This article, written by explorer Ellie Dantoner, was originally published in the March 2419 issue of the Journal of the Exoarchaeological Society. It is reprinted here with permission.

We drifted towards the Dwarg settlement in silence. The light of Kinder's Star played across the struts and hull of the massive station and I could see the dark impact sites of Commonwealth missiles, scars from a battle only a few weeks before. Outsiders like me seldom get that close to the fearsome Dwarg, at least not without having to dodge xiphon cannon fire. But I wasn't there to launch an assault­—I was there to witness an ascension ceremony.

The ship rocked slightly as it aligned to its docking collar, but I barely felt the contact of hard-dock. Heron Vaast, my host, unfolded his two-meter frame out of his chair. I held on to his arm to steady myself while I adjusted to the station's gravity.

The hatch above us opened, and Gaele came bounding down. A simple one-piece covered the thick leathery skin of his torso, and two prehensile feet held on to the deck as he helped Heron and me through the docking tunnel.

"That was a good dock, wasn't it?" said Heron proudly.

"I make a good dock!" repeated Gaele.

"Gaele is my best pilot," he said to me, "I'm going to miss him after today."

"I make a good dock!" said Gaele.

I asked Heron why he was having Gaele ascend if he still needed him. Was it a reward? Was it out of loyalty?

Heron paused to think, and I noticed that Gaele was all the while looking calmly at Heron. Whether by instinct or training, zoanthropes always look to their master, ready to act on their command.

"No," said Heron finally, "It's not a reward. It's just the natural order. When a zoanthrope is ready to assume the responsibilities of a master, then and only then do they ascend. Most are never ready. But when one is, it's wrong to deny them the chance."

The ceremony took place in a large hall lit in the soft bluish light preferred by the Dwarg. I stood near the bulkhead, marveling at the throng. I had never seen this many Dwarg in one place. A dozen stood in the center, their bright gossamer robes covered in sigils and runes. I saw Heron Vaast among them, in a place of honor. Dozens more wearing plainer clothes chatted in groups around the perimeter. Zoanthropes darted through the hall carrying drinks and food, and a soft, buzzing music filled the air.

I was half afraid the ceremony would take place in a med-bay or some other place conducive to neuro-genetic tinkering, but I discovered the biological part of the ascension was to take place later. This, indeed, was just a ceremony.

The music softened and the chattering stopped, and I saw Gaele in the center of the hall. He stood in front of Heron Vaast, wearing a splendid suit of neosilk. But his expression seemed pained and his eyes darted around with uncertainty.

After some prompting, Gaele began the ritual: "Master! Thank you. I am ready."

Heron stood like a statue looking at forever. His voice boomed, "Are you ready to assume responsibility for your food?"

"I am ready," said Gaele, softly.

Heron continued, "Are you ready to assume responsibility for your air?"

"I...ready," said Gaele, but he hunched down and his arms reached to grab his feet.

"Are you ready to take control of your life, to face the unknown future, and to seek your own way in this uncaring universe?"

Gaele looked up, his eyes opened wide and streaked with tears. He tried to speak but his face contorted into a grimace and he fell to his master's feet.

"No, master, no! Please, no! Don't make me! I not ready! I not ready!"

Heron crouched down and puts his arms around Gaele. Gaele sobbed and writhed for a little while but then he settled down. His face softened into its familiar calmness and soon he was smiling again. His terrible ordeal was forgotten.

I saw Heron later that day; he could not hide his disappointment, even from me.

"Does it often happen that way?" I asked.

He looked shocked—like I'd struck him—and I quickly assumed the impartial face of a scientist, hoping he'd see me as just a nosy outsider.

"No," he said slowly, "It doesn't usually happen that way. It was my fault; I pushed him too fast. I should have seen the signs."

"What will you do?" I asked.

Heron Vaast smiled bravely. "I will go on! Gaele wasn't ready today, but he might be ready tomorrow. I'll train him and enhance him and maybe someday he'll be ready."

He looked down at me, once again the firm and calm Dwarg master, and for just a second I saw him with Gaele's eyes. "It's just the natural order," he said.