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Earth Rise

William C. Dietz - Author

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ISBN 9780441011049 | 432 pages | 30 Sep 2003 | Ace | 4.37 x 6.73in | 18 - AND UP
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In DeathDay the aliens took over our planet.

Now the invasion continues...

2

DEATH DAY MINUS 79

THURSDAY, MAY 14, 2020

Tyranny, like hell, is not easily conquered, yet we have this consolation with us, that the harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph. What we obtain too cheap, we esteem too lightly: it is dearness only that gives everything its value.

—Thomas Paine

The American Crisis, no. 1, December 23, 1776

PUGET SOUND

It was nighttime, or would have been, except for the ghostly glow provided by the asteroid-mounted reflecting mirror the Ra ‘Na had constructed on behalf of the Saurons and referred to as “the bounce.”

Authorized by the now deceased stonemaster, and focused on Hell Hill so the humans could work around the clock, the intensity of the light started to fade a few miles to the south, where a group known as the Crips had established a temporary camp.

It was a pathetic affair, consisting of little more than a secluded cove, a jumble of weather-whitened logs, and a cluster of carefully camouflaged huts, none of which provided more than twelve square feet of usable living space. Veritable hovels by the standards of the indigents forced to dwell in them—but objects of delight to the wayward alien who floated belly up not fifty feet from the rock-strewn beach.

His name was Pas Pol, Fra Pol, the prefix Fra indicating his status as a member of the Ra ‘Na clergy albeit the lowest rung thereof.

Not that Pol, who was or had been part of Dro Tog’s diocese, had ever spent much time worrying about the needs of the religious bureaucracy. A fact that not only prevented his ascension to the next highest level of the hierarchy but kept him in perpetual trouble. A situation made worse when the wayward cleric surreptitiously witnessed a meeting in which Hak-Bin addressed his fellow Zin regarding the heretofore secret birth-death day.

Bishop Tog sat on the information at first, fearful that it might stimulate a revolt and thereby threaten the rather comfortable status quo. But the attempt to bottle the information up failed. Dro Rul learned of the secret, and the Ra `Na resistance movement was born. An effort to which Fra Pol had dedicated both heart and soul.

There were dangers attendant to such movements, however—and the initiate had been forced to flee. Yes, the manner of his departure from the dreadnought Hok Nor Ah had been something less than dignified, but Pol not only managed to survive the experience, but wound up in a veritable Ra ‘Na paradise thanks to the fact that the waters of Puget Sound were home to a natural buffet of bivalves, any number of which had already found their way into the initiate's well-rounded tummy. And into other tummies too, since the Crips not only lived off the abundant seafood themselves, but used the watery harvest to buy the medications that many of them required.

Not that such matters claimed much of the Ra ‘Na’s attention since his mind was mostly occupied with the sensory feedback attendant upon the act of swimming. An activity mostly denied his race during their long captivity and one for which their lithe, fur-covered bodies had expressly been designed. The sensation had something in common with weightlessness but managed to be better somehow. Pol loved the resistance offered by the water, not to mention its cool embrace and the way the unseen currents tugged at him. Surely Balwur, the Ra ‘Na people's fabled home world, had been like this, only better if such a thing could be imagined.

The realities of the larger context couldn't be ignored, however, and much as the more sybaritic part of the cleric's personality would have liked nothing more than to extend his responsibility-free lifestyle for as long as possible, there wouldn’t be a future if the Saurons had their way. Each time the sun disappeared in the west the great slaughter drew one day closer. A fact which meant that everyone who could do something should do something, and sooner rather than later.

Pol's thoughts were delightfully interrupted when a clanging noise was heard, and the camp began to stir. What the humans referred to as dinnertime had finally arrived. It was the best moment of the day except for breakfast, lunch, and the snacks that came in between.

Suddenly energized, the Ra ‘Na rolled over and dove. The water was deliciously cold. Barnacle-encrusted rocks gave way to gravel that sloped up to a sandy beach. Pol stood the moment the water was shallow enough, waddled across the seaweed-strewn tide line, and shook himself like a water-soaked dog.

A depression surrounded by artfully stacked driftwood served to screen the fire pit from the water, but the top of the cook’s head could still be seen. His name was Cecil. He was black like the Zin and a fine cook, or as Pol thought of him, a “flavorist.” An important distinction since the humans had a not altogether healthy tendency to fry, broil, bake, and otherwise cook food that should have been dunked in flavor pots and served raw. Hence the term “flavorist,” since the skill lay in the preparation of the condiments rather than the application of heat. In any case, Cecil, who liked his brood to arrive on time, shouted, “Come and get it!” which Pol hurried to do. Other members of the small, tight-knit community responded with an equal sense of urgency.

