Tag: The Explorers

The Daisen

Interior of the tansoon generational ship Daisen

The green linen sheet flew off Nic of Tar. He shot off his bed, naked, but ready for a fight. A thought reconfigured his reflexes for optimal reaction times, another thought improved his field of vision to three-hundred degrees. No one was in the room.

He looked out the open window to check branches below and above his bedroom. His stomach turned from vertigo created by the fisheye effect of his augmentation. He canceled the enhancement and marveled at how his perception of the world collapsed around him. Someone slapped him on the shoulder.

With unnatural speed, he spun with his left palm out and open while he tightened his right into an arrow-hand. His left hand caught an arm, but when he struck for his attacker’s throat, he hit what felt like an armpit.

“Ow!”

A window in his vision indicated that a voice analysis had begun.

Chapter Four, The Explorers

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Inheritance

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.”

“I did?”

“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 tansoonian 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 tansoons 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 tansoonian 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 tansoon—”

“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 tansoon 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 tansoon. 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 dogo?” 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 tansoon 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 tansoon 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 tansoon from the dogo’s invasion. It is what the Dragon wanted. Tansoon 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 tansoon 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?”

Nic nodded.

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.”

Okida obeyed.

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 tansoon, 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 tansoon. 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.”

Chapter Three, The Explorers

Mada

Raksha protected his people at the Bay of Mada. Over millennia the valley had become a city, and the bay a port for sailing ships. In an earlier time, when ice covered the plains of Umaavadan, the rakshoon took refuge at Mada. The mountains surrounding the valley trapped warm moist air rising from NamaUd and made the Kishkha a time to forget old rivalries, study old texts, and share stories of Raksha’s cleverness. Wartooth had been here before, at the Kishkha of Betrayal.

This fortress, this very room, was Baga’s home. Baga was the first raka to gather quarreling families and clans under a common banner. That fight was against the tansoon and their perverse occupation of Raksha. In that great age of the first empire Baga carved his home in the side of the Mada Mountains and, on a morning like this, he stood in this window and commanded his troops in the defense of his home world.

On that morning, Baga was certain of his victory. He could not know how the tansoon would use their Bugs as weapons. By that evening, the Bugs had destroyed Baga’s army. The Plains of Umaavadan had not changed since Baga’s defeat. The soil was rich for growing grain, and the grass was green for feeding herds of bison. Deep in that soil was the blood of Wartooth’s ancestors. On this day, he would reclaim Mada from the tansoon, and Wartooth would be the only one above Baga’s on Raksha’s tongue.

He wore a replica of Baga’s armor. Commissioned for this day, the armor was a solid plate of protean steel polished to the purest white. A helmet pinned his ears against his head. Even on this cool morning, the armor was hot and made his fur itch. He wondered if armor had caused Baga’s defeat. He wanted to toss it and face his troops in the fur, but this moment needed the symbolism. Rakshoon would die for him today. They should go to that death with hope in their hearts.

Bemar appeared next to him. He was half the size of Wartooth. As a priest of Raksha he wore fine cloths. And his ears were free to twitch.

Wartooth growled. “The speakers are ready?”

“Yes, my Lord.”

“And the ada in charge of the tunnels?”

“They are in the next room, my Lord.”

“Bring them in.”

“Later, my Lord. This is Baga’s chamber, after all.”

His growl was a rumble in his chest.

Bemar bowed his head. “If you insist, my Lord. But you know how the ada behave. They might stumble over the furniture, interfere with the receiver, disconnect it, or worse. I would not be surprised if one of these two fell out the window before you finished.”

Bemar was raka. For him, the ada were slaves and incompetent for anything but the most menial tasks. Wartooth knew otherwise. The ada were competent, but also clumsy and unduly curious. “OK, Bemar. Bring them in when I am finished,” He extended a paw. “The receiver.”

Like the armor, the receiver was old technology. One of Raksha’s many tricks was to make wireless communication difficult. These old receivers were hard-wired to regional and global grids and were more reliable than any but the tansoon’s quantum. He stepped from the shadow into Maana’s morning glow. He spoke with his deepest voice. “All my people. This is the Kishkha of Liberation!”

He waited for his voice to echo through the encampments sprawled in front of him. As it did, a cheer washed over the gathering like a wave breaking from the shore. Then, as they noticed him in the window, the cheers became a chant. “Wartooth! Wartooth! Wartooth!”

