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Chapter One

Tell of the star-crossed kessentai, O spirits,
Who wandered long after being driven from the blood-drenched citadel of Aradeen.

—The Tuloriad, Na'agastenalooren

Anno Domini 2009
North Carolina

The screech and thunder of human artillery, flying through the air and impacting on the ground nearby, drowned out the shuffling of Posleen feet, the confused and frightened grunts of the cosslain, and the despair-filled sobbing of their remaining hundred or so human captives.

None of those captives knew why, but that number had not changed in some days. If they'd asked, if they'd been able to ask, the chief of the alien group probably could not have explained why they'd been spared. It was possible that he, himself, didn't know.

At the point of the ragged column, head drooped in defeat, walked that Posleen chief: Tulo, lord of the clan of Sten and war leader of the vast hosts gathered to fight the humans on this part of the planet Aradeen, known locally as "Earth." Those hosts had within the last few days been very nearly annihilated in that fighting.

Tulo'stenaloor, once lord of the greatest Posleen war host ever assembled and now just a ragged fugitive, stopped suddenly, his head rising and his crest—reminiscent of a Lakota headdress—erecting itself automatically. There was a small being, one of the bat-faced, green-fuzzed, pacifist Indowy blocking what passed for a trail.

"Who are you?" the Posleen God-king, Tulo'stenaloor, asked, suspiciously. He had reason for suspicion. His armies crushed, his people nearly exterminated . . . and here he found himself standing before one of the "harmless" green ones who provided the never-sufficiently-to-be-damned humans with their fighting machines. The green being was in turn surrounded by more armed humans, closer, than the Posleen war chief had ever hoped to see again in this life. The fuzzy being seemed to be studying the pitiful remnants of the Posleen horde that shambled along behind Tulo'stenaloor.

We're dead, Tulo thought. And perhaps just as well. I don't know why I bothered trying to run, anyway.

The ragged remnant of his horde that stretched out behind Tulo was composed of several hundred crocodilian centaurs, with scaly skin and yellow eyes. About a third of the beings had crests, not dissimilar to the feathered bonnets favored by some of the Plains Indians in the old American west. These they could erect at will, in a display of dominance or of urge to battle. The crests would also erect themselves, automatically, when faced with a threat. It was not insignificant that, of the over one hundred crested individuals in the pack, not one, except for Tulo and his bodyguard, had their crests erected. Rather, they hung along the creatures' necks, as if in shame and despair.

Tulo's guard, Brasingala, a large and stout young kessentai who had over the years demonstrated both aptitude and dedication amounting to paranoid obsession in guarding his chief, immediately began to draw his boma blade to hack the little being into steaks, along with as many of his human escorts as could be managed.

"Hold," Tulo whispered, putting one skilled claw in front of Brasingala. The young guard immediately froze in place.

"I am the Indowy, Aelool," answered the little one, with a broad and toothy, and very feral, smile. If the Indowy was afraid of Brasingala, or even of the remnants of Tulo's host, the fear was tolerably hard to perceive. "And I would like to make you an offer you can't refuse."

"A quick death?" the god-king asked, curiously enough without any hostility. After all he been through, Aelool didn't wonder that the Posleen might prefer death to life. "That would be generous."

"No," the Indowy said. "A long life. Perhaps even a fruitful and happy one."

At that the kessentai laughed, bitterly. "I don't believe in fairy tales, Indowy."

The Indowy's fingers reached up to stroke a bat-like, furry chin. "Neither do I," he agreed. "There is a ship behind me, hidden under ground" Aelool said. His fingers wriggled as his arm swept in the surrounding humans, both those guards close by and others glimpsed as dimly seen shadows as they moved into position around the remnant of the host. "That is no fairy tale. I could have had you destroyed just now—you will agree that the humans are remarkably good at destruction, yes?—yet I did not. That is no fairy tale. There are other humans coming and those I don't control. That's no fairy tale, either. Your people are tired, demoralized, weak, hungry, and as very nearly out of ammunition as they are of hope. Do I speak a fairy tale?"

The Posleen sighed. "It is cruel to remind me of my failure," he said. "I thought you people had some scruples."

"Scruples enough," Aelool said. "Scruples enough to save this remnant, Tulo, Lord of the Clan Sten."

"To what end?" Tulo asked.

"Not so much to an end," the Indowy corrected, with an odd twist of his ears, "as to avoid an end. The galaxy would be a poorer place without your people in it. You are, in your way, nearly as admirable as these feral humans. You could, in your way, become as or even more valuable."

"We're as valuable as hunks of thresh hung up for curing," the god-king said, adding, "for those who care for the perversion of cured thresh. There is no possibility of getting a ship out through the human blockade of the planet."

