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.

Chapter XI: Report

            Moyen sat at the edge of Toyus’ bed. The boy was thin, having had nothing but broths and sometimes unable to keep those down.  His head was as a skull, all sharp edges and lines.  His hair, oily from days upon days of no washing or brushing, lay plastered to his head.  Kaster and Topon had developed a serum of some sort that was seemingly helping the boy fight the infection, but still the areas where he had been burned emitted heat and were red and angry against the pallidity of his flesh.  It had been nearly a week since Malida’s funeral and, in another week, he would leave Draemin City behind.  It was only when he was at his eldest son’s bedside that he felt unsure about his decision to leave the city.

            “Eda.”

            Moyen started, wiping at his cheek with a cold, unsteady hand.

            Toyus was awake, watching him with steady, fever bright eyes.

            “Hallo, son,” Moyen said quietly.

            Toyus gave him a flickering grin.  “How are you, Eda?”

            Moyen took his son’s remaining hand in both of his.  “I am well enough, boy.  Well enough.  How do you feel?”

            Toyus coughed, a wet thick sound that worried Moyen deeply.  He struggled to sit up and Moyen helped him, patting his back to dislodge the phlegm in his lungs.  He held the boy tight, closing his eyes against the wave of sorrow that threatened to undo him. I must be strong, damn it, he thought and steeled himself.  Once Toyus coughing fit had passed, he helped is son lie down once more.  

            Toyus sighed and closed his eyes.  “Why can’t I get better or just die?”

            Moyen’s heart broke.  “I don’t know what Atana is doing with you, boy.  I’m sorry.”

            Toyus squeezed his hand.  “It’s not your fault, Eda.”

            He let go of Moyen’s hand and wiped the corner of his mouth.  His fingers came away red with blood.

            Moyen swallowed past the boulder lodged in his throat.  

            The door to the bedroom opened.

            “How are you, Toyus?” Kaster asked.

            Toyus grimaced.  “I’m dancing jigs over here, Sentinel.”

            Kaster sat down on the stool near the bed.  “I’ve modified the serum, Toyus.  The new strain shows promise.”

            Toyus rolled his eyes.  “Excuse me if I have little hope, doctor.”

            Sol stepped through the door.  “You’re up, Toyus.”

            Toyus’ face suffused with blood and he dropped his gaze.  “I am.”

            Moyen wondered at his son’s reactions but said nothing as Kaster made him move so he could examine Toyus.  He stood next to Sol and watched as the doctor listened to Toyus’ heart and lungs and examined his burns.  With a sigh, the Sentinel rose and turned to them.  

            “I will administer the serum via injection,” he told them.  “I will return.”

            “No,” Toyus said firmly.

            Kaster turned.  “What?”

            “I said no,” Toyus said.  “If the infection kills me, then so be it.  Your serum is making me feel worse, Kaster.”

            “That may be the battle being fought at the cellular level–”    

            Toyus looked at his father.  “Eda, please–“

            Moyen took in his son’s pale, skeletal features and too-bright eyes.  He took in the pleading in the depths of those green eyes.

            He sighed.  “I’ll support my son in this request, Sentinel Kaster.”

            “I protest!  I’m his doctor–“

            “And you are in my employ,” Moyen retorted.  “You may monitor his wellbeing, but you won’t inject any more serums or any more medicinals.”

            Kaster helplessly looked at Sol.

            Sol sighed and shrugged.  “We have to respect their wishes, Kaster.”

            Kaster said something too soft to hear and stomped from the room.

            Sol gave Moyen an uncertain smile.  “I’m sorry.  He’s the most stubborn of us.”

            “It’s not your fault, Sentinel,” Moyen murmured.

            There was a knock upon the door and a guard stepped into the room.  “Warlord Rien is here to see you, Lord Ekesj.”

            Moyen nodded at the soldier.  “Very good.  I’ll be right out.”  He turned to Sol.  “Keep him company, will you?”

            Sol nodded.  “Of course, sir.”

            Moyen closed the bedroom door behind him and walked to where Rien stood leaning against the fireplace mantle.  

            They looked at one another.

            “I’ve news,” Rien said without preamble when the guard had exited the room and closed the hallway door behind him.

            “Ey?”

            “Sit,” Rien told him.

            Moyen sat down.  “What is the news?”

            “We’ve killed Lord Ethael and his younger son and confiscated their territories for the crown. The King will gift it to one or more of your children when they marry.”

            Moyen nodded.  “Did Lord Ethael know what Othol was planning?”

            “He swore up and down that he had not known Othol meant to kill the alien or your wife, my friend.  Except he was lying through his teeth.  We found letters Othol had sent to him while he was on the run.  He may not have helped Othol but he did nothing to warn you or the king.”

            Moyen swore softly.  “How did he die?”

            “Lord Ethael and his younger son were drawn and quartered, sir,” Rien told him without emotion.

            “Good,” Moyen said.  “And his wife and daughters?”

            “His wife threw herself from the battlements of Kuin-on-the-H’aj Castle, sir.”

            “I see,” Moyen murmured and closed his eyes against the nausea that rose in him.  “And the daughters?”        

            “They are married and live in other households, sir,” Rien replied.  

            “Leave them be then,” Moyen told his friend.

            “Yes, sir.”  Rien shifted and glanced at the closed bedroom door.  He heard voices from within.

            “What is it?” Moyen asked.

            Rien sat down next to him and lowered his voice.  “I found out what you tasked me to find.”

            Moyen glanced at the bedroom door and nodded.  “Go on.”

            Rien took in a deep breath and released it promptly.  “I…I don’t know know how to say this thing to you, friend.”

            The stomach dropped out of Moyen’s middle, leaving him feeling lightheaded and dislocated.

            “Is my son going to die?” he heard himself ask from a great distance.

            “Most likely not,” he heard Rien say.  “That’s not the issue.”

            Moyen felt relief and anxiety flood him as one.  He clasped his hands together and took a deep, cleansing breath.  “Then what is the issue?”

            Rien’s glance flicked away then returned anxiously.  “He’s changing.”

            “He?”

            “Toyus.”

            “Changing how?”

            The door to the bedroom opened and Sol stepped through.  “I can tell you, since your spy has already discerned it.”  

            Sol looked over his shoulder and closed the door behind him.  “He sleeps.”

            They watched him stride to the fireplace and lean against the mantle.

            “Well?” Moyen demanded.

            Sol nodded.  “He’s changing physiologically.  On a cellular level.”

            Moyen rose, frowning.  “What does that even mean?”

            “The bacteria attacking your son are something the likes of which we have never encountered.  In some ways, it acts like a virus.  It is fusing with his cells and changing your son into something else,” Sol said.  “We don’t know what because we don’t understand this bacterium.”

            The breath left Moyen’s lungs with a whoosh.  One minute he was standing, the next he was sitting with his head between his knees, gulping air.

            Rien gently patted Moyen’s back.  “Breathe, my lord.”

            Moyen breathed deeply, in and out slowly.  Eventually, the dizziness passed, and he was able to sit up.

            “I want to transport him to the colony,” Moyen said.  “I don’t want him here, isolated.  I want him with me.”

            “That is a good idea,” Sol replied.  He placed a hand on Moyen’s shoulder and squeezed.

            Moyen pushed his hand away. “Why would you not tell me anything of this?”

            Sol sighed.  “I was ordered not to, my lord.  Besides, what could you have done for him that we can’t?”

            Moyen grimaced.  “Nothing.”

            “Precisely, my lord.”  

            The Sentinel walked to the window and pressed his forehead to the thick glass.  Beyond the glass, snow swirled in the strong wind.  The wind moaned and rattled the windows.

            “Maybe the Sha’jeen can help him,” Moyen said into the silence.

            “They are not as advanced as the Sentinels in medicine,” Sol replied quietly.  “They were on their way to cultural degeneration.  They have lost most of their scientific and medicinal abilities.”

            “But you have not,” Moyen accused him.  “But still you can’t help him!”

            “We are doing everything in our power and knowledge, my lord,” the Sentinel said with conviction.  “But this bacterium…it is strange.  We can’t get a handle on it before it mutates, almost as if it knows we are observing it!”

            Moyen rose wearily to his feet.  “I am to bed. I can’t speak of this anymore. We will take Toyus to the island and I will ask the Sha’jeen to help him.  I lose nothing in trying.”

            He strode from the room.

***

            Six days later, Moyen pulled his kamarani cloak about his shoulders and bent to pick up his travel bag.

            “Eda?”

            Moyen picked up the bag and turned.  His remaining children stood just inside his bedroom door.

            “You came to see me off?” he asked with forced cheerfulness.

            Pren took a step closer.  “Why are you leaving, Eda?”

            “I already explained that I need space from the city until I can grieve your mother’s passing,” Moyen told the boy.  “I am leaving you in the King’s care.  Finish your schooling and then the Queen will find you spouses.”

            He walked past them, and they followed him to the sitting room.

            “Why must you take Toyus with you?” Emeida demanded, running to overtake him then standing in his way.

            “Move, girl,” Moyen growled.  “I already told you:  Toyus will die if we don’t get him help.  Only the Sha’jeen can help him now.”

            He pushed past her and strode into the sitting room.

            oun D’jir stood next to Rien and Sol and Kaster.  Both Sentinels were coming with them.

            “When will you return, Father?” Itina piped up.

            He sighed and turned to her.  “That I cannot tell you, girl.  Once I am emotionally strong enough, I will return.”

            Soena gathered a sobbing Itina into her arms.

            Moyen turned away, heart breaking.  “Shall we head out?”

            “Derik is already in the shuttle,” Sol told him.  “The Sha’jeen will need the assistance of a good engineer.”

            They strode down the long hallway to the northeastern stairwell.  Five guards led the procession and five more brought up the rear.  

            The shuttle had landed on the north side of the vast bailey, taking up most of the space.  They made their way in the softly falling snow, heading north from the Great Hall entrance.  When they reached the shuttle, they found a crowd of soldiers studying it with curiosity and some trepidation.

            “You have to leave the area once we start the engines,” Kaster told the crowd.  “Or the heat from the engines will fry you to a crisp.”

            The muttering soldiers moved several feet away.

            Moyen walked up the ramp into the main cabin of the shuttle.  The shuttle was as big as a house, with two stories, three stairwells, a cockpit, and a storage area in the back.  

            “Sit down and fasten your seat belts,” Sol told Moyen and Rien.  “If you sit next to a window, you’ll see the land fall below you.”

            Rien took a seat next to Moyen.  “I’m not ready to see the land fall below me.”

            Sol grinned and fastened their seat belts, showing them how to unfasten them.  He then stowed their travel bags in an overhead compartment and snapped it shut.

            “How long is the journey?” Rien asked the Sentinel.

            “Fourteen hours and some minutes,” the Sentinel replied.  “Once we are in the air, you may move around the main cabin.  I’ll be sitting next to Toyus’ cot.”

            When the Sentinel walked away, Rien turned to Moyen.

            “This will be interesting.  Fourteen hours, ey? Seems amazing.”

            “Yes,” Moyen agreed.  “It would take us most of the year, if not all, to find this island.”

            There was a hum and then the shuttle shook itself like some great beast awakening.  The inside of the beast vibrated.  The vibrations increased as Kaster closed the main shuttle door and found his way to the cockpit.  Both he and Derik were flying the shuttle.  After a few minutes, Derik’s voice came over the speakers in the main cabin.

            “Everyone, make sure you are strapped in,” he said, following with directions in Sha’jeen.  “The flight will take a little over fourteen hours at medium speed.  Sol will give you refreshments once we are in the air.  Have a good flight.”

            Moyen was about to say something to Rien when the shuttle gave a lurch and increased its vibrations until nothing could be heard above the sound of the engines.  Slowly, the shuttle rose into the air, leaving the bailey below.  Fascinated, Moyen pressed his forehead to the glass window and watched Draemin Castle grow small below them.  They rose high into the clouds and higher until they rose above the clouds and into a bright blue sky.  Moyen gasped.

            “Look!” he told Rien.  “The clouds are below us!”

            Rien looked green.  He swallowed convulsively.  He closed his eyes and took a deep breath.

            Sol was there with a bag that looked like paper but was lined with something called “plastic.”  Rien vomited into the bag, heaving until there was nothing left in his stomach.

            “Well, thank God it’s early and all you had was tea,” Sol murmured, taking the bag away.

            Rien rested his head back and closed his eyes.

            Moyen wanted to tease him, but Rien’s distress was so palpable, he decided not to.  Instead, he lost himself in the sight of the clouds below them.

            After a few minutes, Rien began to snore softly.  

            Moyen unbuckled his seat belt and rose, climbing over Rien’s legs and headed back to where Toyus’ bunk had been positioned between the rows of seats.  Toyus was talking softly to oun D’jir.

            The Sha’jeen glanced up as Moyen approached.  He rose and bowed.

            “aun Moyen.”

            Moyen bowed.  “oun D’jir.  How is my son?”

            oun D’jir sat down again.  “He is better.  He smells as if he is on the mend.”  He cocked his head.  “May I speak with you in private, aun Moyen?”

            “Of course,” Moyen replied and glanced at his son, but Toyus was sleeping, dark smudges under his sooty eyelashes.

            Moyen chose a seat on the other side of where Rien slept.  He sat next to the window and oun D’jir slid into the seat next to him.

            “What do you wish to speak about?” Moyen asked.

            The Sha’jeen’s tail flicked, slapping the back of the seat in front of them.  “I…your son no longer smells human, aun Moyen.”

            “How does he smell?” Moyen asked.

