** this story takes place before the Zekirans reach Planet Twenty, by about 200 years **
Targan never quite understood why his dam and sire were unable to transform themselves. After all, he could do it, and it would stand to reason that they should too. But even that logic seemed to escape them - they were intelligent, but not nearly so much as he. What had happened, why had this happened to him, questions rose in the Steed's mind the way that no other had ever done.
Zekiran Steeds were always smart, for animals. They took commands easily, though on their own terms. They understood body language, signs from hands, and vocal speech to a small extent, and they enjoyed the rewards that their riders or handlers gave them. But there came a day when those people were gone. When the Steeds had lived freely in the air and wherever they pretty well pleased, because there weren't enough handlers to tell them where to go. Steeds of any kind - on any world - would do this. They knew their instincts would help. They knew where to sleep, and where to graze. Things that were obvious to them might be unknowns to their keepers.
That was so long ago, genetically speaking, that the Steeds of this modern, civilization-less Zekira could not comprehend it. Who could - other than their old keepers? The Zekirans died out after almost a hundred thousand years of living here- and those who were left vanished on a bright starship forever almost half that time since. But the genes they left behind, the experiments they had performed, the breeding that had been done long before, lasted.
Steeds smarter than Targan existed. He didn't know of them, they were on another continent and he didn't know what that meant. It was hard for a being of his intelligence to live alone, seemingly alone if not in physical fact during his youth. He had no one to explain to him what the planet was, how long his kind had roamed it, or that they had in fact been brought in a primative form from another planet entirely long before.
He had no way of knowing that the bright blinking star that stayed in one place overhead was not just another star, but was in fact a small ship piloted by two wayward immortals, seeking their roots on the world where their parents claimed they'd never need to return to. But it was from that ship that the pair descended one night, and Targan watched with keen eyes as they did so.
Curiosity had always been strong in the colt, he would always seek out new things. His flock had allowed it, to a point, but when he started investigating the ruins of the old Zekiran cities, they abandoned him and would not let him return to their side. So, alone now in fact rather than merely in mind, Targan kept trotting toward the city. It shone in the daylight, and had an eerie sort of dusty haze around it at any time. The winds from the north brought dirt down, halfway covering the edges of the area, so only a portion of the city was really visible.
The star craft descended to the north, and Targan decided that meeting it would be foolish. But he wanted to watch, to see what this falling object was. When he saw creatures exiting it, he perked up greatly. They were not like him, and not like the other animals of the world. There were certainly still lots of natural animals and slightly unnatural ones as well (those creepy ferilons that had grown weird limbs, armor and such - what exactly were they?) but nothing like these bipedal ones.
Shaken, suddenly, by a strange shudder that ran through Targan's body, the steed paused for a moment. They'd seen him? Noticed him? They hadn't looked his way, had they? But ... perhaps...
To one that had never experienced 'words' before, Targan suddenly knew: they, like him, could sense life around them, and had done so. They were psionic, and so was he. Words came to his mind, though he suspected they weren't meant to.
It's pretty quiet, this is where they said 'Mada' was.
First city, it's only fitting that we start here, right?
The pair of creatures said things, and for no apparent reason Targan understood. He shuddered again, his wings folding down so he wouldn't appear so big. He didn't want to frighten them. But he did want to meet them. Did they realize that he was intelligent? As they passed their minds around the place looking for their own kind, did they miss his? He knew they'd spotted him but perhaps they just thought he was another Steed wandering loose.
And then one of them - the female by her mental voice - turned to look at him. She said something, distance made the words garbled and unintelligable even to Targan's keen hearing. The male turned as well, and tilted his head. He appeared to have long ears on his head, while the female looked to have a long slender tail. Otherwise they were unremarkable beings, slender and lean, looked a little like they could run fast but not for long with those skinny legs.
Targan began taking steps toward them. He lowered his head, but kept his ears forward. With his wings low, they could only know that he meant no harm nor was he about to fly away in fear. It took several minutes to get to their spot, the soft dirt made it rather hard to walk. He arrived, and the female reached her hand out.
