The chill Nic felt was not from the cold wind drying his soaked clothes. His personal augmentations were regulating his body temperature against that chill. He was upset at himself for using the implant in Wad’s brain to restrain his friend. They had not spoken of it on the walk back to the camping wagon, but the sudden glow of the wagon’s lights made Nic feel exposed to his betrayal. He wanted to apologize again. Wad had more important thoughts.
“I should have brought some fishes,” he said as they stepped into the warmth of the wagon’s exterior lights.
“We have food Wad,” Nic said. He had lost his appetite for fish.
“So many fishes. Did you see when I pushed them out of the water. It was like a wave of fish.”
“You buried me in them.”
“Yes, you threw them out of the water, I fell on the wet ground, and that entire pile of fish landed on top of me.”
Wad snorted, then squeaked. “I wish I had seen that.”
“How…” Nic shook his head. “Never mind. We’re home now. Start a fire and I will grill some greens for Min and myself. You can have the fishes in the cooler.” He tried to imitate Wad’s pronunciation of fishes, but he lacked the fangs for it.
Wad looked down at him, turned his head to the side. “Do not make fun of my accent, Nic of Tar.”
Nic was mortified. First the implant, now this. He was trying to lighten the mood, not darken it.
Wad laughed. “You should see your face right now.” He kept laughing as he disappeared behind the camping wagon to find the cooler.
Camping wagon was a term Nic had devised for his modifications to an abandoned support pod. He had found it on the far side of the mountain, buried under vegetation, at the bottom of a deep and narrow ravine. The ravine was too narrow to fly into, and the sides were too steep to drive down, so the pod must have endured some fatal disaster to be abandoned in such a spot.
Curious, he had cut away enough of the vegetation to enter the pod and discover that it still had power. He signaled Iden and Min his location, and two weeks later they returned with an army of worker drones to retrieve the pod. Despite their resources, it took them another month to extricate the pod from the ravine.
At Tar City, multiple teams formed to study the pod. One team dissected and reassembled it to understand original tianshenian construction techniques. Another analyzed the material composition of every component, while another did a thorough analysis of its code base. The conclusion was that this life support pod was not from the generational ship that brought Nic’s direct line to this world, but from the earlier mission that discovered Raksha as an inhabited word. The tianshens that lived in this pod would have traveled to Raksha on a fold in space.
After two years of intense study, the Dragon allowed Nic to keep the pod, rather than putting it in a museum. A controversial decision, but Nic would be Dragon one day, so few complained. When granting him the property, his father said, “At a time of crisis, you will have to take my place. In such times there are many pressures trying to shape a leader’s decisions. I hope this pod will remind you of why we are here and make those decisions clear.”
“Fatalistic, as always,” had been Nic’s response.
He stripped off his shirt and pants and tossed them in the recycler. He mounted his hat on a hook near the door, then remembered that he had forgotten his boots at the lake. It didn’t matter, he was going to recycle those anyway, but leaving them behind frustrated him.
A new pond of light cast a long shadow of his narrow frame. Min stood in the doorway of the camping wagon. She was dressed, but it wasn’t much. A red cloth clung to her frame like a net. It covered her breasts and privates, but little else.
“I was going to char some greens,” he stammered at the sight of her.
She wrinkled her nose. “You stink.”
“I thought you would like the smell of fish.”
Wad appeared from behind the pod. He carried a bag of fish, a bag of greens, and a cooking stove. He had also dressed in a fresh jerkin. His fur was enough to cover any immodesty, but tianshenian etiquette demanded raiment.
“No. I don’t like the smell of you.” Min said.
Nic rubbed his forehead and ran a hand through his hair. It came back rank. He did stink of fish and pond water. “Can you avoid fighting with him until I finish a shower,” he said. He dodged her meaning because he was not interested in that discussion. Avoiding the conflict with the rakshoon is why he had retreated to this lake.
“You may not get the chance for a shower. Layla is on her way.” She pointed to one of the few physical screens on the island. The communication screen in his camping wagon.
