The water surrounded him; the sound of bubbles rose around him as air that had followed him down found its natural course back to the surface. He had adjusted to the intense cold, and found pleasure in just floating in the silent, crystalline water. As he floated a peculiar feeling swept him, a feeling that seemed to come more from within his own brain then from anything outside. He opened his eyes and headed for air.
As he broke surface, he looked around. "Greta?" She was nowhere to be seen. And he was no longer in the pool of water he had jumped into earlier; he was in what looked like a fountain, only it was obviously deep enough to hold his body. It was also very still; only his treading water disturbed the otherwise calm surface. The fountain was lined with ancient, dusty-gray granite stones, each square-cut to fit against its neighbor, and each overgrown with ivy. The day had been warm and sunny; now clouds covered the sky and hid the overhead sun. He swam for the edge and pulled himself out, looking around; he stood on the edge of some sort of open theatre, long disused and overgrown. Much of the stonework was cracked by the tenacity of nature pushing through it. Nickolai turned around; behind the fountain stood a great, curved wall, and in English writing, obscured by the climbing ivy, it read:
WHO CAN CONTROL HIS FATE?
- OTHELLO, ACT V, SCENE II. Wm. SHAKESPEARE.
"Not me," Nickolai sighed gently.
"Perhaps not," a masculine voice said behind him. "But that should not stop you from seeing it."
Nickolai turned around, surprised. "Who are you?"
"Call me Hal," the man replied. "No relation to Hal Masters, of course, but still... Hal."
"Hal," Nickolai said, smiling. "Three quarters of Hall?"
"Something like that. I'm here to keep your mind occupied."
"For how long?"
The man, an older man using a cane to stand, and dressed in a flowing white robe that draped off of his shoulders, walked forward and laid his hand on Nickolai's shoulder. "It's been long enough." He smiled and turned his back, walking up the stairs and out of sight through the theatre. "Hey!" Nickolai shouted, to no avail as the elderly man disappeared. Nickolai ran after him. Beyond the rotting stone archway of the theatre the stone turned to sand and reeds grew up out of the sand around him. He ran, feeling a need to run now more than a desire to catch the old man, and as he ran the sounds of pounding surf caught his ear.
He ran harder still, his lungs starting to burn, his body starting to pound with his straining heart. He ran fast, faster than he thought he had ever run before, and when the reeds ended and the sand path ejected onto the beach, he stumbled forwards, losing his footing and falling forward into the sand.
"Ooof!" he said, rolling before sitting up on his hand and knees, shaking the sand free of his hair and his clothes. "Yech."
"Oy!" a voice said to his right. "Are you okay?"
"Um... Yeah," he said. "I think so." Nickolai looked down at himself, bewildered. He was still wearing the T-shirt and jeans he had worn on the walk to the Hall. Only his shoes were missing.
"Where did you come from?"
"Right..." Nickolai turned around, looking back at an unbroken wall of reeds. His appreciation for what was happening to him caught up with the rest of his confusion. "Let me guess. There's no theater back there, is there?"
"What kind of theatre?" the voice, belonging to a male Ssphynx with long, shaggy fur that leant him vaguely leonine look. He smiled down at Nickolai.
"Stone. Kinda old?"
"Nope. Lived here nearly eight centuries and I've never seen nothing like that. Where were you before you came here?"
"The Great Hall."
"Aye," the Ssphynx said. "You're a long way from home then, aren't you? Name's Kedar."
"Nickolai," Nickolai said as he accepted the Ssphynx's hand and rose to a sitting position. "Where am I?"
"It's name is Gaerdim," the Ssphynx replied. "I named it when I found it, two centuries ago. It was a dark and dreary day, I remember. Kinda like today. So you came through the Hall. Congratulations, son. I imagine you'd be wanting to head on back towards civilization?"
Nickolai nodded. Kedar continued, "Well, I'm afraid the nearest SDisk is twenty kilometers from here, and you'll have to walk to get there. I wouldn't recommend you try it until tomorrow. There's gonna be a hell of a storm tonight."
"Can you... can you tell where I could find shelter?"
"Sure," the Ssphynx replied. "Come on, I'll show you my home." He led Nickolai up the beach a short distance, in the direction opposite where he had indicated the SDisk would be, and over a rickety wooden bridge that had been erected so the Ssphynx could walk over the dune without disturbing the sand. On the other side of the dune sat a squat, colorful home with a front porch facing along the line of the beach. Apparently made of cement bricks and mortar, it had been painted with ocean motifs; curling waves crashed towards the back of the house as white seagulls floated over them. Plants were hung along the length of the porch, their long leaves dangling downwards from their pots towards the ground. "It's not much, but I've lived here for a long time."
"How long?" Nickolai asked.
"Almost eight centuries," the Ssphynx repeated. Nickolai's mind, boggled at the thought the first time, still didn't want to parse that phrase correctly. "You're the first person to come this way since I moved here."
