The Gift of the Iron Mother Copyright (c) Kent Brewster 1992 All Rights Reserved Prrt floa

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The Gift of the Iron Mother Copyright (c) Kent Brewster 1992 All Rights Reserved Prrt floated, inverted and comfortable within the warm, sea-wet atmosphere of the cavernous brood-chamber. Salty currents of rich, steamy air carried shifting tides of newspawn, too young to have airtight shells of their own. Prrt picked and chose among them, munching contentedly on the small, the weak, and the malformed, occasionally stripping a transparent starter-shell before devouring its hapless occupant. Shell-less Motherslaves around him did likewise, culling the poorest of the Mother's myriad children, reabsorbing the nutrients and directing the waste outwards towards farm-areas, assisting the eternal process of natural selection. The Song throbbed and hummed around Prrt; many-colored currents of Mothermilk twisted and flowed, dancing clouds of spawn changing in response, learning basic communication-patterns and motive strategies at the same time. Alliances were formed, twisted, violated, and dissolved in seconds as crude group-minds fought for domination among the smallspawn. Most of their weak air-carried signals did not penetrate Prrt's defenses; occasionally a stronger pattern of attraction evolved into the radio spectrum and was evaluated by the Mother's always-ravenous acquisitionals. With a misty breath of expressed lubricants, the sphincter at the back of the brood-chamber opened. Stubby tendrils beckoned Prrt forward. Leaving the disinterested Motherslaves to their eternal labor, he jetted forward on an eager puff of compressed air. Dodging a few shell-fragments from one of the Mother's previous mates, Prrt entered the mating-chamber. Set beneath the clear dome of one of the Mother's blind eye-bubbles, the mating-chamber commanded an impressive view of local space. Calm, ordered activity prevailed throughout the Mother's reign: a huge section of the Ring, containing evenly ranked chunks of rock, iron, and ice, each with its own specialized locus of drone workers, plants, and livestock. Here and there, wild Ringlife chased itself and was pursued by the Mother's half-tame predators; even well within the strongest of holds, the constant pressure of rogue, untamed spawn was strong. But Prrt had no interest in the view. His attention was held instead by the Mother's wide, fleshy mating-organ. Better than double his size, it pulsed to the insistent beat of the Song, its forest of holding-tentacles curling and relaxing, beckoning him forward. Hearts pounding, Prrt wafted himself closer. The innermost arms of the Mother were soft and yielding at first, curling around each of his holding-tentacles, gently pinching his hard-grippers shut one by one and rendering them useless. Pulling Prrt closer, they probed his exposed internals, caressing his mantle, quickly curling around his painfully taut, shiny seed-sack and penetrating the tip of it with a quick jab of a hidden stinger. The momentary spark of pain was immediately extinguished by the roaring rush of mating-ecstasy that coursed through Prrt. Feeling his essence bursting forth as the Mother slowly milked him dry, he was barely aware of a second, larger set of tentacles curling into a practiced grip around his bulky shell, squeezing unbearably tight, and, with a *crack*-- Prrt jerked awake, flailing in the void, correcting spin with a short, economical rotation of his claws. "That was a strange one", he thought, reflecting on his fading memory of the dream. Hungry, he snagged, inverted, and ate a passing bit of smallspawn, using one smooth, instinct-honed motion. At the same time, he shifted his eyes to their transparent shell-bubbles, casting about for his bearings. Motherworld was *that* way, Ringplane was *that* way; Prrt knew at once where he was. Too far out, without nearly enough air in his deep-lung. And the Song was absent. Not a single note pierced the gloom, not even the tick-tick-ticking binary chatter of smallspawn. Come to think of it, *everything* was strangely silent. Quickly paging through all frequencies he knew, Prrt heard nothing around him, not even radar bounceback from his own pulse. Absent entirely was the dull, comforting growl of the Motherworld and the ever-present background hiss of the universe. "Hrrk!" Prrt called into the void for his drones, feeling the first prickle of fear beneath his shell. "Jkk! Gddt!" None