This is the new novel. I am also writing the sequel to Fourth Sword, in smaller chunks, but I felt I needed a vacation from that world before I would be able to immerse myself fully in it again, and this is a story which has been bubbling on the back of my mind for a long time. In fact I once tried to write is as a longish short story, but keeping it under the word limit which would have made it at least theoretically acceptable to the magazine markets left it badly maimed. This in not going to be a long novel, but it needs to be of novel length before it can become what it needs to be.
Now, one caveat here: This has not been edited, much, yet, and especially the first chapter is clunky. Big info dumps on the way ahead. They are one way which helps me to get started. I could write everything on some separate sheet, I guess, but it would be as much work as this is, and this system seems to make it easier for me to see which parts of those info dumps are necessary for the story, which not when I edit, and I can then try to fit the necessary parts in smoother. Sometimes the info will end up in a later part of the story, sometimes it will stay where it is but will turn into a conversation or be cut up in smaller pieces, with some sort of action between them. And that might not be ‘action’ as in ‘then he jumped out of the way as the bad guy tried to gut him with the knife’ but something like ‘he poured himself a cup of coffee and sat down as he pondered the implications of the effect these humans might have on this planet’s biosphere stability’ as well.
The name may change too. I’m not all that good with names.
I will put up at least six, maybe up to 10 chapters, but once I publish the novel will take everything but the first three or four down. If there are big changes after I have edited them I may also put up the new versions so it will be possible to compare the two.
Rahan knew he had made a mistake when the first dogbear came out of the bush.
Not the most innovative name, but very descriptive. There were too many of the terraformed planets for anyone to have bothered thinking up fancy names for all the Terran descended animal or plant variants living on them, except some of the more important key species. Even with those it was usually only the larger and impossible to ignore ones which had registered names. So most of the names in use were extremely simple and based most often on what the whatever had happened to remind the first official Survey expeditions’ members most. Most often that was animals they were already familiar with, but you encountered all the expected, fantasy names, personal associations, color or area based.
And joke names, like the ‘Mollies’ of their previous planet landing, giant hyenas which, according to their databases, had been named by an expedition member who had compared them to, what else, his ex-mother-in-law.
But a funny name did not make something dangerous any less dangerous.
Fancier names existed, but mostly for critters living on the colony planets, and there were at least four to five only-terraformed planets – no human population – for every colony one, at last count. While almost everything had an official classification – Latin still existed as a language, if only for that purpose – they were in some ways ever simpler: the name of the Terran species from which the creature was most closely descended from, and a letter/number/number combination which denoted the planet it was living on, and how closely it was still related to the original parent species.
For some reason Rahan remembered that these had been, tentatively, dubbed Ursus Arctos Nc68/89, by the first Survey expedition, but that the classification still hadn’t gone through the channels in order to get the DNA fully sequenced and give this particular subspecies an official name, or names – and with these there was also a good chance that sequencing might find some more substantive gene modification which would change the numbering. And the planet had already been known for more than a couple of hundreds of years.
Rahan tried to figure what to do while standing absolutely still. There was now three of them, but right now they didn’t seem to be paying all that much attention to him. Something which he knew was a ruse. They knew he was there, alright, they just weren’t sure yet what he was. Food, menace, something best ignored?
There were lots of planets. Trying to clear the backlog of increasing information, and sorting it into something manageable, was nowadays a big business, occupying several companies on several colonies working under contract for the Watcher Corps, and right now that was seen as a very secure job. The Old People had sort of gone overboard with their terraforming program during and after the plague which had wiped out more than four fifths of humanity, way back when, including everyone in the Solar System itself.
Because of the plague the mother system itself was still off limits for all but a select few scientists. But only some historians, and history buffs, cared. Solar System was no longer home. Home was someplace terraformed, for most. For a smaller group of others it might be a habitat, or an enclosed colony on some dead moon or planet, or a ship – there were even a few colonyship-sized sublights still around, all now basically just moving habitats, most confined inside some system for the reason that installing the FTL was expensive when you were talking about something that big, although there was also a handful which had been converted and now were used by some of the richer Free Trader families.
This particular planet and these particular beasts – if people would ever made this planet home on a permanent basis, ‘dogbear’ would probably shorten to something – dobies? Doobies?Dogbies? Maybe dobers? – but for now they were dogbears.
Rahan tried to move a bit, and was answered with a growl and a long stares.
He froze again. “Okay, I’m still. No need to get nervous now.”
