Illustration by Alex Newsome


The beginning...

allaharts! Val thought, clinging to a cliff under the brown sky. The first of the birds dove at him. The dun and red-layered cliffs on Ithxia were renowned for the tiny grips they offered a climber. In desperation he grasped with his left hand and both feet, and drew his sword. He swung at a vicious attacker and connected, but the effort nearly cost him his grip. Several more callaharts were winging toward him, obviously planning to nip and slash until he lost his purchase and fell to his death on the rocks far below.

The Music of Eternal Purpose throbbed through his young body as he continued his frantic dance of escape on the face of the cliff. The music was rising to a crescendo that could lead to his death if he didn=t play this right.

Val had to keep moving, as the Ithxian practice of swarming the sheer cliffs depended on quickly shifting from one tiny handhold to another.

Another callahart struck, and this one slashed his shoulder. Val sped away as quickly as he could. Steel over their claws, Val noted. Even the shells covering Ithxian skin could be damaged by that. He danced to the side to avoid another strike. There are no nests for them to be protecting. Ilyac must be behind this!

Ilyac had been responsible for the death of a good friend. With enthusiasm typical of his twelve years, Val had appointed himself Space Knight and made it his first quest to bring the runaway Ilyac to justice.

Val almost slipped when another callahart slashed at his ear. I must succeed! If, he added as the music thrummed in his mind, these callaharts don't kill me first.

The ex-leader of his village had obviously sent the birds. Young Val was the only human on Ithxia, and Ilyac had been trying to kill him since Ahu, Val's Ithxian foster mother, brought the infant Val to her home.

+ + +

hu heard an infant's cry, and it attracted her like an emotional magnet. There! Ahead, at the base of one of Ithxia's many enormous cliffs, was a crashed vessel of some kind, its metal sides rendered by its fall from space. The infant's cry came from there.

Over the last century, three different species landed on Ithxia. None found any resources worth exporting, so no port was established - but all remained long enough for the Ithxians to learn much of the universe around them. Approaching the wreck, Ahu peered inside. There were three aliens there - humans, if Ahu remembered correctly. The two larger ones were deceased, but a smaller one lay on the floor, crying helplessly. A baby!

Ahu had lost her first baby only days before. That was why she was so far from home; she wanted solitude to regain emotional stability, to recover from her intense grief. While Ithxians were humanoid, their spindly bodies were sheathed in a thin shell, save for some joints, faces, and where head met neck - but a baby was a baby, regardless of physical differences. Ahu picked up the young thing, and held its warm body against her chest. "I feel the music within you, small one," she said, soothingly. Then she thought, as a mother might, Food! What does this little being consume to grow?

With the instincts of a parent, she searched the wreck. Finding a bottle of white liquid, with a nipple on the end, she put the nipple to the baby's mouth - and observed the eagerness with which it began to suck. One food found! It must be nourishing milk.

There were four containers with milk in them, and many smaller ones containing soft material Ahu assumed was also food. There were many coverings for the baby, and a small thing Ahu guessed was the baby's bed. She was going to need help; the larger humans, likely the baby's parents, must be buried; there were few predators in this area, which is why Ahu chose this path, but burial still seemed necessary to end the rhapsody of their life. And she must collect all possible foodstuffs.

Ahu also found a solar-powered machine which she discovered not only taught the human language, but also contained many human books.

It took several days. Ahu worked quietly with three trusted friends, aware that she was doing this without consulting the tribal leader. He would feel that the infant displayed dissonance in the music of their lives, a break in their rhythm.

Ahu and her friends collected foodstuffs and coverings and the language machine with no thought of their leader's concern. To Ahu, the baby was more important than their leader's apprehension about strangers. This baby was not only a stranger, but from another race. Ilyac, their leader, was bound to object - but Ahu held the baby, fed it, and was fiercely determined to protect it. She felt that his music only accented hers.

