kach came into the cabin, already wearing a bulky backpack. Muchlo asked, "You collected the transmitter from the auditorium?"

Kach nodded. In thons backpack thon carried the transmitter box. Unlike other objects on Hemmal that were built from nanite components, the box did not melt down into a compact form inside the backpack.

The field kitchen morphed into a swarm of nanites forming a cloud that swept into a second backpack. Muchlo put on the other backpack that now held a food supply and the nanites that constituted the portable kitchen. I thought of collecting the instruments I had created and taking them with me, but what was the point? I knew that Muchlo had told me the truth. My music had only been the childish play of a lonely boy. Muchlo had warned me that I must leave Hemmal with nothing.

We stepped out into the cold morning air. The stars were now behind clouds and the forest was dark beyond the lit path. Muchlo reached into Kach's backpack and let the transmitter orb out of its box. The orb hovered above thons head and by the light of that glittering globe we skied away from Demon Lodge. Briefly I wondered if I should go to Sophis and ask if I had truly been evicted from Hemmal, but I felt no real doubt that Muchlo had told me the truth about everything. And what of Reginal? Bakeko? No, it was best to simply depart from Demon Lodge. I fell in line behind Kach and set my skis in the trail being blazed by Muchlo and knew the direction my life must go.


Exode is copyright John Schmidt, but the text of the story is  licensed for sharing under the Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike (CC BY-NC-SA) license. 

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