There was the ex-navy petty officer named Darby, her face scarred by a shipboard fire; Wily, who though paralyzed below the waist, insisted on dragging himself across the sand; Chu, one sleeve flapping in the breeze; Nakambe, whose left leg was two inches shorter than the right; Nok, who had lost one leg to cancer, but still made good time on a prosthesis; Slo-mo, who had the body of a full-grown man but the mind of a ten-year-old, and a black Lab named Whitey, who liked to play in the water almost as much as Pol did.

All of them, with Whitey dashing from one person to the next, converged on Cecil’s carefully arranged fire pit. Baked salmon, which had been wrapped in seaweed and buried under hot coals, steamed on a freshly scrubbed plank. Clam chowder, thick with chunks of meat and canned potato, burbled in a well-blackened pot.

And, thanks to the nice collection of wine, which Darby had stumbled across in an isolated waterfront home, there were three bottles of St. Michelle Riesling, which stood like soldiers on a driftwood plank. Though lavish by the standards of Hell Hill, the Crips had grown used to such meals, and were quick to tuck in.

Cecil, hands on hips, smiled approvingly as slices of fish were transferred to plastic plates, bowls were filled to the brim with chowder, and Pol, his food having been prepared sushi style, started to vacuum oysters out of their shells. A somewhat noisy process that was accompanied by grunts of satisfaction.

No one took offense, however, since all the Crips were hearty eaters and not much given to the finer points of etiquette. That being the case, the first fifteen or twenty minutes of the meal passed with only a modicum of conversation. Then, once the worst of the hunger pangs had been assuaged, and those who wanted seconds had obtained them, the conversations began.

The nature of these interactions was usually the same. Chu would complain about the way in which she had been treated that day, Nakambe would tell her to shut up, Wily would attempt to make peace, and Darby, who not only steered the group's boat, but functioned as de facto group mother, would remain silent, partially eaten food resting on her lap, eyes focused on something the others weren’t able to see.

Pol, having inhaled more than a dozen shellfish, and being in need of a rest prior to the second course, came to his feet, loosened the cinch of his loincloth, and took a mug of freshly brewed coffee over to Darby.

The sailor heard the crunch, crunch, crunch of the alien's footsteps and looked up. She liked Pol and smiled. That's what it was supposed to be anyway, except that the scar tissue refused to cooperate, and the expression resembled a grimace instead. She accepted the cup. “Thank you, Fra Pol, that was thoughtful...Have a seat.”

The Ra ‘Na accepted the invitation, took his place on the log beside her, and, much to his own surprise, started to act like the cleric he had trained to be. “You seem troubled, Darby....Is there something I can do to help?”

Darby, who would have answered differently had Chu or Nakambe asked the same question, shrugged. “Not unless you can get rid of the Saurons, give me a new face, and bake some apple pie to go with this coffee.”

Though presented in a lighthearted manner Pol knew the pain was real. Especially where her face was concerned. “I don’t know what apple pie is, but I’m fairly sure our medical personnel could repair the damage done to your face.”

Hope flared in Darby's eyes, held for a moment, then faded away. “The Saurons would never allow something like that.”

“No,” the initiate agreed, “they wouldn’t. Which is just one of the reasons why we need to rise up and defeat them.”

The human shook her head. “Fighting the Saurons is a waste of time. I took part in an attack that destroyed five Sauron spaceships. It didn’t even slow the bastards down.”

“Understood,” the Ra ‘Na replied, “but there’s something you don’t know. Something important.”

Darby looked quizzical. ‘Such as what?”

Pol smiled and rows of tiny white teeth appeared. “Such as the fact that all of the Saurons will die while giving birth to the next generation—which means the slave races have a chance. If we work together, if we have courage, if we strike at the correct moment.”

Darby had questions, lots of them, but the first was the one Pol was waiting to hear. “So what can I do to help?”

“We,” the alien replied, “what we can do to help. The answer is out and our job is to find it.”

IN THE FOOTHILLS OF THE CASCADE MOUNTAINS

Half-crazed by the pain from his burns, and fully expecting to be shot in the back, the newly risen racialist had blundered through the thick underbrush for more than a mile before coming to the conclusion that he was at least momentarily safe.