In a moment, the chant was thunder. Two million raka, hundreds of dogo, and countless ada roared his name in unison. These were his people, his species, and they had suffered enough. He inhaled deeply. The morning air was moist. Over Bemar’s perfume he smelled trampled grass, fire, and charred meat.

He raised a paw. The chant stopped with the clap of an echo against the mountain’s side.

“You know the tansoon’s story. They defiled their world to come here. Raksha destroyed their star in punishment. Despite the Father’s warning, the tansoon continued to infest our world. They demeaned our traditions and denied Raksha was the Protector. They insisted we were uncivilized and needed their aid.

“Baga knew better. He saw the tansoon use raka like animals. He saw how they turned families and clans against each other to control larger portions of our world. Baga saw the population of raka shrinking and predicted our extinction at their hands. But Raksha is clever.”

“Raksha is clever,” the priest whispered.

Wartooth paused for the crowd’s quiet refrain to reach his ears.

“Baga joined the families and made the raka one clan. He took back our world, and then, on an early winter’s day, he trapped the tansoon here, at Mada. Desperate to save themselves, they overwhelmed Baga’s army with millions of their Bugs. Satisfied in their victory, and certain they would take our world, they gave our people to the Bugs as harvest. They slaughtered us the way we slaughter the bison that graze on Umaavadan’s grasses. But Raksha is clever.”

“Raksha is clever,” Bemar said again.

“Raksha is clever,” the crowd’s whisper sounded like a breeze from the north.

“Raksha is clever,” he whispered. Then loud and deep. “Raksha turned the Bugs against the tansoon and suddenly the tansoon needed the raka to save them. They promised to make raka warriors as powerful as the Bugs. They altered a few, to create the dogo.”

“Dogo! Dogo! Dogo!”

He let the chant fade. “The tansoon did not know the dogo were Raksha’s plan, so they continued to alter us until we became a race of our own. Able to breed, we made enough dogo to defeat the Bugs. We drove them from our continent and trapped them on Tar Island for the tansoon to deal with them. But the tansoon are traitorous. With the Bugs defeated, they were threatened by the dogo, and turned against their new army.”

Howls of derision rose from the camp. He let it build to a wave before cutting it off with a raised paw. “At the Kishkha of Betrayal, the tansoon tried to slaughter any dogo they could not control. A few of us escaped. There was raka at that betrayal that aided the tansoon. They live in Mada, and they are not your brothers.”

He removed the helmet to better hear the screams of anger from the encampments. He wished he could be there. He stood in this window because that was Raksha’s plan, and he was the Father’s instrument to complete it. Because of his leadership and Raksha’s grace, two million raka had gathered on the sloping hills below him. Three million rakshoon when you counted the ada and dogo.

The angry howling stopped. He dropped the receiver. It dangled out the window on its black cord. In his loudest roar he bellowed, “Today is the Kishkha of Liberation!”

With chants of Wartooth echoing off the mountain, he stepped back from the window for the cool shadows of the room. With a flex of his shoulders, he sent the protean steel chest plate to the floor and purred as he scratched his chest hair in satisfaction.

“Bemar,” he said, and turned to find the raka holding another receiver.

“We have the Protectorate of Wanshi on a direct line, my Lord,” Bemar said.

Wartooth backhanded him across the face. “Mada,” he said.

Bemar took the blow without flinching or back stepping. “Yes, my Lord,” he said. “The Protectorate is tansoon. Forgive my use of their tongue.”

“A tansoon?” Wartooth had not expected that. Jo Ji had been Protectorate of Mada since he was a boy. “What of Jo Ji?”

“I did not ask my Lord.”

“I want to gut him myself,” Wartooth said as he took the receiver from Bemar. “His name?”

“Shohang of Wanshi, my Lord.”

Wartooth hit Bemar with the receiver. The earpiece cracked against Bemar’s single fang. He fell to one knee, covering the fang with his hand.

“Who is on the receiver?”

“Shohang of Mada, my Lord,” Bemar said, inspecting blood on his hand.

Wartooth chuckled twice. “Your last fang is secure, Bemar. I cut your lip.”

“Thank you, my Lord.”

“Tell the ada to be ready. I want to speak with them when I finish with this Shohang.” The name felt heavy against his fangs.

“Yes, my Lord,” Bemar pivoted on his knee, then vanished behind the door.

“Quiet as a Bug,” Wartooth said to the air.

“This is Shohang of Wanshi,” a voice said from the receiver. “Do I speak with the dogo criminal Wartooth?”

Wartooth looked for Bemar to strike again. He punched the window frame instead. Wood splintered from the frame.

