“Where are we going?” the cramped human asked his guide.
“There are certain traditional places,” Naras Sharaf explained. “New worlds give rise to new traditions. We go to one such place.
“A pregnant female has her choice of where to give birth. On the original eight worlds of our forefathers there are ancient sites, which have been used for this purpose for thousands of years. Birthing at such places is rumored to endow offspring with such virtues as good luck, fine appearance, thick cilia, sexual potency, and other desirables. Nonsense, of course, but entrenched superstitions die hard.”
“We have plenty of our own,” Loo-Macklin assured him.
“I am aware of that.” He turned great eyes on the tube ahead. “In witnessing of a Birthing you will learn one of the great secrets of the Nuel, learn why such events are so closely guarded from the sight of aliens. You are to be the first, Kee-yes vain Lewmaklin. A great privilege. No one is worried about this. Not now, not since the implanting.” One eye continued to study the route before them while the other swiveled independently to stare at Loo-Macklin.
“The implant gives you no trouble?”
“None whatsoever. In fact, I think you must have understated the beneficial side effects the _lehl_ induces. Since the implanting I feel better than I have in years.”
“No human has partnered a _lehl_ before, so though the probable results were carefully schematized before the operation, they remained only theoretical.”
“In fact, I feel positively buoyant.”
The tube rose into the mountains, carrying the car with it through passes and around sheer cliffs no road could have traversed. At night the single large moon shone on coniferous trees whose branches curved upward, giving the forest they were traveling through the appearance of an army of emerald candelabra. Loo-Macklin slept soundly on the pallet that had been arranged for him near the back of the thin, long car. The creature inside his head, which could kill him instantly, saw to it that he always had a good night’s sleep.
Two days later they’d left any semblance of flat ground far behind. Occasional Nuel communities were visible, built in scattered mountain valleys or on the less precipitous flanks of snow-capped crags.
The car slowed automatically and was shunted into a smaller tube. They sped on alone, no other car visible ahead or behind them at the usual preset interval.
Eventually they slowed. The car slid out of the tube into a docking area inside a building decorated with baroque carvings and mosaics. Arches were everywhere, employed more for their aesthetic than architectural use.
A pair of subtly armed Nuel approached the car. They wore two _el_ apiece, the busy spinners constantly changing the shape of the stars that dominated the alien’s blue and brown uniforms. They looked askance at Loo-Macklin as he wrinkled his way out of the confining vehicle and drew their stubby projectile weapons.
One recognized Sharaf. “Truly this is some kind of bad humor, brother.”
“Truly there is no humor to it,” Sharaf replied.
“But surely you cannot mean to….”
“It is all right, brothers,” Sharaf assured them. “He has been spoken for.”
“Hello,” said a new voice. The Nuel who joined them now was younger than even the two guards, considerably younger than Naras Sharaf. He was barely beginning to gain control over the viscosity of his excreted slime and other bodily fluids, and his interlocking eyelids occasionally stuck together longer than was completely polite. In addition to the iridescent purple, which occasionally flashed from the skin of a Nuel, a bright yellow sparkle also appeared on his body from time to time, a particularly attractive surface coloration.
“Greetings, Naras,” he murmured. Then both eyes examined the foreigner. “So you are Kee-yes vain Lewmaklin.”
The stocky human extended a hand palm downward, fingers tightly pressed together, as he’d discovered was the preferable approach among the Nuel. The newcomer hesitated, then extended two tentacles and crudely managed the shaking motion. Loo-Macklin spat into his other hand and offered fluid, studying the other in turn.
“From what I have been told,” the newcomer said, “it is difficult to believe that you are not a Nuel biologically reengineered by our scientists to resemble a human.”
“I’m quite human,” Loo-Macklin assured him. “As human as you are Family.”
“I am Chaheel Riens, Nuel psychologist and student of alien thoughts and actions.”
“So truly are you then here to observe me as much as anything else.”
“Truly,” admitted Chaheel, showing no surprise at Loo-Macklin’s mastery of the guttural Nuel tongue. That much he expected, having studied it in the records pertaining to this remarkable creature.