Talking might not be a smart idea either, but it made him feel slightly better. He had always been a talker. It calmed him.
This was not good.
So they were descended from brown bears – and right now Rahan didn’t much care about all that missing subspecies and/or gene modification information – and looked nothing much other than smallish and rather lanky dark brown bears.
Smallish, that was, if compared to many of their more solitary cousins on other worlds. Standing on all four most of them would still reach nearly to his hips, and Rahan was fairly tall, for a human. Standing on two most of them would be taller than him.
The dog part in dogbear came from the fact that unlike their ancestors these were pack animals. As in ‘hunts in packs’.
And his sidearm was back in the ship.
As was his com.
Yes, he had made more than one bad mistake today. He had to admit that. Not that it did him any good right now.
The ship was close to the pond where he had been swimming, the excuse he had meant to use for ‘forgetting’ both the com and the gun, if asked.
The real reason had, of course, been to simply disobey Ryn. Which was something he liked to do whenever he thought he could get away with it. And when he could think of a decent reason for why he could do it, something beyond just justifying why he might have ‘forgotten’, or ‘not heard’, or perhaps, on rare occasions, why disobeying was ‘really smarter than obeying’ when confronted with what he had done. Unfortunately Ryn’s orders were, most times, very sensible ones, clearly enough that even a rebellious nineteen year old could see that, and while he did enjoy disobeying he would not do it when there was any real risk – one he could see – doing that might lead to anything like some sort actual damage to something, whether that would be their mission goals. Or something more tangible.
Rahan was young, but he was not stupid. Not really.
Getting killed would have to count as pretty tangible damage.
So this time he had been a bit stupid. Or not just a bit. On the other hand, this situation had also required a big dose of bad luck. The dogbears were dangerous, besides being big and smart they were quite aggressive even for predators, but there should be only one pack near their landing site, and during the days they had been here the pack had not come anywhere near the ship, having plenty of prey on the plains beneath the hills. So why would they have chosen this particular time on this particular day to finally move back to the hills?
And he had checked, before leaving. Then there had been nothing large within a six mile radius.
Something large which was moving, or large exposed heat sources, that was. But the dogbears were daylight hunters which liked to sleep in caves. Their sensors did not see inside caves, and the geology of the area made the likelihood of there being several caves a high probability.
Bad luck. His. That what this was, mostly.
Or maybe he really was stupider than he liked to think he was.
When he looked at them he saw that a fourth one had now appeared. They stood there, sniffing in his direction.
He thought the pack was about twelve or thirteen strong.
Rahan contemplated the pond. Except the bears swam well enough. Same went for the trees, they could climb as well as he could. No, scrap that. They were better.
Running was out the equation too. They were faster than him.
Maybe the pond would be the best bet, after all. There was one large boulder sticking out of the water in the middle of it. If he could find…
Ah, there. He remembered seeing a big stick on the ground near here. And there it was.
Rahan sidled slowly to the stick and picked it up. The dogbears stared. One made a short run towards him, but turned back when about halfway.
Now there were six bears. About half of the pack. The rest were probably very close, they usually were. And they seemed definitely interested now. There was a large monkey species living here, one which the bears hunted.
Rahan figured he’d look, and smell, pretty similar to the bears.
They would probably attack. He was alone, he looked like prey, and what’s more, he looked like a prey which was somewhat dangerous when in troops, but easy when caught alone.
There might be no ‘probably’. By now he was becoming certain they would attack.
He waited. They’d make some trial attacks before the real one. There was the possibility that if he stood his ground they’d think him too much trouble and go look for something else to eat.
Rahan decided to still hope for that alternative. Maybe they weren’t all that hungry. Maybe there was some big, juicy carcass of their last evening’s hunt lying somewhere, and they had come here just to drink, and would then hurry back to it.
If they were to attack, for real – maybe he could try to whack the first one, if he got it good that might slow the rest a bit, then he’d get back into water, with the stick, swim to the rock, climb on top – and if he was still alive and mostly unhurt at that point he just might be able to keep them off for a while. The boulder had steep sides, and rose straight from deep water. The dogbears climbed trees better than he did, but on a boulder he probably was a tad better. Their claws gave them not much of an advantage on rock, but his fingers did.
Lost of ‘ifs’ in that one, but it was the only plan he could think of.
Second, aborted run towards him.
The last missing pack members came out of the bushes.
