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Charles E. Gannon

Dr. Charles E. Gannon is not only a talented science fiction writer but also a Distinguished Professor of English (the collection’s second English teacher) at St. Bonaventure University and a Fulbright Senior Specialist. He has been published in Analog, has written for The Traveler and 2300 AD games and recently collaborated with Steve White on the book Extremis (also from Baen).

Traversing interstellar distances is daunting and will require tremendous resources and willpower to accomplish. As you will see in Lesser Beings, the vast distance between the stars might be a good thing indeed!

* * *

— 1 —

Kalsor Tertius, 351st year of founding

There was no time to react. A fire team of Veronite helots popped up from beneath the sagging hulk of a smoldering tank and, in the same motion, fired a rocket at the third vehicle in the command echelon. The white gush of the weapon’s lateral plume pushed it across the intervening fifty meters with a loud, bristling hiss—and the world seemed to jump along with the vehicle the rocket had struck. A sharp flash preceded the deafening fireball and consumed the armored car, the car’s small turret humping up and then off its deck, tumbling to the side like a child’s toy. The pennant on its aerial—that of the Lord General himself—fluttered in seemingly desperation before crisping in the flash.

The cacophony did not subside; it only changed. The remaining three armored cars’ twenty-six-millimeter autocannons blasted converging streams of tracers at the helots. The nearby dirt churned up in black and brown gouts. Bright flashes and metallic shrieks marked where near-misses struck the crippled tank’s chassis, roadwheels, treads. And, fleetingly, limbs and sundered torsos tumbled apart through a thin bloody mist that was gone as quickly as it had appeared.

And then silence. But only for a moment.

The HQ troop’s two APCs—one creaking fearfully—arrived, swerving to either side of the remaining three command cars. They disgorged dirty, mostly bandaged troops who fanned out professionally, expanding the safe perimeter. The troops meticulously checked each possible hiding place, even prodding suspicious patches of ground for concealed firing pits. When they encountered other enemy bodies scattered about the area—a mix of helots and huscarls—they bayoneted any that did not quite look dead enough. No head-shots, though: they were too low on ammunition to waste it on executions that a blade would accomplish just as well.

Huscarls boiled out of the deck- and turret- hatches of the other command cars, fresh worry—even panic—etched over the strain and exhaustion on their faces. Harrod hur-Mellis looked down as they clustered around the skirts of his vehicle. “Senior Intendant,” one almost cried up at him, “what are we to do? With the General killed, we—”

“Calmly, Siffur. Think for a moment: just because a vehicle bears a General’s pennant, does it guarantee there is a General inside?”

As if on cue, the Lord General Pathan Mellis rose up from the hatch beside Harrod’s.

The panic on the faces ringing them became dismay, then confusion, then relief. “General,” burbled Siffur, “you live!”

Mellis sneered down at his helot. “Of course I do, dolt. Do you think I am foolish enough to ride in a command car that advertises my presence inside?”

As the Senior Intendant of House Mellis, Harrod had much experience not letting his inner reactions alter the neutral expression on his face. This served him quite well now, as he thought: No, you are not so foolish as that—at least not after I pointed out the prudence of false-flagging our weakest vehicle. Not that Harrod would ever remind Pathan Mellis that his Lordship’s supposed masterstroke of foresight had actually originated in a lesser mind. The Evolved expected even their highest-ranking servitors to remain abjectly deferential and compliant—a life-preserving lesson forgotten by too many new Intendants. Increased interaction with their masters often led them to assume an equal increase in allowed familiarity: this was an invariably fatal error.

Pathan was already giving orders—a task at which he excelled, Harrod allowed. “Helots, remount. Security teams are to collapse back upon their own APCs. Nedd!”

The huscarl, senior among the car commanders, came stiffly to attention. “Yes, lord?”

“Your regional secure set is still working?”

“Yes, lord.”

“Get me an update. Immediately.”

“Yes, lord!”

Pathan surveyed the southern horizon; Harrod’s eyes followed those of his lord. Columns of black smoke seemed to be holding up that part of the sky.

Behind them, syncopated thunder rolled: House Mellis’s mobile artillery. A moment of silence, then high whimpering screams overhead, then silence again—and finally, flashes along the southern horizon. Two seconds later, the ragged rumbles of the barrage passed over them.

“This race is too closely run,” Pathan said in a worried tone.

Harrod knew not to say anything.

“Last week, our position was secure. But with all the neutral Houses now declaring for the HouseMoot, we are dangerously overextended. As it is, neither our forces nor those of House Shaddock can be sure of reaching our capitals in time to defend them—not when we have to fight our way back home through the forces of House Verone.”

The price of endless warmaking, and overreaching, Harrod ached to say, but did not dare to.

“Lord Mellis!” It was Nedd. His tone augured news they did not wish to hear.

“Report, huscarl.” Like all the Evolved, Pathan Mellis was always supremely cool and collected—even as he prepared to hear tidings of certain disaster.

Nedd did not disappoint their dire expectations. “Lord, our right flank, the armor of House Shaddock—”


“No, lord. Slowing. It has fallen behind the center of our van and—”

Thunder mounted behind them once again—but the timbre and pace of the detonations was more strident, pulsed in sharp fits and starts.

Nedd—mouth still open—stopped, speechless, to stare at the sound. “My lord—battle! How could the HouseMoot forces have so quickly—?”

Pathan glanced at Harrod, who nodded, and explained to the dumbfounded huscarl. “You do not hear the attacking forces of the HouseMoot. Although it is the sound of battle, it is also the sound of treachery. House Shaddock evidently fell behind our van with a purpose; they have fallen upon our mobile artillery and our rearguard.”

Nedd gaped wider, if that were possible. “But without the artillery to clear the way before us—”

“—we will not break free of the encircling forces. Quite correct. And exactly what they planned, I’m sure.” He turned to Lord Mellis. “Orders, my lord?”

Mellis surprised Harrod—first by shaking his head, and then, actually smiling at him. “No, Intendant: I will be giving the orders here myself. You will be taking the jet-pack and making a report to my great uncle, the Overlord—if you get through the anti-aircraft fire.”

“But lord, the jet-pack is reserved for your use onl—”

“I dictate its use, and this is the use I decree.” He let his voice slip lower, buried to all ears but Harrod’s under the idling hum of the armored car’s engine. “Intendant, this battle is over. I will draw the van and left flank together and we will attempt to press forward, but House Verone’s helots are as thick as mites on a molting fen-cur. Without artillery, we will need luck and the favor of the Death Fathers to fight through all their rocket teams. And I suspect there’s huscarl armor behind them, probably with air support for the final blow. Do you agree?”

Harrod could only nod, speechless in the face of the Lord’s calm diagnosis of their terminal military condition.

“So you shall be our courier and analyst both: you are our best mind, and have intimate familiarity with the details of this campaign—better than I. Besides, you are our House’s leading technical historian, are you not?”

“Lord, with respect, it is not my place to claim such—”

“You are. You know it. So does the whole House. Which will soon need you to ready the Ark, unless I am much mistaken.”

Ready the Ark? Had it come to that?

Pathan had not paused. “So you must go. And I must stay. This I decree, Harrod hur-Mellis.”

Harrod did not question his lord; to do so could still earn him death, and even if it did not, would be a pointless waste of time. The jet-pack was man-handled out of the passenger bay of the less-battered APC, was perfunctorily tested, and was propped up for him.

As Harrod backed into the unit, he felt the shoulder and waist braces lock into place, and the jets shudder and heat with the pre-burn. He stared at Lord Mellis, and wanted to say something—anything—but did not have any words, not even an idea where to begin.

Pathan smiled at him again. “Yes, Intendant, some of us Evolved are actually willing to die in service to our own Houses—not just send lesser beings to their ignominious dooms.” He gave a signal to the flight techs. “We Evolved are born to dominate. But sometimes, to dominate requires a readiness to die.” Pathan’s smile became rueful. “Perhaps you believed otherwise, Harrod?”

As the jet-pack’s thrusters bloomed, and the lager of battered vehicles dropped away beneath him, Harrod had to admit: yes, lord, I did believe otherwise.

But not anymore.

— 2 —

On the HouseMoot side, the room was furnished with opulent hangings, sybaritically luxurious chairs, comely helot servants, refreshments, creature comforts and conveniences of every kind. Opposed were the furnishings of their own side: hard, simple chairs and a bare floor. The humiliation was complete—as was ever the case when a House went to war and lost utterly, rather than reaching a negotiated settlement. Overlord Bikrut Mellis—who sat beside Harrod now—had suffered just such a defeat.

