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Chapter 8

Odyssey

          Na consented to the Colonial Council's offer after nearly a kew (8 yads) of confused indecision. He was only then informed of Nemo's request to join him as a meton. The Council had imposed a few conditions for the privelege of undergoing the transformation: he and Nemo would carry out two simple missions in the suolar system before leaving; and they would then set out for the galactic core, to investigate the situation there. In return, Na had negotiated conditions of his own.
          Na was straight away subjected to a series of comprehensive neurological tests, which revealed a slew of unsettling features in his neural structures. Members of the Neuroanalytic Board nonetheless unanimously approved the unprecedented conscious transfer procedure, vindicating Nemo's cynical assessment of their intentions. But the time required for final preparations was wildly longer than Nemo's original estimate. A grueling 16 thoms passed before the board felt ready to proceed.
          At last the fateful yad arrived. Na was carried on an open-weave litter to a rounded cubicle deep within the medical complex. Giddy with anticipation and drug, he was laid there on a narrow slab. A select seven-member neurosurgical team assembled in the broad, low foyer that wrapped around the operating room, to review their strategy one last time.
          Rafu and Ikta slipped into the spacious observation gallery on the level directly above the operating theatre. Here large, interactive wall monitors allowed them to view and listen to the proceedings in any of the surgical suites from any desired perspective.
          "You kept your promise?"
          "Of course. I told Nemo I would be checking in on the rey's progress, but did not mention you would be joining me." Nemo was undergoing conscious transfer at that very moment in another facilty nearby, but his procedure promised to be quite routine, and much less invasive than Na's.
          Ikta activated one of the monitors, and gazed coldly at Na's still body. "To think, this archaic creature is responsible for taking Nemo away from us." She delicately brushed the tip of a forward tentacle against Rafu's side.
          "You lost Nemo to his studies long ago, Ikta."
          "I know. But until now, I still harbored hope. Nemo's decision is so … irrevocable."
          "Nemo must be free to follow his own destiny."
          "Still, I do not understand why he chose not to preserve his biological self. That version of Nemo could have stayed and grown old with the rest of us, even while his alter ego flew away on its grand adventure."
          "Nemo could still change his mind."
          "I doubt he will." They both knew that Nemo's decision to destroy his organic body following conscious transfer could now only be revoked by his new synthetic self. It was otherwise forbidden to re-awaken the old body, which would be destroyed following a standard one thom waiting period.
          "Who knows; maybe you will join Nemo someyad."
          Ikta shuddered noticeably. "The idea of conscious transformation is still so foreign to me. I refuse to even consider it before my eighth birthyad. I like my body. Why would I want to trade it in for a hulk of cold metal and rock? And how do I know the logicians are even correct, that my new synthetic self really would be same as the original me?"
          "Calm down! You can always make a copy of your mind, and arrange for it to be awakened in a synthetic brain and body only at your biological death."
          "Rafu, you are so reassuring, as always." Ikta turned back to stare at Na.
          Rafu activated another monitor, and shifted his attention to Na's surgeons. All were clad in tight-fitting, ultrathin body suits, impervious to microbes but otherwise comfortable and natural. The fabric imparted an eerie, characteristic sonic sheen to the skin, but was otherwise nearly invisible. The octos, who normally wore no clothing of any type (though many did indulge in jewelry and other body ornaments), were barely encumbered by the garments. Rafu noticed that someone was missing. "Ikta – what happened to Dr Shreevo? I thought he was supposed to be on the surgical team?"
          "Ahh, you missed news of the scandal. A nurse overheard him yesteryad confiding to a colleague that the operation was bound to fail, though it should be great fun. She reported this to the Neuro Board, which summarily dropped the good doctor from the group, and replaced him with an all-too-eager underling." The surgeons suddenly stopped their low babble, drawing Ikta to Rafu's monitor screen. "Look, they must be ready to start."
          Cerces, the chief neurosurgeon-engineer, stepped back to address her crew. An alto voice boomed from the speakers. "I do not need to tell you how important this operation is. Failure would set back by jopes any hope of engaging the reys as spacecraft pilots. Everyone here has been carefully selected, and has the necessary training for success. We can do this!"
          "Ever the politician," Rafu whispered.
          Ikta activated a number of additional monitors, showing the interior of the operating room from a variety of angles. "Let the fun begin."

          Three small ports opened into the operating room – one midway up the wall at the forward end of the table on which Na lay, and one at the base of each wall on either side. A silken screen draped each port. Cerces turned now from the others and, brushing the screen aside, slipped through the first port to check preparations. Middle aged by octan standards, Cerces was overweight and somewhat lumpy in appearance, but moved with surprising agility and grace. She ran a long tentacle over the interior surface of the room, painted smooth with a dull, sterile synthetic resin, and savored the sensuous feel. The upper reaches of the walls and the ceiling were studded with hundreds of small pores, labeled with raised tactile markers. The tips of retracted induction probes, designed to both induce and detect activity in Na's nervous system, were barely visible through the pores. A network of electrical and optical fibers hidden within the walls ran from the probes back to a massive computer outside the room at the rear of the table. This device would store and analyze raw data from their subject, then send processed information on to a primed synthetic brain, housed in an adjoining cooled vault.
          Cerces inspected the panels of monitor screens and indicator lights to confirm proper operation of the circuitry, then switched on the remaining power systems. Several large infrared lamps suspended from the ceiling brightened, as a number of smaller infrared and ultrasonic assist probes dangling awkwardly nearby hummed to life. Cerces next checked the table and her patient. The numerous life-support systems mounted in the table base appeared functional, their retracted tubes and hoses clear and free. Vital signs of the patient were as expected (for a rey, she mused). Finally, Cerces repositioned the seven squat stools around the table – one at the front end, and three on either side. They were so designed that an octo could sit, mouth down (protected by a natural bony ring) and eyes up, with tentacle-arms free. Satisfied, Cerces moved to the stool at the right of Na's prow.
          The other neurosurgeons now entered the room one by one through the end port. Nodding to Cerces, they went to their appointed positions around the table, and sat. Each then cloaked his or her gibbous eyes, and began to gently rock back and forth in a meditative trance, preparing for the coming rush. Cerces broke the silence by switching on her ultrasonic scalpel. No one spoke, but all immediately went to work.
          Tentacles danced in a choreographed rhythm. Due to the novel nature of the procedure, the surgeons had decided to perform most of the physical operation themselves, rather than rely on automated robots. Their training in the ancient manual skills, which many young physicians considered superfluous in the current era, served them well. Cerces and three other surgeons (one at the front and one at the rear on either side of the table) quickly cut the spongy flesh around the base of Na's cranial hump, exposing pulsing vessels and gleaming nerves. The remaining personnel monitored their patient's condition, adjusting life support parameters to maintain balance.
          Vessels were clamped and severed, and artificial counterparts pulled from the table and tied into the cranial circulation. Synthetic fluid began pulsing through Na's brain. Nerves, muscles, tendons, skin and other tissues were cut next, separating the cranium from the rest of the body, which was summarily removed and stored for later dissection and study. Finally the porous skull covering itself was peeled away, exposing and isolating the naked brain. A thin, transparent sheathe rose from the table to protect the fragile organ, and bathe it in artificial cerebral fluid.
          Induction probes were pulled down from the upper walls and ceiling, and carefully attached to nerve roots and other nexus on the brain surface. This delicate procedure required several rohs. Weak test pulses were fed into the network, the feedback from Na's nervous system observed, and the arrangement of probes adjusted, until the response was satisfactory. Only then did the exhausted surgeons break for a rest and feed period. Na's brain would be monitored and maintained automatically during the interim. Hopefully it would tolerate its artificial environment as anticipated.