“Mada,” Wartooth said.

“What?”

“Mada,” Wartooth said, as if he was talking to his deaf grandmother.

“I am to discuss terms of Wartooth’s surrender,” Shohang said.

Wartooth hit the window frame again. The wood encasement fell on his feet.

“The city is Mada. The bay is Mada. The water, the soil, the trees, the air you breathe while you occupy that space is Mada,” Wartooth said. “Mada is home to the Father. Mada is sacred. You defile him with your ignorance.”

“I had heard you were a planet worshiper. We have psycho-cyber implants that can cure you of that and other superstitions. Did you know the raka of this city used to sleep with their feet facing the bay?”

Wartooth snapped the receiver. “Bemar! Bring me another receiver,” he yelled.

Bemar materialized with two receivers. “Here, my Lord.”

Wartooth yanked the cord out of the first and threw it out the window. He took the second.

“Are you familiar with our custom of tribute, Shohang of Mada?”

“Wanshi. And yes, I am. That is your barbaric practice of raping the females after a victory.”

Bemar had vanished. The window frame was splinters at his feet. He hit the stone wall. Hair protected the knuckles of his paw, but he felt the blow. A sliver of stone fell to the floor. He gripped the receiver hard and spoke slowly.

“Mada. Tribute is not rape. Rape is what you have done to my planet and my people. Tribute is a practice taught us by the Father. When a clan defeats another, the females submit to the victors so they can produce strong children. The tribute strengthens both clans. But if the defeated clan does not surrender their females to the tribute, do you know what we do?”

“No,” Shohang said.

“Before Maana sleeps, you will know.”

“You mean the local star? Do you worship that too?”

He squeezed the receiver but did not break it. He looked at it as if it were Shohang’s face and he had him about the neck. “You do not belong on my world. You insult our traditions. You convert us to your ways, you tried to exterminate us with your Bugs, you made us your pet army, and with each attempt a betrayal. Before this winter ends, Raksha will be free of you.

“Does that mean you expect to win today?”

“Yes.”

“Your surrender is out of the question then?”

Wartooth roared, yanked the receiver cord from the wall, and threw it out the window. “Bemar…”

“They are here, my Lord, but I do not trust them.”

Wartooth raised a hand, but Bemar did not flinch. Wartooth lowered his hand. “I should not have struck you. Earlier.”

“The tansoon was arrogant, my Lord. I understand your anger.”

Wartooth’s snout flexed as if he had caught a fresh scent. Bemar had endured more of his rages than he should have. “When we capture Mada, I will not be so angry.”

“They have been a stain on Raksha for too long, my Lord.”

Wartooth growled in agreement. “Are we ready?”

“Our troops hold the three mountain passes into the Bay of Mada.” Bemar said. He indicated a paper map on the table behind Wartooth.

“Use their quantum,” Wartooth said. “Shohang needs to see these things if we are going to win.”

“I would rather keep the troop advance hidden, my Lord.”

“I know what you would do, Bemar.” Wartooth hit the stone table with his fist. “What you would do is what all but Baga have done. And when the Bugs return, what would you do then? The Bugs did not eat tansoon Bemar. They ate raka and ada. Use their quantum.”

“Yes, my Lord,” Bemar waved a hand in front of an emitter. A virtual screen appeared. With another gesture, he enlarged it to fill the wall.

“Each of these mountain passes has two dogo commanders leading ten thousand raka and a hundred dogo each. That’s twenty-thousand, two hundred, as you commanded.”

“A number Raksha favors.”

“Yes, and more than the passes can contain. Here,” He tapped on one of the mountain passes. The image zoomed to show a snake of vehicles entering the pass. “They are an easy target…”

“For their living earth,” Wartooth finished. He tapped on the pass again. The image zoomed to a resolution that detailed individual vehicles. Between them, raka soldiers walked at a snail’s pace.

A red beacon flashed in the screen’s corner.

“They have intercepted our signal,” Bemar said.

“I will enjoy pulling your last fang,” Wartooth said. He studied the screen. His nose twitched. “Do it. Show me how powerful you are Shohang of Wanshi.” The word tasted foul, but he was in a foul mood. Good raka would lose their lives today. “Show me the bay.”

Bemar panned the screen. The image moved over the brown and gray mountains to reveal a city of gleaming blue and white towers. He panned again, following the length of the valley, until there was nothing but blue water. With another motion, the image moved past the Bay of Mada and to the dark green waters of the NamaUd.

“Three sailing and two air ships wait to offer air support and an alternate retreat,” Bemar said.