Seated directly across from them was Overlord Verone, an Elder of the HouseMoot, flanked by his victorious generals. Verone’s presence was a bad sign: Elders were notoriously (and rightly) preoccupied with the risk of assassination, and were rarely present in a situation where a defeated foe might, conceivably, attempt a suicidal act of retribution.

That Verone was here at all signified two things. Firstly, he had little, if any, fear of House Mellis attempting such an act. Secondly, he was too bent upon overseeing the House’s dissolution to pay heed to whatever trepidations he might have had. This predator wanted to play with his prostrate and bloodied prey before tearing its throat out in ferocious exultation.

Beside Harrod, Overlord Mellis’s voice was calm, but overly precise in elocution. “Let us conclude this.”

“In good time,” Verone said with a nod and a smile. “We have not yet addressed all the issues.”

“How can we, when you refuse to accept our ritual submission?”

“Eradicating the genetic moiety of your House by marrying it off into others is deemed unacceptable by the HouseMoot’s senior Line Mistresses. They have assessed the genetics of your Lines and consider such an alternative to be—unwise.” Verone’s smile grew.

It was a smile that meant his excuse was just so much cur-shit. None of the Houses that had taken the Moot’s part in the late conflict had ever expressed a single reservation regarding the viability—even the extreme desirability—of House Mellis’s Evolved breed Lines. No, this was simply the latest slash in the House’s now-fated death of a thousand cuts. House Mellis was not to be defeated, or even dissolved as an entity: it was to be extirpated, root, branch, and seed. Partly as an act of vengeance, partly as an example to others who would defy the decisions of the HouseMoot, and partly because of an atavistic belief that any House that had been so completely defeated must somehow be flawed at its core, in the very germ of its genetic essence.

House Mellis’s aged Overlord, Bikrut—264 standard years was impressive, even for an undilute Evolved—showed neither impatience, nor anxiety. “So if there is to be no ritual dissolution, what do you propose?”

“I do not propose: I decree. And upon your House, I lay the decree of Exile. You are to remove your Lines from this world and this system. Any that remain behind shall be expunged.”

Bikrut swallowed. “You cannot be serious.”

“But I am, Overlord Mellis.”

“You said we were meeting here for negotiations, not imposition of the Rite of Exile. Had I known—”

“You would have acted no differently. Your House is crippled; you have no choices left. Or perhaps you would prefer that we simply continue the war to its inevitable conclusion, Overlord Mellis. After all, wholesale extermination of a House is not without precedent—”

“Enough.” Bikrut’s interruption came out as a bark. “We are defeated, but we are not without the means to compel your respect. Even now.”

Verone’s smile only dimmed a bit. “Ah. Your nuclear arsenal. Hardly large enough to destroy more of us than of you.”

“So you think.”

“So I know. But the gambit is well-played, Overlord Mellis.”

“The confidence you place in your intelligence is ill-advised, Overlord Verone.”

“Is it? I know just how much rare earth has been mined over the past three and a half centuries. And I know where every gram of it has gone—and resides. So what could you possibly have that I do not know about?”

“Fissionables that did not come from the rocks of this world, but were already in our possession when we arrived here.”

Verone’ smile faltered. “There is no record in our Exodate’s landing manifest of—”

“And who was in charge of the ship that brought us to this wasteland three and a half centuries ago, Overlord Verone? Which House was most expert in spacefaring when we were all exiled to this world? Who, therefore, kept the real manifests?”

Verone’s smile had vanished; the generals flanking him no longer looked amused.

“Shall I provide the answer you already know? Intendant—” Bikrut spoke sideways, without so much as glancing at Harrod—“who built and crewed the Ark that brought us here?”

Harrod cleared his throat. “At the time that the Fifth Exodate was launched, House Mellis was charged with constructing the Ark, and overseeing its operations during the fifty-three year journey from Ifritem Qua—”

Verone made an impatient gesture toward Harrod. “Enough. Silence.”

Harrod swallowed. “With respect, my Elder Overlord Verone, but I was commanded to speak by my bond-holder. To obey you above him means my death.”

The Elder narrowed his eyes at Harrod. “To continue to speak means your death, as well.”

Harrod could not help swallowing again. “With respect, Elder Overlord, it is written in the Words of the Death Fathers that, ‘the servant who dies obeying the holder of his bond is a servant without flaw.’ I must honor my bond-holder and the Words of the Death Fathers, Overlord—even unto my death.”

Verone’s narrowed eyes relaxed, but stayed fixed upon Harrod. His words, however, were aimed at Bikrut: “He is a fine Intendant.”

Bikrut sounded as though his belly might contain a seething vat of acid. “He is adequate.”

“He is more than that. It was folly not to have already Raised his seed into one of your Lines by completing his Intendancy.” Verone pointed. “I would have him. If you agree to transfer his bond to my House, it would make your lot easier, here.”

Harrod—stunned to silence—heard many tones in Overlord Bikrut’s response: resentment, anger, bitterness, resolve. “You may not have him.”

“Name a price—a point of negotiation. I will consider it. Favorably.”

“You may not have him.”

“If you valued him sufficiently, you would already have Raised him up.”

“You may not have him because I need—I must keep—him.”

Verone cocked his head slightly. “Why?”

“Because he is our senior technical historian.”

Verone’s face was radiant with perception. “Ah. Now I see. And now I see why your Lord Pathan sent this Intendant back to report instead of himself. Without this servant, your chances of restoring the Ark and completing a voyage would be much diminished.”

Bikrut’s admission sounded as if he were uttering it while chewing on broken glass. “That is regrettably so.”

“Which means you foresaw the possibility of Exile long before you entered this chamber. Perhaps—just to punish you for your presumption and impertinence—we should indeed resume the war against you.”

“Then you shall learn—unpleasantly—just how many fissionables we had sequestered before our voyage to this world.”

“Our prior home, Ifritem Quartus, was poor in rare earths. The odds that you had more than a few kilograms of—”

But Bikrut was the one smiling, now. “Are you willing to pay the price it will cost to determine the accuracy of your conjecture, Overlord Verone? I have little to lose—whereas you stand to convert the gains of your impressive victory into a heap of radioactive ashes. But if that is your pleasure—”

Verone sat forward. “Watch how far you press me, Overlord Mellis. We are your conquerors. The Intendant sitting beside you was the last man to escape the battlefield where your House’s fortunes died.”

“Quite true,” answered Mellis placidly. And he waited.

Verone leaned back, ran his left index finger back and forth across his lower lip. Then the smile returned, which Harrod interpreted as a very bad sign, indeed. “So are you telling me that you prefer certain death to Exile, Overlord Mellis?”

Bikrut Mellis’s composure faltered. For a moment, he seemed to be choking, the words he must not utter colliding with those he had to say. Ultimately, he shook his head. “No,” he said hoarsely, “we accept Exile.”

Verone’s smile widened; his voice took on the drone of official pronouncement. “Let it here be recorded that your Exodate shall be the Sixth in our reckoning. It is so fated and decreed this 212th standard day of the 351st standard year of the Fifth Exodate’s arrival upon Kalsor Tertius. The Exodate Injunctions of the Death Fathers are upon you from this moment forth. Observe them well.” He settled back into his conversational voice. “And lest you find your long journey too lonely, I have, in my beneficence, seen fit to furnish you with companions. Huscarl, admit them.”

Bikrut refused to be baited: he did not turn to look as Verone’s foot soldiers swung wide the doors behind them. Harrod, however, had no face to save, no pride to maintain, and twisted to see—

Overlord Bron Shaddock strode into the chamber, head high, eyes bright. With him were two of his House’s Evolved. None of them were over eighty, if Harrod guessed correctly. Young to be the senior leaders of a House. But then again, they had slaughtered their own oligarchs to clear the path for House Shaddock’s participation in the recent war. Such was the ambition of the Evolved: even wholesale patricide came within their compass.

Bikrut had not needed to look behind him to determine the identity of the newly entered group. “This jest is in poor taste, Overlord Verone.”

“Then you will be pleased to know that this is no jest. As your co-conspirators, House Shaddock will share your Exile.”

“They betrayed us. I would as soon eviscerate them as look at them. Indeed, I would much prefer the latter.”

“But you shall not do so.”


“Because now you need them as much as you need your Senior Intendant.”

“How so?”

“House Mellis will have control of the Ark. But House Shaddock will have control of its away-craft. You will need their access codes and cross-checks—some of which will be biometric and genetically proofed against duplication or coercion—when you arrive at your Exodate’s destination. Without them, you will be unable to descend to the planets you might find there. And beforehand, you will need their help for operations that require you to journey outside your Ark.”

“This is insanity. As it is, we do not have the passenger capacity for all the Evolved of our own House, much less another’s.”