"There is no possibility of getting one of your ships out, Tulo. There are other kinds of ships."

The Indowy pointed up into the trees. Tulo's eyes followed and searched. Something . . . something . . . but, no, I can't see it. It's as if my eyes were trying to tell my mind something that my mind refused to accept.

"Show yourself, Himmit Argzal," the Indowy called.

The Posleen nodded as the purple outline of an alien being, symmetrical but with a head at each end, began to form among the trees. It had been there all the time, so he assumed, but the Himmit were good at camouflage.

The Posleen couldn't hide a sneer. "We're to be saved by the galaxy's cowards? How truly sad."

"There may be more to the Himmit than you realize, Tulo'stenaloor," Aelool answered. "More than we do, either," he muttered, sotto voce. The little being's feral smile changing briefly to a puzzled frown. The frown disappeared as Aelool continued, "Be that as it may. They have a ship—life for the remnants of your people. Will you take ship?"

I don't want to live, Tulo thought. Live for what? Live for shame? Live for disgrace? Live for the knowledge I failed my people?

Aelool could hardly know what Tulo was thinking, in perfect detail. Even so, it was hard not to know what was in the god-king's mind, in principle.

"Live to expiate shame," the Indowy said. "Live to recover from disgrace. Live to rebuild the People of the Ships."

"I could live for revenge," the god-king said.

"That you shall not have," Aelool answered. "Nor do you deserve it. Nor, in time, will you come even to want it."

Again, the kessentai laughed. "Those first two may well be true, Indowy. That last is inconceivable."

Overhead, a flight of artillery passed, its freight train racket for the moment drowning out speech. In the distance the forest rumbled as earth was plowed and trees cropped by the humans' high explosive. After the sound had passed, and before the next could come, Aelool said, "Believe what you want, Tulo'stenaloor. Conceive of what you will. But believe this, too: If you and your people do not get aboard the Himmit's ship, that artillery will soon find you. Will you come?"

"Can you fit all my people?" he asked.

"Most, certainly," Aelool answered. "There is space for the kessentai, the kessenalt, most—maybe all—of the cosslain. The normals will not fit, or not many of them anyway. And of course your human captives must be released without harm."

"My immediate oolt has no normals. The captives we can let go; they're hardly enough to feed us for long anyway." Even were I of a mind to eat them.

"Then you will come? The ship I have brought can feed you."

"Yes, dammit. Come where?"

"Follow me," Aelool said, turning. As he turned, the Himmit disappeared once again among the trees.

Argzal was waiting when the procession arrived at the tunnel, Posleen surrounded by humans led by an Indowy. This I simply must relate to the story gatherers, the Himmit thought, wryly.

Seeing the Posleen come to a shuddering stop at the opening of the tunnel, the Himmit said, "Fear not, lordlings, the tunnel leads to the ship of life."

"The ship tunnels for cover," Aelool explained to Tulo'stenaloor. "The displaced material is turned into . . . well, call it neutronium, for lack of a better term . . . the better to aid in camouflage."

"We really don't like tunnels much," Tulo said. "Even leaving aside the legends, we've had a lot of bad experiences underground since we met the humans."

"Not as bad as you will have if you don't go into the tunnel," Aelool observed.

"Essthree!" Tulo called, turning his great head toward the mass of the column. This was a title, one Tulo had borrowed from the humans in his efforts to create a mightier host than any that had gone before. The Essthree was concerned with planning and operations, as the Essone was with personnel management, the Esstwo with intelligence, and the Essfour with logistics.

"Here, Lord," answered an ancient kessentai with the gleam of fierce intelligence in his one remaining yellow eye. Despite that gleam, the Essthree had the look of weariness about him, a fatigue no ordinary rest could touch.

"Take Essfour with you. Go forward and organize boarding. I will . . ."

A series of screeches, followed by organ shaking bangs, was heard perhaps a thousand of the humans' meters away.

"I will stay above with Brasingala and push the others in," Tulo finished.

"As you say, Lord." With a hand signal to the Essfour, the Essthree warily entered the tunnel.


"Here, Tulo'stenaloor," said a youngish looking god-king. This one's eyes were no less intelligent than Essthree's, yet he looked much younger and considerably the better for wear.

"How many are we?"

The god-king didn't need to consult any notes, nor could he consult the defunct artificial sentience, or AS, he normally wore on a golden chain about his neck. The humans' last, horde-crushing anti-matter strike had generated an electro-magnetic pulse sufficient to destroy even the EMP-hardened artificial sentiences of the Posleen. Most of the kessentai had tossed theirs as redundant, useless weight. And if Essone had not tossed his, it was only a matter of time. Of all the kessentai and kessenalt in Tulo'stenaloor's oolt, only Binastarion intended to keep his. And that device had been more friend and confidant than servant.