Then, desperate to find shelter and something for his burns, Ivory wandered for hours. In spite of the fact that most humans had been murdered, and the rest forced into slavery, a scattering remained free. That being the case, the racialist discovered that most homes had already been broken into and robbed of anything useful.

Ivory always went about it the same way. He would approach the prospective house, circle it, and pause to listen. Then, assuming everything looked good, he would sidle up to the often shattered door, push it open, and wait for some sort of reaction. A bird flew out once, nearly causing him to shit his pants, but that was unusual. A brooding silence was more common, broken only by the crunch of glass beneath the soles of his boots and the creak of interior doors.

There was stuff, tons of it, all scattered hither and yon where the looters had left it. Clothes, lots of clothes, intermixed with useless radios, CD players, clocks, irons, hair dryers, lamps, books, records, and on and on.

What he didn’t find but desperately wanted were medical supplies, guns, knives, axes, sleeping bags, cookware, toilet paper, matches, backpacks, or any of the other things that the foragers could use, trade, or hoard.

There were a few victories, however, albeit minor ones, like an overlooked Teflon-coated frying pan, a fifty-foot length of clothesline, and a roll of paper towels. All the newfound treasures went into a canvas bag that the racialist carried Santa style over one shoulder.

Most valuable, however, especially where the burns on his torso were concerned, were some unopened packages of V-neck white undershirts. They were large enough to allow free movement, and the clean cotton felt wonderful against his skin.

Ivory spent the first night wrapped in a cocoon made from floor-length, fully lined, floral curtains, listening to the sounds the house made and the howl of a distant dog. There were a lot of dogs, all feral by then, and very dangerous. They couldn’t open doors, though—which was one reason why the human chose to sleep indoors.

The room, which had previously been occupied by a teenage girl, smelled of spilled perfume. It seemed like a strangely inappropriate odor, hearkening as it did to a much happier time and what now seemed like unimaginable luxuries.

Finally, after what seemed like hours, Ivory fell asleep.

Ivory awoke with a start, managed to remember where he was, and wished his mouth tasted better. Strange though it seemed, the racialist had grown a little bit soft during his stay on Hell Hill. A fact which became all too apparent when he struggled to extricate himself from the curtain and realized how sore his muscles were. The burns were better, however, a miracle considering the possibility of infection and the fact that he had no antibiotics.

And it was later that morning, while tromping through a previously looted Ramada Inn, that Ivory discovered an unbroken mirror. That’s when he saw the heavy growth of beard, the grimy skin, and the crusted-over burns. None were infected, not so far as he could tell, which was something to give thanks for. The great Yahweh had work for him to do, that was for sure, because nothing else could explain such extremely good fortune.

There wasn’t any hot water, not with the power being out, but there was plenty of cold. The racialist used gallons of the stuff, not to mention three bars of individually wrapped soap and four previously white towels before he felt clean. The goatee came off, as did a month's worth of hair, leaving a gaunt, tight-skinned face.

Then, rather than don the filthy clothes that lay puddled on the floor, Ivory wrapped himself in an undersized terry-cloth robe and stalked the halls until he found a room strewn with male clothing. The racialist appropriated some clean boxers, tried on a pair of nicely pressed jeans, and was pleased to discover they were only one size too large. A brown belt with a cheap Western buckle took care of the size discrepancy, a blue T-shirt went up top, and a nondescript sweatshirt added warmth.

Then, having recovered his boots, not to mention his canvas booty bag, Ivory made the best discovery of all: an undisturbed storage room complete with a fully loaded maid’s cart, which not only yielded six rolls of toilet paper, and some more clean towels, but a plastic bucket filled with foil-wrapped chocolate hearts!

The racialist filled his pockets with the tasty tidbits, crammed three into his mouth, and experienced something better than sex. Had anyone chosen to follow Ivory that morning, the trail of gold foil would have provided them with the means. Of course, no one did. On that particular day, in that particular place, Ivory was blessed.

ABOARD THE SAURON DREADNOUGHT /HOK NOR AH, /(PRIDE OF THE PEOPLE)

P’ere Has was eating a bowl of gruel when the Kan came to take him away. Not because other more flavorsome fare wasn’t available, but because he felt the discipline involved would strengthen his soul and help keep temptation at bay.

Never mind the fact that Dro Tog, his immediate superior, placed himself under no such strictures. Has believed it was the responsibility of each person to define the precise nature of their relationship with the Great One and to conduct themselves in accordance with that belief. Success or failure was their affair.

