Tate and Gabe left on the first shuttle to Mars.
"I need humans here, to help recruit others," Akin told Tate, while he watched her pack a meager bag from the door of her guesthouse room.
"Don't whine." She picked up a plastic cross from the shelf, fingered it, and set it back. Nothing that poisonous would be allowed on the shuttle. "You're too old for it, kid. And you're too old to be clinging to my skirts. Time you saw what you can do without us."
Akin's tentacles wavered uncertainly. Her words were at odds with her signals. She didn't want to go. He saw how she stiffened sometimes when she crossed paths with Lo's ooloi, not in revulsion but in an effort not to turn toward them. Gabe could see it, too. It was Gabe who was driving them to leave now instead of waiting for Mars to become more welcoming, more like home. He was afraid Lo would feel like home before Mars did.
"I'll miss you," Akin said, finally.
Tate sighed and straightened. "I'll miss you, too. But you'll be all right. You have Yori, still. And, god help us, Lilith." She grimaced at his mother's name. The two women avoided each other almost as much as Tate avoided ooloi.
"They're not you."
"Whining," she reminded, but she came toward him, arms spread. She stopped at the threshold. Hugs were uncomfortable now. He was adult, if not fully mated. Sighing, she dropped her arms and turned away. "Better go tell the shuttle we'll be coming."
Tiikuchahk was at the shuttle--inside it, communing with the ship. Akin could smell him long before he saw the shuttle. His brother's scent was unmistakable: inviting and repulsive, soothing yet jarring. The two had given each other even wider berth since Tiikuchahk's metamorphosis. It did not help that Tiikuchahk was drawn to Dehkiaht. His tentacles drifted toward it whenever they shared a room.
But Dehkiaht was Akin's. Tiikuchahk would need to find another ooloi to mate with, though he showed no interest in looking.
Akin dithered outside the shuttle a moment before going inside. He did not want to speak with his brother. But if he were fortunate, Tiikuchahk would be caught up in his work, would not notice Akin at all.
He was not fortunate. As Akin spoke with the construct who would monitor the shuttle's flight, going over the list of human passengers and their needs, he felt Tiikuchahk stir, responding to his presence. When the conversation was finished, Tiikuchahk stood behind him.
"Your humans are leaving," Tiikuchahk observed aloud as Akin untangled his tentacles from the other construct's.
"Yes," Akin said, more abruptly than he intended. He could feel himself knotting up with tension.
"You will be spending more time here." A simple, factual statement, with no hint of how Tiikuchahk felt--except for the way his tentacles, too, knotted just from sharing the room with his twin.
It was a reasonable assumption. Akin had taken frequent journeys with Tate and Gabe to recruit new humans for the Mars colony. Now they were gone. But he did not plan to stop the journeys, and Tiikuchahk's comment made him determined to resume them quickly.
"No," he said. "I'm leaving soon."
Tiikuchahk made a gesture of acknowledgement and moved toward the exit. As he passed by Akin, both their tentacles reached toward the almost-familiar scent of their twin. Akin jerked back first, leaving Tiikuchahk's tentacles wavering in the air.
The other construct working in the shuttle made a faint sound of distress. Tiikuchahk pushed through the shuttle door and was gone, but his scent lingered.
Akin had always taken Yori's advice; he never sent humans alone to the resisters to speak about the Mars colony. They were too likely to be shot or disbelieved. But an oankali, alone, was seldom listened to either. It took teams to convince the resisters that the hope was real.
With Gabe and Tate gone, Akin turned to Yori. They left three days after the shuttle's departure for a Spanish-speaking village. Akin had visited it years ago, before his metamorphosis, on one of his circuitous journeys away from Lo. It would take them two weeks to reach it. The thought of a long time away suited Akin, though Lilith frowned when he told her.
"You're not a child anymore," she said. "You've chosen your responsibilities. I know it's your nature to wander. Nikanj saw to that. But for the Mars colony to be successful, you need to be here, talking to people, convincing them to help." She grimaced. "Oankali people. You can reach them when no one else can."
She was right, of course. "After this one," he promised her. "After this one, I'll stay closer."
Lilith sighed. "It's Tate and Gabe, isn't it?"
