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Chapter two

Shaylar Nargra-Kolmayr ducked under the open flap of her tent, stepped out into the early chill, and sucked in a deep double lungful of morning. The crisp autumn air tasted like heaven, and she stretched, closing her eyes to sort out the delightful scents floating on the breeze. Cinnamon-dry leaves underfoot mingled with the soft, green fragrance of moss, and the deep, rich scent of wet earth from the forest floor. She grinned in sheer delight, then opened her eyes to watch the gold-tinted mist that hung in a thick, whisper-soft curtain along the stream they'd been following for three days. She could hear the broad creek—it nearly qualified as a river—gurgling and chuckling its way through the ravine it had cut through the forest.


Her husband, Jathmar Nargra, emerged from the tent behind her, and slanting sunlight turned his thinning sandy hair into copper fire. The ends curled slightly from the dampness, like the baby curls in the pictures Jathmar's mother had shown her after their marriage. Field equipment festooned his sturdy canvas web gear: metal canteen, waterproofed compass, field glasses, canvas rucksack. He had his rifle slung across one shoulder for greater ease in carrying, and a Halanch and Welnahr revolver rode his belt.


The lever action rifle and heavy single-action pistol were for protection against inimical wildlife—today, at least. There was literally no chance that they'd run into anything like claim jumpers or a gang of portal pirates in a virgin universe, but that wasn't always the case out here on the leading edge of the frontier. Shaylar was more than a little relieved that he wasn't going to need all that hardware today, but she had to admit he made a brave and dashing figure, standing there in the golden sunlight that filtered down like shafts of molten butter through the gorgeously colored leaves overhead.


Jathmar's sun-bronzed face broke into a broad grin as her delight sparkled to him through their marriage bond.


"It is a good morning, isn't it?" he observed. "Even with my unheroic figure squarely in the middle of it."


"Oh, absolutely!" Shaylar laughed.


"You wound me, woman." His long face took on a crestfallen tragedy that would have fooled anyone else. "You weren't supposed to agree with me!"


"My dear, you're armed and dangerous enough to take on any black bears, timber wolves, wild boars, or cougars native to this part of the world." She batted her eyelashes at him. "What more could any delicately reared maiden ask?"


"Hah! That's more like it!"


He waggled his eyebrows and swaggered over for his good-morning kiss. Rather, his fifth good-morning kiss since they'd rolled out of their sleeping bags, twenty minutes previously, she thought with an inner laugh as he enfolded her in his arms. Jathmar Nargra was nothing if not an opportunist. And since they'd spent the vast bulk of the past four years in the company of forty unmarried men—give or take the odd one or two security types who'd hired on, then decided to homestead, or gotten eaten by the odd crocodile—Jathmar made the most of whatever opportunities came his way.


So did Shaylar, for that matter. Since most of the universes explored to date did have cougars in this region, and since—so far as anyone had been able to tell after eighty years of constant exploration—every portal's universe was very nearly identical to every other, Shaylar didn't mind in the least Jathmar's tendency to run about armed like a proper brigand. His various bits and pieces of lethal hardware might get in the way at moments like this, but that was just fine with her.


When Jathmar finally decided their kiss had been adequate, for now, at least, he stepped back, and she grinned as she noticed the sketchbook peeking out of his rucksack.


"Planning to loaf today, are we?" she inquired sweetly, and his clear hazel eyes twinkled.


"Tease me all you like, faithless wench. One of these days, I'll have to beat the art buyers off with a club, and we'll find ourselves retired, rich, and happy."


"I'm happy now," she smiled. "And with all of this," she swept an expansive arm at the pristine wilderness surrounding them, "who needs to be rich?"


"Who, indeed?" he echoed, brushing a lock of raven-black hair from her brow. A few strands always escaped the practical braids she wore while in the field. "You really are happy," he said, smiling as he read her emotions through the special bond between married Talents. "I worried about it, you know. When we first started our crusade to place you on a field team."


"Yes, I know," she said softly. "And I know how hard you pushed the Board to pull it off."


"Halidar Kinshe turned the tide of opinion, not me," Jathmar demurred. "And you've known the parliamentary representative a lot longer than I have, dear heart. Still," he grinned, "if you want to lavish thanks on your husband's humble head, far be it from me to discourage you."


"You," she said severely, swatting him with her rolled up tube of charts, "are incorrigible!"


"Not at all. Encouragable, now . . ."


She laughed as he waggled his eyebrows again. Then he tipped his head up to peer through the crimson and golden clouds of fall foliage high overhead.


"It is a grand morning for sketching, isn't it? Not to mention perfect weather for a survey. The mist ought to burn off early, I think."


"Not that you need a clear day," Shaylar chuckled. Jathmar's Talent was the ability to "see" terrain features in a five-mile circle around him, regardless of weather or ambient light—or the complete lack thereof. "But weather like this should make the hike more exhilarating. I'll give you that. In fact, I think I'm jealous about being stuck in camp while you go gadding about!"


"You're happy as a pearl in a bed of oysters," he told her, tweaking her nose gently. "Besides, after that last universe, you should be thrilled by any sunshine we can get."


"I'll say."


Shaylar's shudder of memory was only half-feigned. The universe they'd mapped prior to entering this one had connected via a portal in the middle of what had to be one of the rainiest spots in any known universe. Back home, it would have been northwest Rokhana, near the mouth of the Yirshan River where it spilled into the immense Western Ocean. They'd been incredibly lucky in that their arrival portal and the portal leading to this universe were less than three hundred miles apart, and they knew it. Portals in such close proximity to one another were almost unheard of, and correspondingly valuable.


Despite that, and despite the guidance Darcel Kinlafia, their Portal Hound, had been able to give them, it had taken them almost a month and a half to cover the two hundred and sixty-five dripping wet miles between them, and the last three weeks had been horrible. They hadn't seen the sun for twenty-three straight days, and most of their gear had sprouted mold that had required copious amounts of bleach once the rains finally stopped. After six weeks spent in perpetually soggy clothes, squelching through perpetually soggy wetlands, pushing through perpetually thick undergrowth with machetes, and sleeping under perpetual shrouds of mosquito netting and the smoke of smudge pots, this crisp, clear autumn air was heaven itself.


"I'm not complaining," she said cheerfully. "At least we could come through the portal and leave the rain behind. Poor Company-Captain Halifu had to build a fort in that mess. I don't think I've ever seen such an abundance of unenthusiastic soldiers in my life."


Grafin Halifu had favored Jathmar and Shaylar—carefully out of earshot of the men of his command—with a piquant rendition of his opinion of the multiverse's inconsiderate ill manners in placing a portal in that particular godsforsaken spot. And since Uromathians worshiped just about as many deities as there were individual Uromathians, a spot had to be nigh well lost at the back of forever before all the Uromathian gods decided to forsake it.


For some odd reason, the company-captain had seemed less than amused by Ghartoun chan Hagrahyl's decision to name that universe "New Uromath" in honor of Halifu's homeland.


"No, Grafin's troops weren't very happy, were they?" Jathmar chuckled. "Of course, I wouldn't have been very happy if Regs had required me to build on the already-mapped side of that particular portal, either. There they sit, sinking slowly into the mud, and right in front of them is all of this."


