Dust clogged Foxe’s throat as he forced his eyes open. Where . . . what . . ..
He coughed, fighting for breath, and blinked at the twin suns overhead. Then he remembered why his leg felt as if it had been set on fire.
Hellcore. Somehow he had to be ready to fight, but right now he wasn’t sure he could stay conscious for more than a few seconds. He jammed an elbow into the ground and tried to sit up.
Then every muscle in his body tensed.
A round reptiloid head peered down at him, wide jaws and rows of yellow teeth. Spiked ridges bulged between its two violet eyes that roamed independently on opposite sides of its head.
Agamilaks were the dominant intelligent life form on the planet. They looked like lizards, tall and bipedal, but they were as smart and deadly as any human.
And they ate human meat.
Agamilaks kept to themselves in the desert. They weren’t especially hostile to the human inhabitants on the planet, but if an Agamilak ran across a dead human in the desert, it was dinner.
Some humans in the cities sold corpses to them for spices and rare plants and the throat-tingling liquor they brewed. Sometimes an Agamilak family attacked human travelers traveling in the desert because they were hungry and desperate, but even other Agamilaks joined in the hunt to find and punish them.
Humans had lived with Agamilaks on the planet for close to a hundred years. In peace.
Foxe gritted his teeth against the stabbing pain in his leg. “Okay. I don’t—I’m not—”
“You’re not ready to eat.” The Agamilak’s voice was raspy and calm.
He managed to sit up, ignoring the pain. “I was with another human. Named Carter. Is he—?”
“Also not ready to eat. But he will be. Soon.”
Foxe closed his eyes, took a breath, and tried to remember what had happened.
Truman’s tribe had chased Foxe and Carter across the desert. Twenty of them or more, riding their pack of long-necked kamelons—huge three-legged beasts that could run for days without rest. Foxe’s sandskimmer had broken down when the thick sands that covered the continent choked its motors and sent the vehicle skidding out of control. Carter was panicking, terrified of being captured by the tribe, but they’d staggered through the dunes toward the human city of Oris as Truman and his tribe gained on them.
Then Carter got bitten by a scar-flinger—a desert snake, not poisonous, but painful enough to slow them down until two members of Truman’s gang driving their kamelons faster than the rest managed to reach them as they ran.
Foxe remembered the face of the one he’d shot, and the flash of plasma fire from the other. After that . . .
He checked his belt. No pulser. His boot. Just the wavedagger—useless against a large crew. Truman had dozens in his gang, and hundreds more in enclaves around the continent.
“Water.” His voice was a dry rasp. “Is there any water?”
The Agamilak reared up on thick legs. For a moment Foxe was certain that he was about to die, crushed beneath a massive clawed foot. Then the lizard-like being bent down for a black jug that sat next to Foxe’s shoulder. “Here.”
Water—cold and sweet. Foxe tilted his head back and swallowed with a quiet sigh. Yes—
“I’m Getan.” The Agamilak set the jug on the sand.
He wiped an arm across his mouth. “Thank you. I’m Foxe.”
Rolling onto one arm, he squinted against the glare of the planet’s twin suns. The rocky walls of a narrow valley rose in front of him, framing a distant horizon of sand dunes and dust. The water helped the throbbing inside his head, but his leg still shook when he tried to move it.
“They were chasing us.” He managed to sit up, ignoring the pain. “Two other humans? They were hunting us.”
“We found them.” One eye swiveled backward toward a low fire.
Foxe’s stomach lurched. Chunks of meat sizzled on long shafts of bone hanging over the flames. He fought the nausea and tried to hide his disgust. This was what Agamilaks did. Humans were the aliens here.
The Agamilak—he? she?—reached down for a leathery pouch on the rock next to his leg. “This is good for burns.”
Getan poured a pale yellow liquid onto his leg. Foxe tried not to think about what it came from, but it did numb the searing in his skin. “Thank you.”
He took another gulp of water and turned at the sound of voices behind him. A group of eight or ten Agamilak children were playing. Behind them a rocky hill rose, twenty or thirty meters away. A deep cleft high up the slope might be a defensible position if Truman’s gang found them.
And Truman couldn’t let Carter get away.
He collapsed again, breathing hard. But his leg didn’t throb as painfully.