Ahu's village was at the point of a V made by Ithxian cliffs, not as high as those at the crash, but elevated nonetheless. A stream flowed from the point, blossomed into a lake further on, and orchards of several different fruit trees grew there, providing not only sustenance, but also trade with other villages - a chord that blended with the music of village life. Ahu's dwelling was at a place beside the staccato stream before it blended with the fluid consonance of the lake. She took the baby, its food and other possessions, and settled it into a room brightly lit by the morning sun - and considered what she was going to do. How could she take care of the child?

Luckily, the tribal doctor was a personal friend, and Ahu took the baby to him the first day. Doctor Idu looked at the baby in amazement. "A human!" he said. He shifted his gaze to Ahu. "Knowing you, you intend to raise it - correct?"

Ahu gave a solemn and intent nod. ?But I will need help in the rhythm of its life; I know so little about humans.?

"You will need much help," Idu said. "Our planet has less oxygen than humans are used to."

Ahu nodded. "I know," she said. "I have to blow into the baby's mouth quite often. I have placed plants in his room that release oxygen, but I still need to breathe music into him."

"Oxygen plants? Clever, Ahu! I always knew you were brilliant." Then the doctor added, "He will also have to develop a stronger body than the usual human, as Ithxia has at least twenty percent more gravity than your average human is used to. That, however, is something his body will deal with as he grows. Humans are quite adaptable."

"I believe his name is Val," Ahu contributed. "It was written on several of his coverlets."

Doctor Idu made an expression of surprise. "You can read human?"

"While looking through the wrecked craft, I found a solar-powered machine that taught the language, obviously there for the baby."

The doctor shook his head in awe. "My intelligent, clever Ahu," he murmured.

"My biggest concern is food," Ahu said intently, looking lovingly at the infant. "There was a supply on the ship, but it will soon play out, as it will not last forever. What should I do?" she pleaded, lifting her gaze to Doctor Idu.

The doctor shrugged. "Experiment. Ithxian biology is enough like humans that we can tell what would be poison to the baby. Fruit would be good, as well as young growing plants. Meats should be cooked. As I said, experiment. Start now, while the infant's supply of food is largest. But," the doctor added, in a lower and more intense tone, "None of those are your greatest problem. Ilyac, our leader, will be dead set against baby Val. He will want the baby abandoned, even killed."

Grimly, Ahu pressed the baby against her chest. "I am aware of that," she stated. "I will protect Val every way I can." Pausing, she added, "In fact, I think I will approach Ilyac today."

The doctor cocked his head, and looked at her with eyes deep-set beneath his brows. "Do you think that the wisest thing to do, Ahu? It could be like slapping him in the face, defying his authority."

"I defy his authority only in defense of my son!" Ahu declared. "I will not raise Val in shadowy denial of his presence."

Doctor Idu chuckled. "Never the subtle one, are you? Plunge where angels will not go."

Ahu considered the doctor's statement. "Angels?" she said, thoughtfully. "You have brought up something important, Doctor. I feel Val is a gift to me from our gods! His music must blend with the composition of my life. How else could it be explained?"

The doctor was only semi-religious, but now he found himself nodding his head. "It does seem so, Ahu; it does seem so."

+ + +

athering the three friends who had helped her bring Val to the village, Ahu went to Ilyac's official dwelling, a green-painted wood building beside the murmuring and glistening lake. When he came to the door, Ahu held out the baby. "I wish you to bless my son, Honorable Ilyac. Welcome him to the rhythm of my life," she said.

Puzzled, Ilyac cocked his head and looked at the proffered bundle. "Your son, Ahu?" he asked. "I thought your son had died."

"My first son died, honorable one. This one was sent to me to take his place. Look!" She pulled the cover back, so Ilyac could see the infant's face.

Ilyac took a step back, startled. "That is a human!" he said in shocked disbelief. He aimed his sunken gaze at her. "Surely you mock me, Ahu; you know my attitude to strangers, to discordance in the music of our lives, and yet you bring me a thing that is not only a stranger, but an alien from another world!"

"This is not a thing Ilyac!" she retorted fiercely. "This baby is a gift from our gods!"

"'Our gods'?" Ilyac asked scornfully. "Our gods are for us, not for humans!"

