Chapter X: Exploring

                The weeks passed quickly for Toyus in his new role as Councilmember.  The Colony needed laws and the Council argued endlessly about what those laws should be.  Toyus was of a liberal bent and so were some of the Councilmembers.  But many more were staunch conservatives intent on creating another Torahn.  Toyus did not see the point of recreating their past when they could start anew.

                He and Sentinel Sol found themselves sitting at the edge of the jungle one bright dry afternoon.

                Sol sighed.  “I would like to advice you, Toyus, but I believe you already know what to do.  Trust yourself and your judgment.   Do you want to run those ideas by me?”

                Toyus shifted.  “The Council wants to rule and pass their seats on to their children.  Make each position hereditary.  I think we should vote the Councilmembers in.  That way, it is more representative of the colony’s wishes.”

                “You want to create a democracy,” Sol told him.  “Those types of government existed on my planet for hundreds of years.  If your Council votes for hereditary rule, eventually their families would become aristocrats.  Then the government would be an aristocracy.  In a true democracy, every member of the colony has a say.”

                Toyus nodded.  “That is what I want.”

                Sol smiled at him.  “Then I suggest you fight for it.”

                While arguments and discussion over what type of government should be adopted took place around the Council campfire, a number of colonists, led by Sentinel Derik, had begun to build longhouses for the colonists. Huts had been the initial choice of home, but there were too many to build.  Toyus opted for longhouses, as did a majority of the Council .  Each longhouse would house five families. 

                Construction took place from sunup to sundown and the beach was filled with the sounds of hammering and sawing and people calling to one another.  Sometimes Toyus left the Council fire to help with building.  It frustrated the other Councilors no end.  But there was something so satisfying about working until one’s muscles thrummed with soreness.  No one argued about how a longhouse should be built. 

                His father sometimes sat in on the Council meetings but, more often than not, he kept his thoughts to himself.  He and Toyus  spent their evenings discussing how Toyus could be a more effective Councilmember.  Moyen had been a good advisor to Queen Malida, levelheaded and wise.  He was a good listener and Toyus would talk his frustrations out to his father.

                Tonight they sat around their fire with the Sentinels.

                “The longhouses are coming along well, Derik,” Moyen said around a mouthful of roasted fish.

                Derik inclined his head.  “It’s a good thing some of the Amalgamese were  builders before.  They are teaching the others how to build.”  He glanced at the jungle several feet behind them.  “It is good that other groups are starting to clear some of the jungle to allow for growth and further building.”

                “The shore is a sepek from the jungle,” Toyus replied.  “That isn’t much space to grow.  Of course, we can build to the north and south, but a long line of longhouses is harder to defend that way.”

                “Agreed,” Derik said.

                Toyus thought a moment before he turned to Ariahl.  “I would like to take a scouting team into the jungle to map it and see if we can find a source of fresh water.”

                She considered his words for several seconds before nodding.  “That is a good idea. We can stay a bit longer to ensure you find a source of fresh water and to clear a path to that source.”

                Toyus bowed.  “Thank you.”

                In the end, they formed three scouting teams, one led by Ariahl, a second by Ishel and a third by Mariel.

                “I would like to go with you, Ariah,” Toyus said. 

                Moyen frowned.  “You’re needed in the Council, son.”

                Toyus gave a brittle laugh.  “Am I?  All they do is argue.  I would like to take some time away from the governing part.  I think scouting the continent will be important.”

                Moyen looked unconvinced but he said nothing more.

                Toyus rose from a crouch and stretched his lower back.  His muscles felt sore from long hours of sitting.  He gathered his cloth travel bag and his rolled-up pallet and bid goodnight to the Sentinels and his father, making his way towards the edge of the jungle.  To the west, the seashore was dotted with campfires.  It was a rare rainless evening.   He built his own firepit with the help of his hand spade and filled the hole with driftwood.  Using ca’ahl stones, he was able to start a fire.  He rolled out his pallet and sat down cross legged.  Digging into his shoulder bag, he pulled out a hunk of cheese wrapped in cloth.  The cheese was soft and salty-sweet with a slightly nutty flavor. 

            “May I join you, Mister Toyus?”

            Toyus started and gazed up.  A young Amalgamese male stood a couple of feet away, a cloth travel bag hanging from his shoulder.

            “Of course.  Have a seat.”

            The young male smiled and set his rolled pallet on the ground on the other side of the fire.  He sat cross legged, his back to the beach. 

            Toyus took in the young male’s light gray fur and blue eyes.  His mane was black with streaks of silver.  He wore light blue tunic and dark trousers. 

            The male held out a hand.  “I am Ereali.”

            Toyus grasped his hand, feeling the callused palm and fingertips.  “Toyus, as you know.”

            Ereali grinned.   “Yes.  Everyone knows.”

            Toyus let go his hand and ducked his head in embarrassment.  He bit into the piece of cheese and looked away from the attractive Ereali, chewing thoughtfully and wishing for all sorts of food he would never have again.

            “Must be hard for you,” Ereali murmured.

            Toyus looked over at the young man.  “What’s that?”

            Ereali waved a hand.  “All of this.  You were a prince of the realm.”

            “And what were you?” Toyus challenged.

            “I was a thief,” Ereali retorted mildly.  “A pickpocket living in the underground city.  This–”  He waved his hand again, indicating the camp.  “This is paradise to me.”  He shrugged.  “A chance to

become an honest person.  Someone who is honorable.”

            Toyus grunted and finished his cheese before uncorking the bladder of wine offering some to Ereali. 

            The young male inclined his head and took the bladder, pouring some wine into his mouth.  He handed the bladder back to Toyus and wiped his mouth with the back of a hand.

            “To new beginnings,” Toyus murmured and drank.

            Ereali nodded.  “To new beginnings.  I have dried meat.  Would you like some?”

            “Thank you,” Toyus replied.

            The young man handed Toyus a hank of meat and bit into his own, chewing thoughtfully.

            “I don’t know anyone here,” he told Toyus.  “I wouldn’t mind a friend.”

            Toyus grinned at him.  “And it just so happens I am in need of friends.”

            They both looked away at the same time as a child ran past screeching with laughter while a very flustered young woman chased him down.

            Ereali sobered.  “Not many would trust me, having lived in the underground city, having been a thief.”  He ran his eyes over the nearby campfires.

            “We are born again,” Toyus told him.  “None need know your past, as long as you give us your future.”

            “I intend to,” Ereali assured him.  He looked at Toyus.  “May I come with you on the morrow to explore the land?”

            Toyus huffed a laugh.  “Was this all a blatant way to get asked to join the exploration team?”

            Ereali ducked his head.  “No!  I just…I just want to be out there, exploring.”

            “I was teasing,” Toyus told him.  “Yes, you may come.”

            Ereali looked at him shyly.  “Besides, where my friend goes, go I.”

            “Is that so?” Toyus teased. 

            Ereali squared his shoulders.  “Yes.”

            Toyus nodded.  “Good then.”  He sighed.  “I don’t know about you, Ereali.  I don’t think it will rain tonight.”

            Ereali glanced at the sky but said nothing.

            Toyus laid down on his pallet and arranged his cloak over his body like a blanket.  “Will you sleep, too?”

            “I’ll remain awake a bit more,” Ereali told him.  “I’ll unroll my pallet in a bit.”

            Toyus nodded.  “Goodnight then.”

            “Goodnight, Toyus.”

                                                                                                                    ***

            Toyus rose before the sun.  Dew clung to his cloak and mane.  He rose and shook his cloak out, startled to find someone sleeping near him.  Then he recalled Ereali.  He went over to the young Amalgamese and gently shook him awake.  The young male blinked blindly for few seconds before he focused on Toyus.  He yawned, his fangs white against the red of his tongue.

            “Good morning, Toyus,” he murmured and pushed the cloak from his body, sitting up.

            “Good morning, Ereali,” Toyus replied and stood.  “We are leaving soon, so gather your belongings.”

            They rolled up their pallets and picked up their belongings.   

            “Come with me to the Council and I will nominate you to come with us,” Toyus and led the way west, towards the Council’s firepit.

            Ereali picked up his belongings and followed Toyus to firepit belonging to the Council.

            Ereali walked just behind and to the left of Toyus.

            Soon they were at the firepit.

            “Good morrow,” Toyus hailed quietly.

            The Council members rose as one.         

            “Good morning,” Missus Alita murmured, glancing curiously at Ereali.  “Who is your friend, Toyus?”

            Toyus stepped to one side.  “This is Ereali.  He wishes to join the exploration teams.”

            Mister Yusten frowned.  “I know you, don’t I?”

            Ereali paused, looking uncomfortable.  “I don’t know.”

            Mister Yusten’s frown deepened.  “I was a jailer back in Draemin City.  Were you someone I would have housed in my jail?”

            “What are the odds?” Ereali murmured and shook his head.  “I was a pickpocket and thief back in Draemin City.”

            Mister Yusten drew himself to his full height. “Then you are not welcomed in this colony–“

            “Wait a minute,” Toyus interrupted.  “Ereali would like a new life free of crime.  He’s entitled to a new life.”

            The Councilor shook his head.  “Once a thief–“

            Missus Setina stepped forward.  Her black fur gleamed in the light from the fire pit.  “That’s enough, Yusten.”  She looked at Ereali and smiled.  “Welcome to Amala, Ereali.” 

            “I will be keeping an eye on you, Ereali,” Mister Yusten promised archly.

            Missus Alita sighed.  “There is no room in our new world for such prejudice, Yusten.  If you cannot keep an open mind, then perhaps the Council is not for you.”           

            “Nonsense,” Mister Omir muttered.  “There is room for healthy skepticism, as long as Mister Ereali’s rights are not disregarded.  I, for one, think Ereali should prove himself to us.”

            Ereali frowned.  “And how am I supposed to do that?”

            “Lead a good life, work hard and be honest,” Mister Omir replied.  “Your actions will speak for themselves.”  He turned to Mister Yusten.  “Will that suffice for you?”

            Mister Yusten was still glaring at Ereali as if he were an insect in his soup.  “Fine, but if things go missing–“

            Mister Somar sighed.  “If things go missing, we mount an investigation.  Really, Yusten.”

            Toyus placed his arm around Ereali’s shoulders.  “In the meantime, he comes with us.  Any objections?”

            Mister Yusten set his mouth in a mulish scowl but said nothing.

            Ariahl strode up.  “That is a good idea, Toyus.  Welcome to the team, Ereali.”

            Ereali bowed.  “Thank you, Sentinel.”

            “Call me Ariahl,” she replied with a gentle smile.  “Toyus and I will lead this team, which is team one.  Ishel will lead team two, and Mariel will lead team three.  I am leaving Kaster, Derik, Topon, and Sol in charge of the colony.”

            Missus Setina nodded.  “That is good, Ariahl.”

            Ariahl turned to Toyus and Ereali.  “Shall we go?  I’d like to introduce you to the rest of the team.”

            They strode west across the beach to a fire pit close.  There they found a group of young Amalgamese .

            Ariahl lifted an arm in greeting.  “Ho, team one.  I bring the last two of us.  This is Toyus and Ereali. Please introduce yourselves.  I don’t know your individual names as yet.”

            A young Amalgamese female stepped forward.  She was all black like Setina.  “I am Matiman.”

            A young pale gold male raised an arm.  “I am Otheno.”

            “Kalten,” said a brown male around Toyus’ age.

            “Tima,” said a silver female.

            “Shilna,” said another silver female who stood next to her.  The two were almost identical and Toyus thought they might be sisters.

            “Aconol,” called out a young male with gold fur and a dun mane.

            “Eton,” said another male, this one with all black fur like Matimam.

            “Malthen,” said a young male with pale gold fur and silver mane.

            A shy young brown and gold male lifted a hand.  “I am Ries.”

            “Anhai,” said a young gray and black female.

            “Siiva,” said another black female. 

            “Atalie,” murmured a gold and brown female.

            “Sema,” said the last one, a gold female.

            Ariahl smiled at them.  “I’ve coordinated with the other two teams, which are led by Sentinel Ishel and Sentinel Mariel, respectively.  We will have the longest journey, heading southeast to the opposite shore.  This vast continent is shaped like a sickle , long from point to point and narrow along the middle and curving at either end.  It is about 3.01 million square miles – what you all sepeks–  in length.  We will not be able to trek its entirety, of course. That would take years.  Decade, really.  And let’s not forget the thick jungle.   There should be plenty to explore, but there really shouldn’t be sentient life.  We didn’t see traces of such when we found this continent.  We have supplies for 14 days, so we’ll head in 7 days.  If we haven’t found water by then, we’ll turn back.  It is my goal to walk 15 sepeks a day.”

            “But what if there is sentient life?” the one called Ries shyly asked.

            “Then we engage but not harm,” Ariahl replied.  She looked around the group.  “Eventually, we will have to build boats to go to the nearby islands and continue our exploration of the continent, if we scout a river.  I encourage you to remain within the group and continue exploring.”

            The group murmured among themselves, nodding.

            “But first things first,” Ariahl continued.  “Let’s get going.  We will head due east to get to the other coast. Ready?”

            The Sentinel turned east.  “Toyus and Ereali, you bring up the rear.”

            They began to trudge across the grassy sand  towards the jungle. Toyus glanced west and saw people already working on building a long house. Three longhouses stood in a row towards the south. Thwap, thwap sounded from where a group of people were beginning to clear low plants and bushes from the edge of the jungle.

            The jungle was thick with undergrowth. Insects buzzed all around. Ariahl, Kalten and Shilna, wearing thick gloves, used machetes to clear a path for the others.  It was slow going.  Under the thick canopy of the trees, it was dim and sultry with heat.  The air was thick with moisture and unknown smells.  Toyus kept alert.  Only a modicum of light filtered through the jungle canopy.  It was like walking in a twilight world.  As they made their way, the animals and insects around them stilled.  All they could hear were the sounds emanating from the colony. 

            Insects buzzed everywhere in the moist heat and soon Toyus was pulling on his cloak and covering his head to keep the flying insects off him.  No one spoke as they focused on creating a footpath.  Time seemed to stand still as they continued to head east. And, suddenly, they found themselves on the lip of a cliff that looked several sepeks down upon a valley choked with trees and low plants.  In the distance, against the other side of the cliff, was a gorgeous waterfall.  It tumbled hundreds of feet down the wall of the canyon to the river below.   The sky overhead looked gray and thick with clouds that were moving quickly over land.

            Ariahl looked around.  “We can head a bit northeast.  There looks to be a path that leads down.”   

            Toyus looked down at the canyon.  The river snaked through the trees.  It winked through in places where the canopy thinned.

            “How far down is that river?” he asked Ariahl.

            “Some three sepeks,” she replied.  “Look, there is a path that leads down.  The river comes from the southeast.  We can follow it for a bit and then veer to the south.  It will provide fresh water and a place to rest when the sun sets.”

            “Shall we rest and eat?” he asked Ariahl.  “Then we can head down to follow the river.”

            She nodded.  “Good idea.”

            The team sat down in a circle and ate their food in weary silence.  They swatted listlessly at the annoying insects.

            Ereali passed around a bladder filled with water. 

            An hour later, Ariahl rose and stretched.  “Let’s head down, shall we?  We only have a few hours of daylight before we have to make camp.”

            They rose with a chorus of groans.  Forming a line with Toyus and Ereali bringing up the rear, they headed down the worn path leading  to the river.  They did not speak as they walked.  The incline was gentle enough that they could descend without much trouble.  The earth was damp but mostly free of stones.  Once they reached the bottom of the incline, the river was, as Ariahl had surmised, about three sepeks down in the lush valley.  The loamy earth at the river’s shore was free of low plants, so for a bit of time at least, they would walk unhampered by undergrowth.  This close to the cataracts, the roar of the tumbling water made it hard to hear or talk.  They studied the cascading water with awe and respect before heading south along the river. 

            Soon they saw strangely plumed animals around a forearm in length.  The plumes were bright with colors and the animals had long, curved beaks of a bright blue.  They called to one another as they flew overhead and then perched on high branches to watch the team trudge past. 

            Someone asked Ariahl what the animals were.

            “Looks like some sort of bird,” she replied. 

            “Bird,” Toyus tested the word.  “They are beautiful.”

            “Yes,” Ariahl agreed.  “Let’s keep moving.”

            The sky now was dark slate in color.  Thunder rumbled in the distance.  The temperatures plummeted.  Toyus sighed with pleasure.

            “I think those are caves up there,” Malthen told them and pointed to the face of the cliff.  “Maybe we should head up there to wait until the storm passes.”