            The Sha’jeen shook his head slowly and closed his eyes.  He lifted his face and sniffed the closed air of the shuttle.  “Something familiar, yet so distant in our past.  I cannot name it, aun Moyen.”  He opened his beautiful blue eyes and blinked slowly, the tip of his tongue showing through his lips.  “It smells like our past.  That is all I can say.  Perhaps someone else will recognize it once we reach the island.”

            “Perhaps,” Moyen conceded.  “Does he smell dangerous to you?”

            oun D’jir closed his eyes again and sniffed the air.  “Perhaps.  Something in me is wary, that is why I keep close to him.”

            “Perhaps it is not a good idea to bring him to your colony, oun Shi’ehl.”

            oun D’jir hissed his amusement.  “We can deal with your son, whatever it is he molts to become.”  He sobered.  “You know, once upon a time, that is how we behaved.  We had a time during our evolution when we were different, we became warriors or breeders, depending on the needs of the people.  It manifested itself like an infection of sorts and then we changed.  The molting did not serve the species and eventually it no longer presented itself.  Many died in the process of molting, aun human.  We evolved into being born one sex or the other, but in the beginning, we became according to the needs of the people.  If there were too few kits, too few people, we molted into Shi’ehl.  If there were too many kits, too many people, we molted into boueli or Deuil.”

            “Many died, you say?”        

            “Ye,” oun D’jir replied.  “The molting was too traumatic.  The body would go into shock and many died.  Too few survived.”

            “Could this be happening to my son?” he asked.

            “I don’t know,” the Sha’jeen replied a tad mournfully.

            Moyen sighed.  “I suppose we will find out soon enough.”

            “Ye,” oun D’jir said.

Chapter X: Remembering

            The dead Queen was paraded through the streets of Draemin City.  Most of those who came to watch her pass were poor.  She lay behind a thick glass coffin, looking serene, poised, and beautiful, her hands placed one on top of the other on her chest.  She wore the deep green satin gown she had been crowned in.  A circlet of gold and jewels encircled her head.  Her hair was arranged on top of her head.  Her feet were bare, as she had preferred while alive.  

            Moyen rode his bahil beside the coffin, his hand on the thick, cold glass.  The procession moved slowly through the crowded streets.  He listlessly lifted his eyes and saw many of the citizens openly weeping.  It filled his heart and soul with warmth.  The coffin was followed by two gorgeous carriages filled with Malida’s family, including her children.  All but Toyus, who still hung in the balance between life and death.  

            Moyen wanted to die.  His life stretched out before him, long and lonely.  He knew he would do nothing, though.  Not until the kingdom was safe.  He sighed and turned his head to face forward.  The boulevard stretched out for sepek upon sepek, ending at Draemin Castle, where they would slide Malida’s coffin into the waiting crypt.  

            Around the coffin, the Sentinels rode bahil, heads held high, faces marred by sorrow or shock.  oun D’jir rode a lirtah, for he was too large to ride the smaller bahil.  He wore flowing robes, the cowl of the robes over his head and head bent in mourning.  His tail was wrapped around his waist as if he were hugging himself.  Moyen was daily awed at the depths of affection the Sha’jeen showed towards them all.  He had expected heartless, cruel beings, but that is not how it was turning out.  Perhaps the fact that oun D’jir carried kits had done much to soften him to others.  Moyen was unsure.  Yes, they could communicate, but the nuances of each specie’s emotions still eluded them.  Sha’jeen and humans were much alike but also quite different.  

            Perhaps Moyen would ask permission to follow oun D’jir to the colony and live there for a while, learning of their culture and ways.  The entire city of Draemin was filled with memories of Malida and Moyen was not sure he could live here with her ghost.  He could make a pilgrimage to the city once a year and visit her sepulchre.  He sighed.  His children would protest, but he needed to heal from the loss of his wife, and he already knew he could not do so here.

            The procession took up most of the day.  By the time the wagon bearing the coffin rattled over the moat bridge, Moyen was parched and aching from being on a saddle for hours on end.  

            The wagon came to a stop before the entrance to the castle.  Moyen groaned as he dismounted, stretching his lower back to ease the tightness there.  

            Six burly guards took hold of Malida’s heavy coffin and bore her into the castle.  The double doorway leading to the crypt was situated to the left of the grand foyer.  Numbly, Moyen followed the coffin.  They passed through the double doors and down the wide stairwell into the dimness of the catacombs.  Malida’s resting place lay open, waiting for the coffin.  The gold arching hatch closing the resting place would be soldered shut, the body safe from grave robbers and looting.  

            His children clung together, while Moyen stood to one side with Malida’s brothers and their families.  The only one not present was Malida’s younger sister, Sjona, who now lived in a monastery in South Torahn.

            Itina hurried to where Moyen stood and wrapped her slender arms around his waist.  She clung to him, sobbing.  He gently rubbed her back and cooed to her nonsense words like he had done when she was still a babe in arms.

            “Becalm yourself, daughter,” he murmured.  “We will pray your mother has been reborn to a kinder life.”

            Itina pulled back and gazed into his eyes.  “I think she will be reborn as one of oun D’jir’s kits, Eda.”

            He smiled indulgently at her and wiped the tears from her pale cheeks.  “Perhaps, my child.  That is beyond our ken. It is with the Goddess.”

            Itina stiffened.  “The Goddess?  And why did the Goddess take aya?”

            He stroked the hair back from her forehead.  “Perhaps the Goddess needed your mother’s warrior spirit for another task, child.  We are not to question the ways of the gods.  We are given life as a gift and only for a finite time.  Don’t forget that.”

            She pulled away from him, her face a mask, and turned to return to her siblings.

            He watched her retreating back, worried.

            oun D’jir came to stand next to Moyen.

            “Her body will remain in the dark?” the Sha’jeen asked quietly.

            “Her spirit is gone,” Moyen replied.  “She won’t know.”

            oun D’jir inclined his head.  “Your ways are strange.”

            “What do the Sha’jeen do?” Moyen asked.

            “Burn the bodies in a furnace to release their spirits,” oun D’jir told him.  “But we may have developed that ritual because our arks had a limited amount of space.”  His left ear flicked his impatience.  “I have to go back further into our religious tomes to see what our original burial rituals were.”  He hissed softly.  “There is much to do.”

            Moyen noted that the Sha’jeen’s midriff was rounding as his kits grew in his womb.  Kaster had told him oun D’jir carried six kits, all latched to their teats.  There were ten teats in all and Moyen could not conceive of the amount of energy it would take to carry ten young.  

            His wife’s coffin was placed into its final resting place.  With a sigh, he watched as the golden latch was sealed and then soldered shut.  The entire process took close to two hours.  

            The guards led the procession back upstairs.  The Ekesj family moved as one to Moyen’s suites on the fifth floor.  They sat around the sitting room, sharing stories of Malida’s life, and drinking ekila or mi’disj.  oun D’jir sat next to Moyen, head cocked as Malida’s brothers and their wives shared stories.  Ishel translated everything for the Sha’jeen and sometimes the Sha’jeen would huff or hiss his humor.  

            Servants brought food and water and the family ate as they continued to share stories.

            oun D’jir, plate of raw meat on his lap, turned to Moyen.  

            “How did you and your mate meet?” the Sha’jeen asked.  “Did your scents attract?”

            Moyen’s lips quirked.  “I came to Court from a campaign down at the southern border, against the Isemi.  I had earned honors and came to Draemin City so my Queen could promote me.  My intent was to return to the skirmishes down south.  I am a man of action, oun D’jir.  I don’t like being idle.”

            The Sha’jeen’s ears flicked and he inclined his head.

            “Anyway,” Moyen continued.  “I wore my finest parade uniform and was presented to Queen Malida Ekesj with the others who were being promoted.”  He swallowed thickly upon recalling how beautiful and poised Malida had been that day.  She had worn a gold gown and an emerald-studded crown that made her honey-colored eyes pop.  She had taken his breath away.

            “She was exquisite.  I fell in love with her right then.”

            oun D’jir cocked his head.  “You find attraction visually, I am learning.  Quite fascinating.”

            Moyen smiled at the alien.  “You have mates, oun D’jir?”

            “I”ve had bed mates but no permanent mate,” he replied.  “We were concerned about conceiving and increasing our numbers, so we went with many different mates.”  His tail flicked against the leg of the low table, creating a tapping.  “I never conceived until now.”

            “But now you carry six,” Moyen reminded his friend.  

            “Ye,” oun D’jir huffed.  “Six.”

            Moyen lowered his voice and oun D’jir leaned closer.  “I would like to go with you to your colony, oun Shi’ehl.  I cannot heal from the pain of losing my mate while living here.”

            oun D’jir cocked his head.  “I will ask the Council for permission.  I am no one now, aun human.  You know this.”

            “I have a feeling you are,” Moyen disagreed.  “Yours are the first kits conceived on Audesei.”

            “Oh-deh-see?” oun D’jir pronounced, tail vibrating.

            “That is our name for the world,” Moyen told him.

            oun D’jir took a breath and released it.  “Ahndesu.  We will call the world Ahndesu.”

            “What does the word mean?”  Moyen asked.

            “It is a derivative of ‘oundeso,’ meaning ‘womb.'”

            “That is befitting,” Moyen told his friend.

            oun D’jir flicked his left ear.  “You come with me when I go.  I will ask the Council to allow you to remain until my kits are birthed.  By then, the Sha’jeen will have become used to you.”  He hissed his laughter.

            “Clever oun Shi’ehl,” Moyen praised.

            oun D’jir preened.

            Sol strode to where Moyen and oun D’jir sat side by side and went down upon one knee before them.

            “I am going with you also,” he told them.

            oun D’jir huffed.  “You heard us?”

            “I have enhanced hearing,” Sol stated, as if it were common knowledge.

            “As do we,” oun D’jir commented.  “Why do you wish to come, Sentinel Sol?”

            “I want to learn your ways and your culture and your psychology.”

            oun D’jir cocked his head.  “Sai-co-lo-jee?”

            Sol smiled faintly.  “The way the Sha’jeen think and behave.”

            “Curious,” oun D’jir murmured.  “You come, Sentinel Sol, but the Council has to decide if you can remain.”

            “Of course,” Sol murmured and sat crosslegged at oun D’jir’s feet.

            “Sentinel Kaster says your kits are healthy,” Sol told oun D’jir.

            The Sha’jeen puffed noticeably.  “Healthy, active, competitive already.  I would like at least one oun Shi’ehl.”

            Sol nodded.  “That will probably be the case, oun D’jir.  Your body knows by instinct what it must do.”

            “Ye,” oun D’jir agreed.

            Moyen watched them, a smile on his lips.  Then he recalled Malida was dead and his smile died.  Sorrow crashed upon him like an icy wave.  He sat back and rubbed his eyes, pushing the tears away.  She would have liked to live with the Sha’jeen, learning from them, teaching them, holding younglings.  He would have to tell his children he was leaving, even before Toyus recovered.  He needed to leave for a while.

            “How is Toyus?” he asked Sol.

            “There are signs he is recovering,” Sol told him.  

            The Sentinel was not telling him something and Moyen scowled.  “What is it you’re not telling me, Sentinel?”

            Sol opened and closed his mouth.  Finally, he said, “I am not supposed to say anything.  If you have further questions, you will have to take it up with Ariahl or Mariel.”

            Moyen opened his mouth to protest when he noted a disturbance at the hallway door.

            Warlord Rien Tholten strode through, looked about until his gaze found Moyen.

            Moyen stood up and embraced Rien.

            “I’m sorry for your loss, my friend,” RIen murmured against his ear.  “It is a great loss for our nation.”

            “Yes,” Moyen agreed.  He stepped back from his friend.  “Can we talk for a few minutes?”

            Moyen turned to oun D’jir.  “This is my closest friend, Rien Tholten, oun D’jir.  Rien, this is oun D’jir of the Sha’jeen.”

            oun D’jir rose and bowed.  “An honor, aun Rien Tholten.”

            Rien ran his widened eyes over the Sha’jeen and bowed.  “The honor is mine,” he replied when Moyen translated oun D’jir’s words.

            “Excuse us,” Moyen told oun D’jir and Sol and took Rien’s arm.

            He led Rien out into the hallway and closed the door, leading him down the hall to the curving stairwell.

            “I need you to find out what the Sentinels are keeping from me about Toyus, Rien,” Moyen said without preamble.  “Something is wrong, but they are not telling me what it is.”

            Rien brought his fist to his chest and bowed.  “I will do so, my lord.”

            “I would like you to leave your second-in-command in charge and I want you to lead our small entourage to the Sha’jeen colony.  We are traveling on a shuttle, so the journey will only take a number of hours.”

            Rien cocked his head.  “Sh-shuttle?”

            “The flying wagon,” Moyen replied with some humor.

            “Ah.  Very well,” Rien said, sounding excited.  “I would like to fly and see the aliens up close. They are exquisite beings, aren’t they?”

            Moyen smiled fondly at his friend.  “Your openness and acceptance always surprise me, Rien. You are a good person.”

            They clasped forearms.

            “I’d better start skulking about and finding an answer for you, my friend,” Rien said.  “I’ll report back to you in a couple of days.”

            Moyen nodded.  “We leave within a fortnight for the colony.  Find me the answers by then.”

            “Consider it done, my friend.”

Chapter IX: Desperation

            Othol Ethael pulled the hood of his fur-lined kamarani cloak over his face.  He had been on the run through North Torahn for months, hiding and moving before the assassins could find him.  Now he had come full circle, back to Draemin City with a desperate plan to kidnap the remaining alien and kill it to trigger a war between Malida’s people and the aliens.  This one was a female, so it shouldn’t pose a problem to dispose of her. It didn’t matter to him that she was carrying a child.  Even better, he thought with a snort.  