Rahan swallowed. He had been in dangerous situations a few times before, but before all had been ones where the danger required action, from the beginning, and he had been able to concentrate on doing something until the danger had been past.
And he hadn’t been alone.
Now he was. And he needed to wait.
It was harder than he had thought it would be.
One large female was staring at him. And then it started to run.
This was it.
The long dark shape dropped out of the foliage above him smoothly, landing between him and the bear with just barely bended knees. Not directly on the line between Rahan and the bear, the man – in a manner of speaking, for actually he wasn’t a true human in spite of looking like one – stood just on the side, and when the bear started to react to what had just appeared between her and her prey he pivoted to its side, grabbed a hold with both hands, one hand for the loose neck skin and the other for the long fur on its side, and continued pivoting, the bear’s feet leaving the ground, and tossed. The female landed on its side a good distance away, close to the pack, yipped almost like a startled dog – perhaps the other reason why ‘dog’ had ended as part of their name – then rolled back to its feet and backed towards its mates, growling.
The rest of the pack milled where they had been. But they showed no signs of leaving.
“So you left your gun in the ship too?” Rahan said. His voice sounded a bit too squeaky to his taste.
Not that it mattered, really, if one wanted to be pedantic about it. Ryn would know he was scared, no matter how well Rahan acted to hide his real feelings. He was not that good a good liar even when it came to humans. And no human was good enough to fool a Shemasharra.
He still preferred to play it. Ryn usually respected his fictions unless the situation really demanded complete honesty. The fiction of having at least some privacy tended to be important to humans. And the Shemasharra knew that well enough.
Like they knew everything else.
“I don’t need it here. You do.” Ryn kept staring at the dogbears, and Rahan could hear his low growling when he wasn’t talking. He sounded a lot like the dogbears. Perhaps a bit more catlike. The Shemasharra had always reminded Rahan of big cats more than any other predators. Which they were, in a way. Humans turned into pure predators instead of omnivores was one way they were sometimes described. They had the instincts of a top predator, if not the diet, exactly, for they were able to survive on even a purely plant based diet if they had to, at least for a while.
And when it came to physical abilities they were the top land predators almost everywhere. Even when unarmed and nearly naked, like Ryn was now.
“Do you think you can scare them away?” At least that came out on a level voice. Improvement.
“If I kill a couple of them, yes. I’d prefer not to. But I think they are too pissed off right now to leave for anything less.”
The dogbears weren’t exactly rare on this planet, or anything. But Rahan had to agree with Ryn this time. Something shouldn’t die just because he had been dumb. The Survey sidearms were loud, on purpose. A couple of shots fired in the air might very well have spooked them. It would have been something unknown, and so, scary, to them. Without something like that, well, humans or Shemasharra, both would look like a somewhat unusual variety of their prey to these predators.
He sighed. “So…?”
Ryn turned around and moved, again so fast and so smoothly he hardly seemed to move at all, he was just suddenly there, in front of Rahan. He threw the human over his shoulders – something Rahan had kind of expected so he did just try to relax in order not to hamper the bigger male – while keeping on moving.
Rahan tried to get hold of something with his free hand, mostly to ease the jolting he was experiencing, Ryn’s grip of his left leg and hand was tight but that did not exactly stop him from bouncing around. Not so easy, considering Ryn was wearing only a pair of shorts.
At least he wore something. His people didn’t really have anything like nudity taboos. While he would usually dress accordingly when in the company of humans it would not have been all that unusual for him to go for his morning run completely starkers.
Rahan decided to count the presence of those shorts as a blessing.
As for something he could use to hang on… hah, there was always the hair. A thick braid of coal black hair, hanging down to the lean waist. If Rahan hadn’t been so damned uncomfortable – and embarrassed – he might have grinned as he took a firm grip with his free hand. Even if it meant reaching back in a somewhat uncomfortable manner. And didn’t actually ease the jolting at all.
Even small annoyances…
No, he didn’t exactly like Ryn.
Handsome, smart and physically very superior compared to any humans, and he knew it. Self-satisfied, smug and bossy were words Rahan would use. He had spend most of his life with the Shemasharra, and liked most of them, even the males, but this particular guy…
His superior on this training flight.
No, he didn’t like Ryn. Not right now.
Not after having been forced to spend several months being bossed around by him.