            Ariahl glanced up and frowned.  “That’s about a sepek and a half out of our way.  The jungle canopy should keep most of the rain off us.  We’ll head inland for a bit.”

            Her words were drowned by a flash of lightning and a clap of thunder.  Then the rain began to spatter around them.  They ran west and into the jungle as the skies opened up and disgorged a torrent of rain.

            Toyus stood at the edge of the jungle, under a palm tree with huge fronds.  The rain pattered against the wide leaves.  An occasional drop would fall on his mane and shoulder.  Beyond the cover of the trees, the rain was a thick curtain.  The wind howled and lightning flashed overhead, threading through the bruised clouds.  The air was fresh and cool as it brushed against his fur.  He sighed, content and tired.

            Ariahl walked to where he stood. “We should call it a day, I suppose.”

            “We won’t be able to walk under that rain,” he agreed.

            She nodded and turned to the team.  “Let’s make camp here.”  She glanced away, a frown upon her forehead.

                “What is it?” he asked.

                She shook her head.  “Something is off.  But I don’t know why I am getting this sense.”  She looked at him.  “Set four people to watch camp for four hours each.  Just as a precaution.”

                “Of course,” he said, grateful she was there.

                She stalked away to set up her pallet.

Chapter IX: Flight

            oun Ei’dhar panted as he watched the people gather around oun Tamos’s dead body.  They were all talking as one, their clawed hands making arcs in the air.  He closed his eyes, centered himself and walked outside and towards the gathering.  aun Sjir’phal was kneeling next to the gruesome remains and examining them.  

            “Did some animal get him?” oun D’jir asked.  

            aun Sjir’phal glanced up at the High Priest and grimaced.  “These are knife cuts, High Priest.  At least six stabs sliced the heart to tatters.”

            Hisses and mewls of distress filled the oppressively hot afternoon.

            aun Sjir’phal glanced at the prayer hut.  “All of you that guard the High Priest will surround the prayer hall, where the kits are.”

            oun D’jir looked at the alpha Deuil.  “Do you think the kits are in danger?”

            aun Sjir’phal opened his hands helplessly.  “I don’t know.  We will not take chances.”  He looked around the gathering.  “No one goes about singly.  Only in pairs or groups until we apprehend the murderer.”

            The High Priest shifted.  “Was this a ritual killing?”

            aun Sjir’phal shrugged.  “Hard to sayl, but my guess would be that it was not.  I believe this was done emotionally and with intent.  Perhaps he fought with someone who lost his head and attacked him.  But no animal did this.  Besides, he was neatly buried, albeit not very well.”

            oun D’jir looked around the gathering.  “There might be more than one killer.”

            aun Sjir’phal sighed.  “There might be.  Rain and mud and our own tramplings have made a mess of the burial site, but I saw at least two pairs of feet in the mud.”

            oun Ei’dhar felt a heaviness in his soul.  The day was as absent of gods as any he had ever lived.  He closed his eyes and swayed.  Exhaustion limned his muscles and joints.  With a sigh, he opened his eyes and gazed down upon oun Tamos’s body.  His eyes were open, his gaze empty and glassy.

            “The Council will meet right now,” oun D’jir murmured.  “We shall meet in the prayer hall, where my kits are.  We’ll be safe there.  Come.  The rest of you, go about your day but do not go about singly, as aun Sjir’phal has asked of you.”

            oun Ei’dhar watched dully as the fourteen council members strode through the thick heat to the prayer hall.

            aun Sjir’phal motioned to two ieh boueli.  “Build a pyre and we shall release oun Tamos’s soul to the world.”  He looked around the gathering.  “I will guard the body with two aun Deuili.”

            “We shall all collect wood,” oun Ei’dhar heard himself say.  “I will help you.”

            He followed the ieh boueli into the jungle.  One of the ieh boueli handed him a saw and oun Ei’dhar began methodically to cut through the bark of a young tree.  Other oun Shi’ehli came as well and did as he did.  He cut at the bark until he could push the tree over.  Panting from his exertions, he watched the slow arc of the tree as it fell to the ground with a crack.   Two other oun Shi’ehli helped him drag the tree to where the body lay, insects buzzing around the wounds.  They made a pyre and poured oil onto the wood and set it on fire.  Because the wood was wet, it burned with black smoke.  The still air at once became tinged with the acrid odor of the smoke.            

            When the pyre burned in earnest, two aun Deuili threw the body unto the pile of wood.

            oun Ei’dhar watched with a growing horror as the flames licked at oun Tamos’s body, burning through his clothing and catching on his pelt and mane.   Soon the flames engulfed and swallowed him whole.

            oun Ei’dhar swayed and closed his eyes, feeling cold pricklings along his skin.  

            “He was your friend, was he not?” someone asked.

            oun Ei’dhar opened his eyes and watched numbly as the body charred.  “Was he?”

            The smell of burned flesh filled the heavy air.  Clouds gathered overhead and oun Ei’dhar glanced up at the slate gray sky.  Would it rain yet again?  So much rain.

            Three aun Deuili led by aun Sjir’phal jogged past the pyre and disappeared into the jungle.

            Weary with strange emotions, oun Ei’dhar murmured a prayer and left the gathering, shuffling to the long house where the oun Shi’ehli slept. He found his pallet and sat with his back to the wall, crosslegged, his tail still over his thighs.  They would find him out.  Of that he had no doubt.  He was left with his original dilemma:  was exile better than death?  Already he knew what he would say to aun Sjir’phal:  they quarrelled and oun Ei’dhar lost his head.  They quarrelled about the fact that oun Ei’dhar wanted to be part of the High Priest’s inner circle and oun Tamos had obtained that role and had endlessly mocked oun Ei’dhar, mocked and strutted about.  Then he hoped they would kill him, because he could not live without the breath of the God in his mind.  The years stretched before him, unending and unbearably lonely.

            oun Efreit entered the sleeping hall and hurried to where oun Ei’dhar sat.

            “You must flee,” he hissed.  “Leave now, while they are busy!”

            “And go where, oun Shi’ehl?” oun Ei’dhar murmured and looked at him closely.  “By myself, to live in exile?”

            oun Efreit paused, looking unsure.        

            oun Ei’dhar smiled at him.  “I cannot.  I am not so brave, you see.  With no access to ancient texts, I would not know how to do anything.  It is better to die.”

            oun Efreit sat down abruptly, his tail puffed and nervously slapping the swept wooden floor.

            oun Ei’dhar looked again at his young friend and smiled, cupping his cheek with a hand.  “I erred.  If they decide to kill me, so be it.  I deserve no mercy and no kindness.  I acted without thought and lethally.”

            oun Efreit mewled.  “You were angry–“

            “And proud,” oun Ei’dhar agreed.  “Proud and afraid oun Tamos would fight me and win himself the conical hat of a High Priest.”  He sighed.  “I’ve no excuses, young one.”

            oun Efreit’s sorrow spilled out into another mewl.  He took oun Ei’dhar’s hand in both of his and brought them to his mouth, where he pressed a fervent kiss.

            “I forgive you,” he whispered, eyes wide with their wound.

            oun Ei’dhar huffed a strangled laugh and pulled his hand free. “You must not be here when they come for me, oun Efreit.  I will not give the others away, neither you, but you must not be here when they come for me.”

            oun Efreit swallowed thickly and nodded.  He rose and hurried into the overcast afternoon.

            Time passed and he lay down to sleep.  His sleep was clogged with strange images and the patches of dreams.  He saw himself in his transport chair during the battle against the Sentinels.  He had managed to swerve away from the invisible net they had thrown into the sky.  Below him, hundreds of transport chairs overheated and exploded or fell to the earth.  Returning to the shuttle, he had given the order to retreat before the Sentinel’s web could snag it, too.  They had lost fully three fourths of their warriors against a mere fourteen of the planet’s denizens.  Then he had returned to the ark only to be attacked an an aun Deuil.  

            He shifted in his sleep and dropped from one dream to another seamlessly.  

            He now walked upon a landscape filled with grass fields and great domed buildings of bright colors.  Sha’jeen-like beings walked upon this land, unaware that he observed them.  They had the ears and manes and pelts.  Their feet and hands ended in sharp black claws, but they had no tails.  Kits ran everywhere, playing and chasing each other.  They spoke a strange language.  They wore trousers and tunics.  The domed buildings rose stories above the ground.  In the distance, hundreds of fields filled with crops.  The crops swayed in the muggy air.

            He took a deep breath and felt a strange contentment as he watched the people in the great domed city.  Were these their descendants?  Why had they changed so much?

            We are the Amalgamese.

            oun Ei’dhar spun around and saw a young aun Deuil walking through the streets, eyes directly on oun Ei’dhar.

            “Amalgamese?” he asked, cocking his head.

            The young aun Deuil inclined his head.  Just so.  The bacterium released during the battle has changed and continues to change our people.

            “It was once the same in our world, too,” oun Ei’dhar told him.  “We molted but eventually we were born changed.”

            You now carry the bacterium in your very DNA.  Just as we do.  It makes you who you are and it makes us who we are.

            “Are you a God?” he asked.

            The young aun Deuil laughed and shook his head.  I am a High Priest who can travel through time in my dreams.  You have asked for a solution, an answer.  I have heard you.  I came back through time to meet you.

            oun Ei’dhar cocked his head.  “Why?”

            The world is big, oun Ei’dhar.  There are many places to go and be.  Build a boat and follow the sea north for 300 miles.  You will find my people there.

            “I am a murderer, abandoned by my God.  Why would you send me to your people?”

            The young priest grinned, showing his fangs.  Do you not believe in redemption and forgiveness?  You have turned from darkness into light.  It took the loss of life, but that is the greatest gift you can have received.

            “Am I redeemed?”

            Not yet.  The journey ahead of you will redeem you.  The loss of your people will redeem you.  If you perish on the journey, know that you die free.  But if you don’t attempt it, what will become of you?

            oun Ei’dhar stirred away, turning onto his back and gazing at  the ceiling.  Around him, oun Shi’ehli sat in groups, talking in soft voices and praying.  He sat up and rested his back against the wall of the sleeping hall.  He waited until the oun Shi’ehli had settled down to sleep before he rose and left the dim hall.  The night was filled with the chirring of insects.  He pressed his back against the side of the building and waited until two guards patrolled past.  They conversed in easy tones.  Then he hurried through the shadows until he came to another building.  This was the prayer hall.  He paused there, smelling incense.  He could hear the mewls of the kits within and inexplicably he felt a mewl of despair rise in him.  He viciously tamped it down until he was panting.  After a few minutes, he went around the back of the building. Turning east, he ran into the jungle.  He continued to run even after the sounds of the settlement were far behind him.

***

            aun Sjir’phal entered the prayer hall and wiped his feet on the woven mat on the inside of the door.  He bowed as oun D’jir rose.

            “What is it?” the High Priest demanded.

            A kit lay asleep in his arms.  The kits were now about the size of half an aun Deuil’s arm, long limbed and gangly.

            “Can I see you outside, High Priest?” he asked with deference.

            oun D’jir’s eyebrows shot up, but he nodded and handed the sleeping kit to oun Shamisj, the High Priest’s personal assistant.

            Once outside, aun Sjir’phal closed the door behind him.  “oun Ei’dhar has disappeared.”

            “What?”

            “I went with two guards to seek him out in the sleeping hall, but he was gone. He told a young oun Shi’ehl that he had gone to the watering hole to pray.  We found traces of blood everywhere.  I believe he has gone into the jungle, but we can’t track him in the dark.  There may be predators about.”

            oun D’jir sighed.  “Is he the murderer, you think?”

            aun Sjir’phal spread his hands.  “Why is he gone?  His flight is very damning.  Besides, he is the only one of our people who said  he went to the watering hole.”

            oun D’jir looked away and took a breath.  “Do we know who his friends are?”

            “He has been seen socializing with oun Efreit, oun Sabos’h, oun Itilehn, and oun Benska.”

            oun D’jir hissed.  “oun Benska?”

            “Just so, High Priest.”

            oun D’jir showed his fangs.  “If he knew of this murder and said nothing–”        

            “He will be expelled from the Council.”

            “Ye,” oun D’jir agreed.  “Please continue your investigation.  Let me know what you uncover. And see if you can find oun Ei’dhar.”

            aun Sjir’phal bowed.  “Very good.  Good night, High Priest.”

            “Good night.”

            aun Sjir’phal turned on his heels and stalked away, two guards at his back.

Chapter VIII: Murder

            oun Ei’dhar moved stealthily over low plants, bending to duck under low hanging fronds.  For once it was not raining, although the ground was still saturated from the last rainfall.  His feet sank into the soft mud.  He was alert to other footfalls and sounds as he made his way to the clandestine meeting place.  Soon they would have their own hut, and he would be able to hold meetings without trudging into the jungle and its unknowns.  It took him nearly a quarter of an hour to reach the palm tree.  He touched the rough bark and whispered a brief prayer to Ya’ih-Ael.  Then he turned towards the west and settled in to wait for the others.  

            They came singly and in pairs, making a racket through the jungle.  oun Ei’dhar hissed with frustration.  His tail slashed the air behind him, slapping against the tree’s trunk at his back.

            They were six altogether now:  himself, oun Tamos, oun Efreit, oun Sabos’h, oun Itilehn, and oun Benksa.  

            When the others were gathered around him, he drew a deep, calming breath.

            “Report,” he growled without preamble.

            oun Tamos preened.  “I’ve been asked to join the High Priest’s retinue.  I will be at a prime place to gather intel and will be close enough to the kits to offer a different education.”

            oun Ei’dhar inclined his head.  “That is good, oun Tamos.  You must proceed with care.  Always remember:  what we do is for the future, for our descendants, not for us.”

            oun Tamos’s tail puffed.  “I know, my lord.  You drill that into our heads every time we meet–“

            oun Ei’dhar barred his teeth and stretched to his full height. But oun Tamos did not cringe.  They glared at one another for a long time.

            “You disrespect the High Priest,” oun Efreit growled at oun Tamos.

            “And why is he High Priest?” oun Tamos demanded.  “Any one of us is worthy of the honor.”

            “The God spoke to me,” oun Ei’dhar hissed and narrowed his eyes.

            oun Tamos gave a mocking bow.  “So you say.  How can we be sure–“

            oun Ei’dhar moved with lightning speed, pulling a dagger from his robes, and plunging it into oun Tamos’s heart.  oun Tamos’s eyes widened, and he gurgled deep in his throat.  oun Ei’dhar removed the dagger and plunged it again and again into the other’s heart before stepping away and watching him crumble to the ground.  He lifted the dagger and ran the tip of his tongue over the blood, cleaning the dagger blade.

            “Bury him,” he ordered the others.  “Cover the mound with fronds and leaves, so no one can find it.”

            “oun Ei’dhar–” oun Sabos’h began.

            oun Ei’dhar hissed, showing his teeth.

            At once oun Sabos’h dropped his gaze and made himself smaller.

            “Bury him,” oun Ei’dhar ordered again and stalked from the meeting place to the watering hole further into the jungle.  

            Once there, he washed his hands and the dagger, tucking it within the folds of his robes once more.  He drank water and closed his eyes.

            “Senosh ath Sha’jeen,” he whispered.  “God of the Sha’jeen.  Guide me.”

            He sat crosslegged on a boulder and closed his eyes.

            “Did I do wrong, oh Senosh, oh God?” he whispered.

            He felt the hair of his mane rise behind him.  The God said nothing to him, was as distant from him as the stars themselves.

            “Can you not touch me because of Ie’teina?” he whispered.

            He sat there until light touched the unblemished sky.  With a sigh, he rose and made his way back to the settlement.  Already there were ieh boueli and aun Deuili working on the construction of huts.  Others worked to clear the jungle.

            A disturbance drew him to the prayer hall.  The remaining oun Shi’ehli were gathered around the High Priest.  He pushed himself through the crowd until he came face to face with oun D’jir.

            “What has happened?” he demanded.

            oun D’jir gave him a withering glare.  

            Reluctantly, oun Ei’dhar dropped his gaze and postulated.  “Forgive me, High Priest.”

            oun D’jir inclined his head.  “oun Tamos has gone missing.  He was supposed to meet me this morning.”

            A young oun Shi’ehli standing near the High Priest pointed at oun Ei’dhar.  “You came from the jungle.  What were you doing in the jungle alone?”

            oun Ei’dhar stiffened.  “I went to the watering hole to pray.”