“Then you have little to worry about, Overlord Mellis.” The sharp voice, from behind, was Overlord Shaddock’s. “Our alliance with you cost us dearly: half of our compounds—and their occupants—were annihilated by the HouseMoot.”

Bikrut’s sarcasm was underscored by the bored tonelessness of his response. “If your House was suffering thusly, you should have called it to my attention.”

“Why? So you could dance with glee? We slew our own Elders to make common cause with you against the HouseMoot. And then you snickered up your sleeves while we died.”

Verone’s voice was musical with wry mirth. “And so, behold: two pack-sodomized curs attempt to sodomize each other in their bitter disgrace and misery. How quaint: traitors accusing each other of treason. It is edifying, is it not?” he asked his counselors, who almost smiled. “Now let us settle the specifics. You have five years to prepare the Ark and depart. However, there are 3802 Evolved who survive in House Mellis, and 531 from Shaddock . This is far beyond the capacity of the Ark. We suggest a euthanization lottery.” Verone’s smile returned. “To avoid further, needless bickering.”

Harrod felt Bikrut become rigid beside him—a palpable sensation, even at a distance of six inches—and so, lowered his eyes and murmured. “My Overlord Mellis, may I speak?”

That seemed to distract the Overlord from whatever injudicious retort he might have been contemplating. “Why, Intendant?”

“I have considered alternatives, in the event of this situation,” Harrod lied quietly. “Perhaps the Overlords would find them useful as crude stimuli for their own, more informed insights.”

Bikrut was silent for many long seconds. “Proceed.”

“Yes, do,” affirmed Verone in an almost amused tone.

“Overlords, although I have never set foot upon the Ark, I am mindful that we have retained the cryogenic suspension technology that was built into it, and which we now use planetside for medical purposes. Logically, the remaining industrial capacity of the two Exiled Houses could combine to produce more cryogenic units, thereby increasing the passenger capacity of the Ark.”

Verone began rubbing his lip again. “And why should I allow your Houses to continue to use industrial resources that I have seized, Intendant? Why should my House—and the rest—not immediately enjoy the spoils of our victory?”

“Perhaps because delaying your access to those spoils might well prove the less expensive option.”

“How so?”

“Elder Overlord Verone, it seems likely that, if a euthanization lottery is announced in our Houses, there would be considerable resistance, even if all our Lords order its acceptance. It is not in the nature of any Evolved to blithely accept personal demise; the Words of the Death Fathers inveigh against such complacency, and the Brood Mothers breed against it. Is this not so?”

“You know it to be. Continue.”

“Then the Overlords of the Exiled Houses must anticipate a general revolt against such a decree, and thus against their dominion. So, to remain the leaders of their Houses, they will be compelled to choose another path. A nuclear path.”

“Ah,” said Verone. Bikrut nodded tightly.

“However,” Harrod finished, “if you allow the Exiled Houses to build enough cryogenic units, euthanization will be unnecessary. The full spoils of conquest may come late, but they will come more surely and with no damage.”

Verone looked long at Harrod and then shook his head. “He is completely under-appreciated, Bikrut. No wonder you lost. We are done here.” And he turned his back, signaling them to depart.

As they exited, Overlord Mellis muttered. “Well done, Intendant.”

“The Overlord honors his servant. But after all, every life in the House was at stake.”

“No, they weren’t.”

Harrod blinked as they emerged into the dim orange light of Kalsor. “I do not understand, my Overlord.”

“We brought no additional rare earths to this system. Indeed, we have fewer nuclear warheads than Verone thinks. We would have done whatever he asked.”

— 3 —

Harrod hur-Mellis was surprised when the bow gallery’s armored covers slid back and revealed empty space. Or so it seemed at first. Then he saw a larger, slightly irregular star on the lower port quarter.

Beside him, Ackley hur-Shaddock—barely thirty and unusually impatient for so successful an Intendant—scanned the diamond-strewn darkness aggressively. “Where is it? I don’t see—”

“There.” Harrod pointed at the irregular star.

“That? It’s the size of a cur-mite. Smaller.”

Harrod reflected upon the dismissive remark: perhaps the intemperate nature of House Shaddock’s Evolved was actively inculcated in their Intendants as well. “I, too, expected it to be larger. But do not be deceived; it is simply hard to see at this distance.”

“But we are already within a hundred kilometers.”

“So we are. But watch.”

The irregular star had already become angular: not a bright, radiant point, but a long, flat, reflective surface.

“We should be going inside the Ark, today,” griped Ackley.

“There are safety issues that—”

“It is a waste of time to conduct a purely external survey first.”

“Ackley, if we are going to work together—as our Houses have instructed us—you will need to accept that my judgment takes precedence. That I give the orders.”

“You do not wish input?”

“I do not wish constant complaining—particularly when you do not even try to learn the reasons for the decisions I make, and the orders I give.”

“One day soon—when Overlord Shaddock Raises me up, to add my seed to his House’s Lines—it shall be you who listens to me. And insolence will mean your death.”

“As will be natural and proper, at that time. But that time has yet to come. Here, we are both but Intendants, and I have the benefits of age and long expertise in matters pertaining to our responsibilities. Do I not?”

Ackley’s response bordered on a petulant sulk. “Yes. You do.”

The Ark was beginning to burgeon rapidly, the long white keel stretching away into the dark, its length cluttered by irregular protuberances and bulges: modules, cargo containers, electronics arrays. But looming closest were great oblongs and spheres, like an onrushing agglomeration of planetoids and moonlets on a collision course. . . .

A gentle counter-boost began to tug at them. The terrifying speed of their approach became merely shocking, then alarming, then swift, and finally, leisurely. They floated toward the clutch of white metal moonlets that were the great ship’s inertial fusion ignition chambers and the smaller nodules that held fuel and other volatiles.

Ackley stared forward, past them. “Where is the Great Ring of the early settlement stories?”

Harrod shrugged, glancing at the distant bow of the Ark. “The habitation ring was destroyed.”

“Destroyed? By what?”

“By war. What else?” What else, indeed? Savage internecine strife was the only cultural constant that limped through the tattered chronicles of all five prior Exodates. It was the sole reason for the Rite of Exile: the Rite was a pressure valve, an alternative to self-inflicted annihilation. It also unfailingly propagated a new wave of expelled pariahs, who staggered to yet another system to begin the cycle again. Indeed, Harrod was tempted to wonder if the Houses, now descended from five-time losers, must therefore contain a genetic flaw that not only predisposed them to intemperate ruin, but also kept them from learning to change.

Ackley had been studying the immense craft. “And since the war—?”

“Since then, the Ark and its tug-tenders”—small, distant specks, following the same high orbital track, but to port and starboard respectively—“have been abandoned, secured for long-term storage.”

“But why? The ship’s technology—”

“The ship’s technology is why, except for a small, automated monitoring station, it has remained off-limits. The Houses could not agree on how to share its advanced machinery.”

“And they are still unable to do so, after three and a half centuries—of course.”

Harrod smiled. “Of course.” According to records of the prior Exodates, collaborative use of an Ark was rare. Agreement arose on the matter only when the ship was needed as a garbage scow, to haul the latest batch of undesirables to a still further refuse heap in the stars. And, being the product of that long string of genetic disposal missions, being repeatedly orphaned by gulfs of time and space and strife, the Houses had forgotten their own roots, their true home world. Which, Harrod conjectured, was probably the first and last place that humans had known stability, acceptance, unity with their fellows.

Ackley had his palmtop computer out. “So, what are we looking for?” He stared up at the six immense thrust bells, arranged in three pods of two engines each.

“Micrometeoroid damage to the bells and their housing—an easy task, compared to our internal surveys of them.”

“Where we will be assessing . . . ?”

“Primarily, the condition of the laser ignition chambers. We must anticipate complete rebuilds of half the systems, and major maintenance upon all the rest.”

“Even though they’ve been stored in a bath of inert gases?”

Harrod glanced at the younger man. “Three hundred fifty years is a very long time.”

Ackley shrugged. “What else?”

“The mothballing manifest indicates that several cartridges of the deuterium ignition cells—the hohlraums—were stored along with the engines, to provide examples for later reproduction. We will need to be very careful handling the hohlraums: it is unlikely we could produce enough in time without exact models to copy.”

As they moved past the vaguely spheroid ignition chambers capping each of the thrust bells, they passed a black plate, transfixed by the keel of the ship. Ackley stared at it. “That shielding seems to be very light.”

Harrod nodded. “An advantage of using deuterium-to-deuterium fusion; far fewer stray neutrons.”

“And better speed: exhaust velocities of 6.8 percent the speed of light—”

Harrod turned, summoned a smile, and took pains to ensure that it did not look patronizing. “You speak of the engines of the Dread Parents, Ackley. These engines will achieve only a little bit better than half of what theirs did.”