“I will deal with them after my shower,” he said as he pushed passed her. She smelled woody and warm.
When he inherited the survival pod from the scientific teams, the interior had been as sparse and utilitarian as the exterior. He detested both of those terms. He preferred disorganized and comfortable. While his only alteration to the sleek green and silver exterior was to add more lights, inside was a different story. Rugs filled the entry compartment. They covered the floor in an overlaying checkerboard pattern and hung from the walls in a way that made finding the hatches to attaching compartments difficult. He pulled back a rug on his left and headed for the shower.
Min followed him. “You have done it this time,” she said as he entered the shower. “They will strip your title and take your augmentations.”
He closed the shower door. A light scanned him, soap filled water blasted him from three walls and the ceiling.
Min opened the door. “There is no way you will be Dragon after this.” The shower stopped.
He closed the door. “You don’t understand,” he said as he massaged his long white-gray hair.
“What? That you don’t give a shit?”
She looked naked through the frosted glass of the door. “That doesn’t help. And I do,” he said. He felt a pinch on his right butt cheek. The first of many shots.
Min opened the door. “Do what?” The shower stopped.
With his face covered in soap, he couldn’t see her through burning eyes. He closed the door. “I do care. I just don’t think killing is the way to solve the problem.” Hot rinse water blasted him from three sides and the ceiling. A beat later, jets of air blew him dry.
The door opened on its own. A mist of scented oils covered him as he stepped out of the compartment. He and Min were the same height and weight. Even their facial features were similar, with a triangular shape, narrow noses, and full lips. A golden-brown tan covered the top of his torso, and half his arms. The rest of him looked pale and insignificant next to Min’s silver-blue skin.
“They are killing us,” she said. She was leaning against the door of a closet. If he kissed her now, she would respond. She still loved him; his augmentations revealed her involuntary responses to his presence.
“Because we are killing them,” he said. “If we stop killing them, they will stop killing us.”
Min crossed her arms and shook her head. “They are animals.” She vanished behind the rug that covered the hatch to the main room.
He opened the closet she had been leaning against. Black linen shirts and slacks lined the shelves. He dressed, then went to the message filled screen.
Most were notifications of a large gathering of rakshoon outside the city of Mada. Before he left for this fishing trip, he had explained to the leadership Council that a Kishkha was near and to expect most of the rakshoon population to center on Mada for the winter. Okida was concerned that Wartooth was using the gathering to hide troops. One of the messages from Okida reminded the Council of the warning and recommended that all titles and augmentations be stripped from Nic of Tar.
The last message was from his mother. She was in route to collect him.
He archived the messages. He was hungry, and knowing that he may have been responsible for the fall of Wanshi did not calm his stomach. He decided to see if Wad was still alive.
He was. Min sat on a plush bag near him. Wad cooked his fish over a fire that towered over the top of the cooking stove. Min glared at him as if he were a beast.
“I should not have beaten you today, Min of Arai,” Wad said. “Nic said you are upset because Wartooth attacked Wanshi. I should have let you win to make you feel better.”
Min did not respond.
Nic placed a fresh grate over the fire, then picked through the bag for the largest leaves. Wad had collected a variety of edible greens on a hike earlier in the week. Nic knew of a purple leafed weed that helped calm his stomach. None were in the bag.
“Okida intends to strip my title,” he said to Min. “Layla may support him.”
Min shook her head. “I don’t understand you. How you can throw away so much—”
“Power,” he said. He took a bowl from a stack near the fire and filled it with greens. He seasoned them with salt and oil.
“Power, title, all those things. You are supposed to be the best of us.”
“I am not,” he said flatly. The fire licked the greens from below as he placed them on the grate. “I am just another tianshen—”
“But you can reconfigure. Become a living computer, a telepath, a perfect weapon.”
“You know it’s not that easy for me.”
“It is. You just don’t want it to be.”