“You need to rest.” The Agamilak stood, towering over him.
“Wait—” He tried to focus his thoughts. Truman was coming. He looked up at the sky. “Where is Oris City?”
“Your human city is a long day’s travel by the lower sun.” Getan pointed a long bony arm.
“Where’s Carter? The other human?”
“Over there.” Getan pointed.
“I have to talk to him.” Foxe rolled over, grunting with pain, and saw a shallow pit in the ground. “Before he’s—ready to eat.” With a grunt, he forced himself to his feet.
“Are you male or female?” Getan asked.
“M-male. Like Carter. Is that . . . important? What about you?”
“I am mother to all these.” Getan pointed at the young Agamilaks. “And more, soon. My eggs are heavy. So we hunt.”
“I understand.” A family needed food. And a mother would defend her children. Foxe gritted his teeth and took a step forward. His injured leg stayed steady.
The Agamilak children ran across the sand in circles, laughing and scampering after some kind of rock.
No. Not a rock. Foxe rubbed his eyes. They were playing with a skull. Empty eye sockets whirled in the air.
The tallest and fastest child kicked it away from the slower siblings as if taunting them. Then the kid bent down and threw the skull to the smallest child, backing away, waving its arms in a wild gyration. The small Agamilak caught the skull with both hands, surprised, and then threw it up into the air.
Just playing. Foxe had played catch with bullets and plasma cartridges as a child, and he’d never cared where his food came from. At least these kids had a mother.
He let Getan lead him, one slow step at a time, toward the pit.
Carter gasped for breath. Half his chest was black from plasma fire. He clutched his stomach with both arms, as if trying to hold his life inside his body.
“You c-c-clonesucker.” His voice was a dry rasp.
“Yeah.” Foxe slid down into the pit. A spear of pain shot through his leg. “Truman tried to kill us, and I’m the clonesucker.”
“You . . . said you’d protect me.” Carter waved his good arm blindly, his fingers grasping at air. “Give me—not the water. The red one.”
A tall slender bottle of red clay sat next to Carter’s head, curved at the top. Foxe yanked out the stopper. It smelled like swamp gas and moldy bread.
“Damn you all to Kristos.” Carter pulled the bottle to his lips for a long, gurgling swallow. “You and Truman the lizards and, and . . .” His dropped back on the ground, groaning, and Foxe caught the bottle before it spilled onto the sand.
Maybe the red liquor would numb the pain. Maybe it would knock Carter out for hours—or forever. Foxe could see he didn’t have much time left.
“Carter.” He bent down. “You need to give me something.”
“When we get to Oris City. That was—damn it!” Carter leaned back, clutching his guts in agony. “We had a deal.”
The deal, yeah. Carter had sent a message—he wanted to defect from Truman’s tribe. He’d give the humans on the planet everything they needed to track Truman down and destroy him, in exchange for safe passage to Oris and then off the planet.
Foxe had been sent to extract him. But the mission hadn’t gone as smoothly as they’d all hoped.
Foxe tried to think of something to say. He’d been on dozens, maybe hundreds of missions like this. He’d watched beings die slowly—humans and others, fighting for that last moment of life. Some of them he’d killed. Others —too many—he’d failed to protect. Like Carter.
“Carter . . . you’re not getting to Oris,” he said quietly. “Truman’s tribe is coming for us.”
Carter stared up at the sky. For a moment Foxe thought he’d passed out. Or died. Then he groaned. “You clonesucker, give me the red!”
Foxe handed over the bottle. Carter gulped more of the red booze. “You promised,” he panted. “That was the deal.”
“You made a choice.” Foxe grabbed the bottle away. “It’s too bad it turned out this way, but you knew the game. Give me something. Anything. Something to help us stop Truman.”
“Or what?” Carter’s head drooped back. “I’m going to die here, right? And they’re going to eat me.”
“And Truman wins.” And a lot of Agamilaks would die. Although Carter might not care about that right now.
“Truman.” Carter tried to spit, but it landed back on his neck. “Plagueloving rat sucker. His real name—did they tell you that? Trion Paulson. He changed it. Truman, True-man, get it? Plaguesucker.”