“Why? It is the same design.”

“Our craftsmanship and knowledge is not theirs—does not begin to approach it. After all, they also had—and reserved to themselves—the secret of traveling faster than the speed of light.”

“Even as their Injunctions forbid us to do the same—along with their prohibition of high-power radio communications.” Ackley snorted. “Assuming you choose to believe such superstitious nonsense.”

“I need not believe it to know that the Overlord would slay you where you stand for such blasphemy.”

Ackley’s tone became marginally more careful. “I offer the—hypotheses—that the Dread Parents never existed, that the speed of light is an unbreachable barrier, that no such Injunctions were imposed by whatever world we originated upon, and that we cower in fear of our leaders’ conveniently constraining fabulations.” As Harrod silently conceded the probable accuracy of all those hypotheses, Ackley—cheek muscles bunched—pointed at the long, smooth, tanks clustered behind the shielding and bundled around the keel like a fasces comprised of sausages. “What about the fuel tanks? Anything special to look for?”

Harrod nodded. “Yes; micrometeoroid impacts and breaches in the tanks.”

“I thought they are fairly sturdy.”

“They are, but they held hydrogen for decades. And if they were incompletely vented when the ship was decommissioned—”

Ackley nodded. “They could have been brittlized by the hydrogen left in them. I don’t see any sign of diminished integrity, though: maybe the old crew did a good job of flushing all the fuel out of the system.”

“Let us hope so; it would make the restoration much easier.”

Passing the tanks, they came upon a ring of other, smaller thrusters. For the first time, Ackley’s confident tone sounded genuine, rather than nervously overassertive: “The plasma thrusters appear to be in good shape—and look identical to our own.”

Harrod nodded. “Not surprising: ours were developed from these. So replacement, if necessary, would be only a minor setback.”

The last of the gargantuan aft structures finally dropped behind; their craft altered course to stay centered above the keel as it moved forward. Ackley inspected the modular trusses, running quick mental calculations as he did so.

“A problem?” Harrod asked.

“The storage superstructures: there are not enough of them, not for all the cryogenic modules. With over four thousand bodies to store, we—”

“We will not have four thousand, unless I guess incorrectly. Probably only three-quarters that amount.” Harrod acknowledged Ackley’s perplexed stare: “Expect a relaxing of the current marriage prohibitions upon the better Lines of my House’s Evolved—and some other reductions as well. Consequently, I am more concerned about that.” Harrod pointed at what appeared to be a large collar that was sleeved around the keel, its circumference marked by eight evenly-spaced coupling points.

Ackley squinted, shook his head. “I’m not even sure I know what that is.”

“It’s the rotational sleeve for the old habitation ring—and judging from the scoring at its aft margin, it appears to have seized during operation—over three centuries ago. That could be quite a job.”

“Do we still need it to rotate? We don’t have a ring, and no time to build one.”

“We will still need some rotational habitats, even if they are only pods on the ends of rotating booms. And that means we’re going to need a rotational armature.”

“We’ll also need a complete rebuild of the navigational sensor arrays and laser clearance clusters.” Ackley nodded in the direction of the bridge module: just beyond it, the irregular booms and dishes that were the ship’s eyes, ears, and shield against high-speed impacts showed extensive pitting by micrometeoroids. In a few instances, whole subsystems trailed at acute angles, or were sheared off entirely. Which inevitably meant that—

The ramscoop—resembling nothing so much as a bow-opening gossamer parasol—was in tatters, shredded by centuries of intermittent meteor storms.

Harrod turned to Ackley, and found the younger Intendant already staring at him—now more in desperation than defiance. Harrod nodded and answered his unuttered question:

“Yes, we have much work to do. Much work, indeed.”

— 4 —

Kalsor Tertius (high orbit), 356th year of founding

Bikrut Mellis’s voice was bored, his face expressionless. “And the ignition trials?”

Harrod nodded. “Success, my Overlord. We will achieve output sufficient for standard acceleration of .35 gees by the middle of next month. I suspect maximum output will be achieved the month after that.”

Bikrut’s answering nod was the closest he ever came to fulsome praise. “And the ship’s fusion power plants?”

“The refurbished originals did not achieve break-even as quickly as the new units, but once they did, they have routinely out-performed our modern copies. We will achieve maximum rated output within three months, unless something dire occurs.”

“Make sure nothing ‘dire’ occurs, then, Intendant. Or you could experience your own dire occurrence.”

Bikrut, Harrod reflected, was ever the voice of boundless encouragement. “As you command, my Overlord.”

“Let us turn to the problems, then.” He fixed dead eyes upon Ackley hur-Shaddock. “You still do not have enough away-craft: what is the delay?”

To his credit, Ackley did not flinch under that lethal stare. “The delay is caused by the intransigence of the HouseMoot, Overlord Mellis. We can only use away-craft secured for House Shaddock’s exclusive access, but the Moot is slow in supplying these vehicles.”

“The Moot’s lethargy is no excuse for your failure: you should have explained that the biometric security requirements stipulated by Verone must be rescinded.”

“I did so; Overlord Verone will not relent.”

—To your relief, thought Harrod. Without the security protocols that require the pilots to be of House Shaddock, the Evolved of House Mellis would kill them in their cold sleep.

Bikrut’s withering stare did not waver. “I have also learned that House Shaddock disapproves of the energy we have allotted for our magnetic shielding.”

Ackley remained calm. “Our dispute arises out of hard physics, not House politics, Overlord Mellis. Your House’s scientists assert that doubling the field strength of our electromagnetic protection grid will enable it to repel cosmic rays. This is a fallacy.”

Bikrut looked at Harrod, who took the cue. “Ackley, we are quite aware that the field emitters cannot ‘stop’ cosmic rays. However, if the shielding is produced by generators tethered to the ship at a range of four kilometers or more, the fields can be biased to slightly alter the trajectory of the rays. Exposure levels in the protected sections of the ship will decrease by over eighty percent—perhaps more. The efficacy of this deflection strategy is well-documented by the surviving accounts of two prior Exodates.”

If Ackley had heard Harrod’s explanation, he gave no sign of it. “Overlord Mellis, there is a further issue I must raise. Just today, the HouseMoot rejected our third request for uranium. Without fuel for our nuclear back-up plant, how do they expect us to reinitiate fusion if the capacitors lose their charge?”

Bikrut glanced at Harrod, who shrugged. “It is hardly surprising that our enemies are slow to furnish us with materials from which we could make more weapons of retribution. Particularly given our present possession of an orbital launch platform.”

Overlord Bikrut frowned. “And yet we cannot relinquish the failsafe codes for our ground based-nuclear arsenal until we have passed into the outer system. Once there, we can allow them to disarm our missiles—but not before. Harrod?”

“Yes, my Overlord?”

“Recontact Verone. He seems to—favor—you. Make a personal appeal; explain our need for nuclear fuel rods, and also for the removal of the biometric security protocols on the away-craft. I make it your responsibility to solve these problems.”

Well, Harrod thought, now I’ll have more gray hairs to join the ones that just started coming in. But what he said was: “Yes, my Overlord.”

— 5 —

Harrod hur-Mellis held himself steady with a hand-rung located beside the aft-facing observation port. Back at the stern, the last of the Ark’s four tug-tenders was making its hard dock. Once attached, the tugs would both provide fuel to the on-board fusion engines, as well as adding their own considerable thrust. One hundred and sixty days from now, their assist-fuel expended, the robot ships would detach and return home.

Home. Within a few minutes, Kalsor Tertius would no longer qualify as ‘home.’ When the as-yet-unrenamed Ark started underway, the Exodate’s last connection with the planet would end. And the Exiles would mark the official commencement of their separate history from the moment Overlord Mellis revealed the name of the ship that would carry them almost sixteen light years to their new homeworld.

Unfortunately, that new homeworld was as uncertain as their old one was hostile. The HouseMoot had always discouraged any interest in stellar observation, fearing it would stimulate a desire to rediscover the fabled FTL technology of the Death Fathers. Consequently, the only telescopes available for locating a suitable destination star were those on board the Ark itself. Fortunately, they proved to be excellent instruments—once they were thoroughly refurbished. After inspecting a wide array of nearby stars, a midsized yellow star—halfway in its aging to orange—was proven to have a world at the inner edge of the habitable zone, and a smallish gas giant toward the outer edge. Inferential data suggested the inner world had a slightly heavier atmosphere, whereas the small gas giant was suspected of having atypically large moons. Taken in aggregate, they offered the best chance of a world with a biosphere, a place the Exodate could settle at the end of its long journey.

