Nic of Tar inhaled the rich, earthy aromas of the mountain’s páramo. The breeze had changed direction, earlier it carried the crisp smell of saltwater. Augmentations in his nasal cavity analyzed the air sample for pollen counts and trace chemicals. A window with the results opened at the corner of his vision. The dramatic fall in pollen from yesterday indicated the freeze was early today.
This planet, Tojisoon, had a single ice-covered continent and a vast ocean. Temperate zones at the edge of the continent supported an abundant and hardy array of life. The tianshen, however, lived on an island near the equator. Tar Mountain, the dormant volcano that formed the island, reached high into the atmosphere, and drove the climate for the island. As the tianshen’s primary source for crops and fresh water, maintaining its climate for maximum yield was essential.
His other duty was more concerning, but less pressing. The Dragon was missing, but still alive, and as long as the Dragon lived, he would not be pressed into service as the tianshen’s defender-cum-mediator for this world.
The native civilization named this world Raksha, The Father. They were a hardy, bipedal, mammalian species with a knack for cruelty and violence that was a curiosity to the first generation of tianshen. Today, at least, that history and the conflicts on the continent were not his concern. Today, his concern was fishing.
The smell of the paramo’s grasses reminded him of a grass pillow he used on a previous fishing trip. He could use a grass pillow to soften the rock that supported his head. It pressed against his cranium whenever he drifted toward sleep. When he woke, Starshine’s reflection off the still waters of the nearby lake made him squint.
He tilted his hat for a view of the setori. The fishing bird sat in the middle of a picture-perfect reflection of her surroundings. The highest peak of Tar was a silver finger in the lake’s water that dominated the captured trees and rolling grassland hills. Those hills formed a valley that captured the icy water flowing from Tar’s peak before it raced over the Elven falls on its way to the Arai.
Seeing himself and his companion reflected in the still water, he tapped a vision augmentation. A window opened to take an image of the scene. After sending the file to his Artwork collection, he adjusted his black hat to block Starshine’s glare and relaxed against his rock.
Wad, rocking on his haunches, disturbed him. “Nic, wake up. The bird has a fish.”
Nic looked under the rim of his hat. The setori had a fish, but the calling crystal was out of reach. “Let it go, I am napping.”
“You can’t be napping if you are talking.”
Nic lifted his hat to sit upright and find the calling crystal. “I was trying to nap,” he snapped at Wad.
Wad’s ears, each half the size of Nic’s hat, shook a flying insect away. His nose scrunched like he had caught the scent of something dead. He pointed to the gray and black bird as she tilted her head back. The girth of a disappearing fish expanded her throat.
“It ate my fish,” Wad said.
“Not it. A setori, a fishing bird. Bonding with a fishing bird is a great accomplishment.”
Wad sat back with a thump that caused his hairy belly to bounce. “The bird ate the fish. I thought the bird gave you the fish for me to eat.” He rubbed his belly. “That’s why we’re here. To eat fish.”
Nic heard a rumble from deep inside Wad. One of many growls the bugbear made, but he did not share the bugbear’s hunger. Wad was a genetically modified rakshoon; a dogo in his native tongue. Dogo were twice the size of the raka that dominated the planet. His large size and increased metabolism meant he was always hungry.
“I am trying,” Nic said. “Using a crystal to recall a setori requires patience. The bird doesn’t understand the signal.” He found the pink calling crystal in the grass and extended it toward the bird. The bird flapped black wings once, twice, then flew for the opposite bank, landing on the uppermost branch of a dead tree.
He felt the setori’s reluctance through the crystal. For the bird, the augmentation was new, and she didn’t understand the mental stimulation. Concentrating on data collection, he splashed into the pond. An unfamiliar feeling came through the crystal, not fright, but similar. A window at the corner of his vision confirmed the signal as unrecognized. Curiosity? He thought.
He waded toward the setori, “Good bird, I want you to come to me. I am not here to hurt you.” The bird let out a shrill that was more urgent than her normal call. The mysterious signal repeated across the calling crystal. He took another step. The lake’s bottom dropped off and he sank into shoulder deep water. The setori turned its head in that way birds do to get a better look at something. There was recognition in its posture, a hint at awareness.
The bird shrilled. Something under the water pulled at his ankle and he fell. Water filled his mouth. He gasped for air. In a panic, his hands struck something fleshy. Unable to breathe or see, he pushed off with his feet. He righted himself when he found the muddy bottom closer to the hillside. Slapping at the water did nothing to clear his throat.
“You fell in the water,” Wad said. “You fell…” Snorts and laughter ended the comment.
Nic pulled mud from his mouth. A window in his vision listed the microorganisms in the mud, the quantity of water he swallowed, and the antibiotic, antifungal and anti-viral shots his sleeping quarters would administer that night.