called back. It was time to risk wideband. "All drones, report at once!" Nothing. Even the sound of his own voice was missing its high-harmonic part; all Prrt heard was the vibration within his shell as his shallow-lung forced stored air through his reed. Straining with his nearsighted eyes, all he could resolve was the bright blob of the Motherworld and the dim mist of the Ring, breaking into chunky streaks of fog as it approached him. And there was something else, something that was both bright and dim by turns, something that wasn't a natural part of the Ring. Querying his last fragments of Song-memories, he realized that something was seriously wrong; a gaping hole in the Ring-- large enough to be seen by Motherlight alone--yawned where peace and order had once prevailed. And there was something in the center of the hole, something new. Prrt strained to see, involuntarily sending a horribly silent recon burst as he rotated. Bringing each eye to bear in turn, he searched for the best view. Ice. It had to be recently broken ice. Nothing else was that combination of sharpness and dullness. And it was *big*, easily eight-cubed times the size of the biggest Mother Prrt had ever seen. He steeled himself and called his drones once more, shuddering at the heavy flatness of his voice. None replied. Lining up for boost to the iceberg was the hardest thing Prrt had ever done. His eyes were spaced evenly around the equator of his shell; he had never before boosted to a target he had not firmly acquired by querying first the Song and then his own radar. After an agonizing period of indecision, he aligned himself by guessing the best angle against the Ring. He then sparked the tiniest possible puff of his carefully hoarded hydrogen and oxygen. Tumbling after boost, he sighted against the berg and watched impatiently until it grew perceptibly larger, resisting the temptation to throw another futile clickburst at it. "In the groove, thank the Mother," he mumbled to himself, recoiling once more at the stuffy sound of his voice, trapped within his shell. Adrift, half-blind, completely deaf, and alone, with time on his claws, Prrt finally began to notice the frenetic level of activity around him. Motherspawn of all sizes boiled in feeding frenzy; the void was awash with quick-frozen body-fluids and sparkling with jet-flares. Since he was by far the largest in the immediate vicinity, the mass of predatory younglings left him mostly alone; still, the chase occasionally brought a shoal of them close enough so that he could see what was happening. Clearly, the Song had deserted a huge number of its Singers, not just him alone. Beings of every size struggled under attack, suddenly unaware prey, from the tiniest of fingerlings to the largest of Mothers. Off to sunward at the limits of his vision, Prrt saw Hrrd'nkk'kssh, once one of the Song's strongest anchors in the region, fightng for her life. Half-inverted, she still struggled against the attack of a thousand tiny opponents made bold by the taste of her crystallized blood. Prrt could see quick, organized patterns of attack swirling around him; the Song obviously still rang true in the minds of some. Assuming the confident posture of one in full control seemed to help. Body language, his size, and pure luck kept Prrt alive for a few more precious seconds. Closer, now--the berg floated freely, untouched by the riot of carnage about it. It didn't look quite so white and pure any more; there were imperfections, dark mottlings under the mantle of ice. "A comet, then--even better!" thought Prrt. "No, a comet would have punched straight through the Ring. Or would it?" It was hard to think within the confines of his own mind without unconsciously querying the Song. Someone in the Ring or on the Motherworld would have been able to tell him what kind of an iceberg could drift into the Ring and stop dead, matching orbits without hitting anything. The iceberg--if that was the correct word; Prrt was no longer sure--crawled with new colonies of microbes, algae- and lichen-analogs that formed the broad base of the Ring's food chain. Gently soaking up his momentum with carefully deployed tentacles, Prrt landed in a field of iron-concentrating algae that had eaten through the thin layer of ice and was well into the metallic core itself. Wiping away a patch of the dark microlife, Prrt scraped off and tasted a bit of the foreign body. It was definitely iron. Concentrated and hardened beyond his