Garth took a deep breath of the cold morning air, looking out over the valley. At the far end, he thought he saw a river fork in two directions, one heading westerly, the other more to the north. On the other side of that fork sat The Great Hall, looking as dark and imposing as he could ever possibly have imagined it.
He wondered if he should wait for his guide to find him here, or if he should head down into the valley and hope his guide would catch up there. He decided on the spur of the moment that if his guide were to find him, the Great Hall would destine the meeting. Settling the pack on his shoulders, he set out down the hill.
He was glad for wearing a watch. He had never been an outdoors person, preferring towns and cities and the infinite variety they presented. He understood that there was variety out here, but for him it was harder to find and he had never had the time to learn how. And without the movement of the sun overhead, the only hint he had of the passing of time came from his watch.
Glancing down at it once as he walked, he was surprised to realize that more than five hours had passed since he had started out. He looked around, wondering where his guide could be. While he had heard that once in a while people walked the entire Hall without a guide, he also knew that it was extremely rare.
He walked on, stopping at streams to refill his canteen and take a cold drink from the fresh water himself. He had been assured that there was nothing at all in the water around The Great Hall that could poison or infect a Terran.
As he walked, he started to notice the movements of small animals in the bushes. He'd been told that, depending on the region, mammals or psaurids tended to dominate, but that around the Great Hall he might see one or both. Nobody knew for sure why. Squirrels bounced from tree to tree, as did something of equivalent size but furless, with an extended jaw.
The forest seemed to come alive around him. He'd been told that the only reason anything ever happened on a walk to the Great Hall was part of a test, and he wondered what he was being tested for right now. He thought back to his conversation with Skii yesterday about Pamthreats and their smaller-sized cousins, the Pardalet. Was that was this was about?
Shaking his head, Garth rose from the stream and walked on. He knew that the Great Hall didn't intend to kill him. He felt that, although he couldn't for the sake of him say why.
He walked on. The sky grew dark, then alight again. "What the?" He looked up, not seeing a cloud in the sky, and then the darkness swept over him again, and it was light. "First flash?"
"That's what it looked like." Garth turned around to see a slim, black Felinzi approaching him. "Hi there. You Garth?"
Garth nodded. "Who are you?"
"Call me Pat," the figure said. Garth had trouble discerning if the Felinzi was male or female; the voice seemed masculine, as did the body mostly, but there were still elements to him that seemed decidedly feminine. He decided, finally, that Pat was male.
"Where have you been all day?" Garth asked.
"Catching up to you, silly. You were walking like a horde of Pamthreats were chasing you. I've been jogging at some points. That's one big stride you've got there."
Garth looked down at his legs, wondering if Pat was being complimentary. He decided that he was just being factual. "Thanks. If it's going to be dark soon, shouldn't we get ready for sleep?"
"We should at least get ready for dark," Pat said. With a shrug, he dropped his pack on the ground. "This is actually a pretty good clearing. You mind if we camp here? There's a stream about forty meters that way and the ground looks pretty clear." Pat examined the skies carefully. "I don't think it's going to rain tonight, so we should do okay."
"I didn't bring a tent. What do we do if it rains?"
"We get wet." Pat smiled. "I don't think it's likely. Come on, unroll your pack and pull out the food and tell me why you chose to walk the Hall."
Garth set down his pack as well. "I don't know," Garth admitted. "Let's just say it feels like the right thing to do."
"That's not a very good reason to walk the Great Hall. 'It seemed like a good idea at the time.'"
"Do I really need a good reason? I'm going to Walk the Hall and come out the other side. I'm not going to be changed. I'm going to get the advantages and there's not going to be much in the way of disadvantages to me, is there?"
"Depends," Pat shrugged, rolling out his sleeping bag. "What do you think the advantages are?"
"Well, I'll be harder to kill, right? And I'll be fertile."
"Do you really think either of those are going to do you any good? Terra's almost a world of soft rounded edges, and nobody cares about fertility there. It's all plastic and birth bags. But you're a little young to understand that."
"Look, are you here to guide me or criticize me? What right do you have to take apart my motives piece by piece?"