?And why not?" Ahu protested. "Did our gods not create the universe, including humans?" Seeing Ilyac hesitate, she continued, "Bring our priest, Ilyac. Father Nng is our authority on gods. Bring him, and let us see what he says." When Ilyac hesitated, she turned to one of her friends, "Please find the priest and bring him to us."

A crowd began to gather as word spread of Ahu's confrontation. Some made unfavorable comments about the baby, while others supported Ahu. They quieted when her friend returned, Father Nng alongside. She watched his approach, trying to hide her anxiety.

The priest was so old that his shell was bone-white, but he carried himself erectly and matched her friend's gate. Holding the infant out, Ahu strode up to Father Nng. "Is this baby dangerous, Father?" she asked.

Ilyac snapped, "That is not the question!"

Nng's attention went from Val and Ahu to Ilyac - then returned his gaze to Ahu. "You are worshipful and intelligent, Ahu. What is the question?"

"Father Nng, I feel this baby was a gift from our gods."

"Pray tell me why."

Ahu noted that Ilyac was fidgeting, but she ignored him. "I went far away, to a place I had never seen before, and found a wrecked ship with the baby inside. If I had gone earlier, the crash would not have occurred; if I had gone later, the infant's music would have crescendoed as he would have died from starvation. Therefore, it must have been the work of our gods."

Ilyac could hold back no longer. "You would have us believe that our gods care about a human?"

The priest looked at him calmly. "Our gods are the composers of the Music of Life, a great opera too complex for us to understand more than a single opus. If this was the work of our gods, it would be for the benefit of Ahu that it occurred, not for the young human."

Ahu eagerly leaned forward. "Then you agree, Father, that Val - this baby - is a gift from the gods?"

Softly but clearly, the priest responded, "It is possible."

Triumphantly, Ahu turned to the tribal leader. "You see, Ilyac? Our priest agrees!"

"He did not!" snapped Ilyac. "He but said it was possible!" Even as he spoke, however, he was eying and judging the crowd of his people. He saw belief in their expressions and in the musical murmuring drifting through the assembly.

Noting this, Ahu put in, "He said it was possible." She turned her attention to Idu. "Did you not, Father?"

"The ways of our gods are mysterious," he said softly. "No one can clearly understand their actions. My decision of a possibility is the closest I can come."

A chorus of the phrase "This is so," drifted through the assembled Ithxians. Noting this, Ilyac clamped his jaws together, then said, "Very well, Ahu." In a ferocious whisper, he added, "But keep that abomination out of my sight!" He turned and re-entered his office.

Ahu, though satisfied with her triumph, was surprised to realize she felt apprehension as well. Ilyac was still an enemy, an unfavorable theme weaving through the music of her life.

In a couple of months, this was emphasized when, one night, the window to Val's bedroom slowly opened and several deadly insects were released. An Ithxian shell was a good defense against them, but Val had no shell and was at risk as they approached him, attracted by his bodily warmth.

Fortunately, Ahu chose that moment to check on Val. Seeing the insects, she screamed and rushed at them, stomping her feet until they were all smashed. Ahu had no proof it was the work of Ilyac, but there was no doubt in her mind as she brought her bed into the baby's room.

Time passed. Under the brown sky of Ithxia, two divergent children were playing. "Atta boy, Val!" cried Ulhud, an Ithxian boy. A four-year-old human swarmed over the face of a reddish-brown cliff, using only minute crevices and ledges to propel himself. There was seldom a sufficient grip to hold anyone, so continuous movement was vital.

At that age, only a prelude to the Music of Eternal Purpose was singing in his veins.

Ahu watched with parental pride, awe - and trepidation. The Ithxians regularly covered the many cliffs of Ithxia in this manner, but Val was a human. Besides, it was a mother's duty to worry.

Ulhud was Val's best friend, so good a friend that Val had let him use the language machine, which taught the human language as well as idioms. The two were together quite a bit, which pleased Ahu, and Val had learned much from him. That didn't keep Ahu from worrying.

After Ulhud and Val were through swarming the cliffs, Val followed Ahu home. She noted he was deep in thought and quiet until they entered their home. Then he looked up at Ahu, ran his fingers through his hair and said, hesitantly, "I have a question."