            They glared at one another until the young oun Shi’ehl looked away, at the High Priest.  Something significant passed between them, but oun Ei’dhar could not tell what it was.  For the first time since arriving at the planet, he felt the pricklings of fear in his gut.

            oun D’jir sighed.  “I will talk to aun Sjir’phal.  We will go into the jungle to search.  Perhaps he has hurt himself and cannot make it back, although what he would be doing in the jungle alone is beyond me.”

            oun Ei’dhar looked helplessly as the High Priest and his priests headed towards aun Sjir’phal where he stood on a rise of land, observing the construction of a hut.

            “What do we do now?” oun Efreit hissed at him, showing too much sclera in his eyes.

            oun Ei’dhar frowned, took him by the elbow and propelled him into the prayer hall.  “You must becalm yourself.  You’ve done nothing wrong.”

            oun Efreit panted. “You should not have killed him.”

            oun Ei’dhar hissed.  “I did it for the God.”

            “You did it for your pride,” oun Sabos’h whispered behind him.  “Do not think us fools, oun Ei’dhar.”

            oun Benska sighed.  “Now what do we do?”

            “We keep our heads,” oun Ei’dhar hissed.  “We know nothing.  They cannot make us talk.”

            oun Itilehn shook his head.  “Oh, can’t they?”  He huffed a laugh.  “We shall see.”

            He turned and strode out, followed by the others.

            oun Ei’dhar stood in their wake, stunned and sick with uncertainty.  He went out into the sultry day with its annoying insects and cloying humidity and mingled with the other oun Shi’ehli, waiting to hear if oun Tamos would be found.  If he weren’t found, it would not be good either.  In that moment, he saw the error of his ways.  He had lost his head and attacked, taking a moment’s pleasure for which he was paying now.  He would be put to death, as was decreed by ancient law.  He killed a breeder in his prime.  There was no greater crime.  He slid his gaze to his priests and saw worry and uncertainty in their postures and gazes.  Someone was bound to betray him.  They were weak, after all, just as oun Tamos had been.

            He closed his eyes, seeking the God in his mind, but the God proved just as elusive as He had been the at the watering hole.  Ya’ih-Ael had no power in Ie’teina’s realm.  He would never have power in Ie’teina’s realm.  oun Ei’dhar had gravely erred for the sake of a deity that was essentially dead.  His pride and hunger for power had blinded him, and now he had committed murder for those same reasons.  He took in a breath and released it in a rush.  He must leave and lose himself in the jungle.  He would make his way to the shore further north somehow and build a boat to carry him to the nearbt archipelago.  He would sail until he left Colony Xema far away.  He would be alone, but there was nothing to be done.  He would leave under the cover of darkness with food and supplies.

            Turning his back on the gathering of Shi’ehli, he hurried to the Shi’ehli’s sleeping hut and entered.  The hut was empty.  

            He went to his pallet and sat down upon it.  He thought long and hard as he sat there, and the morning turned into afternoon.  Would it be better to die than wander alone for the rest of his days?  Would loneliness drive him mad?

            “oun Ei’dhar.”

            He started and glanced up.

            oun Efreit stood at the foot of his pallet.

            “May I sit?” he asked deferentially.

            oun Ei’dhar nodded.  “Please.”

            “Do not despair,” oun Efreit told him.  “They won’t find him and if they do, they will not know who did it.”

            oun Ei’dhar shook his head. “It is only a matter of time.”  He sighed.  “The god is dead.  The old ways are dead.  We’ve made a horrible mistake.”

            oun Efreit hissed.  “Do not say these things!  They are blasphemies!”

            oun Ei’dhar gave a mirthless laugh.  “The god said to me on the ark that he has no power in Ie’teina’s realm, oun Efreit.  I called on him last night and he was as silent, as distant, as a star.  Ie’teina rules here and there is no room for another god.”  He reached out and took oun Efreit’s hands.  “We must change or die.”  His eyes filled with tears.  “I have been duped and now I have created the greatest sin.  There is no redemption, no escape.”

            oun Efreit inclined his head. “What are you going to do?”

            “I am deciding.  If I die, it will be by my hand.  No one else’s.”

            oun Efreit sucked a breath.  “Suicide?”

            “Ye.”

            “What will become of us?”    

            “Back the winning God, you fool,” oun Ei’dhar hissed.  “Join the ranks of your High Priest and take oun Tamos’s place.  Learn of Ie’teina and become holy.  You, of all the five of us, have a clean soul.”

            When oun Ei’dhar sat back, releasing his hands, oun Efreit sighed.  

            “But they are changing everything,” he stated mournfully.  “The nieh boueli now have souls!”

            oun Ei’dhar shook his head.  “Adapt or perish, oun Efreit.  You are young.  It will be hard at first, but you’ll get used to it.”

            They sat in silence until oun Sabos’h, oun Itilehn and oun Benska entered the hut and sat around him.  They looked at him expectantly.

            “I am not your High Priest any longer,” he told them quietly.  “Ie’teina rules here, not the old gods.  Learn the new ways and succeed.”

            “And what of you?” oun Benska demanded.

            “That is my own affair,” oun Ei’dhar replied listlessly.  “I have the means to my disposal.  It is best if you know nothing more.”

            oun Benksa inclined his head.  “The god is dead?”

            “Ye.  The god is dead.  Long live Ie’teina.”

            oun Benska reached into his robes and removed the large blood red beads.  He tore the necklace apart and the beads scattered onto the pallet.  The others did the same thing.

            Then oun Ei’dhar nodded and removed the necklace from around his neck, pulling until it parted, and the beads fell onto the woven pallet.

            “Long live Ie’teina,” oun Benska murmured and rose, striding out of the hut into the hot afternoon.

            oun Ei’dhar swallowed thickly.

            “You do not have to die,” oun Efreit murmured, gathering the beads.  “You can make amends–“

            “There are no amends without honesty and revelation,” oun Ei’dhar told him mournfully.

            oun Itilehn shook his head.   “Redemption and amends are between you and the God.  Do not forget the God is the ultimate forgiver.  We are nothing, mortals as we are.”  He rose.  “Think carefully what you do, oun Ei’dhar.  Choose wisely.”

            He rose strode from the hut after oun Benska.

            oun Sabos’h was helping oun Efreit pick up the beads.  “Why do I think we have killed the god ourselves?”

            oun Ei’dhar huffed a laugh.  “These are strange times.”

            He sat with his back against the wall and watched as the remaining two left the hut.

            He covered his face with his hands and began to rock to and fro, praying to Ie’teina.  He went hot and cold as he prayed, fervent and desperate, seeking guidance from any deity.  The idea that no deity would touch him ever again filled him with despair.  He was unsure what to do, unsure as to how to proceed.  He recalled being touched by Ya’ih-Ael and yet he had discarded the god without much effort.  Perhaps the god was testing him.  

            “Please, Ie’teina!” he called.  “Please, God!”

            He retrieved his dagger from within his robes and cut his left forearm.  He watched distantly as blood pooled along the long cut, the droplets sliding to drip onto his robes.  His eyes rolled to the back of his head and he rocked to and fro, concentrating on the sharp pain of the slices he made to his flesh.  The cutting released something in him, made him feel lighter and freer.  He felt as if he was floating inches off the ground.

            Ithal shunes tal oalth utal.

            He kept his eyes closed as the sibilant voice filled his mind.  It was strange how the God’s voice was without depth or inflection, a sexless touch along the cells of his brain.

            “I don’t understand your words,” he whispered.

            These are ancient words from the people who first worshipped me.  They were artistic, peaceful, and intelligent beings.  You have murdered, yet you wish to adore me?  Do you think your bloodletting will cleanse you?

            oun Ei’dhar shook his head.  “I think nothing of the sort, God.  I only sought to touch You.”

            Your people have much to atone for.  You’ve left a wreckage, a vast vat of blood, behind you.  You have changed the very course of history.  You have killed indiscriminately.  Without remorse, without compunction! You killed last night for the sake of your pride and here you sit, feeling fear and remorse only because of what it means for you!  oun Tamos has been silenced forever and you feel nothing for him.  Until you can feel what you need to feel, until you learn what you need to learn, I will not touch you again!

            And just like that, the God’s touch was gone from oun Ei’dhar, leaving him empty and alone.

            “Tell me what to do!” he cried as a mewl of mourning threatened to push from his throat.

            There was a commotion outside.  He rose and strode to the nearest window.  He peered out and stiffened.  They had found oun Tamos’s body and were dragging it towards the middle of the settlement.

Chapter VII: Proposal

            oun Nilja lingered near the hospital bed.  For nearly a week, the shuttle had ferried the Amalgamese to their new home.  He had watched from the sidelines, not sure when he would be allowed to leave as well.  He glanced around the tent.  The Amalgamese mostly accepted him, although he had seen a few resentful looks thrown his way in the past few days.  Sentinel oun Mariel had explained that some of the Amalgamese blamed the Sha’jeen for their predicament.

            The Sentinel had smiled at him.  “It will pass, oun Shi’ehl.”

            He had fought during the night of the raid.  He had killed in the name of the Amalgamese and many had seen him do so.  It was only the very stubborn that held on to their resentment.  But he could not blame them.  After all, the Sha’jeen had infected the populace of this world.

            aun Toyus had not awaken from his injuries while the people were being ferried away.  He lay quite still on the hospital pallet.

            His parent, aun Moyen, always hovered near, sleepless and worried.

            Today was no different.  aun Moyen was sitting on a stool near the pallet.

            “Is he better?” oun Nilja asked.

            aun Moyen started and turned.  “oun Shi’ehl!  I thought you would have left by now.”

            oun Nilja shook his head.  “I await ean sk’oi Toyus to wake.”

            aun Moyen’s eyebrows shut up.  “ean sk’oi Toyus, is it?”  He sighed.  “Come, sit with me.”  He pulled over another stool.

            Wary, oun Nilja sat down near the older human.

            “oun Shi’ehl, I have a question for you and I would like for you to answer me honestly,” the man said.

            oun Nilja’s tail puffed out.  He growled at it and turned back to aun Moyen.

            “ean sk’oi,” oun Nilja began.

            “None of that,” Moyen growled.  “I am not your master, oun Shi’ehl.”

            oun Nilja’s ears flicked.  He disagreed but said nothing.  He inclined his head instead.

            “What is your interest in my child?” aun Moyen asked.

            oun Nilja swallowed.  How to explain this?

            “aun Moyen,” he said.  “Your son was the first bridge between our people.  As such, he is holy.  He is important for this world and our peoples going forward.”

            “I see,” Moyen replied.  “He isn’t holy to the rest of your people.”

            oun Nilja ducked his head.  “The rest of my people are afraid.  I spoke to a few who saw your child and others like him as the replacements for the Sha’jeen.  We still fear dying out as a race.  I saw, right away, that your son is a bridge.  Our genetic material will survive in some manner, even if it isn’t how we think or wish.”

            “But the others don’t agree?” aun Moyen asked.

            oun Nilja’s tail flicked against the stool legs.  “I did not dare express my view, aun Moyen.  I did not think I would be allowed to live, had I done so.  At the very least, they would have made my life hard.”

            “I see,” the man said and sighed.  “You are wise, aun Nilja.”

            “Ne,” he replied.  “I know my people.”

            aun Moyen shifted.  “What is your purpose here, aun Nilja?  Surely, you have doomed yourself to a hard existence.  There are people here who don’t want you here, among the Amalgamese.”

            oun Nilja inclined his head.  “I know, but I have to remain near aun Toyus.”

            “Well, I will give you space in my home, oun Nilja,” aun Moyen told him.  “Best keep you safe.”

            oun Nilja straightened his back and bowed.  “I am honored, ean sk’oi.”

            aun Moyen went to protest, but a weak chuckle from the bed drew his attention away.

            “Toyus, my son!” aun Moyen cried.  

            aun Toyus lifted his hand into the air.  aun Moyen grasped it in both of his.

            “How are you, my boy?” aun Moyen asked.

            “Still hurts,” aun Toyus murmured.  “Thirsty.”

            oun Nilja rose and knelt near the wooden tray on the ground next to the pallet.  It held a decanter and a mug.  He poured fresh water from the decanter into the mug.  He then turned and put his hand under aun Toyus’ head and lifted his head to feed him the water.  

            aun Toyus drank almost the entire mug before he turned his face away.

            oun Nilja lowered his head to the pillow once more.

            aun Toyus looked at him.  “Thank you, oun Shi’ehl.”

            oun Nilja bowed.  “An honor, aun Toyus.”

            aun Moyen shifted.  “Are you up for some broth, son?”

            “Yes, Eda.”

            aun Moyen nodded and rose.  “I’ll return shortly.”

            aun Toyus turned to oun Nilja.  “Have the raiders returned?”

            “Ne,” oun Nilja replied.  “They keep away, although there are those who sit on their beasts on the rise in the land and watch us.”

            aun Toyus grunted.  “How does the ferrying go?”

            oun Nilja sat cross-legged on the ground next to the pallet.  “It goes.  Every day, a handful of families get taken away.  Soon, it will be finished.”

            aun Toyus sighed and turned his head to face the ceiling.

            “I don’t understand why you came with us,” he said.  “I heard what you told my father about my being a bridge.  I still don’t understand.”

            “You are holy,” oun Nilja stated firmly.  “You and all those like you.  You are the hope of my people’s survival.  Our genetic material will remain within this world.”

            aun Toyus looked at him.  “You are needed in your colony to bare young for the Sha’jeen.”

            oun Nilja squared his shoulders.  “I am staying with you, ean sk’oi.”

            aun Moyen returned carrying a large ceramic mug.  He sat down on his stool and handed the mug to oun Nilja, who proceeded to feed aun Toyus the broth.

            aun Toyus sipped in silence, his eyes wandering restlessly around the hospital tent.

            Once the broth was gone, oun Nilja set the mug on the tray next to aun Toyus’s pallet.

            Sentinel oun Ariahl stepped into the medical pavilion and made her way to where oun Nilja and the others were.

            “Good afternoon, Ariahl,” aun Moyen murmured.

            She bowed.  “My lord.  We are going to begin evacuating the sick.”  She looked at aun Toyus.  “Are you ready to leave, Toyus?”

            Toyus nodded.  “As ready as I will ever be, Sentinel.”

            “We’ll leave you for last then,” she said.  “Let us get the others out of here first.”

            “Go ahead,” aun Toyus murmured.

            She wandered away.

            aun Moyen looked at oun Nilja.  “Come with me, oun Shi’ehl.  Let’s get our belongings.”

            oun Nilja bowed and smoothly rose.  He followed aun Moyen into the icy early afternoon.  The ground was frozen beneath their sure footfalls.  The grass fields glittered with rime and the sky overhead was gray.  Snow had been threatening for days, but it was simply too cold.  

            oun Nilja had been gifted a furlined cloak by aun Moyen.  Usually, the Sha’jeen didn’t feel cold but today was different.  The past few days of subzero temperatures had made him grateful for aun Moyen’s generosity.  The wind was algid, slithering down collars and up sleeves.  It nipped at ears and noses and made eyes water.  oun Nilja hated it, but he knew the Amalgamese suffered even more.

            Once in aun Moyen’s ample tent, aun Moyen picked up a leather trunk.

            “Bring that one, oun Nilja,” he directed.  “That one belongs to Toyus.”

            oun Nilja bent and took hold of the handles and lifted.  The trunk was heavy but not unbearable. They headed back out into the icy afternoon and then towards the shuttle.  They could hear the rumble of the engine as they walked across the grass field, away from the campsite.  

            The white shuttle was now stained with mud and dust.  The ramp was down and oun Nilja followed aun Moyen into the warmer interior.  

            aun Ishel was organizing the interior of the shuttle for the group that would be transported next.  The air swept through the interior of the shuttle, whisking away the smell of sickness, sweat and dirty flesh.  

            oun Nilja followed aun Moyen to a corner, where they set down their burdens.

            “The next group should be coming soon,” aun Ishel told them.  His gaze lingered on oun Nilja, his eyes curious, full of questions.

            “We’re here to help,” aun Moyen said.

            aun Ishel nodded.  “Very good.  Go to the hospital and start carrying the pallets here.”

            aun Moyen bowed.  “Consider it done, Ishel.  Follow me oun Nilja.”

            oun Nilja turned to follow.

***

            Toyus left his bed a few days later.  Leaning on a staff his sire had made for him, he made his way around the tent camp.  In the distance to the north, the peole were buiding huts our of wattle and daub.  He was amazed at how skillfully his father and Sentinel Derik had organized teams.  He felt ashamed of his weakness and how little he had given to Colony Amal.

            “Toyus.”

            Toyus turned slowly.  He felt his face heat up.  “Sentinel Sol.”

            “You look much better, Toyus,” Sol murmured.