Wad rolled on the grass, holding his sides. When he could breathe, it was through a snort that echoed off the hillside.
Nic laughed with him, then remembered his hat. He found it sinking and snatched it to his head. Water poured down his face, up his nose, down his throat. He coughed, fell again.
“Your face…” Wad yelled. Snorts mixed with a high-pitched squeak. “Your face is all muddy.” He rolled on the green hillside, pointing at Nic with one paw while holding his side with the other.
Nic used his hat to splash water over his face, wiping mud away with the torrents. He rinsed his mouth with clear water, swallowing the last hand-cup full. His stomach growled.
Wad caught a breath and rolled into a sitting position. He pointed one long claw at Nic. “A fish bird caught you,” he said before laughter sent him rolling down the hillside.
“A hand?” Nic said. He deserved the ribbing. They had been here all day. When Starshine rose over the Arai he used the crystal to summon the setori Iden had augmented last week. The first generation on Tojisoon had used the large-billed birds as fish-catchers, but no one had tried this augmentation on a setori in a hundred years. Efficient fish farms lacked the poetry of a day spent fishing.
Wad stood. His girth and height shadowed the hillside. He offered a hairy paw, spittle dripped from one exposed fang, his dark-brown nose twitched at the effort of containing his laughter.
Nic extended his hand, Wad’s touch was as gentle as the breeze, but he pulled at Nic like a gravity sled. He sprang from the water, the muddy bottom keeping his boots. “My boots,” he yelled, mid-flight.
Wad held Nic aloft like a wet sheet. His sides churned as if was ready to vomit, but he contained himself. He dropped Nic on the wet grass.
“I will get them,” Wad said. With a step, he was in the water. His girth and quick movements soaked the opposite bank with sheets of water. The setori squawked and flew for a more covered tree farther from the tsunami.
Nic’s bare feet slipped on the wet grass. He scrambled up the hill for a dry spot, then sat, watching Wad while wringing out his jacket. The bugbear would have a fish before he found Nic’s boots. He was a bodyguard, a fighter, a hunter, a killer of Bugs. Splashing water and containing laughter, he looked like a child at play. He slapped the water, retrieving a fish by its middle. He bit off its tail. The fish gulped in pain. Wad’s ears went straight up, and his eyes focused on an especially deep cavern he had carved in the lake water.
“Got them.” He dropped the half-eaten fish to pull Nic’s boots from the muddy bottom. He tossed them at Nic, then began sloshing water again. “I lost my fish.”
Nic emptied his boots. Unwearable until they dried, and even then, he wouldn’t touch them. Standing, he considered his clothes an equal loss. Only his hat, his great grandfather’s, would not go to the recyclers. He had fresh clothes and boots in the camping wagon. The tone of Wad’s laugh changed from simple mirth to something more ominous.
The lake had come alive with fish. Wad stood in the middle of a shoal that darted around him. He thrust his paws into the mass, but it moved as a single organism, dancing out of reach. Wad turned, timing his next strike. He grabbed two fish with one hand while using the other to guide the shoal toward the bank. He bit the heads from the fish in his hand, then tossed them to the hillside.
Before the shoal could escape his trap, he dispatched five more, their headless bodies piling on the hillside. Concentrating on the shoal in front of him, he missed another larger shoal behind him. They surrounded him, speeding in a circle that pulled at the water.
Wad held one paw in the water. Fish slapped against it and landed on the hillside with startled looks and gaping mouths. “Stupid fishes,” he said. On the hillside, the gore of the few dead fish formed a spillway for the live ones to flop and slide back toward the water.
Wad growled. More fish joined the shoal, so many that they clouded the water. Their racing circle had become a whirlpool with Wad trapped in the middle.
“Min,” Nic said to the air. Of course, she was in the lake. She enjoyed challenging Wad, and she had sent the fish downstream to vex his fishing experiment. And she had pulled his ankle.
“Thousands of fish,” Wad exclaimed. He took a giant step toward the middle of the lake. The whirlpool followed him. He used both paws to grab a bushel of fish and throw them at the hillside. They rained down around Nic like hailstones.
“Better than fish bird,” Wad yelled. “Why use that stupid bird when the fish come to me like this?” A fish hit him in the back of the head. Then another struck his ear like a fired metal slug. Another caught him square on the nose. Wad roared, a deep below that shook Nic’s chest and sent the setori and all other birds to flight.
“Min, that is enough,” Nic yelled. Realizing she couldn’t hear him underwater, he sent it through the quantum. Certain she heard him; he expected the assault to stop.
Wad slapped away a series of fish that pelted him like bullets. He turned in half steps, twisting his upper torso and throwing his arms in a windmill fashion to block flying fish. He caught some before they hit the water, throwing them in whatever direction set up his next block. A few got past his defenses, but those bounced off his protective jerkin. The fur along his back stood like quills, his manhood tented his loose britches, he was entering a rage unique to the dogo. A rage that would make him unstoppable if Nic did not intervene.
