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.

Chapter II: The Signal

            Sol was the first to receive the signal from the moon.  All the Sentinels were regenerating, as they had to do every third day.  The signal slashed through the chips in his brain and his eyes popped open.  He was on his feet and fully dressed within seconds, making his way out into the hallway before he was even fully awake.  He startled Toyus, who was also striding down the hallway.

            “What is it?” the young man asked.

            “Give me a moment, my lord,” Sol said and strode to Ariahl’s room, knocking on the door.

            A second later, she stood before him.

            “I felt it,” she told him.  “Wake the others and the humans.”

            Sol saluted.  “Right away, Commander.”

            He turned to Toyus, who stood by expectantly.  “Wake your parents and siblings.  We have to meet right away.”

            Toyus stalked away without a reply.  Sol appreciated the young man’s seriousness and dedication.

            Fifteen minutes later, the Sentinels were gathered in the library of the South Wing.

            “They have anchored in one of the Lagrange points,” Sol told his colleagues.  “Five ships total.”

            Ishel was pacing.  “We must warn the city.”  He looked at Ariahl and Mariel.  “I’m going to send the gardener to the city to fetch Warlord Rien Tholten.”

            Ariahl nodded.  “Go.”

            Ishel hurried away.

            Kaster shifted in his seat.  “What is our plan of defense?”

            “We disrupt their magnetic fields or electrical fields,” Mariel replied.  “We want their transports down as soon as possible.  Once we capture one of their transports, we can gather intel.”

            Mariel turned to Topon.  “What has Malida told you about their vulnerabilities?”

            Topon leaned forward and rested his forearms on his thighs.  His almond-shaped eyes took his colleagues.  “They are mortal beings with fleshy bodies.  They are not android or cyborg.  They can be killed.”

            Derik stood.  “Don’t take them for granted.  From what Malida said, they are desperate because their race is dying.”

            “They were a warrior race once and have recalled their past,” Mariel told them.  “I spoke to Malida last night, after her most recent vision.  She says they are descended from some catlike animal.  Their claws can eviscerate a being, so don’t let them come near you.  It is best to stand apart and disrupt their vehicles.  They fight with both feet and hands and are vicious.”

            Kaster sat back.  “They won’t do well in this gravity, though.”

            Ariahl nodded.  “That is our only advantage, I think.  They will be no match for us, if they are incapable of functioning because of gravity.”

            Topon shook his head.  “We can’t stop them all without regenerating.  We should attack in waves.  We’ll go first. When it is time to rest, Malida’s family can take over.”

            “Agreed,” Ariahl said.  “Although they will tire more easily than we will.”

            Mariel took a deep breath and released it.  “They may be only good for one wave.”  She turned to the doctor.  “Have we a drug that assists in stimulating energy production in humans?”

            Derik nodded.  “Yes.  But if we apply such a drug, they will collapse and be useless for a number of days afterward.  Do we really want to go that route?”

            Mariel grimaced.  “I don’t know.”

            “I say we forego the drugs,” Ariahl told them.  “We will have to trust their stamina.”

            The human family shuffled into the library, looking bewildered.

            “What has happened?” Malida demanded.

            Ariahl rose from her seat. “They are here.”

            The rest of the Sentinels rose at Malida’s gasp.

            “So soon?” the woman asked in a small voice.

            Moyen slid his arm around her waist.  “This time next year, we will be safe.”

            She looked at him.  “Will we?”

            “I have to believe so,” he told her.

            Itina began to weep and Malida gathered the girl in her arms.

            “Be strong, child,” Malida murmured against the girl’s hair.  “We have to be warriors.”

            Ishel returned.  “I’ve sent the gardener to fetch the Warlord.”

            Moyen nodded. “Thank you, Ishel.”

            Ariahl looked around the room.  “Are you sure they will attack here first, Malida?”

            The woman released her daughter.  “Yes.  We are all linked.  They will come here.”

            Derik nodded.  “They are directly overhead in the nearest Lagrange point to this location. Malida is correct.”

            “Sit everyone, please,” Ariahl told them.

            Everyone took a seat and the Commander of the Sentinels closed the library door.

            She went to stand before the fireplace and faced them.  “Malida, we are going to attack them by disrupting their electrical and magnetic fields, downing their transports.  We need to capture at least one alive so that we may learn their physiology.  That way, the Sentinels can create a large disruption that will affect the race rather than their machines.”

            Malida nodded.  She looked at Moyen.

            Her husband sighed.  “We can charge Rien with capturing some of the beings alive.”

            “They must stun the aliens,” Derik told the man.  “They cannot get near them for danger of being eviscerated by their claws.  Don’t forget these beings are warriors first and foremost and are built for stamina and speed.”

            “I won’t,” Moyen assured him.

            Ariahl placed a hand on the fireplace mantle.  “We will head towards the grass fields northeast of the city.  There we can battle these beings without causing disruption to the populace.”

            Malida leaned forward.  “But we don’t know where they will attack.”

            “Once they realize we are disrupting their fields, they will head to where we are located.  Don’t worry about that,” Mariel replied.

            “Dress in leather armor,” Moyen told his family.  He rose.  “Let’s get ready before Rien gets here.”

            He looked at the Commander.  “We have bahil for you to ride.”

            Ariahl smiled at him.  “Thank you, my lord.”

            “These animals are battle-trained,” he told her.  “They will remain steady under you when you are in the heat of battle.”   He signalled to his family.  “Come.”

            “You have an hour,” Sol told the human family.  “Then we must head to the battlefield.”

            “Understood,” Moyen said and led his family away.

            Ariahl looked at Sol.  “You sense it, too?  They are waiting.  I wonder why.”

            Sol shook his head.  “I only feel they are gathering some intel and preparing their transports.  I feel their arrogance as a race.”

            Derik rose.  “They have had little competition since leaving their planet.  They have grown complacent.”

            Mariel rubbed her fleshy arm.  “Don’t forget they are desperate.”

            “We won’t,” Derik told her.  “But they are relieved to have found this planet.  And they believe themselves to be superior.”

            Topon chuckled.  “A mortal, flesh and blood being should never feel superior.”

            Kaster frowned.  “They have encountered beings on underdeveloped planets.  They think this planet is the same.  They don’t realize we are here.”

            “Let’s keep it that way,” Ariahl said.  “Let’s align our mind chips.”

***

            Warlord Rien Tholten led his company through the grass fields northwest of the city.  He had informed his second-in-command, Seron Etol, of what they could expect.  His second had reacted with doubt at first, until the Sentinels had showed him their metal arms and legs.

            Commander Etol wore a grim expression as he rode next to Rien.

            “Why are we bringing so few warriors, Warlord, to a battle?” he growled.

            Rien looked over his shoulder at the company behind them.  They numbered 152, 150 warriors and two commanders.

            Rien turned to look ahead once more.  “We are here to capture the fallen enemy and that is all.  We cannot engage.”

            Etol frowned.  “But why not?”

            Rien sighed.  “You’ll see.  They come on machines from the air, Etol.  How are we to fight that?”

            Etol looked away.  “Goddess aid us!  Who is fighting this enemy?”

            “The Sentinels and Moyen’s family.”

            “We must train our warriors to fight the external threat,” Etol told him.

            “I agree,” Rien assured him.  “I’ve already spoken to Moyen and he agrees.  We just don’t have time until this initial threat is dealt with.”

            They reached where the Sentinels and the Ekesj family had gathered and Rien lifted an arm to bring the company to a halt.

            The silence, except for the whistling wind and the huffs and grunts from their mounts, was deafening.

            Moyen urged his mount forward.  “Men!”

            The company saluted the First Consort.

            Moyen rode his bahil back and forth before the company of soldiers.  “This is Commander Ariahl of the Sentinels.”

            The soldiers stared at Moyen. Some coughed; others laughed nervously. 

            Ariahl rode forward and lifted her metal arm into the sky.  She pointed her hand in the direction of a boulder, half buried in the ground.  A light emitted from her hand and the boulder moved.  She frowned with concentration.  The boulder moved again and soon was lifting into the air.

            There were cries and swearing from the company of soldiers.  They looked with awe upon the dusky Sentinel.

            “What is the meaning of this, Warlord?” someone demanded.

            Rien turned his mount to face the company.  “The Sentinels have awakened because a threat from outside the planet has amassed.”

            “Lies!” someone cried out.

            Rien turned to Ariahl.  “Show them again.”

            Ariahl nodded and muscled her mount closer to the company.  She held her metal hand out.  Her hand began to glow blue.  A high pitched whirr emitted from Ariahl’s arm and two soldiers were thrown off their mounts and landed several feet away on the ground.  They lay on their backs stunned and blinking blindly at the sky.

            Rien perceived the beginnings of panic.

            “Hold!” he roared.  “Attention!”

            The company turned to him and saluted.