            “The wound still feels tight and hot and painful,” he replied.  “But I can deal with that.”

            Sol frowned but he nodded.  “Do you mind company, Toyus?”

            Toyus almost turned him down, considering his strange reactions to the Sentinel.  But, in the end, he decided that would be rude.

            “Sure, Sol.”

            Sol took his left arm, as Toyus held the staff with his right hand.  They walked in silence as they approached the semi-circle of tents belonging to the Council Members.  Once there, Toyus felt at a loss.

            Sol looked at him.  “Do you want me to fetch the Councilors?”

            Toyus grimaced.  “Yes, please.”

            He leaned against his staff and watched as Sol entered the first tent.  Soon, Sol exited with an Amalgamese woman with black fur.  She wore a long, loose mustard skirt that reached to her ankles and a white tunic and yellow vest.  She, like all the Amalgamese, went barefoot.  She had a small crest tipped with silver.

            She bowed to Toyus.  “Your Highness, it is wonderful to see you mending so well.”

            Toyus shifted.  “I’m a prince no longer.  Call me Toyus, please.”

            She bowed once more.  “Toyus, then.  I’m Missus Setina Telvos, but you may call me Setina.  It is good you come to us, for we have a proposal for you.”

            By then the other Council members had stepped out their tents and stood in a semi-circle at her back.

            She turned to her fellow Council members.  “Please introduce yourselves.”

            An older Amalgamese stepped forward.  He, like Toyus, had gold fur, which seemed to be the most common fur color.  His impressive crest was almost silver.   “I am Omir K’tals.  Please call me Omir.”

            Toyus smiled.  “Omir.”

            A slightly younger man stepped forward.  He had dark brown fur and gold tips on his mane.  “Somar Ultos.”

            “Somar,” Toyus murmured.

            A woman with silver fur and bright blue eyes stepped forward.  “Alita Molr, your Highess.”

            “Call me Toyus please, Alita.”

            She bowed and stepped back.

            The final Council member was around Setina’s age, which Toyus calculated to be around 30.  This Amalgamese had gold fur and no silver.  “Ysten Esten, sir.”

            “An honor to meet you, Ysten,” Toyus murmured.  He turned back to Setina.  “What is your proposal?”

            Setina’s gaze slid to her co-members before she cleared her throat.  She looked back at Toyus.  “We’d like you to join the Council, Toyus.  To lead us, in fact.”

            Toyus was taken aback.  “What?”

            Mister Somar took a step forward.  “You have been groomed to rule, Toyus.  Also, you did a stint with the armed forces of at least six years.  Am I correct?”

            Toyus’s fur stood in surprise.  “Yes.”

            The older man smiled.  “We are all civilians.  Common folk who know nothing of leading.”

            Missus Alita stepped forward.  “Please, Toyus.  We need you, as does Colony Amal.”

            “I’ll think on it,” Toyus replied.

            “Don’t take too long, young man,” Mister Omir replied.  “This is a crucial time in our history.”

            “No.  I’ll give you answer tomorrow,” Toyus replied.  “Who has been leading the people so far?”

            Setina smiled at Sol.  “The Sentinels and Lord Moyen.  But Moyen may not remain and the Sentinels will leave when the huts are completed.”

            Toyus turned to Sol.  “Is this the case?”

            “Yes,” Sol replied.   “We cannot interfere any more with how you evolve as a species.  But we will make sure you succeed in building the Colony.”

            Toyus bid goodbye to the Council and headed west towards the beach.    He heard someone following.  His wound’s ache sharpened the more time he spent on his feet, but he knew exercise was good for healing.  

            He made it to the shore and looked up and down the beach, noting the gentle surf, the pale, soft sand under his bare feet.  The sand was hot, but it felt good.

            Sol came to stand quietly beside him.  He glanced at the Sentinel.

            “Is it a good idea that I join the Council?” he asked.

            Sol pursed his lips, his gaze locked on the restless ocean.  The smell of brine was sharp in the air.

            “You would be a good leader, Toyus,” Sol replied.  “But you have to listen to the other Councilors, who are older than you are.”

            Toyus frowned.  “Yes, of course.  I revere elders, but if I think they are wrong, I will not bow to their will.”

            “Ask your father for guidance, Toyus.  He is leaving when we go.”

            Toyus started, turning to face the Sentinel.  “What?”

            Sol nodded.  “He has younger children to take care of, Toyus.  He only wanted to make sure you would be alright.”

            Toyus swallowed thickly.  His eyes pricked from tears.  “I…I did not realize it would be so soon.”

            Sol grinned and turned to look at him.  “We still have weeks before everyone has a place to live.  We aren’t leaving as yet, and neither is Lord Moyen.”

            Toyus nodded, numbed.  He glanced away.  Once his father departed, access to his other life would be severed.  Toyus would never see his father or his siblings again.

            Sol sighed.  “It is hard, I know.”

            Toyus looked at him.  “You do?”

            Sol nodded.  “When I came with the ark that brought your ancestors from Earth, I bid farewell to my family, to a lover, to the world.  They are all long dead by now.”

            Toyus cocked his head.  “You had a lover?”

            Sol grinned.  “Yes.  Before the journey here, we were allowed to have lovers.  I had a lover and he and I were together for almost ten years when I left.”

            “Was he angry?”

            Sol’s smile turned sad.  “No.  He understood.  Earth was dying.  He left on another ark headed to another part of the galaxy.”

            “Was he a Sentinel, too?” Toyus asked.

            “Clever boy,” Sol praised.  “Yes.  He was.  Same series as I.  I often wonder if his ark found a viable planet.”

            Toyus was sweating and trembling.  “I need to return to my cot.  Will you keep me company?  I’d like to learn more of your journey.”

            “Of course.”

            Sol helped Toyus lead him back to the tent he shared with Moyen and oun Nilja.  Once in the tent, Sol helped him to his pallet and then helped him lie down.

            “Some water, please,” Toyus asked.

            Sol poured some water from the decanter into the mug.

            Toyus took the mug with a muttered thanks.

            Sol sat crosslegged on the floor next to the pallet.  He took the mug once Toyus was done with it.

            Toyus sighed and turned his head to look at Sol.

            “Tell about the Sentinels.”

            Sol thought for a moment, pulling on his lower lip.  “The Sentinels represent certain occupations and races from Earth.  I, for example, am a xenopsychologist – I study intelligent behavior.  I am of European ancestry, which made me a decided minority on Earth.  Kaster, who is a doctor, is also European, although he is from Northern Europe.  I am from Central Europe.  Ishel, our xenolinguist, is a Pacific Islander.  That is why he is dusky of skin color.  Topon, who is the xenobiologist – he studies alien organisms – is South African.  That is why he is so dark.  Derik is Asian and our engineer.  Mariel was born in Latin America and Ariahl in North Africa.  Kaster and I are the only pale ones in the lot.  We represent diversity, intelligence, ingenuity.  Our metal and plastic parts allow us to last longer than most human beings.”

            “How long did your arks travel?” Toyus yawned around the question.

            “We traveled for thousands of years in cryo-sleep.  Our arks traveled about half the speed of light. Earth is in one of the arms of the Milky Way, our galaxy.  This planet–your planet– is closer to the periphery of the Milky Way.  Other arks went towards the center of the galaxy, or towards other arms.  We brought about 300 colonists on each ship and we had five ships.  So 1,500 colonists settled on this planet.”

            “The arks must have been huge,” Toyus stated, blinking owlishly.

            “The colonists were stacked in cryo chambers twenty high in niches on the ship’s central walls.  The ships were quite large, you are right.  Mostly because of cargo.  The colonists were cargo, too.  The entire ship was loaded with things that the colonists from Earth might need.  The Sentinels slept in cryo-sleep also, until something went wrong, and we were awakened by the ship’s mainframe.”

            Toyus felt himself drifting off.

            He felt Sol pat his hand.  “You sleep well, my friend.”

            At first Toyus did not dream.  Then mist filled the darkness behind his eyes.  It was as if he was flying over soft clouds.  The sky at his back was a brilliant azure.  Below, he could see the sea sail past through the ragged clouds.  Whitecaps filled the dark ocean surface.  Ahead, he could see the shadow of a dark land.  He flew down towards the vast land that seemed to stretch to the very horizon.  Alighting on the beach, he looked around him.  Conifers filled the land.  The air was still and cold. Toyus shivered, rubbing his arms.  He started when he felt fur instead of skin and looked down at himself.  He was covered in golden fur and his feet ended in sharp, gleaming, black claws.  His hands ended in sharp, black claws as well.  Like talons.  He flexed his hands, making half-fists.  He reached up to touch his head and felt a mane of long soft fur.

            He began to walk down the beach.  The ocean to the west, sounded gentle as it rushed up the shore and retreated.  He liked the coolness of the air, the tang in the air.  When he came to a bend in the land, he saw the dark silhouette of a stranger walking towards him.  He paused, his heart clamoring in his chest.  The silhouette looked vaguely familiar.  He stopped walking and waited.

            The wind rifled his mane and felt strange, yet comforting, on the surface of his fur.

            The figure grew larger and more distinct and soon Toyus was running down the beach.

            “Mother!” he cried.  “Aya!”

            Before he could plow into her, she put both hands out.  “Don’t touch me, child.  I am dead.”

            He stopped abruptly, aching to hug her.  “Aya. What are you doing here?”

            He drank her with his gaze.  She looked all of sixteen, young and beautiful and mysterious.  She wore billowing robes of a shimmering color he had never seen.  Her dark hair was lose to her lower back and she went barefoot, as she had often done while alive.

            “I am here on the Goddess’ behalf, child.  To give you guidance.  Let us walk.”

            They walked along the shore, the icy saltwater running over their bare feet.

            He had many questions for his mother, but kept his mouth shut.

            She glanced at him.  “I see a question in your eyes.  Ask, child.”

            “Mother, why did the Goddess allow for this thing to happen?  Allowed us to be invaded then to succumb to this molting process until we aren’t human anymore!”

            “The Goddess has Her reasons, and you are not to question them.  That way lies willfulness and sin.”  She sighed.  “Find a mate, Toyus, to help ease your sorrow and the weight of your responsibilities.  I am asking as your Mother.  Pray, child, for guidance and the survival of your people.  Difficult times are ahead for you and yours.  Know that I watch over you, now and always.”

            They continued walking for a few minutes.

            Then she said:  “Tell your father to try to find joy and love.  He has a long life ahead of him.  And the same advice I give to you, Toyus.”

            “What am I going to do without you or Father?” Toyus asked bleakly.

            “Find love, companionship and friendship,” she said.  “Promise me.”

            “I promise you, Aya,” he said softly.

            Then he was walking alone.  He stopped and turned, but there was no sign of Malida Ekesj.

            Sorrow rushed through him and he reached out to rub his chest absently.

            When he awoke in the morning, his mind was made up.  He rose to give the Council his answer.

Chapter VI: The Call to Mate

                The first rumblings that something was wrong began two days after aun Sjir’phal and oun D’jir first went to the prayer hut to find the ancient tomes in their iron crates.  Fights began to break out among groups of aun Deuili.  aun Sjir’phal left the hut after a restless night sleeping on the ground.  He paused at the door to stretch the tightness in his lower back.  That is when he noticed two aun Deuili scrabbling around on the wet earth, hissing and spitting, all claws and raised hackles.

                He made to stop it, when aun P’ata’lyh stopped him.

                “They’re fighting for mating rights,” his friend told him.

                “Mating rights?” he asked, dumbfounded.  “Mating rights with whom?”

                aun P’ata’lyh grimaced.  “oun D’jir.  He is the dominant oun Shi’ehl.”

                “Infernal stupidities.”

                They turned.

                oun D’jir stood at the door, scowling at the aun Deuili rolling around the puddles and looking no better than kits.

                aun Sjir’phal’s mouth quirked, but he restrained himself.  “oun Shi’ehl.”

                “Bah!” oun D’jir stomped out of the hut to stand next to them.  “How far into our past have we degraded?”

                “This is beyond you,” aun P’ata’lyh murmured and bowed.  “You have no say.  The aun Deuil that wins you—“

                “I know the rules,” oun D’jir hissed.  He looked archly at aun P’ata’lyh then aun Sjir’phal.  “Well?  Are you going to fight the winner?”

                “Do you want me to?” oun Sjir’phal asked.

                “I care not what you do, but I am not some morsel of meat to be fought over.”  His scowl quelled whatever aun Sjir’phal was going to say.

                aun Sjir’phal bowed.  “Ye.  If we are mated, oun Shi’ehl, I will fight to make sure you remain relatively free.”

                oun D’jir raised an eyebrow.  “Relatively?  If we go even further back in time, a High Priest never mated with anyone.”

                “I know this,” aun Sjir’phal assured him.  “Is that what you want?”

                “I want a healthy colony with plenty of kits,” oun D’jir hissed.  “But they must come from our own cells until there are enough genetic differences.  We cannot mate.”  He huffed in impatience.  “I mean, we can mate, but we must be careful not to produce offspring from such couplings.”  He sighed.  “You and I were from different arks, aun Sjir’phal, so perhaps our offspring would do well.  But I see at least one stupid aun Deuil in that melee over there who was from my ark.”

                aun P’ata’lyh spread his hands.  “This is a good thing, this fighting.  We will establish a pecking order.  You, my friend—“  He glanced at aun Sjir’phal.  “You must win yourself a High Priest.”

                aun Sjir’phal sighed and nodded.  “You are correct.  This is healthy for our males.  We will establish who is dominant and, as dominants, you and I will pair the others up.”

                oun D’jir made to protest, but aun Sjir’phal bowed.  “Please, oun Shi’ehl.  This is right for our people at this time.”

                The oun Shi’ehl stared at him for a few minutes then sighed and nodded.  “Very well.  I leave it in your capable hands—“

                “Ne,” aun P’ata’lyh interrupted.  “The battle for ascendancy has no value without the witness of the submissive.”

                oun D’jir drew himself to his full height, his mane raising behind him. “Submissive?”

                aun P’ata’lyh bowed.  “I beg pardon but that is an approximation.  Could you win against an aun Deuil in battle?”

                oun D’jir huffed a laugh.  “There are other ways to dominate.”

                “Semantics,” aun P’ata’lyh muttered and pointed at the group of oun Shi’ehl who were avidly watching the fight.

                oun D’jir grimaced in disgust, but he made no move to leave.

                The winner of the fight did not kill the other.  Even bitter enemies realized how few they were, how fragile their bout for survival.  The winning aun Deuil pranced and strutted before the group of oun Shi’ehli.  He was young and virile, aun Sjir’phal decided, but not particularly clever or intelligent.

                “For whom do you fight?” aun Sjir’phal demanded.

                The aun Deuil made himself big, his muddy mane cresting behind him, from forehead to lower back.  He was a silver-black aun Deuil.  Beautiful and powerful, and he knew it, too.

                “I fight for the High Priest,” he huffed in challenge, snarling his fangs at aun Sjir’phal.

                 aun Sjir’phal would have to conclude the fight and quickly while his opponent was still weary.  He removed his scimitar and handed it to aun P’ata’lyh.  His stun gun had been left on his ark that clung now  to the space halfway between the moon and the planet.  He removed his robes and handed them to his friend.  He moved to the clearing beyond the first of the huts.  As he walked, he rolled his shoulders and released the muscles along his back.  He kept his tail tightly wound around his left thigh.  It didn’t do to give away his nervousness by having the tail swinging at will.

                The younger aun Deuil attacked him before aun Sjir’phal was even halfway to where he stood.  He lunged himself at aun Sjir’phal and knocked him to the muddy ground.  The air was knocked from his lungs, but aun Sjir’phal reacted defensively even as he struggled to recover.  He wrapped his large hand around the other’s neck and squeezed.

                The aun Deuil scowled and pulled from aun Sjir’phal’s grasp.  They rolled over puddles and mud until aun Sjir’phal felt he had gained several pounds of wet earth.  He lifted the other and kicked him away, jumping to his feet and gouging the soft ground with his claws.  He went on the offensive and jumped on top of the other, punching his face until his face was smeared with blood. With a growl, he sank his fangs into the other’s shoulder, eliciting a howl of pain.  The aun Deuil punched aun Sjir’phal on the nose in an attempt to dislodge him. The soft cartiledge gave way.  Pain exploded behind aun Sjir’phal’s eyes.  He bit the inside of his mouth to keep from howling.  He grunted and released the other’s shoulder.  He could taste the coppery sweetness of blood.  The younger aun Deuli went on the offensive and attacked with renewed energy.  Then they were throwing punches and rolling around.  

                 aun Sjir’phal grew tired as they rolled around, punching, biting and gouging. He needed to end this.  He had multiple slices on his midriff from his opponent’s claws.  He was losing a lot of blood.