A blast of wind overpowered the warmth of the camping wagon’s lights. A walking mechanoid emerged from a compartment in the camping wagon’s side. The mech pulled a tarp behind it that unfolded to a lean-to shield against the stronger gusts blowing off the mountain.
“If I could do what you do…” Min finished.
“What would you do, Min? Kill them?”
“The Dragon says that blood gets more blood, it is a river that never ends,” Wad said, licking his fingers. “But even the Dragon could not have stopped Wartooth. Wartooth does not care about the tianshen any more than I care about the fishes I ate.”
“Even your animal agrees with me,” Min said.
“I am not an animal Min of Arai. I am like you, but better looking.” Wad said as he stood. “Okida’s glider comes from Tar City.” He strode into the dark as the nighttime running lights of a glider appeared on the horizon.
“How did he know they were here?” Min said.
“He has good ears,” Nic said.
“I smelled the exhaust on that last gust,” Wad said from the dark.
The glider was silent as it flew over the camp. It looked like a cross between a dragonfly and an auto-gyro. The glider’s glass was deep blue as it flew overhead. It changed to clear as it landed, revealing its pilot and passenger.
Okida preferred his own skill over that of the intelligence built into the craft. To prove he was better, he landed the glider within centimeters of the camping wagon. The rotor blades on the roof of the craft ensured a soft landing, but the gusts they created blew Nic’s freshly charred greens away and toppled the lean-to tarp that had shielded the encampment from Tar Mountain’s icy blast.
Nic watched his dinner fly away. The last time he had seen Okida, he was with Min. An incident that left him humiliated and heartbroken. The two of them, in the presence of Layla, might be more than he could endure. Before the rotor blades stopped spinning, he snatched his still moist hat from the hook near the door and retreated to the safety and warmth of wagon’s interior. He found a pipe in a bowl in the wagon’s kitchen compartment. He filled it with the dried leaves of the purple weed that calmed him. Someday he would give it a better name.
He was able to get two long draws before Layla came through the camping wagon’s door. She was shorter and heavier than most tianshen. She did not favor the trend of using augmentations to enhance her outward appearance. Her face was round and pink with makeup. She looked old and walked with a limp from a bad hip she had refused to replace.
“I feel that wind in my bones,” Layla said as she fell into the chair near the message screen.
Okida guarded the door. He was tall, chestnut brown, and lean with muscle that corded over every inch of his frame. A single thick brown strap ran over one shoulder, across his chest, and attached to black pants that looked like flowing metal. In the middle of his chest was a tattoo of a beast that spit flame toward his groin. Red ink on the strap completed the tattoo where it covered the beast.
Min stood next to Okida. His dark skin highlighted her green hair. Nic’s augmentations confirmed what he wanted to deny; Min had found a new mate in Okida.
“Where is the bugbear?” Okida said.
“He hid in the dark when you flew over,” Min said over her shoulder.
“He didn’t hide,” Nic said. Smoke poured from his mouth. “He is patrolling the parameter. It is his responsibility to defend us.”
“Something you have failed to do,” Okida said.
Layla took a deep breath. “That weed smells wonderful. Do you have another pipe?”
Nic retreated to the kitchen. Augmentations were throwing data at him faster than he could process. Each of his visitors had opened new windows on his vision. The informational overlays indicated heart rate, breathing patterns, blood pressure, body temperature, and other minutia. Even the tone and timbre of their voice was analyzed and fed into summaries below each window: Layla was concerned, Okida was eager, and Min was upset or conflicted.
He ordered the augmentations off, filled a pipe with the last of his weed and returned to the main compartment.
“Thank you,” Layla said. The pipe lit the weed as she inhaled. She took a long draw before a slow exhale filled the room with her smoke. She rocked in the chair. “It is good for calming the nerves.” She handed the pipe to Min and Okida. They both declined her.
“We don’t have time for smoking,” Okida said.
“My family is dead,” Min said.
Fact checking windows opened on Nic’s vision. The Collective monitored the life signs of every tianshen through their augmentations. The Collective fed that data directly to him. Shohang’s stream had ended late in the morning. A list of Min’s extended family, their current locations, and health status started scrolling. He cut it off with a thought.