“Yeah.” Foxe looked at the tall bottle, and took a cautious swig. His tongue burned. He thrust it back toward Carter. “You know what they’re going to do, don’t you?”
“I heard him talking.” Carter blinked at a distant moon in the sky. “ ‘Kill all the lizards. Every last one. Even the children.’ ” He dropped the bottle on the ground. “But then I saw his files. Just for a minute. Messages from Northstar Intercorp, Stellamax, SystemCore—all those companies. He’s selling us to the offworld corporations, and that’s just . . . I hate these lizards, but I can’t . . .” He took a long hoarse breath and then coughed, his chest heaving. “Clonesucking bastard.”
Time was running out. “Come on, Carter,” Foxe growled. “Give me something.”
“You clonesucker.” He rubbed a hand over his eyes. “All right. Listen: They use a rotating password for all their comm codes. Previous day of the week, with alternating prime numbers every day. Up to 1013, then starting over. You should—should be able . . .” He clenched his hand in pain. “Damn it.”
Carter sagged on the ground. For a moment Foxe thought he was dead. Then his lips flickered: “Don’t let them eat me, Foxe.”
Foxe handed him the bottle of red liquor. “Here. Drink this.”
“I mean it, clonesucker!” His voice was an unexpected roar. He gripped the bottle with shaking fingers. “Don’t—please don’t let them eat me. Please.”
Foxe nodded. “I won’t.”
When he reached the top of the pit again, a young Agamilak was waiting for him, a short stick in its hand like a toy spear. Its shout was high-pitched and fierce.
Getan, crouched near the fire, gave a loud grunt of command. The child dropped the stick and ran back to the other children, dancing as if it had just played a good joke on the weak human. The siblings ran around in a circle, their arms whirling in the air.
Getan stalked forward and helped Foxe up from the pit. “You need rest. More water. I’ve got food—don’t worry, not meat.” She pulled his arm. “Come on.”
Foxe glanced back at the pit. “Are you going to eat him?”
“Yes. When he’s ready.”
He couldn’t stop her. And this was their world, their culture, not his. Still . . .
No. Nothing he could do. Sorry, Carter. “Fine.” He walked slowly after her.
Foxe woke up again with a curse. Hellcore. How long—? The black water jug waited next to his head. He took a quick swallow, forced himself to his feet, and staggered forward.
Getan sat on a rock with her heavy feet buried in the cool sand, head tilted at the horizon with one globe-shaped violet eye. The large sun had set. The smaller one was sinking swiftly, casting whisper-thin shadows across the dark sand around them.
She pointed. “There.”
Foxe’s leg didn’t throb as painfully now as he crouched and shaded his eyes against the small sun and gazed into the distance. Instead his stomach tightened and his spine grew cold.
A moving line surged forward across the sand, maybe ten klicks away. Maybe closer. Foxe couldn’t make out any definite targets in the glare, but even at this distance he recognized the spiky heads of the kamelons as they bounced forward, and the slouch of humans on their backs.
Truman’s tribe. They’d found him.
“Why are you here?” It wasn’t a question, but a demand.
He didn’t have any weapons. He couldn’t flee. And he couldn’t expect Getan to defend him with her children at risk, not unless he told her everything.
Foxe swallowed. “Aligned Worlds—you know it?”
One eye flicked upward. “A tribe in the sky. Some humans obey it.”
“Yeah. I work for a group called Aligned Research and Intelligence. They’re part of that tribe in the sky, and they sent me here.” He pointed toward the kamelons galloping nearer on the horizon. “That tribe out there? They’re led by a man named Truman.”
“Truman.” Getan hissed. “I’ve heard that name.”
“He wants to kill Agamilaks everywhere.”
“Because we eat meat.”
“Because you eat humans.”
“Humans are meat.” Her tongue flicked at the corner of her mouth. “Humans eat meat. I can smell it on those skinny legs.”
Foxe looked down at the old, worn boots on his feet. Lizardskin, from the iguanolons on Chartos-4. He’d always liked the feel of their hide—they hugged his ankles and didn’t chafe.
He ground his heels into the sand, refusing to feel guilty. He ate meat. The occasional steak in a restaurant at home, or a roasted bird in a convenient cafeteria on some other world. And sometimes raw wriggling fish, or squirming worms the length of his fingers, or live bugs—all to survive on different planets when supplies ran out.