            He kept his head down as he moved through the throngs of people, walking quickly towards Queen’s Park.  He knew of several little used doors into the castle.  All he had to do was remain hidden within the crowd.  With so many entering and leaving the castle, he would not be stopped or questioned.  He felt sure of that.

            When he came to a particularly thick crowd, he lingered at the back, two or so feet from them.  They pulled small wagons filled with goods for the castle.  He half listened to their idle chatter about the aliens, the Sentinels and Goddess-damned Malida Ekesj, who would probably be canonized if he did not act quickly and destroyed her.  The crowd chattered on as they made their way under the canopy of Queen’s Park and then onto the moat bridge.  The guards waved them through after examining the contents of the wagons.  Othol smirked and walked into the bailey.  From there, he separated from the group and headed north towards a little-used servants’ entryway.  Once he found it, he looked around, but there was no one nearby.  He turned the iron handle.  The iron handle groaned before the door opened inward.  

            Othol stepped inside and grimaced.  The stairwell smelled of dust, must and mold.  He closed the door behind him and, hand on the rough stone walls, made his way carefully up the stairs to the fifth floor.  Once he reached the top floor, he opened the door and stepped out into a deserted hallway.  He knew where the King’s suites were, but he had no idea where the alien was being kept.  Pushing back the hood of his cloak, he hoped his full beard was enough to disguise him.  He hated it with a passion, but it had become necessary to grow it out.      

            Making his way to an adjoining hallway, he hailed a passing servant and asked her where the alien was, for he had a message from the Sentinels. Without a blink the girl blurted out the location of the suite.  He refrained from smirking and watched her hurry away.  He made his way to the servants’ hallway and entered the suites, following the sound of voices to the sitting room. He peered through the door which stood ajar.  He grimaced.  Only Malida and a tall, catlike being.  Well, he thought it looked catlike, but that was only because it had a tail and sharp little ears that swiveled at every sound.  Oh, and the eyes.  The alien turned to where he hid.

            Othol stepped into the room.

            Malida turned with a frown.  “Who are you?”

            “You don’t recognize me, Malida?” Othol purred, fighting the hatred that filled his veins.

            She gasped.  “Othol!”

            He gave her a mocking bow.  “Even so.”

            “What do you want?” she demanded.

            He gave her a shrug.  “That is not your concern.”  He kept his eyes on the alien.  It stood with head cocked, taller than he was and slender, with a golden down over its entire body and a flowing gown that hid most of its body.  Fangs peeked from the upper lip.  He was fascinated, but now that he looked at its height and the cruel curve of its black claws, he very well knew he would not be able to kill it, female or not.  

            He withdrew his dagger from its sheath.  “Well, Malida.  I think I can’t achieve what I came to do, but plans change sometimes, you know?”

            Aiming at Malida, he threw, embedding the dagger into her chest.

            She gasped and fell.

            The alien hissed and Othol turned.  Suddenly, before he could react, it was in front of him.  He made a sound that turned into a gurgle.  He reached up to his throat and felt the gaping slash.  His hands came away sticky with blood.  He gazed without comprehension at the alien before it turned in a lazy circle and slashed Othol’s midriff using a leg.  Othol watched in horror as his innards spilled to the stone floor.  He fell to the ground. As he lay on his side, the alien stalked to where Malida lay and lifted her gently against its chest.  It howled and mewled.

            A moment later guards rushed in, weapons out. They glanced at the alien, at Malida in its arms and then their eyes found him.

            “Go find a Sentinel,” one of the guards growled at the other.

            The guard rushed away.

            The guard walked around the alien and Malida and leaned over Othol’s form.  He gasped.

            “Lord Ethael?”

            Othol said nothing.  He was so cold, his teeth began to chatter.  Right behind the cold came the unbearable pain and then his eyes grew dim.  His vision began to narrow until it was a point in the distance.  Around him, he could hear frantic movement and gasps.  Othol let go and succumbed to his wounds.

***

            “Mama!” Emeida screamed and knelt down next to aun D’jir.  She looked into the alien’s beautiful eyes, which were completely blue, sclera and all, except for the oval irises, which were black.  “What happened, oun Shi’ehl?”

            oun D’jir indicated the fallen form with a guard near it.  “The man threw the weapon and it embedded in her chest.  I killed the man.”

            Kaster stalked through the hallway door.  He hurried to where Malida lay in D’jir’s arms.  He gently took the queen in his arms and lifted her up.

            “Where are you taking oun Malida?” oun D’jir demanded.

            “Hospital room,” he told the Sha’jeen.  “You may come, oun D’jir.”

            By the time they reached the room designated as a recovery room down the hall, they had an entourage that consisted of Malida’s family and guards.  Soft weeping filled the silence.

            oun D’jir followed closely behind Kaster and watched avidly as the Sentinel lay Malida on a bed.  The dagger embedded in Malida’s chest moved with every breath she took.  D’jir did not like the looks of things.

            “Bring an empathic healer,” Kaster barked.

            Pren turned and ran down the hallway.

            Moyen hurried into the room.  “How is she?”

            Kaster grimaced.  “The dagger is embedded in her heart, my lord.  I can’t do anything, but perhaps the empathic healer can.”

            oun D’jir gave a mournful mewl and took Malida’s hand in his.  The hand was icy.

            The healer arrived, Pren at her heels.  A second later another healer hurried inside.

            “You must all leave,” the second healer pronounced.  “We can’t work with distractions.”

            Moyen gently took Malida’s hand from oun D’jir and led the Sha’jeen out of the room into the hallway.

            “You killed the intruder?” Moyen asked the oun Shi’ehl.

           oun  D’jir inclined his head.  “Ye, lord.  I’m sorry if you required him alive.”

            “No,” Moyen replied.  He sighed.  “We’ve been trying to have him assassinated, but he was slippery, that one.”

            They walked to Moyen’s suites and entered the room.  

            “Who was the man?” oun D’jir asked.

            “He was one of Malida’s mates,” Moyen replied.  “He was mad.”

            oun D’jir frowned and hissed.  “I did not sense his threat.  He hid it well.”

            “Othol was very clever,” Moyen agreed.

            oun D’jir sat at the edge of a loveseat and Moyen sat beside him.  

            The children shuffled into the room, followed by some of the Sentinels.

            “What happened?” Itina demanded tearfully.

            “Othol,” Moyen replied with a sigh.  “oun D’jir killed him.”

            “How is Malida?” Ariahl asked.

            Moyen rubbed his cheek.  The stubble made a rasping sound.  “Othol stabbed her in the heart. His aim was true.”

            Itina gasped and fainted.

            Ishel picked her up and lay her on a nearby couch.  

            Moyen stood and went to one of the serving tables and opened a drawer, pulling out a small vial.  He took the vial to where Itina lay unconscious and handed the vial to Ishel.

            “Smelling salts,” he told the Sentinel numbly.

            “Why did Othol Ethael come here?” Topon mused aloud.

            “He wanted to cause trouble,” Moyen replied listlessly.  Numbly, he sat down next to oun D’jir.

            The alien reached a hand and placed it on Moyen’s on his thigh.  “Have faith in Ie’teina.”

            Moyen gave a strangled laugh and nodded.  “Yes, oun Shi’ehl.  You are correct.”

            They sat in that room for hours.  Servants brought food no one touched then took the full platters away.

            Moyen made oun D’jir drink water and then had a plate of raw meat brought in, which oun D’jir listlessly sniffed before reluctantly consuming.  He had kits in his womb that needed the nourishment.  He knew this logically, although he had no appetite.  He finished the meat and set the plate on the low table, picking up the mug of water and draining it.  He pulled the robes around him.

            He watched idly as the humans spoke in hushed tones or leaked water from their eyes, wiping at the water on their cheeks.  oun D’jir knew one of their litter lay near death in some other room, fighting an infection caught during the invasion.  He regretted that fact, but there was nothing he could do.  None of these beings held it against him, for which he was grateful.  He had heard his people were settling on an island several thousands of miles away. He would join them soon.  There had been a civil war and many had died and now the aun Deuili were in control and forming a government.  oun D’jir should be there to add his voice to the proceedings, but part of him did not care.  He liked these aliens; he liked their Goddess.  They were kind and were changing him on a daily basis.  With a huff, he admitted to himself he had to rejoin his people and soon.  Before the kits were born.

            Day gave way to night.  oun D’jir lay down on a couch and slept while around him the family did the same.  No one wanted to leave the sitting room and cots were brought in by servants.  

            Sha’jeen usually did not need a lot of rest, unless they were breeding.  But oun D’jir was aware enough to know he slept, too, because he was distraught and mourning.  He had never known someone to survive when his heart was injured.  Long ago, the Sha’jeen had lost that healing ability.  But oun D’jir also knew the humans on this world bred empathic healers that healed what others could not.  He had seen them at work and was awed by their magic.

            The next morning, voices aroused oun D’jir.  He rose to see three strange men speaking to Moyen.

            One of the men noticed oun D’jir and started violently.

            oun D’jir refrained from hissing in amusement.  Yes, he was sure he was strange looking to these beings.

            Moyen turned to oun D’jir.  “These are Malida’s siblings, D’jir.  What you call litter mates, although they were born separately.”

            oun D’jir bowed to the three alien males.  “I greet you in the name of Ie’teina, God of the Sha’jeen.”

            The men looked at Moyen, who interpreted oun D’jir’s words.

            The men bowed and one of them said strange words.

            “They greet you, oun D’jir,” Moyen said.

            “How is your mate?” oun D’jir asked Moyen quietly.

            Moyen swallowed and bent his head.  “She hangs between life and death, oun Shi’ehl.”

            oun D’jir mewled and swallowed, promptly sitting down before his legs gave way. It was as he feared.  The woman would die.

            The Sentinel called Ariahl sat down next to oun D’jir.  

            “Malida is a fighter,” she told oun D’jir.

            oun D’jir absently inclined his head.  “Ye.”

            The one called Sol entered the sitting room, followed by Kaster.  Their somber expressions drew a howl from oun D’jir’s chest and throat.

            “I’m sorry, Moyen,” Kaster said into the stunned silence after oun D’jir’s howl faded.  “We could not save your wife.  She succumbed to blood loss.”

            Moyen’s knees gave way and Malida’s litter mates held him up, dragging him to an armchair and depositing them there.

            oun D’jir began to rock to and fro, mewling in despair.  His eyes did not leak water, so he showed the humans and Sentinels that he, too, mourned.

            After a few minutes, Moyen rose and walked to where oun D’jir sat and knelt before him.

            “Do not distress yourself, oun D’jir,” he said softly.  “Think of your kits.  As I will think of mine.  It will help with the sorrow and loss.”

            oun D’jir gently cupped Moyen’s face. “Your selflessness and kindness move my soul and humbles me, aun Human.  I cared for your mate and held her in high esteem.  I will remember her, as will my people, for all time.”

            Moyen bent his head.

            Around them, there was much leaking from eyes.  Crying it was called, oun D’jir recalled numbly.  He watched helplessly as the family consoled each other.

            Moyen sighed.  “We will hold a funeral and parade Malida’s body through the streets of Draemin city then we will entomb her in the crypt.  Excuse me, I need some time for myself.”

            oun D’jir watched him stride out into the hallway, heading towards the recovery room.

            Sol sat near oun D’jir.  “After the funeral and entombing, oun D’jir, we would like to take you to the colony.”

            oun D’jir mewled again.  After a few minutes he inclined his head.  “Ye, aun Sol.  That will be good.”

            Sol stood and strode out of the room.

Chapter VIII: Yai’hone

            oun Shi’ehl Ei’dhar leaned his back against the wall of his cabin and panted.  He pressed his hand hard to the wound at his side.  He had managed to kill the Deuil who had attacked him, but the wound was grave, and he was losing a lot of blood.  With a moan, he slid down the curved wall of the ship and sat down, managing to pull his tail up before his bottom connected with the floor.  He needed water and he needed to stitch his wound, but his energy was swiftly depleting.  He felt lightheaded and dizzy.

            He rested for a few minutes then got on all fours and began to crawl towards the door.  He moaned and stopped, closing his eyes against the wave of darkness that threatened to pull him under.  He was panting fast, his tail whipping around frantically.  He prayed as he began to crawl again, more slowly this time.

            The door to his cabin slid open and there was a gasp.  

            “You’re wounded!” his cabin mate, oun Benska, hissed.  “Lie still.  I’ll stitch your wound.”

            oun Ei’dhar lay on his back gazing distantly at the ceiling.

            oun Benska moved away, rummaging through his belongings before hurrying back with a curved needle and thread.  

            “Let’s see,” oun Benska said, pushing Ei’dhar’s hand away.  “Ayi!  But it looks like it only hit muscle.  Good, good.  Now, lie still and let me work.”

            oun Ei’dhar fought to maintain consciousness.  He hardly felt the pain as his cabin mate sewed the wound.  

            “Tell me what happened,” he gasped.  “Why were the priests of Ya’ih-Ael attacked?”

            oun Benska made a sound in his throat.  “The Deuil have rebelled.  Against the Gods and the order.”  He shook his head.  “And we worried about the nieh boueli.”

            oun Ei’dhar turned his head to look at his friend, even though his sight was darkening at the edges.  “They have won?”

            “Ye,” oun Benska muttered and again shook his head.  “Ye, they have won. I don’t know about the other arks, though, oun Shi’ehl.  Only this one.   It has been difficult to find out what is happening.  All is chaos on this ark.”  He bent down to cut the thread with his teeth.  