Pat half-smiled, half-laughed for a moment. "Hey, I walked the Hall when I was 11. They almost fought a war over me."
It took Garth less than a second to realize who he was talking to. "You're that Patricia?"
"Patrick, now, thank you," the Felinzi smiled. "I'm surprised you didn't figure it out quicker."
"It's not like I've ever seen your picture since you walked."
"True. Kefferah and I sorta went underground after that. We just wanted to be left alone."
"Look, uhm, I didn't mean to kill the conversation or anything. We still need firewood. Do what you can to collect kindling, and I'll cut us a few slabs of wood from that fallen tree I passed up the trail a little." Pat pulled a small steel pommel from his bag. "Be right back."
Garth collected what kindling and firewood he could from around the campsight, relieved that most of it was dry. As he came back, Pat was walking back with an armload of quartered logs. "These new biphase microwave knives are the best. Just aim and woosh! organic matter just falls apart."
"Including people?" Garth asked.
"It's programmed not to operate on recognized sentient tissue. I wonder if Katckins are in its memory, or is it just Pendorians?" He wielded the currently bladeless pommel in Garth's direction. Garth flinched. "Just kidding. I wouldn't use it on you. Besides, there's an easy override on it."
"Survival option. In case I ever meet a non-sentient Pamthreat. They're close enough that the sensor at the tip can't tell them apart."
Garth nodded. Pat sat down on one of the logs he had picked up and started the fire. "What have you got to eat there?"
Garth counted off the contents of his pack. Pat examined the contents of his own and scratched his chin. "Well, if you're willing to eat soup, we can combine the contents of our packs. I can cook something reasonable." He grinned. "Sorry, I've become something of a cooking fiend recently, and the idea of living on field rations doesn't warm my stomach very much."
"I'll make do." Garth looked up in what he assumed was the direction of the Hall. "Do you think we'll make it tomorrow?"
"Probably. Sometime in the early afternoon, at any rate. Why? Are you anxious to get this over with?"
"A little," Garth admitted. "Although I'm a little surprised when they asked me that I told them I wanted the morphing off."
"I guess because I've never really been comfortable with my appearance. I look at you and I see someone who's perfect compared to me. But recently I've begun to realize that compared to anything else, this is the form I have to live with."
"Better the Devil you know then the Devil you don't, eh?" Pat asked, looking in the same direction Garth had been staring earlier and, like Garth, seeing nothing. "It's funny, but I never thought about it that way. I always saw the Hall as something that would put right the strangeness I was always feeling before I walked it."
"I don't know," Pat admitted. "I mean, I was surprised when I came out male because I was always very girlish when I was a little girl. I played with dolls and worried about my hair and my dresses. I was never a tomboy. But for some reason, my boy-ness has become important to me. I like it in a way I could never really describe."
"And the Hall did that to you?"
"I don't know." Pat shook his head. "Wish I understood it. Someday, though, Garth, I hope you're as happy with your body as I am with mine."
"I hope so too."
"Well, you're determined to try. That's a good first step."
Garth nodded. They were silent as Pat spooned out portions of the dinner he had cooked.
Pat volunteered to clean the dishes as well, and Garth let him disappear down to the stream to wash up. Although not by any stretch an outdoorsmel, Garth prided himself on having enough common sense to relieve himself downhill from the campsite and away from the stream.
Pat returned. "So, tell me about Earth. What's it like a century later?"
"I don't know. What was it like when you left?" Pat shrugged. "I thought so. It's hard to say much has changed. You've seen the politics. It's just the same place."
"It must have changed somehow," Pat said. "People change. Places change. I mean, I understand they rebuilt the coliseum in Rome again."
Garth nodded. "But, I mean, I'm not really the person to ask. You could get a historian or something."
"I guess." Pat broke off half of a bar and handed it to Garth. He tasted it warily, then ate the rest. "Ready for bed?"
"I think so," Garth said. "My feet are killing me. My legs, too."
"That happens when you go walking," Pat said. "Wait until tomorrow. You'll wake up stiff and sore and have to break that down just to get comfortable walking again."