Tate had always been a delicate subject between them. Lilith was still angry he had been kept from her as a child. Being grateful that Tate had looked after him did not keep her from resenting that the surrogacy had been necessary.
"Yes," Akin said. "Some. But it's also Tiikuchahk. And Dehkiaht." He and his ooloi mate were drawn to each other, but it was awkward between them, unbalanced. They needed a female to complete their mating. But it was hard to find another construct who had failed to bond with her sibling, as he and Tiikuchahk had. Paired siblings were meant to mate together.
He hadn't meant it as a rebuke, only as truth, but Lilith took it as one. "We're searching. We will find someone." She forced a smile to her face. "Go on, then. Maybe we'll have someone waiting for you when you get back."
They went slower together than Akin would have alone, but he had expected that. Yori required more sleep than he did and had more complicated nutritional needs. And the land they traveled through, which he had spent years exploring, was new to her. Every day she gathered plants that she thought she recognized from old herbals for him to examine.
"This one is hardy," he said, sampling the latest leaf more closely once he was certain it did have the healing properties she claimed. "It might be made to grow on Mars. I'll ask Dehkiaht to look at it."
"I'll gather more, then."
He thought about stopping her. He could preserve the pattern of the plant inside him, for days or months or years if necessary, from just the single taste. Any samples she gathered would degrade far more quickly. But it made her feel more secure to have them in hand, and they would be stopping at Tiej soon. Perhaps its ooloi would want them.
"What's Tiej like?" she asked, as she briskly stripped a small shrub.
"Another trading village. Like Lo." It was not entirely on their way, and he would not have stopped there, but Lilith was right. Two weeks was too long for him to be away. In the village he could visit their shuttle and discuss the progress of the Mars colony with others working on it.
She glanced up and clucked her tongue once. "You can do better than that."
His tentacles twitched slightly, embarrassed. "It's smaller, I suppose. Further from the river. There's less contact with resisters, so the guest house is more primitive. Usually empty. They'll be excited to see you," Akin added. "To hear what you know about healing."
"They have ooloi."
"Yes. But the knowledge is still worth something."
"I know you believe it is. And I'm glad." She gave him a smile, small but genuine, as she wrapped the last of her samples carefully away.
It took them another day to reach Tiej, a hard day spent climbing increasingly steep hills. They arrived in the afternoon. It was the wrong time for a communal meal by human standards, but Tiej's inhabitants were gathered in the central hall anyway, ready to greet them. Akin knew they had been spotted hours ago, but he had not thought to tell Yori, and she was startled by the crowd.
"I told you," he murmured. "Excited."
"I can see that," Yori said. She straightened her shoulders. "All right. Why don't you introduce me?"
He did, starting with the constructs he had met on his last visit. They were mostly mated, now, even those several years his junior. Without meaning to, he found himself rushing through the introductions, trying to search out those whose scent did not speak of an ooloi, another male. He did not notice what he was doing until an adult ooloi drew him aside.
"You are unbalanced," it said in oankali, tentacles wavering toward and away from him in a mix of concern and revulsion. "Where are your mates?"
"My ooloi is in Lo," he said. Through his sensory tentacles he could see Yori being swept away by the crowd behind him. He would have to trust she could look after herself. "We don't have a female mate."
The ooloi's tentacles formed a cone, focused on him. "Your sibling?" it asked.
"Is male," Akin answered. It would have been easier to describe the situation without speech, but he felt uneasy letting another ooloi so close, especially one as peremptory as this. So he explained it as near as words could while the strange ooloi's body tentacles knotted together with unease.
"I will look," it said abruptly, when he had finished. "But stay away from our children."
It was worried, Akin realized, that his own instability would infect Tiej's constructs. That, like a human, he might steal away someone already mated. Perhaps it was one of those who disapproved, still, of human-born males. Or, possible if less likely, it disapproved of the Mars colony and did not want Akin to draw Tiej into helping build it. It had not given a reason for its order, and without touch there was no easy way to tell.
Akin could demand an explanation, but he had been rude enough today. Pushing further would not help either of his causes. He flicked his tentacles in a silent gesture of agreement and went to find Yori.