“Yeah, some of us do.” He nodded. “Humans think it matters if the meat comes from an animal that can think, even if it’s dead, so they usually don’t like the idea of eating another human. But . . .”
The kamelons galloped closer every second. He talked fast, hoping Getan could follow. “Your planet has metals underground that other worlds want to use. The AW wants to make a deal for them, a deal that includes both humans and the Agamilaks, but Truman wants it all for himself. He wants to wipe out all the Agamilaks and pretend he did it to protect Oris. Then, maybe—he hopes—he can convince them to let him make the deal with AW. He’ll get rich, and only humans will live here.”
She grunted. “Humans should go home.”
“They won’t. That’s the way it is.” She had to understand this. “The human back there, Carter, wanted to quit Truman’s tribe. So I got sent to get him out, in exchange for his help stopping Truman. We got caught.” He frowned, angry with himself, but they had no time for guilt. “Carter’s going to die soon. If I die here, then Truman can go on and attack every Agamilak enclave on this continent. I need your help.”
Her violet eyes darkened. “What do you want me to do?”
“Could one of your children get to Oris?”
Getan’s head swiveled around. The children had stopped playing. Like Foxe, they were staring at the column of kamelons racing toward them, less than a few minutes away now. She barked a word that Foxe couldn’t understand.
One of the children loped up to her, head cocked.
“What do I tell him?” Getan asked.
Foxe repeated what Carter had told him. The child paused, then spoke in its native language. Getan made him say it again. Then she asked Foxe, “Where does he take this message?”
“Go to Oris. On a street called Barhan-3, near a fountain with a statue of an Agamilak, he can find a human female named Telice Corder. Tell her my name—Foxe—and give her that message.”
Telice would be skeptical, but she’d check out the information. Too late to save Foxe, but that was part of the game.
Getan spoke a few brusque, guttural sentences. The child blinked one violet eye. Then he swung around and headed toward the mountain.
Getan planted her clawed feet firmly in the sand. “Run!” she called to all her children. “Deep! Now!”
The young Agamilaks instantly scattered. Some darted to the cleft in the hill behind the camp. Others dashed toward the dunes, away from the oncoming riders. Two of them remained with their mother, one on either hand, either defiant or too scared to flee.
“What about you?” Getan’s voice was quiet now.
Foxe stared at the oncoming throng. Good question.
He took a deep breath and took a few steps away from her. “Maybe I can make a deal, or bluff our way out, or grab a pulser from one of Truman’s crew.” Or maybe lead the tribe in a song that would convince them to change their ways. Right. “If not . . .” He shrugged. Now is the time, went the Bekkan monks’ chant. “I’ll be ready to eat.”
He’d spent most of his life preparing to die. Sometimes hoping for it. If it all ended on this distant planet . . .
He shook his head. Maybe today. But not without a fight.
The lead kamelon’s three legs skidded on the sand. It dropped its head as the rider jerked its bridle and jumped down, staggering in the dirt.
Foxe stared at the pulser in the leader’s fist as the rest of the riders formed a ragged half circle surrounding them. The tired kamelons clomped their hooves in the sand. The riders on top of them struggled to control their mounts, but they managed to raise their weapons—flechette rifles with long barrels, and pulsers clutched in tight fists.
The leader stalked forward. Short and stocky, he had bloodshot eyes, a thin gray beard, and sunburn on his neck. He carried a heavy pulser pistol in his fist.
Truman. Foxe recognized him from the ARI images. But he hadn’t expected him to lead the hunt himself.
Getan stood like a statue, silent and menacing, with the two children huddled around her legs.
“I didn’t expect you to be here, Truman.” Foxe’s throat felt hoarse. He needed water, but this wasn’t the time to reach for the jug. “You must not have a lot of troops you can trust.”
“Lizard lover.” He spat into the sand. “Shut up.”
“Hey, Truman?” One of the kamelon riders dropped down to the sand. “Take a look at that.”
A few chunks of meat still sizzled on a single thin bone jammed in the ground.
Truman stared at Foxe. He jabbed a finger at the fire. “You—did you eat any of that? Did you like it?”