So, having given his particular God a somewhat stern and unyielding demeanor, Has felt it necessary to find ways through which to demonstrate the extent of his devotion. That’s why the priest had just scooped the last spoonful of tasteless porridge into his mouth, and was just about to scour the inside of his unadorned bowl with a crust of pan bread, when the hatch flew open.

The Kan, all members of the special security unit assigned to eliminate members of the Ra ‘Na resistance movement, wasted no time on niceties. A pair of warriors grabbed the diminutive cleric, jerked him out into the corridor, and searched his body for weapons.

In the meantime, with no rules, regulations, or laws to stop them, other members of the security team ransacked the small sparsely furnished compartment. They found a combination computer-vid player, a collection of what purported to be religious cubes, and a carefully maintained robe used for religious services. The warriors also discovered an extra pair of sandals, a stash of closely scribbled notes, and a preslavery comb inherited from his now-deceased mother.

The lead Kan, who harbored fantasies regarding a stash of weapons, seditious writings, and a computer file containing a complete roster of the Ra ‘Na resistance movement, gave a grunt of disappointment. The compartment concealed nothing more dangerous than the comb, no obviously seditious materials, and, if the roster was there, it was disguised in the form of code. Perhaps the scraps of parchment—or the computer’s memory cache—would yield something. A possibility the specialists would no doubt look into. “All right then,” the Kan said, shuffling out into the corridor, “take him away. The painmaster is not known for his patience.”

Like all his kind Has was fluent in the language of his masters and the very mention of the painmaster was sufficient to loosen his bowels. One of the warriors swore, another laughed, and the noncom offered the Sauron equivalent of a frown. “Perhaps the slave isn’t the only one in need of the master’s attentions.”

The noncom lacked the authority necessary to exact such a punishment, but there were other possibilities—and the warriors were well aware of them. The Kan hurried to obey. Has felt the Saurons lift his feet clear of the deck as he struggled to understand why he had been singled out for such treatment, and was hustled away.

The trip through the ship's crowded corridors was like some sort of nightmare—the kind the cleric experienced in the wake of Tog’s unreasonable demands. Except the painmaster was sure to administer something a good deal more unpleasant than a mere tongue-lashing. The certainty of that loosened the cleric’s bowels once again.

There was a rational Has, however, a sort of overbeing who managed to remain detached in spite of the mewlings generated by its lesser self. It was that part of the Ra ‘Na’s personality that took note of the way in which passersby reacted to his presence. Not the Saurons, who were universally uninterested in his predicament, but fellow Ra ‘Na, who could be expected to care.

Except that they didn’t care, or didn’t appear to, since to demonstrate any sign of sympathy could be interpreted as a sign of support for whatever crime the unfortunate cleric had obviously been found guilty of.

So, even as the Kan hauled Has away, the Ra ‘Na remembered other times, occasions on which it was he who had averted his eyes, he who allowed the already condemned to be carried away without so much as a comforting look. In fact, Has was so lost in his own contemplations that it seemed as if little more than seconds had passed before the Kan whisked him through the checkpoint beyond which members of the slave races were not normally allowed to pass and didn’t want to pass.

Then, after a quick series of left and right turns, Has was half-carried, half-dragged through an unmarked hatch and into the painmaster’s dark domain. The decor, if that was the correct word, was consistent with instructions set forth in the Book of Cycles, which, ironically enough, dedicated most of its considerable pages to the subject of death.

Though served by a contingent of specially trained Kan, the painmaster was Zin, and therefore black. Thanks to knowledge inherited from his predecessors, the painmaster understood how important psychology could be when it came to wringing information out of recalcitrant slaves. He stood with crossed arms and was lit from below. The effect, which made his already intimidating countenance all the more terrifying, was often sufficient to elicit confessions in and of itself. A positive thing for the most part, unless the goal was to learn the truth, when fear could actually get in the way. Those who were susceptible to intimidation, or simply hoped to avoid torture, had an unfortunate tendency to confess to anything and everything regardless of whether they were actually guilty. A subtlety that his superiors, beings like Hak-Bin, often missed. But that was the way of it, and just one of the reasons why the ancient ones had seen fit to formally invest his particular line.