            “You are in good hands,” he told them.  “I need you to believe and to be strong.  You will see many things today that will shock and frighten you.  I need you to be strong!  I need you to be warriors!  For North Torahn!”

            “Aye!  For North Torahn!” the company cried as one.

            “Do I have your loyalty and courage?” he demanded.

            “Aye aye, Warlord!”

            Rien turned to Moyen.  “That is the best I can do, sir.  I chose our steadiest men.”

            “You did good,” Moyen told him.  He turned to the Company and urged his mount forward.  “Do not get close to these beings.   If you corner one outside of his vessel, use your stone throwers to stun them and then bind their arms and legs and tails.  We will place them on the wagons and haul them to Draemin Castle.  Once we lose our element of surprise, anything can happen.  So, we must capture them as soon as they fall from their transports.  If their crashes kill them, gather the corpses.  We need at least ten specimen. Understood?”

            “Aye, Sir!” the company cried as one.

            Moyen turned to Rien.  “I do not lie.  It will not be easy to defeat them once the element of surprise is gone.”

            “We can’t allow the Sentinels or your family to be captured, sir,” Rien said.  “They cannot learn about our weapons.”

            Ariahl urged her mount to where Rien and Moyen were conversing.  “Sir.  Did you say you have stone throwers?”

            “Yes,” Rien told her.  “We have catapults and ballistas.”

            “Bring the catapults and ballistas.  We will use them to knock their transports from the sky,” she said.

            Rien nodded and dispatched two soldiers to fetch another company to bring three catapults to the field.

            Moyen turned to Ariahl. “If they aliens fly close, we can also dispatch them with slings.”

            “The catapults are our best chance,” she replied.

            “All the company have bows and arrows and slings,” Rien told her.

            “Then I suggest they fight alongside us,” Ariahl said.  “Separate one quarter of the company to gather the fallen aliens.”

            Rien grinned at her.  “They will be relieved to hear that, my lady.  I will organize them now into fighting units.  Excuse me.”

            Ariahl turned to Moyen.  “We must allow your soldiers to fight, my lord.  This is their battle as well.”  She shook her head.  “We’ll have a greater chance of success if this doesn’t not become our private battle.”

            “Agreed,” he said and gnawed his lower lip.  “We will lose a lot of men.”

            “That is true in all wars,” she said to  him.  She grasped his shoulder with her fleshy hand and gently squeezed.  “Trust in your people, my lord.  They may surprise you.”

            “Indeed.”

            They turned towards Rien’s voice as he directed the company to break up into smaller units.

            They settled in to wait.

Part II: Arrival Chapter I: oun Shi’ehl

            oun Shi’ehl D’jir Ya’ihone turned on his sleeping platform and gave a luxuriant stretch.  In one day, they would be saved, his people.  The people he guarded for Ya’ih, the Almighty God of Pain and Death.  He had another name as well, didn’t he?  Ael.  The aspect of suffering and terror.  As Ael’s priest, he was called oun Shi’ehl D’jir Aellus.  Praise be the dual-faced God!  

            He rose naked from the platform and walked to the tub that was filled with filtered water and the blood of the sacrificed. Immersing himself in the lukewarm water, he bathed as he prayed. He felt the heated gazes from nearby Deuili who guarded his sanctum.  He smirked as he took time to wash his sexes.  When his ablutions were done, he fully immersed his head under the water.  He recommited himself to his deity before rising to reach for the drying cloth.  A silent bouel assisted him out of the water, taking the cloth from him and gently dabbing the beads of moisture from his skin.  Ignoring the lesser being, D’jir turned and strode to his garments chest, where he chose an appropriate attire.  The Sha’jeen needed little sleep to regenerate.  Once, in their distant past, they had been hunters and warriors, had lost their way for a time, and then returned to their roots.  They were a hardy race, strong and resilient, with enhanced senses. The Sha’jeen could see well in the dark, for their eyes were serviceable in both daylight and darkness.  Their eyes glowed at night, so they wore goggles to hide the shine of their eyes.  They possessed deadly speeds and agility.  It had been what allowed the Sha’jeen to decimate all other sentient beings fighting for control of resources on their long-ago abandoned planet.  Unfortunately, the Sha’jeen had not been preservationists, and they depleted their planet as well, launching into the stars to seek other worlds.

            In the absence of any competitors, the Sha’jeen, for a brief time, forgot their purpose, turning into scientists instead, but the God had sent down a plague, hadn’t He?  In the form of a tiny organism that they could not contain nor battle.  It had almost been the death of their kind.  Until they found a planet with a fierce god named Ya’ih, a God of Death, of Destruction.  The Sha’jeen married Ya’ih to their ancient deity, Ael.  Ya’ih-Ael became a dual-faced deity.  And the Sha’jeen had recalled their place and their purpose in existence.

            D’jir turned to his study area and sat crosslegged on the mat on the floor, opening their precious tome, Ya’ih doahn shal, and finding the place that spoke of the bloody harvest.  The Harvest of Blood, Meduh’ Nin’h, the most sacred of rituals.  The ground of the planet would soak the sacrificial blood and become holy.  Then the true work would begin.  The work of finding a way to stop the decimation and obliteration of their kind.  Time to leave the stars and settle on a world.  Time to conquer and harvest.

            The God had told one of his ancestors, a High Priest like himself:  “Let the sacrifice of lesser beings make a holy ground for the home of the High Priest of the Warrior People.  Drain all bodies of blood, burn the bodies so that the God may partake of the essence of Life.  The fire should be hot with special oils and it should burn bodies for three entire days and nights.  Feel nothing for the sacrificial being, for it is as nothing, worthy of nothing but death.  Any Sha’jeen who harbors empathy and compassion shall be excised from the people and made an example of.  Hang the heretic by their feet and drain the body of blood.  Let the body rot, the spirit never allowed to reach the God of Blood and Pain.  The smell of rot pleases the Lord.

            The Lord shall lead the Warrior People to a planet suitable for habitat.  The Lord shall provide an endless source of sacrifice to please Him.

            oun Shi’ehl D’jir looked up and out the window of his cabin.  He could feel the proximity of the world and all it’s hapless inhabitants. The Sha’jeen would strike fast and hard, swinging the Holy Scythe and leaving bodies littered in their wake.

            He closed his eyes and prayed.  The visions he had seen of these beings were strange: they were bulky and slow, these people.  Mere chattel.  oun Shi’ehl D’jir looked forward to seeing their structures and if they would be serviceable for the Sha’jeen.  If not, all would be destroyed and the planet’s resources would be used to built appropriate domiciles for the conquerors.  The people of the world would provide labor for the accomplishments of the Sha’jeen. He smiled to himself:  it would be pleasant and agreeable to break every being on that planet.  He had been born in an auspicious time and he bent his head and gave thanks to the God that his role would be the greatest for a High Priest in several generations.

            “oun Shi’ehl.”

            oun Shi’ehl D’jir hissed.

            “Forgive our trespass, oun Shi’ehl. We approach the planet.”

             “Do you jest, aun Deuil?  Would you like me to eviscerate you?”

            The guard did not flinch.  oun Shi’ehl D’jir was impressed and his sexes signalled their interest in the guard.  He filed that away for a future time.

            The guard bowed.  “I jest not, oun Shi’ehl.  We had miscalculated the time it would take to reach the planet.”

            oun Shi’ehl D’jir hissed again and rose smoothly.  “Close the sails and find an anchor in a point between the planet and its satellite.”

            The guard bowed.  “At once, oun Shi’ehl.”

            Excitement coursed through oun Shi’ehl D’jir.  He hurried to the control room through the maze of hallways.  Mostly aun Deuili occupied the control room, although oun Shi’ehl Nema captained the fore ship and gave orders that were relayed to the other four vessels that followed in its wake.

            oun Shi’ehl Nema turned and bowed to oun Shi’ehl D’jir.  “oun Shi’ehl:  behold.”

            oun Shi’ehl D’jir turned to the window directly ahead.  The solar sail had been retracted, allowing for an unencumbered view of the blue and white planet before them.  Further away, the satellite hung in space, smallish and unimpressive.  

            “Find the point in space where we can dock,” oun Shi’ehl D’jir told his counterpart.  “We must begin and soon.”

            oun Shi’ehl Nema frowned.  “Of course, oun Shi’ehl.  Right away.”

            oun Shi’ehl D’jir found an uninhabited chair and sat before a console.  He watched avidly as the ships were maneuvered to the points in space where the gravity between the planet and its satellite would anchor the ships.  His eyes returned again and again to the untarnished world.  It was beautiful enough for their kind, he supposed.  The gravity would prove difficult for a generation or two, but eventually they would become adapted to it.  They would have to leave the ship en masse and leave a skeleton crew to maintain the ships.  Eventually, when the world was depleted, they would once again leave its devastation and return to the stars to continue their search for immortality and perfection.

            oun Shi’ehl D’jir signalled to oun Shi’ehl Nema.  oun Shi’ehl Nema approached deferentially and bowed.