He expected her to be at the center of the crowd, sharing stories of what she had seen to a village hungry for outsiders. But she was not in the hall. He followed her scent--slightly sour, and it worried him--outside, to where the sun was beginning to set on the far side of a hill. Her hunched shoulders would have told him she was in distress even if her scent had not, but when she saw him she straightened, affecting calm.
"I'm sorry I was pulled away," he said, wondering what had caused her pain.
Yori only shrugged. "Someone you knew?"
"No. A stranger. It was worried about me."
Akin's tentacles twisted on themselves as he reached for words. "My scent is incomplete. I'm an adult, but I'm not fully mated."
"But you have Dehkiaht."
"Yes. And that's wrong. A male and female should come together, should help an ooloi reach maturity between them. Not a male and an ooloi."
"And there are no single female constructs." She nodded. "Why haven't you sought a human mate?" His tendrils turned toward her, startled, but found no scent of interest. She laughed. "Not me. God. I could be your mother. I almost am your mother. I helped raise you."
Embarrassed, he drew back into himself. "Humans aren't eager for oankali mates, either. When I looked human, maybe." There had been no shortage of women eager to be with him, then. He wondered, sometimes, what would have happened if he had settled with one, grown close to one. Would she have stayed with him after the change? Too late now. "He asked me to stay away from the constructs. The young ones."
"Not very welcoming," Yori observed. She sighed. "We could keep traveling. It's early yet."
He was surprised. She hadn't complained during the journey, but he knew sleeping in the open jungle was less comfortable for her than for him. He had thought she would welcome having a roof over her head for a night. Tate and Gabe had always valued such things.
"I still need to link with the shuttle," he reminded her. "It may take some time."
"All right." Her shoulders stiffened again. "I'll go tell tales, I suppose. Find me afterward."
She vanished back into the hall as he realized, abruptly, that he had been neatly distracted from asking her about her distress.
Communing through the shuttle took Akin until well past nightfall, as he listened to the problems the colony had encountered in his few days of absence and offered his opinions where needed. He could not link with Tate and Gabe, but he took what solace he could from the flashes of scent and image the constructs working on Mars sent.
When he finished, he went to the guesthouse, but Yori had not yet arrived. He could not commune with Tiej as he could with Lo, and the scents of so many strangers made it difficult to find her. He tracked her at last to a private dwelling, its doors sealed. He stood outside for a moment, uncertain. Her scent was still sour with some unease. If he stretched his tentacles out, he could hear voices through the walls.
"Never expected to see you here--." The speaker was female, human, and unknown to him. He stretched closer, curious, trying to read her scent. It was rich, interesting, and tinged with arousal. Abruptly Akin caught himself and jerked back, trembling. The ooloi had been right. He was unbalanced, irrational. He should probably not sleep in Tiej at all. Ashamed, he returned to the guesthouse to wait.
Yori was there when he awoke, curled onto a pallet across the guest house's single open room. She woke slowly, and the skin under her eyes was dark. But she was eager to get moving.
"We can eat as we walk," she said, combing her hair back with brisk strokes of her fingers.
Akin chose not to argue. He was still uneasy about the previous night and did not want another conversation with the ooloi he had met.
As they pushed through the jungle, Yori swung her machete with more force than necessary, her shoulders still tense. She would exhaust herself soon.
"You seem uncomfortable," Akin said finally. "Now, and in Tiej yesterday."
Yori glanced back at him and said nothing. After several more steps, she said, "I'm a resister, Akin. Your villages, your living houses--that's not the life I chose."
His tentacles coiled tighter around him, uncertain. "You were never uncomfortable in Lo. You're not afraid of us, Yori." It was true. Of all the resisters who had found their way to Lo while waiting for the Mars colony, she had taken most easily to living with them.
She sighed. "I suppose not."
"I always wondered," he said carefully, "why you didn't stay with the oankali. Before, I mean. Why you were in Phoenix at all."
"Humans need doctors. I've told you."
"Even psychiatrists," he agreed, remembering their conversation in Phoenix. He thought it might make her laugh, but it didn't. "I found you in Tiej last night," he said finally. He had been edging around the subject, acting human. But if it would not put her at ease, he would try the more oankali approach. "You seemed busy, so I didn't try to enter."
"But you listened?" Her voice was neutral, but he felt his tentacles fold inward anyway.