          Rafu stretched his stiff tentacles. "Now I know why I did not become a surgeon. Nemo's friend would have been doomed the moment my scalpel touched his skin."
          "You do not give yourself credit, Rafu. I have seen you work on a broken creflaclok."
          "I guess the rey did not have a real choice whether to keep or discard his old body. Just look at the poor creature. I actually feel pity for him."
          "Well, there is nothing more we can do here. I could use some food – flaked entjuups, perhaps. Would you care to join me? The campus Leaf Pit is supposed to be cozy. Or are you out of student food vouchers again?"
          "Actually, I am. Perhaps you could purchase an extra helping with yours, and slip it to me later?"
          "You know that is illegal!"
          "Everyone does it."
          "A bite of food is hardly worth a loss of priveleges. Are you out of ordinary credits too?"
          "Well … yes. My account bottomed out yesteryad."
          "You really need to get control of your spending. I suppose I could spare a few credits this one time."
          "Thank you, Ikta. Consider it a loan." Rafu hesitated a moment. "You know, watching that dissection has taken the edge off my appetite. What if I join you in about a roh? That should give me enough time to look in on the new synthetic Nemo. His procedure must be long over, and he could probably use a familiar visage right now."
          Ikta's expression sobered. "Would you mind if I tagged along partway? I need to see and touch Nemo's abandoned body one last time with my own eyes and tentacles. I managed to get a pass, to pay my last respects."
          "Certainly. Though I thought those passes were restricted to close friends and family members? Oh, I just remembered – I promised Nemo to be here when the team attempts to awaken the synthetic Na."
          "No worry – I have already requested an advance notification, alpha priority. We should have at least a yad notice."
          "Ikta, what would I do without you?"
          Ikta simply blew back a playful series of sonic bubbles in reply, as they both slunk away down a dark tunnel.

          The surgical team returned a few rohs later, refreshed but anxious. A class of eager medical students assembled in the observation gallery to watch the proceedings. Apart from an unforeseen tendency for the cranial fluid to become acidic, Na's brain had functioned as expected. Life support parameters were fine-tuned, and Cerces motioned to Klaatu, the assistant chief surgeon, to activate the neuronal probe sequence.
          As he tapped on a wall panel, Klaatu turned to one of the surveillance cameras, and addressed the students. "The main computer will now feed a complex series of pulses into the array of induction probes. Between pulses, weak signals generated by induced nerve impulses will be detected by the same probes, and routed to the computer for analysis. The rey should not remember the bizarre dreams triggered by this procedure."
          A few students tittered at the last remark, and Klaatu paused briefly before continuing. "Two types of information are sought: the interconnections between the multitude of neurons in the rey's organic brain; and the response of each neuron to all possible inputs, including multiple inputs of different intensities. Equivalent patterns will be imprinted onto the synthetic brain."
          A student signaled electronically a request to ask a question. Klaatu gestured approval with a subtle flex of a tentacle, and the student spoke into a remote microphone. "I thought that most memories and behavior patterns are not stored at specific sites in the brain, but are distributed over large regions?"
          "That is correct; reys and octos are the same in this respect. Information tends to be stored globally, much like in an optical hologram. But this only affects the method used for obtaining the required information. It is more efficient to evaluate neural interconnections in terms of global patterns and responses, rather than linkages between individual neurons. Neural structures are thus not probed one neuron at a time; intricate holistic patterns are instead fed into the brain, and outputs from all portions processed in parallel. This technique ultimately yields detailed local as well as global information."
          Klaatu recognized a second student. "So this is a type of functional electronic holography?"
          "Yes, indeed. It is also somewhat analogous to Foorier analysis, which should have been covered in your first bioengineering mathematics course."
          Yet another student posed a question. "Why was it necessary to surgically isolate the rey's brain? This is not done with octos."
          "Good question. While the physical learning mechanisms are identical, the organizations of the octo and rey brains are grossly different. The octo brain is so well understood that the information required for conscious transfer can normally be obtained using refined induction probes positioned non-invasively on the scalp. It is only necessary to drug an octo subject to induce an appropriate mental state. The rey brain is distinct. The induction probes designed for our rey subject are imperfect, and intimate contact with neural tissue is necessary to reduce uncertainties and ambiguities to reasonable levels."
          Cerces interrupted the exchange, and addressed the students herself. "The pulse sequence probe appears to be proceding as planned. Klaatu will join you in the adjoining classroom #42, to further discuss the conscious transfer procedure."
          The workers split into two shifts, each monitoring progress for half a yad at a time while members of the other shift rested. The endeavor continued for three yads, before a seemingly complete data set was compiled and transferred. The process of mapping Na's neural patterns onto the synthetic substrate was complete; it was time to awaken the regenerated patient.