            “How many beings inhabit the world?” he asked Nema.

            Nema considered.  “There are innumerable wild life for hunting and poaching, oun Shi’ehl.  The combined populations of the sentient beings number in the 200 millions, oun Shi’ehl.”

            oun Shi’ehl D’jir gasped.  “So many?”

            Nema bowed.  “Ye, oun Shi’ehl.”

            oun Shi’ehl D’jir considered.  They could not defeat all those beings and they didn’t want a wholesale slaughter.  They needed to harvest the planet slowly, so their numbers could recuperate.  He knew their own people numbered but 3,050.  Of those numbers, boueli numbered 2,287.  Deuili numbered 510 and Shi’ehli just over 251.  For years they had led a precarious existence, keeping the boueli ruthlessly under control, teaching them nothing but spoken language.  They must never know they outnumbered by so many the Deuili and Shi’ehli.  They would have rebelled a long time ago and would have outright killed any and all the others, effectively ending their race.

            oun Shi’ehl D’jir considered the circumstances in silence for a few minutes.  The God did not speak to him or guide him unless he went into a trance.  Perhaps a trance was in order.  He rose gracefully.

            “I’ll speak with the God for guidance,” he told his counterpart.  “Do nothing until I return.”

            oun Shi’ehl Nema bowed.  “Of course, oun Shi’ehl.”

            oun Shi’ehl D’jir strode back through the maze of corridors, his thick claws clicking on the bare metallic floor.  The Sha’jeen had millions of years ago evolved from an animal on their home planet.  The animal had had thick claws on all four feet and a tail.  Only the Shi’ehl and the Deuil still had the remnants of claws and tails.  The boueli, being lesser beings, had no claws and no tail.  oun Shi’ehl D’jir kept his tail tightly wrapped around his left leg.  His tail was particularly expressive and gave too much away. He preferred not to signal his willingness to be mounted or his excitement about anything.  He liked being remote and distant.  It added to his superior nature and mystery.  It kept his guards confused and curious.  He never allowed his tail to stray to a Deuil to signal that copulation was required.  oun Shi’ehl D’jir had not gone into heat in at least three solar years.  It was worrisome and would perhaps one day signal his death.  Each ship had a High Priest.  Each High Priest was charged with conceiving clutches of young for the colony.  Other Shi’ehli had conceived, although infrequently.  He knew his position precarious indeed.  Other Shi’ehli viewed his position with greed and envy.  Already they questioned him, pushed him, challenged him, doubting his visions.  Soon they would have him killed.  He needed to orchestrate a victory for the warrior people.  His very existence depended on it.

            When he reached his quarters, he had the guards withdraw into the hallway and sealed himself alone in his cabin.

            With a sigh, he removed his robes and unwound his tail.  He knelt on the study rug and bent his head.  He prayed for guidance.

            Going into a trance required putting himself in danger, for he would be incapacitated and vulnerable.  But it was necessary to see what the God desired and demanded.

            It took a precious hour this time.  When he attained the trance-like state, he fell forward onto the rug.  His body twitched and trembled as the trance took hold.

            oun Shi’ehl.

            D’jir opened his eyes and looked around.  He stood on a plain of wild grass.  The air was sweet and clean, green with the scent of crushed grasses.  D’jir looked around, awed by the hugeness of the planet, the expansiveness of the sky.

            oun Shi’ehl.

            “My lord?” he said to the sky.

            Laughter shimmered through the cool air.  

            You are a fool, oun Shi’ehl.  I am no God. I am the Goddess of this world.  The Warrior Goddess Atana.

            D’jir flinched.  “This cannot be.”

            Then how do you explain me?

            “I cannot.  Deceiver!”  He spat on the ground.

            The air rippled again.

            You will be defeated and your own people will destroy you.  Where is your God now, oun Shi’ehl?

            Fear clutched at D’jir for the first time in his brief life.  

            Fear not and embrace the truth and the way.  If you come in peace, there will be salvation for your race.  If you come to destroy, your race will end.  You have been warned.

            oun Shi’ehl D’jir gasped and blinked his eyes open.  He slowly came onto his hands and knees, reaching with a trembling hand for his robes.  He pulled the robes over his body, wrapping his tail around his left leg.  He pulled in a shivery breath and sat cross legged on the study rug, reaching for the Book of Life.

            “Where are you, God?” he whispered.

            He looked through the tome for clues to the God’s behaviors.  Was he being tested by the God?  Did the God send a mirage to test him?

            There was a signal from the cabin door.

            He squared his shoulders and rose smoothly.  Beyond the door stood five Deuili.  

            The middle guard bowed.  “The captain requires your direction, oun Shi’ehl.”

            oun Shi’ehl D’jir masked his growing terror and bowed.  “Please lead the way to the control room.”

            The guards bowed.             oun Shi’ehl stepped into the hallway, half thinking a knife would be plunged into his heart, but no such thing happened.  He released his breath and followed the guards down the maze of corridors

Chapter XII: Vision

                Kaster gave Malida a purging agent which had her emptying her stomach, bladder, and bowels.  He allowed her to imbibe only water before he administered the drug intravenously.

            Malida lay on the longest couch in the library, her children and husband around her.  The Sentinels stood at strategic places around the room, two at the closed door, one at each of the windows, and Mariel, Ariahl and Kaster near Malida.

            Malida flinched when Kaster injected her and plunged the drug into her vein.  The substance felt hot and soon her body flushed with its side effects.  Her skin felt feverish and soon a fine film of perspiration covered her entire body.  At the same time, she kept trembling as if she were cold, but she could not stand the feel of blankets or sheets on her.  She got restless and began to pace.

            Kaster looked at Moyen.  “This will take several hours, my lord.  The experience was euphemistically referred to as a ‘trip’ in the old days.  There is a pattern to the trip.  At first, as you can see, she will be irritable, restless, and uncomfortable.  I have to gauge how much she needs to imbibe before she begins to hallucinate.  I have to monitor her life signs in the meantime.”

            Moyen frowned.  “Why?”

            Kaster grimaced.  “Her heart has to be monitored.  Too much of the drug increases heartbeat and taxes the heart.  If she is poisoned, she can have a heart attack or a stroke.  But I started with a relatively small dose.”  He looked at Malida.  “My lady, please sit.”

            She scratched at her bare arms.  “I…I can’t sit.”

            Moyen went to her and took her by the shoulders, shaking her gently.  “Malida, please.  Sit and allow the doctor to listen to your heart.”

            She made herself sit and Kaster placed his electronic pad in front of her chest, turning it on and finding the correct setting.  

            Curious, Moyen stood nearby.   He gasped when a picture of Malida’s heart appeared on the pad.   A tinny beat emitted from the pad.

            Kaster glanced at Moyen. “Her heart is fine.  Strong.”  He looked at Ariahl.  “I need permission to administer a higher dose, Captain.”

            “Granted,” Ariahl replied.

            Malida watched as the Sentinel injected her once more.  She hardly felt the prick of the needle, but soon she felt disconcerted as her sense of connection to solid objects eroded until she felt she could float off the couch.  She gasped.

            “Moyen!  Hold me, please.”

            Her husband sat next to her and placed an arm around her waist.  “What is it, Malida?”

            “I’ll float away if you don’t anchor me,” she told him in a breathless voice.

            Kaster placed his pad before her chest.  “Heart is fine.  Now we wait.”

            The hallucinations started soon afterward.  Colors seemed to bleed one into the other. It was as if she could look through objects somehow.  She felt eerily disconnected from her feelings.

            “Malida,” Ariahl said.  “Please lie down and close your eyes.”

            Malida did as she was asked.  She noted Moyen sat down on the floor next to the couch and continued to anchor her by holding her hand.  She smiled at him before she closed her eyes.

            In the darkness behind her eyes, she saw colors swirling.  Someone placed something around her head and soon she heard Ariahl’s voice directly in her mind.

            Malida, think of the Sha’jeen, the Sentinel captain told her.  Try to see them.

            Soon she lost the thread of the voice as her mind became immersed in hallucinations.  Sha’jeen, she thought.  Find the Sha’jeen.  It was almost like sleeping, but she was awake and aware of everyone around her.  She could feel, in the distance of her skin, the heat of Moyen’s hand on hers.  She was filled with desire and love for him.  So strong, the emotions filled her eyes with tears that leaked down the side of her face.

            What do you see, Malida? asked the voice in her head.

            She started at the sound.