They reached the ship just ahead of the still pursuing dogbears. Ryn practically flew up the ramp, then dropped Rahan unceremoniously on the floor and hit the button which pulled the ramp up and closed the hatch. It wouldn’t have been necessary, the ship AI was quite capable of doing that by itself. Ryn would not have left the ramp down when he went for his outing, and Rahan hadn’t done that either, it had been the AI which had lowered it once it saw them coming towards the ship with their unwelcome company.
Maybe it was just one way to let out some of the steam. Rahan knew he was angry. He guessed Ryn would not start yelling at him, though. He rarely did.
Not the Shemasharra way. They usually preferred the silent and mysterious act. At least the males did. Especially when dealing with humans.
Partly perhaps because the males had a tendency to irritate human men. Part of it was the fact that they were truly superior and in most ways unbeatable as rivals. Oh, so superior. Usually bigger than most humans, but not so much as to appear creepy, just enough to stand out in most crowds – human ones, that was. Faster, stronger, almost always better looking – Ryn himself looked kind of like a mix of perhaps some of the old Terran Asians, maybe Chinese and Indian, with his classical facial features with hints of that maybe Chinese, especially around the eyes, although there were also bits which made one think of Africans, he was kind of full lipped. And he had that dark chocolate skin color which was shared by most of the Shemasharra, and a thick, straight, coal black hair which he could sit on when it was free. Just pretty enough to be called beautiful while still being masculine enough that nobody would mistake him for a female, not with that face and his long-legged gymnast’s body.
Rahan sat on the floor and felt sorry for himself.
Well, maybe the fact that they were not often able to deal well with human men could also seen as a blessing, right now.
Unless intimidating them was not a problem, that Ryn could do well enough, Rahan had tended to be the one who met with locals on those places where they had needed to deal with locals. So you could claim he was better at least with something.
But that didn’t make it any easier for him to be under his command.
There had been more times lately when he just hoped he could get away from Ryn for good.
But that would not happen right now. There was this mission to finish. And others where Ryn would still be his commanding officer. Rahan wanted to finish his education, to become a full member of the Watcher Corps. And that meant he was stuck with this particular Shemasharra, Captain Ryn ker Maylo, for a while yet.
At least being with Ryn meant he was safe. Besides their other qualities – and yes, Ryn really was a very good mission leader if you didn’t count his commanding style – any Shemasharra male, but especially one with Ryn’s training, was the best damn bodyguard anybody could hope for.
Rahan picked himself up from the floor when he started to feel that he could maybe do it without throwing up. He regretted a bit that he hadn’t while being carried by Ryn, but what the hell. If the opportunity came again he would not try to hold it in.
Ryn was long gone, to his cabin probably. He’d fume in there until he’d feel able to deal with Rahan without blowing his top. The man did have something of a temper, a feature which he himself saw as a weakness. Which meant he rarely allowed himself to start yelling. Good enough for Rahan, even if it often meant he’d have to suffer days of sarcastic remarks instead.
Like the fact that Ryn’s full first name was actually ‘Deleryn’, a name which the Shemasharra found somewhat funny too.
Small pleasures. Better than nothing.
Their survey was done a few days later. The planet was declared to be healthy, the rudimentary AI keeping an eye on it was bug free and working as it should be, and it was time for them to leave towards the next planet on their itinerary. Keeping an eye on the uninhabited terraformed planets was, most times, as boring a job as boring could be, but something that needed to be done. It took a long time for the planted biospheres to become truly stable, and most of the ones in existence were still centuries, if not millenniums away from the time when they could be left on their own without worries. And besides the more natural problems, for the last 800 hundred years, after the discovery of a form of an FTL drive which was both cheap and reliable, squatters as well plunder and pillaging of the natural resources of these planets had become one.
Since many of the terraformed planets had rather fragile ecosystems even a few years or decades of heavy use could send one into a downward spiral which would be very hard, and very expensive, to correct. Which meant that most times nobody tried, and such planets were left to recover or perish on their own.
Squatters were usually allowed to stay. Provided they showed that they were willing to take on the responsibilities of ownership as well as the perks. Do that long enough and they could earn permanent ownership status, at least for that part they had established their colony on.
But bad stewardship was not tolerated. It might not result in banishment. It would result in a loss of independence for the squatter colony, at least to the extent their actions affected their environment.