“They will take the sailing ships with their living water, and the air ships with their fire,” Wartooth said.

“If they do not enter the bay, the tansoon will not attack. We tested their tactics in the fall.”

“Now it is winter,” Wartooth growled. “And in winter we hold the Kishkha.”

When he was last at Mada, it was for a Kishkha. A Kishkha the tansoon used to capture dogo. But those dogo killed a hundred thousand tansoon before they could unleash their living fire. The ada of Mada helped him escape that day. They showed him a way through the storm drains, into tunnels, and finally into caves under the mountains surrounding the Bay. He lost his way in that escape, and the ada that helped him were long dead. But the ada clans of Mada had a long memory, and they respected him.

“Bring me my ada.”

“My Lord, they are not fit for these chambers.”

“My ada,” he spoke slowly.

Bemar opened the door. Behind it were two ada. They were half the size of Bemar, but their heads were just as big. They wore armor chest plates large enough to conceal their oversized chins. Metal plates around their legs rang against the floor with each step.

“It’s really him,” one of them said.

“Shut up, Hoot,” said the other.

 “You shut up, Joot. Do you know who that is?”

“Respect!” Bemar said.

The two ada stood straight and snapped their feet together. Their chest plates rose to hide their faces. Their metal leggings fell off.

“Hoot and Joot,” Wartooth chuckled. “Those names are familiar to me.”

“Yes, yes, yes. He remembers.” Hoot said from behind his chest plate.

A hand shot out from behind Joot’s chest plate to punch Hoot in the arm. “Shut up.”

“Relax. Your clans helped me escape Mada at the Kishkha of Betrayal,” Wartooth said.

“Yes, yes, yes,” Hoot jumped.

“Stop it,” Joot said. He pushed his chest plate down so he could see over it. “Hoot is very happy. Forgive him.”

Wartooth laughed. “Undo that armor. I can’t have my ada stumbling over themselves when I take Mada from the tansoon.”

“I told you,” Hoot said. His chest plate fell forward. Except for a cloth covering his loins, he was naked. His back hair was long and sunset red, his skin a dark orange.

Joot followed Hoot’s lead. An ada’s hair only grew along their spine. Long colorful back hair was a symbol of status and pride. Joot’s back hair was missing.

“Who did that to you?” Wartooth said.

“I am sorry, my Lord. A tansoon cut my hair last cycle.”

“Wartooth. I am no Lord over the ada.”

“Yes, my Lord,” Joot said.

“Wartooth,” Hoot said.

“Wartooth,” Joot said.

Wartooth repositioned the image on the virtual screen to show his army crawling through one of the mountain passes. “The tansoon are about to unleash their living earth on my raka,” he pointed to the screen.

The two ada squinted, then purred in excitement. Hoot pushed his finger through the screen to touch the wall behind it. When his finger came back in one piece, he purred even louder.

“The raka on those roads sacrifice themselves for my victory. Their lives will buy time for my dogo to use the tunnels you have dug in the mountains. Are those tunnels ready?”

“Yes, my Lo…”

“Wartooth,” Hoot interjected.

“Will they make it to the city?” Wartooth said.

“Yes, yes, yes. Big tunnels for dogo,” Hoot said.

“Big enough for a tank,” Joot said.

“Not a tank a…” Hoot started.

Wartooth raised a hand to stop him. On the screen, rocks the size of houses jumped from the edges of the pass. They hung for horrible moments, then fell to crush his army. He adjusted the screen to show all three passes. They filled with dust. With an angry gesture, he tossed the virtual screen out the window. It blinked out of existence. The slaughter of those raka was necessary, but he did not need to watch it.

He turned to the table and the paper map. With one long claw he indicated the city of Mada. “Raksha is clever,” he whispered.

“Raksha is clever,” the others echoed him.

“The dogo await your command,” Bemar said.

“Send them.”

Bemar barked into a receiver.

Wartooth imagined his dogo running through the tunnels. Six hundred of them, more than enough to slaughter the entire civilian population of Mada. But only if he outsmarted the tansoon and their orahi. Orahi motivated elements infused with it. The tansoon used it as their ultimate weapon, but it had limitations.

You needed millions of the particles to infuse something as simple as a small flame. Billions for a drop of water, trillions to move the smallest clump of soil. Then you needed a control unit.

Control units came in various packages. The most basic was a training unit that instructed fire on the type of material it should consume. Effective at eliminating specific structures or even living targets, fire was the most feared of the orahi.