"Yes?" Even at four, his mind was constantly active and inquisitive.

"Why do we swarm the cliffs? I know it is fun, but - why did it begin? What composed the song of swarming?"

"You are very perceptive, my little Val," Ahu said with pride. "You are quite correct. There is a large bird called a callahart that used to live here. It would find a ledge large enough to hold a nest and build there.

"Now," Ahu continued, "Ithxians found their eggs not only enjoyable, but very nourishing as well. Due to that, their eggs were highly valued and could be exchanged for three to five days of work. It was very difficult to reach a nest, until swarming was developed. It was very dangerous, by the way; the male callaharts had exceedingly sharp claws and would, if in the neighborhood of the nest, attack. Many Ithxians fell to their deaths."

"But the Ithxian shells -" Val began.

Smiling, Ahu interrupted. "This was many thousands of years ago, my son. Ithxians were covered with flesh, at that time. Many believe our gods then gave us shells, because of the callaharts.

" Even after our shells, there was still some danger, if the males struck while an Ithxian was descending and off-balance. Anyway," she finished, "that is how swarming was first composed."

When he was five, Val found the books on the language machine, and the action stories fascinated him so much that he would read hours at a time. In some of the really old ones, he discovered stories of knights, and something clicked. One day he took the dead branch of a tree and made himself a wooden sword. He took it to Ahu, waved it in the air, and declared, "I am the Space Knight!"

Ahu smiled with gentle understanding. "You are from space, thus you are a Space Knight. Correct?"

"Exactly! I will make a sword for Ulhud, and we will practice fighting. Because he has a shell, I will not hurt him, but it will give me practice."

"Remember," Ahu cautioned him, "that some joints are still flesh. From brow to jaw, our faces are flesh. Where the neck joins the jaw, there is a spot where even a wooden sword can kill."

"I know, mother; I will be careful. But I must hone my skills." As he said this, the music of Eternal Purpose began to build its tempo.

One time when Val met his friend, he saw that Ulhud was glum. "What's wrong, buddy?" Val asked.

Ulhud kicked a clump of dirt. "We're each reaching our twelfth birthday soon, Val. Then Ilyac will put us to work on that stupid wall, like all other men."

Years earlier, Ilyac announced he was building a wall at the far end of their land, to keep strangers out. There was grumbling, but he was their leader - so every male twelve years of age or older spent four hours every day erecting a wall, one that slanted out so no one could swarm up it. There were gates allowing traders in and out, but there was always a guard at the gate.

No one sang while at work, for it didn't have the feel of their opus.

"But not yet!" Val declared, running his fingers through his hair. "Bet I can outswarm you!" he added, running for a nearby cliff.

Laughing, Ulhud followed.

Once, after an hour of swarming, Ulhud reached the top first and glared down at Val. "You let me win!" he accused.

"Hey, I'm bigger and heavier than you," Val replied.

"Never slowed you down before," Ulhud said, as Val reached the top and stood beside him.

Val slapped his friend on the back. "Like you never let me win!" he grinned. "Beat you to the bottom!"

Even though the cliff was more than one hundred feet high, and the two had been swarming for over an hour, they reached bottom and then raced back up. Nearing the top, Val glanced at the summit and saw two things simultaneously: Ilyac, standing their smiling, and --

A big rock that slammed into his chest!

Despite his speed and skill, Val slipped and slammed into Ulhud, who was just below him, dislodging his friend. The two slid to the bottom, regardless of their attempts to slow their descent. Val crashed into Ulhud - and felt his friend crumble beneath him.

Painfully getting to his feet, Val looked down at Ulhud. "Ulhud!" he whispered.

"Ilyac." Ulhud murmured, and died.

Pain and fatigue washed away by fury, Val grabbed his sword and headed for the village. He was certain Ilyac used a slide to depart the ledge, and would make it to his office before Val could possibly catch him. A few villagers, seeing Val's intensity, followed him, but Val had only one thing on his mind, as the music of Eternal Purpose roared within him.