It was his turn to wave expansively at the towering forest giants all about them.


"At least Darcel wasn't bound by the PAAF's policy," Shaylar pointed out.


"I think some of Grafin's troopers were ready to commit mayhem when they realized he was bugging out for a better spot," Jathmar agreed.


"They couldn't possibly blame him," Shaylar replied primly, eyes laughing wickedly. "He's a telepath. And everyone knows that not even the best Voice can transmit through a portal."


"That's what all of you keep telling the rest of us, anyway," Jathmar said. "I'm not too sure Grafin's troopers were buying it this time around, though."


Shaylar chuckled. Like her, Darcel Kinlafia was a Voice, a Talented long-distance communications specialist. Voices, who were born with the gifts of perfect recall and the ability to connect, mind-to-mind, with other Voices, were essential in many aspects of Sharonian society.


Governments, the Portal Authority, and private industries ranging from manufacturing to news broadcasters used Voices to transmit complex messages that were word- and image-perfect. The military used Voices, as well, for its long-range communications. But as useful as Voices were throughout Sharona's multiple-universe civilization, they were utterly indispensable to the work of surveying new universes.


Every survey crew fielded a bare minimum of two Voices. One remained at the portal giving access to a new universe, serving as a link between the field team conducting the survey and the established settlements in the universes behind them. The more portals a field team surveyed, the more Voices it needed to cover the portals in their particular transit chain. And when their team reached the distance limit of Shaylar's transmission ability, they would need to move Darcel forward and replace him with a new Voice in a game of telepathic leapfrog.


This portal, in particular, was part of the reason they were so stretched for manpower. During the past ten months, Chalgyn Consortium's teams had found no less than three new portals, including New Uromathia and this one, which they hadn't named yet. That had forced them to split up, trying to claim and explore them all, and that was before they crossed into this universe and started to realize what they might have stumbled across. Their discoveries were going to be a massive windfall, and not just for them and their employer. In all of its eighty previous years of exploration, the Portal Authority had located and charted only forty-nine portals. The Chalgyn teams had already increased that total by over six percent, and if Darcel was right about this portal, the consequences for their entire civilization (not to mention their own bank accounts) would be stupendous.


All of that was wonderful, but it also left them incredibly shorthanded. Ghartoun chan Hagrahyl had split their team twice, already, claiming the other two portals and exploring the universes beyond them. As a result, they were down to only two Voices and a bare minimum of other crewmen, not to mention supplies, but nobody was complaining.


Fortunately, the Portal Authority was in charge of all portal transit traffic, which meant the units of the PAAF—the Portal Authority Armed Forces, composed of multinational military units assigned to Authority duty—built the portal forts and provided most of the personnel to man them, including at least one Portal Authority Voice. Or, that was the way it was supposed to work, at any rate. This portal was so new, and there were so many other portals along what had been designated the Karys Chain that needed forts, as well, that the military hadn't been able to bring in a new Voice, yet.


All of which left Darcel Kinlafia holding down the listening post for their team until a fort-based Voice could be moved in. Darcel would pass their field reports along from one Voice to the next, creating a chain of rapid communications. They could, if emergency required it, get a message all the way back to humanity's birth world, Sharona, in little more than a week. If not for the water gaps between some of the portals, which had to be crossed by ship, since no one could permanently post a relay Voice in the middle of an ocean, they could have gotten a message home in a matter of hours.


Shaylar was grateful that she would never be the Voice stuck at the portal, just waiting for someone else's messages. She wasn't merely the Voice assigned to the survey team, she was married to—and inextricably linked with—its primary Mapper. That made her not only an integral part of the survey, but meant she was critical to the team's primary mission: mapping a new universe. Jathmar could "See" the terrain around him, but Shaylar was the team's actual cartographer. It was her job to translate Jathmar's mental "pictures" of distant terrain features into the maps which would guide later exploration and settlements. Even if they stumbled across another portal, they wouldn't—couldn't—leave Shaylar there to cover it. They would have to send word back to field another survey crew to explore the new universe, or else to take over the exploration of this one so that they could concentrate on the new one.


Then again, they couldn't really leave Darcel, either. Not for long, anyway. He might not be as essential to the everyday operations of the field team as Shaylar and Jathmar were, but his secondary Talent was, in its own way, even more important to the Consortium's long term operations.


She knew exactly how lucky she was. Not just to escape the tedium of portal sitting, while others enjoyed all the fun of exploration, but to be out here at all. On the whole, Sharonian women enjoyed equal status with Sharonian men, although legal rights varied from one kingdom or republic to the next. After all, there was no question about female intelligence or inherent capabilities in a population where one in five people possessed at least some degree of Talent. That sort of discrimination had gone out with the dark ages, thousands upon thousands of years ago, during the first Ternathian Empire.


But mapping virgin universes was arduous, frequently dangerous work. The Portal Authority, whose governing members were drawn from each of Sharona's dozens of nations and city-states—not to mention the current Ternathian Empire—had decreed that women should not risk the dangers routinely braved by virgin-portal survey teams.


Shaylar was the Portal Authority's first exception to that ironclad rule, which had carried the weight of eighty years of precedent. She was very much aware that her performance was under scrutiny. She had the chance of a lifetime—the chance to blaze the way for other women who wanted to explore where no other human had ever set foot—but she was equally conscious of her responsibility to prove once and for all that it was time to set that long-standing rule permanently aside.


Shaylar had helped survey two other virgin universes before this expedition, not to mention putting in her time, along with Jathmar, pushing back the frontiers of other, already claimed universes. Each portal gave access to an entire planet, after all, and however physically similar all of those duplicate worlds might be, they still had to be explored and surveyed. And that wasn't the sort of chore which could be accomplished in the snap of your fingers. Besides, that sort of exploration was the final training period—the internship—the Authority required before it was prepared to turn a team loose on the far side of an unexplored portal.


It was just as rugged a life as everyone had warned her it would be. The frontier wasn't gentle, and it didn't make allowances for the "frailer sex." But despite the worries of the general public and the dire predictions of the naysayers—not to mention the very real harshness of conditions, and the ever-present dangers any pioneer faced in the wilderness—she was profoundly happy. Not to mention tremendously successful.


Having Jathmar at her side to share the experience only deepened the wonder of it all. Her eyes met his and the love that came rolling to her through their marriage bond was so strong and sweet tears prickled her eyelids. Jathmar leaned down the seven inches between their mismatched heights and placed a gentle kiss on her brow, a more tender expression of his feelings than a mere ardent lip-lock. Then he grinned and jerked his head towards the deep timber.


"Time's a-wasting," he said. "Let's see how much we can get mapped before lunch. And the sooner we talk to Ghartoun, the sooner we'll get started."


Their camp was nestled in a natural clearing where the stream looped its way through the timber. It had taken them three days to come this far, and they'd been here for nearly three more days, mapping the region. Shaylar knew she would miss the campsite when they moved on, but she was just as anxious as the others to see what lay ahead. Any survey was always slow work, of course, but it had taken five full days just to map the portal itself. Not surprisingly, since it was by far the largest any of them had ever seen, far less mapped.


