When Matt Raimey had his accident, he thought his life was over. He never dreamed, in his wildest fantasies, that he’d end up in a spot like this. In the toxic atmosphere of Jupiter, born into the body of an enormous creature that looked like a cross between a manta ray and a dolphin, he is living a new life, unlike any humankind had previously experienced.
An unbelievable turn of events, it gave him a reason to live, to survive, no matter what happened . . . but every second chance comes with conditions and responsibilities. And as those who brought him to this strange destiny have their authority stripped from them and he discovers the truth that only he can know about the giant alien creatures he now calls family, this man reborn as the one they now call Manta suddenly isn’t sure he wasn’t better off before. . . .
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Timothy Zahn, the Hugo Award-winning author of more than twenty original novels and the all-time bestselling original Star Wars™ novel Heir to the Empire, has captivated readers with his Cobra and Blackcollar series, as well as such marvelous works as his recent Angelmass. He lives in the Pacific Northwest.
ONE The doctors had been and gone, the neurologists had been and gone, and the biotron people had been and gone. For the first time in days, it seemed, Matthew Raimey was alone. All alone. He lay on his back and stared up at the ceiling. That was about all he could do, really, lie there and stare at the ceiling. The clean, soothing, pastel blue--colored damned hospital ceiling. Like the ceilings he would now be staring at for the rest of his life. It was quiet at this end of the hospital. The kind of quiet that made it easy to think. To think, and to remember. Mostly, he found himself remembering the accident. It replayed itself over and over against the pastel blue background, in exquisite and painful detail. The little squeaks and crunches of his skis as they slid lightly over the packed snow. The icy wind whipping at his ears and forehead and freezing the edges of his nostrils. The sharp aroma of the pine trees, mixed with a hint of drifting smoke from the lodge below. The familiar tension in his bent knees as he rode the crests and smoothed out the bumps of the mountain. Brianna's clear soprano voice behind him as she laughed and chattered and threatened to zoom past him. The tiny mound of snow that had caught the tip of his left ski and spun him a few degrees off course. The giant Douglas fir that had loomed suddenly in his path. He'd tried very hard to dodge that tree. Used every bit of his skill and the precious quarter-second of time he had to make sure he didn't slam into it. And to his rather smug satisfaction at the time, he had succeeded. He shouldn't have tried. He wished desperately now that he hadn't. He should have just hit the tree, accepted whatever broken ribs it would have cost him, and been done with it. But he had been too clever for that. Too clever and too skillful and too arrogant. Besides, Brianna had been right there behind him, with Alan and Bobbi somewhere behind her. He would have looked like an idiot, running into a tree like an amateur. Especially after having bragged about how close he could ski to the edge of the run without getting into trouble. He'd avoided the tree just fine. But he hadn't managed to avoid the edge of the small bush beside it. He could still feel the exhilarating sensation of spinning through the air. It had been like a carnival ride, exciting and mind-spinning, with that faint tinge of fear that gave zest to all the best carnival rides. After all, he was twenty-two years and seven months old, poised to graduate from college with his whole life stretching out like infinity in front of him. He was invincible, and invulnerable, and alive. He could remember hearing Brianna afterward trying frantically to describe to the paramedics what had happened. She'd done a pretty poor job of it, too. She couldn't even tell them how many times he'd spun around in the air. He could have told them. He knew. One and a half times. Exactly. The ride had come to an end with the suddenness of a coaster braking. Oddly enough, there hadn't been any pain. Just that single muffled crack from somewhere behind his ear. And then he'd been lying on his back in the snow, cold air on his cheeks and the unpleasant sensation of icy waterseeping through his scarf onto his neck. Staring up at the overcast sky, just like he was staring now at the pastel blue ceiling. Unable to move his arms and legs. Unable to even feel them. For a while Brianna's face had blocked out some of the sky. He could visualize her face in front of him now, wisps of her brown hair twitching restlessly in the wind around the edge of her bright red ski cap, the smooth skin of her forehead stressed and wrinkled. Her wide, sensuous mouth had been twisted into something ugly by her fear, her deep brown eyes squinting in agony of her own as tears ran down her cheeks and dripped onto his. She'd cried and gasped and pleaded with him over and over to be all right. As if he'd had any choice in the matter. And then the paramedics had come. None of them had cried or gasped or pleaded. But their foreheads had been wrinkled, too, as they eased him onto the rescue sled. Alan and Bobbi had been in twice to see him since his arrival at the