Arita’s fluids quickened as she approached the Amah’s chamber. Orhatea were good at hiding, Tomo were masters of it. The beat her temperature increased, her obsidian shell compensated, covering her temperature spike, masking her presence to the motion sensors hidden in the floor and ceiling.
A narrowing of light along the walls indicated recording devices. Most would not have noticed it, but Arita had trained for infiltration and assassination; spotting and avoiding recording devices was her nature. Avoiding these would get her killed.
This was the center of orhatea power. In the expanse of the Great Song, no place was more defended than this. Buried deep in the heart of Ora, ten-billion tons of bedrock defended this chamber. Enemies could decimate the surface with nuclear blasts, matter cannon and plasma fire, but the Colony would survive because Amah, the Tira, and a million eggs were here.
She positioned herself in front of a camera, noted the change in light patterns as it recorded her image, then she entered the Amah’s chamber. A soft blue glow radiated from the floor, it illuminated the chamber, prevented shadows in even the most recessed alcove, but left the ceiling in total darkness.
This entry gave her full view of the bank of eggs reserved for the Colony’s survival. They were a wall of blue behind the Amah’s throne. More were missing than when last she entered. Using these eggs to create sexed orhatea ensured a hardy stock, but without an Amah, they would not be replaced.
Across the chamber, furthest from the throne and the diminishing wall of eggs, Arotea Ting fed on raw meats served to them by six gray drones.
Orhatea society divided along sex, age, and purpose, each indicated by shell color. Newly hatched sexless drones were dull silver, their shells fresh and soft from rapid growth. As they aged their shells hardened to solid gray, then darkened toward black. The six feeding the Arotea Ting were nearly black. This was their final act before Harvest.
The old drones worked as a conveyor. The drone nearest an entry lifted a cart from the shadows. He passed that cart to the drone behind him, who turned and passed the cart to another, who turned and emptied the cart into the mandibles of a Harvest Eater.
Only two. Pieces of the Colony fell-away with each orbit of Starshine.
Ten Tamo were the visible guardians of the chamber. Tamo were males, taller than the drones, their magnificent white shells sculptures of anatomy that glistened in the soft light. One of them blocked her as she crossed the boundary from channel to chamber.
Ha’ori was a master with the swords hidden in his shell. She commanded him, however, a thought was all it took for him to release her.
She was Tomo, a female, with a shell of obsidian black that swallowed light and shadow. Females were the source of life for the Colony and therefore its masters. She became a Tomo the moment she made mental contact with the sexless drones surrounding her hatching chamber. Becoming mentally linked to the drones meant she was fertile, and a fertile female had power.
To the sexless gray there was no difference between the Tomo arranged at the center of the chamber. Every female had authority over them, but within the Tomo there was a caste as rigid as their shells. Some were Aktai, breeders, their only purpose to supply eggs for the Colony’s survival. Others were Infiltrators—the real meaning of Tomo—capable of cloning most any creature to protect and expand the Colony. A few were Tira, leaders chosen by the others to manage Colony operations. And one was Amah, The Queen, The Mother.
But Amah had been missing for over a hundred orbits and in her place an Amahtira commanded. Amah chose the first Amahtira before she vanished. When she did not return and the first Amahtira failed to restore the Interstellar Bridge Network, a cabal of Tamo warriors, eager to make war on the nearby planet, replaced her. A group of Tomo restored order to the Colony when they partnered with the tansoon to end that war. That Council was a group of Tira dedicated to preserving the Colony. The Council chose one member as Amahtira for the course of one orbit around the local star. A new orbit began on this turn of Ora.
In the center of the chamber, near an upwelling that produced a table, the Council stood with shells so polished they reflected the glow of the floor. A sign of confidence and position. They were four; she was the fifth.
Karey, the current Amahtira, welcomed her first. “Arita, late as usual.”
When Karey was a simple Tomo, she was unafraid to dirty her shell and unashamed of her actions. She had been willing to do anything to get ahead, but once she had a title, she became prudent and delicate. Even now she used a cloth to dust away an imagined speck. Arita ignored her and held both hands out to another.
“Kora, have you heard from Maroke?”
“No,” Kora bowed her head and pulled Arita close. When their shells touched Arita felt trepidation in Kora. Maroke was her Tamo. They were recently paired and did not have time to celebrate that bonding before he was sent to Tojisoon and vanished. “I have not been able to touch his mind for many turns. I worry that he will not return.”
Arita held Kora’s face. A soft glow from her eyes offered hope. “I know what it is like. I lost Ninhai to Wartooth and have not been bonded since. If he lives, we will rescue him.”