"He's gorgeous, isn't he Valla?"
"If you say so, Triin," the male replied. Valla continued to stroke Targan's nose, as he sniffed her hand.
A bird startled the trio, erupting from one of the nooks in a building and causing a little tumble of rubble to fall down. The male bristled, literally growing fur and short wings as he did so.
And when he did, Targan ... changed.
Gasping for breath, as startled as the pair of Zekirans, Targan wobbled and fell to his knees. He would have braced himself with his forehooves but ... he didn't have any, instead he stared at fingers like the Zekirans had. He looked up at the male, Valla, and knickered.
"How did you do that?" Targan asked - suddenly surprising himself yet again with the words coming from his mouth. He knew the words but he'd never learned them.
This seemed to shock the pair just as much as it had Targan.
"... you... You speak?" Asked Triin, "how ... and you shift! Like Valla!" She suddenly went from surprised to elated. "That's so cool!"
Valla on the other hand was still busy preening and trying to get his fur to un-ruffle from his original surprise, when Triin lept onto him and turned his head toward the Steed shifter. "I get it, I get it!" Valla insisted, "let me go!"
Valla looked at Targan up and down, and reached out a now-clawed hand. "Do you know how to stand? Haven't you ever shifted before?"
Targan shook his head (again, he didn't know why he did it, but it seemed to indicate 'no') and said, "I have never... and never spoke ... words?" He grasped the offered hand, nearly crushing it, and pulled himself up into a bipedal stance. Now that he was a bit more settled into his shape, he could feel his wings balancing him, his feet were in his opinion a bit small to keep him upright easily, but he was doing it none the less.
"Then it's a day for discovery all around!" Triin exclaimed, happily. "Come on, we were going to explore."
"My ... flock never comes here. Afraid to." He looked around, "it is... different than grasslands."
"People built this," Valla said, "our people, many many years ago."
As the trio walked deeper into the ancient city of Mada, the day grew longer and shadows did as well. They found buildings that were nearly intact, standing by others that were almost dust. With a touch, Triin told them - she was a psychometrist - "and yet the one still standing is older than that one that's broken down... They knew how to build things to last, once upon a time..."
They spoke of each other's abilities, where they had been born (on a 'ship' like the one they dropped from the sky in, only much much bigger) and how they were unable to die. Targan knew that he'd been able to heal himself for a while, but they were more impressed with the fact that he shifted and was able to talk, when he was born from four-footers.
In the evening, they found a pond still being supplied with fresh water from the mountains far off, and set up a camp. Targan shifted back into his four-footed shape as he rested, and slept nestling his nose under his wing like Steeds usually did. The Zekirans spoke mentally, not waking him, but wondering what to do now that he'd joined them.
They decided by morning, that he should accompany them on their journey. They knew that they'd only find ruins, rubble and perhaps one or two bits of great interest, but that was why they were here at all. For almost a year then, they journeyed around. Twice they went back to their ship and moved to another continent. On the way of course, Targan learned a lot. They gave him what knowledge he could take, having to learn to teach along the way. Something they weren't used to - it was a learning experience for them too. But they had questions for him - how had the Flocks done since the Zekirans left, were there other creatures that took their place, any other visitors that he knew of.
And did he want to come with them when they were done.
"With... with you back to your ship?" Asked Targan, "I don't know... I realize I would be accepted, but... I am not like you, I'm not immortal."
"You might be," Triin said, "after all, it was powers like yours that promoted immortals to be born. And we've had mortals born to us in the past, too. It's just not common."
"We'd like it, if you would - at least... Visit?" Valla said. "You know things from a different perspective. And we could help you develop your powers - but neither of us know what all they are. There are Breeders who could tell you, I think."
He was curious... But afraid. They shared with him brief glimpses mentally, the ship was far off but he'd never know because they could move it very quickly indeed. It was powered by something almost alive, something created by one of the weirder Zekirans whose shape was more energy than matter. He'd fit, if barely, and they would love to have him.