While there were lots of terraformed planets it was still deemed unwise to waste them at the rate which seemed likely to happen if they were left on their own. There had been several moving societies which had been in the habit of using up one planet, then leaving for the next when the environment could no longer comfortably support them. Or stripped them of all their natural resources in order to sell them to some of those colonies which had, say, no forests full of trees in their use. Like those living in habitats which had no space for growing something not absolutely essential – there were places where something like naturally grown hardwood would be worth much more than its weight in gold. But while that had used up planets when humans were still using just the slowships, and a couple of unreliable versions of primitive FTL, after FTL had become something everybody used that rate of wastage had gotten to the point where the colonies had decided that Something Needed To Be Done.
So the Watcher Corps had been created.
At first they had been mostly just glorified interstellar game wardens. Very heavily armed game wardens, when the poachers very likely had an army it had turned out necessary for these game wardens to build up their armaments, and manpower, to at least equal terms.
That’s where the Shemasharra clans had come in.
Their ancestors had been created for a very long lasting private war during the early years of the slowship colonization, between two rival groups intent on developing the same terraformed planet for the use of their colony. Since terraformed planets were fragile both had been unwilling to use any heavier armaments planetside – hence the need for good old fashioned foot soldiers.
One side had used enhanced and otherwise modified humans – expensive to create, expensive to maintain.
The other side had gone for the highly illegal – illegal back then, illegal now – solution of genengineering to the extent of creating something that no longer could be called human.
Phasing out genetic defects was approved of in most places, then and now, slight improvements or adjustments, especially when needed for unusual environments, were usually disapproved of but rarely completely forbidden. The temptations had just proved too strong and after almost everybody had kept on doing those the rules had been relaxed a bit.
Humanity now wasn’t exactly the same as their pre-spacetravel ancestors had been. Lifetimes had more than tripled, three standard centuries or close to it had become the norm – although that could be extended quite a lot if one was willing to pay for it, but that was on an individual basis, making much longer lifetimes genetic and inherited had proven unadvisable on some respects and most of the groups who had had those had died out – and people usually aged very slowly for the first two of those centuries. Most of the people living were also healthier, stronger, smarter and better looking than those long gone ancestors, on average, had been.
But changing humans to something that could no longer crossbreed with the parent species naturally was now, and had been, for most of the recorded history after it had become possible, forbidden, one of the ultimate sins the way humans saw it. Humans were territorial and aggressive enough even between themselves. They didn’t want to risk creating other species which would most likely become rivals, sooner or later.
As for the Shemasharra ancestors, according to what remaining records of the company’s intent had been found, they had meant to phase out the evidence by sterilizing the soldiers after they were no longer needed. It seemed probable they had not planned to kill any of the already existing ones. but stop them from procreating so the problem would disappear after a while in a slightly more ethical way. Unfortunately not all the soldiers themselves had been happy with that answer. There had been a mutiny, and a lot of them had escaped, and finally, after a couple of centuries of wandering had established themselves a colony on one of those planets where the original terraformers had gone a bit wild and had created something too dangerous to be seen as desirable by normal humans.
There was no longer any record as to who had won the original war, or even what had been the names of those two rival companies, and whether the contended planet had even been colonized, and if so, whether that colony still existed. Or if the planet still even had a viable biosphere, for that matter, since nobody knew which planet it had been. All that was left were the Shemasharra, the second species of humans, even further changed now. One that had severe problems fitting in with the original version, in spite of of some newer changes they had done to themselves for the express purpose of becoming more acceptable to the parent species, like taking out some of the more visible differences the original versions had had so that they now, mostly, looked like the normal humans. But some of the other differences – they wanted to be what they were, not to phase themselves back into humans, and some of the non-visible differences were profound ones.
But while they wanted to stay as they were they didn’t want to go their separate way. The philosophy by which the clans lived was to use what was proven to work in the real world – or at the very least seemed to work best – not what anybody might find ideologically comfortable. And according to their best minds keeping up peaceful, and close, relations with humans gave better odds for the long time survival of both species.
So they did stay in close contact. However difficult that sometimes had turned out to be.
One way that seemed to work was simply to be seen as useful by the parent species. And one thing they were good with was soldiering. So in the end the clans had become largely responsible for the Corps. More than half of the members, including over half of the higher functionaries, were humans, but Shemasharra were the ones who kept the system running smoothly.
Ryn working with Rahan had been ordered as an exercise for both of them. Rahan could learn hands on skills from the Shemasharra, while for Ryn the point was to learn how to lead a young human male in an efficient manner. Preferably without leaving said male feeling pissed off all the time.
And that hadn’t been working all that well so far. They had been together for several months now, and the situation had developed into a form of cold war.