But the presence of a green world was only a possibility, not a certainty. Consequently, observations would continue throughout the journey—which was why Harrod was scheduled to be roused from cold sleep no less than three times before finally beholding the growing glare of their new sun, some seventy-one years hence. Spending a year awake on each occasion, he would complete the journey only slightly older than he was now—and ready to be Raised to the name sul-Mellis: the title of an Intendant whose seed has been wedded to one of the House’s Lines. Not fully an Evolved, he nonetheless would receive most of their honors and prerogatives, if not power. But his children would be born as fully Evolved—albeit of a hybrid line—and live without limits, without the need to learn how to avert their eyes, or make a deep bow. On the other hand, as Evolveds, they would learn to conquer, to compete, to domineer. Sadly, they would have little in common with their father, for their own world would be—

“Contemplating the world we leave behind, Intendant hur-Mellis?” The voice was that of Ackley, who, upon the naming of the Ark, was to be Raised up to become sul-Shaddock—and so, over Harrod.

“My thoughts are more upon the world toward which we journey, Ackley.”

Whose tone—and smile—hovered in some strange limbo between mockery and congenial jocularity: “Then you are looking the wrong way.”

“No, I don’t think so. Our future will grow from the roots of this world, you know. We had best remember that, even as we count down these final minutes of our old lives and identities.”

“Perhaps. And your insight might even be pertinent, for a change.” Ackley had, over the years, become almost amiable—largely because Harrod never rose to his confrontational goads. “For instance, although we go to a new world, we are still creatures of our old Houses. But,”—and his tone changed in a way that Harrod had never heard before—“that doesn’t mean that our old allegiances must endure. A new era opens before us. So, too, do new opportunities—if only we are bold enough to seize them.”

Harrod turned and stared at Ackley. The tone had been conspiratorial. So: Ackley had been sent to woo Harrod secretly into the ranks of House Shaddock. “Surely you jest.”

“Overlord Shaddock has been most impressed by you, and he has noted your own Overlord’s unwillingness to Raise you up in a timely fashion. Also, as the two senior space technology specialists, we could cooperatively achieve much.”

Harrod heard the words “achieve much” and heard their intended context just as clearly: “massacre House Mellis.” Harrod shook his head, baffled.

“Do not dismiss the feasibility of this strategem so quickly, Harrod. Consider the ploy: together, we—”

Harrod kept shaking his head. “No. You misunderstand. I presume your treachery is as inspired and promising as it is devious and subtle. And I do not doubt that Overlord Shaddock would reward me.”

“So you refuse out of misguided loyalty?”

“No,” replied Harrod looking up sharply. “I refuse because—at this moment, more than any other in our collective lives—dissent is unmitigated folly. We are commencing the most dangerous journey imaginable: an interstellar voyage with no guarantee of safe haven at its conclusion. Space is hungry for our lives, and well-equipped to devour us with radiation, cold, vacuum, and blind, brutal chance. And you propose that we should war amongst ourselves even as we venture into the lightless belly of such an abyssal beast?”

Ackley turned away. He did not speak for a long time. “I think you are a fool,” he said at last. But he did not sound as if he meant it.

Harrod chose a new topic he suspected would be to Ackley’s liking. “I suppose congratulations are nearly in order. Soon you will be among the Evolved.”

“Yes.” Ackley seemed to brood upon that. “Hardly an auspicious advancement, though. Being sul-Shaddock was an enviable position when there were thousands of huscarls and helots for every Evolved. Now, despite my title, I am also the very lowest in a House where only Evolveds remain.”

Harrod could not deny the poignance of Ackley’s situation: a supreme irony, indeed.

It seemed that Ackley had been reading his mind: “It is a rich jest, is it not?”

Harrod, surprised, could only shake his head and speak the truth. “I find no joy or amusement in the misfortunes of others.”

Ackley stared at Harrod. “And that is why your House does not Raise you up.”

The bulkhead plates sealed off their view of space just as Overlord Bikrut began to speak. “Hear now the first words in the chronicles of our Exodate. Our inertial fusion engines—and those of the tugs—will soon commence operation. You will feel heavy with that acceleration, almost as though you were standing upright upon the surface of Kalsor Tertius. After many months, the tugs will detach, and our thrust—and your sense of ‘gravity’—will decrease by two-thirds. However, only those of us tasked to stand the first long watch will experience that change. The rest of you will be in a near-frozen sleep when our ship passes the heliopause and moves into the particle disk that extends beyond the ecliptic of our system. There, we will activate the ramscoop to gather water and molecular hydrogen even as our navigational lasers start sweeping ahead of us. They will vaporize even the smallest bits of sand or grit: traveling at our velocity, a collision with such debris would still be akin to a direct hit by a nuclear device.

“Over time, all of you will be awakened to stand at least one watch, maintaining order and authority over the aging crew of junior Intendants. Shortly after reaching midpoint, we will breed a small, accelerated second generation of Intendants from the ex vitro vats, to replace those who are awake and approaching infirmity.”

The lights dimmed and the intercom tone chimed. Bikrut’s head and chin rose slightly. “I order the Sixth Exodate to set forth. And let the annals show that I name this ship, our Ark, the Photrek Courser.” The deck came up firmly beneath their feet. “We are under way.”

— 6 —

14th Year of the Sixth Exodate

Harrod fought up out of the stiff, chilly fog that concluded the process of cryogenic reanimation. And was surprised to find that he was alone—except for Overlord Bikrut Mellis. Startled, Harrod attempted to sit up, to attain a respectful posture—but the sudden movement impaled him upon a spike of core-wrenching nausea: he vomited bile and glycerine-purging fluids upon the floor. “My apologies, my Overlord,” he gasped between bouts of retching.

“Be unconcerned,” grunted the Overlord, who waited until the worst of the spasms had subsided. “Now, attend me.”

Harrod looked up groggily—and suddenly realized that, for Bikrut to be here, something must be wrong. Very wrong. “Yes, my Overlord?”

“There is no cause for alarm. My participation in this waking cycle was always intended. We simply did not communicate it beyond the operations team that has now corrected our demographic problem.”

A new coldness grew slowly at the base of Harrod’s sore diaphragm. “A . . . a demographic problem, my Overlord?”

“Yes. The presence of House Shaddock. But as I said, that problem has been rectified.” Bikrut smiled.

“Their cryogenic cells—?”

“Precisely. Killed as they slept. Easiest that way. Those who we need at the end of the voyage will be kept in cold sleep.”

“My Overlord, if you do not awaken them until our arrival—”

“Do not concern yourself, Intendant: we are aware that seventy years of uninterrupted cryogenic sleep is neither physically, nor mechanically, advisable. But we are staging their reanimations so that there are never more than three awake at any time—and for very short periods: never more than a month. Towards the end of our journey, we will replace the lost numbers with vat-grown helots. They will be our initial workforce and environmental test subjects. Come: stand and walk. You have much work to do. And only a year in which to do it.”

Harrod almost slipped off the table as he swung his legs to the deck. “Yes, my Overlord.”

— 7 —

42nd Year of the Sixth Exodate

Harrod exited the command section and performed a slow ninety-degree mid-air tumble: his feet came up to rest against the bulkhead he had just drifted through. As the access hatch autosealed beside him, he reached down for a hand-hold, pulled his body into a squat while still keeping his feet flush against the bulkhead. Then he released the hand-hold and kicked free.

In the zero gee of the Photrek Courser’s midcourse glide, this push sent him arrowing down the broad keel-way of the ship, the trussed sections moving past him like a cubist tunnel of groined vaults. Speeding past dozens of module access doors, he did not start grazing his fingertips against the ceiling until he was within twenty meters of the midship array. As he began to slow, he also started a slow rotation into a feet-first attitude.

Having had almost a year of practice, Harrod timed the transition almost perfectly: the plane of his body was parallel with the ceiling as he slowed into a leisurely drift and reached out to grab the hatch-ring of the access tube. He tugged to a stop, and oriented himself; the impression that the access hatchway was in the ceiling was suddenly gone. The visual sense of up/down quickly recalibrated: now, there was no perceivable difference between the ceiling, floor, and bulkhead. He opened the hatch manually and towed himself inside.

Once in the array’s dim control suite, he strapped himself into the lead operator’s chair and assessed the equipment’s status. The sensors themselves were continuing the routine he’d initiated two weeks ago; the computer—its blue flickers ghostly in the inky suite—was still grinding through the reams of data they’d gathered on what was to be their new home.