          The surgeons were excited but tense when they gathered behind the operating room, near the vault that housed the synthetic brain. Cerces herself activated the circuitry, while the others raptly looked on. A murmur came from the speaker of the voice synthesizer, then an amused "Where am I?" as Na-2 roused.
          Cerces responded with external calm, speaking into a set of acoustic receptors that temporarily served as Na's eyes/ears. "The operation was a success, Na. You are now in your new brain, though most of your artificial external senses have not yet been connected." She paused as the speaker emitted a muffled kooom (the meton equivalent of a giggle, or laugh), then continued with the agreed protocol. "Do you remember your tribe, Na? And what brought you—" But she was interrupted by surging peels of uncontrollable kooom. "Inappropriate affect" snapped Cerces, as she switched the synthetic brain back to an inactive state. Elation flipped to dejection, as the tired surgeons stared in disbelief at each other.
          Overhead, in the now packed observation gallery, there were audible hoots and groans. Rafu and Ikta merely looked at each other in dismay. Ikta finally broke the spell. "Whatever you do, you must not tell that thing they are calling Nemo about this."
          "I agree – he is no shape to handle it yet. In any case, there is still hope. I recall there is a contingency plan, in the event the initial surgery is unsuccessful. Of course, it involves mangling the rey's remains." They both fell silent again, and turned back to the monitors.
          Cerces addressed her disheartened colleagues and onlookers. "The subject's organic brain will have to be dissected. There must have been errors in tracing deep emotional pathways, which can only be corrected by closer inspection and analysis. This requires implanting induction probes directly into concealed brain tissue. Superficial neurons will inevitably be disrupted. We must choose our routes of entry carefully, and avoid probable areas of misconstrued connections, or information will be hopelessly lost. There is only one more chance for success. If we fail this time, the organic rey will be dead, and our synthetic patient an insane cripple." Of course, Na's insanity might be corrected in time, but would the new self then be a logical continuation of the old? The ethical ramifications rested heavily on the surgeons. Cerces straightened and, motioning to the others, turned back to the operating room. The rest of the team quickly followed, while Rafu, Ikta and most of the other observers departed to their routine lives.
          The delicate dissection began. The surgeons, aided by the main computer, identified the most likely areas of misregistration, as well as neural pathways that were probably accurately represented. They then cut through presumably safe tissues to gain access to the regions in question. Probes were inserted and others rearranged, and the pulse sequencing begun anew. This time, it was continued for eight long yads. Pathway routing logics were checked by different pulsing schemes for consistency. At last, a self-consistent data set was determined, and introduced to the synthetic brain. It was time again to test their work.

          The tense group gathered once more near the voice synthesizer. Only this time Na's organic brain lay in pieces on the operating table. Again Cerces activated the synthetic brain. Again there was a murmur, then an astonished "Where … am … I?"
          Cerces puffed deeply, then responded as before, ending with "Do you remember your tribe, Na? And what brought you to this place?"
          Silence. Then, "Yesss." The voice paused, then continued very slowly. "Though … its … as … if … the … incident … happened … long … long … ago." The voice, though very sluggishly, seemed to acquire some excitement. "Then … we … were … successful?"
          Noticeably relieved, Cerces replied with uncharacteristic warmth. "Na, you wonderful creature, I am increasing the speed of your mental processes." She waved a tentacle over one of the central processor controls. "In the near future, you will learn to control the speed yourself. You must remember to limit yourself to low speed when speaking with organic creatures like ourselves." A low titter reflected around the room. "You must also learn how to detach necessary but uninteresting thought processes – routine mathematical calculations, for example – from your primary stream of consciousness, and fetch only the relevant results later. Of course, you can experience the details of any internal process you wish, and store the memory for future reference."
          Na's reply was somewhat impatient. "Yes, of … course. This was … explained to me by the … Neuro Board. I can scarcely believe what … must have happened to me! But when do … you connect my other … senses? You must … know, I feel terribly … confined and trapped like … this."
          Cerces was not put off by Na's restlessness. She had seen it so many times before. She had even spent some time in a sensory deprivation tank, to better understand what it was like to wake up in a disembodied state. "Do not worry, our winged friend. We will power you down until you are secure in your new body. I hope we meet again before you depart."
          Na-2 was deactivated, even while the remains of Na-1 were swept away. The surgical crew heartily congratulated each other, waving and slapping tentacles, each member anticipating the honors and professional recognition yet to come.
          A joyful pandemonium suffused the observation gallery. Rafu and Ikta twined, then Rafu hurried away to tell Nemo-2 the good news. Ikta found herself suddenly alone, as all the others rushed off to share their stories. She quickly calmed down. Good news? What good news? Her mood turned bitter. Where did she have to go? Back to her precious archeological artifacts? She morosely slithered away, to view one more time the discarded body of her dear lost Nemo. Ikta knew she would eventually get over him. She decided then and there to attend the Return Ceremony at which Nemo's remains would be minced, and returned to the thicket shrubs. Perhaps the service would provide closure.

          Although the neurosurgeons were finished with Na, considerable work remained. Na's old mind utilized only about 5% of the capacity of his new synthetic brain. Much of the remainder was needed to receive and process signals from the numerous imaging systems, sensors and appendages yet to be connected. Some of these – for example, two of the infrared eyes and two of the acoustic eyes – could be tied into existing neural pathways. But many had no prior analogues, and required novel input nerve roots and mental lobes for processing and integrating new information.
          The science of expanding sensory and mental powers following conscious transfer was well developed. Over the next kew, the neural tracts of Na's synthetic mind were further scrutinized, under the guidance of a group of experts in alien psychiatry. Compatible modes of integrating existing structures with new ones were established. Prospects for expanding the original lobes were also explored, in order to enhance overall mental processing. For example, Na would be given the ability to think visually in five dimensions. This would prove particularly useful for navigating ultrastrong gravitational fields.
          Once the analytic work was complete, the additional pathways were mapped onto Na's synthetic brain. Only a few new basic instincts were hardwired. Na would need to learn to use his new senses and mental abilities much as a newborn learns to see and think visually. Logical continuity with his former self might otherwise be jeopardized. The brain was then transferred to an upper floor of the medical complex, where an interim robot body awaited, equipped with analogous senses and motor functions of his ultimate spacecraft frame. Here Nemo and Ulixis, the third member of their triad, awaited activation in similar frames.