In fact, at over thirty miles wide, it was actually larger than the Calirath Gate. That made it the largest portal ever discovered, and their first task on stepping through it had been to map the actual portal and lay out the grid coordinates of what would become this universe's primary base camp, one day's journey from Company-Captain Halifu's fort. This one would be a substantial affair—a fully manned fort and forward supply depot that would house Portal Authority administrators, medical teams, more soldiers, and enough equipment and supplies to serve as the staging area for other exploration teams, construction crews, miners, and the settlers who would inevitably follow.


Once they'd found a suitable site for that base of operations and sent its coordinates back for the Chalgyn Consortium to begin organizing the follow-on construction crews, they'd set out along a line to the south. As they pushed forward, they'd built small brush enclosures at the end of each full day's travel, designed to keep out unfriendly local wildlife. They'd remained in place at each camp long enough to thoroughly map the surrounding region—which meant hiking far enough to telepathically Map a twenty-mile grid-square—then pushed forward another full day's journey and built another camp to start the process all over again.


It was no accident that the Portal Authority had drawn upon the Ternathian Empire's method of expansion. Ternathia had been building empires for five thousand years, after all. That was an immense span of time in which to develop methods that worked, and the Portal Authority had borrowed heavily whenever and wherever appropriate, including the custom of building fortified camps along any line of exploratory advance through virgin territory. The fact that Ternathia provided over forty percent of the PA's multinational military contingent, and something like half of its total attached officers, might also have had a little something to do with it, Shaylar supposed.


With only twenty people on their currently understrength crew, she and her crewmates couldn't build the elaborate stockades which had comprised the Ternathian system of day-forts. But they could construct a perimeter of interwoven branches that served to keep out anything short of a herd of charging elephants. There were even tales from veteran crews of stampeding cattle and bison herds numbering in the tens of thousands, turning aside and flowing around the camp, rather than run directly into the jagged, sharp projecting branches of its brush wall. All in all, the system worked as well for the Portal Authority as it had for the Ternathians.


Ghartoun chan Hagrahyl was intimately familiar with that system, since he'd served with the Ternathian Army, as the honorific "chan" in his name proclaimed. He'd been an engineer, and after fulfilling his commitment to the Army, he'd returned to school. He had taken advantage of a major scholarship offer to pursue graduate studies in engineering and actually taught engineering at the branch of the Ternathian Imperial University in New Estafel on New Sharona, the first major colony established outside Sharona's home universe.


After a decade in the classroom, however, he'd succumbed to the lure of the portals. That had been almost twenty years ago, and for the last seven, he'd been with the Chalgyn Consortium.


She and Jathmar both found Ghartoun's experience comforting. Jathmar was especially conscious of it, since he himself had never served in any military force. The Republic of Faltharia, colonized long after the last real shooting war had rampaged across Sharona, had only two neighbors, neither of whom were interested in expanding their territories through conquest. Not when there was free land for the taking in unexplored universes, just waiting to be colonized. Jathmar had learned his woodcraft during his childhood, living near and honing his Talent in the trackless Kylie Forest, the greatest of Faltharia's protected state forests, which preserved the wilderness Faltharia's earliest settlers had found when they arrived from Farnalia nearly three hundred years ago.


Jathmar was grateful that Farnalians—and their Faltharian descendents—understood the multiple values that large tracts of wilderness bestowed on a nation. And for giving him a place to hone the skills which had helped earn him a slot on a survey crew.


And if he lacked formal military training, he'd been through the Portal Authority's own rigorous training program. Coupled with a lifetime as a hunter, he felt more than capable of holding up his end of anything that came his team's way. Not that he spent very much of his time in camp.


His Mapping duties were the main reason it had taken them three days to move this far south. They could have made the same trip much more quickly—they were little more than a single day from their entry portal for someone hiking at his best emergency speed—but you simply couldn't Map that quickly. While Darcel Kinlafia loafed around at the portal with a fishing pole and a stewpot full of whatever he could bring down with his rifle, Jathmar and Shaylar were hard at work, earning every cent of their fat paychecks.


They frequently toiled well past darkness to lay down their expanding grid. Jathmar didn't need daylight to "see" terrain features, and Shaylar could work by the light of the oil lamps they carried in their packs, with reflectors to give her plenty of light to fill in the charts and field reports she was responsible for creating. With any luck, their chosen direction would carry them straight toward some kind of valuable real estate that they could claim for the Chalgyn Consortium.


The consortium's main income, of course, would come from portal-usage fees. Once a survey crew discovered a new portal, the company which employed them earned the right to charge fees for every person and every load of goods that traveled through it. The Portal Authority actually ran the portals and set the fees, which were very low on an individual basis. But the cumulative totals added up to a staggering annual income for busy portals.


That was the driving force behind fielding survey crews. Any crew that found a new portal guaranteed a potentially massive income for its company. Mineral wealth and other natural resource rights simply added to the lucrative venture, and the team which found them shared in the money derived from them.


Now Jathmar offered his wife an arm, and Shaylar giggled as she laid her hand regally on his elbow. The gesture was curiously refined, in that subtle and mysterious way Harkalan women seemed to master in their cradles. For just an instant, the grubby, dirt stained dungarees and scuffed hiking boots wavered as his mind's eye showed him a vision of his wife in High Harkalan formal dress. She looked stunning in its multitude of embroidered layers, each one dyed a different, luminous color, setting her skin aglow with the colors of sun-struck emeralds and gold-flecked lapis and the rich, burgundy tones of Fratha wine.


Blue lapis remained to this day the most precious gemstone in any Harkalan culture, for reasons Jathmar still wasn't sure he entirely grasped. Harkalan mythology tended toward the complex, with layers of meaning Shaylar was still explaining after nearly ten years of wedded bliss. Of course, most of Shaylar's lessons ended prematurely, since virtually all of Harkalan mythology revolved around the pleasures of intimacy shared between willing participants. . . . 


Shaylar caught the drift of his emotions and smiled gently, with a seductive promise that hit Jathmar like a blow to the gut. That smile made him grateful all over again for the victory they'd won, securing Shaylar's place in this survey crew. He couldn't have done field work without her. Wouldn't have, rather, for the simple reason that being separated from her for extended periods of time would have felt entirely too much like premature death.


"I love you, too," Shaylar murmured, drawing his head down for another kiss that was altogether too brief. He sighed regretfully and promised himself an early end to the evening, thankful that they'd pitched their tent just a little farther from the others, for privacy's sake. Shaylar picked up that emotion through their marriage bond, too, and her eyes smoldered as they met his. Then she schooled her features, patted his arm in a decorous, wifely fashion, and headed him toward the center of camp, where Ghartoun chan Hagrahyl's voice rang out clearly above the chatter of birds defending their chosen territories.


"Ghartoun sounds just like them, doesn't he?" Shaylar chuckled, nodding toward the deep timber and its glorious explosion of birdsong. "Defending what we've marked on our charts and figuring ways to outfox our competition when the rival survey teams arrive."