hospital. Mostly they'd smiled their false smiles, talked loudly with false cheer, and muttered platitudes with false hope. Each time they'd made their escape as quickly as they could. He hadn't seen Brianna at all. He'd thought about her a lot during the long, silent hours; pictured her smiling face, her easy laughter and spontaneity, her quick and unjudgmental acceptance of everyone and everything that came her way. He'd wished desperately that she would come by and brighten his darkening existence, at least for a little while. But she hadn't, and he doubted now that she ever would. Brianna was the outdoors type, heavily into sports and hiking and fresh air and sunshine. A girl like that had no time for a cripple. There was a tap on his open door. "Mr. Raimey?" It was a man's voice, unfamiliar to him. Raimey's neck still worked; he could have turned his head to see who itwas. He didn't bother. "Doctor, biotron whiz, or chaplain?" he asked shortly. Not that it mattered. None of them could help him anyway. All that mattered was that it wasn't Brianna. The voice didn't answer. He heard soft footsteps, and then a face loomed over him, interfering with his view of the ceiling. An older face, he saw from the wrinkles and the gray salting in the man's otherwise dark hair. Somewhere around fifty, probably. Fifty years old, and walking casually around without a care in the universe. Raimey would have hated him if he'd had any emotional energy left to hate with. "Mr. Raimey, my name is Jakob Faraday," the man said. "I'm with SkyLight International." SkyLight International: the private company that effectively ran the bulk of the Solar System's space travel under contract to the Five Hundred. He could vaguely remember studying the setup briefly in one of his political economics courses. "Is that supposed to impress me?" he asked. "I'm not here to be impressive," Faraday said mildly. "I'm here to talk to you about an opportunity." Raimey snorted. "Forget it." "Forget what?" Faraday asked. "Your so-called opportunity," Raimey shot back. "I read the newsnets. You want me for that--what's it called--that alpha-link stuff you're playing with. Forget it. I'm not going to spend the rest of my life wired up in a lab somewhere seeing if you can run a space barge off my brain." "Ah," Faraday said, nodding. "You have other plans, then?" The flash of anger vanished like dust scattered on a pond. "Go away," he muttered. "Just get lost. Okay?" "I had a word with your doctors," Faraday said, as casually as if he were discussing the weather. He showed no signs of getting lost. "They seem reasonably optimistic about your chances." "Oh, really?" Raimey bit out. "Which doctors were you talking to? Mine say I'm a cripple." It was the first timesince the accident he'd spoken the word aloud. The sound of it was terrifying. "I'm paralyzed from the neck down. They can't repair it, they can't transplant into it, and there's too much damage for forced regrowth." "There are always neural prosthetics," Faraday pointed out. "They're pretty good these days." Raimey turned his head away. Neural prosthetics. Lumpy protuberances sticking out of his neck that would let him lurch around like Frankenstein's monster and manage to grip a spoon after a few months of practice. Even then, there was no guarantee he'd be able to hit his mouth with it. And just enough of a sense of touch to let him know if he was walking on broken glass or sticking his hand in boiling water. Like being wrapped all over in a centimeter of velvet. All over. Those special nights he'd had with Brianna, and Tiffany before her, and Jane before her, had been the last of that sort he would ever have. Ever. "Actually, I didn't come here to offer you test-dummy work," Faraday said. "I came to see if you'd like a chance for a life again." "Really," Raimey growled. "And what'll this miracle cost? My immortal soul?" "No," Faraday said. "Just your very mortal body." Raimey turned his head back around, prepared to say something truly withering. But Faraday wasn't smiling, or grinning, or leering. The man was deadly serious. Or else he was just plain flat-out insane. "What are you talking about?" Raimey demanded cautiously. The other didn't move a muscle, but Raimey had the sudden impression of a man settling in for the long run. Whatever angle he was working here, he figured he'd found his pigeon. And a captive audience, to boot. And as curiosity and annoyance began to replace some of his self-pity, Raimey realized suddenly there was somethingfamiliar about Faraday's face. Something very familiar ... "Tell me, Mr. Raimey," Faraday said, "what did you plan to do after college?" Automatically, Raimey tried to shrug. The muscles didn't even twitch. "What every other twenty-two-year-old plans to do," he said, hearing the bitterness in his voice. "Make a life for myself." "And a name, too?" Faraday suggested. "To excel in your chosen field? To be the best, or the brightest, or the most respected?" He paused, just slightly. "Or perhaps even the first?" Raimey felt his forehead wrinkle. "Let's cut through the donut glaze, all right? What's this all about?" "As I said, an opportunity," Faraday said, resting his hand on the edge of the sensor railing. A polished wooden ring glinted subtly on his finger, Raimey noticed. Unusual jewelry. "Tell me, what do you know about the Qanska?" The