          A few yads later, Na blinked a pair of synthetic infrared eyes, only half believing his new state of grace. He stared across the room at two odd-looking units opposite him. Opening a set of ultrasonic eyes, he tried to study the forms from a different perspective. But – something was amiss. His vision was misaligned, not fuzzy but – more than two fields? A third eye snapped shut, and all was right again. More or less. He slowly reopened the extra eye; then a fourth; and a fifth and sixth on the opposite side of his body! But the visual fields remained disjointed, his sense of balance askew. Na reached out awkwardly with a tentacle-arm, where a wing used to be. Rolling onto his back (from the perspective of his familiar eyes), he playfully kicked several other arms about in the air above him. He stuck the end of one into an interesting new space – a mouth? Whatever it was, he was flooded with fascinating sensations. Continuing to stroke and explore his new physique, Na twisted around, blinking extra eyes open and shut to compare with his familiar binary vision.
          A young female octo lab assistant entered the room. Seeing Na at play, she stopped to quietly watch. A former classmate of Nemo, she marveled at the precision workmanship of Na's synthetic body – a perfect sphere nearly 1.5 rets wide, sitting atop a squat mobile base. The sphere was a miniature replica of the ultimate spacecraft form, which would reach fully eight rets in diameter, except that the motorized base and its limited battery pack substituted for a Drac generator, Xam propulsion drive, and matter-energy converter. Na's temporary body could roll and rotate arbitrarily on the base, but was held to it firmly by magnetic forces. Several long manipulative tentacles lay coiled and hidden inside, while a number of shorter versions extended out from nearly invisible ports.
          Na noticed the stranger. She approached, kooing softly, and caressed Na's artificial bonnet with a friendly tentacle. Na immediately returned the favor. Surprised, the aide instinctively jumped back, then caught herself. "I am sorry. You are advancing more quickly than expected. We turned you on only 10 nims ago. Are all you reys so clever?"
          "Your voice is from Soel Herself! Where am I now? Still in the medical complex, no doubt."
          "Why, yes. Though I do not understand how you could connect my words with your suol god." Or was it 'goddess'? The rey religion was so archaic! "My name is Penelope. I have been assigned to the three of you to guide your development."
          "The three of us! Where is Nemo? And who is the lucky third?"
          Penelope pointed across the room. Na had been so preoccupied with his new body and vision that he had failed to recognize the identical robotic designs described to him previously. "I was just about to activate them. The name of the third is Ulixis. She is – was – an older senior member of Regional Council #39, who tired of politics. Her psychological profile complements yours and Nemo's quite well. And her political acumen could prove … useful to you."
          But Na's mood soured with Penelope's innocent words. "Activate them? Manipulate them," he grumbled. "Are you free to turn us on and off without our consent? I do not relish waking and sleeping on command."
          "My dear, dear mister Na. You know the rules as well as I. The external activation controls will be eliminated, and your internal control set and sealed, only when training here has been completed, and you are in your spacecraft form. We do not want any maniacs running amuck in the medical complex now, do we?"
          Na decided that Penelope was right that she shouldn't be compared to Soel. At least she was honest. "My dear, dear Miss Penelope. Of course we don't. Now, why don't you activate the others?"
          Penelope slapped a tentacle on the hard, rough floor. So reys had no manners after all? But she might as well try to get along with Na. They had megumags of work to do, and her term report depended on it. She straightened, kooed stiffly, then slithered across the room where she waved a set of suckers across a coded sensor on the wall.
          Nemo jerked to life, reeling dizzily. Ulixis stirred, then struggled more slowly and cautiously to gain orientation. Two of their eyes met, then spotted Na across the room. Without speaking, the three newborns staggered toward each other, grasping with outstretched tentacles. Penelope scampered clear to watch from a safe distance.
          "Na! Is it really you?" Nemo gasped. Then, squinting with a single eye toward their companion, "And what – who – are you?"
          "My name is – was – Ulixis … I think," replied the third awkwardly. "Yes of course … everything is swimming. I am so – bewildered – no, disoriented."
          "You should restrict yourselves to familiar senses initially," Penelope interjected from a corner. "I am Penelope, here to help you through this transition period. First cloak all your eyes, and relax." The three obeyed dutifully, relishing the sudden calm. "Now try to open a single eye. That's it. Only one, Nemo. Close, reopen. Good. Next try a different eye …"
          After several nims, Penelope moved closer. "You are all doing very well, but I feel a review of some summary information would be useful at this point." Na, Nemo and Ulixis stopped what they were doing, and gave Penelope their full attentions. "There are twenty visual packs evenly distributed over each of your frames, at the vertices of a circumscribed regular dodecahedron, providing an unlimited field of view."
          Na winced, then interrupted Penelope. "How is it that I understand what you just said? You used terms I didn't know as an organic."
          "If you recall, you agreed to have critical new knowledge planted in your synthetic memories. The information, which includes everything I plan to cover in this session, is already available to you; you need only to access it. My goal here is to direct you to specific details that will help you adapt to your new bodies. Any other questions?"
          Penelope paused for a few nocs. "Good. Each visual pack contains a number of receptors and transmitters. There is an electromagnetic eye, with nine broad primary colors, covering radio through high-energy x-ray. This instrument is capable of fine spectral discrimination, when needed. There is an acoustic eye, with three primary ultrasound colors, plus an aural organ responsive to a wide range of low-frequency sound. Of course, the acoustic mechanisms are non-functional in the vacuum of space."
          Na and Nemo exchanged glances. Did Penelope really think they didn't know that already?
          "Each of the various eyes can transmit as well as receive, over a wide range of frequencies. For example, the acoustic and electromagnetic eyes can generate beams of ultrasound and light for illumination. They can even produce intense laser-like beams for cutting, probing, and a variety of other uses."
          This time Nemo interrupted. "Could we try that now?" He sounded a bit giddy.
          "I advise waiting until you have better control of routine functions. Where was I? Oh, yes. The aural organs can be used to both generate and hear ordinary low-frequency speech. So far, you have each been using only a single aural output channel, corresponding to your original bellan." Penelope paused, and glanced at Na. "Or bellon, as the case may be. You each actually have access to 24 output channels, plus 24 aural receptors. Some metons are able to simultaneously carry on multiple conversations. Of course, this takes some practice."
          Na wasn't sure he wanted to split his attention, or his mind, in such a manner.
          "Two of the packs on opposite poles include a single neutrino eye. These are usually inactive, and opened primarily for long-range communication."
          Ulixis tried to activate one of these eyes, but failed to register any input. There should have been a torrent of neutrinos from all directions, including a tasty sprinkling of encrypted messages. Then she remembered that compact neutrino receivers required a matter-energy converter, which she did not yet have.
          Penelope continued. "Each visual pack is surrounded by a ring of charged particle sensors, capable of selective electric charge and energy perception. Distributed throughout your synthetic bodies are millions of microscopic somatosensory receptors. These include proprioceptors, and sensors responsive to pressure, temperature and pain. Although you each possessed analogous receptors in your flesh bodies, the correspondence between sensation and point of origin has been altered, and the new map has to be learned."
          Na spoke up. "Yes! I keep thinking sensations from one of my new tentacles is coming from my old left wing." He tried to koot at Nemo, but it felt … so strange. In addition to the intended sound, he was unconsciously producing electromagnetic radiation.
          Penelope seemed to read his mind. "The other emissions are necessary; remember, there will be no sound transmission in the vacuum of space. The meton version of a koot is commonly called a koom. Similar modifications apply to the expressions of other emotions."