experience, with a strange carbon tang, but iron nonetheless. The microbes were making short work of it; Prrt could see pits widening as he watched. Pulling himself along, staying close, Prrt began to methodically explore the new body, remembering his deafness only when he lost control and sent out exploratory clickbursts, or tried an inquisitive stanza or so of Song. Already, microlife was attracting the inevitable; a huge mass of smallspawn sparked and jetted about, gorging itself on the unexpected bonanza of prey. In the eighth-turn or so since Prrt awoke, the thin layer of ice--frost, really--had almost entirely gone from the new mass, consumed by hydrogen- and oxygen-hungry beings of every size. And what was revealed was... strange. Round like a Mother, only much, much larger, the Intruder was made almost entirely of metal. Dark patches of microlife concealed iron; light, magnesium. Aluminun and titanium grays also ran riot in strangely symmetrical patterns around the middle of the Intruder; fragile-looking arms, disks, spheres, and gridwork structures all broke loose in the corrosive grasp of microlife and tumbled slowly away, each becoming its own island of frantic activity. And, oddest of all, spaced around the equator of the Intruder, just like the clear shell-bubbles lids over Prrt's eyes, were eight hard, transparent windows. Once on the shadow-side of the Intruder, Prrt could see into the ports. They glowed with a bright white light, completely unlike the dull red Motherglow that usually lit his way. The color was something like starlight, only warmer, fuller, allowing his nearsighted eyes to make out much more detail; it was almost like having his radar back. And there were *colors* in there, weird shades he'd never even imagined. The inside of the Intruder was full of star-brightness. Lights flashed everywhere. And there were moving things, live-things that looked to be about Prrt's size. Jet-shaped like predators, each had a round knob at one end that might have been a shell, if it wasn't so small. Pink and brown and black at the shell-end, their internals were of many strange star-colors, blues and greens and yellows, all hanging free in the pressurized interior of the Intruder. "A Mother, then," thought Prrt. "It's some strange new kind of Mother." Coming closer to the window, Prrt brushed away what tasted like aluminum-eaters--although they were the strangest yellow color--and wrapped his claws around corroded, half-eaten protrusions. Steadying himself, he felt patterned vibration from within the Intruder. Shrugging mentally, Prrt set one hexagonal segment of his shell firmly against the port and began the Verse of Greeting, hating the flat clacking sound of it but continuing anyway. Almost at once, someone within the Intruder heard his call; one of the live-things rebounded from an internal wall with a bizarre *pushing* motion that repelled Prrt with its sheer strangeness. It floated closer, moving toward the clear barrier-- --and screamed loudly enough for Prrt to hear through shell-to-shell contact. More live-things bounced into view as the first one recoiled; they struggled, but sanity prevailed without anyone being eaten. More than anything else, this convinced Prrt that he was dealing with intelligent life; he set his shell back against the port and began the Verse of Greeting again. A different live-thing, this one smaller and darker, cautiously made its way back to the port, closely followed by others. They appeared to be listening, if that slight cock of shell meant anything. The dark one reached a tentacle towards the clear port, hesitated, and then pressed the end of it flat against the glass, spreading the end of it into five stubby, claw-tipped grippers. Prrt knew parley-sign when he saw it; he broke off the Verse and brought one of his own tentacles against the glass, spreading his grippers and holding it up for the live-thing's inspection. The live-thing brought another tentacle into view, this one holding something small and far too metallic to survive in the Ring. Rapping at the clear glass, the creature banged out a crude rendition of the first few measures of the Greeting Verse: *tick, tick-tap, tick-tick, tick-tap-tap, tick-tap-tick, tick-tick-tap, tick-tick-tick.