“Rescue?” Karey squeaked. “First you are late to the Choosing, and now you promise rescue. Have you forgotten that I am Amahtira?”
Arita ignored her, touching the palm of Aemi instead. She had joined the embrace with Kora and was emanating hope.
Before finding her place on the Council, Aemi was an archivist responsible for the history of the Colony. Arita sent a simple question to her. She replied in the affirmative, indicating the table.
The last was Anglee, as quiet and undescriptive as ever. She hovered near Karey.
“You may be Amahtira at the start of this turn,” Arita said. “But leadership of the Colony needs to change if it is going to grow. I see more eggs missing from the wall, and only two Arotea Ting for the Harvest. Drones will starve if we do not have a new leader.”
Karey’s eyes went dark. A natural response for a threatened Tomo. If the blue glow of the floor had allowed for a shadow in the Amah’s chamber, she would have fled to it. Instead, she looked to the wall of eggs. The Amah’s throne sat empty in front of it, flanked by Tamo guards.
“This is not a time for challenge,” she said. “But if you wish to offer yourself as a candidate, then we can begin.” She approached the upwelling where five stones represented the five functions of the Colony. “I have a steam scheduled after the Council. Roa and I are breeding later, and I want to be clean.”
She dusted away another invisible speck, then took her place behind the black stone of the Tomo. She touched it, acknowledging her presence to the chamber’s systems. Below her the floor brightened, a flash bright enough to illumine the arch above her where two Tomo sat like gargoyles ready to spring at anyone that threatened the Colony’s heart.
“Amahtira present,” the chamber’s female voice announced.
Anglee, who had not even raised her head, stepped quickly to follow Karey’s example. She touched the gray stone, responsible for the turn-to-turn activities of the drones.
“Tira Comptroller, Anglee is present.”
Karey nodded her head in satisfaction at Anglee’s quick response, then she glared at Arita, the blue glow of her eyes narrowed to pin pricks of anticipation.
Aemi was next. She touched the blue stone. The color of orhatea eggs and a symbol of vitality in the glowing eyes of the sexed. She managed the Colony’s breeding stock and egg production. She would have scheduled Karey’s breeding for this turn. But was it to curry favor of the Amahtira, or a distraction?
“Tira Breeder, Aemi is present.”
With each touch of the stones, another flash of light, another arch of the chamber illuminated, more gargoyle like Tomo revealed in the dark expanse of the ceiling.
Kora slid from Arita’s grip; a sense of dread passed from her through their mental link. She approached the table and touched the amber stone of Arotea. Arotea more than breeding or production was the purpose of the Colony. For the drones, it was food. The Tamo used it to energize their shells, and for Tomo it was the secret to cloning any creature the Great Song could produce and offered control over their telepathic ability.
“Tira Harvester, Kora is present.”
Karey’s glare commanded, sending a compulsion to approach the table. She was eager for the vote. This turn was the Choosing. Three votes for Karey, and she would keep her title as Amahtira. She had two in herself and Anglee. Kora had pledged her vote to Arita in exchange for Maroke’s rescue. Aemi’s vote was uncertain.
Karey’s compulsion was strong enough to hurry Arita to the table, but she stopped short of touching her stone. The moment she touched the white, she was committed. By custom and by law, the Council held meetings on the mental landscape. Vocalizations were considered a crude necessity of being planet bound, unable to survive in the black of space. Orhatea, The Fundamental Beings of the Universe, shared a common mental bond. The trait was necessary for working in the vacuum of space, where vocalizations were impossible and body signals invisible. For the drones it was little more than a feeling, a notion and then the desire to act. For Tomo, it was an indirect telepathic link to any orhatea nearby. The moment she touched the white stone she would have to enter the mental landscape, and her thoughts would be known to all on the Council, including Karey.
This was the turn of Choosing, and of Harvesting. If she was going to save the Colony, it was now. She palmed the white stone. White for the Tamo, the enforcers and warriors of the Colony. Karey was Amahtira, but Arita was Commander. The floor pulsed with recognition and the final arch of Amah’s chamber illumed to reveal the last of ten Tomo. Ten Tomo to balance the ten Tamo prominently displayed in the alcoves of the chamber. Arita mentally connected to them, commanding them to stand at attention as the chamber’s voice spoke her commitment.
“Tira Commander, Arita is present.”
Good. We can begin, Karey sent, releasing her stone. I know this turn is momentous. Being the turn of Choosing. There are many formalities in a Council meeting that make them longer than need be. And it is no secret that I would rather be on the end of Roa’s penis. So, as Amahtira, I remove those formalities for this meeting, and suggest we choose the Amahtira for the next orbit. There is no doubt in the outcome, after all.