Still at seven light years distance, the Courser’s sensors were straining to get anything useful at all. To make matters worse, the midship array was primarily a communications cluster: the main sensor array at the bow was unavailable. Photrek Courser’s current segment of travel had brought her within half a light year of a brown dwarf, increasing the densities of both available volatiles and useless dust. Consequently, the Courser’s best array was fully committed to detecting and eliminating navigational hazards while the ram scoop replenished a little hydrogen. Even more important were the sparse amounts of oxygen they gathered: the hydroponics had not functioned as well as hoped. The ninety-nine percent closed bioloop of the life-support system had proven to be more like a ninety-six percent closed bioloop, so any oxygen was a very welcome addition to their resources. But with the main array committed to these crucial tasks, Harrod’s long-range planetographic data-gathering had been unavoidably retasked to the secondary, midship array.

The good news from these sensors was that a bit of new data had finally emerged from the spectral minutiae. The bad news was that the data was not particularly encouraging. At least, Harrod reflected, Bikrut was not around to receive the report: his next awakening was still some years off.

The computer was now able to construct a graphic of the system’s six planets, but the one in the second, habitable orbit was flagged red. A small world with a thick atmosphere, the greatest fears regarding its suitability had been the possibilities that the atmosphere was comprised of lethal gases or that its proximity to the primary would produce a runaway greenhouse effect.

Unfortunately, according to the data, the news was worse than either alternative—because it indicated that both conditions existed. The atmosphere was largely carbon dioxide, with a heavy mix of sulfur compounds, and a planetside equatorial temperature of about 290 degrees centigrade, plus or minus thirty degrees.

So now all their hopes centered on the rather scant possibility that the smallish gas giant in the third position would have a suitable satellite. However, at this distance, even the main arrays of the Photrek Courser would have been unable to acquire reliable data on a moon. Perhaps its mass and period could be discerned, if they were very lucky. But the typical profusion of satellites about a gas giant made gravimetric, and therefore orbital, data suspect, so focused observation upon any one of those worldlets would remain impossible until they got considerably closer.

Harrod turned off the computer and stared at the dim, orange-lit controls. Now the debates would begin: with the first vat-born crewmen to be decanted within the decade, the old plans for a small generation of helots had to be revisited. Although originally envisioned as the first settlement wave, there was clearly need of a contingency plan if it turned out that there were no habitable moons. In that case, there would be no need for settlers, but an urgent need for a workforce which could ready the ship for a further voyage to another promising star. So, what mix of ready embryos should be fertilized for the autowombs and ultimately, the growth-acceleration vats? Would the Exodate need strong backs or strong brains?

Harrod looked out the small porthole at the stars, and marveled at them: they were so sure in their places, so serene in their existence.

So unlike humans.

— 8 —

66th Year of the Sixth Exodate

Now within two light years of their new home, Harrod slept through the loud rejoicing on the bridge of the Photrek Courser. In part, this might have been due to his social class as an Intendant: no one would have thought to include him in the celebration. However, the real reason he missed the celebration was that he was asleep: deeply, dreamlessly, cryogenically asleep.

Harrod hur-Mellis lay in a white sarcophagus, his body maintained at approximately two degrees centigrade. Intubated, catheterized, infused with various stabilizing agents, his bodily functions were either terminated or almost so. Even his sluggish blood was not his own, but a synthetic substance laced with glycerine compounds not unlike those which still flowed in the veins of Arctic fish on the world of his race’s origin. And he would sleep on until eighteen months before they were to arrive in the Senrefer system and take up orbit about the strange moon that had, just this day, been confirmed as their new home.

Senrefer Tertius Seven showed the orange spectrographic line that meant an abundance of free oxygen in the atmosphere. Closer analysis suggested a fair amount of water vapor and, although it was still too distant to make a definitive conjecture on surface temperature, it seemed likely that there would be at least shallow seas. Weather, tectonics, oceans, continents, arable soil, edible plants: none of these were discernible. But the odds were good that a colony could be established on this strange satellite, which was quite distant from the gas giant, and evidently, molten-cored and rotating, since it had a reasonable magnetic field of its own.

Before the spontaneous party on the bridge devolved into the randomized—and rather kinetic—matings that were the carefully timed privilege of the Evolved, initial course adjustments were plotted and entered. Low on deuterium, the Photrek Courser would now edge toward the dust and molecular volatiles of the outer traces of Senrefer’s planetary accretion disk. The Ark would counter-boost for several weeks, and then tumble over to gather more hydrogen with its ram scoop. Having to gather enough fuel to complete their own deceleration would extend the last leg of their journey, turning what had been an eighteen-month acceleration process into a staggered braking regimen that would extend over five years.

In that time, the vat-born helot settlers would be decanted and receive their rudimentary educations. The away-craft—almost never used during the long journey—would be checked and run through shake-down flights. And security precautions would be taken to ensure the compliance of the survivors of House Shaddock when they were awakened to help shuttle the rest of the Exodate down to their new home.

— 9 —

71st Year of the Sixth Exodate

Upon rousing from cold sleep, Ackley sul-Shaddock’s eyes opened, but took a long time to clear and start focusing. So, knowing he had no time to waste, Harrod leaned over where the Raised Intendant could see him. “I’m sorry for what happened to your House,” Harrod said. “I didn’t know.”

Ackley’s eyes swam in the direction of Harrod’s voice, then found his face. “I know,” he rasped. And let his head fall back.

A moment later, the door opened and two big helots—one grasping either arm—dragged Harrod roughly from the cryocell chamber.

Harrod was surprised when the eight and ninth lash came in quick sequence—one-two. He managed to turn what might have been a sob into a gargling cough. And he waited.

Overlord Bikrut Mellis had been most inventive: although there were no whips aboard the Photrek Courser, he had improvised a braided length of wire coating. With the wires themselves stripped out, the plastic and latex sheathes were remarkably flexible. And felt very much like a hide whip to Harrod’s largely undiscriminating back.

The tenth lash landed with a savagery—and sharp crack—that dwarfed any of the other blows. Harrod bit his tongue—literally—and slumped in the cuffs which hung from the ceiling. Perhaps if the ship had not been under full-thrust deceleration, a whipping might have been impossible: gravity or its analog was pretty much a prerequisite. But on second thought, forced to innovate beyond the bounds of tradition, Bikrut might have arrived at something far more novel—and painful.

The Overlord’s voice was in his ear. “Why have you been punished, Intendant?”

Harrod tried to raise his head, but felt darkness close in and the cross-hatched weals on his back burn like a cooking grill.

“Answer. I command it.”

“I . . . I showed sympathy to a person of House Shaddock.”

“Excellent. You understand your transgression. And I know you understood your punishment. I presume you understand that the first caused the second. And that another transgression will result in a more extensive punishment.”

“Yes, my Overlord.”

Bikrut turned to the helots. “Remove his restraints.”

They complied: Harrod almost fell, but swaying, dropped to a knee and managed to steady himself.

“An appropriate position for you.”

Harrod looked up. Bikrut was staring down at him: the words had not been uttered in an unkind tone. They had simply been weighty, determined—like a pronouncement. Harrod watched Bikrut’s eyes, not knowing what might happen next.

To his great surprise, Bikrut shook his head and turned away. “Harrod, for that act of disloyalty, I would have sent any other Intendant out an airlock—you, too, if it were not for our need of your skills, and your otherwise . . . unimpeachable . . . service. But know this: you shall not be Raised up.”

Hardly a surprise. “My Overlord is just; my transgression warrants no less.”

Bikrut almost seemed to spit his frustration. “Idiot! It is not your transgression that has cost you your Raising. It is your mildness, your subservience.”

Harrod looked up, too stunned to remember that he must not look an Overlord directly in the eyes. “My—my subservience is at fault?”

“Of course it is, dolt! Tell me this: what is the privilege and fate of the Evolved?”

“To dominate.” Harrod repeated it like the rote catechism it was.

“Exactly. And so, consider well: do you truly belong in that class? Never a stare of resentment. Never a protracted silence in which you might be nursing your own fancies of vengeance. Not even the slightest subversion of orders to put your own imprint upon an undertaking. No acts of pride, or anger, or passion, or impulse. And so, never whipped but once, when you were very young.”

“But…but…is this not the behavior the Evolved teach Intendants to follow? Have my actions failed to match your instruction in any way?”

“No—and that is the problem, Harrod. If we Raise up your gene-line, what does it promise for House Mellis? Brilliance? Yes, without doubt. A calm ability to see and solve problems? Without question. But what of the instinct to dominate, to lead, to impose your will upon others: to win?”

“I—I do not know what to say, my Overlord.”

“Of course you don’t. You are a lesser being. And that is why we cannot Raise you, Harrod.” The tone in Bikrut’s voice was a strange mix of annoyance, pity, and apology. Then he tossed his makeshift lash aside. “There is much to do. You are tasked to oversee Ackley’s readying of the away craft.”