"We are three-hundred and eighty-seven left, Tulo. Two-hundred and twenty-six cosslain, one hundred and thirty-seven kessentai, twenty-four kessenalt. Plus the thresh, of course."

"We'll be leaving the thresh behind." Tulo turned his great crested head to Aelool. "Can we fit so many?"

"The ship will suffice for that," Aelool agreed. "Yet it will be tight, Tulo'stenaloor, and your seniors must control the lesser ones among you."

"That will be no problem, Indowy. My personal oolt is not much given to panic. Though some are given to excessive mourning."

At that Aelool noticed one among the Posleen kessentai, clutching a gold-colored metal disc to its chest while keening piteously. Nearby an old looking Posleen, followed by a cosslain bearing a gilded chest upon its broad back, attempted to console the weeping kessentai. The Indowy twitched an ear in puzzlement.

"That's Binastarion," Tulo explained. "He was very close to his artificial sentience. The humans' anti-matter weapon that broke us also generated enough of an electro-magnetic pulse to scrub all of our artificial sentiences. Binastarion mourns for a dead friend."

Aelool nodded his understanding.

Tulo pointed at a group. "Into the tunnel," he said to them. Aelool was pleased but unsurprised to see that the Posleen followed their orders without question. Tulo'stenaloor was, after all, not just any god-king.

The Indowy thought, We might just get away after all.

Tulo noticed one particular god-king, Goloswin the Tinkerer, hanging back as the rest shuffled forward uncertainly into the dark, dank tunnel.

No, that's not quite right, Tulo thought, looking more carefully at the expression on Goloswin's face. He's not hanging back; he's studying. Well, Golo always studies.

That he was a little shorter and thinner than the kessentai norm was only the beginning of Goloswin's personal oddities. Among the kessentai most were, Tulo would frankly admit, idiots who should have been excised from the gene pool. (Ruefully, too, the chief kessentai would have noted, the humans had done just that.)

His own oolt wasn't like that, of course. Of kessentai he had nothing but what the humans called, "five percenters," those one in twenty kessentai who were demonstrably, and fearfully, not idiots. Of those, Tulo had chosen only the best for the oolt. But even among those who were one in one hundred of that one in twenty, Goloswin stood out. For he was the Michelangelo, the Leonardo Da Vinci, the Gauss and the Newton and the Einstein, the Ford and the Edison of the Posleen race.

Goloswin, as he himself would have cheerfully told anyone who asked, was fucking smart.

"What holds you, Golo?" Tulo asked. "We can afford to lose many . . . any, really . . . of the people. But we cannot afford to lose you."

"I am operating on a guess, Tulo," Golo said. "The first and the last loaded have a chance to be the foremost inside that hidden ship. I may be able to discern something of its principles by being closer to the control room."

Tulo's answer was interrupted by one of the humans' artillery shells, this one much closer than the last. It was an adjusting round. In an earlier day, before the Posleen had obliterated the Global Positioning System, there probably would have been no adjustment required and the first warning of an incoming shell would have been dismemberment by that shell . . . and the couple of hundred siblings that would have accompanied it.

"There is a team of them watching us," Aelool surmised. "They're almost as disorganized by victory as you are by defeat . . . else that last shell would have been here, and it would have been followed by hundreds." To his human escorts, he said, "Find the observers. Silence them. Do not harm them."

Wordlessly, one of the human escorts used his fingers to indicate to a brace of his men that they were to follow him. In perfect silence those three took off into the woods and disappeared from view.

"They are very good," Tulo told Aelool, as the three humans disappeared.

"They are," the Indowy agreed. "I'm told they're Swiss . . . mmm . . . Swiss . . . 'Guards.' Or a special subset of that group, anyway. They're on loan to my organization."

The Posleen shrugged. The details didn't matter much when the humans had, as a race, proven so deadly.

Another shell landed, this one closer still. Tulo thought he saw treetops rising majestically, only to sink again, slowly, in the not very far distance. The trees fell as if with regret. He looked around. Only he and Golo, Brasingala, and the Indowy remained above the surface; those, plus the human captives and what some among the humans might have called the "mess sergeant." Tulo had shortened that to "mesergen."

"You have made a great mistake," the mesergen said to Tulo. "I am not enough, on my own, to butcher these properly. Nor is there time for me to do so."

"We're not butchering any of them."

"What? That's nonsense! I didn't curry these along merely to—"


So fast was the guard's blade that the messergen's lips were still moving as his head hit the forest floor.