Reaching Ilyac's office, he shouted: "Ilyac!"

The door opened, and Ilyac looked down at Val. "What do you want, child?" he asked, calmly.

"You killed my friend!"

Giving an irritating superior smile, Ilyac said, "No. You killed him. Smashed him to death."

"That proves you did it!" Val said, intensely. "Only the one who threw the rock would know that! Not," he added, "that I needed any proof. I saw you!"

Neither of them paid attention to the rapidly growing crowd.

"I am the leader," Ilyac declared. "Regardless of your toy sword, I tower above you, little abomination!"

In truth, Ilyac was only a little better than a head above Val, who had been growing steadily over the years.

To Ilyac's astonishment, Val abruptly swarmed up the side of the house, and hung at the top of the doorway above.

"Not now, villain!" Val said, and dropped on Ilyac, knocking him down. Quickly straddling Ilyac, Val held the point of his sword on the fleshy place where Ilyac's throat met the jaw. "You are mine!" he said, with satisfaction.

To Val's surprise, an arm swept around him and he found himself seated on an Ithxian's shoulders. "Val!" the Ithxian cried. The crowd echoed in chorus, "Val! Val! Val!"

The boy looked down to see Ilyac get quickly to his feet, motion to two others inside his office, and the three of them pushed their way through the delirious crowd.

"I'll get you," Val shouted after them. "As Space Knight, you will be my first quest!"

"Lead us, Val!" the crowd insisted.

Fingers plowing through his hair, Val said, "I can't! I'm not yet twelve." Then he spotted Ahu making her way to him. "Ahu should lead you!" he declared. "Ahu would be a good leader."

"Ahu, your mother," one sang out. "Yes, she brought you to us. Ahu!" he shouted, and the crowd picked it up.

Ahu became the village leader, and Val found himself unable to pursue Ilyac, as Ahu needed his assistance. "But I will find Ilyac and bring him to justice," Val swore. "It may take time, but I will complete my quest!"

Metal was seldom used on Ithxia, mostly for nails and saws, but Val managed to forge a steel sword in his spare time, while aiding Ahu. To ease carrying the sword while swarming, he made a belt loop to hold the sword instead of a heavier scabbard that would slow him. Also, as the gate was now kept open, he always queried any travelers in his search for Ilyac. A few clues arose, and he slowly accumulated information for the day he could go on his quest.

Twelfth birthday well behind him, Val at last started his search, responding to the throb of the music of Eternal Purpose. From villages he visited, he gathered more clues that would lead him to Ilyac. Then, on the third day, he witnessed the flaming descent of what he assumed was a shuttle from a spaceship orbiting above. It landed in the area where his parents' ship had crashed.

+ + +

len Avery debarked from his ship and approached the wreckage before him. Immediately he noted two mounds that were near the ship.

Two.

Standing beside them, he whispered, "I wish Universal Body Suits had been invented before you left."

As most spacers, he was wearing his UBS. Thanks to its slim exoskeleton, the increased gravity didn't bother him. A faceplate took care of the lower oxygen level.

Seeing only two graves, he had hopes that his nephew, Val, had survived. While overhead, he had noted the distant village. Slipping on jet skates, he headed for it, certain his nearly-impenetrable UBS would protect him from any aliens. In hours, he entered the village. Finding that many of the aliens spoke his language added to the possibility Val had survived. Led to Ahu's green village office, he introduced himself and explained his purpose.

"I raised Val," Ahu said with pride - pride tinged with regret, as she knew Val would be leaving soon. ?He fulfills the music of my life.?

"Quite poetic," Glen Avery commented approvingly.

"Our gods created the universe and the music of life," Ahu explained.

"I like your gods," Glen smiled. "Tell me more."

Ahu related the song of Val's life, from finding him, teaching him, watching him grow, and now his quest. "So you must wait for his return," she finished.

Glen Avery chuckled. "I have been searching for a dozen years," he said. "Another few hours, even a few days, are inconsequential." He leaned forward. "But shouldn't I be assisting him in this quest? He is my nephew, you know. Shouldn't family take part in a quest? Won't he need my aid?"