“Shohang,” he choked on the name. “Shohang’s stream stopped this morning. No one else has perished.”
Okida put his arm around Min. She grabbed him with all her strength and buried her face in his chest. Okida looked to Layla.
“Go. The fire still burns, and the lights are warm. Take the pipe.” She extended the pipe again.
Okida glanced at Nic. A look that would have killed if he had the augmentation for it. He took the pipe and guided a sobbing Min out of the door. Min did not look back.
“Two outside,” Nic said aloud. Wad had a shortwave radio receiver implanted in one ear. “Min and Okida are sitting near the fire.”
“I see them. They will be safe,” Wad replied.
Layla reached for Nic’s pipe. It had stopped smoking since he had ignored it. He handed it to her.
“That’s not true,” she said. “Many in Wanshi perished today.”
The list of individuals whose data streams had stopped popped into Nic’s vision. He stopped it and asked for a count.
“Twenty-nine,” he said.
“Twenty-nine tianshen and over a thousand raka,” she said.
“The Collective does not track them,” he said.
“No. But they were lost all the same.”
Nic felt hot. He pulled his long gray hair over his shoulders and bowed his head so it would cover his face. Wartooth had killed over a thousand raka? What type of creature killed its own in such numbers?
“They were defending the city,” Layla said. She saw his thoughts. “They fought to protect tianshen from the bugbear’s invasion. It is what the Dragon wanted. Tianshen and raka working together.”
“Working together, not killing each other.” A tightness in his chest made talking difficult.
Layla leaned forward.
“I know the killing bothers you. But fighting together is better than what was before.”
“But they,” he tried, but couldn’t get any volume. He took the pipe from Layla, inhaled. “But they are killing themselves. He had hoped to end that.”
“This is not new for them. They killed each other over land and honor long before the tianshen came here. You shouldn’t be upset at their nature. If that is their nature? We cannot change that.”
“Then why did we try?”
“The psycho-cyber implants have worked well for those raka that accepted them, but they have no impact on their children, who are as violent as any raka. Their violence is genetic, and we can’t implant the entire population without a good reason. What would that say about our belief in independent thought?”
“It would be better than murder.”
Layla took his hand. Pulled him toward her. She cupped his face with her hands and kissed him on the forehead.
“I am proud of you,” she said. “No Dragon has been more opposed to violence than your father. You would have surpassed him in that regard. But even he refused to reprogram these raka for our benefit. He knew, you know, our history and why we are here. We have gone too far, too many times.”
He nodded and kissed her back. “Would have surpassed him?”
Layla released him. Rocked in the chair. “The Council will have your title. I can’t stop it. After this they would rather Okida be Dragon be than you.”
“I would give it to him,”
“Not possible. You have to grow into the augmentations that makes a Dragon.”
“It’s just a title.”
“It is not. It is a position in the Collective itself. A life created to prevent us from repeating history. The Council created the Dragon to warn us against our foolish actions.”
“Then I am just a program with no power to stop foolish actions.”
“If Long was here, it would be different,” she said.
Long was his father’s name before he became the Dragon. “Where is he?”
“He went to the Tsiansora to meet with an orhatea representative,” she said. “They promised a means to end these conflicts.”
“I don’t sense him,” he said.
Layla chewed on the pipe as she rocked in the chair. She grunted agreement. “He went to Ora.”
“Ora? Why would he go off world? And why for so long?”
“To meet with their Amahtira. I don’t know about the length. That worries me, but as the Dragon he is not without resources. If he were in trouble, we would know it,” she said over the pipe.
“I can’t approve what they are asking for without consulting him,” he said.
Layla looked at the door and took a long draw on the pipe. She spit the smoke in little puffs that created a chain of clouds.
“What happened to you and Min? She is a beautiful girl and unashamed of it. I thought you would mate and make a natural born child.”
Nic studied the floor.