"I'd lay money that nobody else has ever suggested that Ghartoun chan Hagrahyl shares anything in common with birds," Jathmar laughed. The stocky Ternathian looked more like a Tathawirian bison than anything avian. The former soldier's black hair was cut short, military fashion, despite thirty years on the civilian economy, and his blue eyes were as crisp as the morning air.


He wasn't a brilliant man, but he knew his job, and a lively intelligence lived behind those intense blue eyes. At six-feet-one-inch, he was taller than Jathmar, and far more heavily built, brawny with muscle. At five-two, Shaylar looked like a child beside him. Her chin barely reached his chest, and she weighed a hundred and five pounds, soaking wet, but appearances were deceiving. She was an experienced outdoorswoman, capable of holding her own on any march they'd ever had to make—and that ghastly three weeks-slog through wetlands and riverine floods had taxed all of them to the limits of their endurance.


"You're ready?" chan Hagrahyl asked, glancing up from sharpening his camp ax at their approach. He tested the edge with a cautious thumb, then grunted in satisfaction. He'd dulled it thoroughly yesterday, cutting branches for the camp's brush fence.


"Do you have a preference for which direction we start this morning?" Jathmar asked.


"Not really. Just bear in mind that Falsan headed southwest about thirty minutes ago, following our creek downstream. He's after something he can bag for supper. I told Cookie that if he served up another slop-pot of trail-rats, I'd scalp him alive."


Jathmar laughed. He was delighted that their team leader was such an ardent believer in saving their dried and canned emergency rations for genuine emergencies. He enjoyed eating fresh meat from the game they brought down, along with whatever edible plants were in season where they'd camped. Still . . . 


"Fair's fair, Ghartoun, and we're lucky to have him," he pointed out. "Naldar's the best cook on any team this side of Sharona. He can even make trail-rats edible."


"That's what you say," Shaylar muttered. "I'd almost as soon eat shoe leather."


"A woman after my own heart," chan Hagrahyl chuckled. "At any rate, I trust Falsan's judgment. He's not going to shoot at something he can't see, but there's no point taking chances. I'd just as soon you didn't jostle his elbow when he's trying to stalk whatever's out there, either. If you head straight south, you might cross his firing line, so I'd recommend going east."


"Agreed," Jathmar said dryly. Unlike Shaylar, Falsan was not a telepath, and without something like their own marriage bond, not even a Voice as strong as Shaylar could contact someone who wasn't telepathically Talented. Falsan chan Salgmun was as steady and reliable as they came, but accidents happened, and Jathmar didn't want to risk trailing a man with a loaded rifle in unknown territory. Not when the man didn't realize he was being trailed.


"All right, I'll hike a mile out along the eastern line and work around the perimeter toward the terminus of the southern transit. That'll let Shaylar build up a detailed record of everything within six miles of our camp in that grid quarter. My terrain scans are picking up a fork in the stream, about a mile east of here. The main creek runs almost straight east, and the other branch flows south, so I'll follow those as a rough guide. I'll use the compass for directional corrections when the streams twist out of true with the baselines."


"You always were a cautious fellow, Jathmar," chan Hagrahyl observed with another chuckle. "You've got the best directional sense of any terrain scanner I've worked with—and that's saying a lot, I might add. But you still carry a compass."


Jathmar shrugged off the compliment to his skill, although Shaylar's grin could have cracked solid oak and her delight fizzed in his awareness.


"A careful Mapper lives to map the next portal, my friend," he smiled. "Careless Mappers, on the other hand, can get themselves and their crews killed." He wrapped an arm around Shaylar's shoulders. "And just between you, me, and the fence we put up yesterday, I plan to survive long enough to see worlds we never dreamed were out here!"


Chan Hagrahyl grinned and clouted him across one shoulder.


"Well spoken, Jathmar. Well spoken, indeed." Then his manner settled back into professionalism. "Will you be able to complete the baseline grid today?"


Jathmar frowned thoughtfully up at the sky as he considered the question. Then he tossed his head in something which was almost a nod.


"Probably," he said, "although it should take us most of the day, at a minimum. At least this," he waved one hand at the towering trees of the mature climax forest about them, "means we don't have much underbrush to slash our way through, thank the gods. But I'll be following streambeds for a fair portion of the day, and there's enough understory along these banks to slow me down a good bit. Once I start the perimeter swing down toward the southern baseline, the terrain ought to be easier going."


Jathmar would essentially be walking along an L-shaped path that would fill in a square-shaped area of ground. Survey base grids were always square, given the nature of a terrain scanner's Talent. This morning's first square would begin the newest section of their base grid for this day-fort. Once that grid was completed, they would decide which direction to move to begin the next grid-square of exploration. Ideally, that would depend on where they were, and what valuable resources might be nearby.


"If we can get a good look at the stars tonight," Shaylar said hopefully, "we ought to be able to place our location a little more precisely."


"That'll make me feel better, I don't mind admitting," chan Hagrahyl agreed with a nod. "It's one thing to know approximately where you are, but I'll be happier when a star-fix pinpoints our location more accurately."


The clear autumn day was welcome for more than the simple absence of rain. The skies had remained overcast since their arrival, almost as though the rain clouds had followed them through the portal and dogged their heels before finally attenuating with distance. That was actually possible, Jathmar mused, given the size of that portal and the collision of air masses between the two universes.


Based on the vegetation and wildlife, Jathmar was betting they were somewhere in the northern portion of what would have been his own birth country, back on Sharona. The massive oak trees, sugar maples, tulip poplars, and sycamores, coupled with the cardinals and chipmunks, and the majestic white-tail deer they'd spotted, all suggested a spot within perhaps two or three hundred miles of the lakeshore city of Serikai in his native Faltharia.


If so, the five immense lakes of Faltharia—larger than many a Sharonian sea—should lie very close to their present position. Jathmar had made a private bet with himself that they would end up fixing their position within a few days' hike of this universe's analog of Emlin Falls. Emlin was one of the two most spectacular waterfalls on Sharona—and, of course, on any of its many duplicates which had already been discovered and at least partially explored. But Jathmar wasn't thinking solely about the scenery. If they were near Emlin Falls, they wouldn't be too terribly far from some valuable iron ore deposits. Still, he didn't want to raise anyone's hopes yet, so he said nothing about his suspicion to chan Hagrahyl.


"We'll get started, then," Jathmar told their expeditionary leader instead. "I'll plan to rendezvous back at camp around noon."


Chan Hagrahyl grunted his satisfaction and turned back to carefully finish sharpening his ax blade.


Jathmar and Shaylar headed for the eastern end of the camp, passing Rilthan's tent, where the gunsmith was busy making field repairs to one of the rifles which had started jamming yesterday. The tools of his trade were spread out around him, along with pieces of the partially disassembled weapon. It was one of the Model 9's. The Ternathian Army had disposed of thousands of the lever-action .48-caliber rifles on the civilian market over the last several years. They were powerful, reliable weapons, especially with the newly developed "smokeless" powders, even if their tubular magazines made it unsafe to use the equally new (and ballistically far superior) "Spitzer-pointed" rounds. They were certainly sufficient for any civilian need, at any rate, and the Army had just about completed reequipping its active-duty formations with the newer bolt-action Model 10.