          And so Penelope led the trio through the long process of integrating their new senses and motor functions into conscious control. It was slow and tedious work, yet fascinating and exciting, not unlike helping an infant learn to walk. Although these three could already use a few of their eyes and limbs, it was still necessary to extend the prior abilities to expanded but analogous systems.
          Once they learned the routine, Penelope's students thoroughly enjoyed themselves. They were children again. Na vaguely recalled the pure joy of practicing complex flying maneuvers as a youngster. There was no hunger now, though Na did experience fatigue when his power supply was overtaxed. The trio would not have known that Penelope occasionally deactivated them to catch some rest, had there not been a clock on the wall. The time jump caught Na's attention whenever they were reactivated, in precisely the same positions and mental states as before. Na was annoyed, but swallowed his pride. What choice did he have? Though Penelope might at least ask.
          Over the next kew, the three learned to use their new bodies quite effectively. Na now spent most of his time reading voraciously in an adjacent library room while Nemo, Ulixis and Penelope exchanged life stories. Although it was technologically possible for Na to directly implant any desired block of information into his mind, the standard restrictions on mass data transfer applied to biological and synthetic beings alike. Na was obliged to acquire routine information under his own conscious control. Still, the scanning technique he employed was terribly fast in ordinary octan terms.
          Na was engrossed in an intriguing account of the civilization on the planet Aerth, when Penelope rudely cut into his communication pathway with a blunt pronouncement. "It is time for a practice session. Everyone to the simulator."
          The simulator! Penelope might be forgiven her discourtesy this time. Nemo had regularly used the device to vacation with friends when he was an organic creature. But Na had not been allowed to join, as his mind had not yet been sufficiently mapped. Na disengaged from the reading machine, and skittered through the doorway to catch up with Penelope and the rest of her entourage.
          "Na, you decided to join us," Nemo beamed back. "I feared you were too preoccupied."
          "After the tale you told about your last holiday trip? I've never heard of a more fantastic world."
          "Of course, this trip will be considerably more mundane," Penelope interjected. "I will feed in an image of the star swarm near the galactic core. You will practice negotiating the complex environment."
          Nemo winced, as he sensed Na repress a surge of anger. His friend was becoming more and more irritated by Penelope's domineering style. It will be good to get out of here, he thought to himself. "Do not worry, Na. We will generate something unexpected." But he wondered just how much self-control Penelope would permit.
          Penelope pointed to portals at the end of the hall, and Na clambered through one of them into a claustrophobic cubicle. The port closed behind him, as the acoustic lights dimmed to an utter blackness, and a soothing fluid flooded the compartment. Probes gently locked into place around his base and body surface, including each of his visual packs. External sensory input faded, and Na felt himself float away.
          He awoke with a start. Stars! Na hung in a void, overlooking a blurred swirl of iridescent suols, impossibly remote. In the distance, two silver spherical forms glided swiftly in his direction. Nemo and Ulixis? This was much too real, more disconcerting than he had imagined. He was once accustomed to falling through an endless cloud-studded sky; but simply floating like this, seemingly motionless, in an immense – and imaginary – nothingness was something else. Exhilarating, perhaps?
          "Na! Interesting place to meet." Nemo's distinct electronic voice was a welcome sound.
          "Nemo! How is it that you are feeling so well? I would have thought you would be a bundle of nerves, exposed like this."
          "Ulixis and I pre-medicated just before the simulator was activated, with an acrophobia channel block. I like to think we will be able to wean ourselves from it before we really do leave the hospital."
          "So what now? We seem to be thousands of light jopes from anywhere. I thought we were going to visit the galactic core? Or at least a simulation of it."
          "Whenever we are ready," Ulixis broke in. "If we slip into sleep state, we can arrive at the outskirts of the star swirl in moments, from our own conscious perspective. If this were the real thing, we would be awakened at any point in the trip if the need arose."
          "Well, I'm ready." Na chirped. "Though I think I'll enter slow-consciousness mode instead. I want to watch the stars approach."
          The trio willed themselves into the appropriate mental states, and accelerated toward the misty cloud of pallid white. Fascinated, Na watched as the fuzz ball grew in size, and individual stars materialized as brilliant pinpricks of light. Changes that would have taken many jopes in real time took only nocs of apparent time. A few errant, lonely stars passed by in the distance, as the main body of the galaxy resolved into great spiral arms of millions upon millions of stars. The ersatz travelers headed directly toward a bright condensation at the nucleus of the system. Isolated globular star clusters, each containing hundreds of thousands of stars, swept majestically past. Nemo and Ulixis awoke, and the trio decelerated in unison. Almost simultaneously they burst into the galactic plane, and were surrounded by a myriad of stars – mostly faint white and red dwarfs, but also thousands of bloated, brilliant, and much more obvious red giants and supergiants. And there, at the edge of sight, lay the dust-shrouded core. Na's infrared vision pierced the sooty vacuum, to reveal a swarm of old stars revolving relentlessly around a hidden central mass – a grandmother black hole! Hugging the hole was a swirling accretion disk, glowing menacingly as dust and gas poured into it, pulled toward a crushing fate at the bottom of the galaxy's gravitational funnel. Even now the x-radiation levels were rising significantly. The three travelers slowed to a crawl.
          "We had better not go any further," Ulixis warned. "There is little we can do with a monster like that."
          "Maybe not," Nemo replied, "but how would you like to try a normal black hole? There is one of only a few suolar masses, one-seventh light jope away at direction vector 35/122."
          "Ride a black hole? What a fascinating idea." Na pondered for a moment. "First tell me, just how seriously is Penelope taking this? She wouldn't override my choice of pain cutoff, would she? In case I slip up, and find myself trapped by the creature?"
          "I would not be concerned about that. It is against official policy, since it would not be realistic. If you actually were trapped, you would hardly hesitate to desensitize your pain receptors before the end came."
          "This opens up all sorts of possibilities," Na beamed coyly, then dashed off in the direction Nemo had specified. Surprised by Na's abrupt departure, Nemo and Ulixis quickly followed.
          When Na awoke nearly one simulated jope later, the black hole system glowered dead ahead. Na swerved, and approached from a direction perpendicular to the plane of the accretion disk, a diminutive arrow aimed toward the empty ink blot at the heart of the beast. His circuits pulsed with excitement.
          What was Na up to, Nemo wondered feverishly. He thought he sensed a devilish grin in Na's electronic signature. Na wasn't turning away!
          Na winced as he felt the tidal forces build across his hull. He deadened pain perception, to allow himself to concentrate on his surroundings. Already the radiation levels were beyond his ability to measure, but onward he shot. The distant stars appeared to bunch behind him now, turning incredibly blue, then ultraviolet and beyond. Finally his frame stretched past the breaking point, and both body and consciousness evaporated into a formless singularity.
          Nemo blinked as his friend receded down the black hole. He thought he heard a deepening "Wheeeeeee" from Na's direction, but decided this must be some strange electromagnetic effect. Na would never actually hit the singularity at the bottom of the pit from Nemo's current vantage point; his apparent motion would slow interminably, while his image reddened beyond recognition.
          Nemo and Ulixis looked at each other in puzzlement. Then, Ulixis grinned. "See you on the other side!" she shouted, and plunged into the dark pool. The other side? What did she mean by that? But Nemo was not far behind.