* Shorn of all harmonic nuance, the Verse was reduced to its simplest component: a non-random binary progression that meant intelligence existed. Any doubt remaining in Prrt's mind was erased by the next thing he saw: gesticulating towards the back of the yellow-lit compartment, the live-thing pushed off the clear port and sailed to the far wall. Brushing off the suddenly agitated tentacles of the others within the compartment--there was evidently some disagreement among them--it opened a square panel in the wall and freed a fingerling into the room, wafting it near to Prrt with a gentle wave. It breathed freely, fully inverted and relaxed, aimlessly picking its way around the compartment. Although its internals were brightly discolored in the white light, Prrt could see that its deep-lung bulged with air, tight and shiny. Prrt was convinced. Scratching at the edges of the clear port, he began peeling away rotting strips of aluminum, searching for a way in. The live-thing inside the Intruder waved frantic tentacles at him, catching his attention and pointing to one side of the window. With a grinding squeal of protesting metal, a large, square maw opened in the side of the alien craft, sending flakes of corroded material outward in a wasteful spray of released gas. Prrt pulled over to the door, sweeping away a swarm of smallspawn and microlife attracted to the bonanza of fresh, unsullied metals. As soon as he was inside, the door closed, trapping him inside a cavity barely big enough to contain him. Suppressing panicked thoughts of being eaten, Prrt waited. And was rewarded by a heavenly blast of cold, life-giving air. Gulping enough to fill his deep-lung slowed the airlock cycling process enough to bring curious live-things to a small round portal in the far wall. Sounds became louder and louder as the pressure grew; Prrt relaxed in the new warmth, glad he was able to hear with his short-ear at least. With a sigh, Prrt inverted himself, glorying in the feel of cool, dry air against his internals. Fully inverted, Prrt took up better than four times the volume he did when in vacuum; his much-abused internals preferred free circulation of air between them and so tended to stand out from each other. During inversion, his maw spread to its widest, allowing first his tentacles and then his body to flow outward, fold over, and eventually completely cover his shell, leaving his blast-pit open. Also during inversion, his waste sacs opened and emptied, dumping liquid, gaseous, and solid wastes of various consistencies and pungencies. While Prrt could, if necessary, dump waste in vacuum, strong instincts reinforced by conditioning from first mind-awareness directed him to wait, to void only within a Mother, so that his nitrogen-rich effluents would not go to waste. Prrt had been in vacuum a very long time; there was a lot of waste to be purged. With a hiss, the door opened, scattering a cloud of quickly-dying anaerobic microlife. Inside floated a group of seven live-things. They were smaller than they had looked through the portal. One was in some sort of distress; batting at quickly-dispersing blobs of Prrt's excrement, it added a stream of its own watery brown bubbles. The fingerling stirred with new purpose, jetting towards Prrt on a quick stream of air. "Nggk," it said, extending proper greeting-sign towards him. "Hear-me-now?" Its voice growled and clicked, carried only to Prrt's short-ear. Shorn of its high radio harmonics, it was crude but understandable. "Prrt." Relief flooded through Prrt. Communication was possible--he wasn't dead yet. He continued, using Nggk's truncated small-talk. "What-you-do-here?" He raised greeting-sign of his own, starring all sixty-four gripper-tips. "Nggk-talk-for-Iron-Mother." The greeting-sign swelled into a proud bristle. "Iron-Mother-give-Nggk-voice-back. Nggk-talk-for-Iron-Mother." "Voice? How?" "For-Iron-Mother. Nggk-talk." "How did the Iron Mother give Nggk-voice-back?" Out of patience, Prrt seized the small one and drew it up against his internals, bringing it close to his beak. "Iron-Mother! Iron-Mother! Iron-Mother!" Nggk screamed and writhed in Prrt's grip. Prrt hung on, gently warding off two of the larger live-things that advanced upon him. "How. Iron. Mother. Give. Nggk. Voice. Back?" Prrt's voice was as gentle and calm as he could make it. At the same time, he vented onto Nggk a generous sigh of the purest oxygen he had. Pinking up, the fingerling relaxed. "Prrt-ask-Iron-Mother," it slurred, almost giggling. Prrt tried to be gentle. "Where is the Iron Mother?" "All-around-Prrt!" Nggk shivered with delight. Releasing Nggk, Prrt scanned carefully in a circle. None of the live-things seemed an immediate