                 “You will lose, aun Sjir’phal,” the younger aun Deuil hissed.

                 But the younger aun Deuil was losing blood, too, and was getting tired from having fought most of the night.  aun Sjir’phal knew this was his chance.

                 With monumental effort, he flipped his sleek opponent onto his belly and wrapped his arm around his neck.  The aun Deuil fought in earnest, but the headlock effectively ended his efforts.  He slapped his hand into a puddle.

                “I give,” he muttered.

                “We can’t hear you,” aun Sjir’phal murmured in his ear.

                “I give!” he yelled.

                aun Sjir’phal stood and stepped back.  He turned in a lazy circle.

                “Who’s next?” he taunted despite the pain for half a dozen wounds and a broken nose.  He doubted he could defeat another, more seasoned warrior.

                He raked his eyes over the gathered aun Deuili, who glared back at him, mute and defiant, but offering no challenge.  There were quite a few bloodied and muddied.   

                “No one will fight you,” the defeated aun Deuil growled.  “I had defeated several aun Deuil last night.”

                aun Sjir’phal turned back to the gathering of Shajeen.  “Here is how it will be then.  I am the dominant aun Deuil.  I mate with the High Priest.  You will find your mates, but your mates must not be from the same ark.  We’ve interbred enough.”

                One aun Deuil stepped forward.  “There are 110 aun Deuili and 42 oun Shi’ehli.  How are we to decide who mates with whom?  It is not fair to fight, leaving 68 aun Deuili without mates.”

                One of the oun Shi’ehl took a step forward.  “Some of us can have two mates or three.”

                The oun Shi’ehli tittered behind him.

                oun D’jir snorted.  “My guards have to be celibate.  That is an ancient law.  So, twenty aun Deuili will not fight for ascendancy.”

                “That leaves 48,” someone happily offered.

                oun D’jir rolled his eyes and huffed a laugh.  “Know this aun Deuili!  If you are from the same ark as an oun Shi’ehl, you are forbidden from pursuing him.  aun P’ata’lyh, assist me.  We shall divide the oun Shi’ehli and aun Deuili into five groups.  Then we shall see who goes with whom.”  He ran his eyes over the oun Shi’ehli.  “All those who came from the ark xema, stand here.  All those from ark olta, stand here.  All those from ark terson, here.  And ark alpik?  Here.”

                oun D’jir saw that no oun Shi’ehl from the ark stok had survived. That knowledge sobered him.

                He turned to the aun Deuili on the other side of the ground.  “All those aun Deuili from the ark xema, stand here.  From the ark olta, here.  From the ark terson, here.  And from ark alpik, here.”  He counted.  That left 30 from the ark stok.  “I will take shanstk from ark stok to guard my temple.  And shanstk from the other arks.”

                aun Sjir’phal squatted under the prayer hut’s shadow.  It was late morning, and the air was humid and promised to be sweltering by midday.  He panted as he watched the High Priest appoint random aun Deuili to be his temple guards.  He huffed with surprise when oun D’jir appointment the oun Deuil he had fought as the head of the guards.  Perhaps losing to aun Sjir’phal had taken his desire to mate from him.  Or perhaps all he wanted was prestige.

                The aun Deuil bowed gratefully to oun D’jir and took his place, muddy and bloody, at the head of the twenty new guards.

                aun Sjir’phal wiped the back of a hand under his nose.  The hand came away wet with blood and mud.  He grimaced. Rising, he strode past into the jungle.  There was a waterfall nearby, along a path the colony had worn down and cut with their swords. It was the closest source of fresh water to their settlement.  As he approached, he could smell the fresh water.

                He paused on a boulder and gazed down at the jade green water teeming with colorful fish about a hand in length.  The pool was deep and large.  The roar of the waterfall dampened all nearby sounds.  The boulder upon which he stood was cold to the touch and damp.

                Removing his sword belt and trousers, he set them to one side and dove into the pool.  The fish scattered away from him.  Bubbles rose from his mouth and nostrils as he touched bottom and swam up to break the surface.  Swimming had been instinctual to the Sha’jeen.  aun Sjir’phal had never swum in his life, but he found he knew how to do it without much practice or error.  The water was icy, but it felt good against his overheated body.  The cold water also numbed the ache of his broken nose.

                He swam to the edge of the pool and then scrubbed the mud from his fur and mane.  He rinsed once more then climbed the boulders to gather his trousers and sword belt, striding naked as the day he was born back to the settlement.  No one paid him any heed as he made his way to the long hall where the aun Deuili slept.  He dropped his muddy trousers at the foot of his pallet and opened his chest to withdraw fresh robes and pair of trousers.  He dressed quickly.

                There was an ieh bouel sweeping the long hall floor.

                “Please wash these trousers for me,” he told the neuter.

                The ieh bouel bowed.  “Of course, aun Deuil.  Right away.”

                As the ieh bouel approached, aun Sjir’phal studied it.  He was a pretty, if smallish, being.  There was nothing malformed or offensive about it.  The ieh bouel came only to about aun Sjir’phal’s shoulder and it was graceful and lean, not bulky with muscles like the aun Deuili.

                aun Sjir’phal put his hands out and touched the ieh bouel’s shoulder.

                The ieh bouel started.  He gazed flinchingly at aun Sjir’phal.   “Have I offended?”

                “Ne,” aun Sjir’phal assured him.  “You are quite attractive, ieh bouel.”

                The ieh bouel looked embarrassed and startled.  He bowed.  “Thank you.”

                “I do not seek to mate,” aun Sjir’phal assured him hurriedly.  “It’s just…why I have I so infrequently looked at your kind?”

                The ieh bouel looked at a loss for words.

                aun Sjir’phal sighed.  “Never mind.  Go on.”

                The ieh bouel bowed again and picked up the muddy trousers and hurried away.

                aun Sjir’phal huffed an embarrassed laugh and turned towards the front door of the long hall and made his way outside to where oun D’jir was still trying to determine who would pair with whom. He stood under the eaves of the long hall and watched, leaning against the doorjamb, arms crossed over muscular chest.

               aun P’ata’lyh strode through the throng of Sha’jeen and approached aun Sjir’phal.

                “oun D’jir is doing a good job of pairing our people off off,” He murmured as he turned to stand next to aun Sjir’phal.  “He’s a good administrator.”

                “Ye.”

                aun Sjir’phal gaze followed oun D’jir as he walked between people.

                He was taken aback once more by the oun Shi’ehl’s beauty.   Despite his distended pouch, where he carried the growing kits. 

                “I am honored oun D’jir has agreed to mate with me,” he murmured.

                “Ye,” his friend replied.   “It is an honor to mate the High Priest.”

                aun Sjir’phal glanced at his friend from the corner of his eyes.  “I know, my friend.  I am well aware of the honor.”

                He ran his gaze along the lines of Sha’jeen.  Would they survive, he wondered.  There was so much to do, and something could always go wrong.

                “You’re worrying again, my friend,” aun P’ata’lyh.  “Put your worries on the foot of the God.  We can’t control the future or even if we are to survive.  All we can do is our best.”

                aun Sjir’phal felt humbled at his friend’s wisdom.  “You should mate with oun D’jir, my friend.

You are wise.”

                aun P’ata’lyh hissed his amusement.  “What would I do with such as young mate?  You forget I am older than you.  I enjoy not fighting for a mate and living quietly, my friend.”

                aun Sjir’phal bent his head in honor of his friend.

                They clasped forearms.

                “I will sit on the Council and the laws I help approve shall be my offspring,” aun P’ata’lyh murmured.   “Now, come with me to the healing hut. You are bleeding through your clothes.”

Chapter V: Raid

          The camp stretched south for sepeks.  The tents huddled together, sagging in the rain.  Large wooden tubs for washing clothes and bathing sat just outside the tents.  Someone had put up clotheslines and the wet clothes swayed in the frigid breeze.

          As Toyus walked down the main aisle between tents, he could hear wet coughing and retching.  His uncle, King Yvar’h, had sent empathic healers, but four were woefully inadequate to tend to 350 patients.  In the three weeks since Toyus had arrived on the shuttle, the sick had increased exponentially.

          Not everyone was sick, however.  Some were like him, having crossed the molting and become something other, between human and Sha’jeen.  Riots in Draemin city had resulted in dozens of Amalgamese being killed before guards could react.  The rest of the Amalgamese had been exiled to this camp, awaiting the return of the shuttle from the moon.

          The longer they lingered in North Torahn, the more uneasy Toyus grew.  Something was going to happen; he could feel it, taste it in the very air.  Besides, the cold and damp conditions of kamaran continued to kill every day.  Poverty and misery were daily realities.  The government of Draemin city sent food and water once a week, but it was not enough.

          Because he was Queen Malida’s oldest child, Toyus was viewed as a leader.  Although he had been schooled all his life to be a leader, a ruler, a king, still authority did not sit well on his shoulders.  It helped that his father stayed in the camp with him.  They went over every crucial decision and every act he took.  His father’s presence lent him courage and surety.

          Since coming to the camp, he had organized work groups to dig holes for the disposal of waste matter, for cleaning up detritus around the camp, he had helped set up a ruling party, and he had given each family a number for their exodus from the continent.  The shuttle could only carry a few families at a time, so the refugees would be shuttled out in parcels.

          Now, if only he could calm down.  Every day increased his feelings of impending doom until he had nightmares and had a hard time calming himself down.

          He stopped.

          Ahead, he saw oun Nilja with five children.  The Sha’jeen was chasing the children, who were giggling and screaming with joy.  Some of the children were Amalgamese, some were human.  oun Nilja ducked around a tent and one of the children barreled into Toyus’s legs.

          The child stiffened and gazed up at Toyus with awe and some fear.

          “Hey there,” Toyus said as kindly as he could.  “Are you being chased?”

          The boy nodded.  He had a light gold down, like Toyus.  Toyus ran the back of a finger along the down on the boy’s cheek.

          “Just watch where you run, picu,” Toyus murmured and stepped to one side.

          The children ran on.

          Toyus caught a glimpse of oun Nilja stalking them from behind the tents.

          He shook his head and continued to the main hospital pavilion.  The flaps of the hospital tent were pinned back to allow easy entrance.

          Toyus ducked and entered.  This tent housed forty patients and was manned by one empathic healer.   Kaster and Topon were in charge of the hospital.

          Kaster was bent over a sick man, shining a light into his right eye.

          “Hello, Toyus,” Topon murmured.  He stood at a small table where the sentinels kept a microscope, a Bunsen burner, a mortar and pestle, and flasks, beakers and droppers.

          Toyus strode to the dusky sentinel.  “Any other discovery?”

          Topon sighed.  “No.  The disease kills ¼ of those it infects, changes ½ and seemingly ignores the other ¼.  Nothing’s changed and I can’t seem to get a handle on Chimera.  It lives a long time outside the body and seems to enter the body by air and blood.”  He gazed around the room and lowered his voice.  “I think there are at least three strains.  The strain that attacked you was fast-acting.  There are others.  One which is slow to act once in the body and another that seems to be benign.”  He rubbed his cheek.  “I am at a crossroads here, Toyus.  This is all we can do for your people.  You taught us to allow Chimera to progress without interruption.  That has saved many, many lives.”

          Toyus nodded.  “My concern is getting out of here.  Those riots were not the end of it.  The citizens of Draemin know the camp is here.”

          Topon frowned.  “the shuttle is due back tonight.  We’ll start transporting people west.”

          “I’ll stay until the last group leaves,” Toyus told him.

          Topon smiled and nodded.  “you’re becoming quite the leader, Toyus.”

          Toyus’ down stood on end, signaling his discomfort.

          Topon laughed.  “and you’re humble.  These people are lucky.”

          “Topon, can you come over here for  a minute?” Kaster called.

          “Excuse me.”

          Toyus began to walk along the rows of sick.  When a patient was awake, Toyus would pull a stool over and sit down next to him or her.  Some looked like they had a foot in the afterlife already.  They were thin, skeletal really, their hair plastered to their skulls, their eyes too large in their faces.

          Toyus talked to every one of them unless they slept.

          There was a boy, around fifteen, although he looked younger.  He was pale and thin.  His hand looked large against the rest of him.  He had black hair and amber eyes.  His hand, in Toyus’s, was cold and trembled like a caught bird.

          “How are you doing, Suli?” Toyus asked.

          The boy grimaced.  “Tired.”  His eyes swam.  “Why did my father take a knife to me, Toyus?  He hates me.”

          Suli was in-between:  half-way through the molting.  He had a fine golden down that matched exactly his eye color.  Every day that passed provided more and more down.

          Toyus squeezed his hand.  “your father does not understand why you are changing.  He’s afraid of you, of all of us.  He isn’t your family any longer.  You have a new family now, Suli.”

          Suli nodded.  “I know.”  His face crumbled.  “But he’s my father!”

          Toyus placed his hand on Suli’s forehead.  “I know.  I’m lucky that I have the father that I have.  I don’t know what I’d do without his support.  All I can do is offer you my friendship and support, Suli.”

          Suli smoothed his face and wiped away his tears.  “Thank you, Toyus.”

          Toyus patted his hand and set it on Suli’s chest.  “My honor, Suli.  My honor.”

          Suli gave him a brave smile.

          “You rest now, Suli,” Toyus murmured and made to stand.

          Suli surged up and took hold of his hand.  “Am I going to die, Toyus?”

          Toyus sighed and made the lad lay down once more.  

          “You know I won’t lie to you, Suli,” he said.  “It’s with the Goddess.  Pray.”

          The lad lay down once more and swallowed thickly.  “I will, Toyus.”

           He left the medical tent and pulled the hood of his cloak over his head against the icy drizzle.

           “Toyus!”

           He turned and grinned at his sire as he strode down the aisle to where Toyus stood before.

           They embraced.

           “Eda,” Toyus murmured against his father’s shoulder.  

           His father sighed.  “How are you, my son?”

           “I am well, Eda.

            They began walking side by side towards their tent.  

            “I’ve set guards along the periphery of the camp, sir,” Toyus said.  “They will warn us if anything happens.”

            “Good, good,” Moyen replied.

            “What is it, Father?” Toyus asked.  “You seem distracted.”

            “I had a meeting with your Uncle Yvar’h,” Moyen replied.  “We will be getting more sick and molting soon.”

            Toyus looked at his father.  “Does he take it seriously now, Father?”

            Moyen sighed  “He appears to.  However, there are those at Court who are becoming more vocal.  That faction of people who want the Amalgamese dead.”

            Toyus shivered.  

            “We must get the most people out of here as we can,” Moyen told him.  “That is all we can do.”

            “When is the shuttle to return?” Toyus asked.

            “Kaster told me sometime in the middle of the night.”

            Toyus nodded.  “We’ll begin to shuttle people away then, but it will still take several days.”

            They entered their tent.  Toyus removed his damp cloak and draped it over the back of a chair.  He strode to the food crate and removed the lid, taking out dried meat, a chunk of cheese wrapped in cloth and a bag of dried, sweetened bala berries.  Carrying their bounty to the table, he set the items down before taking a seat.  

            Moyen set a bottle of wine and two mugs on the table and sat across from Toyus.

            They ate in companionable silence, both distracted by their own thoughts.

            Outside the tent flap, night fell as the rain continued to fall.  

            After dinner, Toyus took up a book and read at the table while his father lay down on his cot.  

            The rain eventually stopped near midnight.  A brittle wind whipped through the camp, shaking the tents.  

            Toyus thought the wind smelled of snow and wondered if the morning would produce their first snowfall.

            He rose, bending to turn down the oil lamp when screams tore the night asunder.  He grabbed for his sword in its scabbard hanging from the back of the chair, and ran outside, his father’s shouts at his back.

            Fire was stark against the black skies and acrid smoke clogged his throat and burned his nose.  Coughing, he narrowed his eyes.  The scene was total chaos with people running and fighting, but he spotted the some of the raiders almost right away.  They were tall, broad, shaggy men with fur cloaks and knee-high boots.  They wore scarves around the lower halves of their faces.  

            The man closest to him had a child by the ankle and was shaking it savagely.  

            With a rageful cry, Toyus ran, lifting his sword and swinging like a mallet, cleaving the man from shoulder to midriff.  The man screamed and dropped the child.  

            The child lay stunned on the ground.  Toyus bent and picked him up, running back the way he had come and handing him to his father.

            “Make sure he is well!” he shouted and ran into the melee once more.  