"You've lived here all by yourself?" Nickolai asked. Alone for a thousand years, out here, with nothing but yourself? This male must be mad!
"That's right. It's quiet out here. No folks, not too many machines. Just me and my ocean."
Nickolai nodded. "Maybe I should head for the SDisk tonight. It'll be cooler, and I wouldn't want to disturb your solitude."
"Naah, that's all right. You got kicked out here for a reason, and I may be a hermit, but I'll be damned if I'm going to be a bad host." The Ssphynx grinned. "Come on, I'll feed you some chowder I've got lying around."
Still wary, but appreciating the Ssphynx's company, Nickolai decided to accept. "I'd appreciate that," he said, his stomach suddenly informing him of just how starving he really felt.
"Well, if you're going to be a Pendorian, you've got to learn to eat like one." He led Nickolai in through a battered screen door, then wandered over to a large metal pot (Nickolai thought "cauldron" might be a good word to describe it) and dished out a large helping of brown, meat-laden soup. "Here," the old Ssphynx said. "Eat."
Nickolai accepted the bowl gratefully. "What time is it?"
"Nearing dark, I imagine." The Ssphynx padded towards the window, which had no glass, and peered out. "And that storm's comin' in somethin' strong. Seeing as your my guest, can I get some help from you to close up the storm shutters?"
Nickolai nodded around a mouthful of hot soup. "Yes," he finally said after swallowing.
"I appreciate it. Eat fast, son."
Nickolai did as instructed, and then he and the Ssphynx walked around the house, latching down wooden storm shutters, pulling in the potted plants, lashing down some larger items the Ssphynx had scattered around his house. From the look of the place, Nickolai could see old trees towering a few hundred meters back from the shoreline. The Ssphynx had chosen some natural outcropping of sand and shell that spread back from the dunes on which to build his home. Behind the house, Nickolai now saw, a stream flowed by slowly, bringing the house fresh water. A few droplets fell on his head as they tied a picnic table down to a pair of palm trees that erupted from the sand. "The rain's begun," Nickolai said.
"I felt it." They ran into the house, and he Ssphynx closed the door, throwing two heavy beams of timber over it to keep it closed. "I get these storms from time to time. Tonight looks to be a real blower, but I think we'll come through all right."
The rain did indeed began to fall, at first lightly. But then the wind picked up and howled outside, and as Nickolai sat in the one chair in the house and wondered, nervously, what he could do to pass the time. "Tell me something, K..."
"Kedar," the Ssphynx replied. "Don't worry about it. You're probably the first living thing to hear it since I left civilization behind. Nice thing about Pendor. It'll be millions of years before the place gets crowded. That's my ocean out there, even though it's the size of all Terra's waters put together. But nobody else lives on that ocean. It's mine alone."
Nickolai nodded, thinking back to the day when he and Furry had made love on the Vinyare' beach and he had been so impressed, so wondrous that they had been alone, just he and Jofuran. So alone in fact that they had made love on a warm beach under a blazing sun and nobody had been the wiser.
But this, Kedar's kind of alone, was more than he could bear imagining. He was glad, at the end of their day, that he had had a place to return to, with live people to talk to. "Kedar..."
"Why do you live all the way out here?"
"Because when I was born Shardik broke a promise to me."
Nickolai looked up. "What kind of promise?"
"He made a promise to let me be free. But he also threatened to kill me if I got out of line."
"You, or all Ssphynx?"
"All Ssphynx. Son, there's something wrong with the Ssphynx brain. It's hard to describe. But it's a serious problem. Ssphynxes weren't programmed to be social. Somehow a serious case of xenophobia lives in all the first gen Ssphynxes. Maybe it was our shape or something. Doesn't matter what it was. Of the whole hrair of Ssphynxes that Shardik made, less than a thousand integrated into Pendor."
Nickolai nodded. "Where are the rest of the Ssphynxes?"
"Oh, I imagine most of them made it back eventually. I can't imagine ninety percent of a species becoming lonely hermits, like me."
Nickolai nodded. "Why don't you come home?"
"Habit," the old man said. "I got my Nixie friend who comes by once a year to give me stuff she thinks I'll need. I lost count a long time ago. Only reason I know what time it is is Nixie tells me." A thunderbolt crackled outside, startling Nickolai.
"How about you, son? What makes you come this way?"
Nickolai decided to start at the beginning and work his way all the way through to today. He explained meeting Jofuran, falling in love with her, Shardik's deal, everything he could remember about that fateful summer two years ago. Then he progressed forward until he came to today, when he walked out, or rather ran out, onto the beach.
The Ssphynx nodded quietly during the whole thing, then stretched and yawned. "There's not much we can do about the storm outside. I've got some spare bedding and the like," he said, rising and tossing Nickolai some blankets. "I'm afraid there's not much more for you except the floor."
Nickolai nodded, laying most of the blankets out on the floor to provide some padding. The night was warm, like the day had been. The rain came down in torrents outside, and Nickolai eventually found sleep.