“Wad! It’s Min throwing the fish at you. Come out of the water.”
Min’s domain was water. Her augmentations focused on marine life. These were farm fish, and she was controlling them to have fun at Wad’s expense.
“Min?” Wad said. The distraction was enough for a flurry of fish to get past his defenses. They hit him in the eyes. “I will kill all your fishes, Min of Arai,” he roared at the shoal surrounding him. He ran for the hillside, arms outstretched. The shoal darted to avoid him, but he moved in a curving pattern that kept it rolling toward the hillside where Nic stood.
The fish piled up in the diminishing water, becoming a wall that collapsed on the bank. With a last roar, Wad gathered a ball of fish against his chest and heaved himself out of the water while throwing the flopping fish at Nic.
“Min… Wad!” The ball of fish hit Nic like a wave. His damp feet slipped on the wet grass and he landed hard on his back. A blanket of fish covered him.
“Come out Min, I will play with you now,” Wad yelled.
“No…” Nic tried to say, but a fish flopped in his mouth.
“Come out of the water, Min of Arai,” Wad paced the bank, his paws clenching and unclenching as he walked. His erect manhood a carnal challenge.
Nic pushed the blanket of fish away with the back of his arms. “Wad. No. You cannot threaten Min.”
Wad growled. He looked at Nic as if he were a fish.
“Calm down, she is baiting you.”
Wad’s voice shook Nic’s chest. He should have been afraid. An enraged bugbear could gut an entire city before police drones could kill it. But this was Wad. He had raised this bugbear as proof that even the sadistic rakshoon could learn to cooperate with another species.
“Like fish,” Nic said. Around him, the pile of fish gasped for air. “Like fish. She thinks you are no smarter than a fish, just an animal to play with.”
“Wad is no animal. Wad is dogo. You,” he pointed a sharp claw at Nic’s eye. “You are not dogo.”
“No,” Nic said. “I am not dogo. I am tianshen, an Explorer.”
“You do not belong here,” Wad spit as he talked. “Raksha trapped you here. Wad protects you from the Bugs and catches fishes.” He was calming, but still agitated. If Min stayed in the water, this incident would pass.
“That’s right. You protect us from the Bugs, we are friends.” A window in Nic’s vision indicated orahi activity. “Min. No. Leave him alone,” he said and sent simultaneously.
A column of water rose from the lake. It twisted against gravity with a force that held it aloft. This was more than water; this was a living element. Orahi were nano-mechanical and chemically active particles that created elemental machines. Min controlled this one.
Wad did not need Nic’s warning. He turned to face the column. He charged into the lake and slapped the column of water as if he were boxing with another bugbear. The water danced with him, turning like a cyclone. Wad’s arms moved in a blur, slashing at the water. His individual strikes had no effect, but collectively they diminished the column, cut it down until it fell.
Wad looked at his reflection. Nodded his head in satisfaction, then waded for the hillside. “I win, Min of Arai.”
Min rose out of the lake. Nic’s breath caught at the sight of her. Her skin was silver. A side effect of her breathing augmentations. Her thick emerald hair hung down to her knees, a special coating kept it dry. Water slid off her naked body like mercury. Fish tattoos adorned the sides of her naked torso. Their mouths open at her breasts, their tails met at her groin.
She did not make a sound, but Wad knew she was there. He performed back flip that should have carried him behind the silver goddess, but a column of water caught him mid jump and slammed him into the lake. As quickly as the water erupted and caught him, it settled back to glass smooth.
“Good bugbear, stay down,” Min said. She walked across the lake’s still surface to the hillside.
Speechless, Nic watched her approach. Her skin reflected Starshine as if it was glass. Her breasts, her navel, her legs. He devoured her.
Before he regained his senses, she kissed him. “I miss you,” she said. “You never come the Arai anymore. Not since that thing with Okida.”
“I have been busy,” he puffed. Not true. With the Dragon in the mountain, he didn’t have anyone to make him do anything.
“Doing what? Playing with birds?” She produced the calling crystal. The setori landed on the hillside, shook, then sat still as a gargoyle.
He blushed at her skill.
She smiled. “Bird brains and fish brains are similar. Be gentle.” She handed him the stone. “You try…”
“Wad…” How long could he hold his breath? The thought triggered an answer with a window showing Wad’s estimated lung capacity. Longer than Nic would have guessed.
“He needs a lesson.” Min replied. Her voice a single tone as a cold as the lake.
Bubbles of water exploded near the bank. Wad was giving up or putting up a fight.
“He is my friend.”
“He is an animal that you see more than me. Is it a fetish?” She grabbed his crotch.
“You are killing him.”