          A few blurred thoms later, the training was complete. As the fledgling metons trundled along a tunnel toward the final transformation facility, Na slid close to Nemo, and spoke to him through a private communication channel. "Ever since our adventure in the simulator, I have been waiting for Penelope to scold me for my behavior there. But she hasn't said a word about it!"
          "Like I told you before, she is only following policy. The simulator is meant to be a safe environment for meton recruits to freely experiment with their new abilities."
          "Who knows – the time may yet come when one of us has no choice but to confront death. We all need to know how to handle that kind of situation."
          "We should plan to always keep updated backup copies of our minds stored in some safe but accessible location, to allow us to recover from such a disaster."
          Na, Nemo and Ulixis soon arrived at their destination. They were deactivated for the last time, and brought to a large assembly hangar atop the medical complex. A team of technicians extricated their synthetic brains from the temporary robot frames, and carefully carted them to imposing spacecraft bodies waiting nearby. An iris diaphragm ponderously opened near the base of each of the dull graphite-gray hulls, and the brains were deftly inserted into protected cores deep within. The unit supervisor held his breath, as he commanded the systems to life.
          Na opened manifold eyes to a world of seemingly endless opportunity as the technicians hastily sealed his conscious control centers, removing all external access lines. His remarkable visual experience encompassed the entire environs. How small the octan workers seemed. Like ents, scurrying around inside a wall void. On a whim, Na tested his chameleon response. His skin instantly turned pitch black, as it sampled the light and sound falling on it. Suddenly Na became eerily translucent, then began to shimmer in and out of visibility, as the skin generated its own compensatory emissions.
          Na excitedly ramped up his Drac generator. He forced himself to regulate the outflow of mass energy, lest he overload the channels into the global vacuum, or inflict Drac sickness on the organics in attendance. Still, the swelling Drac field sent waves of gravitonic distortion into the surroundings. The nearby organics were ready for this, and clung to any available hold, as a swelling hum resonated through the hall. Na's net mass dropped to 50%, then 10%, and finally 1% normal. Now Na flexed his internal Xam drive, the most powerful and versatile known to octos, and felt it surge to his command, as he balanced external forces to lift upward from the floor and hover in the air. At last he was free and self-controlled! No longer would he wake and sleep on command. Na was whole again. But even as he and his two companions relished their new status, the tension in the assembly area heightened. The organic octos present were always nervous at this stage, to be in the presence of so much raw, uncontrollable physical and mental power. It was nigh time to go.
          An elite group from the Colonial Council rushed in, and hurriedly briefed the trio on relevant classified matters. Their two local missions, previously agreed to in general terms, were now detailed. An abbreviated ceremony followed, during which a matron of the medical staff offered the three her best wishes.
          Nemo spotted his old mate Rafu, clearly unnerved, huddled in the back. He beamed a brief but warm farewell, using a private code from childhood yads in their birth hive.
          Rafu replied in kind, grateful for his friend's thoughtfulness, then slunk away into the shadows. There he nearly collided with Ikta. She must have hurried from the Return Ceremony for the original Nemo. "You decided to come, after all."
          "Yes. I can barely believe all this is happening. Did you see him? Or should I say it?"
          "It is hard to believe that daunting creature is now our Nemo." Rafu paused briefly. "How was the Return Ceremony? Are you glad you attended?"
          "Yes, of course. It was very … moving, and helpful. I am glad that Nemo chose to have it at the Temple Acadomia. Why did you choose not to go?"
          "We are different, Ikta. Unlike you, it would not have helped convince me that our friend has moved on. I already know that Nemo is now out there …" He pointed toward the three ships.
          Whereupon the hangar roof laboriously opened, exposing the naked sky.

          Upward the triad lifted. Watching from an isolated corner, Penelope trembled – for herself; for her former wards; and for her race. She had become so fond of the novice explorers, though she would never let on. She knew that someyad she would find the nerve to become like them, and exchange her flesh for synthetic skin and a daring new world. Someyad.
          Na couldn't help but think back to the time he had flown, a frail and naked creature of flesh, through these same realms. At the mercy of the currents. So long ago, it seemed. He knew it had not actually been that long, that his misperception of time was a memory distortion improvised by the neuro board. A vague recollection of a mighty storm flashed through his mind. How could that distant tragedy have been the best thing that ever happened to him? Personally, if not for his tribe or family? He quickly repressed a nagging sense of terrible loss. To have fallen so far from grace, only to rise so high now. Yet without the falling, would the rising have been possible? Na chuckled inwardly at the recollection of an ancient proverb: whatever goes down, must come up.
          The trio rose rapidly through the uppermost layer of clouds. Drenched, Na instinctively tried to shake his wings, only to realize his wings were no longer there. He pinched himself from within. This was real! The general diffusion of light radiating from overhead concentrated into a brilliant focus. Na gaped as warm, radiant Suol resolved near the zenith. His protective inner eyelids automatically closed, their triple-layered filters allowing him to clearly behold for the first time the Eye of the Holy Mother. Though he now knew it to also be a distant ball of hot plasma, he still held Suol to be Soel, the embodiment of the Blessed Mother, perhaps the most sacred face of Maddee. Whatever Its ultimate purpose, personal or not, the Spirit of the World was such that Suol did shine and give life to Her children. Na choked on ancient emotion as he increased the optical magnification, to see for himself that Soel indeed had imperfections – suolspots, prominences. What he had read in the octan libraries was indeed true. But the apparent faults only made Her more perfect in the greater scheme of things.
          Na slowed to a stop, transfixed as he stared through the dense filters. Instinctively, he shifted to the two-eye vision of a rey. Struggling for a more direct view, he forcibly lifted the outermost filter. That was better, more real. Though he knew he shouldn't, he lifted the next layer. Now his eyes tingled under Soel's hot touch. Heedless of the risk, Na threw off the final layer. He stood naked at last before Soel, basking in all Her glory. Na felt a kind of religious ecstasy even as his eyes melted in a torrent of searing pain. Passing through the wall of agony, his vision dimmed into an utter blackness, and his consciousness entered a calm stillness he had never known before. What is whole, is empty; what is empty, is whole. Na could still feel Her warmth on his metallic skin. It was a sensual experience, even sexual.
          Nemo became more and more concerned about his friend as Na came to an abrupt halt and began staring at Suol. Na had apparently turned off his communication circuits, and could not be roused. But then, when Na began to remove his protective filters, Nemo really began to panic. Had there been a serious error during the mental transfer process? Was Na in fact insane? Or was this just another quirk of his strange rey psychology? He still couldn't figure reys. They seemed fearless of height and depth, of the great open spaces, even of the greatest abyss of all: death. Nemo turned to Ulixis in desperation. Reading his mood, she whispered three words inside his head – "the rey religion." Suddenly he recalled the mystical significance Suol held for Na, and thought maybe he understood. After all, Na was not in any real danger. Most of his optical system was still intact, apparently deactivated at the moment, and the damaged visual packs could be easily repaired. But it would cost them precious time. Time? Nemo mused. Time was something none of them would have any lack of from now on.
          Na awoke from his trance several nims later. Reactivating his overall visual system, he turned slowly to Nemo and Ulixis, hovering patiently nearby. "Have you … seen Her?" he asked in a whisper. His companions signaled silent affirmation, using the ancient sign language normally reserved for situations requiring strict secrecy. Without another word, Na set about rejuvenating his damaged eyes.