            She thought of the Sha’jeen and soon she was floating in space.  Before her sailed five vast ships with round sails in the front.  They sailed past her and she saw the sails were deceptive.  Most of what comprised the Sha’jeen arks were the sails themselves.  Each sail was about a sepek in size horizontally and a sepek in size vertically. The sails were made of a reflective fabric or material.  The ships themselves were large, but not as large as they had first seemed to her.  Somehow, she knew that once there had been almost one hundred such ships, but the Sha’jeen’s numbers had reduced due to infertility.  She also knew the Sha’jeen had dispersed into different parts of the galaxy, although she could not see if the other ships were still functional.  She only knew that the one hundred ships had parted ways in groups of five.  She wondered briefly if each unit had developed new beliefs or if they all still clung to their bloody deity.

            As she neared the ships, she saw scars on the skin of each ship.  Collisions of some sort had damaged the ships.  There were holes, here and there, on the sails, too.  

            What do you see, Malida?  

            “Ships.  They are damaged, both the ships and the sails.”

            Go inside and tell us what you see.

            She approached the closest ship and placed her hand on the shell.  Her hand went through the skin of the ship and she fell inside, passing through an array of chaotic wiring and hull spaces before she stepped out into a hallway.  The hallway, which curved gently, was filled with doors.  She began to walk down the hallway.  Soon she began to hear cries in the distance.  The sounds of agony and fear drew her like a moth to a flame.  Soon she was running.  She turned a corner and stopped abruptly.  Before her were groups of Sha’jeen.  There were around twelve naked beings chained to each other.  Next to them were taller beings in some sort of uniform.  They wore a type of helmet that was oval in shape, made of gleaming metal and rising to a point about a foot in the air and ending in an elaborate and exquisite feather of different colors.  The feathers changed colors as the hallway light hit them at different angles.  

            What do you see?

            “People chained.  They are boueli, I think.  They have no sex.  They are in pain and are afraid, terrified really.”  She swallowed past her parched throat.  “The Deuili are around them.  They seemed to be waiting for something.”

            A door slid open and a tall, exquisite being stepped through.  He was beautiful, willowy, and graceful.  He wore diaphanous robes that glimmered and changed colors depending on the angle of the light.  His chest was bare, as was his long neck.  His head was adorned with an elaborate headdress that looked like tree branches except, when he stepped closer, she saw they were delicate thin bones twisted to look like branches.  The bones were yellowed with age.  At the tips of each bony branch, which had been whittled to sharp points, were stains that could have been red paint or could have been blood.  The being carried a sharp, jagged knife in each hand.  He began to dance, mesmerizing the chained beings.  His dance was fast and impossibly graceful and beautiful.  As his speed increased, Malida’s fear increased as well.  Some premonition filled her with horror.

            The being began to spin faster and faster and soon he spun close to the chained boueli, whose screams reduced to gurgles and whimpers.  A spray of blood splattered the walls of the hallway and drops fell to the ground.  A moment later, the chained beings crumbled to the ground, already dead before they hit the ground.  They were sliced in several places, including their necks, but Malida knew that the neck slice had come last.  The Shi’ehl, for that is what it was, the High Priest of these people, made sure the boueli had suffered before cutting off their lives.          

            The High Priest stopped dancing and went down on one knee.  He cut a piece of flesh from the chest of nearest dead bouel and brought the flesh to his lips, biting a piece off and chewing it reflectively.  He glanced at the nearest guard.

            “How soon will we reach the planet?”

            The guard bowed.  “oun Shi’ehl, within the week.”

            The High Priest sighed.  “Then these twelve bodies will have to feed us until then.  Butcher them and put them in the storage vats.”

            The guards bowed and dragged away the bodies, leaving long lines of blood in their wake.

            The High Priest turned and entered his room.

            Malida followed him into a room rich with the scents of incense and old blood.  The round room was illuminated by low lighting.  The floors were bare, as were the gleaming metal walls.   A round structure, like a bed, was set against one side of the room.  Other structures stood at intervals around the room.  Some structures were like chairs and made of yellowed bones.  

            The Shi’ehl walked to a metal table and set the jagged knives down.  He wiped the blades with the tip of his finger and brought the finger to his mouth.  Then he picked up a cloth and wiped them clean.  Removing his elaborate headdress he set it on the table and walked to the only window in the room.  Outside, darkness and pinpricks of light in the distance.  The High Priest placed his hand flat on the window, his spidery fingers splaying.

            “Ael Ya’ih, itolis, shai shai!”  He turned and looked right at Malida.  His wide mouth splayed into a smile, showing sharp, jagged teeth.  “I know you are there.”

            Malida gasped.

            He stalked towards her. “You know we come.  I will have to find out how such a thing can be.  Consuming you will make us invincible!”

            She turned and ran as he reached where she stood.

            His laughter followed her from the room.

            She floated through the ship’s shell and into icy, airless space.

            Her eyes flew open.  Moyen was dabbing her forehead with a damp cloth.  Light was seeping through the curtains.  Her children were asleep on settees and nearby armchairs.

            “What time is it?” she croaked.

            Her husband held a mug of water to her mouth. She swallowed the cold, sweet water with a sigh.

            “It is near midday,” Moyen told her.

            Ariahl sat on the low table before Malida’s couch.  “What did you see?”

            Malida sighed.  “They know we know about them, Ariahl!  Their High Priest knew I was observing him.”

            “Calm down,” the Sentinel told her.  “We can’t be sure what was true and what was a hallucination.”

            “I know what I saw, ” Malida insisted and sat up, pushing the blankets off her.  “Goddess preserve us, it was horrible!  They butchered twelve boueli and the High Priest ate a piece of flesh.”

            “Calm down,” Ariahl repeated.

            Malida rose.  “Don’t tell me to calm down!  We don’t even have the element of surprise.  I still can’t gauge how many of them there are!”

            Moyen pulled her to him, engulfing her in his strong arms. She began to sob, and he gently stroke her hair as if she was a child. She felt like a child, afraid and lost.  She clung to him desperately. He pressed a kiss to the side of her head.

            “We must not lose hope, Malida,” he murmured into her ear.  “If we lose hope, all is lost.”

            She sniffled.  “I know.  It’s just…where is Atana?  She hasn’t spoken to me in ages.”

            “The Goddess has her ways and we must believe she will be with us when we encounter the Sha’jeen.”

            She turned her face to his neck and breathed in his scent. It calmed her almost instantly.  She closed her eyes.

            “My lady,” Ariahl said from behind her. “You must eat.  The drug depletes nutrients from the body.”

            Malida sighed and nodded.  She sat down on the couch and Moyen placed the tray with her breakfast on her lap.  She uncovered the bowl of boiled grains smothered in honey and tah’lir’s milk, tza nuts and dried lounma.  She almost wept from gratitude that it was not animal flesh of any kind.  She didn’t think she would ever be able to consume any type of flesh again.

            The Sentinels watched her finish the bowl and then eat a thick slab of fresh bread with honey and butter.  She drank a cup of water and allowed Moyen to take up the tray and bear it to the kitchen.

            Malida looked at the Sentinels, who stood in a semi-circle on the other side of the low table.

            “They will be here within the week,” Malida told them.  “Our time is up.”

            The Sentinels looked at each other before turning to her once more.

            “So be it,” Ariahl told her.  “We will be victorious.  There is no choice for us.”

            Malida crossed her arms over her chest against the sudden chill in the room.

            The time had come.  Goddess preserve, she prayed and rose.  There were plans to be made before everything changed.

Chapter XI: Decision

            Once Rien was gone from the property, Moyen carried Itina to her room and laid her on the bed, covering up the girl, who had fallen asleep.

            He held the girl’s icy hand in both of his and rubbed it to get blood into the pale flesh.

            “I want him dead, Moyen,” Malida whispered, taking a seat on a nearby armchair.

            “I will kill him myself,” Moyen assured her.  “Once I torture him.”

            She rubbed peevishly at her forehead.  “How can I not have seen him for what he is?”

            He turned to her.  “Don’t, Malida.  Perverts hide their perversions very well, if they are smart.  Othel is clever.”    

            Her eyes filled with tears.  

            “My lord, my lady.”

            They both turned.

            Sol stepped into the bedroom and gently closed the door behind him. “May I speak to you a moment?”

            They rose to face him.

            “Of course,” Moyen replied.

            The Sentinel scratched the side of his neck.  “I don’t want you to think I am sympathetic to Othel’s perversions.  I am a psychologist and I was trained to understand human behavior.”

            Moyen scowled.  “What are you trying to say?”

            Sol squared his shoulders.  “A pervert is not born; he is made.  Someone abused Othel when he was a child and Othel became an abuser in turn.  Not everyone who is sexually abused as a child becomes a sexual predator in turn, you understand. But a certain number do.  If people have a weak sense of empathy, they become predators.”

            “Are you saying we are to forgive Othel?” Moyen demanded.