Roa is of the finest stock. I envy you this turn. Anglee’s thought was but a whisper in the vastness of the mental landscape. In the chamber, she clutched the gray stone as if it were all that anchored her to the Council.
Karey’s eyes flared at Roa’s name. Yes, he is. And I have Aemi to thank for raising him to me. Milai was less than adequate.
But he gives his all, despite his shortcomings, Aemi said.
A wave of levity washed through them. Arita did not join it. She held her connection to the Tamo instead.
His penis is short for a male, Kora sent to her.
Arita ignored her. There are more matters in this turn, than the Choosing, she sent to the group. It is also a turn of Harvesting. Saying it sent her fluids to her toes. She swooned with the realization of how far the Colony had collapsed.
There was a time when this chamber would have had ten Arotea Ting ready for Harvest. Thirty nearly black drones would have fed them. Thousands of Tomo and Tamo would have gathered in the connecting channels to witness the harvest before engaging in an orgy of breeding that would provide seed and eggs for the next generation.
That we have only six drones, and two Arotea Ting ready for the Harvest is a disgrace, she continued. We should at least honor them before proceeding with the Choosing.
What are they to me? Karey said.
Anglee raised her head. My Amah, these drones have lived more than a hundred orbits.
Amahtira, Arita corrected her.
Karey shot a glance at Arita, then turned her ever brightening eyes on Anglee. Remember your place, she sent. You are nothing more than a drone-keeper.
Anglee lowered her head. Her eyes went dark, and her shined shell refused the glow of the floor.
Aemi intervened. The Colony has always honored the old with a Harvest. She touched Anglee’s arm in a show of support. Look at these drones Amahtira, they are nearly black with age. So few live to this shade, they deserve our respect.
Sparks flew from Karey’s eyes when she turned to Arita. This was your idea. To shorten my breeding and deny me the pleasures of Roa.
I serve as Commander Amahtira. Preserving the Colony through this orbit is my only concern.
Karey’s mouth opened, closed. Blue fire fell from her eyes like a wisp. I…
Kora interrupted. Look, they are kneeling and offering their necks. Even these old drones envy you.
Karey turned to see that the six drones had stopped their work to kneel in a dark line that connected the Arotea Ting. So they do, she said. You may proceed, but make it quick. She motioned to the Tamo.
They drew their swords, then Arita held them with a thought that attracted Karey’s attention.
I command, she sent to Karey.
Well? Karey sent back with enough force to light the mental landscape.
Arita released the Tamo. Ha and Wai approached the line, both were Ori, masters of the sword. They started with the drones nearest the Arotea Ting. A short white flash powered their weapons before they chopped the heads from the drones. Gore gushed from the bodies, the thick innards of an orhatea freed from its shell. In a show of respect, the Ori tossed the heads into the mandibles of the Arotea Ting. The bodies were beneath their station.
In twelve beats it was over. Six headless orhatea oozed guts on the floor. The Tamo returned to their stations.
Anglee sent a new command for all to recognize. From the dark tunnels near the Arotea Ting came six more drones.
Is that the oldest we have? Aemi sent to no one. A thought shared by all but Karey, who was distracted by her breasts. She polished them with a red cloth.
Anglee waited for Karey to complete her task before answering. These are the oldest available.
“So young,” Aemi said.
The new drones collected the fallen bodies on carts, then emptied the carts into the waiting jaws of the Arotea Ting.
The Harvest Eaters looked nothing like the orhatea standing in the chamber. Without arms or legs, they lay on their breasts, their oversized heads small mockeries of the bodies that rose behind them like great balloons. What remained of their shells hung from that grotesque shape like scabs pulled from an opened wound.
Chosen before hatching, they were altered to fulfill a single purpose. Make arotea. Breasts replaced arms and legs, their reproductive organs produced chemicals to accelerate arotea production, and their digestive track became storage.
Breasts and heads at hatching, they were incapable of locomotion. Selected drones carried the young Arotea Ting to the surface of Ora, where they either died from exposure or learned to eat anything given to them. Never taught language and cut off from the collective consciousness of the Colony, they depended on the drones assigned to them.
For those that understood their purpose, salts rubbed on their shells prevented them from hardening. A grace since they could not expel the arotea accumulating inside them. A rigid shell meant a painful end to a creature whose sole purpose was to grow fat with arotea.
Once trained and softened, their assigned drones moved them to the first level beneath Ora’s surface, where the drones fed them trash. Those that ate were moved deeper into Ora, and given better sources of protein, until they reached the Amah’s chamber.