Past Rilthan, the drovers were working on the pack saddles, examining their tack carefully while a dozen sturdy donkeys stood slack-footed and bored in the temporary pen. Pack animals were essential to a long expedition, and donkeys were sturdy enough to require very little veterinary care. They were also rugged enough to subsist on vegetation on which horses would have starved, although they couldn't match the speed and carrying capacity of the mules the military used as pack animals. The mingled scents of gun oil, dust, warm hide, and dung lent a pungent note to the early morning air.


Several of the little animals shook their heads and followed Jathmar and Shaylar with hopeful eyes, wanting fresh carrots or a handful of grain. Shaylar reached across the rope that served to pen the animals into one corner of the stockade and scratched one of them between its ears. It butted her hand, begging for more, and she laughed.


"Sorry, pet. That's all the scratching I have time for. And I'm fresh out of carrots."


Jathmar grinned as Shaylar followed him out through the rough gate in the stockade and trailed him a short distance into the trees. Her dark hair caught the early sunlight with a silky gloss, like a blackbird's wing. She looked . . . not out of place in this towering timberland, but still somehow alien. Like a visitor from another, very different world, not just another universe.


Perhaps it was just that Jathmar knew exactly what world she'd been born to, for he'd visited Shaylar's home before marrying her. The diminutive beauty who'd captured his heart was not Faltharian. Shaylar had been born in Shurkhal, a prosperous kingdom of ancient Harkala that sprawled across a hot and arid peninsula between the eastern coast of Ricathia and the great triangular jut of land that lay a thousand miles across the Harkalan Ocean.


Shaylar's features bore the unmistakable stamp of Harkalan ancestry, as well they might, since Shurkhal had once been the cultural center of the Harkalan Empire. Swallowed up by the massive Ternathian Empire, ancient Harkala had prospered, thanks to its placement along the trade routes running east and west. When Ternathia had finally dissolved most of its empire, retreating back to its core provinces, the Harkalan kingdoms had come into their own again as independent realms. Shaylar's family wasn't part of the wealthy traders' class, let alone the ruling families, but they had welcomed him—a genuine outsider—with open arms and that worlds-famous, genuine Shurkhali welcome that Ternathian bards once had written of so eloquently.


Shaylar's dark eyes lifted, meeting his as she caught the nuances of his emotions.


"Well, why wouldn't my family welcome you?" she asked softly. "You were quite a coup for a girl like me."


"A girl like you?" He chuckled. "Do you have any idea how many Mappers at the Portal Authority I had to knock over the head to get myself assigned to you?"


Shaylar laughed out loud.


"Jath, you never had a chance! Not after I'd made up my mind. Which I did about five minutes after meeting you in Halidar Kinshe's office."


He grinned, hazel eyes dancing impishly with the delight that could speed her pulse even after ten years of marriage. They'd met while interning at the Portal Authority during the early phases of their training. Halidar Kinshe was a royal parliamentary representative from Shaylar's kingdom, who also held a position on the Portal Authority's board of directors. No portal survey crewman—or crewwoman—could accept employment from anyone, not even a private consortium like Chalgyn, without being bonded by the Portal Authority. And the Authority wouldn't bond anyone who hadn't completed its rigorous coursework successfully. Part of that included a political internship with a Board director, whose evaluation of an intern's performance literally made or destroyed that intern's hope of future employment.


Shaylar had sometimes despaired of surviving those grueling years of intensive classwork, combined with field expeditions and mandatory training in things like marksmanship and self-defense. They'd taxed her to the utter limits of her intelligence, Talent, and endurance. But she'd made it—one of only sixteen women who'd ever completed the full course, and the only one allowed to join an active survey team. While Halidar Kinshe had proven himself an unexpected ally and mentor, for which she would always be grateful, it was Jathmar who'd helped get her through the classwork and the agonizing fieldwork, which was designed to weed out as many applicants as possible. She'd fallen hard for Jath, as he'd been called then, long before their graduation from the Portal Authority Academy.


He'd done the same. He'd even adopted the customary "-ar" suffix married couples from Shurkhal added to their first names once they'd exchanged wedding vows. It wasn't a Faltharian custom, but he'd told her he wanted to follow it before she could work up the nerve to ask if he might consider it. His offer had melted her heart with joy, and not just because it had underscored how much he loved her. She'd also recognized what it would mean to her family, and she'd been more afraid than she'd been prepared to admit even to herself that her family wouldn't approve of her independent-minded Faltharian and his republican notions and dreams that her father, at least, would never fully understand.


Her father was, at heart, a simple agriculturalist, tending admittedly large flocks of russet-wool sheep, silk-hair goats, and the surly, hump-backed dune-treaders that Shurkhali merchants had used for centuries to cross the desert trade routes between their coast and the rich markets far to the east. He couldn't understand the dream that drove Jathmar . . . and he understood Shaylar's dreams even less well.


But he loved her, and he seemed to realize that her mother's dreams had been reborn and reshaped in her own heart. Shaylar's mother was a cetacean translator. A very good one, in fact, employed by one of the largest cetacean institutes on Sharona. Shalassar Kolmayr-Brintal had come to Shurkhal as a young woman, following her own dreams. She'd helped found the Cetacean Institute's Shurkhali Aquatic Realms Embassy, which was—as sheer happenstance would have it—located on land the Institute had purchased from Thamin Kolmayr. Their unexpected courtship was still Institute legend.


Shaylar had grown up with "playmates" whose playground was the long, narrow Finger Sea that lapped against Shurkhal's eastern shoreline, linking the Mbisi Sea—by way of the Grand Ternathian Canal—with the Rindor Ocean. Dolphins and whales from the Rindor Ocean swam to the embassy to pass messages and conduct treaty negotiations with the Cetacean Institute, by way of the embassy. The embassy passed those messages to the Cetacean Institute's headquarters in Tajvana, as well as passing the Institute's messages to the whales and dolphins.


Jathmar had been as delighted as an eager adolescent, not only meeting but swimming with dolphins who could hold actual conversations with Shaylar's mother. Their approval of Jathmar had gone a long way toward endearing him to her mother's heart. Like all cetacean translators, Shalassar had a high opinion of Sharona's ocean-dwelling citizens. An opinion that Shaylar—and now Jathmar—shared.


But there wasn't all that much wealth in dune-treaders and goats, no matter how you added up the small change. And while her mother was a respected and Talented professional, there wasn't a great deal of money in cetacean translation, either. Not even at the embassy level.


Of course, if that black liquid seeping up through the sand in her family's ancient holding proved to be as valuable as some of the Ternathian engineers thought it might, Clan Kolmayr might just find itself possessed of more wealth than their entire lineage—stretching back nearly two thousand years—had ever possessed. That was what everyone else seemed to think, at any rate, although Shaylar wasn't so sure there was enough of the "crude oil" beneath the family holdings to make it worth the developers' while. Investing the time and machinery necessary to drill wells and pump out whatever oil might be there would surely take a hefty chunk of money up front.