            The yank on his wound made Ei’dhar gasp.  He bit back a mewl and watched distantly as Benska went to the altar, where he laid the needle and filled a bowl with filtered water and carried it back to where Ei’dhar lay.  He knelt, lifting Ei’dhar’s head and feeding him the tepid, tasteless water.  

            “I will assist you to your sleeping mat, oun Ei’dhar,” Benska murmured.  

            “I must go and–”  He mewled in distress.  “We can’t give up!”

            “Ne,” oun Benska told him.  “It is done.  Here, up with you.”

            The world tipped precariously as oun Benska assisted him to rise, holding most of his weight and half dragging him to his mat.  oun Benksa covered him with the furs.  He then sat crosslegged on the floor next to the mat.

            “I think you should rest, oun Ei’dhar,” oun Benska told him.  “We will talk after you wake.  I will clean this room while you rest.”

            oun Ei’dhar closed his eyes.  The darkness behind his eyes swirled and spun and he panted his distress, afraid of vomiting the water he had just consumed.  Gripping the edges of the sleeping mat, he centered himself, taking great gulps of air.  After a while, exhaustion won out and he lost consciousness.

            Wake, Ya’ihone.

            oun Ei’dhar opened his eyes.  He walked upon a world of obsidian rock and red skies filled with violet clouds.  The mountains rose, black as space, looming to the west.  A strange, oily ocean roiled to the east.  The air had no odor and no temperature.  

            Where am I? he asked in his mind.

            You are on the planet where I was born, Ya’ihone.  I am your God.

            oun Ei’dhar looked around, but nothing lived in that desolate world.

            Why have I been brought here?

            My time is not finished.  We must now go into hiding, like it was once before.  The God of the world you have found is too strong; we must proceed with care lest I be wiped from history.

            oun Ei’dhar straightened his back.  I am your priest!  You will not be forgotten!

            Proceed with care, Ya’ihone.  There is no place for pride in survival.  Upon you I place the order to go and find five others who believe as you do.  Practice my faith in secret and silence.  Sacrifice animals only.  One day we will return to greatness, but the time is not now.  One day the ground will be sopping wet with the blood of higher beings, but that time is not now.  I choose you, oun Ei’dhar, as my prophet and High Priest. You will write my commandments in your blood and the blood of believers.  I will come to you in dreams, so be aware and remember what you see.

            Ye, ean sk’oi.

            Find one who is not you to enter among the unbelievers as a spy.  Infiltrate their ranks and bide your time.  I will reveal to you what you must do. For now, survive and become strong.  I will find a way, Yai’hone, to grow strong.  Allow me time to circumvent this god of this world.  I have done it before. I might be able to do it within your lifetime.

            Ye, ean sk’oi!

            He came to hours later, weak as a newborn kit, his throat and mouth parched.  

            oun Benska shifted and peered down at him.  “How do you feel, oun Ei’dhar?”

            “Water,” he croaked.

            oun Benska lifted his head and fed him water.  He drank his fill before rising on his elbow.  He already felt stronger.

            “The God visited me while I slept,” he told his friend.  “We will continue to worship in hiding, writing down His commandments in our blood.”  He looked at his friend.  “Help me rise.”

            Once on his feet, it only took him a few minutes to become steady.

            He thought for a moment, going through his memory for the most devout of the oun Shi’ehl he knew. “Bring me oun Tamos, oun Efreit, oun Sabos’h, and oun Itilehn,” he told his friend.  “We must prepare for the future.”

            oun Benska bowed.  “Ye, High Priest.”

            oun Ei’dhar watched as his friend hurried away.  He went to the refrigeration unit and withdrew a bowl of meat.  He consumed it with ravenous hunger, tearing the flesh until it was gone.  Then he drank more water.

            He sat on the prayer rug and waited for his friends.

            They arrived a few minutes later.  Wordlessly, they sat in a semicircle before him.

            “I have been asked by Ya’ih-Ael to gather to me my priests.  I have chosen you.  We will proceed with stealth and patience,” he told them.  “I will receive new commandments in my dreams.  We must write them in a new holy book in blood. Our blood.  That is covenant with the Lord.”

            oun Sabos’h, the youngest of them, shifted.  “The time of Ya’ih-Ael is past.”

oun Ei’dhar showed his teeth. The youngster flinched.

oun Ei’dhar chose his words carefully. “If you abandon the God, you will not live long.”

oun Sabos’h bowed his head. “Forgive me.”

oun Ei’dhar nodded, making a mental note to keep an eye on the young oun Shi’ehl.

“I have chosen you for your faith in the God and your purity,” oun Ei’dhar told them. “Do not fail the God. You do so at your peril.”

“Ye, Yai’hone,” they murmured.

“How will we sacrifice to the God?” oun Benska asked.

            “The God wants animal sacrifices for now,” oun Ei’dhar told him.  “We will grow the faithful in silence.  We will convert the many in darkness.”

            oun Itilehn leaned forward.  “We are to live in an island filled with jungles.  We will find a way to kill for Him.”

            “No higher beings at first,” oun Ei’dhar warned.  “We are too few.  If one goes missing, it will be apparent.  The God has given his order and we must abide.  Have kits.  Many kits. Teach them in darkness, so we may grow our numbers.  One day, the order will be given and we will be victorious.”

            oun Ei’dhar did not say that the God of the world was stronger than Ya’ih.  It would not do to reveal such knowledge.  As his worshipers grew in numbers, Ya’ih would grow in strength.  He had no doubt of that.

            He looked at oun Benska.  “There will be a new council on the planet that will rule.  You must become part of that council.”

            “I, High Priest?”

            “Ye.  That is your task, to infiltrate and gather intel.  Influence those you can, but most of our new believers will come from our own wombs.”

            He looked at the others.  “The God will reveal your roles to me in time.  Be patient and know He acknowledges you.”

            He rose smoothly.  “Now, we will leave the ship with the rest of the populace.  We will find the weaknesses of the inhabitants of this world and our descendants will conquer them.  We will leave a blueprint for them to follow.  Rise.  We’ve work to do.”

            His priests left to gather their belongings and oun Ei’dhar washed at the altar, pulling on clean robes.   Summoning two nieh boueli, he had them carry his crate from the room.  He followed them until they found the rest of the inhabitants of the ship.  They were drawing lots to see when they would be leaving the ship on the shuttles.  

            The aun Deuil were prancing around, proud and victorious, and oun Ei’dhar had to pray to keep his head.  The orders were given and he returned to his cabin to pack whatever belongings he would be allowed to bring.  He packed the majority of his clothes and blank tomes, ink wells, ink and pens.  They would not need the old holy books.  They would write new ones.  

            Before he was allowed to take his belongings into the shuttle, two aun Deuili examined the contents of the trunk.  oun Ei’dhar bristled but said nothing as the filthy soldiers touched everything he had packed away.

            When they were finished, oun Ei’dhar commanded two nieh boueli to pick up the trunk and carry it to the shuttle bay.  He followed them, ruminating on what he had learned thus far.  The arks would be landed on the moon and hidden in vast caves there.  One day, the Sha’jeen might again take to the stars, but oun Ei’dhar thought they might forget what they knew.  One day they would forget they had ever traveled the cosmos.

            He watched the nieh boueli set his trunk against the wall of the storage area of the shuttle.  He turned and headed to the passenger area, finding a seat next to oun Benska. The oun Shi’ehli listened passively as an aun Deuil gave them instructions for when they reached their new home.  The aun Deuili were now in charge.  How long had they planned this betrayal?  How quickly and thoroughly they had swept through their ranks, killing indiscriminately.  How many Shi’ehli had perished?  Holy breeders!  He made his face impassive.  He would abide his time.  Revenge would not take place in his lifetime, he knew, but he also knew it would come. They would infiltrate the ranks of the aun Deuili and they would return to the natural order of things.  The future was unwritten.

            Around his neck and hidden within the folds of his robes lay the red beads of Ya’ih-Ael.  He pressed the palm of his hand to his chest, feeling the large round beads bite into his skin.  

            “A new government will be chosen on our new home,” the aun Deuil who seemed to be in command was saying.  “This colony is called Colony Xema, the first of many.  Once we land, we will chose council members for the collective.”

            “Who is he?” oun Ei’dhar hissed at oun Benska.

            “aun Sjir’phal,” oun Benska whispered back.  “He orchestrated the uprising and he is the de facto leader.”

            oun Ei’dhar stiffened.  “An aun Deuil cannot lead!”

            oun Benska looked askance at him.  “You will have to get used to this, oun Ei’dhar.  Do not forget the God’s plan.  Pride has no place in survival.”

            oun Ei’dhar gasped.  The God put the same words from his dream in oun Benska’s mouth!  He bent his head, humbled and so grateful the God was with him.

            “Ye,” he whispered.  “You are correct.  I forgot myself, oun Benska.”

            oun Benska inclined his head.  “Ye.  But the God knows and will prevail.  He must hide for now, but it will not always be so.”  He reached his hand and clasped oun Ei’dhar’s.  “I will make my way into the Council, my friend, as you directed me.  I will try to influence, but I will also steal knowledge that we may use.  We must use stealth and subterfuge.  We must be clever and patient.”

            “Ye,” oun Ei’dhar agreed and smiled at his friend.

            The shuttle shook itself awake like some great waking beast, its engines deafening for a few minutes before they dropped from the shuttle bay into space.  oun Ei’dhar wondered what it looked like, to fly into a planet.  He had not been born the last time they had attacked a planet.  It had been hundreds of years prior.  But the shuttle had no windows in the main cabin.  Once the shuttle left the ship, they felt weightless.  The only thing keeping them tied to their seats were strong straps.  oun Ei’dhar closed his eyes as sickness roiled in his insides.  He felt disoriented and dizzy.  It would take hours to reach the planet.  He settled into the long trip, his mind scheming on how to proceed from here to ensure Ya’ih survived.

           He had to find the faithful and they had to secure the future.  There had to be aun Deuili who believed as he did, who respected the natural order of things.  He would become impregnated by these.  Their kits’ line of descent had to be pure.  Only believers would come from their wombs; only believers would donate their seed to the future.  If the God found a way to succeed in his lifetime, so be it.  He smiled to himself.  Anything could happen.

Chapter VII: Resistance

            aun Deuil Sjir’phal prowled the bloody decks of his ark.  His.   There were still pockets of resistance.  Mostly stubborn oun Shi’ehli and the occasional deluded aun Deuil.  He did not take their fervor lightly.  They fought valiantly.  He wondered how things went on the other arks.  He couldn’t use the intercom to contact aun P’ata’lyh or aun Pasia’h.  He would give his position away to the enemy.  Their abysma failure on the planet should have convince the opposition of the folly of the old ways, but no one wanted to give up their power it seemed.  He huffed a silent laugh.

            He turned a corner and came face-to-face with an oun Shi’ehl.  This one was young and impossibly beautiful, with silver down and bright blue eyes.  It crouched immediately, making itself a small target.       

            “Stand down,” aun Deuil Sjir’phal said with as much authority as he could muster.

            Indecisiveness crowded the other emotions in the oun Shi’ehl’s eyes.

            “Listen to me, oun Shi’ehl,” aun Deuil Sjir’phal said.  “I am aun Deuil Sjir’phal–“

            “I know who you are,” the young oun Shi’ehl spat.  “Blasphemer!”

            “Your gods have forgotten you, oun Shi’ehl,” aun Deuil Sjir’phal stated blandly.  “We have lost the battle for the planet and we are a dying race–“

            The oun Shi’ehl snarled.  “How quickly you give up, coward!”

            Despair filled aun Deuil Sjir’phal when he realized he would have to kill the young Shi’ehl.

            He took a step forward and then they were circling each other like a moon around a planet.    The oun Shi’ehl suddenly lunged forward and swung his curved dagger.  aun Deuil Sjir’phal bent his back.  The dagger came so close, he felt the air of its passing along the down on his face.  The Shi’ehl was young but deadly, as were all of his gender. Even though the aun Deuili were the soldiers of their race, none fought like the oun Shi’ehli.  They were a warrior race, but the smaller oun Shi’ehli carried the young in their pouches and had to be able to fight weighted down. 

            aun Deuil Sjir’phan took his eyes off the oun Shi’ehl when he heard a noise in the hallway.  The oun Shi’ehl turned in a circle, lifting his leg and raking the deadly curved claws of his left foot along aun Deuil Sjir’phan’s chest.  aun Deuil Sjir’phan grunted and slammed against the wall at his back.  He didn’t bother to look at the wound.  He knew it was shallow.  The oun Shi’ehl was young and inexperienced.  He should have disembowled aun Deuil Sjir’phal.  Nevertheless, the wound hurt and wound interfere with his attention.

            The oun Shi’ehl smiled, eyes fierce.  “You are no match for me.”

            aun Deuil Sjir’phal straightened, pushing himself away from the wall.  “We’ll see.”

            “Surrender and face an honorable death.”

            “Your sect knows no honor,” aun Deuli Sjir’phal spat

            The young oun Shi’ehl bristled.  He hissed, his tail lashing out behind him.

            aun Deuil Sjir’phal refrained from smirking.  He was impetuous and passionate, the young Shi’ehl.  He would be easier to kill.

            They stepped to the center of the hallway and the oun Shi’ehl took a swing at him with his dagger.  aun Deuil Sjir’phal ducked and attacked when his opponent attempted to correct his overbalance.  aun Deuil Sjir’phal unsheathed his own, longer dagger.  He swung his dagger with the ham of his hand out, along the oun Shi’ehl’s midriff.   The oun Shi’ehl jumped out of reach and aun Sjir’phal straightened.

            The oun Shi’ehl smiled.  “It is only a mattter of time before my colleagues find me.”

