someone beside him, holding him upright.


She looked up at him. “We’re almost there,” she said.

“Where… ?” he managed.

She pointed.

Through the flurry of a snowstorm he made out the silver teardrop shape of the Cobra.

He shook his head. “What happened, Rana? I… the last thing I remember…” He caught a tantalising suggestion of the sublimity of the essence which awaited all living things at the end of their tenure of the flesh. “Why didn’t I join Mack, Ten Lee? The Ahloi would have let me join them.”

Rana urged him onward through the snow. He could not bring himself to argue. He lunged forward, almost falling through a deceptive drift. He stumbled and righted himself, the small Indian woman at his side gripping his arm. Together, slowly, they made their way through the whiteout of a raging blizzard. The cold clutched his face, squeezing feeling from his features, burning.

They made the ship and staggered up the ramp, hurrying through the Cobra to the warmth of the flight-deck. Bennett collapsed into the pilot’s seat, exhausted. Rana pulled off her thermal jacket and sank to the floor with her back against the bulkhead. Her face was glowing, her brown eyes large and alive like burnished gems.

“Rana… what happened?”

“You didn’t want to stay down there,” she said. He saw that she was crying, and he wondered why. “Don’t you remember? You said that you’d beheld a miracle, but that you weren’t ready for it. You said that you could always make the journey later.”

He shook his head. “How long was I out?”

“The alien touched you for about, I don’t know, ten seconds, no more.”

He marvelled at what he had experienced in that short time. He recalled that Mackendrick and Ten Lee had elected to take the longer ceremony. What wonders during that mass laying on of hands had they been granted, what insights had they glimpsed?

“And I didn’t want to undergo the full ceremony?” he asked now.

Rana shook her head. “No. You told me what you’d experienced, but you said you wanted to leave, return to the ship. You said… you said that you wanted to live before you gave up this life. For the past ten, twelve hours we’ve been climbing back through the mountain.”

Bennett wiped the melted snow from his face. “Did you… did you experience the truth?”

She shook her head. “No. I…” She turned her beautiful hands in a delicate, articulate gesture of doubt and circumspection. “I too want to live before I die. I mean, we know what awaits us, Josh. There is enough time to be part of the whole. But all I want now is to be myself.”

She reached out, then, and took his hand.

Bennett stared through the viewscreen at the massive bulk of Tenebrae as it rose over the mountain peak. He felt within him something of the residuum of the love he had felt while experiencing the ultimate, and a part of him wondered at his decision, no doubt subconscious and out of his control, to forgo the way of the Ahloi. Another part of him wanted nothing more than to return to the temple, rejoin Ten Lee and Mackendrick and the others, and devote his life to the contemplation of that which he had experienced in the Chamber of Rebirth.

He wondered then if this desire to give himself to the Ahloi was merely a way of saving himself from the suffering, a way of avoiding all the usual emotional involvement that was an inevitable and irrevocable part of being human.

He helped Rana to her feet and strapped her into the copilot’s seat.

Soon, Homefall and its secret would be opened to the Expansion. Soon Mackendrick’s ships and scientists would arrive and transform the planet, and, in time, the Expansion and everyone in it would be transformed.

Rana must have been reading his thoughts. “Things will be different now,” she said. “It will never be the same. Change is on the way.”

Bennett looked into his heart and saw the truth. “For the better,” he said. “The change is for the better.”

She smiled, gazing out at Tenebrae. “And now?”

He pulled the console array towards him and began powering up the ship. “Now we return to the rebels’ valley and await the arrival of Mackendrick’s men.”

She turned to him and smiled. “And then?”

And then? He looked at Rana. “The outsiders will need guides,” he said, “people to escort them to the Ahloi temple and the Chamber of Rebirth. We know the way, Rana. We can show them the way.”

Then Bennett lifted the Cobra, turned the ship slowly on its axis and accelerated down the valley, heading through the mountains towards the stronghold of the rebels.

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