"Only a little. Who were you talking to?"
She stopped, leaning on her machete, and turned to face him. Her eyes were still bruised from sleeplessness. "Always so curious." She smiled, to tell him she wasn't upset, though her scent was mixed. "Her name was Allison. We knew each other, before I went to Phoenix."
"You lived in Tiej?" Akin asked, surprised. "Then why did you want to be introduced?"
"It was decades ago, Akin. Before you were born. Before any of the constructs living there were born. And it was much, much smaller then. But yes. I knew the humans." She turned again, slashing at the next set of vines. The conversation was over.
When Yori spoke again, some hours later, it was about another plant she had found, this one small and close to the ground. Akin took it as a peace offering and did not try to steer the conversation back, though he was still confused and curious. He wondered if it would better for them not to stop at Tiej on their return journey.
He was still turning the matter over in his mind when they reached their destination. The distraction kept him from noticing that something was wrong until they were nearly at the village walls. Still in the trees, he signaled Yori to stop.
"It's too quiet. And it smells wrong." He let his tentacles waver in the air as the wind shifted. "Like blood."
Tate or Gabe would have hesitated at that, waiting for Akin to tell them more. Yori started moving forward as soon as he finished speaking. He almost yanked her back. But she would not be Yori if she did not move toward those in pain. Instead, he followed her, tentacles knotting into a defensive pose.
The gate to the village stockade hung open, creaking slightly in the wind.
"Over here," Akin said, twisting back and forth to better track the scent. "The blood is fresh."
She nodded and followed him. Inside the narrow hut were three bodies, all old for humans. One female, two male. He went to the one who seemed worst-hurt. The man's graying hair was streaked with red. As he sunk his tentacles in, testing, he was distantly aware of Yori in the background, rummaging through her pack for bandages. Then he lost himself in the healing.
When he came to, Yori was talking quietly with one of the other humans, a woman. The third was still lying motionless, breathing in sharp gasps. Akin went toward him, then stopped to glance at Yori.
"Go on," she said. "He needs you."
He went to work. The woman was asleep by the time he was done, and Yori was sitting in the doorway, watching the sun set and looking pensive.
"Should I look at her?" he asked Yori.
She shook her head. "She wasn't so badly hurt. More shock than anything. When she wakes, maybe, but for now she needs sleep."
"Humans fighting humans, of course." She sounded disgusted. "After Phoenix, it shouldn't be a surprise. And yet it is, every time."
He drew his tentacles in, disturbed. "If we had come here earlier--"
"Don't blame yourself. They weren't fighting about whether to join the oankali."
She pushed herself to her feet, restless. "Just a regular, human thing. Who should lead, who should follow, where they should go. Our contradiction, as you say. Sometimes--" She shook her head. "You know they'll do this on Mars, too."
"And you still believe in us?"
"I still believe it's necessary."
"Christ." She rubbed her forehead. "I'm glad we have you. It's not just the oankali you convince."
His tentacles flexed, smoothing at the compliment but unable to hold the pose. The scent of blood, of wrongness, was still too strong. "We'll need to take them to Tiej," he said quietly. "There is something wrong in that man's brain, beyond the injury. An ooloi should look at him."
"They won't like it," Yori warned him. "But they can't stay here. Someone might come back to try and finish the job. All right. The village is empty, aside from them? I'm going to scavenge for supplies."
With Akin's healing, the three humans could have begun traveling within a day. It took three to convince them it was necessary, that they would die if left alone. Unusually, it was the woman, Sofia, who was most resistant.
"We will find another village," she said, over and over again. She did not believe in Mars. Akin wondered if Yori's confidence in his persuasive abilities was deserved.
The walk back to Tiej was slow. Sofia, Ramon, and Alessandro were not used to long journeys. At night, Yori coaxed stories about their village from them, and Akin struggled to understand how a once healthy community could break apart with so much bloodshed. It was like trying to hold water. He had been in Phoenix, and that had not helped him understand what had driven its final, violent dissolution. But if he grasped it, perhaps he could help spare Mars from the same fate.