At each step of their journey, from mutated hatchling to obese beasts, the Arotea Ting were kept by drones dedicated to them. The six drones these two now consumed had been with them since hatching.
The mandible that crushed the shells of their caretakers did not exist on other orhatea. They moved reflexively, grasping the dark gray shell of their victim, holding it in place for inspection with an extended tongue, the corpse repositioned with the tongue, it was squeezed clean of its guts by the mandibles. With a boom, the shell cracked, was repositioned, and crushed again. A hundred beats were all it took for the mindless creature to consume a drone that had cared for it since hatching.
Once upon a time, those booms would have signaled the beginning of an orgy. Now they were hollow retorts of the Colony’s demise. The time for change had come. Someone had to become a new Amah, or the Colony would fade from the Great Song.
Arita felt Karey’s recognition of her thoughts.
“I knew you plotted against me,” Karey said.
The floor went dark. In an instant, the Chamber was black as ink. A momentary inconvenience for an orhatea’s eyes, but it was enough. Tomo landed like spiders around the darkened chamber. Arita’s training saved her from the attack. She ducked to all fours, crawling around the edge of the uprising that made the table. When her eyes adjusted, she saw that Kora and Aemi had not escaped.
A Tomo held Kora’s arms while another battered her head with a stunning rod. Two hits would have been enough to subdue her, but her attacker did not stop. She hit Kora again, and again, with blows that should have cracked her shell. But Kora’s eyes did not go dim. She was taking the blows, deflecting their force with turns of her head and body.
Aemi escaped the first Tomo’s grasp by swooping under it, but the second caught her legs, holding them in a vice under her shoulders. Aemi rolled, twisting the Tomo’s grip, forcing it to roll with her. She kicked hard with a freed foot, knocking her captor away. But she had exposed her back to another that jumped hard on her skull. Her eyes went dark.
Anglee and Karey did not move. They stood at the table, four Tomo surrounded them, their eyes dark ash.
Arita raged, her eyes should have flared, but she controlled herself. Hidden beneath the table’s ledge, she was invisible to the Tomo meant to capture her. But that did not last. Karey found her on the mental landscape. She signaled the Tomo guarding her and Anglee. They crouched to all fours, pulling stun rods from their shells.
No Choosing this turn, but there was still a chance to take the Amah’s throne through force. She needed the crystal item Aemi had brought from the archive. But if she were captured, Karey would butcher her slowly, feeding small parts of her to the Arotea Ting each turn, extending her death as long as possible.
Again, Karey recognized her thoughts. Arita sensed her scanning the table for the artifact. She found it.
Kill her now, Karey raged at the Tomo, joining them to the link she had with Arita.
Arita was not going to die here, she would not surrender to Karey. She had seen a hundred missions before that miserable thing was hatched. If that preening youth thought she would master this old Infiltrator, she was mistaken.
She crawled like a spider, silent as smoke, away from the table. The direction took her past the Tomo that had captured Kora. One of them held her up, her arms under Kora’s shoulder, hands locked behind her head. The other spread Kora’s legs apart, then rammed her stunning rod in Kora’s sex.
Arita raged at the violation, but she could not save Kora. She crawled for the Arotea Ting instead. Scattered near the jaws of the beasts were bits of the drone’s shell. She found one with a narrow edge and shoved it in the crevice behind the beast’s mandible. It did not cry out, or even cease its attempt to eat. The next move would create enough noise to attract her assassins. She needed the Tamo.
Karey had bound the Tamo, ordered them to stand aside while her Tomo finished their work. They were male, and had to follow her order, but Arita was Commander, and older than Karey. She put her hopes on that thin thread. She flared on the mental landscape and told her Tamo to run. Beneath the flare, she sent another command to Ha’ori.
In the same beat, she leveraged the old drone’s shell with her feet and pulled at the mandible of the Arotea Ting. It came free with a boom that echoed around the Chamber. The old beast did not flinch, its sticky tongue flicked out, found another piece of shell to consume, and attempted to crush it with its single mandible.
The mental flare and the boom were enough. She had the attention of everyone except Aemi and Kora, who were not dead, but were out of the fight.
Half the Tomo jumped for the ceiling. An expected move. Changing the battlefield from two to three dimensions was a basic tactic. These five crawled along the ceiling, two behind, three in front of Arita. The other five moved to form an arc in front of Karey. There was no retreating, no escape, no place to hide. Not even in the ink black ink of the chamber.
The floor resumed its cool glow. In the light, Arita noted that the Tamo had fled. They were obedient, but was Ha’ori loyal to her or Karey?