A more complex unit could control water. Raksha’s interference with radio waves limited their range. Since taking Mada, the tansoon had ringed the bay with control towers and mined the water with cannisters of orahi. Attacking from NamaUd was impossible. The water of the bay would swallow his ships. No, that was a distraction. Today’s threat was earth and fire.

The most complex units controlled earth, but moving earth required quadrillions of the orahi particles. The living earth attack would be devastating, but short. They could not use it again. The Protectorate of Mada played his hand. Now it was Wartooth’s turn.

“How long to clear the passes?” He said to Joot.

“They will be clear before Maana sleeps.”

“Not soon enough,” Wartooth roared.

“No, no, no, Wartooth,” Hoot said. “Tunnel for dogo to move fast. Zoomers follow. Send the zoomers while ada clear the passes.”

Wartooth grabbed Hoot by his back hair. Lifted him for inspection. “What do you mean? Send the zoomers.”

“Yes, yes, yes, Wartooth.” Hoot twitched. “Tunnels dug for dogo will fit the zoomers. Tunnels tall for a dogo and wide for a zoomer. Wartooth.”

Wartooth’s nose twitched. He had planned on his dogo being a distraction while his ada cleared the passes for the full assault. But what was this ada saying? They had made the tunnels big enough for a zoomer? “What do you mean by zoomer?”

“Big gun on wheels. Like a tank, but smaller. They go faster though.” Joot said.

“And shoot fire,” Hoot said.

Transport sleds. A mobile gun with skids on each side for troops to stand. Six, maybe eight, on each side, and two more driving. Ten raka and a fast gun entering Mada beats behind his dogo. He had missed it.

“Did you know about this?” He growled at Bemar.

Bemar’s snout was open. “No, my Lord. I did not think the ada capable of such cleverness.”

“Look around you, Bemar. This room was carved by ada.”

“We did it, Wartooth,” Joot said. “We made tunnels for the zoomers. We like to ride the zoomers. Good for fighting underground.”

“They shoot fire,” Hoot said.

“Order it.”

Bemar pulled a receiver from the wall. Wartooth jumped to the window to watch. Within beats, the slow march to the passes stopped. Another few beats, and he could see sleds unloaded from larger transports, a few more beats, and the sleds were lining up at the tunnel entrances. He imagined the details. Each sled was a six wheeled vehicle with a gun mounted at the front and a flame thrower at the rear. The sleds were narrow, a single row of wheels, but they had skids on each side for troops to stand. They were perfect for rapid assaults on smooth city streets. Between their gun and flame thrower, they could flatten a building.

Before he could hope, however, he had to imagine how events would transpire. What could go wrong, what had already gone wrong? He learned not so long ago that once you joined a battle, there was no plan.

He imagined this new scenario. Shohang had seen his army stopped by the living earth, but he would not stop his assault. While Wartooth’s ada cleared the passes of wounded, Shohang would order flying drones, loaded with canisters of living fire, to assault his stalled troops. The tansoon would wait until the clearing crews blocked exit from the passes. That would make his raka easy targets. Shohang would not stop until his dead army clogged the passes to Mada for eternity.

But Shohang did not know about the tunnels, or his plan for the dogo. In a few beats that would change. The dogo in the tunnels were his best warriors, and he had organized them into groups of five. That was a hundred and twenty targets.

He imagined them in the city. The ada would help them stay hidden until they were at their targets, then they would attack. The obvious choice was power, communications, and water. But he did not want Mada destroyed. He had chosen buildings and people important to the tansoon. Political leaders, artists, museums, and restaurants.

Since these were soft targets, the raka police force would respond first. Lightly armed, his dogo would dispatch them without effort. To Shohang it would look like a guerilla army had materialized in his city. He would divert orahi laden drones from the slaughter in the passes to hunting dogo in the city. The living fire diverted, the ada would clear the passes, and his raka would attack through the cleared passes. That was the original plan.

But now, thanks to these clever ada, thousands of sleds would overwhelm Mada in a few beats. Shohang would recall his living-fire drones to defend Mada. The remainder of Wartooth’s army, support, and heavy weapons, would march into the city unopposed.

He dropped Hoot, who rolled when he landed. “Take me to a tunnel,” he said.

“Wartooth,” Hoot and Joot said together.

“Your armor, my Lord,” Bemar said.

“It is too hot,” he snapped at the priest.

Bemar held the chest plate for him to slide his arms into it. “It has a cooling function.”

Wartooth’s ears twitched. “Cooling?”

Bemar shook the chest plate.