            “No,” Sol replied.  “He cannot be rehabilitated, I don’t think.  There has been little success with rehabilitating pedophiles, other than enforced celibacy.  I am not telling you how to mete justice.  It is not my daughter who was molested.  I am saying you should kill him, if that is the justice you wish to mete. But torturing him makes you no better than he, and we cannot stand by for such barbaric measures.”

            “You heard me?” Moyen asked.

            “We have enhanced hearing.  Yes, I was headed this way to see how you both were and I heard you.”  Sol took in a deep breath and released it.  “I have my mission and my ethics.  As a doctor and a psychologist, I cannot stand by and watch you torture a sick man.”

            Malida cocked her head.  “How did you deal with…what did you call Othel?”

            “A pedophile.  It is an old word.  Pedo means child; phile means lover of.”

            Moyen grimaced but said nothing.

            “How did you deal with pedophiles in your time?” Malida asked.

            “We incarcerated them,” Sol replied.  “Removed them from society.”

            Malida shook her head.  “There must have been many, to give them a label.”

            “There were,” Sol replied.

            “Well, incarceration must have been more secure in the distant past,” Moyen said.

            “”It was a huge institution,” Sol agreed.  “I have another idea of how to deal with Othel, sir.”

            Moyen sighed.  “Oh?”

            “We can remove his desires, which is also what we did in the past, if the pedophile requested the measure,” the Sentinel said.  “We can emasculate him.  It didn’t always work, you see.  Sometimes the pedophile became bitter and kidnapped children to torture or kill them.  That is why we simply imprisoned them, but we also emasculated them, permanently removing their sexual desires.”

            “And how is that not torture?” Moyen demanded.

            “It was successful in a percentage of the population of pedophiles. They became normal members of society in that they held jobs and contributed to society.  They no longer were tortured by their unnatural desires.”

            “I see,” Moyen replied, unsure he did see.  

            “Then if we capture–no,” Malida stated firmly.  “When we capture Othel, I would like him emasculated.”

            Moyen crossed his arms over his chest.  “I want him dead.”

            Sol shifted. “Let’s see if the emasculation works first.”

            Moyen shook his head.  “I don’t think Othel has any sense of empathy.  What if we create a monster?”

            Malida looked at him.  “Then we kill him.”

            “But not before he does something that warrants death,” Moyen said.  “I object to this path of action.  I want my objection to go on record.”

            “Noted,” Malida told him.

            Moyen turned to Sol.  “What does the process of emasculation look like?”

            “We inject a chip into his brain that interferes with sexual drive.  As much as he will want to desire a child, he will be unable to.  He will essentially be without a sexual drive.”  Sol cleared his throat.  “Also, the chip renders him unable to obtain an erection.  His penis–his  kauon–will not become erect, no matter what he does.”

            Moyen shuddered but said nothing.  The more he heard, the more he was inclined to go along with the scheme.  Othel would suffer greatly and he was infinitely pleased by that.

            Malida gave a firm nod. “Then that will be justice in and of itself.”

            Sol nodded.  “Agreed.”

            “Eda?”

            Moyen gasped and turned to the bed.

            Itina’s eyes were open and she was glancing uncertainly around the room.

            “Hello, daughter,” Moyen said and sat at the edge of the mattress.  “How are you, child?”

            “Why am I in bed, Eda?” the girl asked in a small voice.  “Am I sick?”

            “You were examined, child, that’s all,” her father replied.  “Are you well?”

            The girl frowned.  “I have a headache.”

            “That is common,” Sol replied.  “Give her fluids.  She might be dehydrated.  That is a side effect of the drug.”

            Malida went to the bedside table and poured water from a decanter into a mug.  She handed Moyen the mug.

            Moyen helped his daughter to sit up then fed her the water.

            “Your headache will go away in a bit,” Sol told the girl.

            The girl blushed and nodded as her father helped her lie back down.

            “I suggest you rest, young lady,” Sol told her.  “After a bit of a nap, you’ll be right as rain.”

            They watched as the girl closed her eyes and was soon sleeping.

***

            The family gathered in the sitting room later that day.  The Sentinels joined them.

            Malida had another vision.

            “The Sha’jeen will be here soon,” she told them.  She looked at Ishel.  “I have a sense of their language, Ishel.  I understand them when they speak.”

            Ishel leaned forward eagerly.  “Then we need to discuss this matter indeed.  We have chips in our brains that allow us to learn languages quickly.  We don’t have much time.”

            Malida rose.  “Excuse me.”

            Ishel watched her leave the room and return shortly with paper, an inkwell and pens.  

            “I will write down the words and their language for you,” Malida told them.  

            The Sentinels pulled out their electronic pads from their shoulder bags.  

            She wrote a symbol on paper and held it up. “This symbol means Shi’ehl.  The pronoun for the Shi’ehl, who are their rulers, is ‘oun’.  Oun is the equivalent of ‘she,’ except the Shi’ehl look like males, not females. Oun means ‘that can bear young.'”  She set the paper on the low table and wrote another symbol.  “This symbol means Deuil.  The pronoun for the Deuil, who are their soldiers, is ‘aun’.  Aun is the equivalent of ‘he.’  The Deuil grow tall, too, and are strong with speed and stealth being their abilities, but they don’t have the musculature of hu’an males.”

            “That is because of the gravity on their ships,” Kaster piped up.  “A planet has greater gravity than a ship is able to produce.”

            Malida nodded.  “Don’t take the Deuil lightly, please.  I have seen in my vision what they can do.”  She set the page on the table and drew a third symbol.  “This is the symbol for bouel, who are their servants and slaves.  Their pronoun is ‘nieh.’  It means ‘nothing.’  They are neuter, unable to reproduce.  They have no sexual organs.  The Sha’jeen have conveniently forgotten that all of their fetuses are boueli at first.  When they are conceive, none of the Sha’jeen have a gender or sex.  Then a wash of hormones assists the fetus in developing sexual organs.  The boueli also look like males.”

            “Curious,” Topon said.  “So do the dual-sexed higher beings on this planet.  The isili look like young men all their lives.  The Isemi look like human males.  Well, the dominant gender of that species anyway.  Their ouna-nae look like slender young men.  At least, that is how they are portrayed in paintings and drawings.”

            Malida nodded.  “Yes, you are correct.  I’ve never meet an Isemi, but my ancestors did.  Those portraits and drawings in our books are fairly accurate, I hear.”

            They settled down around her as she drew two symbols on the paper.  “This is how a Shi’ehl is addressed.  The pronoun always comes first in their language.  So, if you address a Shi’ehl, you address oun as ‘oun Shi’ehl.’  If you address a Deuil, you address aun as ‘aun Deuil.’  The same with the bouel.  You address nieh as ‘nieh bouel.'”

            Sol shifted in his chair.  “I don’t know how I feel about addressing a being as ‘nothing.'”

            “Yes,” Ariahl agreed.  “But we must be able to communicate with them first and foremost.”

            “Agreed,” Mariel said.

            Ariahl turned to Sol.  “You must address them in a way they comprehend.”

            Sol grimaced but nodded.

            Topon leaned forward in his seat.  “Malida, what else has been revealed to you?”

            She gave the question some thought.  She sighed.  “They will travel on small, light machines on the planet.  They resemble black metal chairs with glass coverings.  The machines are equipped with weapons that destroy living things and structures.  These weapons pulverize anything the Sha’jeen want destroyed.  The weapons emit a light beam of some sort.”  She shuddered.  “Anyone who stands in the way of the Sha’jeen gets pulverized.  I saw us in battle, though.”

            “We can bend fields, Malida,” Derik gently reminded her.  “Your lessons have been going well and now you and your children can bend fields as well.”  He glanced at each Sentinels before turning his gaze to her as well.  “Once we see their weapons in action, we can devise a means to stop them.”

            “But that means they will fire their weapons,” Malida put in.  “Does that mean something will be destroyed or someone will be killed?”

            “We may have no choice but to let such a thing happen,” the engineer told her.  “We have to see the weapons being used before we can devise a counter weapon.  Do you see?”

            She rubbed her arms.  “Yes.”

            Mariel crossed her legs.  “We cannot give away our advantages.  We might have to let the Sha’jeen do some damage before we are able to fight back.”

            Moyen shook his  head and sighed.  “This begs the question:  how can fourteen of us fight an entire race?”

            Malida looked at her husband.  “The majority of Sha’jeen are boueli, my dear.  They are not taught how to fight.  Their mode of transport is not equipped with anything, because the Shi’ehli and the Deuili do not trust their slaves.  We have to worry about the Deuili, their soldiers.  The Shi’ehl believe it beneath them to fight.  Unfortunately, I don’t have numbers for the Deuili.  They could be 100 or 1,000, for all I know, although I get a feeling their numbers are not as many as I fear.  Each generation produces fewer and fewer Sha’jeen, after all.  In the last vision I had, they showed stress and fear that they would not make it here in time.”