            He swung his broadsword.  Sometimes he hit steel but mostly he hit soft and solid things.  He screamed with rage and despair when he saw some of the dead were women and children.  He lost himself to the battle, not caring how many he dispatched.

            One raider met him with a torch.  He swung the torch in a half-circle, aiming to set Toyus on fire or to keep him back.  Toyus jumped back.  The man kept coming.

            “Behind you, Toyus!” he heard someone call.

            Toyus hopped to the side and turned.  A masked man threw a dagger.  The dagger sank into Toyus’s gut.

            He grunted.  His hands were shaking badly as he took hold of the dagger and pulled it out.  The pain sliced through him, hot and bright.  Turning on the man, he threw the dagger with deadly accuracy. It embedded itself in the man’s throat.  The breath swooshed out of the man and he fell.

            “You fucking freak!” the man holding the torch screamed.

            He ran at Toyus, waving the torch in a semi-circle before him.

            Toyus abided his time while the man drew nearer.  Then instinct took over.  Toyus bent and turned, swining his leg in an arc.  He knocked the torch from the raider’s hand.

            Toyus swung his sword to the right and down, slicing off the man’s hand.  The man screamed, cradling the wounded arm to his chest.

            Toyus hefted his sword.  “The only freak here is you.”

            He swung his sword, slicing the man’s head half off.  Blood spurted in an arc.  His eyes over the scarf glazed over.  His body stood a moment on its knees before toppling forward.

            Toyus’s wound was beginning to throb. He put a hand to his middle.  His tunic was soaked in blood.

            He looked around with graying eyesight, but it was hard to see past the smoke.

            “Toyus!” Moyen cried.

            “Father, make sure everyone is alright,” Toyus murmured.  He felt cold and was beginning to shiver.

            “The Sentinels are on it, son,” Moyen said.  “Come to the medical tent.”

            Toyus focused on putting one foot in front of the other and allowing his father to lead him.  He was not sure he was going to make it to the tent.  He was sick with nausea.  He looked ahead, concentrating on placing one foot before the other.  Then he was being led into a tent.

            “Toyus!  Is he alright?” Kaster demanded.

            “He was wounded,” Moyen replied.

            “Here.  He can lay here,” the Sentinent said.

            Toyus lay down on the pallet and groaned at the pain.

            Kaster cursed as he pulled up Toyus’s tunic.  

            “Topon!  Hot water and cloths!” the Sentinel called out.

            Toyus closed his eyes.  Everything was spinning and he was afraid he might be sick.  He went hot and cold.

            “Bring an empathic healer!” he heard Kaster call out.

            The pain sharpened until Toyus’s eyes rolled to the back of his head and he lost his battle with unconsciousness.

Chapter IV: Birth

            The creation of new civic laws took the Council of Xema Colony over a month.  Their days were long and filled with discussions at best, arguments at worst.  Near physical violence was only averted by aun Sjir’phal’s quick responses and alertness. The most contentious topic was, of course, what would become of the ieh boueli.  This discussion itself took several days.  The traditionalists were filled with disgust over the idea of treating the neuters with respect and kindness.  

            “What do they produce that is good for the people?” oun Enobia snarled during one such heated debate.

            “They contribute with their actions and dedication,” aun Pasia’h had replied patiently.  “They cannot help how they are born, oun Shi’ehl, just as you couldn’t help being born a breeder.”

            oun D’jir was becoming tired of the argument.  He had come to a place where he could accept the ieh boueli as members of society, but it did not sit well with him to show the neuters respect, as one would respect an oun Shi’ehl or an aun Deuil.

            “Must we decide this now?” he groused, tail slapping the edge of the pillow upon which he sat.

            aun Tefa gave him a withering gaze.  “If we can’t get past our most difficult issue, of what use are we as a Council?”      

            aun Sjir’phal huffed a laugh and shifted.  “Shall we vote?”

            “We already know how the vote will come out!” oun Serphon shouted with frustration.  “Of what use are we, the traditionalists?”

            “To maintain the best of the old laws,” aun Sjir’phal replied patiently. “Not to maintain our prejudices.  Your attitude towards the ieh boueli is only prejudice and superstition.  We are an intelligent species.  We must rise above our prejudices!”

            aun P’ata’lyh spread his hands before him.  His black claws caught the light.  “Look how we treated aun Toyus.  For something he could not control.  We behave appallingly at times.  We will vote.”

            “I am not going to change,” oun Serphon growled.

            aun Sjir’phal leaned forward.  “Then you will be exiled.  Change and adapt or leave the colony.”

            Stunned silence met his pronouncement.  His eyes challenged every one of the council members.  

            oun D’jir sighed.  “That is extreme, but if we cannot unify…You are being stubborn, oun Serphon.  I am a traditionalist, but I can see the progressive’s point of view.  The ieh boueli cannot help how they are born.  If you birth one, will you kill it outright?”

            oun Serphon puffed up.  “I’ve never birthed one!”

            “That is because you have only had three kits, all of which died,” oun Enobia sighed.  “I will try to change my attitude, but you must give me time.  I have been taught all my life to behave one way and now I am being asked to change that to the exact opposite.  Give us time.”

            aun Sjir’phal inclined his head.  “Understood.  As long as we agree that the ieh boueli will be treated with respect and kindness moving forward; that they will be taught to read and write and take up places as free Sha’jeen.”

            oun Enobia nodded.  “Agreed.”

            oun Serphon snarled.

            “Do you want to leave the Council, oun Shi’ehl?” aun Sjir’phal asked with deceptive mildness.  “Because we can nominate another.”

            oun Serphon hissed a laugh.  “Do you think that threatens me?”

            “Enough!” oun D’jir shouted and slapped the wooden floor with both hands.  “If you are going to abandon the Council, do so now oun Shi’ehl.  This argument is concluded.”

            oun Serphon crossed his arms over his chest and glanced away.

            “Alright then,” oun D’jir said.  “Now, how do we decide which ieh bouel will be an educator, which a cleric and which a servant?”

            aun Isolth rubbed his chin with the back of a finger.  “We will have to decide upon each birth, depending on the needs of the people.  More servants will be needed than any other kind of ieh boueli occupation.  These are not slaves, so they will have to be compensated for their service.  We will have to agree upon the minimum they will be paid, but it must be enough for them to cease working in their old age and be able to live in relative comfort.  We cannot expect an old ieh bouel or an infirm one to continue in its role as servant.”  He frowned.  “Educators will be the second most common, I should think.  There will be hopefully many kits to educate.”

            The Councilors murmured a prayer for many kits to be born into the colony.

            “We will need to develop currency and give it denominations,” oun D’jir stated wearily.  “We have to seek through the island to see if there are minerals that can be exploited to create coins.  We have to develop things we can trade with the humans and other species on this planet.  We will need to weave, sew and form pottery.”  He shook his head.  “We have much to do before we can even trade with anyone.”

            aun Sjir’phal nodded.  “We need to develop weapons, too.  Although the Sentinels found that no race of beings lived nearby, we need to prepare ourselves for the future.”

            “Hau,” the Council murmured.

            aun Sjir’phal glanced at oun D’jir and gave him a smirk.  “We will have lots of work for the years ahead.”

            “How do we divide the land among the people?” oun Zerta piped up.  “It is a large island, but we must be equitable.”

            “I propose the greatest amount of land be owned by the people as a whole,”  aun Otol’h said.  “Those who wish to farm will be given parcels.  Big enough to grow substantial crops.  That means clearing the land.  I propose if an aun Deuil wants to farm, he will have to clear the parcel of land he is given.  That is how he will pay for the land, by clearing it.  He will provide a tithe to the Council and the High Priest of 10 percent of his crops.”

            The Councilors nodded.

            “Excellent, aun Otol’h,” aun Sjir’phal praised.  “Part of the land has to be for a schoolhouse.  Part of the land has to be for a temple.  The Sentinels informed us that the main island, upon which we live currently, is olta shanstk shanstk shanstk shanstk x-stok sepeks long and half that  wide.  There are many smaller islands that form an archipelago.  Some of the smaller islands are shanstk shanstk sepeks long and wide, although none as our continent.  We can take over the other islands as we grow as a people.  But Colony Xema will always be the capital, where the High Priest and King live.”

            oun Norus shifted.  “How will we divide the land?”

            “Right now we need most of our aun Deuili as soldiers,” aun Safahn stated.  “We only have 110 of these. We can release 50 to oversee the development of the land.  The ieh boueli can develop the land and grow crops and they can hunt and forage. They will be growing crops in the people’s land.  In the future we can parcel out land, but right now we have to feed the people and breed.”

            “We don’t need crops,” oun Enobia hissed.  “We are carnivores.”

            “We will learn to eat all manner of food, lest we deplete the continent and islands of prey,” oun D’jir told him.  “Towards that end, we must also tame some of the wild animals so that we have a ready source of meat.”

            “Ye,” aun Kaphil agreed.

            “I must return to our main duty,” aun Safahn stated firmly.  “We must couple and breed.  To that end, the High Priest must join oun Shi’ehli to aun Deuili–“

            “But if we have indiscriminate coupling, that will be best for the population,” oun Serphon said.

            aun Safahn shook his head. “We must take care of bloodlines.  We cannot interbreed.”

            oun Zerta huffed his agreement and slapped the floor.  “We must demand that each couple produce several litters.  At least 10 litters!  We need to ramp up the population, for we are still vulnerable to disease and warfare.  We cannot open our borders to trade until we are a strong colony.  We are not there yet.  These civic laws will be for the future.  Right now, we have to survive.  We must choose a High Priest that will sanctify couplings.”

            “Ye!” aun Tefa agreed.

            aun Sjir’phal shifted.  “Then I nominate oun D’jir to be our High Priest.  His kits still move in his womb and live.”

            oun Enobia hissed.  “We don’t want to tempt fate!  oun D’jir’s kits must survive!”

            “We are scientists first and foremost,” aun Sjir’phal said with measured patience.  “Ie’teina will protect.  Do we agree that oun D’jir will retake his place as High Priest?”

            With a dissenting oun Enobia and oun Serphon, the other Council members agreed to aun Sjir’phal’s suggestion.

            aun Sjir’phal turned to oun D’jir.  “You must now move into the prayer hut and choose several ieh boueli as your servants and your clerics.”

            oun D’jir shifted.  “I must have other priests with me.  The High Priest chooses five oun Shi’ehl who assist him.”

            aun Sjir’phal inclined his head.  “Just so, but they will not come from the Council.  This is not a theocracy.  The High Priest does not head the Council.”

            oun D’jir hissed his ire.

            aun Sjir’phal’s flattened his ears but otherwise showed no disconcertion.  

            Eventually, oun D’jir’s gaze dropped.  “Fine.  I will choose five aun Shi’ehli to assist me.”  He rose.  “If you will excuse–”   He huffed with surprise and fell to the floor.  

            Gasps and mewls of distress filled the Council Hall.

            oun D’jir gasped.  “Take me to the oun Shi’ehli long house!  My kits come!”

            aun Sjir’phal hissed with distress.  “It isn’t time!  Can this be another false labor like the one you had previously?”

            oun D’jir fought against the overwhelming desire to push.  “aun Sjir’phal!  The kits come!”

            aun Sjir’phal rose and picked oun D’jir up in his arms, hurriedly carrying him out of the Council Hall and under the soft patter of rain to the long house where the oun Shi’ehli slept.  

            “Bring pillows and a pallet!” aun Sjir’phal called over his shoulder.  “We need blankets, a basin of warm water and cloths!”

            oun D’jir closed his eyes and refrained from pushing.  “How do you know about births?”

            “I read the texts,” aun Sjir’phal replied.

            “Anathema!” oun D’jir hissed as a wave of pain overtook him.  He mewled his distress.

            “So it appears,” aun Sjir’phal replied with subdued humor.

            Within minutes, two ieh boueli brought in a pallet and others followed with pillows, blankets, a basin of warm water and cloths.  One had the foresight to bring a cup of detergent.

            aun Sjir’phal gently laid oun D’jir on the pallet stacked with pillows.  

            oun D’jir was panting from the pain.

            “You must leave right now,” oun Enobia hissed.  “The birthing hut is not where an aun Deuil belongs!”

            “I’ll be right outside,” aun Sjir’phal informed him and stalked from the hut.

            oun Enobia, oun Serphon and oun Benska remained behind.  They sat around the pallet while other oun Shi’ehli entered and lit incense and candles.  Soon all the oun Shi’ehli were sitting cross-legged on the swept floor.  

            The idea of so many eyes observing the birth did not feel correct to oun D’jir, but he also knew these kits belonged much more to the colony than to him.  In the arks, when High Priests bore young, they did so with their chosen priests.

            His next thought was wiped from his mind as the pain pushed against his sex.  He panted and mewled.

            Around him, the oun Shi’ehl mewled in distress and sympathy.

            oun D’jir pushed, gripping the pallet edge, and screeching as if he were engaged in battle.  His display was so impressive, the oun Shi’ehli fell silent.  Beyond the silence in the room, the soft patter of rain could be heard and nothing else.  oun D’jir gasped as the first kit approached the opening to his body through the birth canal.  He closed his eyes and pushed.  After a moment, he felt someone take his hand and he gazed up at an unfamiliar oun Shi’ehl.  The oun Shi’ehl gazed upon him with such sereness and kindness that oun D’jir gasped.

             He swallowed.  “What is your name?”

            “oun Shamisj, oun D’jir,” the oun Shi’ehl murmured and stroke the back of oun D’jir’s hand.

            oun D’jir pushed hard and howled as he expelled the first kit.  

            The congregation mewled in greeting and watched avidly as the small kit, no more than the length of a hand, began its inexorable journey over the woven landscape of the pallet towards the pouch where it would live, affixed to a teat, for a few weeks more.  The Sha’jeen could not assist the kit.  The drive to live would assist the kit.  As oun D’jir struggled to expel the second kit, he watched nervously as the first kit stopped to pant in exhaustion before continuing to crawl along the pallet, drawn by its parent’s scent and the scent of milk from the pouch.

            oun D’jir expelled the second kit as the first kit reached the fur of his pouch and pulled itself along until it tumbled into the warm pouch and disappeared from sight.  oun D’jir closed his eyes and concentrating on feeling the kit move about against his skin and affix itself to a teat.  He huffed with relief and opened his eyes to watch the second kit.  The second kit stopped to rest as oun D’jir was filled with the overwhelming desire to push.  He panted and pushed until the third kit tumbled out with its mucus and excretions.  The tiny kit gave a mewl and the oun Shi’ehl gasped.  The kit paused, tiny head lifted as it sniffed the air, before taking its first shaking steps.

            The births came fast, as was necessary to a warrior race.  The kits took an average of a quarter of an hour to make the long journey to their parent’s pouch.  The last one, though, once expelled, lay quiescent for a few minutes until oun D’jir was sure it had been born dead. He mewled a question and the tiny head popped up.  Soon, the little runt was unsteadily making its way over the woven fabric of the pallet towards where oun D’jir lay.  oun D’jir saw its tiny red tongue as the kit stopped to pant from its exertion.  It stopped, its tiny paws on oun D’jir’s fur before it hauled itself up the outside of the pouch to the lip and then through into the interior of the pouch.  oun D’jir closed his eyes and concentrated on willing his kit to find its teat.  When the runt found the teat and latched on with surprising fierceness, oun D’jir opened his eyes and howled in triumph.

            The oun Shi’ehli pounded the floor with their fists as oun Shamisj dipped a cloth into the warm water soapy with detergent and gently wiped oun D’jir’s sex clean, then the outside of his pouch, and finally the pallet clean of mucus and other excretions.  oun Shamisj covered oun D’jir with a blanket and sat serenely facing the rest of the congregation.

            oun D’jir sighed.  “Tell them.”

            oun Shamijs bowed and stood, striding to the door, and throwing it open.

            “oun D’jir’s kits number six!  They are alive!”

            The yowls from the rest of the people filled the afternoon, thrumming through the temple and drowning out the sounds of the rain.

            “Hau! Hau! Hau!  Long live the High Priest!” the crowd chanted.

            oun D’jir closed his eyes and felt as the kits kneaded the teats to release milk.  His exhaustion would be taken care of with some sleep.  There was so much to do, his head swirled with it all.  He distantly heard as the oun Shi’ehli left the temple to return to their chores.  

            oun D’jir struggled awake.  He noticed oun Shamisj had remained.

            oun D’jir grasped his hand.  “Find oun Belihe, oun Tamos, oun Kelzi, and oun Satishe.  They, as well as you, are my priests.  I want them here when I awaken.”