Reluctantly, he stepped into the armor. Bemar tapped it beneath his breast and frigid air tickled his fur.

“That is fantastic, Bemar. Come with me. We will gut this Shohang together.”

“I must stay, my Lord. All communication runs through these rooms.”

Wartooth nodded his agreement, then looked for the ada. “Where have they gone? Hoot! Joot!”

Hoot skittered into view. “Come, come, come, Wartooth. Joot is getting a zoomer.”

He was quick for something so small. They ran down a flight of stairs, through a hallway, and down several more flights of stairs to end in the fortress’s basement. As promised, Joot waited with a zoomer.

The sled had a red face painted over the gun placement; the large bore barrel was a gaping mouth. The flame thrower at the rear of the sled had a skull with an oversized mouth covering the trigger guard.

“Where did you get this sled?” Wartooth asked.

“Joot’s zoomer,” Hoot said.

“Joot used zoomer since the betrayal,” Joot said.

“Hurry, hurry, hurry,” Hoot said as he took the seat behind the flame thrower.

Wartooth stood on a skid, the sled leaned to the side with his weight. Joot did not wait for hydraulics to level before he sped along the hallway, which ended in a crude hole.

“Who made this hole?”

“Joot always come here,” Joot said.

“Yes, yes, yes. Fortress is Joot clan.”

Wartooth laughed. Air pressed his ears back with the speed of the sled. He sniffed the air as they zoomed through the tunnel. He could not see in these dark places, so he had to rely on his nose to determine his location. The faint light from the hallway dimmed to black, and the scent went from musty to dank. The tunnel rose in places, elevating to a level where the air was warmer and less dense. In other places it dove downward at a such angles he thought the sled would topple end-over-end from the decline.

He was growing concerned at how long they had been in the dark and away from his army when he smelled the salty air of the NamaUd and dim light filled the tunnel. “We are close.”

“Closer than you know,” Joot said.

“Yes, yes, yes. We have been in Mada for many beats,” Hoot said.

“What! Why didn’t you stop! What about my army?”

“Joot has favor from Wartooth,” Joot said as the sled slowed to a crawl.

“Favor? Who am I?”

“Wartooth,” the two ada said in unison.

“Do the ada ask favor of Wartooth or does he demand favor from them.”

The sled stopped. The ada pulled their oversized heads into their necks as only they could. They looked like turtles trying to hide. If a turtle had a head the size of its shell.

“He demands,” Joot said, in a whisper. “Joot knows Wartooth will give him favor.”

Wartooth grabbed for the little ada’s back hair, meaning to throw him against the wall. But he whiffed, then remembered the ada had none.

Joot slid off the sled to put his forehead against the smooth concrete floor of the tunnel. Wartooth calmed himself enough to notice this was not a tunnel, but a storm water drain for the city of Mada.

Hoot jumped from the sled, rolled on the concrete floor, and copied Joot’s posture. “Please, please, please Wartooth hear his favor.”

Wartooth growled. He had left his helmet in the fortress, so he had no way to check on his army. Not that wireless would be effective underground.

“What is it?”

“The tansoon in the building above is the one that cut by back hair,” Joot said in a rush.

Another insult. Another growl.

“Bad, bad, bad tansoon. Would you kill him for us?” Hoot said.

“Let’s go,” Wartooth said. “Which way out?”

“Ladder, ladder, ladder,” Hoot said. His forehead was still on the floor, but both hands pointed above Wartooth.

He looked up. An extendable ladder hung from the ceiling. Out of reach for the ada, even a normal sized raka, but not for him. He pulled it down. Its rattle echoed through the drain.

“Show me,” he said.

Joot sprung up the ladder like he was a frog. Hoot followed, they were quick to the top and the burst of light when they opened the hatch blinded him.

The hatch was small. He squeezed through the round hole with a shake of his shoulders and an uncomfortable twist of his hips. He lost a few hairs, but, at last, he was in Mada. He stood on blue tiles with a black fence between him and a white street. The street was empty of traffic. The city seemed vacated. The breeze blowing off the NamaUd said otherwise.

Fire was the first scent he caught. Fire meant the attack was underway, or already over, depending on whose fire was burning. He sniffed again. Glass, metal, wood, and plastics, but no flesh. If Shohang had sent his living fire, it had not found a target.

A slug cut fur off his shoulder. The ada dove into the open hatch. He turned and recognized where he was. They were at the base of a curved glass tower that was the center of tansoon government.