            “It is equally assured my colleagues will find me,” aun Deuil Sjir’phal spat.  He was growing sick of this.

            They came closer together, circling each other again.  aun Deuili Sjir’phal bent his knees and swung his right leg in a wide arc.  He was gratified to see the young oun Shi’ehl’s eyes widen with surprise before aun Deuil Sjir’phal swept this feet from under him.  aun Deuil Sjir’phal knelt on the oun Shi’ehl’s chest. 

            “Drop your weapon,” aun Deuil Sjir’phal growled.

            oun Shi’ehl smiled serenely, lunged up with far greater strength than aun Deuil Sjir’phal thought their gender had, and plunged his dagger into aun Deuil Sjir’phal’s side, twisting it for good measure.

            aun Deuil Sjir’phal wondered distantly if the wound was deadly.

            He lifted his dagger and plunged it into the oun Shi’ehl’s throat, twisting it also and then cutting sideways until the head was half cut off from the body.

            aun Deuil Sjir’phal sat panting, his hand to the wound at his side, which was sticky and wet with blood.  He fet sick and lightheaded.

            “aun Deuil!”

            He heard it from a distance.

            He watched with detachment as aun Deuili P’ata’lyh knet next to him. 

            “You’re wounded!”

            “How goes the resistance?” he heard himself ask.

            “We fight in pockets still,” his comrade told him.  “Let me get you to the infirmary.”

            “First, secure the nursery,” he ordered faintly.  “Then finish the opposition quickly.  Don’t drag this out.”

            “Yes, aun Deuil,” his friend murmured.

            He rose to give the orders to the aun Deuili who had accompanied him.  Then he motioned to another aun Deuil and together they picked aun Deuil Sjir’phal up and carried him through the long, curving halls to the infirmary.

            The nieh bouel in charge of the infirmary gave a hiss of distress when nieh saw aun Deuil Sjir’phal.

            “Lay him on the cot,” nieh said in its clear, high voice.

            They laid him on the cot, jostling him enough he had to bite back the groan that rose up his throat.

            aun Deuil P’ata’lyh turned to the other soldier.  “Stand guard outside the door, aun Deuil.”

            The guard saluted and hurried to comply.

            The nieh bouel removed aun Deuil Sjir’phal’s helmet then cut the flexible vest they used as armor with a scalpel.  aun Deuil watched distantly, wondering if the nieh bouel felt disgust, for the armor was made with treated boueli skin.  aun Deuil Sjir’phal felt shame and turned his face away from the gentle gaze of the neuter.

            The nieh bouel cleaned the wound with reconstituted water and soap before patting it dry and applying disinfecting agents.  The astringent smell of the medicines mingled with the sharper smell of blood.

            “Will he survive?” aun Deuil P’ata’lyh demanded.

            The nieh bouel grunted.  “If he survives infection.  I must sew the wound.”

            aun Deuil Sjir’phal readied himself for the procedure.  He glanced at his friend.

            “Go see about the nursery,” he murmured.

            aun Deuil P’ata’lyh seemed about to disobey, but his features smoothed out and he bowed, fist to chest.  “Ye!  Right away.”

            When he had gone, aun Deuil Sjir’phal glanced at the nieh bouel.  “I led the revolt partly for your gender.”

            The nieh bouel raised an eyebrow. 

            “Your kind has been treated abysmally, nieh bouel.  Perhaps not you yourself–“

            The nieh bouel threaded a needle then held the needle over the open flame of a bunsen burner.  He then bent over aun Deuil Sjir’phal and began to sew the gaping wound.

            aun Deuil Sjir’phal hissed and grasped the edges of the cot.  He broke out in a sweat and grew dizzy.  He closed his eyes and cleared his mind.

            When he was done, the nieh bouel used the scalpel to cut the thread.  He set the needed in a small tray to be disinfected.

            aun Deuil Sjir’phal gazed up distantly at the nieh bouel.  “You’ve nothing to say?”

            His voice sounded reed-thin to his ears.

            The nieh bouel went to the long table against the wall and poured a substance from a vial into a cup, bringing the cup to the cot.

            “Drink this, aun Deuil,” he said.  “It will ease the pain.”

            aun Deuil  Sjir’phal drank the bitter medicine and grimace, swinging his legs over the side of the cot.

            “This is not advisable,” the nieh bouel murmured.

            aun Deuil Sjir’phal huffed a laugh.  “So many things are not.  Thank you for your care.”

            The nieh bouel looked startled and took a step backward.

            aun Deuil Sjir’phal rose slowly, hand to side.  He made his way to the hall, where the aun Deuil stood guard.

            The soldier saluted him.

            “We go to the nursery,” aun Deuil Sjir’phal told him.  “Then we find out how much opposition remains.”

            The soldier saluted again.  “Yes, aun Deuil!”

            The nursery had four guards out front.  They saluted when aun Deuil Sjir’phal walked up.

            “Are the kits safe?” aun Deuil Sjir’phal asked.

            “Ye, aun Deuil,” one of the guards replied.  “As are the caregivers.”

            aun Deuil stepped into the quiet nursery.  aun Deuil P’ata’lyh stood inside and the kits stood in a corner, arms around their caregivers.

            “No harm will come to you,” aun Deuil Sjir’phal told them firmly. 

            He counted 10 kits.  Not enough to replace all the ones who had perished in the uprising.

            Each little face turned to him with curiousity or fear, depening on his nature. 

            With great effort, he walked to the corner where they lingered and went down on one knee.

            “It is alright now, little ones,” he told them.  “We are almost done with this.”

            He looked at each face and wondered if he had doomed his parent to death.

            The nieh bouels who cared for them watched him with some defiance.

            He chuffed.  “Are you going to fight me to preserve the kits’ lives, nieh boueli?”

            None of the five nieh boueli dropped their gazes.  He felt respect for their gender for the first time in his life.

            “Our parents?” one little kit piped up.

            An aun Deuil, with a high crest and clear amber eyes.           

            “You will know soon,” he promised the kit.  “If your parent opposed us, they may have died.”

            A few mewled distressingly.

            “You have the entire ship filled with parents for you,” he told them.  “You have your caregivers.  Do not fear.  You are Sha’jeen!”

            One or two of the kits raised their chins.  He huffed a laugh when he saw their pride and courage.

            He heard a commotion out in the hall and then the door was sliding open.

            He rose with care and turned to face the strange aun Deuil.  “What is it?”

            “A strange shuttle approaches, aun Deuil!” the newcomer reported.

            aun Deuil Sjir’phal shared a look with aun Deuil P’ata’lyh.

            “I will come to the bridge,” he replied.  He looked at his friend again.  “End the opposition.  Use the laser weapons.”

            aun Deuil P’ata’lyh saluted.  “Right away, aun Deuil!”

            He looked at the aun Deuil who had just arrived.  “Lead the way to the bridge.”   

            “Ye, aun Deuil.”

Chapter VI: Conception

            oun Shi’ehl D’jir Ya’ihone-Aellus prayed for death even as he wondered why the inhabitants of the world had not killed him outright.  He was chained to the wall of a damp earthen cell.  Others were with him, Deuili mostly.  There had been disconcerting days of stomach illnesses, vomiting, and dizziness.  D’jir could barely lift his head as he lay on the damp earthen floor.  The weight of the world’s gravity lay on him like steel.  He managed to crawl around the floor, weakly fighting against the chains on his wrists and ankles.  

            The others in the cell sensed his estrus and fought endlessly against their chains to get to him.  Had he not been so stressed by the situation, he would have found the reactions of the others amusing.  D’jir was no longer in heat.  His body had reabsorbed the eggs.  Rage had followed disappointment and then despair had filled him with its alien feelings and reactions.  Now he only wished for death.  The fact that they were held hostage still, after so many days, did not bode well for the Sha’jeen. They had either lost the battle or, if they won, there was a new High Priest and D’jir was now expendable.  

            He raised his head and gazed at the others in the cell.  If the battle had been won, wouldn’t the soldiers have been freed?  It made no sense to keep them hostage alongside any fallen Shi’ehl.  The only possible answer was that they had lost.  Sha’jeen had never lost a battle — not against their own kind and not against other, inferior species.  The thought that these beings were their superiors made D’jir hiss and begin another useless fight against the iron manacles.  After a few minutes of struggling, he went limp, panting from his exertions.  The aliens had brought him meat to eat, but the meat had been impure, cooked and masked by substances that added alien flavors and odors.  As hungry as D’jir was, he could not consume the flesh.  Eating cooked meat would surely kill him.

            He sat crosslegged, leaning heavily against the stone wall, his tail slashing the air behind him.  He no longer sought to remain impervious or calm.  He was starving to death and doubts about Ya’ih and Ael were filling him with murderous thoughts.  

            He shifted as the cell door was unlocked and pushed open.  He straightened his back, alert and curious.

            Two aliens walked in.  They were stocky and short with bright and curious eyes.  

            They glanced at D’jir and made for him.

            D’jir stiffened and hissed, unable to defend himself because of the short chains and the general heaviness in his limbs.

            “Do not fret,” the taller of the two aliens stated in a deep voice.

            D’jir stopped, cocking his head.  “You…how do you know Sha’jeen?”

            The taller of the two aliens waved a hand.  D’jir’s eyes followed the movement of the hand.  “It matters not how we know your language.  Be calm.  We mean you no harm, even though you attacked our planet.”

            They squatted safely out of the range of D’jir’s chains.  “You are here to conquer.”

            D’jir sniffed at their odor.  It was a curious mixture of metallic and flesh.  It was not unpleasant, though strange.

            “Answer him,” the shorter of the two demanded.  This one had a lighter voice and spoke more haltingly.

            “Ye,” D’jir hissed.  “We came to conquer.”

            The taller of the aliens cocked its head.  “Well, you have failed. Your people retreated and returned to their ships.”

            D’jir stiffened.  “What do you want of me?”

            “We would ask you why you came at all,” the shorter one asked.  “But we already know.  We are offering you a place to settle and live on our world.”

            That brought D’jir up short.  “Why would you do such a thing?”

            “We are a warrior species as well,” the taller one replied.  “But we don’t kill indiscriminately.  Once, we were like you.  We brought ourselves to the brink of annihilation through wars and pollution, disease and overpopulation.  We destroyed our original world and had to take to the stars to find another.  We are dispersed throughout the universe in different worlds.”

            D’jir did not know what to say.

            “We know your species has developed a toxicity to space travel,” the shorter one said.  “This toxicity has reduced your chances of conception and breeding.  This was seen with our kind, too.”

            D’jir gaped then closed his mouth with a click, cutting his lower lip with his fangs.  He did not even feel the injury.

            “We thought as much,” D’jir said.  

            “So, you sought to settle on our world,” the taller one said.

            “Ye,” D’jir replied.

            “You’ll need to do so in an uninhabited land,” the shorter one said musingly.  “We carry disease which will kill your kind.  You carried a bacterium which is proving deadly to our kind.”

            “Why are you doing this?” a Deuil demanded from the other side of the room.

            D’jir shifted abruptly and hissed and spat.  “Who gave you permission to speak, aun Deuil?”

            The Deuil barked a sound of humor.  “They are our masters now, oun Shi’ehl.  Not you or  your kind.”

            D’jir narrowed his eyes, showing his impressive fangs, but the Deuil calmly stared back at him.

            The taller of the aliens rose and turned to the Deuil who had spoken.  “We don’t advocate the mass slaughter of intelligent beings, aun Deuil.  We have learned from our past mistakes.  If you keep attacking, we will fight you, but we would rather not decimate your numbers.  Many of your kind died in the battle.”

            The Deuil shifted.  “How many?”

            “We estimate fully over half of your kind died,” the shorter one told the soldier.  “Most died from the injuries sustained in the crashes.”

            The Deuil lifted his sharp chin.  “We have many more warriors.”

            D’jir hissed a laugh.  “You fool!  Do you know how many of their kind there are?”

            The Deuil looked uncertain for a moment.  “No.  I’m not privy to such knowledge.”

            D’jir sniffed.  “They number into the millions, stupid Deuil.  What have we?”

            The Deuil looked embarrassed and dropped his gaze, sitting crosslegged on the floor.

            D’jir hissed laughter and turned back to the aliens.  “I repeat my original question, What do you want of me?”

            The taller rose.  “You are one of their rulers or leaders.  You will return to the ship and offer a compromise.  You may settle on the other side of the planet, on an uninhabited island.  There is plenty of game there for your consumption.  We know you only eat flesh, but you can learn to eat animals and perhaps begin to slowly change your digestive systems by incorporating other forms of food.”

            D’jir was stunned.  “You want me to become a diplomat and speak to my people about surrendering?”

            The shorter one shook its head.  “We aren’t speaking of surrendering, oun Shi’ehl.  We speak of compromise.”

            “The Sha’jeen do not compromise!” D’jir roared.

            “Then are you willing to die as a species?” the taller asked mildly.  “You’ve lost contact with your other arks, haven’t you?  For all you know, you are the last of your kind.  Is your pride greater than your sense of survival?”    

            “No,” another Deuil stated and rose shakily to his knees, his chains clinking as he moved.  “We will compromise.  I will take your message to our people.”

            “Coward!” D’jir spat.

            “Fool,” the Deuil replied calmly, bringing hisses of humor from the rest of the Deuili.  He had not bothered to even look at D’jir.  His eyes remained deferentially on the taller of the two beings.  “I will go.”

            The aliens nodded.

            The shorter shifted.  “You will go and give our proposal.  If it is accepted, we will give you the coordinates to the island and all of you will be released.”