Their companions had another benefit; they gave Tiej's ooloi something to focus on that was not Akin. Even the one who had interrogated him before spared him only a glance. With Yori's patient coaxing, all three humans eventually allowed ooloi to tend to them. Akin stood back and let her murmur soothingly in Spanish, translating for an ooloi that did not know the tongue.
The ooloi's human mates stood by as well, watching the newcomer from a distance. Or at least, the man was watching Ramon. The woman was watching Yori. Akin shifted his sensory tentacles discreetly, tasting the air. It was the woman Yori had spoken with when they were in Tiej before, Allison. Her scent was tense, uneasy. Difficult to read.
Akin wondered if he should try speaking with her. But abruptly Ramon stepped toward the ooloi, who guided him toward its mates. All four vanished into a dwelling, letting the walls seal behind them.
"Will we wait for them?" Yori asked. There was tension in her shoulders again, but her voice was sharp and focused. The doctor had come to the fore.
"No," Akin said. "We've been away too long already. Tiej's people can guide them to Lo if they choose to go to Mars. They know enough for that."
Yori nodded, unsurprised. "I'll walk with you to the shuttle."
Humans knew oankali and constructs saw through their sensory tentacles, not through what looked like eyes, but they never remembered. Yori, walking behind him, turned back to give a long look toward Alison's home. She thought he could not see her, Akin realized. He did her the courtesy of not telling her she was wrong.
When they returned to Lo, Akin dove back into building the Mars colony. He left Yori to meet with the new humans, hopeful colonists, who had gathered at Lo's outskirts in their absence. His attention was on understanding the changes that Tiikuchahk and the other constructs had gradually begun to work on Mars's atmosphere, and on searching for any signs of tension among the human colonists. The village they had visited worried him more than he was willing to admit to Yori.
Tate had sent him a letter. It was a human enough thing to do that it had perplexed the constructs working the shuttle. One corner was rough and brittle where the shuttle had begun to devour it when they left it unattended. He held it carefully, afraid it would crumble before he finished. The words were sharp and bitter. Tate had little kind to say about the conditions and facilities on Mars. But it ended, "By the way, I'm pregnant. Gabe says the first one should be named after you."
He thought that meant she was happy, and told Lilith so, though she hadn't asked. She had saved the letter for him, unopened.
"I'm glad." She seemed pleased, but there was a restlessness behind it.
Akin shifted, uneasy. "You wish it was you," he said quietly, testing the words. "That the Mars colony had existed when you made your choice."
"That I could have human children, you mean," she said. She reached for him, though the touch was uncomfortable for both of them, and he let her hold him for a moment before slipping away. "Children I could hug? Sometimes, yes. But, Akin, that doesn't mean I regret you. Or any of my children. Or my grandchildren."
He flinched slightly. There was still no female mate for him and Dehkiaht. Lilith caught the gesture and grimaced.
"You will have a chance to give me grandchildren." she said firmly. "And it will be soon."
"I know. In Tiej, they thought they might find someone." She looked interested. He did not want to talk about how he had lost control in Tiej, though he knew he should. It might happen again. But Diichan would be the one who could help him if anyone could, not Lilith. "There was something else that happened in Tiej," he added. "Yori lived there, before she was a resister. She met someone she knew. It made her unhappy."
Lilith made a noncommittal sound. She and Yori were not close. They did not avoid each other, like Lilith and Tate had. They simply had little in common. But she knew that the older woman mattered to him. "I wondered what was wrong there. Leah said she spent half of yesterday soothing feathers Yori ruffled with the new colonists. And I haven't seen her at meals."
Akin rustled his tentacles, embarrassed. He had not noticed Yori's continuing distress, too caught up in communing with the shuttle.
"I should talk to her."
Lilith gave him a dry look. "Yes. You should. You're living on Earth, for all your work is on Mars. Try and remember to keep your feet on the ground."
Like the others working on the Mars colony, Yori did not live in Lo proper. She had rejected the alterations that would have allowed her to manipulate Lo's structure, to live there without being trapped. She had a small hut near Leah and Wray's guest house, with a wood floor and whitewashed walls. Next to Phoenix's frame houses it was primitive, but she seemed content enough.
He did not expect to find her there at midday, but as Lilith said, she had not joined the communal meal.