Ten raka guarded the entrance. He reached for the blaster that should have been on his belt, but he had discarded it to fit the armor. Another slug whizzed by his ear. The idiot was aiming for his head, but an incompetent shot.

Weaponless, he had no choice but to bluff. He crouched low and roared, “Liberation!”

Three of the raka ran from the entrance, but not toward him. They followed the curve of the tower to disappear behind it. A good start.

“You are raka. You are not tansoon. You are my people. I am your brother. Born by Raksha to protect you. Put down your rifles and join my fight. I promise you tribute when we restore Mada to the Father.”

Four kneeled to present their weapons in surrender. That left three. One of which had the balls to shoot him.

The slug hit him square on the chest. The force knocked him back. He panted for breath that was suddenly gone. He held a paw over what must be a fist-sized hole in his chest. But there was none. The armor had saved him. He howled and ran for the raka shooting at him.

The raka shot again, but his aim was wild. The other two stood with their snouts open.

Wartooth took the face off the raka that shot him with a single swipe of his paw. Another swipe took the head of another. He bit the last one on the neck. A new passion overtook him as blood filled his mouth.

An explosion knocked him off his feet. He rolled over and up to shake the raka free of his jaws. Dust blocked his vision, but he knew where he was. The government tower was a round white and blue-glass structure at the edge of a blue tiled courtyard. A black fence of protean steel bars surrounded the courtyard. There was only one entrance, a narrow gate flanked by two square towers with gun emplacements. One of them must have shot at him. He heard the second gun fire. When its shell hit the courtyard, it exploded with such force that it knocked him off his feet again.

He landed on his chest; his paws covered his ears. When he opened his eyes, he saw a rifle on the ground. He grabbed it and rose to one knee. He couldn’t see through this dust, but the infrared site on the rifle could. The tops of the gun towers were a red ball in the sight. The heat of the guns masking the raka manning them. He fired ten quick rounds into the first guard tower. Rolled, then ran the width of the courtyard, and fired ten more rounds into the second guard tower.

Silence made the ringing in his ears more pronounced. The breeze cleared the dust enough to see the tops of the guard towers. Both guns aimed at him. Thick glass had shielded the gunners from his shots, but bulls-eyes filled both panes from his attempt.

A gun fired from across the courtyard. He fell to his chest and looked for the shooter. One of the raka that had surrendered had risen to one knee and was shooting at the towers. One of the gun emplacements turned to the new attacker.

Wartooth grabbed his rifle and crouched for a run at the tower. If he got close enough, the guns were useless, and those cowards would have to face him in the fur.

He took the first step, then heard a baby’s wale over the ringing in his ears. From the base of the guard towers, two ada ran toward him with their mouths open and howling at the top of their little lungs.

Both were motioning for him to drop to the ground. They had been right all day, so he dropped and covered his ears with his paws. Two explosions shook the courtyard with such force they made his heart jump. A beat later chunks of stuff fell around him, followed by the patter of heavy dust.

He raised his head. The dust was thick, but through it he saw the ada in front of him.

“We do favor,” Joot said.

Wartooth rolled on his back and roared with laughter. “Raksha is clever,” he said as he stood.

The two ada pulled grenades from their belts. They ran toward the government tower, then mid-step, they threw the grenades at the door, skidded to a stop, turned, and ran toward him with their mouths open and making that same awful howl.

Wartooth scooped Joot up with one paw, drug Hoot by his back hair, and dashed for the far end of the courtyard. This explosion was not as powerful as the others, but when he turned, the glass entrance of the tower had become a hole.

He dropped the ada. They rolled away to vanish in the dust and smoke. He grabbed two rifles from the ground as he ran for the buildings new entrance. Before he could reach it, a swarm of black drones flew from the maw. They buzzed like insects as they spread to cover the damaged section. He switched the rifles to automatic and shot at them. The black things moved like a swarm, dancing away from his shots. One of the loyal raka came to his side.

“My Lord Wartooth,” he said. “Those drones act like mines. They are attracted to motion and sound and will explode the moment they touch anything.”

“Who are you?” Wartooth snorted at his new companion.

“I am Baga.”

“A good name. How do we get past these flying mines?”

“We cannot. If we approach, they will fly out, attach themselves to us, and explode. If we try to distract them…”

Hoot appeared near the entrance. He took a piece of shattered blue tile and threw it at the flying things. One of them flew out to meet the tile and exploded. The others buzzed louder. They formed a string of black and flew at Hoot.

Wartooth shot the lead drone. It exploded.

“Do not, my Lord,” Baga yelled, then pushed against his chest.