“Your plots were never a secret to me,” Karey approached her with confidence, Tomo guarding her flanks.
Anglee remained at the table, studying the artifact Aemi had retrieved. “It’s just another crystal,” she said. “Probably footage from an earlier Amah’s ruling.”
They didn’t know.
“Was that it? Where are you going to claim Amah, with some ancient rule?” Karey stopped out of arm’s reach. She feared Arita’s experience.
“The Colony dies. We need an Amah to repopulate the egg banks.”
“You are living in the past…”
“You know my plans, and I know yours,” Arita interrupted Karey’s smugness. She propped the mandible against the body of the Arotea Ting. On its side, its width was taller than her, its length over twice her height. Made from a chitin stronger than her shell, it was her last hope.
She returned her attention to Karey. “I know you are Engaro cult. I know you intend to create a livestock for your believers.”
“Mohuritea is promised in the Waiotea. Our language is the Song of the Universe. Anything that can be possible is contained in it. If the Change of Species were not possible, there would not be a word for it. Yet, generations of Amah forbid we attempt it.”
“Even using the word was once punishable by a slow Harvest.”
“Was that it? Was that your hope in that old crystal? Some long dead Amah’s proclamation against the Engaro cult?”
“It won’t even activate,” Anglee said. She had plugged the crystal into a data port. If it had been simple data storage, footage of a dead Amah’s proclamation would have displayed on virtual screens.
Karey laughed, her eyes sparked with the notes. “Look around you, Arita,” she indicated the Tomo surrounding her. “The Colony is Engaro now, and I am is its Queen.”
“They all went crazy,” Arita said.
“She means the pages, Amah.” Anglee held a book against her breast. The pages were made of flesh from species the Engaro cult had attempted to transform into. All had failed in some horrible manner, and with each failure a new page was added to the book, a lesson in what not to do.
Cloning was a specialty of the Tomo. Using one of their eggs, a vat or arotea, and genetic material from any living thing, a trained Tomo could grow that thing. And if that thing had a brain, the Tomo could connect to it, enter that being and control it as if it was an extension of her body.
The Engaro believed that ability was a promise of something greater. A transformation out of the shell and into some new being the Great Song had never seen. A being of perfection that could traverse the stars with a thought and rule all intelligent life in the Galaxy.
“You cannot rule the Galaxy without the IBN,” Arita said. “You need a Colony to rebuild it.”
“I will have one. A greater one than you propose. When I am Engaro, I will command the Tansoon, Rakshoon, and the Orhatea. None in this system will be able to deny me. With tansoon technology we will solve the riddle of the IBN. With the rakshoon under my thumb, we will triple our drone population with their ada. Their dogo will fight under our Tamo, and the raka will manage my worlds.”
Karey stretched, stood as tall as her shell allowed, “This is the time promised us. Any that do not see it are Harvest.” She sent a thought to the Tomo. Harvest her.
A quick death then, Arita sent to Ha’ori. He had returned.
A sword flew out of the dark channel that supplied the Arotea Ting’s food. It spun over the heads of the Tomo surrounding her. She caught the sword with one hand, then pushed the freed mandible into the jaws of the Arotea Ting.
Behind the mandibles, the Harvest Eater had two rows of teeth. The first row was as hard as the mandible that held it open. Capable of cracking her shell like a seed. She crawled on hands and knees into those teeth. One cut her hand, another her foot. She sent aro, the milk of orhatea breasts, to cover the pain.
The next set of jaws had softer teeth, but they excreted acid that could dissolve her shell on contact. She sent aro to power her leg muscles. With the Tamo sword held in front of her like a beast’s horn, she leaped over the last row of teeth.
This turn was a turn of Harvesting and Arita had become part of it. She dove into the arotea the Harvest Eater had produced in a lifetime of eating. She did not need to breathe, not for several turns. Her shell held air in sacks along its length, and arotea was not harmful to her. A swallow powered her, and a joining to Ha’ori showed her how to power the sword.
Tamo manifested a mental energy that glowed hot white. They used it as a shield to cover their shells. If an enemy tried to grapple with them, or even strike them with a handheld weapon, the energy would consume them. Ori, sword masters extended that energy into their swords.
With the powered sword in front of her, she swam through the amber sea for the plugged rectum of the Arotea Ting. This poor creature deserved a better end. Its head chopped off before this final act, but she had no choice. If she delayed Tomo would be waiting for her in the Arotea Chamber.
With a flash of the sword, she cut open the rectum. She poured into the channel with the amber liquid. Orhatea were good at hiding, she thought, and even better at running away.