"Akin," she said, unsurprised. She didn't gesture him inside, but she stepped back from the doorway, and after an uncertain moment he followed her.
"I've been ignoring you," he said.
"You've been busy," she corrected, toying with her spoon.
"And you've been upset. Yori, will you tell me what is wrong?"
"That's my business," she said. But she said it kindly.
He stretched his tentacles toward her to better read her mood. "Not when it affects your work. Lilith says you've been unsettling the colonists."
"Lilith says?" She shook her head. "Akin, it's a human thing. I don't think you'd understand."
"I understand humans," he said, affronted.
"No. You understand constructs. You extrapolate to humans. And most of the time you're right." She sighed. "Why do you and Dehkiaht want a mate?"
"Want isn't the right word." He had been neglecting Dehkiaht, too. He and the ooloi lay together at night, and he had passed on all the samples he and Yori had gathered in their journey, but that was all. They could not complete the connections they needed to make alone, could not build children. "To be oankali is to be three. Male, female, ooloi. We are incomplete."
"Biological determinism," she said with a grimace. He waited, patient. She knew that to him the phrase was almost meaningless, a tautology. "There were humans who thought the same way about humans, before the war. That a man needed a woman, a woman needed a man. That to be otherwise was to be unbalanced. They were wrong, of course. I wonder what they make of you lot." She laughed. "Not quite what they dreamed. You do see where I'm going with this?"
"Yes," Akin said slowly. "Before my metamorphosis, I used to sleep with human women. But sometimes the men would approach me, too."
"Did you say yes?" Her curiosity was dry, a scientist's.
"Yes." The memories were awkward. He had not understood, the first time, what was being asked. It was not an oankali thing, not something the humans in Lo spoke of. "Twice."
"I'm surprised you did that much." Yori sighed, and set the spoon aside. "Oankali don't--but you would know better than I."
She stopped. Akin waited, trying to keep his tentacles still. It was difficult. He wanted to reach out toward her, taste her. But that might only push her deeper into silence.
"Yori?" he asked, finally, the human thing to do.
She tilted her head away from him, gazing out through the open door. "Allison and I met in Tiej. We had oankali mates, of course. But neither of us had paired with a human man. Neither of us wanted to. Nothing stopped us from touching, not the way being with an ooloi stops women and men. Because we weren't a threat to the grouping, I suppose. Not the way the ooloi saw it."
"You had separate ooloi?" Akin struggled with the thought. No ooloi would have mated with two human women. But the notion of mating with someone already bound was distressing.
"Yes. But I don't think it would have made a difference if we hadn't." She paused to look at Akin, and he twitched his tentacles in uncertain assent. "At first I thought--I'd always wanted kids. Always. And when I understood what the oankali did, how the ooloi work, I thought, here's my chance. I could have a child with my partner. With other parents, too, but with my partner. All the human technology before the war, it was never going to give me that. It made it worth staying. But the ooloi didn't see it that way, of course. Hers, mine. They wanted us to find mates. Male mates. "
"So you left."
She shook her head. "Allison gave in. She found a man. She's had six kids now, you know. Six!" Her expression flickered between pride and pain. "I thought at first it didn't have to come between us. We had our oankali partners already. What was one more mate? But she lost interest. Not just in me. An ooloi is a powerful thing. Humans before the war used to try to change the orientations of others, you know? It never worked. Never. But an ooloi. . . ." Yori looked away. "I left, yes. She seems happy, now. But she's not the person that I knew. It hurt, to see that."
Akin pulled his tentacles tight, nervous, uncomfortable. "An ooloi doesn't change who you are."
"But it does, Akin." Yori gave him a strained smile. "That's why you scare us, you know. It's not the contradiction. It's not the things you're trying to change. It's all the other things you change in the process, all the bits of being human you take away without even knowing what you've lost."
"That's why you're going to Mars."
"Yes. That's why I'm going to Mars. Where I can never have children with my partner. Where other people will hate me, try to kill me for what I am--the War, the oankali, you've set us back a hundred years, you know. Say what you like, but humans can change. Were changing."
"I know that," Akin said quietly. "I believe that."
"Sorry. Of course you do." She spread her hands in apology. "That's why I'm going to Mars. Because even with all that, it's where I can go and not lose who I am."