“I won’t miss him any more than I miss a fish.”
“He is a sentient creature. It’s murder.”
Behind her, the lake boiled. Wad erupted from the surface.
“I will tribute you Min of Arai.” Wad roared.
“Silence your pet,” Min said. She stroked Nic’s cheek. “Use your augmentation to put him in his place.”
So that was her purpose. She was not here to humiliate Nic for ignoring her, but to remind him of his duties. Wad did not need augmentations to be a fearsome warrior. Genetics made him a near-perfect killing machine. Because of that, they had modified him at birth with a switch that gave Nic complete control over his companion.
“I don’t need it,” he said, stepping past Min he reached for Wad, but Wad did not see him. His eyes were red with a passion for the fight. With a mighty pull against the hillside, he rolled out of the water and stood in a single motion. He had lost his jerkin and water ran off his soaked fur in rivulets. His erect manhood swung like a sword.
“Stop.” Nic said. He put a hand against Wad’s chest.
Wad grabbed his wrist and tossed him away. He grabbed Min by the neck, lifted her to his height.
Min kicked him in the chest. Slapped at the arm holding her aloft. Water rolled in the lake, forming a wave, but Wad squeezed her neck, and the water splashed against the hillside, short of striking him.
With his free hand, Wad pulled one of her legs to open and position her sex above his. “I win,” he growled. “Now the tribute.”
“Stop,” Nic’s voice cracked. He triggered the switch.
Wad dropped Min and fell to his knees, whimpered, then fell on his face.
“I had to. You were hurting her.”
From somewhere deep in his belly, Wad found the strength to deny the switch that restrained him. He rumbled and did a push-up. Min took a step away from him, but the augmentation held. The implanted trigger in Wad’s brain reacted to the signal from Nic’s augmentation and disabled his motor nerves. He fell flat.
Min put a foot on his bare ass. “Good animal.”
“Stop it,” Nic yelled at her. “That’s cruel.”
He grabbed her bare arm, but she turned on him, grabbing his neck and squeezing. “Wanshi has fallen.” She said through gritted teeth.
He could not find his voice through her grip. The breeze had become a gust that strengthened with the growing shadows of Starshine’s descent.
At his silence, Min’s grip softened.
“I am sorry,” he said. “Your father was the Protectorate of Wanshi.” Her eyes darted at the mention of her family. “Something bad has happened to them?”
“I have not heard from them.”
He pulled her close. She was cold. The high pressure created by Starshine warming the Arai receded with the star. Icy air raced down the side of Tar Mountain. After dark, the wind was a steady blow that could freeze fish or a naked tianshen. Of the three, Wad was the only one adapted to the sudden temperature change.
“We have to get out of the wind. I have the camping trailer in the grotto over this hill. Meet me there.”
Min nodded, covered her breasts with her arms, and walked away with her head bowed.
Nic kneeled beside Wad. His mouth was open, spit and blood covered one of his fangs. “I am sorry. I had too.”
Wad whispered. “You did this?”
Raised as a member of Nic’s family, the idea behind Wad’s upbringing was one that reached back to the generational ship that brought the tianshen to this planet: Any intelligent species can learn to respect and honor the ways of another intelligent species.
History had not been kind to the idea. But with the Bugs in disarray, the Dragon had seen an opportunity to make the dogo, raka, and even the ada part of tianshen society. Enough had welcomed what the tianshen had offered that the Dragon had declared the experiment a success.
The dogo, however, needed a failsafe, and Wad was one of the first to get the kill switch. Others had used it on their dogo, but this was the first time Nic had used it on Wad. It felt like a betrayal.
“Yes,” Nic said. “But I can undo it. You just have to tell me you will not hurt Min.”
Muscles corded along the length of Wad. His claws dug into the soft soil and with a groan he pushed, raising his chest from the ground. A beat later, his muscles shut off like a light and he fell.
“She hurt me. Made Wad angry. I don’t want to hate her, but she made me.”
“I know. She was hurt today and tried to transfer that pain to you.”
Wad’s nose squished, trying to catch the scent of what Nic was saying.
“I don’t understand, but I know that I don’t want to hurt Min if she is in pain. That is good enough for Wad.”
Simple, his logic often was. With a thought, Nic tapped the switch in Wad’s brain. Tremors shook Wad. His biceps and thighs shook violently for several beats.
“Wad hurts,” he whistled. He curled and uncurled his bear-paw hands in the air. Rubbed his forearms, then sat and rubbed his thighs.
Nic offered him a hand.
“Next time I will be stronger and beat you, Nic of Tar.”
Nic withdrew his hand. “What?”
“This was another of your challenges. Another test to prove the dogo worthy of exploring with the tianshen. Next time I will pass.”
“Of course,” Nic helped Wad to his feet. Together they walked over the hill and into the night.