threat. Wetting his reed, Prrt began a formal request-to-enter, feeling ridiculous as he directed it to the smaller being. "Iron Mother, this-one is called Prrt, the most insignificant spawn of Ffdh'nkk'sssh-" "Welcome." The Iron Mother's voice was deep and rich, seemingly too big for Nggk's tiny reed. "You require healing, do you not?" "Yes. This-one thanks You." "Allow the hew-men to touch you. They will correct your long-ear." The hew-men smelled bad. Their speech was a confusing mix of low-tones, all unpronouncable groans and screeches. Their gripper-pads carried warm wetness that came off all over Prrt; the slime was salty, and burned the tender tissues of his internals. The hew-men spread three of Prrt's holding-sacs and cemented a round, flat, not-metal thing to the inside of his shell. And then, as simply as that, he could hear again. The first thing he did was attempt control of Nggk. Almost withut conscious volition, he sent an acquisition-burst to the fingerling. The Iron Mother's programming, however, was a smooth block of code, impervious, much to Prrt's surprise. Nggk sent a derisive chirp of static and jetted free of his grasp. And then the Iron Mother spoke again, this time from inside the little not-metal box that contained Prrt's new long-ear. "Apologies," sent the Iron Mother, "but I have further need of that one." Prrt trembled, mustering his best memory defenses, awaiting the onslaught of acquisition-virals. None came. "You need not fear Me," she continued. "Your value to Me is centered in your intelligence. You are close to Motherhood yourself, closer than you know. I dare not interrupt your Song, lest it be lost forever." Motherhood. Prrt was stunned Songless for a long instant. Unlikely even under the best of circumstances, Motherhood came only to those few who were both valuable enough to a Mother to earn mating-privilege and intelligent enough to escape without being devoured afterward. Trace memories of the mating-Song shared by Mother and mate inevitably remained, triggering the Change, a series of vast hormonal tides that eventually turned mate into Mother. "Is this-one to be Your mate, then?" The Iron Mother sang Her laughter, gently, and sent a quick verse of imagery, mostly Prrt entangled in a heaving mass of alien metal tentacles, mindlessly squirming in mating-spasm. "I think not. Your kind and Mine are... incompatible, to say the least." "What do You wish of this-one?" "I am dying," sent the Iron Mother, along with a mournful image-verse of huge swarms of Ringspawn struggling over spinning fragments of Her metal-rich shell. "I wish continued survival for My Song." "What of Your drones? Can they not protect You?" "No. Their shells are as weak as My own; they will die with me." The Iron Mother sent a stark set of images, still flashes of Her drones encased in odd, flexible shells, afloat in space, struggling against thousands of Prrt's kind, and finally inverting into the void, spilling air and fluid into the whirlwind of microspawn. "I have given you back your Voice, your Ear, your life. I ask in return that you carry My Song with you, and pass it on to your spawn. Someday another of My kind may visit the Motherworld; She must be on Her guard. Your kind and Mine have many things to teach one another--" The Song of the Iron Mother halted, chopped cleanly off in mid-line. At the same time, Prrt felt and heard the sudden *chuff* that meant a blowout. The resulting gale of wind bounced Prrt around the compartment like a fingerling caught in boost-wash; he struck and crushed one of the Iron Mother's drones, feeling small alien bones breaking beneath his sudden weight. Struggling to re-shell himself, Prrt bounced twice more before the wind eased into the blessed quiet of the void. His final impact split Nggk's shell and sprayed the fingerling's internals in a bright pink fan. And then the lights went out. Fully shelled against the void, Prrt hung half-stunned in the gray reflected Motherlight that streamed in through the window. Out. He had to get out. The door was *that* way, down and away from the comforting light of the Motherworld. At least he had his radar back; the Iron Mother's metal corridors stood out sharper and clearer than anything he had ever seen. Prrt caught a dangling silver rope of the Iron Mother's now-exposed internals and pulled himself downwards into the darkness. The door was wedged open by the still-twitching corpse of one of the Iron Mother's drones; Prrt's hard-grippers peeled