“My Overlord, Ackley now has rank over me.”

“He does not. His Raising has been nullified. By me. He will do as you instruct. Or he will die.”

“Yes, my Overlord.”

“You must also make haste to collect as much data on the planet as possible: maps, meteorological patterns, climate belts. I am particularly concerned with the latter.”

“Because, as a satellite, it has no axial tilt and therefore no seasons?”

“So you understand, then?”

“I believe so, my Overlord. Without seasonal variation, weather patterns will continue to amplify themselves. The weather could be comparatively constant, but quite severe.”

“Exactly. And therefore, locating optimal habitation zones could be as difficult as it is imperative.”

“I will not fail you in this, my Overlord.”

“No. Of course you won’t.” And he left at a brisk pace.

Harrod became more aware of the pain again, slumped down to both knees.

He felt a hand on his arm, looked up.

The larger of the two helots—a sandy blonde ox with a square, open face—stared down at him. “Why?”

“ ‘Why?’ Why what?”

The helot glanced at the lash. “Why did he beat you so? How did you fail him?”

Harrod surprised himself with a bark of laughter. “I failed him by doing everything he has asked. Since I was born.”

The helot stared down at him, and then, shaking his head, helped Harrod to his feet.

— 11 —

“So are we ready to land?” Bikrut’s tone was impatient.

On an external monitor, Senrefer Tertius Seven stared back at the Overlord and his senior advisors. The angry eyes of multiple hurricanes chased each other—in slow motion, from this altitude—out of the turbulent equatorial ocean belt as they watched.

“I estimate ten days at the earliest, my Overlord. Since the security-protected shuttles have turned out to be far more reliable than the unprotected ones, we are progressing at a pace constrained by the remaining number of Shaddock pilots.”

Bikrut glared but said nothing: he had not wanted to wake any members of that crippled House unless absolutely necessary. Indeed, Bikrut had expressed how convenient it was that the “traitorous devos” were already entombed in cryogenic sarcophagi. But rousing the pilots of House Shaddock had been unavoidable: their shuttles proved vastly superior to, and safer than, the others. Ultimately, without their services, the chances for successful settlement would have been uncertain, at best.

Harrod decided it was best to change the topic swiftly. He thumbed his control unit: charts, graphs, and progress tables sprang up on the smaller monitors behind him. “As you can see, much of the local flora and fauna is ultimately edible, but—as our first samplers’ deaths revealed—very little of it can be consumed without prior processing. Mostly, this means leaching it with common organic acids to break down a variety of mild toxins. Also, in addition to standard collagen, there are a variety of related substances which cause most of the vegetable matter to pass through our tracts too quickly. Leaching dissolves these more troublesome fibrous substances; boiling allows them to be stripped out.”

“And how are the first test settlers doing, otherwise?”

“Quite well, actually, although they had some initial difficulty adapting to the gravity. This suggests that before anyone goes planetside, they should spend three, rather than two, weeks in the rotating habitation pods, which we now have operating full time at one-gee equivalent centrifugal force.”

“And have you identified our landing site?”

Harrod hesitated. “Yes, my Overlord, I have. Or rather, ‘we’ have. But I find myself to be the sole dissenting voice in the study group.”


Harrod called up a rotating image of the moon on one of the monitors. “As you will note, slightly less than five percent of the satellite’s surface is land, and most of that is clustered in what we have arbitrarily designated as the northern hemisphere. Its many islands are all surface-breaking crests of steep sea-mounts. Their terrain is comprised of forbidding mountains, most rising up along what one might call the ‘spine’ of each separate island. At sea-level, however, most have a tidal shelf and skirt of land that ascends into a fringe of upland forest. There seems to be a reasonable diversity of biota throughout these archipelagos, and initial surveys suggest that while there is little iron, copper and tin deposits are not uncommon.”

“And the other site?”

Harrod slowed and then stopped the globe’s rotation as it centered on a discernible dot in the middle of the huge and unremarked ocean expanses of the southern hemisphere. “This landmass is, you might say, the top of a seamount ‘mesa’ of immense proportions. It is approximately 900 by 600 kilometers in size. Much of its land is flat, and it seems to boast the deepest soils on the satellite. It is a natural site for large-scale agriculture, and its eastern half has a fairly extensive network of rivers, comprised of three separate watersheds, two of which could—one day—be connected by canals, even using primitive construction methods.”

“And so that is the site you recommend, Intendant?”

“No, my Overlord. That is the site uniformly recommended by the rest of the research group.”

“And you choose the scattered islands and archipelagos of the north? Why?”

“My Overlord, the southern continent lies astride a weather belt which, while generally favorable, experiences some considerable meteorological extremes. Also, it has almost no other landmasses nearby. Except for a handful of small, scattered seamount atolls, it is alone in the southern hemisphere.

“In contrast, the islands of the north lay scattered across the many weather bands of that more moderate hemisphere. If we discover that our first site there is not optimal, relocation is quite feasible, using local means. Also, since there are many separate islands, it will be possible to establish widely-separated communities and so ensure that they could not all fall victim to any one disastrous event, such as a tidal wave or sequence of hurricanes. In establishing multiple, smaller communities, we ensure the survival of our race.”

And as he said it, he knew the Evolved executive collective before him had already dismissed his concerns. They would no doubt tell themselves that Intendant Harrod was unduly obsessed with mishaps, was prone to worrying about risks that were phantoms of his imagination, rather than actual dangers.

But the real reason they dismissed his analysis was because Evolveds were not merely given to contention, but sought it out. It was how they exhibited and lived their mandate to dominate. Set down in small, separated settlements, they would have no arena in which to highlight their personal prowess, no neighbors against which to pit their wills. In short, they would insist upon settling together: an eternally bickering pack of would-be tyrants.

Bikrut raised his chin. “A most adequate presentation, Intendant. We will not detain you from your preparation of the next wave of helot settlers. The landing craft are nearing readiness?”

“They are all fully operational, my Overlord. Several are already shuttling down advance supplies for the settlement. Intendant Ackley is organizing that labor most effectively.”

“And so he assures his continued survival. I want you and him to coordinate the dismantling of the command hull’s escape pods beginning next week: their fuel and subsystems will be urgently needed planetside. You may leave.”

And so Harrod did, first exiting the sleek bridge module, then the much bulkier command hull to which it was attached, and heading aft fifty meters along the keel-way of the Ark. Here he slipped through a hatchway coupling cube and emerged into a zero-gee habitation module, reserved for the recently decanted helots. They stood as he entered.

“Intendant,” said their leader with a deep bow. When he straightened, Harrod saw that it was the same one who had helped him up after his scourging. The helot smiled; Harrod returned it reflexively—and thought: Bikrut is right. I lack the domineering hauteur of the Evolved; I can’t be one of them.

He motioned for the helots to gather around; this day would be their first spent under a full gee in the spinning habitation modules. They would be cramped there, but it was essential to ready as many of them as possible for—

A sound that Harrod had only heard once before—during the Ark’s first systems test, seventy-five years ago—stunned him now: the emergency klaxon. Without a word to the helots, he turned to rush out of the big, boxy hab module—but the door to the coupler autosealed with a breathy hiss.

Stunned, Harrod stared at the closed hatchway for a moment, then paged the bridge—only to find that there was already a line paging him. Not recognizing the code, he answered, curious and cautious: “Hello?”

“Hello, Harrod.” The voice was Ackley’s. “Where are you?”

“In the zerogee hab modules. With the helots.”

“Excellent. Stay there. You’ll be safe.”

“What do you mean, ‘I’ll be safe?’ Safe from what?”

“It will be over very soon.”

“What will?”

Ackley paused as if startled at Harrod’s naiveté. “The destruction of House Mellis, of course.”

There was a muffled blast, a heavy impact that sent Harrod and the helots reeling aft, and the faint squeal of deforming metal near the module coupler hatch. “What—what in the name of the Death Fathers are you doing, Ackley?”

“Killing those who killed us—before they can finish the job. The jolt you felt was one of the cryogenic hive-modules being blown free of the Courser.”


“Simple, really. We doubled each coupler cube’s separator charges when Bikrut had us run a systems check. Put in radio-operated triggers. We guessed that would be enough to tear each module free of the main hull. Seems we were right.”

“How many—how many are you ‘jettisoning’?”

“Intendant: what a question. Why, all of them, of course. They killed almost four hundred of us. Now we’re killing twenty-eight hundred of them. Since one of us is worth ten of them, they’ve still got the better part of the deal. But not for long.” His voice lowered. “Harrod, give me the access codes for the bridge module.” In the background, Harrod now heard faint gunshots, two screams, the hissing rattle of a machine pistol.