The metons Na, Nemo and Ulixis, as they approach a blue-green crescent Aerth, framed by a star-studded sky
          Leaving the clouds far behind, the trio soared past the inner Jopian moons, on their way to the inner suolar system. Attention had turned to the upcoming mission to planet Aerth.
          "How are you feeling about your part in the mission?" Nemo prodded Na.
          Na hesitated. "Fine. Why should I be concerned?" A slight oscillation in his voice betrayed his true feelings.
          "Is it that bad?" Ulixis needled.
          "Can I hide nothing from you two? All right, I am nervous. Though I feel prepared, I've never had direct experience with anything like this. Practicing on the simulator was helpful, but this is the real thing. Frankly, I think the plan laid out by the Colonial Council is … bizarre! There are already simions who believe aliens have had a covert hand in much of their history. If anything goes wrong, couldn’t our mission just add credence to their paranoia?”
          “Very few simions share that belief,” Nemo offered, “and they tend to be blatantly non-scientific, blindly interpreting evidence in terms of narrow, preconceived notions. They look at an ordinary meteor crater, and see evidence for ancient alien weapons! Those simions seem to have an inferiority complex about their own species, and a need for a simple explanation for a complex world.”
          “It is ironic that they are correct about alien influence in a small fraction of cases,” Ulixis pointed out.
          Na sighed inwardly. “In any event, the simions seem so strange overall. The species is so advanced in some respects, so backward in others. At least the females suckle their young; this is something I can relate to."
          "Perhaps I can provide some insight on the simion persona," Ulixis offered. "I have studied simion society for the past jope, as an adviser to the council. The simions have acquired scientific and technical knowledge about as quickly as expected. But the predicted parallel developments in philosophy, ethics and theology have not occurred. Our scholars have had difficulty understanding this dichotomy. Both octos and simions are intelligent and goal-oriented. But the simions seem short-sighted, more interested in developments that improve their immediate physical comfort, social status and security than those that advance their fundamental understanding. Morality is seen more as a means of promoting order and stability, than as an expression of fundamental truth."
          "I thought the difference in orientation between octos and simions could be traced to divergences in our racial histories," Nemo interjected.
          "That is the current consensus," Ulixis continued. "Octos are herbivorous, and have never hunted or preyed on other animals. We have always been manipulators, not predators. We manipulate the organic plant matter around us to build our homes and hives. We manipulate the ideas we encounter to comprehend our universe. We manipulate the laws of nature to improve our standard of living and expand our domain. And we manipulate each other to weave our social fabric.
          "In stark contrast, the simions are tribal predators by nature. Their intelligence and collective behavior evolved largely in response to the demands of the hunt. Even today, they continue to prey on other conscious creatures for sustenance. They prey on the laws of nature to conquer and subdue their world, rather than to live in harmony with it. They make war and prey on each other to protect and promote their respective tribes. Any philosophy, ethics or religion that counters their predator instincts and blind spot is suspect, even doomed. Only over the last few hundred jopes have evolutionary pressures begun to de-emphasize the predacious aspect of simion nature, as plant agriculture and other nonpredatory activities have become more important to simion survival. But the ancient trait is self-perpetuating, and dies hard."
          "Some octos have advocated that we quarantine Aerth," Nemo cut in. "They would secretly impede simion technological progress, and sabotage the simion space programs, to keep the Aerthlings planet-bound."
          Now Ulixis turned to address Na directly. "Octos have had terrible difficulty relating to the peculiar predatory tribal nature of the simions. Our ancestors wrongly interpreted it as a variation of their own manipulative character. Na, you were chosen by the council for this mission because they hope your rey personality will better relate to the simions. Though not predators, reys are tribal and readily kill to protect their own. Octos instinctively withdraw from any physical assault, and tend to shun physical violence even when it is appropriate and ethical. This behavior dates back to the early yads of octan evolution, when our primitive ancestors hid from the serpents among the floating plant masses. Octos since that time have known no effective predator. We have no need or desire to kill or harm others – only to manipulate them, in a reciprocal manner of course."
          Na wryly wondered how it happened that the thicket serpents were now practically extinct. "I suspected this was the council's reasoning in selecting me," he sighed, "though no one would directly tell me so until now." The inability to deal effectively with their intelligent simion neighbors seemed to be a particularly sensitive issue with octos. Na turned to gaze at Aerth, now a distant bluish-white orb hanging in the sky before them. What had he gotten himself into?

         

The porched northward face of the white simion farmhouse visited by Na, backed by a line of trees