And once they'd pumped out whatever was there, what would they use it for? She couldn't help feeling skeptical about those newfangled engines that used the refined products made from oil. She couldn't imagine a world where the noisy, smelly, dirty things would ever be as widespread and useful as the more wide-eyed fanatics claimed they would. But the thought of her parents and cousins wearing silks and building fancy houses and gardens was enough to tickle her sense of humor. Those images flickered across the marriage bond into Jathmar's awareness, and his eyes twinkled.


"Of course they'll be rich as kings. Why do you think I married you, my little sand flower?"


Shaylar thumped him solidly on the shoulder with the best glower she could produce. It wasn't very convincing. Jathmar was the least money-oriented human being she'd ever known.


He laughed and kissed her lightly, then sighed.


"Time to get busy," he said. "Give me time to get into position before making contact. Call it at least half-an-hour, given that underbrush."


He was eying the thick growth along the stream's steep banks.


"Half-an-hour, then," Shaylar nodded, and he turned and headed east along the creek.


Shaylar watched him vanish around the bend, allowed a small sigh to escape her—mostly because she wanted to go with him this morning—then shook herself firmly and returned to camp. She set up her work table, which was a lap desk that unfolded to give her a smooth writing surface. The donkey assigned to them carried it, when they were on the move, since that level writing surface was a necessity. Mapping was ninety percent of the reason they were out here, after all.


She chose a spot on the eastern edge of camp, outside the stockade, since chan Hagrahyl had most of the survey crewmen taking their gear apart to check for damage. It was a ritual they performed each time they stopped. Frayed straps could lead to damaged equipment, which could put lives at risk, and chan Hagrahyl was too good a team leader to risk that kind of sloppiness.


While most of the crew busied themselves inside the stockade, Shaylar laid out her materials, sitting within visual range of the remaining three crewmen who were busy along the stream. Braiheri Futhai, the team's naturalist, was peering through the weeds, sketching something in his notebook. Elevu Gitel, the team's geologist, was dutifully absorbed in taking soil samples. Futhai had already laid out his collecting nets, waiting until the mist burned off and the dew dried from the grass before scooping butterflies and other insects out of the air. Both men were self-absorbed, scarcely aware of one another.


The third man caught Shaylar's eye, rolled his own at the scientists, and gave her an irreverent grin. Barris Kasell was a former soldier, an Arpathian who'd served his time in the infantry of his native kingdom, which made him something of an oddity. Most Arpathians were horsemen, renowned for their equestrian skill and ferocity, both of which they needed to guard their borders from the powerful Uromathian kingdoms and empires south and east of them.


Unlike chan Hagrahyl, Kasell had a wicked sense of humor. He usually drew guard duty, watching over the scientists—and her, as well—because he didn't mind the job and was extremely diligent. His almond-shaped eyes, legacy of the mixed blood in that region of Arpathia, twinkled at her.


Shaylar wore her own handgun at her hip, as did every other member of chan Hagrahyl's team. But she couldn't do her job and pay attention to her surroundings, so Kasell watched out for danger while she charted and the others did their collecting.


The heavily forested region around them teemed with birdlife and dozens of small mammal species, one of which had already sent Futhai into fits of ecstasy, since it was a completely unknown type.


"A black-and-white chipmunk! Gods and thunders, a black-and-white chipmunk! And look—there are dozens of them, so it's not an isolated deviant individual!" Over the course of their three-day march, that had become Futhai's favorite cry. "They're everywhere! It's not an isolated population! Black-and-white chipmunks! A true new subspecies!"


Braiheri Futhai was a man whose fastidious nature showed itself not so much in the way he carried himself, or engaged his surroundings—he was every bit as good a woodsman as any other member of the team—but in the way he thought, down deep at the core of his Ternathian soul. Futhai was not Braiheri chan Futhai, for he'd never served in Ternathia's military. Not because he was unpatriotic, but because soldiering was not a gentleman's occupation.


Futhai was a very good naturalist, with a veritable treasure trove of scientific information stored in memory. His knowledge ranged from geology to meteorology, from zoology and botany to physics, and the mathematical precision with which all worlds—including their beloved Sharona—whirled through the ether in their journeys around duplicates of Sharona's sun. He had a keen eye and a keen mind, and a gift for detailed observation that made him a valuable member of the survey team.


Unfortunately, those excellent qualities shared brain space with all too many notions about proper attitudes and behaviors for a certifiable (by birthright and exalted pedigree) gentleman of Sharona's most ancient, prestigious empire. Worse, he expected others to treat him with the deference he, himself, believed he merited, as the grandson of a Ternathian duke. And he treated everyone else in accordance with those same social rules, as carefully learned as his science. He wasn't demanding or petty, or even rude about it, which only made matters worse, as far as Shaylar was concerned. He was insufferably polite, in fact, particularly with her, treating her to an unending barrage of courtesies, looking after her every need . . . whether she wanted him to or not.


But the thing that drove Shaylar craziest was his unshakable conviction that his notions and customs were as unalterably and exclusively correct as the physical laws of the universe he so delighted in studying. It had simply never occurred to Braiheri Futhai that not everyone on Sharona thought the Ternathian way of doing things was the best way. He possessed just enough Talent for Shaylar to realize he truly believed, in his innermost heart, that someday every enlightened Sharonian would metamorphose himself or herself into a clone of a Ternathian gentleman or lady. He simply didn't grasp the basic truth that Shaylar preferred her Harkalan viewpoint and beliefs, just as Jathmar preferred his Faltharian ones, and Elevu Gitel preferred his Ricathian ones.


Not that there weren't profound similarities between most of Sharona's great societies. With psionic Talents running through at least a fifth of the world's population, there were bound to be some similarities. And given the enormous territory the Ternathian emperors had once ruled, and the colonies that had spread across vast oceans from Ternathian shores, at least half of Sharona's population could claim at least some Ternathian heritage, whether it was by blood relation or the holdovers of colonial civic administration. Personally, Shaylar preferred Ghartoun chan Hagrahyl's straightforward military mindset to Futhai's more civilized notions. It was probably rude of her, but she simply couldn't help it when Futhai went to such pains to make himself so utterly, unctuously disagreeable.


So she grinned back at Kasell, rolled her own eyes toward the self-absorbed naturalist, then sat down facing the stream and tuned out the distractions around her with the practiced ease of an experienced professional. She unrolled the chart they'd compiled to date, weighted it down so that it couldn't roll up again, and marked off the section due east of their campsite. Then she laid out her tools: compass with pencil fixed in place, steel ruler, protractor, a second pencil, and a template with precut map symbols to speed and simplify her work. She wouldn't ink the chart until she and Jathmar had gone over it tonight, double-checking her accuracy after supper.


She also laid out her field notebook, and one of the piston-fill pens she and countless other survey crew members—not to mention ordinary clerks and officials—blessed on a daily basis. She filled the pen from a metal flask of ink she'd carried with her through three virgin universes, made sure the flask's cap was screwed into place, and carried it back to her tent.


By the time she returned to her work table, Jathmar had hiked far enough to start picking up new terrain features. When Shaylar reached out to contact him—the nature of his Talent meant she had to contact him, since he could See but wasn't able to transmit to her or anyone else—the pictures in his mind started flowing into hers. The process was second nature to her, now, although she paused now and again to reflect on how dull life must be without any Talent at all to turn the multiple universes into a maze of fascinating playgrounds.