            “Ye, Eminence,” oun Shamisj murmured and rose.

                “oun Shamisj,” oun D’jir murmured.  “Stand watch over me and do not let any other oun Shi’ehli near me.  I fear for my kits.”

                oun Shamisj frowned.  “The God has warned you?”

                “Ye,” oun D’jir replied.  “Betrayal.  Murder.  I dreamed it.”

                oun Shamisj scowled.  “Who, Eminence?”

                “That was not reveal,” oun D’jir assured him.  “Hurry back.  I am vulnerable right now.”

                oun Shamisj bowed.  “I will hurry.”

             oun D’jir  watched as oun Shamisj left the hut.  He struggled to remain awake until the others returned.

Chapter III: Expulsion

            Something woke Toyus from a deep sleep.  He lay still for a few seconds in the hut he shared with his father and Sentinel Sol. He could hear the patter of rain outside the open windows and the breathing of his companions.

            Then movement in the stillness of the hut made him stiffen.

            He felt the heat of a body nearby and wondered at this.  Then he could smell wet pelt.  

            The fire must have gone out.  Or been put out, he thought grimly.

            He closed his eyes and listened to the movement.  It was lightfooted, but Toyus could hear the drag of cloth along the earthen floor.

            His heart clamored in his chest.  He forced himself to relax as the movement drew closer.

            He opened his eyes and realized he could see, albeit in monochrome.  Everything appeared a gritty gray.

            Someone stepped high over him and he twisted up and wrapped his legs around the intruder.  Twisting to the left, he brought the intruder down with a solid thud.

            He heard a hiss.

            The intruder fought savagely, cutting Toyus a couple of times before Toyus incapacitated him.

            “What’s that?” Moyen demanded, sitting up.

            “We have an intruder,” Toyus said.  “Please light the firepit.”

            Sol and Moyen threw wood and dried grasses into the pit and started a fire.

            Toyus shifted.

            The Sha’jeen trundeled up in Toyus’s bedclothes was young, with a silver-gray down and bright blue eyes.  The ears, tipped black, were flat on his head.  He was panting.

            Sol strode to where Toyus held their prisoner and knelt.

            Moyen remained standing by the firepit.

            “oun Nilja,” Sol murmured.  “Why do you come in sneaking through our hut?”

            “Relax,” Toyus told their prisoner.  

            Sol sighed.  “Let him up.”

            Toyus moved to one side, kneeling next to the prone Sha’jeen..

            oun Nilja scrambled to sit and pulled away from the bedclothes.  He stared at Toyus.

            “You–”  He licked his lips.  “You are Sha’jeen?”

            Toyus looked at Sol.  “Am I, Sentinel?”

            Sol shrugged then turned to oun Nilja. “He is changing because of a virus/bacterium that your people introduced to the environment.”        

            oun Nilja’s tail was frantically slapping the earthen floor.  oun Nilja hissed at it before he turned back to Toyus.

            “You…you look Sha’jeen….almost,” he said.  He held a hand out towards Toyus.  “Is this the will of the God?”

            Toyus reached out and took his hand.  “I don’t know.  It is what it is.”

            Toyus felt the Sha’jeen’s soft pelt before he let go the hand.

            “Why have you come to our hut?” Moyen asked.

            “I come to warn you,” oun Nilja said.  “The people are unsure of your presence here.  Some talk of expelling you; others of killing you all.  You must leave.”

            Toyus stood and began to pace.  “Where am I supposed to go?”

            “This is a continent, Toyus,” Sol said.  “You can live on the other side of the mountains.”            

            “I come with you,” oun Nilja stated firmly.

            “But why would you leave your people?” Moyen asked.

            oun Nilja’s gaze did not leave Toyus.  “I come with you.”

            Sol rose.  “It’s a good thing neither Derik or Kaster have left.  Let’s go, all of us.  I would feel better if we were in the shuttle.

            They left the hut with their pallets and bedclothes bundled under their arms.  The rain fell steadily.  Most of the huts were dark.  

            The ground beneath their feet was full of puddles and mud.  The air was cool and pleasant.

            They made it to the shuttle and Moyen, Sol and oun Nilja hurried up the ramp.

            Toyus was going to climb up the ramp into the shuttle when something struck him on the upper left of his back.  He turned.

            There were three aun Deuili standing in a semicircle a few feet from the shuttle.

            “Human,” one spat.  “You leave and don’t return.”

            Another took a step forward.  “You are wrong, human.  You smell like Sha’jeen, yet are not.  Anathema!”

            He growled and took  step forward.

            “That’s enough,” Sol shouted.  “We are leaving.  Let us go.”

            Toyus set the bedclothes on the ramp and turned back to the three. He felt something hot and sweet rush through his stomach and up his chest. 

            “Toyus,” Sol warned.

            “This is my world,” Toyus spat.  “You are invaders and outsiders.”

            One of the aun Deuili hiss and spat and took thre steps forward. 

            Toyus attacked.

            With a yowl he lunged himself at the aun Deuil who had stepped forward and collided with him, knocking him into a large puddle on the ground.  They rolled around the mud and water, hissing and growling. 

            Toyus snapped at the aun Deuil’s throat, but the Sha’jeen managed to slip his forearm over Toyus’s throat and pushed him off.  The aun Deuil scrambled to his feet, followed closely by Toyus.

            Toyus felt the build up of frustration and grief of the past months and attacked again.  He managed to put his hands on the aun Deuil’s arms and tried to knock him to the ground.  The aun Deuil pushed back with equal strength until they were locked in place.

            In the next moment, Toyus heard and felt a loud shirr and a ball of light exploded against a nearby puddle, evaporating the muddy water.

            Toyus and the aun Deuil turned as one to Sol, who stilll stood on the ramp, his right fist, the fist that was artificial, pointing towards them. Lights flicked along the knuckles and smoke rose every time a drop of rain hit them.

            “That’s enough,” Sol shouted. “Come into the shuttle, Toyus.”

            Toyus eyed the aun Deuil and spat at his feet.

             He went up the ramp backwards, favoring his left leg.  

            The Sha’jeen did not threaten any more.

            Once inside, Sol retracted the ramp and then told Toyus to sit down.

            “We’re leaving now,” he said.  “Where is oun D’jir?”

            oun Nilja shifted in his seat.  “He has gone into labor.”

            Sol sighed.  “Well.  We will return and see how the colony fares later in the year.”

            “Everyone buckled up?” Derik called from the cockpit.

            “Yes!” Sol replied and sat down across from Toyus and oun Nilja.

            The shuttle shook itself, growling to the night.  The lights in the seating area dimmed.  Then the shuttle was gliding directly up.  Once several feet into the air, it banked east and took off.  Soon, the island was behind them.

            The sun was rising directly ahead.  The skies around the horizon were a soft pink and apricot.  

            The rain continued to fall, even though the skies ahead were fairly clear, except for a few ragged clouds.  Toyus could see whitecaps on the surface of the ocean caused by the winds fueling the storm.

            He sat back and closed his eyes.  

            “What happened, oun Nilja,” he heard Sol asked.  “Why did your people turn on Toyus.”

            “This thing,” the oun Shi’ehl replied.  “This thing he has undergone…it comes from our past.  It is how we evolved.  The people worry that the same may happen to them.  Thousands upon thousands died in our past as a result of the molting.  They fear infection.  Also, this will not only happen to aun Toyus.  It will happen to others, too.  The people don’t want to be polluted by outsiders.  Sha’jeen are very insular.”

            “Indeed,” Sol said wearily.

            “But we are fighting for our survival,” oun Nilja murmured.  “They will become more open once they are more numerous.”

            “I hope so,” Sol replied.  “Because they are going to share a continent with Toyus and all of those like him.”

            Toyus turned to oun Nilja.  “Why did you come with us, oun Shi’ehl?”

            The Sha’jeen seemed to shrink.  “I…I best come with you, aun Toyus.”  He squirmed in his seat.  “I was going to be paired with an aun Deuil not of my preference.  I was supposed to have many kits for the colony.  I am just attained adulthood.”

            The way he looked at Toyus confounded and disturbed him at once.  

            Toyus opened his mouth again.

            “Son,” Moyen said.  “Can I speak with you for a moment?”

            “I’ll be right back,” Toyus told oun Nilja.

            They walked to the back of the cabin and sat down side by side.

            “What is it, Eda?” Toyus asked.

            “The oun Shi’ehl has a bit of a fixation on you, Toyus,” Moyen murmured.  “Don’t look his way.  Listen to me.  These beings are unpredictable.  I don’t want you injured and I don’t want him injured.  Be kind to him, Toyus.  Don’t be needlessly cruel.”

            “Papa, this is not a young woman or man.  We aren’t even the same species!.”

            “That’s enough!” Moyen growled.  “They are intelligent beings and you are no different now from them.  You are becoming like them, Toyus.”

            “Yes, sir,” Toyus replied.  He felt his pelt rise on end with his shame.

            He pushed the sleeve of his shirt back to reveal his golden down and black claws.  His father had a point, but what was he going to do with a Sha’jeen who was possibly in heat?

            “oun Nilja has not brought up the issue of mating,” Moyen continued conversationally.  “He may opt to return to the colony or turn his attention to another of your gender.  You simply don’t know how this will go.”

            “Yes, sir,” Toyus replied.

            “I find the species beautiful,” Moyen said quietly.  “They have honor and integrity.  They are graceful and deadly.  I have a feeling when your changes are done with, you will resemble more their race than mine.”

            Toyus looked away from his father.  

            “It’s like being in a nightmare,” he murmured.

            “It’s how you perceive it,” Moyen replied.  “If you perceive it as an opportunity, then that is what it shall be  Otherwise…then it becomes a nightmare.”

            “An opportunity for what?” Toyus demanded, glaring at him.

            “To grow, to evolve,” Moyen said.  “Did you have lover back home?”

            Toyus blushed.  “No.”

            “Then you are free.”

            “What about you and my siblings and the rest of the family.  Am I not to see them again?”

            Moyen smiled sadly.  “You will create a new family, my son.  I will linger with you until you get sick of me.”

            Toyus placed his hand on his father’s on the seat arm.  “I could never get sick of having you near me, Eda.  I am honored that you have chosen to come with me.”

            Moyen grinned.  “That may change later, when you have a family of your own.”

            “My children should know their grandfather.”

            Moyen patted Toyus’s hand.  “They will know me.”

            Toyus turned away, rested his head against the headrest and closed his eyes.

            He thought of oun Nilja.  Could a mating between them even produce kits?  He felt his face heat.  And how did Sha’jeen mate, anyway?

            No, he thought. I can’t take that step.  It isn’t right.  We’re different species.  And, yet, he was molting into one of them, wasn’t he?  

            He would be a Sha’jeen or something else altogether.

            His heart gave a painful lurch, and he went hot and cold at once.  He found himself panting.

            “What is it, son?” Moyen asked.

            Toyus opened his eyes and looked at his father.  “What if I become something else–something not human, not Sha’jeen?”

            “We will tackle that problem when it presents itself,” his father replied.  

            “But the Sha’jeen must have smelled something in me to cause them to exile me from the colony.”

            Moyen frowned.  “You may have a point.”  He rose.  “I’ll have a few words with the oun Shi’ehl.”

            Toyus watched him stride down the cabin aisle.

Chapter II: Ariahl’s Report

            Ariahl stood next to her fellow Sentinels and bowed to the King of Draemin City, Yvar’h Stait.

            The King resembled his sister, Malida, atlhough he was younger, wider and burly with muscles, where she had been slender and small of stature.  He had her dark hair and amber eyes.  And just as she had been beautiful, he was handsome, although his looks were currently curtailed by a severe scowl.

            “Report,” he growled.

            She bowed again and cleared her throat.  “How much do you wish me to reveal in Court, your Majesty?”

            His scowl deepened.  “I keep no secrets from my people!”

            Warlord Rien Tholten, who stood on the top step of the throne and to the left of the chair, bent and whispered a few words to the King.

            King Yvar’h parted his lips but nodded.

            Warlord Tholten straightened.  “Clear the Court!”

            Guards began to direct people out through the double doors at the front of the room.  The process took close to a quarter of an hour. By then, the King was fit to be tied.            

            He rose from the throne and leapt to the floor, landing smoothly and gracefully.

            He faced Ariehl.  “Now, Sentinel.  Your report.”

            As she spoke, he paced.

            “We’ve discovered the cause of this disease, your Majesty.  We have dubbed it ‘Chimera.'”

            He stopped pacing and turned to face her.  “Chimera?  Goddess forbid, I don’t like the sound of that.”

            Ariahl clasped her hands before her.  “It is a bacterium with a virus at its core.  At first, we thought it was a bacterium, which we could treat with antibacterials, but we know have ascertained that we need to treat the population with a vaccine and antibacterial agents.”

            The King sighed and rubbed his face with his hands.  “This is all nonsensical to me.  What is a bacterium?  What is a virus?”

            Ariahl felt the beginnings of frustration.  They didn’t have time for this!

            Topon stepped forward.  “Your Majesty.  I promise to teach you these terms, but right now we need to give our report and return to the quarantine area.”

            King Yvar’h frowned but nodded.  “Very well, go on.”

            Ariahl nodded.  “Your Majesty, a certain percent of the population of this city is changing due to Chimera.  The organism infects the host’s cells and reproduces.  As it reproduces, it changes the host internally and then externally.  Some hosts die of the symptoms of the infection.  Others have mild symptoms and recover, passing the organism through urine or feces.  The problem, we are sure you can see, is that we don’t know how many people have developed mild symptoms and are infecting others.  Since we didn’t know about this organism from the very start, many of the soldiers who contracted the disease during the invasion unknowingly carried Chimera to their loved ones.  We now have about 100 infected individuals om quarantine.  We don’t know how many more are carriers who don’t show marked symptoms.  This disease travels more slowly than Leptka’s Disease, but it might have greater repercussions.  

            “This is bigger than seven Sentinels.  I feel woefully underprepared to face a pandemic.  We do not have a countermeasure to forestall the spread of the disease and we do not have an antibacterial that is efficacious in this instance.  The antibacterial teas and curatives used by the local denizens have had a measure of success fighting Chimera, but we are unsure if the bacterium can re-infect a person that has been treated with antibacterial teas and medicines.  Upon re-infection, does it grow resistance to the teas and curatives?  We don’t know.  Also, your Majesty, these teas and curatives do not always work. It depends on the person’s health and immune system.

            “The only time the antibacterial teas and curatives seem to have an effect is on hosts that do not succumb to the bacterium’s onslaught.  These individuals have something in their bodies’ immune systems which prevents the virus from attaching to cells and reproducing.    We are taking blood samples from those who are not susceptible to Chimera and examining the blood for clues.  It is woefully slow work.  Mariel has a medical background, so she is in charge of this project.  Ishel is conducting interviews with those who are not susceptible to see if they consume some sort of food substance or live a certain way that allows them to fight off infection.  We may be grasping at straws here. It just may be an inherent ability to fight off disease that allows those not susceptible to overcome Chimera.”

            The King paced in silence for a few minutes.  He sighed.  

            “Surely, this isn’t as grave as you think,” he said.  “100 have become infected, you say?”

            Topon frowned.  “That we know of, your Majesty.”

            The King waved a lazy hand.   “Yes, yes.  But you still have only 100 infected citizens.  I’m not going to frighten the citizenry with stringent quarantine orders if only 100 have become infected.”

            “Your Majesty–” Ariahl began.

            “Silence!  I won’t be gainsaid,” the King spat  “You will bring those 100 citizens to the city hospitals and you will assist and advise the city physicians and healers.  I won’t have the populace alarmed in any way.  Understood?”

            Ariahl took a step forward.  “Your Majesty–“

            “Un.der.stood?!”

            They bowed.  “Yes, your Majesty.”

            The King turned away.  “Dismissed.”

            They said nothing to one another until they returned to camp.  Once in their private tent, Ariahl exploded. That she spoke in Ancient English revealed the depth of her distress.

            “I cannot believe his Majesty!” she yelled, kicking a pallet, and overturning it.

            “Ariahl,” Topon said.

            She turned on him.  “What?!  You can’t possibly agree with him?”

            “I do no such thing,” he retorted.

            Mariel put her hands on Ariahl’s shoulders.  “We are here to support the people of this planet, Captain.  To advise them.  That is all.”

            Ariahl shrugged her hands off.  “Don’t you dare tell me what I already know!”

            “Then act like it,” Ishel stated coldly.  “We are above emotions, Captain.  We need to think clearly and logically in every situation.”

            Ariahl nodded mutely.  “Give me some space.”

            Mariel took a step closer to her.