The string of drones changed direction to fly at him.

With Baga’s urging, he back walked to the opposite side of the courtyard. The mines filled the space where he had been standing. They swarmed like a dust devil in the spot. Hoot stood motionless. Joot had vanished.

A few beats passed with no one moving, then the rumble of tank treads against concrete echoed from behind the tower. If his tanks were on the city streets, then Mada must be his. He raised his rifles and shot into the air.

“My Lord!”

Too late, the swarm of mines darted toward him. One of them struck Baga on the back. He exploded in a spray of blood that soaked Wartooth’s fur. Chunks of his decimated body struck other drones. They exploded to create a crimson cloud that hung like fog.

Hoot opened his mouth and howled that infant-like caterwaul that signaled danger. The drones turned like a cloud of insects toward the open maw of the ada.

In the same moment, Bemar’s voice rang from the tank’s loudspeaker. “The great dogo Commander and favored of Raksha claims this city in the name of the Father.”

“Bemar? How?”

“The great dogo Commander and favored of Raksha claims this city in the name of the Father,” Bemar repeated.

Bemar’s voice silenced Hoot.

“The great dogo Commander and favored of Raksha claims this city in the name of the Father.”

The mines turned like a snake and a beat later spent themselves against the tank’s ablative armor. When the fireballs cleared, and with smoke hanging over the tank, Joot crawled out of the top hatch. He said something. Wartooth could not hear it over the ringing in his ears.

Hoot pulled at his leg fur. Joot pointed at the tower. Wartooth ran into the black hole at its base. The Foyer, the magnetic lifts, and the hallways, were empty. Wartooth kicked the wooden door from its frame and entered the Protectorate’s office with both rifles lowered and ready to fire.

A gray haired raka stood in front of a great stone desk. “Wartooth,” he said.

“Jo Ji,” Wartooth said. “Where is Shohang?”

“He is gone,” With one paw, Jo Ji lifted a glass orb from the stone desk. Inside the orb, a ball of orange magma rolled against the glass as if it were trying to escape.

Wartooth grunted and lowered his rifles. Bullets were no use against that. “You would kill us both with their living fire?”

“No. I am your servant, my Lord.”

“Then put down the flame and we will claim Mada as brothers.”

“I cannot. He controls me.”

“Controls you? How?”

With one paw, Jo Ji pointed to his head. His nose twitched as if he were about to sneeze.

Wartooth checked the air. Fear and sweat from Jo Ji, and another faint scent that could be the tansoon’s perfume lingering in the air. He checked again. No, the scent had a direction. The corner of the room. Behind the desk.

“I have not heard of this Jo Ji. How could a simple tansoon control a stubborn old raka like you?”

“They changed us.”

“Their implants?” He checked the air again. Yes. A strong scent in the corner. Shohang was there. But could he kill the tansoon before Jo Ji broke the orb.

“I, I…” Jo Ji raised the orb as if to throw it. His nose spasmed.

“Never mind. I need not know how. I know that you were a brother Jo Ji. You would not kill us in their fire.”

 “But he will. He will burn this entire building, this entire city to stop you.”

Wartooth pointed his rifles at the corner where the scent was strongest. Jo Ji took the orb in both hands, raised it above his head. Wartooth shot the corner of the room. The bullets tore through a partition disguised to look like the wall behind it. Shohang’s scream was short. He fell forward, the side of his head missing.

Jo Ji collapsed to the floor, holding the orb of orahi infused fire against his chest as if it were a newborn baby.

“Enough of this,” Wartooth said, then emptied his rifles into Shohang’s body.

Chapter Two, The Explorers

Fishing Bird

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 tansoon, 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 tansoon’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 tansoon’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 tansoon. 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 dogo made, but he did not share the dogo’s hunger. Wad was a genetically modified rakshoon. 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 dogo 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.”

“Baiting! Fish!”

Wad’s voice shook Nic’s chest. He should have been afraid. An enraged dogo could gut an entire city before police drones could kill it. But this was Wad. He had raised this dogo 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 tansoon, 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 dogo. 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 dogo, 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 the dogo’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 the dogo’s 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 tansoon. 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 tansoon 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 tansoonian society. Enough had welcomed what the tansoon 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 tansoon. Next time I will pass.”

“Of course,” Nic helped Wad to his feet. Together they walked over the hill and into the night.

Chapter One, The Explorers

A Turn of Harvest

A close image of Arotea the food of The Fundamentals

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.

“Who?”

“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.

Prologue, The Explorers

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