The glorious, crisp morning and the sunshine that glowed across her shoulders combined to keep her contented with life. She hummed under her breath, not even really aware that she did so, and concentrated on what Jathmar was seeing—and on what he was Seeing, since there was a distinct difference. When she'd first begun her training, Shaylar had found it difficult to sort out the images Jathmar saw with his two physical eyes from those he Saw with his "third eye." The screen in Jathmar's brain Saw a far wider slice of terrain than mere eyes could take in, and that screen was what Shaylar tapped when establishing her link with him.


Her husband was actually looking at a bend in the creek that already existed on their chart, since it was well within his five-mile radius from camp. Although that image was the stronger of the two, she ignored it with practiced ease and focused on the other, ghostlier image he was Seeing.


For Jathmar, the mechanics involved seemed to be a sort of looking "up" and then "out" along an invisible gridwork that registered as faint threads of light. He Saw terrain superimposed across that gridwork, like shadows glimpsed through mist. For Shaylar, the mechanics of her Talent took the form of a sudden gestalt, a totality of impressions that simply appeared, complete, in her own mind's eye. She Saw what he did as a whole, complete image—like a stage play containing nothing but scenery. Had Shaylar been in contact with another Voice, the images would have been far sharper, more like seeing it with her own eyes, rather than catching shadows that had the look of a watercolor painting left too long in strong sunlight.


She had to reach out consciously to pluck the images from Jathmar's mind, which took concentration. But he was close enough to camp that it wasn't particularly taxing. The farther apart she and Jathmar—or another telepath—were, the more concentration it took to make contact and maintain it. Shaylar's maximum range was just over eight hundred miles. That put her in the top ten percent of all Voices, although at that distance it took every ounce of concentration she could summon to hold contact.


Other Voices had even more limited ranges, which gave her team a distinct advantage. When she and Darcel had first been assigned to the same team, Darcel had been startled at the range she achieved. Startled and a little worried, since his own maximum range was barely two-thirds as great as hers. It was entirely possible for Shaylar to go far enough out of his range that he could pick up her transmissions, yet be too far away for him to transmit a reply back to her. They'd worked carefully together in a well-established colony world before heading for the wilderness, using the railroads in a very serious game of leapfrog to gauge effective distances at which they could both make contact. In the end, they'd found that he could Hear her at up to eight hundred miles, whereas she could Hear him at almost six hundred and fifty. Unfortunately, at anything over five hundred and eighty miles, he could Hear her only if he knew she would be trying to contact him and went into Voice trance to Listen for her, which limited their effective maximum range to that figure.


Once deployed, that maximum effective range dictated how far they could travel from any new portal before a relay team had to follow them out, to serve as a connection that would enable them to push deeper into the wilderness. It was an awkward arrangement, in some respects, but far better than the alternative would have been. If the survey crews hadn't been able to report without physically sending a member all the way back to the portal, it would have taken decades longer to reach as many portals and virgin universes as Sharonian teams had already mapped. As it was, the exploration of the intricately connected universes was moving forward at a steady pace. The one thing everyone wished for was a Talent that would lead them directly to new portals.


The best they could manage at the moment was to push outward with as many teams as they could reasonably field, with at least one member of each team sensitive to the still unexplained physics behind portal formation. Some—and only a few—Talented people, like Darcel, could actually sense the presence of other portals well enough to at least provide a compass direction to them, which was enormously better than nothing. Still, the task of actually locating no more than one or two portals anywhere within any given universe, when an entire planet identical to their own had to be searched, was far worse than hunting a needle in a haystack.


Shaylar shuddered every time she thought about the Haysam Portal, for example. The inbound portal from New Sharona was almost eight thousand miles from the outbound portal to Reyshar, and over six thousand of those miles were across the Western Ocean. Getting to that portal must have been an indescribable nightmare, she often thought. Indeed, she considered it remarkable that Sharonian exploration teams had managed to find as many portals as they had, even after eighty years of steady exploration.


Meanwhile, she and her husband were doing their part to further that exploration. The Portal Authority had already sent a full contingent of soldiers and supplies down the transit chain to build forts at each of the new portals they'd opened up. The Authority didn't conduct exploration, but it maintained absolute jurisdiction over every portal into a new universe. Private companies hired teams like Shaylar and Jathmar's to push forward into new universes, with the greatest incentive known to humanity: profit. The Portal Authority charged only "users' fees" on traffic through a portal, but it was the internationally appointed guardian of all of the other rights and commerce which passed through the portals. And the rights to land and minerals and other valuable natural resources belonged to whatever company or individual got there first and staked a claim to them.


That was one reason Shaylar's notebooks and charts were so valuable. The Chalgyn Consortium could lay claim to everything she and Jathmar—and the rest of the team, who made their presence here possible—could map. Other companies' teams could, and eventually would, follow them through the portal, but the first-comers held all the advantages.


As soon as a team could figure out exactly where it was, which took a combination of painstaking mapping and star-fixes, combined with strong backgrounds in the natural sciences—geology and biology in particular—all the team had to do was compare their location here with master charts of Sharona to figure out which areas to reach first. If, for instance, they had emerged near a spot where valuable iron deposits existed on Sharona, they would head straight there and claim them before any other company's teams got word that a new portal had opened at all, let alone where it led.


The team which made it through a portal first could make a great deal of money for the company which employed it. And since survey crews were paid, in part, on a system of shared stocks in the assets of the company, team members could get rich, as well, with just one or two lucky breaks. This was the third virgin universe Shaylar and Jathmar had "pushed" on behalf of Chalgyn. There wasn't much in the way of value anywhere near the swampy mess just behind them, but they'd mapped some valuable terrain in the one prior to that, which meant they would have quite a nest egg built up for their retirement years. As for what they might yet find in this universe . . . 


They'd had to wait for the Portal Authority's garrison to arrive before stepping through into this universe, but they were the only team anywhere near this end of this particular transit chain. The other major consortiums were going to chew nails and spit tacks when word of this lovely little cluster of portals filtered back. Shaylar grinned at the very thought, having been on the other end of the stick all too often. She'd lost track of the number of times they'd jumped through portals somebody else had already opened up, crossing miles and miles of someone else's claim in the hopes of reaching a valuable area nobody else had claimed, or—best of all—finding a new portal of their own.


This time, she told herself happily, we get first choice of what's out here.


But for now, Jathmar's images were coming through steadily as he began a long, leisurely sweep from the eastern edge of his morning's hike, turning toward the south to begin the leg that led him down parallel to the end of the southern transit. By the time he finished the long day's hike, they would have filled in the blanks remaining in the southeastern transit zone. The portal lay behind them, almost due north of their present camp, clearly marked on Shaylar's chart. Once they'd filled in the entire region around their current day-fort, they would compare what they had to the master charts and see if they could come up with a correlation to Sharona. She doubted it, given the immense sweep of land that usually had to be charted before a terrain feature large enough or distinctive enough emerged to make that accurate a determination possible. But a few more days of charting ought to do the trick. Then all they had to do was decide which way to head to secure the best chunks of land for the Chalgyn Consortium.