Targan shifted into four-foot, and took a flight around their current landing area. It was a rich and dense forest, coastal and equatorial. He could smell the ocean, he hadn't even known of its existance before flying around with these Zekirans. There was so much he didn't know!
He tried to convince himself there was so much he'd miss. But ... he failed. The world of Zekira was full of life, and he'd want to return. Because it was his home, if nothing else. But it was also only a base of operations now. Now that he knew there was more, Targan wanted to learn. Perhaps he'd be stumped by certain things (like technical details on how to build a starship, or how to make a breeder's vat) but he was interested in history, in biology, he'd observed things that now he could communicate!
So emboldened, he shifted down as small as he could (which wasn't saying much and still he towered over the pair in their ship) and they left Zekira again. Would they really return? Perhaps Targan would. But not in the way he thought...
"Oh now this is a surprise," Viridia said. She was a nice woman, and well respected by her people, so Targan deferred to her when they conversed. Under the flight dome, Viridia and Targan had a relaxing get-together. There were creatures in this dome that surprised Targan - steed-like creatures, and ... dragons. He knew the word - it was on the minds of everyone nearby in the dome.
Targan looked uneasily out windows or the bridge, observation domes and such. The ship was huge, but it was still out in deep space after all. The flight dome on the other hand was big enough to form its own small weather patterns! Aided doubtless by the weather-shapers that lived here, but to say the least Targan felt more comfortable here. He shifted into his four-foot shape and flew about, as Viridia laughed cheerfully below. He came down again, shook off his furry flanks and shaped back into his two-foot form. "Sorry... I just was unable to do that the whole time we traveled back from Zekira. It feels good!"
"I bet it does," Viridia said. "Now, there is something odd about you - something that I have found in several of our people here and there. A few lineages seem to carry it, so I don't doubt that you may be related to them in some small manner." Viridia called a pale skinned man over to them - Targan was still unsure of names and appearances, he knew people by their coloration mainly - because if they didn't have horns, wings, tail or other odd feaures, these two-footed Zekiran folk essentially looked the same to him. They almost smelled uniform too - but they had been together on this ship for ages, that would explain it.
The man that approached had a strong life force, an aura of healing power to him. He held his hands up, felt Targan's chest and reached to his muzzle, nodded once and turned to Viridia. "Yes, he's a 'hopper'. How odd indeed." With that, he walked away again, leaving Viridia to explain what that meant.
It meant essentially that he could travel - without his wings, really - to almost anywhere he could imagine. "And it's strong, it's not like a minor power, not a latency, just because you have not used it yet does not mean it is weak," Viridia said. "Some folk with this power can only use it to see into other ... dimensions. Other possible worlds, places that exist but we aren't in them."
"I know it is complex but I think I understand," Targan said. He did grasp it, actually he enjoyed the thought of it. "Perhaps someone could show me, I would not know where to go, by myself. One of your children is teaching me to read," he said, "but it is difficult. Your language sounds nice but the words are hard to write."
Viridia laughed again, waving her hand. "Yes, I know - we've tried simplifying it but really, it's old habit that we write that way. I thought it was rather pretty myself..."
Though there were several aboard the ship, the genrehopper that was enlisted to aid Targan learn how to use this power was an Outsider. One of those who, like Viridia, had been born and died after living a full life - and then was taken from death's cool grasp and put into a deathless body to wander with the rest of the immortals. Since they weren't born truly, and could not die easily, these Outsiders had a rougher time of living with the mortals of Zekira. But by now they were far outnumbered by their true immortal kin, who didn't really see the trouble, and made them as welcome as any other. So Aern Kshau was chosen to help out because he knew how to 'hop better than almost all the others. (There had been more born but they were not immortal, some left and never came back to Zekira.)
Aern was there, secondarily, because he had at one point been one of the premier Steed breeders and racers on Zekira. He loved Steeds and had decided that even though there were dragons and similar creatures aboard, he would rather have unfrozen some of the gene samples of Steeds they'd kept all this time and create a flock himself. With Targan here, he felt both giddy and even somewhat shamed.