“Okida is handsome and strong, but I see violence in him,” she said after a long pause.
Nic nodded his head. Layla chewed on the pipe and hummed an agreement. They sat in silence for many beats.
“Was there violence between you?”
They exchanged the pipe and sat in silence for many more beats.
“He cannot be Dragon, but he will take your position as liaison to the natural population. The Council will demand that.”
“He can’t reconfigure the mechanoids.”
“They may demand that from you.”
“I will refuse.”
“Good. Let’s see to our guests and call the bear.” Layla said as she stood. She was out the door before he could raise a hand to help.
Outside, the mech had restored the lean-to. Min lay on Okida’s chest. They had removed the stove from the fire and its light caressed them as if it were a third.
“Wad whose World was Gone when we found him. Come out from your hiding. I wish to speak with you,” Layla cupped her hands as she yelled into the dark.
Okida sat up. Min jumped off him in fright. Okida tapped the brown strap on his chest. In a beat, the same liquid black material that covered his legs covered his chest.
“Sit down, Okida,” Layla said. “And turn off that armor.”
“It is Wyrdbegonia in my tongue,” Wad said from the dark. “But then you never had the fangs for it.” He seemed to materialize from the dark to lift Layla and hug her.
A pistol appeared in Okida’s hand. “Put her down. The head of the Council is under my protection.”
Layla laughed. “Don’t be ridiculous, Okida. This bear could not harm me. I am his mother.” She kissed him on the nose.
Wad put her down. His ears turned red. “Wyrdbegonia means one without family or clan. I don’t use that name because of you and the Dragon,” he said. “I am just Wad.”
“You are a beast, and I am taking you into custody in the name of the governing Council,” Okida said.
“He is too big for your glider,” Layla said. “And he would escape into the night if you tried to guard him here. Put away your pistol and deactivate your armor, Okida. I demand it.”
Min rubbed her eyes clear of sleep. She looked at Nic, then at the ground.
A blast of wind rattled the lean-to. The fire danced against the currents that eddied around it.
“I will never understand how you live like this. In the cold,” Layla said to Wad. “Why don’t you sleep in the wagon with Nic?”
“The wagon’s seals prevent scent from getting inside. I need my nose to keep Nic safe,” Wad said. “And for me, this is a warm night.”
“For an old tianshen, this night is as frigid as space and that wind would blow me down. We must return to Tar City, but I need you to stay here.”
Wad’s nosed twitched at this scent. “You mean me and Nic of Tar.”
“No. Just you Wad. Nic will return after the Council meeting.
Wad looked at Nic. His ears turned back and forth like radars. “I cannot protect Nic from here.”
“Okida will be his guard tonight and while he is in the city.”
“The beast should not be left alone,” Okida said.
“He is not a beast,” Nic said.
Wad’s paws made fists.
“No,” Nic said. “If Layla says I am safe, then I am safe.”
Wad growled. “I will stay.” He looked at Okida. “If any harm comes to Nic of Tar or Min of Arai while they are in your protection, you will answer to me.”
“You don’t order me animal!” In two steps Okida was in front of Wad. Wad’s arms were as thick as his legs, but he did not fear the fight.
Nic heard Layla speaking to Okida over the quantum.
You will stop this at once, Okida of Makkari. Your threats of violence leave me concerned for your future.
Okida spun to look at Layla. Wad raised a paw. Nic shook his head, and Wad lowered his paw. Okida’s chest rose and fell with heavy breathing.
We will go now, Layla sent to Nic, Min, and Okida. She turned for the glider with the full expectation the others would follow.
They did. The glider held four, plus the pilot. Min sat next to Okida. Layla and Nic in the rear. Nic reactivated the augmentation that allowed him to monitor the emotions of other tianshen. He focused it on Okida. As the glider rose into the wind-blown night, more than violence emanated from Okida. Hate was there as well.
Layla took a draw on the pipe. The last of his weed vanished in a puff of smoke. “A lot of trouble is coming,” she said, chewing the pipe. “A lot of trouble.”