            Sol shifted.  “How do they know of this planet?”

            Malida glanced at him.  “Their bloodthirsty deity sends them visions, just like Atana sends me mine. The deity gave their supreme ruler coordinates to this planet almost two hundred years ago, so they were in the general vicinity of our solar system.”

            Sol looked at Ariahl.  “That means we are connected somehow, these beings and this planet.  For what purpose, I wonder?”        

            “I think we are meant to change them,” Malida offered.  “To lead them to a more peaceful existence, to offer part of this world for them to settle in.  To return them to who they used to be.”

            Kaster nodded.  “I believe they need to settle on the planet if they are to survive, for their travels through the galaxy has only poisoned their bodies.”

            Mariel glanced at Ariahl.  “We’ll have to settle them in an uninhabited land mass on the planet.  That way they can develop a new culture free of influences.”

            Ariahl nodded.  “We’ll make sure to keep an eye on them.”

            “Yes,” her second agreed.

            Moyen shifted.  “Let’s not get too far ahead of ourselves, shall we?  We have to defeat them in order to assist them.”  He looked at Malida.  “What my wife tells me is that they are bloodthirsty and aggressive. If they believe us to be inferior, how are we to change them?”

            Derik let out a bark of laughter.  “If we beat them, they will not hold that belief for long.  We just have to make sure to beat them and soundly.”

            Mariel frowned.  “We have a drug in our possession that induces altered states in the mind.”  She flicked a glance to Kaster.  “How safe is the drug, Kaster?”

            “It’s fairly safe,” he replied.  “It just gives a feeling of euphoria for a few days and the imbiber may not be good for much during that time.”

            Mariel nodded.  She looked at Malida.  “Will you agree to undergo a vision with us in attendance, my lady?  We have to direct your vision in order to gather intel.”

            Malida felt someone take her left hand and she gazed at her husband.

            “Do only what you feel comfortable with, Malida,” he told her.

            She squeezed his hand. “I must do what is good for the mission of the Sentients.  I am the key to all this.”  She let Moyen’s hand go and turned to Mariel.  “Let’s do this then.”

Chapter X: Interrogation

Warlord Rien Tholten dismounted and handed his reins to Oskel Oloin, the groundskeeper.  He turned to his escort troop and signalled that they should dismount as well.

            “I’m going in to speak to his lordship, Moyen Stait,” he told his second-in-command, Seron Etol.

            Commander Etol saluted.  “Very good, sir.  We’ll keep watch out here.”

            Rien nodded and headed to the villa’s front door.  

            The villa overseer, Besen Oloin, opened the door before Rien reached it and bowed.  “How may I assist you, Warlord?”

            “I’m here to see Lord Moyen, Besen.”

            The overseer bowed again.  “Very good, sir.  I shall fetch him for you.  Please wait in the main library.”

            Rien strode to the library and entered, finding the Sentinels already occupying the room.

            “Good morning,” Rien said to the room.

            The Sentinels rose as one.

            The young woman called Mariel took a step forward.  “What brings you out here, Warlord?”

            Rien smiled at her.  “I’m here to see Moyen, m’lady.  But you are all welcome to linger.  What I have to tell him you may as well hear.”

            She blushed and nodded, looking shyly away.

            He gauged her to be around twenty-two, two years his junior.  Something about Mariel called to him.  He liked her looks, true enough:  she was slender and on the small side, with honey dark skin and a light smattering of freckles along her cheeks and the bridge of her nose.  She kept her black hair short, like all the Sentinels, and had the most intriguing hazel eyes he had ever seen.  But her lips were his favorite part of her face:  full and luscious and dark, bespeaking of a passionate nature.  Slender and graceful, she was much to his taste, and he was fairly entertained by the fact that he didn’t seemed disturbed by the meaning of her existence, or the fact that she had slept on the planet’s airless moon for over 15,000 years.  When she first slept, there had been no hu’ans, no city-states, no nations as they existed today.  He shook his head and turned to the archway leading from the hallway.

            “Rien!” Moyen greeted and caught his hand in both of his.  “What brings you out here?”

            “Can you close the door, my lord?” Rien asked.

            Moyen seemed taken aback for a moment before he relented and nodded, letting go his hand and shutting the hallway door.  “What is it?”

            “Have you forgotten you have Othol’s paid spy in your household?” Rien asked without preamble.

            Moyen grimaced.  “I have not.  Besen’s family has been in our service for generations.  We pay them well.”  He shook his head.  “Are you sure one of his family is Othol’s spy?”

            Rien splayed his hands.  “How do you determine that Othol knew Malida had taken a tea made from okre leaves, if it wasn’t a servant?”

            “I’m not sure,” Moyen owned and looked helplessly at him.

            “Well, I never got to interrogate Othol,” Rien told him.

            “Excuse me, my lords,” the Sentinel called Sol interrupted them and stepped forward.  “I have the means to extract information from your servants without harming them.”

            “A truth serum?” Rien asked.

            The Sentinel shrugged.  “Something like that, sir.  It is a synthesized drug that works on most humans by lowering inhibitions and producing mild intoxication and disorientation.  The individual will not recall the interrogation.”

            The one called Kaster shifted.  “Shouldn’t we be saving the drug for the Sha’jeen?”

            Sol shrugged.  “It may not work on another species, Kaster.  Besides, we have frozen stockpiles at the base.”

            Kaster scratched his left cheek.  “That’s true.”

            Rien cleared his throat.  “We have a type of truth serum made from a plant, but it isn’t very effective – only on about 63% of those who imbibe it.”

            Sol turned back to him.  “Our synthesized drug is more effective than that.”

            “Then I would try it on the servants,” Rien told him.  He turned to Moyen.  “Permission?”

            Moyen made a helpless gesture.  “I suppose.”  He sighed.  “We’ll have to tell them why we are doing it.”

            “We’ll tell them it is an examination,” Kaster offered.  “I’ll examine them once they are interrogated.  Like Sol said, they won’t recall anything anyway.”

            Ariahl cleared her throat and stepped forward to stand next to Sol.  “My lords.  If the servants turn out not to be the infiltrators, we’ll have to interrogate your family.”

            Moyen frowned.  “What?”

            Ariahl took another step forward and gazed into Lord Stait’s eyes.  “I trust you and your wife are not infiltrators, my lord, but I do not have the same confidence in your children.”

            Moyen’s frown turned into a scowl.  “I beg your pardon–”        

            Ariahl stared unwaveringly back at the tall man.  “The safety of the populace of this planet and the outcome of this mission is all that matters to me, my lord.  I am not your friend; I am not even your ally.  I am your protector.  The protector of all humanity.  We will interrogate your family, as we will your servants.  Someone has betrayed Malida and we will find out who.  Understood?”    

            Moyen looked helplessly at Rien.

            “I hadn’t considered it, my lord,” Rien replied with an apologetic smile.  “But she is correct.  This mission is too large, too important, and no one can matter above it.”

            Moyen sighed.  “Very well.  Shall we begin with Besen?”

            They commandeered the library for the interrogations.  Besen was brought in and made to sit in a settee near the fire.

            “The drug lowers body temperatures,” Kaster explained to Moyen and Rien.  “Thus, the fire.  May we secure a blanket?”

            “Of course,” Moyen replied and hurried away, returning a few minutes later with a thick pale blue blanket.

            Kaster took the blanket and draped it over Besen.  “I am going to inject you with a drug that will make the examination more thorough.”

            “Inject?” the servant asked blankly.

            Kaster reached into his bag and retrieved a syringe with a capped needle.

            Besen took one look at the syringe and its long needle and rose abruptly.

            “Sit down, Besen,” Moyen ordered.

            The older servant looked at his employer.  “But, sir, there is absolutely nothing wrong with me!”

            “Sit. Down,” Moyen stated more firmly.

            With a helpless look around the room, Besen sat down once more.  “Yes, sir.”

            Kaster pushed the servant’s loose sleeve to his bicep and tied a leather thong tightly around the upper arm.  Using his fingers, he felt around for a suitable vein, glancing up at Moyen, who stood nearby.

            “Intravenous injection delivers the drug very quickly and efficiently throughout the body,” he told the lord.  

            He found a vein and inserted the needle slowly into the arm, pulling the plunger back.  Blood rushed into the syringe, turning the colorless substance a dark red.  Untying the thong, he injected the drug into the vein and pressed his thumb against the wound, withdrawing the needle.

            A minute or so later, he let go Besen’s arm.  “It should work fairly quickly, Lord Moyen.”

            He reached into his bag and removed a stethoscope and an ophthalmoscope.  He gently pushed Besen onto his back and covered him with the blanket.  The old man began to shiver as Kaster listened to his heart and looked at his dilated eyes.  He pursed his lips and stood up, turning to Rien.