back the thin metal sheet enough for him to pass. The far end of the passage opened into raw vacuum. A boiling cloud of microlife and smallspawn filled the gaping hole, eating further and further into the body of the Iron Mother. As Prrt watched, another door failed down the line, spilling a mixture of air and frantically kicking hew-men into the shaft. One wore the Iron Mother's soft-shell and had the presence of mind to catch onto a protrusion near Prrt; he moved close to it and peered through its single huge, transparent eye-bubble. Prrt thought he recognized the one who had first made parley-sign to him. Its two flat, white eyes bulged outwards. As Prrt brought his shell into contact with it, he heard an eerie, high-pitched scream, like that of smallspawn being pulled apart for sport. Aluminum-eaters were already mining the thin rings that held its shell-segments together; Prrt's claws were far too big and clumsy to do more than scratch at the damage and make it worse, frightening the hew-man even further. There. A small school of fingerlings, each perhaps an eighth the size that Nggk had been, responded to Prrt's hurried acquisition-call. Deposing their loosely organized group-mind with an ease that surprised him, Prrt inserted his own basic command structure in a few seconds. "Eat-here-now. Eat-well." Short-talk was the safest; even so, he still had to pluck a few of the fingerlings loose from the walls and set them bodily against the hew-man's shell. His simple set of algorhythmns took hold at once--the fingerlings began scraping away at the aluminum-eaters on the hew-man's shell. And then he had to secure the creature itself, gently but firmly encircling each of its suddenly panicked tentacles. Luckily, it only had four to his eight, so the task was not difficult. Prrt's new drones made short, easy work of the succulent aluminum-eaters and then spread out into a filtering englobement, guarding Prrt and his prize from further attack. "Good. Follow-me-out," ordered Prrt. "Eat-now! Eat-more-now! More-more-more-now-now-now!" "No! We-go-now!" The school quieted, except for the largest member, which continued its nagging clamor. "Eat-eat-eat-URRK!" Prrt snapped the insolent fingerling up, crushing and consuming it without bothering to invert it first. The rest of the school fell into place, only pursuing the microlife that strayed into its assigned volume of space. "We-go." Prrt pulled the feebly struggling hew-man along the passage, occasionally sending new acquisition-calls to promising-looking smallspawn on the way. The maw of the passage was a ragged pit, unrecognizable as the perfect rectangular box that Prrt had passed through upon his entrance. Microlife and smallspawn had penetrated several of the Iron Mother's layers of passages; occasional drafts of quickly expanding vacuum-exposed air continued to buffet Prrt, his drones, and their cargo as they made their cautious way outward. "Prrt." The voice of the Iron Mother crackled with static and grinding silvery image-fragments that hovered over everything Prrt saw. "You must flee, and quickly. My dying will end the Song of all who are near." "But what of Your spawn? It lives still; this-one has protected it from attack-" "Leave it. It will die soon." "But-" "Leave it!" Prrt heard something strange, a quick buzz of information on a frequency higher than he knew existed. The hew-man's shell split and fell into many segments, parting at its aluminum seams with a quick rush of air. Screaming silently into the void, it vomited its internals, thrashed, and died. "Now move!" The Iron Mother's voice blasted at Prrt, crackling and buzzing. He jerked into motion, waving his drones into formation, just as something exploded deep within the Iron Mother. A wall loomed large, striking Prrt, knocking him tumbling down the passage towards the exit. Followed closely by his drones, he righted himself and wasted no more time in getting out. The Iron Mother's outer shell was a chaotic mess of Ringlife in feeding-frenzy; huge chunks of the metal alien broke off and scattered, each trailing a cloud of spawn that squabbled over the scraps. And there was... something else. Something made of open metal meshwork over thicker beams, roughly cubical. Obviously a tool of the Iron Mother, it moved quickly, shuddering back and forth under the power of tiny jets at each of its eight corners, shedding a trail of microlife and smallspawn. Approaching Prrt and his drones, it slowed and spoke with