The Alera Thing rubbed her fingers together as if in thought. It seemed to Lang a childlike gesture, as an infant discovering it has hands and can do things with it. "We have an offer." "Okay." "The reason we cannot absorb you is the implant in your left forearm. The biometric reader that Union captains receive on their promotion or purchase of a ship. It is different from the nodes in others and gives off a frequency that repulses us." Lang had forgotten about that. It had been several voyages since he took over the Vulture. "What, really?" "We are as surprised as you are," the Alera Thing said, "But nevertheless, it's so. No one else on this ship has such a device. When we carried you across from our vessel, we confirmed it. Pinpointed it." "So that prize of ours..." "...is ours, yes. We placed ourselves there in plain sight, before the battle, in hopes that The Alera Thing nodded as if it was expecting that question. someone would retrieve us." "We?" "We are the beings with whom your species has been at war. What you call buzzdroids are our hive warships, nothing more. We operate them consciously, but they are not 'alive' in any way you would understand." "And you are..." "Very old, Arturus Lang. Very old, and possessed of a highly advanced and refined consciousness. You might call us 'spirits', but it is hard to find a term less simplistic for what we truly are." Lang looked down at his hands. He had begun, on this journey, to notice the thinness and dryness of his hands. This was a sign of aging, which did not bother him. He had long understood the inevitability of decline. What bothered him was that he did not seem to know how old he really was. Sure, he could call up his birth date on Earth, but he no longer had any idea what year it was on earth, and time in the Union, shuffling around the galaxy, was a slippery thing. A Union doctor might do a biometric reading and give him an approximate age, but that was guess work. He looked up from his reverie to look again into the eyes of the thing masquerading as Alera to see if there was anything of her looking back at him. Again he saw only hunger. "How did you find me and bring me here? Where was I?" The Alera Thing nodded as if it was expecting that question. "We were there. The shaft you crawled down is a portal to our world, you might say. You have a rare distinction, Arturus Lang. Not many have been as close to our world as you have and ever returned." "I don't get it." "You won't." "Jae..." said Lang. "She is gone. She attempted to blow up our ship. We prevented her, but not without triggering an explosion that did some damage. It will not be flyable without repairs."