          It was a sultry summer night in rural New Angland. The cruckets and katydads chirped incessantly, accompanied by a chorus of tree froads, and joined occasionally by a distant whippoorwull. The meton known as Na descended stealthily from a moonless sky, guided only by infrared and radar eyes, the hum of power banks barely discernible. It (he) came to rest about thirty rets east of an old white frame farmhouse, in a rectangle of tall grass and weeds backed by grandfather sugar moples and towering pinee trees.
          A small iris diaphragm twisted open near the base of the spacecraft hull. A black silicone tentacle hesitantly poked out, then began to slowly snake through the damp grass, toward the still house. There it angled upward, noiselessly scaling the wood clapboards to the nearest window on the second floor. The tentacle probed the window screen, then ripped a tiny access hole in its corner. At last it penetrated a dark interior bedroom. The rhythmic breathing of two sleeping adult simions could be heard from the far side, mingled with the precise ticking of a phosphorescent alarm clock. But the muffled sounds of a male infant, asleep in his wooden crib, came from only inches away. The baby had been selected nine Aerth months earlier when he was born at a local hospital. The child appeared intelligent and healthy, and the location of his home was ideal.
          An anesthetic gas began to hiss from a pore at the tentacle's tip. Slowly at first, then more rapidly, the gas flowed and spread through the room, then on through the rest of the dwelling. All occupants succumbed: the baby and his parents; the grandfather in an adjacent bedroom; two older brothers in a third bedroom down the hall; and three furry four-legged pets on the first floor. None would awaken before dawn. The experiments with anesthetics performed millennia before on more primitive Aerth animals had proven their worth again.
          One roh had passed since the tentacle broke into the room. Now it moved again, crossing the floor, then climbing the side of the crib, toward the infant. Up and over the railing, it dropped onto the unconscious child, coiling around him again and again. Its burden secure, the tentacle began to draw the young simion across the crib, back toward the night. It heaved its prize over the railing and onto the windowsill. The screen ripped open with a snap. The parents would wonder at the tear in the morning, but they would soon dismiss it – such things happened. Down from the window the infant was lowered, into a narrow flower garden, with an unintended thud. Once on the ground, he was dragged over the dirt and through the grass, toward the ship. The child's right side would be badly bruised, but it would heal. The youngster was strong. The parents would find him asleep on the floor in the morning, and think he had tumbled out of the crib in the night.
          The opening in the ship's skin widened briefly to admit the infant, then clicked shut. Inside, the baby was laid upon a narrow siliceous table in a tiny cubicle maintained at Aerth-like conditions, and physically immobilized with restraint straps. Electrodes were speedily emplaced around his head by several short, artificial arms extending from the chamber walls. Biocircuits were checked; all was ready. Na's memories and personality began to flow into the unwitting subject's mind. Unprepared for the mature and alien thought patterns, the child awoke into a bewildering dream. Additional tranquilizer was administered when he began to thrash about on the table. His body was calmed, but some mental shock was unavoidable. Gradually an assimilation developed, as a wholeness was built out of the bits and pieces of Na's former life. Na suddenly found himself awkwardly blinking unfamiliar eyes, staring out of a simion's body, even as a separate and distinct Na oversaw the transfer process. Na was now two.
          At this point a mysterious, sealed cassette Na had carried from Jopitar began dumping its own contents into the infant. A shadowy anatomy of purpose filtered through the bioelectronics to the Na within the child. He saw in his mind three perfect silver spheres, rising from the sands of a desert kingdom centuries earlier. They sped away over towering mountain peaks to a hiding place in the abyssal trenches of the oceans to the east, to watch and wait. And wait. A tear trickled down a cheek of the sleeping baby.
          Which was the real Na – the child or the meton? Each now shared a common personality and set of memories. Just as a single cell may divide into two distinct cells, so Na had split into two distinct selves. When the bionetwork that linked them was severed, they would be separate individuals, leading separate lives and facing distinct futures. There would be no mystical future unity of consciousness, simply because they shared a common past.
          Yet the being within the child's mind was more than a copy of the original Na. It was the fusion of Na with the primitive self already present. At the moment Na was the dominant aspect of that synthesis. But this did not last. The simion brain was now flooded with selective waves of repression. Na's intruding personality retreated to a corner of the infant's mind, where it would sleep and dream, almost but not completely cut off from the remainder of the child's self. It would gradually reawaken with time, to integrate into the other maturing personality as needed, as its purpose demanded, without violating the personal integrity of its host.
          What purpose? As Na was locked off in the infant's mind, he felt another presence, and remembered the secret cassette. A black box – contents unknown, part of the price he had paid for this opportunity to forget, to flee the memories that haunted him. He searched for a purpose within the filtered message. Was he to observe? To report? To manipulate? But his vision dimmed, and he sank into a relaxed oblivion within the unconscious infant.
          The transplant was complete. Na the spacecraft carefully removed the electrodes from the child's body, and gently washed him with tepid water. After wrapping the child in a protective sack, Na opened a passage through his hull and lifted the precious load outside, then began the deliberate journey back to the house. Na left the baby asleep on the floor beside his crib, curled in a fetal pose in his crumpled flannel blanket.
          The long tentacle retracted into Na's meton body as the first hints of twilight touched the sky. Na rose in silence into the brightening vault, and flew away to the east, leaving his handiwork to the fates. Ragged crimson clouds heralded the coming dawn. As Suol broke the curved horizon, Na beheld what he sensed would be the last planetary sunrise of his birth sun that he would ever see. But he did not linger. He had an appointment to keep. Even now his two companions waited near the Aerth's solitary moon, high above a crater the simions named Aristorchus (in honor of one of their ancient philosophers?) on the shores of the suol-washed basin they called Ocean of Tempests. Rather dry this time of jope, he chuckle-koomed. Suol's light was so intense in these environs! Then Na turned attention from Suol, to the bright star field opposite in the constellation Sagittarios – their ultimate destination. The meton trio would leave the suolar system, probably never to return.

          But that would have to wait. There was one more task for the metons to fulfill before embarking on their odyssey. The simions had launched a spacecraft on a problematic mission of exploration to Jopitar. After Na rejoined his companions, they set a course to intercept it. Several yads later the team approached the slow alien craft, still several thoms from its own destination.
          "How ungainly that ship is," muttered Nemo. "Its innards are exposed, for all to see."
          "Spoken with the aesthetic of a true meton," Na retorted.
          "The design is actually quite functional, and weight-efficient," Ulixis offered.
          "Look, the atmospheric probe is mounted at the fore end, just as expected," observed Na. "I still don't understand why the simions didn't think to sterilize it. If that vessel were allowed to penetrate Jopitar's biotori, dormant Aerth microbes ensconced inside might contaminate the jopian ecosystem, with untold consequences!"
          "Our home world is unlike anything Aerth scientists have encountered thus far," Ulixis suggested. "They find it hard to imagine that Jopitar might be capable of supporting life of any kind." Then Ulixis addressed Nemo. "Is the guidance unit ready?"
          "Indeed," Nemo responded, as he extracted the tiny device from an inner compartment. "Does the Council think there is any chance the simions might detect us while attaching it to the probe?"
          "Extremely unlikely," replied Ulixis. "The craft's cameras should be inactive at this stage of the mission. Still, we should maintain stealth mode. Remember, the simians are totally blind to our neutrino emissions."
          Now Nemo moved ahead of his companions, and carefully approached the Aerth spacecraft. There he gently attached the guidance unit to the side of the atmospheric probe, then backed away. "Done!" he proclaimed proudly.
          "I realize that the device is supposed to guide the probe toward an atmospheric 'hot spot' at the edge of our planet's equatorial zone," Na cut in nervously. Inside this unusually dry region of rapidly sinking gas, any microbes would be quickly plunged into a realm of extreme heat and pressure, and exterminated before they could do harm. "But what if the guidance system fails? I understand its propulsive force must be subtle, to avoid detection."
          "In that event the unit can be remotely detonated by a local Council agent during atmospheric entry," Ulixis explained. "This should vaporize the probe, and all its contents. Though I doubt such an extreme intervention will be necessary."
          This relieved Na somewhat. "Then I can only wonder what eager simion researchers will think of the unusual data transmitted back to Aerth from the probe's atypical path!"