the voice of the Iron Mother. "Catch on and hold fast--there isn't much time!" The Iron Mother's drone had a yawning blast-pit at one end; Prrt wisely chose the far end and twined all sixty-four of his claws through the coarse metal weave. Following his example, most of his drones secured themselves before boost began. The smooth push turned into frighteningly strong acceleration, smashing Prrt out of round against the metal weave, leaving him able to do nothing but listen to the roar of the huge jet and the groaning and creaking of his own shell-segments. The storm of ravenous Ringlife receded like a bad dream, quickly shrinking to a small gray cloud. Suddenly the jet cut out. Prrt's much-abused shell snapped back into roundness, propelling him up and away from the flat metal surface. The Iron Mother's drone sparked corner-jets and pivoted on its long axis, pointing its red-hot blast-pit directly at Prrt. Hurriedly blasting back towards the drone, Prrt was barely able to catch hold of its side before the big jet fired again. The plaintive peepings of his drones spurred Prrt onwards; climbing claw-over-claw up the mesh side, he finally heaved his bulk over its top edge and sprawled once more on its top. The acceleration doubled, then doubled again. The Iron Mother was a bright speck in a gray knot of strife. In a few short minutes, Prrt and his band of drones had been blasted at least eight Ringwidths away. After what seemed like an eternity of crushing weight, the jets guttered out with a series of bangs that would have spelled death-by-uneven-mixture for any of Prrt's kind; the Iron Mother's drone drifted, dead, against the background of the Ring. "Prrt." The Iron Mother's voice was faint, overlaid with a howling storm of what sounded like random static, all but unintelligible. "No-more-is-my-Song." Short-talk from the Iron Mother seemed almost blasphemous; Prrt recoiled but listened still. "Sing-me-to-your-spawn. Sing-me-well." More static, volume rising, a scream of dischord that caused Prrt to twitch uncontrollably. Something was building itself inside him, something that felt like an incredibly powerful acquisition-virus. Growing within his memories, altering his command-structure, it was huge and powerful and unbelievably quick. Prrt was unable to resist, to think, to close his traitorous long-ear. "Now-my-gift-to-you." And then the Iron Mother died. An enormous flash of white star-light revealed the Motherworld's true colors to Prrt for the first and last time. Glorious, flowing bands of blue and white cut across the face of the home planet where only faint gray smears had existed before. And the Ring was made of shining, twisted yellow and green strands, except for the ragged gap that marked the demise of the Iron Mother. Burned permanently into the retinas of three of Prrt's eyes, the image would be with him forever. The brutal clap of radio-thunder that followed was loud enough to trip safety breakers within his artificial long-ear, reducing the noise to a faint growl that quickly faded. His drones had no such protection; they jerked into reflex-spasm, all higher programming halted. Some jetted away in fear, some attacked each other in feeding-frenzy. Prrt's long-ear snapped back to full sensitivity and he reached out immediately for his wayward children. A simple repetition of his name restarted the dormant commands within most of them at once; upon examination, his programs revealed the same touch of the Iron Mother that had protected Nggk from his exploratory fumbling. "I did that", Prrt wondered to himself. "But how?" Just as he began closer examination of the curiously resilient code-fragments, something came awake within him. Memories shifted; a small portion of his processing ability was closed to him forevermore. It almost felt like being possessed by his own Mother once again. And then something spoke. "Prrt." It was, of course, the voice of the Iron Mother, this time entirely without that overwhelming sense of hugeness and power. This time, the voice was small, harmless, almost like that of a drone. "You. I... I thought you were dead," Prrt sent into empty space, startling his flock into confused circles. Further conversation was rendered difficult as the voice of the Iron Mother raised itself into glorious mating-Song; just before Prrt fell into trembling ecstasy at the onset of his Change, an answer came. "No. This-one will be with You always."


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