            “You may interrogate him now, my lord,” the Sentinel murmured and stepped away from the settee.

            Rien nodded and took a seat on the low table facing the loveseat.  He leaned forward and rested his forearms on his thighs.  

            “Besen,” he said softly.

            The old man turned his head to face Rien.  His eyes were so blown, they appeared completely black.  “My lord?”

            “State your full name,” Rien said.

            “Besen Oloin, Sir.”

            “How long have you worked for Malida Stait?”

            “Since I was five, sir,” the old man said.

            “What do you do for Lady Stait?” Rien asked.

            “I run the villa, sir. I hire seasonal workers for the sowing of seeds, the maintenance of the crops, and the harvests.  I pay the seasonal workers from the house accounts.  I go into the city once a week for supplies, although we use the two large hothouses to grow food year round.  My son, Oskel, maintains the grounds, including the hothouse crops, making sure the plants get enough water and fertilizer.”

            Rien nodded.  “Very good, Besen.  Did Lord Othol ever approach you, Besen, with the promise of more money?”

            The servant frowned.  “No, sir.  Lord Othol has never come to the villa, and I’ve never come across him while in town.  I don’t visit the castle, sir.  I only go to the public market.”

            “Would your wife or daughter or son have had any contact with Othol Stait?” Rien asked.

            Besen shook his head.   “No, sir.  Oskel comes with me to the market, as does my daughter,  Masiha.”

            “Do your son or daughter ever go into the city alone, without you?” Rien asked.

            “Yes, sir.  My son has an affianced, as does his sister.  Both young people live in the city.  I allow them to visit their sweethearts once a week.  They go together and return the following day together.”

            “Thank you, Besen,” Rien said and rose.  “I’m done here.”

            “Who next?” Moyen asked.

            “I would like to talk to Masiha and Oskel,” Rien replied.  “I think we are safe not talking to the wife, if she never leaves here alone.”

            The interrogation of the servants took around two hours.  The interrogated servants were then carried to their rooms by the Sentinels to sleep off the effects of the drug.

            They uncovered nothing from their efforts, so they perforce turned their attention to Moyen’s children.  

            “I need to speak to Malida before we start,” Moyen told those in the library.

            “Talk to me about what?”

            They all turned to the archway.  Malida stood there with her oldest son and heir, Toyus.

            Moyen sighed. “Come in, Malida.  You, too, Toyus.  Close the door please.”

            Once his wife and son were seated, Moyen explained to them what had to be done.

            Toyus became upset and stood up abruptly.  “But this is absurd!  My siblings are children!”

            Kaster crossed his arms over his chest.  “Your siblings are young men and women and human.”

            Toyus frowned. “What does that mean?”

            “I’ve yet to meet a more deceitful race than humanity,” the Sentinel replied blandly.

            “But, you’re human–” Toyus said helplessly.

            Kaster barked a laugh.  “I am a cyborg.  An amalgam of flesh and machine.  A true human would not have survived cryo-sleep.  My humanity is tampered by electronic chips in my brain that allow me to function without being hampered by strong emotions.  I only feel the emotions necessary for me to do my job: empathy, compassion, love, dedication, and loyalty.  We represent the best of the species.”

            Toyus sat down abruptly, the wind gone from his sails.

            Malida sighed.  “I trust Toyus with my life.”

            Mariel knelt before Malida.  “My lady, our mission is bigger than your family.  Bigger than any one individual.”

            Malida nodded distractedly.  She gazed at the Sentinel before her with her heart in her eyes.

            Mariel swallowed thickly and took Malida’s hands in hers.  “I’m sorry, my lady.”

            Malida nodded again.  She looked at Rien. “What do we have to do?”

            “We inject a truth serum into the subject and ask him or her specific questions,” Rien told her.

            Toyus rose again.  “I’ll go first.”

            Kaster uncrossed his arms.  “That makes me think you aren’t the one.”

            Toyus frowned.  “I won’t be treated differently from my siblings.”

            “Very well,” Kaster replied.  “Shall we start?”

            As Kaster had suspected, Toyus was a dead end.            

            They brought in the children, one by one, and told them they had to be examined.  Each child waited outside the library while his or her siblings were interrogated.  

            Itina was the last.

            She looked at the needle Kaster held up and blanched pale as a sheet.  But she bravely held her arm out for him.

            Toyus stood behind the settee and Malida held the girl’s hand and sat on the floor next to the loveseat.

            Rien sighed and sat once more on the low table facing the small couch.  He rubbed his face and looked expectantly at Kaster.

            When the doctor nodded, Rien turned back to the girl.

            “What is your name?”

            “Itina Stait.”

            “How old are you, Itina?”        

            “I’ll be seventeen in three months.  I’m sixteen.”

            “Do you know Othol Stait?”

            The girl squirmed.  “He’s aya’s second husband.”        

            “Why are you uncomfortable, Itina?”

            The girl scrounged up her face.  “I–”  She reached a shaking hand to her face and wiped at her cheek.  

            “Answer the question, Itina:  How well do you know Othol Stait?”

            She sat up.  “No!”

            Rien stood up and sat on the edge of the settee, gently pushing her back onto the couch.

            “What do you mean no, Itina?” he asked.

            The girl shook her head.  “He’s–”  She said nothing more for several minutes.

            Rien looked at Kaster.  “Is she immune to the truth serum?”

            “She might have a resistance,” the doctor replied.  “I will administer half a dose more.  That’s all I would dare.”

            “Will it harm her?” Malida demanded.

            “Not if I only give her half a dose more,” Kaster replied and proceeded to inject the girl with more of the drug.

            They waited ten minutes before Rien began to ask her questions once more.  She had calmed down by then.

            “Itina?”    

            “Yes?”

            “How well do you know Othol Stait?”

            She frowned.  “What–he…”  

            She crossed her arms as if cold, so Rien covered her with the blue blanket.  

            “Answer me, Itina.”

            She began to cry.  “Mama!  Mama!”

            “I’m here, sweetheart,” Malida told her and wiped the tears from her cheeks.

            “He…” Itina said.  “He raped me!  When I was  eleven.  He told me if I didn’t help him, he would tell everyone I had seduced him and–”  She was sobbing so hard now, her words became lost.

            Malida sat on the edge of the couch and gathered the girl to her.  “Oh, my baby!  My darling child!”

            Toyus growled. “I am going to kill him with my own hands.”

            “That’s my job,” Moyen told him.

            Rien turned his gaze to Itina once more.  “Did you tell Othol about Malida taking the tea made of poison?”

            The girl nodded miserably.  “Yes!  I’m sorry, Aya!  He made me!  He made me tell!”

            Malida caressed the girl’s hair and crooned softly to her.

            Rien sighed wearily and rose.  “I would venture to guess he raped her repeatedly until she was too old for his perverse tastes.”  He looked at Moyen.  “I have assassins on his trail.  He’ll be dispatched quietly and quickly.”

            Moyen worked his jaw.  “I want him brought to me.”

            “My lord–“

            Moyen straightened to his full height.  “I. Want. To. Dispatch. Him. Myself.”

            Rien nodded.  “It will make it harder to kidnap him.”

            “Knock him out, drug him,” Moyen said.  “I don’t care.  I don’t care if he comes to me a bit worn.”

            Rien nodded.  “Yes, sir.  Excuse me.”

            They watched him as he left the library.  He needed to dispatch a carrier vinah to his contacts in Kuin-on-the-Ha’j as soon as possible.

Chapter IX: Enemy Revealed

            Sol finished his entry into his work tablet and ran his eyes over what he had dictated.

            Day 60 since awakening.  The aliens are due to arrive in two months’ time.  We have been contacted by our counterparts on the sister planet, Syrion.  Humans on that planet have devolved and remain rudimentary in their language and culture, opting to live simple lives in grass huts or caves.  There will be no contacting the populace for fear of corrupting their evolutionary timeline.  Our counterparts assure us there are signs the populace is developing complex religions and cultures, especially those people living near oceans, rivers and in areas of rich earth amiable to agriculture.  Our counterparts estimate it will be at least 1500 years before they will evolve complex cities and cultures.  Our fear is that if the aliens contact them, the populace with inevitably worship them as gods.  We must stop them here before they discover Syrion.  Our sensors identified five arks heading this way via the asteroid belt.  How the massive ships survived the asteroid belt is a mystery, but their sheer sizes tripped our sensors.  Although the ships are huge, there is no way to gauge the numbers of their inhabitants.  Most of the ships may be made up of machinery.  We noted they use sails to capture the solar winds, much as humans did when they settled Odyssey’s Landing and Syrion. The name Odyssey’s Landing has been corrupted to Audesei.  In the ancient Isili name it simply means “bearer,” which in human terms means “mother.”