"I do not mind that you would have ridden us, we are meant for that," Targan said when he learned of their Steed racing and shows. "We were made for all manner of things. Your people made us better than nature would have."
"Well that's a relief to hear you say that," Aern chuckled. Once the formality of it all wore off the two of them began talking about concepts and visualizing. To Aern it was a bit of a surprise that this Steedborn creature even had an imagination, but even Targan admitted he was far different from his Flock.
After a little warming up, Aern took them to a slightly parallel world where they'd settled and remained. To Targan it was odd, the world was filled with people resembling those on the ship, but few of them had the 'extras' and they'd settled into a more or less muddy color of skin. Aern asked if Targan was ready to return, and then told the Steed man to send them back. Nervous, but confident, Targan imagined the flight dome - and they returned.
It was a little like galloping without moving, he related later. It winded him, because it was the first time he'd ever done that. When Aern had taken them elsewhere, it was like a bubble popping, a very slight noise and a sudden change in air pressure. When Targan returned them it was more like suddenly coming to a stop after a full run, a bit of a jerk at the end pulling on reality.
But he would get better at it.
Targan learned, while experimenting, that it was easier to travel 'sideways' in his own universe, to other places within it, than to travel to another place entirely. He went back to Zekira several times, just to prove that he could do so - he needed no ship to travel!
He had wings, he could fly on the air. He had legs and arms, he could walk among men. And he could travel whereever either was welcome.
So after a bit more practice, as Aern and he (and sometimes the others who shared the power) would challenge each other to find a place specific to their needs, Targan announced that he would be off traveling on his own for a while. This was nothing new to the Immortals, at any given time some dozen or even scores of their number would be off in small craft like Triin and Valla had been. He knew he had a place here - as well as a home near Mada on Zekira to overlook the Flock that had abandoned him.
He wanted something more. He did want to find a companion of some kind, someone who wouldn't be afraid like his Flock had been, but someone who could keep up with him. He was positive he didn't want a large dragon companion - they were just too big for his comfort, he didn't need one for travel, he could already fly! Perhaps one of the smaller breeds, or even one of the semi- or non-dragon types? There were not many among the Zekirans just yet, mainly dragons of a big variety. But surely there were other creatures, or people... or people-creatures like himself.
Concentrating on a wish - Targan imagined himself where he was desired. Where he could both make a difference in someone's life, and where that someone might make a big difference for him...
He found himself moving in space, arriving at a pretty, open air location. Clouds drifted high in the sky, and carried with them a little rain. He felt around, by now his instinct to use his psionic powers was well tuned (Valla and he would test one another during their time on Zekira: they'd separate and see how far apart they could get before neither of them could sense the other). He sensed a number of beings nearby, and headed toward them.
There were other people there, creatures of two legs and more, who were present to find their own companions. This he knew, without being told. He shifted into his four-foot form, went toward the center of action, and waited.
Reotal came to Targan when he was still standing on four feet. He nudged toward the impressive stallion in respect, but then tossed his head and wobbled his long ears when Targan shifted up into a two-footed stance.
"I hope I did not startle you," Targan said quietly. The further speech from that moment, he realized, was a strongly tuned mental voice from the male before him.
"No... no, that is interesting," the proud male said, "I have never seen such a thing. You smell of ... things I cannot name."
"Well," Targan said slightly sniffing at the air, "so do you! Would you like to see those places I've been? I can take you there, easily." He shifted his big wings, and Reotal chuffled.
"Well I doubt you could carry me!" He laughed. But Targan laughed even louder.
"Oh no, hardly - I couldn't lift you! You're almost as big as I am! I am strong but not nearly that strong. Come, I can show you how we would travel."
Though all his life Reotal had wondered whether two-footers meant well or were all unsafe, he trusted Targan because of what he'd already seen. Any creature capable of walking properly on four limbs would be better than one suited only to two.
"I will be happy to. Perhaps I can find a bond later, for now, show me these worlds! I will be known as Worldwalker!"
Targan shifted down again, mantled his wing over his new traveling companion, and whisked them away to Planet Twenty - then to Zekira, then to ... where ever else!