            Ariahl shook her head.  “No.  Leave me and return to your posts.”

            She waited until they left before tying the tent flap closed.  She turned to face the contents of the tent.  She rubbed her hands together.  The metal hand felt cold.  It was smooth and close to a human hand in looks, save for the circuitry. 

            She went to the gilded mirror Malida had gifted her and unfastened her cloak, allowing it to fall to the floor.  Then she pulled off the man’s shirt and pants and stood before the mirror.  She ran her eyes over her small breasts, her graceful fleshy arm and her belly, neck, and hips.  The rest of her–her right arm and both legs–glinted blue in the low light of the tent.  She ran her hand over her chest and abdomen, over her neck and face and hips.  Then she touched the metal and plastic parts of her.  She ran her eyes over the blinking lights along the metal forearm and the thighs.

            “Am I malfunctioning?” she asked out loud.

            She bent her metal arm and touched two buttons.  At once, the telltale whirr signaled the beginning of a system’s check.

            Ariahl closed her eyes, followed the test down the long line of circuits that connected to the frontal lobe and the base of the neck.  Every circuit beeped with health.  When the test was done, the circuits ran another test on the flesh-and-blood parts of her body.

            Exhaustion. Dehydration.   Recommendation:  rest, nourishment, and fresh water.

            She sighed.

            Slowly, she pulled on her shirt and pants.  

            She sat down slowly on her pallet.  

            “Mother,” she said.  Long dead.  Tell me what to do, Mother!

            They teetered on the brink of disaster.  She could sense it.

            Something very terrible was going on and they were helpless to stop it or even slow it down.

            “I was chosen because I am of strong North African stock,” she told herself.  “Because I am usually unemotional.  So, I must face off with this stupid King unemotionally.  Before he destroys everything.”

            There was a scratch at the tent flap.

            She rose and strode to the flap, untying it.

            She stepped back to allow Mariel to enter.

            “Are you alright?” her second-in-command asked.

            Ariehl cupped Mariel’s cheek.

            Mariel started.

            “I’m sorry,” Ariehl murmured.

            Mariel’s hand covered hers.  “Think nothing of it.”

            They hugged.

            “We’ll reconnoiter when Kaster and Derik return,” she told Mariel.

            Mariel stepped back.  “We need a plan, Ariehl.  This willl end in disaster if we don’t.  But I have to caution, our role is minimal.  It’s supposed to be minimal.  We cannot overstep our bounds.”

            Ariahl sighed.  “Listen, Mariela:  the men and women who gave us a directive are long dead.  Earth might be a pile of rubble, for all we know.  For all we know, the people on this world may be the last representatives of the human race.  We have to discuss this as a unit.”

            She pushed the tent flap to one side to allow Mariel to leave the tent first. 

            She followed.

Part III: Colony Chapter I: Council

         oun D’jir’s arrival on the island created a stir among the people.  Even though he wore his voluminous robes, it was evident to anyone who wanted to know that he carried kits.  His midriff was round and distended, his pouch opening distinct.  His golden fur had grown darker and he carried more weight.  

            As he stepped down the shuttle ramp to the ground, the entire colony went down upon one knee and bowed their heads.  oun D’jir was taken aback, not having expected reverence.  He glanced over his shoulder to Sol, who stood just behind him.  The Sentinel smiled faintly and gave a nod.  oun D’jir turned back to the congregation.

            One of the aun Deuili stood up.  He was tall and burly with muscles.  His down was silver, and his blue eyes took oun D’jir in possessively.

            oun D’jir stiffened.

            The aun Deuil bowed deeply.  “Oun Shi’ehl, welcome to Colony Xema.  I am aun Deuil Sjir’phal.”

            oun D’jir sniffed delicately, parting his mouth to scent the stranger.  He smelled strong and intelligent.  There was no question that he was attractive to oun D’jir, but oun D’jir didn’t appreciate the entitled attitude of the soldier.

            “aun Deuil,” oun D’jir replied cautiously.  His tail flicked behind him, slapping softly against Sol’s thigh.  oun D’jir hissed at the offensive appendage.

            aun Sjir’phal took a step forward.  “May I show you your hut, oun Shi’ehl?”

            oun D’jir looked out into the kneeling people.  “Rise, please.   Where are the oun Shi’ehli?”

            “Here, oun Shi’ehl.”

            oun D’jir ran his eyes over the remainder of his gender.  He gasped.  “How many of you are there?”

            One of the oun Shi’ehli stepped forward.  “We are al-olta, oun Shi’ehl.”

            “Al-olta?” he asked, horrified.  “And the aun Deuili?”

            The oun Shi’ehl sighed.  “Xe-shanstk-shanstk.”

            “I see,” oun D’jir murmured.  “Ie’teina is wise.  We need labor to build our new home.”

            The colony murmured a brief prayer.

            oun D’jir’s ear flicked.  “And the boueli?  What are their numbers?”

            “Unchanged, except for the civil war that killed some olta-olta,” the oun Shi’ehl replied.

            oun D’jir turned back to Sol.  “There are 42 oun Shi’ehli, 110 aun Deuili and some 200 boueli.”  He turned back to the congregation.  “One of the Sentinels is an architect and engineer.  He has come to assist us.”

            “We have all the information we need from the ark records.  We need no assistance from Sk’oit-tu,” aun Sjir’phal spat.

            oun D’jir was slow to turn to him, ears flat against his head.  “You have no say, aun Deuil.  You forget yourself.”

            aun Sjir’phal drew himself to his full height and made himself appear larger.  “Things are different now, oun Shi’ehl.  The Council will be formed of aun Deuil and oun Shi’ehl.”

            oun D’jir felt his tail fluff in surprise and ire.  He narrowed his eyes.  “Then let me make myself clear, aun Sjir’phal.  The Sk’oit-tu are welcome and the engineer will assist us.”

            “Until your kits are born, you have no power,” aun Sjir’phal hissed.

            oun D’jir drew himself up.  “Would you like to battle?”

            The people rose as one to their feet.  Shouts filled the air.

            An aun Deuil stepped forward.  “There will be no actions taken; nothing that may cause harm to the kits.  The engineer may assist us, oun Shi’ehl.”

            The people calmed at the words.

            oun D’jir placed a hand on his pelvis.  “My kits are strong. I am always aware of their health and wellbeing.”

            “Praise Ie’teina!” an oun Shi’ehl called out.

            “Praise Ie’teina!” the colony intoned.

            oun D’jir shifted.  “Has the Council been gathered?”

            aun Sjir’phal sighed.  “We waited for your arrival.”

            “Then we will vote for a Council,” oun D’jir replied haughtily.  “Is there a meeting hall?”

            “Ye,” aun Sjir’phal replied.

            “Then let us adjourn and choose a government,” oun D’jir said as if he spoke to a youngling.

            aun Sjir’phal stiffened but sketched a shallow bow.  “This way, oun Shi’ehl.”

            oun D’jir turned to Sol.  “Remain on the shuttle until I return, aun Sol.”

            “Of course.”

            The colony moved as one, parting to allow aun Sjir’phal and oun D’jir to pass, then closing behind them.

            The meeting hall was a large wooden structure with a rounded roof made of soft wood and packed mud covered with thick fronds.  There were windows without shutters.  Inside the wide door was a swept wooden floor and pillows were stacked along the walls.  On the other side of the room were fourteen thick, brilliantly colored pillows.  The smell of mud and wood dust was thick in the room.

            oun D’jir turned to the congregation.  “Sit, please.  We will discuss who will rule.”

            The congregation sat down and oun D’jir sat crosslegged on the floor in front of the room, aun Sjir’phal next to him.

            “Suggestions?” oun D’jir asked.

            “Shanstk percent of each gender,” an aun Deuil shouted.

            oun D’jir huffed a laugh.  “That will put the oun Shi’ehli at a disadvantage.  I propose oi-stok from each gender.”

            aun Sjir’phal shifted and oun D’jir stiffened, expecting conflict.

            “Agreed,” was all aun Sjir’phal said, surprising oun D’jir.

            “How do we choose?” an oun Shi’ehl asked the silence.

            “Games!” two or three said at the same time.

            The congregation hissed with laughter.

            aun Sjir’phal looked around the room.  “The Council will be chosen based on wisdom, equanimity, and a sense of justice.  We do not need physical strength from our rulers.  Games would be most enjoyable, but not for this.”

            Nods of assent from the congregation.

            “I nominate aun Sjir’phal!” an aun Deuil shouted out.  “He led us safely here and has led us with equanimity and wisdom!”

            The congregation pounded the floor with their fists.

            “All in favor, say Ye!” the aun Deuil screamed.

            “Ye!”

            oun D’jir remained quiet.  He glanced at the congregated oun Shi’ehli and met their nervous gazes.  He inclined his head.  They were outnumbered two to one, so they had to fight this battle with cunning and not a show of strength.

            aun Sjir’phal preened and inclined his head.  “I accept the nomination with gratitude.”

            “I nominate oun D’jir!” one of the oun Shi’ehl called out.  “He represents our future.”

            The congregation pounded the floor with their fists.  “Ye!”

            aun Sjir’phal inclined his head.  “Agreed.  Now, I will nominate an aun Deuil and oun D’jir will nominate an oun Shi’ehl.  The colony will accept our choice or supply an alternative.”

            “Ye!” the colony cried as one.

            “Then I nominate aun P’ata’lyh,” aun Sjir’phal said.  “He led the revolt on his ark with minimal bloodshed.”

            oun D’jir stiffened but said nothing as the aun Deuili assented.  He felt helpless and distressed.  aun Sjir’phal would choose progressives and disenchanted aun Deuili who would change the laws and everything holy.  He thought hard.  If he chose only traditionalists nothing would get done.  They would be seven against seven and only stalemates would be created, but he wanted at least three stolid, traditionalist voices in the Council. Coming to a decision, he named a traditionalist.

            “I choose oun Enobia,” oun D’jir murmured.

            “A traditionalist?” aun Sjir’phal challenged.

            “Just so,” oun D’jir replied patiently.  “We need a connection to the past, even as we move forward into the future.”

            aun Sjir’phal raised an eyebrow but inclined his head.  “Just so.”

            Hours later, they had chosen the fourteen Council members.  Three were traditionalist, not including oun D’jir.  He felt comforted that there would be four traditionalist voices in the Council.

            aun Sjir’phal rose.  “Councilors!  As I call your name, rise and take a place at the fore of the room!”

            aun Sjir’phal walked to the fore of the room and knelt on a pillow at the edge of the semicircle of pillows.  “oun D’jir!”

            The congregation pounded the floor with their fists as oun D’jir rose and took his place beside aun Sjir’phal.

            “aun P’ata’lyh!”

            “oun Enobia!”

            “aun Pasia’h!”

            “oun Serphon!”

            “aun Tefa!”

            “oun Benska!”

            “aun Isolth!”

            “oun Zerta!”

            “aun Kaphil!”

            “oun Nilja!”

            “aun Otol’h!”

            “oun Safahn!”

            Once all the Council was seated at in a semicircle, aun Sjir’phal rose.  “We present the Council of Colony Xema:  the past and the future!”

            “Hau! hau! hau!” the colony changed, banging their fists on the wooden floor.

            aun Sjir’phal raised both arms to silence the crowd.

            He ran his eyes over the congregation.  “I have begun to form laws for the people.  The Council will adapt the ones everyone can agree upon.  Once the laws have been voted upon, we will present them to the people.  At that point, we will adopt a High Priest and King!”

            “Hau! hau! hau!”

            “Disperse then,” aun Sjir’phal told the people.  “Return to work now.”

            The people shuffled out of the room, closing the door of the hut when the last one exited.

            “You have begun the laws?” oun D’jir asked into the utter silence created by the vacating of the hut.

            “Ye,” aun Sjir’phal replied.  He parted his robes and pulled out a thin tome.  “I have written the laws here. I will read them to you, and you will vote.”

            oun D’jir listened with growing alarm as aun Sjir’phal announced the new roles for each gender.  When aun Sjir’phal read the new roles for the nieh boueli, he rose with a hiss.

            “You mean to educate the nieh boueli?” he demanded.

            aun Sjir’phal inclined his head.  “Ye.  They will have the roles of educators and clerics to the High Priest–“

            “So I heard you,” oun D’jir spat.  “Do you think that is wise?”

            “Oppression causes discontent and possible revolt,” aun Sjir’phal intoned.

            oun D’jir rolled his eyes at the tired saying.  “The boueli have never revolted!”

            “Not on the arks,” aun Sjir’phal stated.  “It might be different on a planet.”

            oun Benska shifted.  “How so?”

            “There has been precedence in the past,” oun D’jir replied with reluctance.  “In our deep past.”

            “I see,” oun Benska said.

            “The God Ie’teina is a just God,” aun Sjir’phal told them.  “It will not sit well with the God to behave unjustly.  To that end, we will refer to the boueli as ieh boueli.”

            “‘Ieh’ has no meaning in our language!” oun Serphon huffed dismissively.

            “It will take on meaning with use and time,” aun Sjir’phal replied patiently.

            “So the nie– the ieh boueli will be taught to read and write and given new roles,” oun D’jir said.  “What of the genders?”

            aun Sjir’phal read from his tome.  “The aun Deuili will have the roles of protectors, governors, merchants, farmers, traders, hunters, smiths, and animal husbands.”

            oun D’jir inclined his head.  “That is in keeping with their strengths and abilities.  And the oun Shi’ehli?”

            aun Sjir’phal locked glances with aun Pasia’h before returning his gaze to oun D’jir.  “The oun Shi’ehl’s roles will now include that of diplomat, courtier, ambassador, nurturer, home keeper, High Priest and King.”

            The traditionalist among them began shouting as one.

            oun D’jir held up a hand to silence them.  “One at a time:  why do you oppose these roles?”

            “We are not meant to work!” oun Enobia huffed.  “We are meant to rule!”

            “And we shall,” oun D’jir agreed.  “One of our numbers will be king.”  He took in a deep, bracing breath.  “We should contribute to the the colony.  It is shameful, how we’ve behaved in the past–“

            “You are a traditionalist!” oun Benska hissed.

            oun D’jir’s lips quirked.  “Apparently not as much as I thought.”  He hissed.  “I agree with these roles.  You are outnumbered, oun Benska, oun Serphon, oun Enobia.  It will add meaning to our lives to work for a change.”

            aun Sjir’phal looked with admiration at oun D’jir before dropping his gaze to the tome.  “All Sha’jeen homes will have an altar to Ie’teina.  There will be a prayer hall as well for a weekly congregation.  A candle will be lit each morning and incense will be burned.  All Sha’jeen will pray upon rising and upon lying down to bed at night.”

            “The rituals are to be formed by the High Priest!” oun Enobia hissed.

            oun D’jir was so shocked, he was unable to speak for a few minutes.  He wrapped his distressed tail tightly around his waist.  “We will leave off rituals until the High Priest is chosen.”

            aun Sjir’phal looked like he would protest, but then he inclined his head.  “Very well.”

            oun D’jir released a breath and rubbed his thighs soothingly to calm himself.  “We will create the civic laws.”  He stood and stretched.  “But we will adjourn, for it grows late.  Tomorrow we adjourn once more on the morrow to create the civic laws. Agreed?”

            The members of the Council acquiesced and oun D’jir turned to stalk from the hut.  He was parched and hungry.

            Rain fell gently onto the canopy of the nearby trees.  The pattering sound, combined with the smell of wet earth, filled oun D’jir with an odd mixture of comfort and strangeness.  He had been born in a sterile and artificial environment.  He stood in the middle of the colony and lifted his face to the sky.  Thunder rumbled in the distance.  The rain clung in droplets to his fur.

            “oun D’jir.”

            oun D’jir stiffened and sighed.  He turned with reluctance to face aun Sjir’phal.

            “I’m sorry if I offended,” the aun Deuil stated quietly.

            oun D’jir did not reply but inclined his head.

            aun Sjir’phal shifted uncertainly.  “I…I would like to court you.”

            oun D’jir reeled back as if struck.  “What?”

            “I would like to court you, aun Shi’ehl.”

            “And if I refuse your courtship?” oun D’jir spat.

            “I will court you, oun D’jir,” aun Sjir’phal stated blandly.  “In the end, you will succumb to me.”

            oun D’jir hissed with laughter.  He raked his gaze over the aun Deuil, hating that the soldier’s confidence and physical beauty pulled on his interest.

            “Then court away, aun Deuil,” oun D’jir huffed.  “We’ll see what happens.”

            He spun around, intent on putting as much distance as he could between himself and aun Sjir’phal as he could.