He left her to finish her meal in peace. He meant to walk alone, to think, or perhaps to find Lilith. Lilith was good at explaining human things. Instead, Dehkiaht found him. He could tell the ooloi was excited even from a distance from the way its tentacles wavered wildly, exposing and hiding its sensory arms.
"She's here," it said, and reached for him. Through their twined tentacles Akin caught brief, fragmented flickers--a taste, a scent, a color. His own tentacles smoothed, sharing Dehkiaht's pleasure, even as he struggled to build a clearer understanding. "Slower," he sent, amused, and Dehkiaht twitched with embarrassment and tried to comply.
"Our mate?" Akin asked, when he had finished studying Dehkiaht's impressions of the newly arrived female. "You like her."
Dehkiaht did. She was female, younger than Akin. Human born. Excited by the Mars colony. Excited by the chance to work with resisters, to understand them. Living in Tiej, she had been isolated. She craved more connection to her human side. Overwhelmingly what came through was her energy, endless and bubbling, like a spring. It fit with her name: Uiara.
"Good," Akin said. "She'll need it, to join in our work."
"She will," Dehkiaht said, finally calm enough for words again. "Will you meet her now?"
They went together into Lo and found Uiara with Lilith, talking quietly in the family home. Her skin was more human-toned than Akin's, close to Tino's in shade, and she had black hair mixed with the tentacles on her head. She would never pass for something other than a construct, though. The tentacles that spilled from her arms and the broad sair at her throat made sure of that.
"Even quicker than I thought," Lilith said. "Akin, this is Uiara Lago Chen Ikankhalihntiej."
"You don't know how good it is to see you," he said softly. Her scent was beautiful, rich and wild.
Impatient, Dehkiaht made a small sound and pulled Akin closer.
"I'll leave you to get acquainted," Lilith said drily, and stepped back as Uiara moved forward at Dehkiaht's beckoning.
"Closer," the ooloi signaled through the tentacles already twined with theirs. It looped a sensory arm around each of them, and Akin sank into bliss.
When he returned to himself, he was seated. It was dark in the small room the three of them shared, but outside Akin could sense the family, gathered. There was happiness, amusement, joy, relief. And, discordant, a bitter tang of jealousy. Tiikuchahk.
Once, it would have repelled him. Now, fully mated, Akin found Tiikuchahk's scent less distressing. It no longer carried the strange mixture of summons and rejection. It was simply there. Neutral, beneath Tiikuchahk's bitterness.
No. Not quite neutral. Something different, new.
Akin thought about what Yori had told him, about her pain. Perhaps it had been inevitable. Simple truth, biology: an ooloi's mates belonged to it. Human males sometimes left one mating group for another, but no one could be part of two at once.
But Tiikuchahk had no ooloi to belong to. Had never been with an ooloi--except Dehkiaht.
Akin nudged Dehkiaht gently with one tentacle, rousing it. Sharing the scent. Sharing his thoughts.
Dehkiaht's first reaction was puzzlement, then alarm. "We are three now. We are complete."
"For an oankali," Akin agreed. "But Tiikuchahk and I are constructs. We are human as well." He shared his memory of how it had felt on the ship, him and Dehkiaht and Tiikuchahk together before metamorphosis: complete and yet not complete. Almost right.
He had thought it was because Tiikuchahk was not the mate they needed, because he was already becoming male. They needed a female mate. Even the strange ooloi in Tiej could sense that. But perhaps they also needed Tiikuchahk.
Uiara stirred on the other side of Dehkiaht. Through the ooloi, Akin could sense her silent inquiry and sent a response.
"Humans do these things?" she asked.
"Yes," Akin signaled. "Not always male and female. Sometimes different. Sometimes more."
Her surprise blended with Dehkiaht's unease. It should have been enough to dissuade Akin: two mates in concert, opposed. But Tiikuchahk's scent still drew him.
To be oankali, he reminded them, was to trade. To seek something new.
They communed silently, seeking consensus. Dehkiaht's sensory hands sunk deep within both of them until it was hard to tell where one ended and another began. Surprise, unease, determination blended together, gave rise to curiosity. Assent.
Dehkiaht released its hold, and they stood together to call Tiikuchahk in.