            Another Deuil knelt.  “Pardon me, ean Sk’oi–“

            D’jir howled and began to fight against the chains at the blasphemy.  “You will die, aun Deuil!  You will die and I will kill you myself!”

            “Be calm,” the taller alien stated, looking startled.  “Why does the term upset you so?”

            “You are not our masters!” D’jir hissed.

            The taller of the aliens cocked his head.  “We do not claim to be your masters, oun Shi’ehl. One battle would not make us so.  Calm yourself.”  It looked at the blasphemer.  “You will not use that term, aun Deuil.  I am called Ishel.  This is Mariel.  You will refer to us by our appellations.”

            The Deuil bowed.  “Ye, ea–Ishel.”

            Ishel nodded.  “Good. Why have you not eaten the food we have brought you?”

            D’jir remained quiet, struggling to control himself.

            “We cannot consume cooked meat,” a third Deuil piped up.  

            Mariel sighed.  “We will bring you raw meat.”

            “Thank you, Mariel,” another piped up.

            The aliens left the cell, closing the door behind them.

            “You are all cowards!” D’jir spat.  “You surrender with the aplomb of a coward.”

            “We wish to survive, oun Shi’ehl,” one of them replied.  “Unlike you, we were given the will to survive and that will supersedes all.”

            D’jir swallowed the bitter rage and despair that filled him.  Where was Ya’ih?  Where was Ael?  What did this all mean?

            A short time later, more aliens arrived with plates filled with raw meat.  The fragrance, spicy and alien, was redolent with nutrients.  D’jir watched distantly as an alien set his plate on the earthen floor and pushed it towards D’jir.  The plate gently tapped D’jir’s right foot.  He turned his head to watch as the Deuili fell upon their food with ravenous hunger.  D’jir reached for his plate and picked up a bloody chunk.  He bit into it and his mouth flooded with saliva.  The taste was sweet and had the earthy aftertaste of plants.  It was delicious and he fell upon the rest savagely, tearing and chewing and swallowing until he was replete, pushing away the remainder.  They were brought water and D’jir picked up his bowl and drank his fill.  The water was sweet and pure, unlike the water they had produced on the ship, which had been purified, filtered urine.  This water tasted of the world.

            After that, D’jir slept.  He was awakened when the aliens returned with soldiers and freed two Deuili.

            “You will come with us,” Ishel said.  “We have a shuttle ready to transport you to your ship.”

            The Deuili bowed and were carried out of the cell by soldiers.  The cell door was closed behind them.        

            D’jir fell back asleep, curled up against the cold of the cell.  

            He dreamed.  In the dream, there were thousands of Sha’jeen.  Hundreds of kits romped or tussled on the grassy fields, hissing their joy and laughter.  The Shi’ehli and the Deuili lived as equals and the boueli had become priests and educators.

            He turned restlessly in his dream, panting.

            They lived in wooden structures and grew crops and kept animals in pens.  Other aliens came to them to trade goods and exchange knowledge.  There was peace.  Ael and Ya’ih were forgotten, stricken from religious texts and rituals.

            He gasped and awoke, flicking his gaze around the dim cell.  The others were asleep, twitching as they dreamed.

            Sitting up, he wiped a shaking hand across his forehead.  What does this mean, Ya’ih?  Ael?

            Laughter filled D’jir’s mind. I am not a god.  I told you, oun Shi’ehl.  I am Atana and I am Goddess of this world.

            D’jir heard the being in his mind even while the cell remained almost silent, the only sound being the clink of chains as the Deuili shifted in their sleep.

            Are Ael and Ya’ih dead? D’jir asked in his mind.

            They no longer serve you, oun Shi’ehl.  Their time is done.

            Are we to worship you?  What is a Goddess?

            Laughter rippled through his mind.  On this world, she replied, gender is divided into two:  Male and female.  The male impregnates the female and the female carries the kits in her womb.  I am a Goddess, which means I am female.

            You are like me, D’jir mused. I carry kits in my womb.

            We are different species, oun Shi’ehl.  I am not like you.  Your sexes allow you to self-procreate.  Our females cannot do this.

            D’jir hissed his frustration.  “Then why did my body reabsorb my eggs?”

            Your species is poisoned by radiation.  This will correct itself, in time.  Your gender will once again rule your species, but you must rule differently.  Change my image and recreate me as a Sha’jeen.  One who is Shi’ehli.  Call me Atana.

            D’jir shifted, resting his back against the wall.  That is not in our language.  May we change your name to Ie’teina?

            More laughter. As long as you respect me in all my guises. I rule reproduction, battle, aging and purity and family.

            D’jir bowed.  Tell me how to proceed, ean Sk’oi.

            You will know when to introduce a new deity to your kind.  Be patient, listen, and learn.  Bide your time, oun Shi’ehl.  You will rise to greatness once more.

            He shook with gratitude and emotions he had never felt before.  Inside him, his mind shifted and he gasped.  The tender emotions threatened to overwhelm him.  He glanced wildly at the others in the cell, but they slept on peacefully, unaware of his turmoil, horror, and despair.  He panted with disconcertion and stress, his tail flicking wildly behind him.  Closing his eyes, he prayed to Ie’teina, desperate and lost.  And she answered him.  Something filled him with warmth, like heated oil.  As the warmth spread throughout his body, it flared in his womb, producing such heat, he was sure he would die.  He writhed on the earthen floor, gasping at the burning sensation.  Then, when he thought he would scream out loud, he felt conception inside his womb. It takes but one egg, he heard in his mind.  The one not reabsorbed quickly enough.  You have quickened.  The others in this cell will spread the news of your self-procreation.  You will not be High Priest or King, but your offspring will.

            In awe, D’jir placed a hand over his womb.  He blinked.  He could feel his body beginning to change to accommodate life.  He hissed his joy.

            The others in the cell began to stir, becoming aware of the chemicals being released into the closed air of the cell by D’jir’s body.

            Hisses filled the silence.

            D’jir straightened his back as the soldiers rose from their resting positions to kneel before D’jir.

            “The Goddess Ie’teina has allowed me to conceive the first kit of this world,” D’jir murmured into the silence.

            The Deuili murmured.

            One of them bowed.  “This is a new god?”

            “Ye,” D’jir replied.  “The God of this world.  Ael and Ya’ih have no power in her domain.”

            The Deuili bowed their foreheads to the ground.  “oun Shi’ehl.  Honored High Priest.  Praises for Ie’teina, God of the People!”

            D’jir felt Atana’s amusement in his mind.  He hissed with joy.

Chapter V: Infection

            Sol slowly regained consciousness.  His fleshy body hurt while the metal parts of him constantly took stock of his wellbeing.  He was no doctor, but his mind chips made assessment of possible breaks in the skin or lacerations to internal organs, as well as chemical imbalances.  As he opened his eyes, at once being informed by the time device lodged in his frontal lobe that he had been regenerating for nigh six days, he noted his body was still exhausted and needed replenishment.   He looked around the tent and took in six other cots, three occupied with Mariel, Derik and Ishel.  Ariahl, Kaster and Topon must have already regenerated sufficiently to leave their beds.  Swinging his legs over the side of the cot, he came into a sitting position and rose.  His metal legs were steady under him as he strode out of the pavilion and into an overcast late afternoon.  He glanced west and saw soldiers guarding the detritus of the fallen ships.  They would have to find a place to house the ships so that the Sentinels could gather intel.

            “Sol!”  

            He turned and bowed to Moyen.  “My lord.  How is Toyus?”

            Moyen grimaced and shook his head.  “Kaster is overseeing his recovery.  Despite our best efforts, he has developed a persistent infection.”  He swallowed convulsively.  “We had to amputate his burnt hand and scrape away the leather from his uniform that had burned into the skin of his back.”

            Sol released a breath.  “God, I’m so sorry, Moyen.”

            Moyen nodded and struggled to visibly control his emotions, his eyes glassy with unshed tears.  He gave a watery laugh.  “I have not cried this much ever.”

            “It’s understandable, sir,” Sol assured him softly.

            “We await Mariel, Derik and Ishel’s waking,” Moyen told him.  “We need to interrogate the aliens.”

            “How many captured?” Sol asked as they turned and headed together towards the medical pavilion.

            “Sixty, but twelve died from injuries,” Moyen told him.  “They have been burned.  We could not allow them to rot and spread disease.”

            Sol nodded.  “Understood.  That leaves 48 we can examine.”

            “We captured one of their leaders,” Moyen informed him.  He held the ten flap to one side.  “After you.”

            Sol entered the large tent and paused, his eyes taking in everything at once.  There were fifteen cots in this tent and the air was thick with the odor of burnt flesh and chemicals and blood.  The cots were set in neat rows with low a table with a basin filled with water beside each cot.  Aside from his fellow Sentinels, there were healers in black robes moving from patient to patient.  Some of the patients were soldiers in various stages of recuperation.  Some were unconscious and some watched curiously as Sol and Moyen moved towards the right-hand side of the tent, where Ariahl, Topon and Kaster gathered around a prone Toyus.

            As Sol walked up, Ariahl flicked him a glance.  “Welcome.”

            He inclined his head and allowed his eyes to fall on Toyus’ prone form.  The flesh of the left-hand side of the young man’s face and neck was an angry red, full of blisters and shiny with biologics.  Sol controlled the emotions that threatened to overwhelm him, confused and startled.  He smoothed his features, cognizant that his fellow Sentinels would be able to detect his improper reactions if he was not careful.  He dropped his gaze to the young man’s chest, where an empty wrist wrapped in bandages lay uselessly.  His left hand, Sol thought numbly.  

            “Are the others awake?” his Captain inquired, her eyes sharp and assessing.

            Sol looked at her.  “Not yet.”

            “They will soon,” Kaster said as he flashed a light into Toyus’ right eye.   He sighed and stood up.

            “How is he, Kaster?” Sol asked his friend.

            Kaster frowned.  “He has been infected with some sort of bacterium.  It was carried in the beam of light.”

            Sol’s heart gave a painful lurch.  “So, it was a biological weapon?”

            Topon shifted.  “We’re not sure.  It may have just been an incidental.”  He shook his head, his dark skin gleaming with sweat.  “But how a living organism could survive the heat of that beam–“

            “On old Earth, there were organisms that survived in volcanic calderas,” Sol retorted mildly.  “Could this be the bacterium that attacked the alien’s food supply?”

            Topon sighed. “The bacterium could very well be the same, which worries me.  It could attack the food supply of this world and decimate it.”

            “Or it could just attack humanoids,” Ariahl offered.  

            Sol looked at Topon.  “How does the bacterium behave?”

            “It is an opportunistic infection, replicating at will and causing the body to become overwhelmed. It is also releasing a low level toxin which is causing fevers and other inflammatory reactions.”  Topon shook his head.  “Toyus is fighting it, but I am trying to develop an antibiotic.  I think this bacteria infected Toyus through the burns, which weakened the connective tissue.”  He sighed and rubbed his face with both hands.  “If this bacterium mutates into one that is airborne…”

            Sol nodded.  “But human beings are hardy.”

            “Yes,” Topon agreed.  “Some will survive.  The aliens survived well enough, but this bacterium may be beneficial to them.  More than likely, it is.  The populations of this world may develop a resistance to it.”  He flicked a worried glance to Moyen.  “It is spreading quickly and invasively throughout Toyus’ body and overwhelming his defenses.  I have to find an antibiotic and soon, or he may well die.”

            Moyen sat on the edge of Toyus’ cot and picked up the young man’s hand.

            “Sir, that is not advisable,” Kaster said.

            Moyen scowled.  “I am not going to avoid my son. If I sicken, so be it.”

            Kaster knelt before Moyen and gazed earnestly up into his eyes.  “It is not the fear you’ll sicken, sir.  It is that you may spread the disease to your wife or children through touch.”

            Moyen blanched and hurriedly stood up.

            “Please wash your hands with soap and water,” Kaster directed him.

            While Moyen washed his hands, Malida and the rest of the Ekesj family entered the tent, followed by Ishel and the rest of the Sentinels.

            “How is Toyus?” Malida asked.

            Kaster walked to where she stood.  “He has an opportunistic disease.  An alien bacterium.  We are keeping him alive while Topon searches for a cure.”

            Malida gasped, her hand coming to her mouth.  She swayed and Kaster caught her as she passed out.  He gently picked her up and laid her on an empty cot in a corner of the tent.

            Emeida, Soena and Itina hugged each other, burying their faces in each other’s neck.

            “Moyen,” Kaster said.  “Take your family out of this tent.  We will keep you apprised of Toyus’ condition.”

            Moyen dried his hands and set the towel on the table next to the washbasin.  He nodded.  “I want an hourly report.”

            “Very well,” Kaster replied, watching as Moyen carried his wife out, followed closely by his daughters.  He sighed and turned to his fellow Sentinels.  “I don’t have much hope Toyus will survive the infection before Topon can develop an antibiotic.  The bacteria is very aggressive.”

            The Sentinels looked at each other helplessly.

            Ishel shook himself.  “I have to head to Castle Draemin to interrogate the prisoners.  Mariel, will you accompany me?”

            “Of course,” she replied.

            They headed out and Sol returned to Toyus’ bedside, sitting on the edge of the cot. He refrained from touching the young man.

            A hand grasped his shoulder and he glanced up at Ariahl’s worried gaze.

            “I’m okay,” he said.  “I’ve just grown fond of this family.”

            She sighed. “As have we all, my friend.  Derik, Topon and Kaster will work on an anti-biologic.  You and I will go and examine the fallen ships.”

            Sol rose, grateful to have something to do to assuage his worry.

            “Don’t cut your fleshy hand,” Kaster warned needlessly as they walked out of the tent.