Shaylar plotted out more terrain features as Jathmar sent new images, with new topographical features—gullies, a deep ravine, another stream that came trickling in from the east of Jathmar's current position. She jotted down a running commentary, as well, on the images flickering through her awareness. She and Jathmar would go over her notes tonight, while the information and both their impressions remained fresh. They would make whatever amendments were necessary before calling it a night, then begin again the next morning.


When Jathmar halted for a rest at midmorning, Shaylar sat back and was almost startled by the sound of voices behind her. They'd gone virtually subliminal during the previous two hours, no more noticeable than the murmuring sound of insects. The noise was startling, now that she'd come up for air, so to speak. From the sound of things, Futhai was trying to talk chan Hagrahyl into letting him hike farther along the stream than the team leader thought prudent.


"—if you would just authorize a guard, that wouldn't be a factor!"


"Not until Jathmar and Shaylar complete the basic grid around this camp," chan Hagrahyl rumbled in the tone that most of their team understood as "subject closed; don't bother to debate it." Futhai, however, was a zealous naturalist surrounded by new species—several of them, in fact. He'd also already established a most unusual co-mingling of species from different climatic regions. As far as he was concerned, that clearly confirmed Darcel's belief that they'd found an actual cluster. How else could so many species that didn't belong here have wandered into the area?


He obviously wanted to be out there collecting more specimens, and it appeared he wasn't prepared to take "no" for an answer. Not when his professional standing in the community of scientists was virtually guaranteed by the notes he was making in this camp alone. His enthusiasm for discovery was wreaking havoc with standard protocol, however, and chan Hagrahyl didn't sound amused.


If he hadn't been such an irritant, Shaylar might have felt a sneaking sympathy for Futhai. She knew only too well what it felt like to have something wonderful dangled in front of her, only to be told "no, you can't." Braiheri Futhai was only doing what she herself had done: fight to get what she wanted. Unfortunately for Futhai, chan Hagrahyl was a tougher customer than the combined weight of the Portal Authority's governing board and her own people's conservatism.


She grinned at that thought, then caught a glimpse of blackberry brambles all around Jathmar, along with a hint of deep satisfaction that the birds hadn't gotten all of the berries yet. Shaylar chuckled aloud, then relaxed back from the discipline of prolonged telepathic contact. She rose from her makeshift desk and shook the cramps out of her fingers and shoulders. Her work with Jathmar wasn't difficult, so much as intense. Her concentration needed a breather almost as much as Jathmar's legs—and taste buds—did.


She strolled west along the bank of the creek, casting a sharp woods-wise eye around the entire area, looking for any trace of hostile wildlife. She didn't expect any, given the amount of noise they'd made since setting up camp yesterday, but you could never be certain in a virgin universe. None of the animals in this Sharona had ever even seen a human being. They had no reason to be afraid of humans, which could be delightful, but could also be dangerous, since it meant their reaction to the presence of those humans was often difficult to predict. Personally, however charming she might find it to have wild deer willing to take food from her hand, Shaylar was in favor of having cougars or grizzly bears be wary enough of humans to leave her in peace.


She was also too experienced a field operative to take her safety for granted in the wilderness. All it would take to injure her, possibly fatally, would be a moment's carelessness, and the presence of several armed men in camp did nothing to absolve her of the responsibility for her own safety. This lovely forest doubtless had snakes in it, at the very least, and a rattle-tail's bite would be serious, indeed, even with Tymo Scleppis available. The telempathic Healer could speed the healing of deep cuts or broken bones, or help repair internal injuries, but pharmacological trouble like snake venom was another matter entirely, and their team was a long way from the nearest medical clinic. She scanned the terrain for potential trouble, aware almost peripherally of the weight of the handgun at her hip. She'd never needed it, but it was there, just in case of danger, and she knew how to use it. Very well, as a matter of fact.


Once she was sure of her environs, Shaylar descended the steep bank and crouched down to wash smudges of graphite off her hands. The water was shockingly cold, sending an ache up the bones of her hands to her wrists. Somewhere far upstream, several miles away, from the sound of it, a distant CRACK of rifle fire split the silence. Shaylar grinned, wondering what Falsan had bagged for the cookpot. He'd have plenty of time to clean the carcass, lug it back to camp, and butcher it properly before it was time to throw supper on the fire.


Given the distance, she doubted he'd brought down a deer, since he would've had to dress and haul the carcass all the way back alone. A wild turkey, maybe, she thought, straightening up and shaking excess water from her hands. Then she dried them on her heavy twill pants, and her grin turned into a fond smile as she recalled her father's reaction when he'd learned Shaylar would be wearing trousers all the time.


"But, my dear! That's—it's—"


"Practical, Papa," she'd said firmly. "That's the word you're looking for: practical. You don't object when Mama swims with her dolphin clients. She wears less in the water than I'll have on anytime I'm outside our sleeping tent."


"Yes, but your mother stays in the water. She doesn't traipse out and about on land dressed that way, and even when she comes out of the water, she's still on our property, after all."


"Oh, Papa, try to understand. The world is changing. Our little corner of Shurkhal isn't the whole multiverse, you know."


Her drollery had coaxed a wan chuckle from her father, which had, of course, been the beginning of the end to his resistance. It hadn't taken much more to convince him that she knew what she was doing, regardless of what her aunts and cousins would think about her running about the universes without a single skirt or tunic in sight.


Shaylar looked around the towering forest giants and shook her head, still bemused by her parents' notions of decorum and still a little mystified by her own determination to be so stubbornly independent. Most of her relatives halfway suspected she was a changeling of some sort, since no other member of Clan Kolmayr had ever evinced a desire to wander as far as Sethdona, the capital city of Shurkhal, let alone through even one portal, never mind the fifteen or twenty-odd between Sharona and this glorious forest.


She peered into one of the deep pools nearby and thought about trying a dip net on the truly immense trout she could see lurking in the dark water, back under the overhanging rocks that jutted out just a little farther along the bank. They would be mighty tasty eating, and she licked her lips as a hunger that matched Jathmar's made itself felt in her midsection. Maybe she could try netting the fish during lunch. Of course, they wouldn't need fish if Falsan brought back something substantial. Shaylar smiled a farewell at the fish, at least for now.


Another day, maybe.


She stood there for several more minutes, just looking at all the incredible beauty around her. The great forest was like a shrine, unlike anything Shaylar had known growing up in the arid Shurkhali peninsula. The motes of sunlight drifting down through the bright foliage danced and shifted on the dappled, dark water of the stream, which flashed an almost painful gold where light struck ripples and eddies in the swift moving current. The whispering laughter of the water was a hushed and beautiful sound.


This, she sighed, stretching luxuriously, is the way to really live.


Shaylar consulted her pocket watch, which hung from her neck on a sturdy silver chain—steel would rust under most field conditions—and realized her fifteen minutes of break time were up. She climbed the bank, resettled herself at her field desk, and contacted Jathmar. She caught a brief glimpse of the blackberry brambles—greatly denuded, now—then he shook the dust out of his trousers and got busy again.


The ghostly pictures began to flow once more as she and her husband settled back into the familiar routine.


 


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