Foxe swallowed, his throat dry as the dust around them. “My name is Foxe. Her name’s Getan. She hasn’t hurt you.”
Truman’s forehead was slick with angry sweat. “They’re eating people—that means they’re hurting every human on this planet.” He jabbed his pulser at Foxe’s face. “Where’s Carter?”
Foxe tensed. Now is the time—
“In the pit.” Getan twitched her head. “Back there.”
“Tanner, Listrand—with me!” He shot a murderous look at Foxe. “You too, lizard lover.”
He turned toward the other riders. “Kill the lizards if there’s any trouble. Shoot the little ones first.”
Tanner was female, dark and tall. Listrand was a heavy and slow male, but they both carried long flechette rifles, prodding Foxe with the snouts as they walked toward the pit.
“Stay up here.” Truman smiled at Foxe. “Shoot this clonesucker if he gets too close to me. Come on, lizardlicker.”
Truman jumped down into the pit. Tanner jabbed her rifle at Foxe’s shoulder, and he slid on the sand, trying to ignore the pain in his leg. One fast grab for the wavedagger in his boot—
But Truman headed toward Carter before Foxe could take the chance. He kicked Carter’s charred chest. “Wake up, you traitor!”
“Gahhh!” Carter’s eyes flared open. “What—I can’t—what . . .” He blinked at Truman, then sighed in defeat. “Oh.”
“Traitor.” Truman bent down. “Lizardlicker. I ought to let that thing up there eat you alive.”
“Get drilled, Truman.” Carter’s head drooped. “I’m done with you.”
Foxe glanced toward the edge of the pit. The two guards had their flechette rifles trained on him. Truman had his back turned. But if he snatched the wavedagger, Tanner and Listrand would cut him down before he got close enough to Truman for a killing strike. He had to wait.
“Any last words?” Truman pressed the barrel of his pulser against Carter’s face. “Come on. You want to beg?”
“I th-thought you didn’t kill humans,” Carter gasped. “Clonesucker.”
Truman laughed. “Yeah. Rot in the sand, traitor.”
White-hot plasma from Truman’s pulser burned through Carter’s skull. Foxe forced himself to watch. Carter’s legs shuddered, but his arms stayed still, frozen, fingers spread wide in the dirt.
Truman dropped his arm, as if suddenly exhausted. “Damn it.” Then he pushed his head back and peered up at the darkening sky. “Night coming,” he murmured.
I should have saved him, Foxe thought. Somehow.
“Hey, boss!” Tanner leaned back from the rim of the pit. “You better come up here!”
Truman turned, jabbing his pulser at Foxe. “If this is some kind of ambush—”
“I’m here alone.” He only wished that the AW Military Force would drop down right now and blow Truman’s tribe to shreds.
“Boss!” This came from Listrand.
“I’m coming!” He waved the barrel of his pulser. “You. First.”
Foxe climbed up again. Tanner caught his arm and pulled him to his feet. “Take a look,” she snapped.
Truman shoved Foxe’s shoulder. “Get out of—oh, hey, what’s this?”
Four of Getan’s children huddled together on the sand, chattering in their own language, their small arms twitching as they looked toward Getan for rescue.
Getan stood next to a rock, her jaws tight. “These are my children. You will not hurt them.”
“Why did they come back?” Foxe asked.
“They were frightened.” Getan didn’t seem frightened at all. Of course, Foxe had no way of knowing what terror in an Agamilak looked like.
“They won’t be in a minute.” Truman walked forward, breathing hard. He bent down, peering at the young Agamilaks, then jumped back when one kicked a leg at his face. He laughed, waving the pulser toward the sky.
“So what’s your move, Foxe?” Truman kept his eyes on the children. “You love these lizards so much? Do something.”
Foxe looked at Getan. “I’m sorry. He’s—”
Truman’s pulser flared. Its plasma beam hit one of the Agamilak children in the face. The shot burned through skin and skull, digging deep into the child’s brain until he stopped.
The child flopped to the sand in silence. Getan stood motionless, a vein in her thick neck pulsing as she breathed in and out. Foxe couldn’t be sure where her wide violet eyes were looking—at Truman, at the dead body of her child, or at him for causing all this.
“Meat.” Truman strode toward Getan, the weapon trembling in his hand. “Ready to eat, huh? Why don’t you eat that, lizard?”