            Ariahl handed Sol a black vinyl bag and thin gloves.  “These are latex.  Put them on so we can examine the ships.  We can collect samples at the crash site and put them in the bags.”

            He nodded and complied, pulling the gloves onto both the human and artificial hand.  They strode nearly a mile to where the first wreckage lay.  Five soldiers stood guarding it.  They bowed, their expressions awed, as Ariahl and Sol strode up.

            “Good afternoon, soldier,” Ariahl murmured.

            The soldier bowed.  “Sentinel.”

            “We’re here to examine the ship,” Sol told the young man.

            He bowed again.  “Yes, ma’am.”

            They began by picking up the small pieces of the wreckage and setting them aside before they examined the cockpit.  There was so much detritus, it took them hours before they had a clear path to the main ship.  The window had been shattered.  There was blood and all manner of biological material on the metal.

            Sol grimaced.  “We’ll need to retrieve our contamination suits from the shuttle.  We can’t touch anything and possibly get covered with alien blood and biological matter.”

            Ariahl sighed.  “Yes.” She glanced at the cloudy skies.  “If it rains, the blood and tissue matter will soak into the soil.  God help us, Sol.  I don’t have a good feeling about this.”

            He swallowed thickly.  “Let’s collect samples of blood and tissue and then work on retrieving the contamination suits.”

            She nodded and knelt, opening her vinyl bag to pull out vials.  “Let’s get to work.  We’ll have to send three Sentinels to retrieve the contamination suits.”

            He nodded and set to work.

***

            Sol, Ariahl and Kaster left the camp on lirtah to retrieve the contamination suits from the shuttle hidden in the seaside cave.  The journey took half a day and, by the time they reached the cave area, it had begun to storm.  It was not a gentle rain but a downpour.  Sol felt despair for the first time in a long time.  Mother Nature seemed to be working against them.  By the time they returned to the crash site, the blood and tissue matter would have soaked into the soil and would possibly be creating havoc with the environment.  They were woefully unprepared to contain contamination.  The world was poised for disaster and Sol felt helplessness and frustration.

            It took them near an hour venturing through tunnels before they found the shuttle.  Breaking the protective seal around the shuttle, they removed their boots and climbed inside.

            “Touch as little as possible,” Kaster told them.  “We’re probably crawling with alien bacteria.”

            They went to the appropriate cabinets and retrieved ten tightly sealed contamination suits that would easily fit into their saddlebags.  

            “We’ll take seven suits for us and three for Moyen, Malida and an extra person,” Ariahl said when Kaster asked her why they were using ten suits.

            Kaster nodded.  He walked to a second cabinet and retrieved a battery charged microscope, more vials, more gloves and alcohol and bleach wipes.  He also stuffed into his large saddlebag hard plastic masks.  He handed Sol ampules of antibacterial medicine targeted for different types of terrestrial bacteria.  The refrigeration unit hummed as he worked.  He frowned.  There was no assurance that these medicines would work on the alien bacterium, but Kaster would try everything to prevent the looming disaster.  

            Once they were done, thoroughly taking stock of all the supplies, they wiped the shuttle down carefully before sealing it once more and heading out into the tunnel.  

            Outside the tunnel, the rain poured, limiting visibility and lowering ambient temperatures.

            The Sentinels donned their waterproof cloaks and hoods and mounted up, heading back to the battle site as quickly as the weather allowed. Their mounts were steady under them, cantering over puddles.  

            Sol frowned. He knew that, even now, the biologic material at the crash site was soaking into the ground of this pristine world.  The aliens had not reappeared in six days, but they had decimated fully half their forces.  But the aliens were desperate.  They were sure to return, savvier and better prepared.  But also fewer in number.  Sol did not fear their numbers or their attacks.  He feared the unseen, the bacteria and viruses not yet discovered.  He knew this world was periodically plagued by a virus called Leptka’s Disease.  The disease was indiscriminate, killing thousands before burning itself out and disappearing into the natural world once more.  All the denizens of the world could do was offer palliative measures.  He knew Kaster was collaborating with Topon to find a vaccine for the disease, but Sol did not think that was wise.  The disease was a means of controlling population explosions.  Although people died of other causes, Leptka’s Disease was the main reason populations were kept at manageable levels.  He made a mental note to talk to his friends about their efforts.

            By the time they reached the camp, it was well past sunrise.  They had ridden all night, but they were hardy beings and felt little discomfort.  They dismounted, handing the reins to waiting guards and entered the medical tent.  The others were there.

            Sol removed his soaked cloak and shook it, hanging it on a hook of a cloak tree which stood left of the tent flap.  He followed Ariahl and Kaster to where they others stood around Toyus’ bed.

            Sol looked at Toyus.  The young man was pale, the blistered skin of his throat and face stark against the pallidity.  “How is he, Topon?”

            “He’s holding his own.”

            Sol nodded.  “I need to talk to you all. We need a vote.”

            Ariahl cocked her head.  “A vote about what?”

            Sol faced her. “I think Kaster and Topon’s efforts should focus on preventing a biological disaster.  They should shelf their research into Leptka’s Disease.”

            Kaster took a step forward.  “What if the plague breaks out at this time?”

            Sol sighed.  “I think the plague is a way for the world to maintain viable numbers of inhabitants on this world.  We should not interfere with anything on such a large scale.  The plague is tragic and horrible, but we have to make sure the world can support the number of inhabitants.  If populations soar–“

            Topon nodded.  “I see your point.”  He looked at Kaster.  “Sol might be correct.  We know that at least some will survive Leptka’s Disease, but the alien strain–”  He shrugged.  

            Kaster gnawed his lower lip.  “Agreed then.  We’ll focus on preventing a new type of plague.”

            “God help us,” Mariel muttered and rubbed her arms.

Chapter IV: Attack

            Toyus saw the ships first.  He was not sure what he was seeing at first, for the ships were tiny black specks high up in the sky.  As they increased in size, he rose up on his stirrups and pointed at the sky.

            “They come!”

            A murmur of uncertainty made its way through the company.  Those who had doubted now became convinced as the ships grew larger and larger, sweeping towards the city.

            “Don’t let them reach the city!” Ariahl cried.

            Sol raised his left hand and closed his eyes. A sharp whirr emitted from his hand and then something like a shock wave rolled towards the sky.  The air prickled with electricity.  The ship at the fore of the attack dipped precariously towards the land and avoided crashing just by a hair.  At once the ships veered towards the grass fields where the Sentinels and the Ekesj family were congregated with the troops.

            As Toyus watched, a panel on the side of the fore ship slid open and dozens of smaller ships fell into the sky.  These were smaller than a wagon and looked like small seeds.  As they approached, Toyus could see a being lodged in each small ship through a curved window.  He lifted his sling and spun it hard, releasing the large stone.  The stone collided with the window and cracked it as it bounced off.  Without thinking, Toyus pulled a second stone from the pouch hanging from the saddle and spun the sling again.  The alien transport made to veer off, but Toyus released the stone too quickly.  It hit the window at an angle and the stone tore through the shattered window and hit the being inside.  The being slumped sideways and the transport crashed on the ground, rolling for several feet before coming to a stop.  Already ten soldiers were galloping towards the fallen ship.

            Around him the screams from wounded soldiers and mounts filled the placid afternoon.  He saw the Sentinels as they disrupted the ships’ fields for long enough to allow their soldiers to hurl projectiles at them.  The catapults hurled large rocks rather than boulders.  The boulders would kill indiscriminately, which the Sentinels had forbidden.  The stones were large enough to incapacitate the ships.

            There were hundreds of smaller ships and the Sentinels were becoming overwhelmed.  

            “Let’s get this finished!” Moyen cried out and lifted his arms into the air.

            Toyus hung his sling from his belt and lifted his arms into the air.  He concentrated, keeping his eyes open.  He disrupted the control of every ship that came near him.  The ships spun around and some regained control while others crashed, rolling for several feet before coming to rest.  Each ship ripped through the earth, leaving long gouges behind.  One of the ships came close to him and fired at Toyus.  The weapon was a beam of some sort.  It burst upon Toyus, burning skin and hair.  He screamed and pitched from his mount, hitting the ground so hard, the breath was knocked from his lungs.  Long precious seconds passed before he was able to come upon his knees and then unsteadily to his feet.  His left hand was an angry red and already aching horribly.  He refused to focus on the almost overwhelming pain and hauled himself back onto his saddle.  When a new ship approached him, he allowed his rage to spill through his magic.  Instead of disrupting the field of the ship, the ship’s engine burst into flames.  Toyus saw the being inside attempting to control the ship.  It gave a lazy arc before it crashed on the ground and exploded.

            The pain was beginning to make Toyus sick to his stomach and made his thoughts hard to control.  He took a deep breath and concentrated.  He saw five soldiers attempting to capture a being that had fallen out of its ship.  It lashed at them with its claws and they couldn’t get close.  Toyus pulled on the reins of his mount and directed the bahil towards the fallen being.

            As Toyus approached, the being noticed him and hissed.  It wore robes and not armor or helmet.

            With a groan, Toyus dismounted and took a step towards the being.  He saw catlike pupils in the large eyes of the being.  Sharp fangs peaked out from the stressed mouth.  The long, graceful hands were equipped with long, cruel black claws that ended in sharp, curving tips.  Toyus, grappling to maintain consciousness, held his hands out to the being.  He closed his eyes and released his magic. He heard the being hiss again.  When he opened his eyes, the being was being trussed with ropes.

            One of the soldiers approached Toyus while the others carried the unconscious being to the nearby wagon.

            “Are you well, Commander?” the soldier asked him.

            Toyus swayed, cradling his injured hand to his chest.

            “Come with me, Commander,” the soldier said and took his elbow.  “There is an empathic healer at the hospital tent.”

            Toyus pulled his elbow free.  “I can’t be spared.  There are still too many aliens fighting us.”

            “Sir,” the soldier said.  “You will develop an infection.”        

            “Look out!” Toyus screamed and fell upon the soldier.

            He felt heat at his back and then the leather uniform caught fire.  Toyus screamed as the flames engulfed him.  Mercifully, silence and darkness overcame him and he knew no more.

***

            Sol saw Toyus fall and the rage that filled him took his breath away.  He lifted his arms and targeted the ship that had fired on the young man.  The ship spun and spun, crashing into the ground and rolling several feet and coming to a halt a few feet in the distance.  At once, the human troops swarmed the ship, bent on retrieving the being within.  Sol kept targeting ships while around him men fell and died, burned beyond recognition by the beams the ships were indiscriminately firing.  Exhaustion filled his limbs with hot sand.  His metal legs would bear him long after he was unconscious from exhaustion.  His chips would continue functioning long after his weak flesh gave up.

            He had counted some three hundred alien troops.  That meant each Sentinel and each member of the Stait family had 21 ships to disrupt.  The aliens were learning to arc their ships to present a moving target so it was harder to disrupt their fields, but what the aliens did not know was that the Sentinels could increase the extent of their disruptors.  It would mean they would exhaust themselves that much sooner, but it could not be helped.  Sol committed to bringing down 21 ships before he fell unconscious to the ground.

            The Sentinels communicated via their brain chips.

            “We should present one force field,” Ariahl told them.  “Let us hold  hands and create a net to capture the rest of the ships.”

            “We’ll be useless afterward,” Kaster told them.

            “If we take out 147 ships, the Ekesj family can do the rest,” Derik piped up.

            “We’ll have to focus our intent like never before,” Mariel said into Sol’s mind.

            “We must alert Malida to our intent,” Topon put in.

            “I’ll tell her and Moyen,” Ishel said and galloped away.

            “Be quick about it,” Ariahl commanded him.    

            They could create a electrical field several miles in diameter.  At least, that is what they were built to do but had never tried.  

            “We must disrupt their engines long enough to down the ships en masse,” Mariel said.  “We will fall unconscious after that and we will be of no use for several hours.”

            “So be it,” Kaster said.

            Ishel returned and they dismounted and joined hands, forming a half circle.  The power they emitted electrified and thickened the air.  They closed their eyes and concentrated on unfurling the net of power several miles in every direction.  Nearby, volleys from the alien ships exploded and men screamed.  The air filled with the acrid smell of smoke and the sickly odor of burnt flesh.  The power began to hum within them.  Sol opened his eyes.  He could see the shimmer of the net distorting the air.  As he watched, the net closed around over a hundred ships.  He was not sure if there were the requisite 147, but there were at least 100.  The Staits would have to win this day, for his energy was depleting quickly.  As he watched, Ariahl and Mariel directed the net to close around the ships.  Engines overheated as the aliens lost control of their ships. Smoke and explosions filled the air.  Sol was quickly losing consciousness but he fought it, keeping an eye on the ships until the very last exploded in the air and fell in pieces to the ground.  He felt no regret at the loss of life.  He fell forward into darkness.

***

            Moyen saw when the Sentinels demolished the ships and collapsed.  The remainder of the aliens retreated.  Around them, the troops still alive cheered and Moyen found himself grinning like a fool.  He threw himself from his saddle and engulfed Malida in a hug. She wept into his shoulder.

            “They’ll be back,” Rien told them from a foot away.

            “Perhaps,” Moyen replied.  “But they lost fully half their troops. How many prisoners?”

            “60, Sir,” Rien told him.  “The others died upon impact or burned in their ships.  Where do you want them housed?”

            “In the donjon of Draemin Castle.  The donjon is large enough to house them all.”  He smiled at Malida.  “We did well, wife.”

            She wiped her cheek and gave a watery laugh.  “You could say that.”  She sobered. “We have to help the Sentinels.”

            Moyen bowed.  “Right away, Malida. We have one wagon left.  We’ll take them to the villa.”