            The rest of the beacons around the solar system have not been broken.   The beacons have been placed betweem the large gas planets and their rocky moons.  There are six planets in total in this solar system:  four gas giants and two terrestrial planets.  Syrion had no native sentient beings but was flourishing with plant and animal life when the ark Syrion arrived.  The four gas giants have twenty moons between them.  Syrion has two moons:  one small moon and the larger moon, where our counterparts went into cryosleep.  Audesei has only one moon, which the inhabitants have dubbed Tanita.  She is larger than the average moons in the solar system and, if a bit larger, might have been its third terrestrial planet.  

            All the sentient beings and the mammalian species on the planet Audesei are dual-sexed.  We use mammalian because the animals are warm blooded and they carry their young in their bodies until they are mature enough for birth.  There are a lot of small reptiles.  Some fly.  The most common is called the vinah.  Vinah are a littoral animal, living near coastlines and subsisting on the rich bounty of the seas and oceans.  The fish, like the reptiles, are single sexed, male and female, although the fish we have had a chance to study change sex at will and so do the reptiles.  The reptiles seem to have the roles birds did on old Earth. Some of the reptiles have feather-like coverings.  Many of the reptiles are able to fly.  They are small with hollow bones, much like birds.  There are innumerable numbers of ophidian, some poisonous and some benign.  There are many kinds of insects, some benign and some destructive.  Many inhabitants keep reptiles as pets to manage destructive insects.  The vinah is also used as a carrier animal, carrying notes in small tubes attached to their hind legs.  

            We, as a unit, have decided to remain on Audesei once the aliens have been dealt with.  There is much information to collect and maintain.  Once we collect the information, we will categorize it and enter it into the mainframe on the moon.  Then we will return to cryosleep until we are needed once more.  I will put to the team to awaken once every 200 years to see how the inhabitants of Audesei are evolving and faring.  The idea of sleeping forever does not sit well with me.  There may be no more alien contact with this planet.  Are we to sleep until the cryo chambers malfunction and we die?  

            He swallowed thickly and shut the tablet off, slipping it into his shoulder bag.  He rose from the desk and made his way out of his bedroom and down the hall to where the others had come together in the south wing’s expansive library.  They greeted him softly when he joined them.  He shut the library door behind him and took a seat in an unoccupied armchair.

            “Topon was explaining the properties of the okre tree,” Mariel murmured.

            Sol nodded but said nothing, turning expectantly to his counterpart.

            “The poison, if survived, seems to influence the ability to manipulate fields,” Topon said.  “It saturates the brain cells and changes them.  I would like time to study the tree further, to see if its flowers have enhancing properties, like the leaves do.”

            Ariahl nodded.  “When the aliens are dealt with, Topon.  We will remain here for a decade to study the planet and the animals and plants.”  She turned to Kaster.  “Have you spoken to Malida about her visions?”

            Kaster shifted and inclined his head.  “Yes.  The aliens are called ‘Sha’jeen’ and are collectively known as the ‘Sha’j.’  In the beginning, they were searching for habitable planets, but they evolved tall, thin bodies amenable to the thinner atmosphere and lesser gravity of their ships.  Their culture eventually developed into a knowledge-seeking culture.  They came across planets with sentient beings and they categorized the different planets, the different species of sentient beings, taking samples of trees, grasses, and the carcasses of insects and animals.  Their arks were equipped with hothouses to grow their foods and they were basically a vegetarian culture, abhorring killing of any sort.”

            He sighed and shook his head.  “They imported a destructive organism into their arks.  The bacterium — that was Malida’s term — destroyed their crops and soil.  The Sha’jeen almost disappeared as a species.   Their religion evolved. They picked up a particularly bloody entity called Ya’ih on some planet.  Ya’ih is a god of death and sacrifice.  The Sha’jeen made Ya’ih their own, rewriting their religious tome and reinventing themselves as a warrior race, as conquerors, and as cannibals.  They consumed their own kind for a few centuries and then developed a book called Ya’ih Shemis Uta (the God Prevails), in which they introduced the idea of consuming sentient beings to incorporate their intelligence and strengths and longevity.”

            Silence befell the library.  The Sentinels themselves, having taken an oath not to harm life unless to protect humanity, were vegetarian.  The idea of cannibalism or harming sentient beings for the purpose of nourishment disgusted and disturbed them.  Sol shuddered and tamped down the horror that was yawning inside of him.  The Sha’jeen must have long ago ruthlessly done away with compassion, curiosity and kindness.  They would come as conquerors and overlords.  There would be no compromising, not that compromise with such beings was possible.

            Kaster continued in a hushed tone.  “They have three genders:  the Shi’ehl, who are the equivalent of females, able to reproduce.  They rule the  Sha’jeen as high priests.  Malida told me the Shi’ehl have the appearance of young men, though, not women.  They do not lactate and she does not know how they feed their young.  The second most powerful gender is that of the deuil.  They are the ones who produce sperm in their genitals, able to impregnate the Shi’ehl.  Their roles are that of soldiers and protectors.  The final gender is that of bouel.  They are, essentially, neuters.  They are the work horses of the species, filling the role of servants and food for the Shi’ehl and deuil.  They are the most common gender among the Sha’jeen.”

            He frowned.  “Malida also told me that with each generation, less an less Shi’ehl are able to bare young.  Perhaps solar radiation has poisoned them.  Sperm is fragile, after all.  There is no reason to believe Sha’jeen sperm is any less fragile than that of human males.  So, she said the Sha’jeen come for genetic material as well as food.  The Sha’jeen were, first and foremost, scientists and researchers.  It gives me hope that their numbers are less than we anticipate.”

            “It is sad,” Mariel whispered.  “They began so well.”

            Sol shifted.  “Their evolution as a species is understandable, if unacceptable.  The drive to survive is the strongest instinct and it is informed by all the emotions.  A sentient species which began as a peaceful, exploratory one, conserving sentience in the universe, will have felt strong emotions like guilt and empathy.  In order to become conquerors, they needed obdurate justifications, including making themselves feel superior and, thereby, worthy of survival over all other species of beings.  This god they picked up was the vehicle through which they could remake themselves.”  He shook his head.  “It is fascinating how sentience duplicates behavior across species and worlds.”

            Ariahl grimaced.  “Humans have resorted to cannibalism for lesser reasons, after all, haven’t they?  There have been cultures on old Earth that resorted to cannibalism even when there was a bounty of food around them.”  She shuddered.  “For this reason, we must try to preserve the Sha’jeen.”

            Derik scowled.  “Our mission is to preserve humanity.”

            Mariel leaned forward, resting her elbows on her knees.  “Our mission is ultimately to preserve life, Derik.”

            “Agreed,” Topon piped up and glanced at Derik.  “We have to preserve all sentient life, Derik.  We know your prejudices and preferences for the human being, but all sentient life is worthy of preservation.”        

            Derik crossed his arms over his chest.  “I disagree and argue against that proposal.”

            “Shall we take a vote?” Ariahl asked.  “All those in agreement that we should try to preserve the Sha’jeen, raise your left arms.”

            All the Sentinels, except Derik, raised their arms.

            “You have been outvoted,” Mariel pronounced without inflection.  “Will you agree not to harm the Sha’jeen?”

            Derik said nothing.

            Sol snorted and shook his head.  “You are number three, Derik.  The number of harmony, wisdom and understanding.  You represent vision.”

            “I am a scientist,” Derik growled.  “First and foremost.  If there is a destructive species, it should be eradicated for the sake of the whole.”

            “Why don’t we agree to excise what is poisoned?” Ishel asked.

            Derik turned to him.  “What do you mean?”

            “Their leaders and their priests are what keep their belief system intact.  Maybe we should focus on those and see if some of their younger members can be reprogrammed to live alongside other sentient beings?”

            Derik considered.  “I won’t kill younglings. So, yes.  I am for saving the youngest of the Sha’jeen and teaching them to be other than bloodthirsty cannibals.”

            Ariahl nodded.  “Do we agree we will save the offspring?”

            She put her hand out and each Sentinel then covered her right hand with their own.

            “Agreed,” Derik stated and sighed with relief.

            Kaster sat back.  “I will try to see why they aren’t reproducing, but that will have to be once we defeat them in battle.”  He rubbed his face with his fleshy hand. “This is all quite complicated.  I’m not sure how we will be able to manage.”  He turned to Ariahl.  “Has Malida have visions about how we fight them?”

            “Just battle scenes but nothing concrete,” their captain replied.  “We have to talk about strategy.”

            “How well can we prepare ourselves, if we don’t have the faintest idea of their weapons?” Mariel asked.

            “We will have to improvise,” Ariahl told her.  She looked at each Sentinel.  “We will have to think on our feet.  Our brain chips are up to the task, it is only our emotions that get in the way.”

            “We should have been left with at least one android,” Topon agreed.  “But we weren’t.  We will have to be enough.”