"I am not in the mood to be argued with," Tulo'stenaloor whispered to the corpse, after it had finished settling to the ground.

Mesergen forgotten as quickly as he had been killed, Tulo turned his attention back to the tunnel ahead. He could just see the twitching rumps of the last of the remainder, losing themselves in the dark.

"Maybe you're right, Golo," Tulo'stenaloor said. "Let us enter this place and see."

"What of your humans?"

Aelool answered, "Some of my escorts will take charge of those you have freed and lead them to their own people. The rest of my escorts will disperse as soon as we are boarded. I think that, even with your former captives, no observer will see them."

Tulo shrugged that off. Let himself and his people escape and what matter what the human's saw on their own world? He, his guard, Goloswin, and Aelool entered the tunnel and walked forward. Clawed Posleen feet, and sandalled Indowy ones, made an odd sound on the surface of the base of the tunnel. What should have been dirt was, instead, turned to some other substance, something that felt almost like gold.

The tunnel continued on, deep into the earth. It twisted only once, near the end. Just past that hard right twist a large portal stood open, with a ramp in front of it, leading from ship to "soil." The ramp appeared to be of a much different shape from the portal, yet Goloswin sensed it was intended to fold into it. A bluish-greenish glow came from the opening, turning ramp and tunnel much the same color.

Once inside, they saw that the disconcerting blue-green seemed to come from no place in particular, but simply to be everywhere at once. The cabin in which the refugees found themselves was small, perhaps twenty-five of the humans' meters by thirty. With nearly four hundred of the massive creatures stuffed into that space, there was hardly room, and an excellent chance of being inadvertently injured, for one tiny Indowy. Standing near to Goloswin, with the Indowy on his feet in between the two, Tulo'stenaloor suggested, "Maybe you should climb on my back, Aelool. Here, let me give you a hand up." The God-king reached down with claws that, under ordinary circumstances, would have sent a normal Indowy gibbering.

Aelool was not a normal Indowy, however. With the god-king's help, he scrambled onto its broad, muscled back, sitting there side saddle as his legs were too short to take a comfortable riding position.

"Something really bothers me, here, Tulo" Goloswin said, leaning over to whisper to Tulo.

"I hate this fucking blue-green light, too."

Golo twisted his head in negation. "The light? No, no, I hadn't even noticed the light. Though now that you mention it, it is a little unsettling. No, I was thinking about the size of this thing. Even if it recycles the waste at one hundred percent efficiency, it would have to do so instantaneously or we'll spend half the time hungry. And we cannot make a long journey crowded in like this, muzzle to asshole. I wonder if . . ."

A voice came from everywhere and nowhere. "Attention. Attention Posleen lord and lordlings and servants. This is Argzal, captain of the scout smuggler, Surreptitious Stalker, Himmit Sixth Fleet—"

"Sixth Fleet?" Golo questioned. "Himmits have fleets?"

"Shhh! Listen. Besides, we don't know if they mean by 'fleet' what we or the humans would mean by 'fleets.'"

"—going to be passing through the humans' interdiction forces now gathered around the planet. Unlike most of the humans' weapons and sensors, those ships can potentially sense us and could possibly harm us. Do not worry; I am very good at my job. I intend to bluff."

"'Don't worry,' he says. 'I intend to bluff,' he says."


"—placing an inertial dampening field around your compartment. This will retard your movements, slightly and temporarily. The inertial dampening field, while not dangerous, is also not what is normally used for livestock."


"Dammit, be quiet, Golo!"

"—should not fear this; it is necessary. In the interim, to keep you entertained, look to the nearest bulkhead. You can see our progress there. I will also adjust your light to something more comfortable."

The compartment, not exactly raucous to begin with, went deathly silent as most of the walls were seemingly replaced with totally black holographic rectangles. The ambient light likewise shifted to a red-orange more suitable to Posleen visual rods and temperament. Between the two changes, the pitiful remnants of the great host of Tulo'stenaloor calmed down completely.

"I wish I had my AS," Tulo whispered. Sadly, every AS in the oolt had been wiped by the electro-magnetic pulse of the humans' ultimate anti-matter weapon. Off in the distance, Binastarion could still be heard weeping over his own.

To Brasingala, the chief said, "Migrate through the oolt as best you can. Find our Chief Rememberer. Tell him it would please me if he would lead our people in a prayer of thanks to the ancestors for our deliverance."

"We're not delivered yet, Tulo," Goloswin said.

"Yes we are. We just don't know whether we're delivered from death or from shameful life. Either is cause for thanks."

Beneath and around the Posleen and Aelool the Himmit ship began to hum as it prepared to break free of the Earth and the war which had nearly consumed it.

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