“I don’t know the access codes,” Harrod lied.

“Of course you do.” Ackley didn’t even sound moderately annoyed.

And Harrod thought: am I so predictable, then? Well yes, I suppose I am. “No, I really don’t know the codes.”

“Harrod, we have already tortured one of these curs—and he insisted that you do know the codes. Insisted quite emphatically.”

“He must be mistaken, then.”

“Really? I wasn’t under the impression that Overlord Bikrut’s second son would be so terribly misinformed.” Ackley’s tone became more intimate. “Listen, Harrod: you don’t understand. You are being offered a signal honor: cooperate now, and the new Overlord Shaddock will Raise you up. A full integration of your seed in the House’s First Line. You are the only creature bearing the name Mellis who will survive this day—if you cooperate.”

Harrod felt the whip upon his back, tasted the broken promises of his Raising, but also saw the slaughter that would ensue if the vengeful survivors of House Shaddock entered the bridge module, which was probably where the women and children of House Mellis had taken shelter. “I—I cannot give you the codes. I cannot be the instrument of so much senseless killing.”

“Killing, yes; senseless, no.” Ackley’s tone was chillingly casual. “It makes quite a lot of sense to kill people who have already proven that they would cheerfully kill all of us in our cryocells—if they didn’t need some of our pilots to fly their away-craft. Speaking of which, this is your last chance—because if we don’t get the codes, we’re leaving.”

Harrod felt that, although he was motionless, the world around him was spinning furiously. “Leaving?”

“Of course. If we can’t seize the Courser, then we will take the away-craft. And I’m sorry, but we’ll have to harm your pretty ship a bit as we leave. Harrod, this is your last chance.” A moment of silent waiting; then another sputter of gunfire. “Very well, Harrod. Your death—and only yours—is a waste. Your skills will be missed.”

And the circuit went dead. At the same moment, explosions rocked the ship, first pushing strongly from aft—the engines, no doubt—and then light but irregular buffeting from the other three points of the compass.

“What was that?” asked the leader of the helots.

Harrod moved to inspect the coupler. “The first jolt was the engines being sabotaged. The next was our electromagnetic shielding pods being blasted free. Without them, the radiation levels in this hull will climb rapidly. And without our engines . . .” House Shaddock had crippled the Ark itself. At first it seemed madness, but then Harrod perceived—and conceded—the canny inspiration behind that madness. Since House Shaddock could not hold the ship—and therefore, the high ground—it was necessary that the enemy’s seat of power be rendered useless. And that is what they had done to Photrek Courser: damaged engines and an absence of radiation shielding made this once mighty Ark a death ship. Whether it spiraled in toward the seas of Senrefer Tertius Seven, or was sucked in years later by the gas giant itself was hardly worthy of debate: in the end, the great Ark, the enabler of any further Rites of Exile, was gone. In its place was only the unremitting contention and enmity of the rival Houses.

Harrod’s comm-link hummed; he activated it.

Bikrut’s voice growled out of it. “Intendant, where are you?”

“In zero-gee habmod three, my Overlord.”

“And you know what has happened?”

“I do. Are all the ships away?”

“Yes, all taken by the Shaddock devos—may the Dread Parents feast upon the entrails of the motherless spawn.” A long pause. “You refused to give them the access codes, didn’t you?”

“Yes, my Overlord.”

“This was well done. And yet stupid: if you had it in you to dominate, to prevail, you would have gambled all, boldly—and left behind your loyalty to my wounded House. But, since you can no longer breed, I recant my earlier decree: in appreciation of the exemplary service you have rendered us, I declare you Raised, Intendant Harrod sul-Mellis.”

That declaration, and its now-monstrously diminished significance, struck Harrod as particularly ironic. But he kept the smile out of his voice as he replied, “Harrod sul-Mellis thanks his Overlord for this signal honor.”

Bikrut made a muttering sound that might have been congratulations, complaining, or mild gastric distress.

Harrod asked, “I do not understand your remark regarding my inability to breed, Overlord Bikrut.”

“I did not say that you lacked the ability; I said that you cannot do so.”

“Meaning, you will not permit me?”

“Meaning you will not survive.”

At that moment, the ship gave yet another tortured wrench aftwards, tumbling Harrod and his helots against the bow-quarter bulkhead. “Overlord Bikrut, what do you mean—and what was that?”

“The answer is the same: the survivors of House Mellis have collected in the bridge module, which we have just detached from the command hull.”

“Uncoupled the bridge module? But it is incapable of reachieving orbit, once it is used as a planetary lifeboat. Besides, it was never refurbished—”

“That is where you are wrong, Harrod: we refurbished the bridge module’s maneuver system in the sixth year of our voyage, and left no record of the activity. With all of House Shaddock still in cold sleep, that was simple enough to achieve.”

“So you will land the bridge module—where?”

“Why, right atop the traitorous devos who were assassinating my family just a few minutes ago. They are headed to the primary landing site in the southern hemisphere. And we shall follow them.”

Of course you shall. It’s all you know how to do. It’s what makes you what you are. “Farewell, Overlord Bikrut.”

But the line was already dead.

— 11 —

The four helots who wanted to see how things would end—the last actions to be performed by the Photrek Courser—accompanied Harrod to the command module. There, he used a key wrench to open what looked like an oversized closet; the accessway led into a room packed with relays and command consoles: the auxiliary bridge. Harrod activated the screens and the sensors. Within seconds he detected the Shaddock flight to the surface: about a dozen away-craft, preparing to land near the prepositioned caches and test-settlement at the eastern end of the large landmass in the south. The remains of House Mellis were hard on their heels—and unexpected, since House Shaddock had never been told that the bridge module could function as a separate vehicle.

While the helots gawked at the descending ships, Harrod surveyed the engineering readouts. The fusion drives were gone, but the attitude and short maneuver thrusters were still functional and fully fueled. Bringing those slowly on-line, Harrod steadied Photrek Courser and altered her trajectory so that she would be over the north hemisphere in the first half of her orbit, but above the south in the second half. He turned to the helots. “It is time for you to leave. Go to the escape pods. Enter them as I have shown you and wait. I will do the rest.”

The big helot who had helped Harrod after the whipping stared at the monitors and the course plots with a frown. “I fear for you, Harrod-Lord: how can you be sure you will escape this Ark in time?”

“All is arranged,” he answered. “Now, you must go—and lead your people wisely. And kindly.”

The square-jawed helot frowned even more mightily, but then nodded and left, the other three trailing behind him.

Harrod rolled the ship slightly to port, bringing up the evacuation tubes so that they would fire at an angle, sending the escape pods into a tight cluster of islands in the mid-northern hemisphere. He had just finished calculating the pods’ collective entry angle when the lead helot’s voice boomed from the command suite’s speaker. “We are ready, Harrod-Lord.”

“Very good. Now seal up.”

“And you will be coming down, too?” The voice was worried.

“Yes. I am. I’m coming down, too.” And with that Harrod cut the commlink.

Three minutes later, Harrod discharged the escape pods. Spat free of their keel-lining launch tubes, the pods began their glittering, and ultimately, red-hot arcs down toward Senrefer Tertius Seven. And once the last of them was away, and he saw that the four hundred glowing dots had survived their entry and were now well within the atmosphere, Harrod sul-Mellis angled the great, crippled Ark into a more acute transequatorial trajectory. He checked the sensors: House Shaddock’s away-craft had landed. House Mellis’s bridge module was almost upon them. And as the tattered remains of those two embittered Houses commenced their planetside struggle for dominion, they would certainly not think to look over the shoulder. After all, no threat was expected from that direction.

Consequently, given the opportunity to surprise them both, Harrod pushed the Photrek Courser into a steeper descent, watching the blue margin of the atmosphere rise up to meet him as he set his course guidon directly atop the icons denoting the survivors of both Houses.

As he rode the Ark down toward their conjoint landing ground that was, by now, also a killing field, Harrod wondered if this outcome was, in fact, not the best of all possible occurences. With the Courser crippled and now plunging to her own death, later generations from this worldlet would have no starship with which to send away yet another wave of bitter, defeated Exiles. This time, descendants of the helots—who were even now emerging from their surf-caught escape pods—would have to learn to settle their differences, find ways to understand and even embrace their enemies, rather than exterminate and banish them.

Or maybe not: he couldn’t know. Harrod could only give those future generations—and the forces of hope and fate—a chance to create a better society than the one they had come from.

Atmospheric buffeting made the Courser’s bow begin to buck. A bit of downward thrust steadied the nose, which eased into the smooth arc of a fast descent. He checked the ship’s projected impact point and smiled: for an Intendant, a lesser being, he was doing a most admirable job.

Most admirable indeed.

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