Solemnly, Ahu shook her head. "It is not the way," she said. "I, too, feel a tinge of worry, but his aria must be a solo. It is only right." Her sunken eyes gazed at the visiting human. "Long ago, he declared himself a Space Knight, and he has trained himself quite well for this quest, even before he was aware it was coming. We must rest with the tune of confidence as we await his safe return." She rose from her desk. "I will make tea."

+ + +

n less than an hour the door opened and an excited Val rushed in. "A human!" he exclaimed. "This is the only thing that could have delayed my quest. I saw you land near the place where my parents crashed and knew I must come."

Glen Avery went to the boy and hugged him. "Val!" he said, and then, holding Val at arm's length and admiring what he saw, he went on, "I am your uncle, Glen Avery. Your mother was my sister. They had departed their planned route, and it was only now that I was able to find their ship."

Even such an important reunion could only be a short delay in the completion of the Space Knight's quest, so Val soon excused himself. "I feel this is the day I find Ilyac," he said. "I must go."

After he left, Glen Avery explained to Ahu that he was going to leave a communication system so she could always commune with Val.

Meanwhile, Val sped quickly down the trail, he was certain would take him to the Ithxian who could lead him to Ilyac. The music of Eternal Purpose now boiled in his veins. "It is nearly over!" sang his pulse and mind.

The revealed trail led him to the callaharts.

Using his sword was tricky; immediately after slashing, he had to return the sword to his belt and regain a grip to move him forward - but it was the only defense he had! Then an idea came to his mind.

"Ilyac!" he shouted. "I know you are here; you would want to see me die! Show yourself."

Val was not surprised when, from the ledge at the top of the cliff a few yards above, Ilyac's head appeared. "Clever, little abomination," Ilyac smiled. "Yes, I want to see you die! I deserve that pleasure."

Adrenalin surged, fueled by anger. Ignoring slashes from diving birds, Val swarmed to the top and stood beside the astonished Ilyac.

Even here the callaharts attacked Val, diving and slashing with their steel-tipped claws - but now balance was no more a problem. Pushing Ilyac aside, he slashed at the birds until he killed enough that the others withdrew.

Still holding his sword, he glared at Ilyac as the Ithxian scrambled to his feet and backed away.

With a glance, Val saw many huge boulders standing in the clearing. Two behind Ilyac seemed to part and make a possible escape route. Ilyac stopped between them and looked at Val. "I'm unarmed, Val," he said, holding out empty hands and smiling with assurance. "All I have is the lotion that repels callaharts. You wouldn't kill an unarmed man, would you?"

Val took a step forward, sword in hand. "That didn't stop you from causing the death of Ulhud," he said, grimly.

"Ah, but that is my advantage," he said, smile still in place. "I have no morality, only the desire to succeed at whatever the cost. You, on the other hand, are a slave to morality." Ilyac took a step forward. "I lack such a drawback."

Val sensed something amiss; the rhythm of Ilyac's smooth voice contained a harsh dissonance to the music of life. Then he heard just the whisper of sound behind him and spun around.

Ilyac's two guards were coming at him from the rocks.

Val's sword sliced through the neck of one guard then stabbed the chest of the other. Even as the second was falling, Val grabbed one of the Ithxian's arms and swung him around so that he slammed into the fleeing Ilyac. With the brittle sound of cracking shells, the two met and collapsed in a heap.

Val went to the jumble and saw blood coming from Ilyac's mouth. "You couldn't . . . " Ilyac whispered, then his body was gripped by an intense convulsion -

And he died.

+ + +

fter relating what happened to Ahu and Glen Avery, Avery asked, "Why did you call out to Ilyac?"

"Because I remembered how my anger about Ulhud's death gave me extra strength," Val said. "I had hopes it would do it again."

Smiling, Avery nodded. "Smart boy," he said. "It has long been known that such stress can give us almost superhuman strength." He put his hand on Val's shoulder. "It was a wise Space Knight who completed his first quest." His smiled broadened and included Ahu. "A successful ending to an opus in the music of your life."

CONTENTS

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