Foxe glanced between Tanner and Listrand. They both watched Truman. If he moved fast enough—
“You’re stupid, human-Truman.” Getan’s voice was a hiss.
“Not as weak and helpless as you, bitch.” He pressed his pulser against Getan’s chest.
“No, you forgot one thing. A fact of life.” She straightened her spine. “I am their mother.”
“So what? You couldn’t do anything—”
“Don’t you wonder where their father is?”
Foxe felt the heat on his back before he heard the roar.
Tanner whirled around beside him. “Truman!” she shrieked. “Hey, Truman—”
A huge Agamilak rose tall from the cleft in the rock, howling with fury as its massive head swung in the open air. Towering on legs as thick and tall as tree trunks, its wide jaws shook as its eyes roamed back and forth in search of prey.
No one was watching as Foxe snapped a kick at Tanner’s knee. She crashed over with a curse and Foxe yanked her rifle away.
He managed to swing the butt at Listrand’s face. It slammed hard, and Listrand fell with a screech, clutching at his bloody nose.
The giant Agamilak leaped down the hill. The kamelons, bleating in panic and whirling around in the sand, collided with each other as their human riders tumbled to the sand or ran in their own circles looking for safety and cover. The male Agamilak landed right in the middle of the panic.
Foxe found the rifle’s trigger and opened fire on the humans, searching for Truman in the confusion. Getan knelt and gathered her children into her long protective arms, reaching out with one leg to pull the corpse of her murdered child close to her.
The father stomped across the sand, slashing, roaring, kicking, spitting, and killing. Tanner rolled and ran for the nearest kamelon. Foxe let her go. Listrand tried to crawl clear, and the father slammed a foot down on the back of his head, snapping his neck like a sliver and then turning in search of more enemies to slaughter.
Then Truman reared up from the ground and lunged for Getan, pulser high. “Eat this, lizard! Get ready for—”
Foxe fired. A stream of flechettes burst from the muzzle of the rifle, shredding Truman’s chest. Foxe held the trigger down as Truman’s ribs collapsed under the high-powered barrage.
Truman’s head jerked toward Foxe as he fell back, shock in his eyes. “Human . . . you’re human . . .” he whispered—an accusation.
“You’re not.” Foxe fired again, and Truman finally fell to the sand.
The male Agamilak stopped suddenly, grunting. Blood dripped from his arms and legs, and his big violet eyes shone like water on rock. He swung his head around, found Getan, and stepped toward her as carefully as any parent trying not to wake a sleeping child.
Getan stood again. The other children came running out of the cave, or from over the hill, and in moments they surrounded their dead sibling with a keening wail.
The father lifted his head and shouted one final roar into the sky. Then, as the echoes faded, he swung around and headed back toward the cave.
Foxe checked the area, but the humans who weren’t dead were far away. He set the rifle down and rubbed his eyes. He felt thirsty, and tired, and his leg still ached.
He walked to Getan’s side. “I’m sorry.”
“I don’t hate humans.” She stared down at Truman’s corpse. “But I won’t eat this one. He can go to waste.”
Getan and her family burned the bodies in the pitch with Carter when the larger sun rose. Foxe watched the flames and the smoke, and tried to ignore the smell. The father stayed inside the cave.
Afterward he slung the rifle over his shoulder, took a small flask of water that Getan offered, and mounted the lone kamelon he’d been able to capture. The twin suns sizzled in the sky overhead.
Truman was dead. Maybe others in the tribe would try to take his place, but without him they’d battle each other for control. Maybe that would give humans and Agamilaks time to negotiate for the metals AW wanted access to—and make whatever was left of Truman’s tribe obsolete.
But in the meantime . . . “I’ll send your child back safely,” he promised Getan.
“You do that.” Her tongue flickered over her lips.
“Yeah. I don’t want him getting mad at me.” Foxe looked beyond Getan’s head, to the cleft in the rock where her mate slept. How did they . . .? No. Never mind about mating practices.
He yanked at the reins on the kamelon’s neck. Managing the animal across the dunes to Oris would be a struggle.
“I’m glad you’re not ready to eat,” Getan said.
Foxe nodded. “Me too.”