            “Aya!  Eda!”

            The sound of Itina’s frantic voice had them turning.  

            The girl was kneeling beside Toyus fallen body.  She was sobbing.

            Moyen went cold inside.  Before he even realized it, he was running to where his daughter knelt next to his heir.  He stopped a few feet away from the body and ran his eyes over his son.  His left hand was badly burned.  His neck and the left side of his face were blistering.  Moyen knelt and picked up the boy.  He rose and ran towards the hospital tent.  Behind him, he could hear his family.  The tent was almost a sepek away.  By the time he approached it, he was huffing breaths and sweating profusely and he had slowed to a stride.  

            A healer stood at the tent door and pulled it back to allow him entrance.

            “What are his wounds?” the healer inquired.

            Moyen laid Toyus on a cot.  “Burns.”

            The healer nodded.  “Please leave, sir.  We’ll care for him right away.”

            Moyen stepped outside of the tent.  He looked into Malida’s eyes.

            “He’s badly burned, but the healers are empathic,” he told her.

            She nodded and began to sob.  He gathered her to him and stroke her head.  

            “He’ll survive, my love,” he assured her, although he doubted the boy would come out of it intact.

            She gasped and nodded and clung to him.

            “I’ve gathered the Sentinels, sir,” Rien said as he strode up.  “The prisoners are being transported even as we speak.”            

            Moyen nodded.  “We’ll have to wait until Ishel wakes before we can communicate with the aliens.”

            “Very good, sir,” Rien said.  “I am leaving a troop here with the catapults.”

            “I don’t foresee another attack as yet, but that is a good idea,” Moyen told him.  “Please have the Sentinels housed in a pavilion here on the field.  My family will stay here as well, in case the aliens return.”    

            Rien saluted.  “I’ll see to the tents myself, sir.”

            Moyen looked at his family.  “Where is Pren?”

            “Head wound,” Soena replied with a grimace.  “He’s being tended to by the the healers.”

            Moyen nodded. “You all did well.  We’ll sleep here in case the aliens return.  We’ll have to rest in shifts, I’m afraid.”

            Emeida stepped forward.  “Anything you need, Eda.”

            He smiled at her and clapped her shoulder.  “I’m very proud of all of you.”

            His daughter gave him a watery smile.

            Malida rubbed her arms.  “If they return, will we be able to fight them off without the Sentinels?”

            He sighed.  “I don’t know, Malida.  We’ll have to try.”

            She nodded and glanced away, eyes glassy with tears.

            He looked at his three daughters.  “Why don’t you go rest?  Malida and I will take the first watch.”

            Arms around each other, his daughters went in search of much needed rest.

            He took Malida’s hand.  “Go see about Pren.  I’ll stick close to this tent and wait to see how well Toyus recovers.”

            She wiped her cheek and nodded, wandering away towards the second hospital tent.

Chapter III: The First Wave

            aun Deuil Sjir’phal Aellus-terus pulled on his pale armor made of treated boueli skin and bones.  The armor was light, flexible and strong.  The material could only be pierced by the sharpest of objects.  He picked up his helmet molded from lisket bones and topped with a lisket feather that changed colors depending on how the light hit it.  The feather rose high into the air and fell down to his lower back.  Like others of his gender, Sjir’phal topped eight feet in height.  He stood at attention before the reflective wall of the cabin he shared with the other three commanders of this ship.  As his eyes ran over his form, he felt a deep, unshakable disgust and abhorrence.  He was a scientist first and foremost, even if he was one of the strongest of his gender.  The idea of depleting another world, of causing the mass extinction of another race of intelligent beings filled him with rancor towards the oun Shi’ehli.  His very armor was an attestation to the depravity of his race.

            The door of the cabin slid open and the other cabin inhabitants entered.  aun Deuil P’ata’lyh Aellus-terus and aun Deuil Pasia’h Ya’ih-terus shuffled in, allowing the door to close behind them.  They were in full armor already.

            aun P’ata’lyh opened his mouth to speak and aun Sjir’phal shook his head, striding to the console near the door and activating the privacy shield.

            “We must be careful,” he told his colleagues.

            aun P’ata’lyh bowed.  “Pardon my indiscretion, aun Sjir’phal.”

            “It is no matter,” Aun Sjir’phal assured his friend.  His tail slashed behind him, giving away his disconcertion and agitated state.  “Are the others ready?”

            “Ye,” aun Pasia’h replied.  “We number two hundred and seven.”

            aun P’ata’lyh hissed.  “So few?”

            aun Sjir’phal shifted. “It will have to be enough.  Once the majority of the army heads down into the planet, we will make our move.”

            “How many of the aun Deuili are headed down?” aun Pasia’h asked.

            aun P’ata’lyh calculated in his head.  “Just over 150.”

            aun Sjir’phal wrapped his tail tightly around his left thigh.  “That leaves two hundred Deuili we will have to dispatch within all the arks.”

            aun P’ata’lyh took a step forward.  “And the Shi’ehli?”            

            aun Pasia’h huffed, showing his humor. “We will flood the ships with the pheromones and the drugs we’ve prepared.  They will be helpless.”

            “But the Ya’ihone and Aellus will be on the world, directing the war,” aun Sjir’phal reminded them.

            “They number five,” aun Pasia’h replied.  “Once they step inside the ships once more, they will be overcome as well.”

            aun Sjir’phal shifted.  “Perhaps they will be captured or outright killed by the inhabitants of the world.”

            The other two inclined their heads.

            aun Sjir’phal sighed.  “We can’t rely on the inhabitants, though.  We must prepare for the worst.  The Ya’ihone and Aellus are the strongest of the Shi’ehli.  We will have to kill them outright.  I do not believe they will be easily overcome by the pheromones and drugs.”

            The other two looked at one another and their tails slashed the empty air, giving away their surprise and disconcertion.

            “Do not fret,” aun Sjir’phal told them. “We will kill them.”

            The other two bowed.

            aun Sjir’phal squared his shoulders.  “The age of the Shi’ehli is nigh at an end.  The Age of the Deuili approaches.”

            They lifted their fists to the air then turned as one towards the door.

***

            oun Shi’ehl D’jir Ya’ihone-Aellus gazed at the line of soldiers in their flesh and bone armor.  He felt his sexes stir at the prowess amassed before him.  As he walked before the line of Deuili and examined their posture and readiness, he felt himself go into the beginnings of estrum.  He paused, frowning with consternation.  Once he went into heat, he would be useless.  He wrapped his tail tightly around his thigh to keep from giving away his dismay.  

            It must be the excitement of battle, he assured himself as he signalled the troops to begin their descent into the planet.

            The troops turned as one and headed towards the shuttles. Once in the shuttles, they would strap themselves into their personal transports, which would allow them to fly easily in the planet’s heavy gravity.  There were only 102 Deuili on each ark.  oun D’jir’s ark would contribute 52 soldiers to the battle, leaving 50 behind to guard over the boueli and the machinery.  oun Shi’ehl D’jir Ya’ihone-Aellus himself would lead the charge, although he was not to fight himself, being a ruler and breeder.  He was too precious to lose in battle.

            He followed the last of the troops onto the shuttle and went to his personal transport to buckle himself in.  The transport almost looked like an egg with a rounded plastic window through which pilot could see in all directions, including up.  As a race, they might not readily tolerate the atmosphere of the world.  Their ships had artificial gravity, but it was not as strong as that of a world.  The only downside of the personal transports was that the breathable air would last for a limited amount of time, perhaps 90 minutes.  They would have to be victorious within that limited amount of time.  oun Shi’ehl D’jir Ya’ihone-Aellus had his doubts, since the inhabitants numbered in the millions. But he had no doubts as to the Sha’jeen’s superiority.  They would outright kill as many as they were able to then the others would fall upon their knees and worship them.  It always happened in that way.  The Sha’jeen would tout themselves as benevolent rulers until their hold on the populace was complete.  Then their true nature would be revealed.  

            oun Shi’ehl D’jir frowned.  Their people would have to conduct experiments in secret.  They needed to find out why the Shi’ehli were not going into estrus as frequently as they once had and why coupling was not producing as many kits as it once had.  If the race of aliens on the planet numbered in the millions, then they were successful breeders.  The Sha’jeen would have to dissect the bodies of the aliens to find out why they were so successful as breeders.

            His attention wandered to the shuttle as it powered up and prepared to leave the ark behind.  The shuttle shook itself, like a great waking beast, and then the sound died down to a steady hum as it warmed up and readied itself for flight.  The journey to the planet would take several hours. During that time, oun Shi’ehl D’jir would confer with his counterparts on the other five shuttles.  He squared his shoulders and shut the personal transport plastic door to give himself some privacy.  Once he felt he was secure, he hailed the other four oun Shi’ehli.

            A few seconds later, oun Rhus’ voice filled oun D’jir’s personal transport.

            “Hail Ya’ih-Ael, the Dual-Faced God!”

            oun D’jir refrained from rolling his eyes.  Stuffy oun Rhus.

            “Hail the Dual-Faced God,” oun D’jir replied and waited for the other three to greet him.

            “oun Lisima here.”

            “oun Mesan accounted for.”

            “oun M’ian also.”

            oun D’jir nodded.  “Greetings.  Is all prepared?”

            “Ye, oun D’jir.  All is prepared,” oun Mesan assured him.

            “You should be cocooned in your cabin, oun Mesan,” oun Lisima piped up.  “You carry younglings in your pouch!”

            oun D’jir frowned.  Was this the case?

            He heard a hiss through the communicator.

            “This is not your concern, oun Lisima,” oun Mesan spat.  “I am early in my breeding.  I can well direct my troops.”

            “I am concerned for your younglings, oun Mesan!” oun Lisima hissed back.  “If you lose the clutch–“

            “Quiet!” oun D’jir roared.  “Say nothing aloud of such magnitude.  The God hears all.”

            Silence filled the intercom.

            After few seconds, oun Lisima piped up.  “Ye, oun D’jir.  You tell the truth.”

            oun D’jir refrained from hissing his impatience.  oun Lisima was not the brightest of their gender.  Once they were on the planet as conquerors, he would dispatch oun Lisima once and for all, as he would dispatch the other High Priests.  He already had a plan in mind.  oun Mesan, once he had his clutch, would be weak for a few hours and prime for murder.  oun D’jir already had operatives in place.  He would steal oun Mesan’s younglings and he would show them off to the Sha’jeen as his own.  The act of showing the clutch to the Sha’jeen would strengthen his position as High Priest.  If the Sha’jeen believed he had bred the younglings, then they would no longer doubt his ability to procreate. It was only matter of time before he conceived his own clutch of younglings.  Once he bred his own clutch, he would kill oun Mesan’s younglings and decimate his genetic pool.

            His descendants would continue to rule; his genetic material would ensure his immortality.  His mind could not conceive of failure, so it did not.  All oun Shi’ehl had this blind spot, not shared by any other gender of the Sha’jeen.  As his mind became subsumed with plans of murdering the other High Priests, the ark doors slid open and the five shuttles carrying their troops dropped into airless space.  The planet loomed large before them, taking up most of the vista.  oun D’jir allowed his eyes to take in the blue and white sphere  before him.  The idea of ruling an entire world filled him with endorphins and soothed as well as aroused him.  He wondered if he had time to find an aun Deuil to mate with.  He hissed with discontent.  The Sha’jeen coupling took at least 10 stellar hours during which oun Shi’ehl and aun Deuil were locked together via their sexes.  It took that long for their genetic material to transfer from one sex to the other, for their sexual cells to travel from one body to the other, for consummation to ensure the maximum number of eggs were impregnated.  oun D’jir’s mind filled with the possibility of conceiving ten younglings.  Such a thing would never happen of course, but he could dream.  Many of the impregnated eggs were reabsorbed by the breeder’s body, depending on the size of the environment the Sha’jeen occupied.  Since the Sha’jeen had lived in a limited environment for centuries, oun Shi’ehli had only been able to conceive five younglings at the most, the rest of the eggs reabsorbed.  But once they lived on a planet, it was conceivable that an oun Shi’ehl could clutch ten younglings.  Such an event had not occurred in nearly two thousand years.  If oun D’jir could accomplish such a task, he would go down in history as a legend.

            He bristled with pride and plans.  His tail puffed up and slashed about in the small space of the personal transporter.  He could smell his arousal, his pheromones flooding the small space and fully triggering his estrus.  He felt his sexes swell and grow slick with lubricant as his body prepared for copulation.  Copulation would be painful, exciting, and deliciously sweet.  He wondered which of the aun Deuili would be to his tastes.  Of course, he would wish to see two aun Deuili fight to the death for him, but that would not be possible until the battle for the planet was won.

            He wrapped his robes more tightly around his body as his temperature dipped.  Most of his blood would pool in his sexual organs now and his thoughts would grow foggy and unpredictable.  He grimaced at the inconvenience of all of this.  Why was God allowing this?  Hadn’t oun D’jir been a faithful priest, killing to provide meat and blood for the God and the people?  Praying for days on end?  Reading the holy tome until he knew it by heart?  How was he able to lead a vanguard into battle if he was in full estrus?

            Gasping for breath as his eggs released, he clutched the handles on each side of the personal transport.  If he didn’t copulate in the next day or so, his eggs would be reabsorbed into his body and God only knew when he would go into heat again.  He released a hiss of breath and bent over as his body was wracked by pain.  He recalled his training and breathed through it.  The arousal was sharp.  He could smell his lubricant as he flooded pheromones into the closed space of the personal transport.

            Soon the pheromones would leak into the shuttle and alert the aun Deuili.

            He cursed and hissed, reaching deep into his genetic memory to find a swift solution to his dilemma.