Qanska? "They're giant manta ray--shaped things that swim around in Jupiter's atmosphere," Raimey said, frowning. "We made contact with them about twenty years ago and have been talking ever since. There've been a couple of tries at trade agreements, but no one's ever figured out anything they could have that we might want ... ." He trailed off as Faraday's face suddenly clicked. The chapter on the Qanska, and Balrushka's mule-headed but failed attempts to work out a trade deal. "You're Jakob Faraday," he breathed. " The Jakob Faraday." "Of the tether-probe team of Chippawa and Faraday," Faraday agreed, a slight smile briefly touching the corners of his mouth. "First men ever to make contact with the Qanska." The smile turned into an ironic twitch of the lip. "Such as it was." "They cut your tether," Raimey said, trying hard to remember the details. Balrushka and his trade negotiations had been the real point of that chapter, with Chippawa and Faraday more a sidebar than anything else. "One of theQanskan young ran into it, and one of the predators--" "A Vuuka." "Right--a Vuuka chewed through it," Raimey said. "Then one of the older Qanska caught you or something. They held a meeting, and decided to send you back up." "Not bad," Faraday said. "You remember all the essentials, anyway. Now, let's try a real test. Do you remember the name of the man who finally cracked the Qanskan language code? Or the name of the two women who compiled the first English/Qanska tonal dictionary?" Raimey made a face. "You must be joking. Of course not." "Which is exactly my point," Faraday said. "No one remembers them, at least no one in the general public. But they were obviously highly important to history." He smiled again, self-deprecatingly this time. "Far more important than Scotto and I were, to be perfectly honest. Just as the men who translated the First Immigrants' languages were more important to the history of the Americas than Christopher Columbus was. But everyone remembers Columbus and not them. Why? Because he was the first." "Fine," Raimey said. "I agree; first is good. Now tell me the rest of it." Faraday pursed his lips. "The Qanska have made us an offer," he said. "We believe it would be possible for a human to ... well, to put it bluntly, to become a Qanska." Raimey played the words over again in his mind, just to see if he'd actually heard them right. "And how exactly would this miracle of rebirth happen?" he asked. "Actually, in exactly that way," Faraday said. "The human volunteer would be inserted into the womb of a pregnant female Qanska, where he would be partially absorbed into the fetus and then 'born' into a Qanskan body." "What about physiology conflicts?" Raimey asked, the very outrageousness of the idea somehow allowing him to discuss it calmly. Surely Faraday wasn't serious about this. "Qanskan biochemistry can't possibly be compatible with ours." "It's not," Faraday conceded. "The volunteer would start out as something of a hybrid: a human brain and mostly artificial spinal cord melded into a Qanskan body. There would also be a custom-made system of bioengineered organs that would synthesize nutrients from the Jovian atmosphere to support that part. Over time, the human elements would be replaced atom by atom, cell by cell, with the Qanskan equivalents, much the same way as wood petrification occurs. At that point the nutrient organs would atrophy, and the volunteer would be a true Qanska, only with his original human personality and memories." "And how long exactly do they expect this petrification to take?" Raimey asked with a touch of sarcasm. "A thousand years? Ten thousand? Most of the bioengineered organs I've ever heard of have about the shelf life of fresh fruit." "Oh, they're a bit better than that," Faraday assured him. "Especially state-of-the-art military versions." Raimey frowned. "Are you saying this would be a Sol/ Guard project?" "Not at all," Faraday assured him. "It would be supported by both Sol/Guard and SkyLight, of course, but it would be under the direct control of the Five Hundred." "So rich politicians instead of soldiers," Raimey said. "Big improvement. You haven't answered my question." "How long the complete transformation would take?" Faraday shrugged. "We don't have a precise number yet, of course. But from the tissue and animal experiments we've run, our best guess is between eight and twenty months. Sometime during the Qanskan childhood stage, and well within the shelf life of your life-support system." Raimey stared at him, a sudden tightness squeezing at his throat. "You're serious about this," he said. "Deadly serious," Faraday assured him, his eyes glittering. "We have a chance-- you have a chance--to do something no one else has ever done before. You can step into a brand-new culture, an alien culture, in a way no human being has ever done before. You'll be able to join with anew race, and learn about it from the inside. Think of what they might be able to teach us about philosophy, or social interaction, or biochemistry. The knowledge you gain and send back could influence mankind's perceptions and behavior for generations to come." He gave Raimey a tight smile. "And as for you, your name would be set alongside those of Marco Polo and Columbus and Neil Armstrong. Forever." "Yeah,&quo...
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