“I am to understand that you have submitted to a _lehl_ implant?”
Loo-Macklin said nothing.
“Well then, I suppose you are as assured of as any biped could be. Come along, and please lower your voices to a respectful level.”
Naras and Loo-Macklin trailed behind the psychologist as he exited the car dock and entered the main structure. The human’s presence attracted many stares and set others to talking. He smiled inwardly at some of the comments, which were whispered openly in the belief that he could not understand them.
The Nuel were quite conscious of the fact that all other civilized races regarded them as exceptionally ugly. For their part, the Nuel had never thought of themselves as very attractive, either. The attitudes of other peoples coupled with the Nuel’s own insecurity combined to produce a racial inferiority complex unmatched among any other intelligent race. It also served to bind the Nuel tightly together.
Three other sentient species had been taken over by the expanding Nuel society. These three now kept their true opinions of the Nuel appearance well hidden. It is not healthy to make disparaging remarks about one’s conqueror.
The Nuel could do nothing to make themselves attractive. Very well, then; they would settle instead for power. One day mankind, too, would be forced to hide its contempt for the Nuel. One day the bipeds of the eighty-three worlds of the UTW would kiss the ground a Nuel slid upon, if so ordered.
Until then the Nuel would bide their time, endure the continuing flow of insults inspired by their appearance, and keep silent.
Soon the visitors had left behind the smoothly crafted rooms and corridors and had entered a dimly lit passage hewn out of the solid mountain. They continued down the long tunnel. Loo-Macklin could see ancient signs and paintings covering the walls, some carefully protected by a transparent shield to prevent accidental damage.
“This is a very old place,” Naras Sharaf told him reverently. “The Nuel have held Birthings here for several hundred years.”
“Surely those patterns are older than that?” Loo-Macklin indicated the tunnel decorations.
“No. They are old enough, but are only duplicates of those appearing on similar tunnel walls on the Motherworld, on ancient Woluswollam. These were painted here by the first settlers of this world. So they are old but not truly ancient. Old enough, though, to be worth preserving. The inhabitants of this world take pride in their origins.”
“Lucky them,” said Loo-Macklin, but Sharaf’s curious look did not make him elaborate further.
The passageway wound deeper into the mountain before opening into a large natural cavern. Stalactites and stalagmites grew in profusion, and there was even some butterfly calcite hanging from a nearby flowstone curtain. Geology’s the same everywhere, he thought. There was running water somewhere ahead, and close by.
They were met by a Nuel clad in a peculiar conical cap and an unmoving, prewoven garment, one of the few Loo-Macklin had seen on a Nuel. It was deep brown shot through with black metal thread. Their host had been told of their coming, since he glanced only briefly at Loo-Macklin before addressing himself softly to Naras Sharaf.
“It is almost time. Truly should we hurry.” He added almost imperceptibly, with a half-glance at Loo-Macklin, “I like this not.”
Then they were jogging down the path leading deeper into the main cavern. Surprisingly, it began to grow lighter even though the artificial lights faded to insignificance. The cavern narrowed, then opened into a still-larger chamber. Filtered sunlight entered from the far side through a translucent green glass window of impressive proportions and multisided shape.
They had gone completely through this part of the mountain. Here an underground stream rambled through a section of cavern exquisitely decorated with long limestone straws and thick masses of twisting helectites.
It was not the colorful formations, which drew Loo-Macklin’s attention, however, but the deep, still pool formed by a gaur dam on the far side of the running stream. It was the first time he’d ever seen a pregnant Nuel.
Her lower abdomen was swollen three times normal size. The loose folds of skin that formed the cilia-shielding skirt, of which Naras Sharaf was so proud, had expanded to encompass the increased volume of flesh.
The Nuel in the hat escorted them to a molded formation, which hid several observation cupouches and instructed them to keep out of sight. Particularly Loo-Macklin, whose presence could be disturbing to she-who-was-about-to-give-birth.