None of which was apparent to Has as the toes of his sandals skipped over the surface of the metal deck and fear seized his body. Confronted with the Sauron's carefully lit visage, the sight of rods heating in the forge, and the stink of previously singed fur, the Ra `Na would have loosed his bowels yet again except for the fact that there was nothing left to give. All he could do was make a strange yammering sound as the Kan carried him over to a vacant spot on one of the bulkheads, strapped him into place, and backed away. A Kan moved to cut the subject's clothes away and soon left him naked.

It was then that Has realized that he wasn't alone. Bodies other than his decorated the walls. The compartment was dim, lit by little more than the forge and a scattering of deck-mounted lights, but the newly arrived prisoner could make out half a dozen Ra `Na, two humans, and a ghostly white Fon--all suspended by straps similar to his. None of them seemed to be aware of the newcomer's presence, or if they were, chose to conceal that fact. Some knew from harsh experience that to demonstrate awareness was to invite more pain--something none sought to do.

Now, his entire weight suspended by the bloodstained straps, Has watched in horrified fascination as the painmaster withdrew one of the glowing rods from his forge and shuffled across the deck. Having interrogated countless slaves, and knowing their areas of weakness, the Zin entered his regular routine. The first step was to provide the subject with a sample of that which could be. A quick flick of the wrist was sufficient to the task. Has flinched as the glowing tip of the red-hot implement touched the tip of his left ear. The resulting scream emptied his lungs.

The painmaster, who expected nothing less, started the slow methodical questioning. The answers, all of which were recorded, would be evaluated by others. ``What is your name?''

``Has...P'ere Has.''

``And your identification number?''

``RS47602.''

``Good,'' the painmaster allowed deliberately. ``You have been truthful so far. There are more difficult questions, however, much more difficult, as those around you can attest. Now, consider carefully...How long have you been a member of the Ra `Na resistance movement?''

Has stared at the rod's slowly yellowing eye as the instrument wove intricate patterns in front of his face. He could feel the perspiration working its way out through his pores, trickling down along individual hair follicles, and wetting the outer surface of his fur. It was a trick question, he knew that, and clung to the truth. ``I am not a member of the resistance.''

Has actually heard his flesh sizzle as the rod touched his ear. The scream was louder than the one before.

The painmaster clacked a pincer in what seemed like annoyance. ``Come now...surely you are wrong. The Kan brought you here, correct?''

Has wanted to touch his badly burned ear, to see what it looked like, but knew he couldn't. Where was this line of questioning headed? There was no way to tell. ``Yes, the Kan brought me, but I don't see...''

``Of course you don't see,'' the Zin interrupted, ``inferior beings rarely do. The Kan are Saurons, true? And Saurons are infallible, are they not? All of which attests to the fact that you are guilty.''

The truth, Has instructed himself, you must stick to the truth. The cleric braced himself against the pain about to come. ``No, your eminence, I am not guilty. Not of crimes against the master race.''

The painmaster started to bring the rod down onto the heretofore untouched ear but stopped short. The last answer intrigued him. ``Ah, so you are guilty of something, what is it?''

``I am guilty of sloth,'' Has answered truthfully, ``and of pride, envy, and occasional doubt.''

The painmaster ran the still-cooling rod down the inside surface of the Ra `Na's left arm, paused at the nearly bare axillary, and pulled the instrument away.

Though less intense than the injuries that preceded it, the burn made a river of pain, and Has jerked in the opposite direction.

``Don't toy with me, slave,'' the Zin warned ominously. ``You won't enjoy the results.''

``Yes, your eminence,'' Has gasped, ``I am innocent, ask Dro Tog.''

The painmaster examined the rod's tip, decided in favor of a touch-up, and shuffled toward the forge. ``Who is Dro Tog? And why should I believe what he tells me?''

``Dro Tog is a prelate,'' Has answered earnestly, ``and one of the most important leaders the Ra `Na have.''

The last part was not exactly true, given the fact than many of Tog's peers viewed him with something akin to contempt, but Has saw no reason to mention that. He was a subordinate after all--a relationship that mandated respect.

Having equipped himself with a fresh rod, the Zin returned from the forge. ``So, which group does this paragon of virtue favor?'' the Sauron inquired patiently. ``The resistance? Or those who remain loyal?''

``Those who remain loyal,'' Has answered honestly. ```Order is superior to chaos, the Saurons provide order, so why change?' That's what Dro Tog likes to say.''

``How very perceptive of him,'' the painmaster replied. ``This rod is extremely hot...Where would you least like to receive it?''

Has was tempted to lie, to name a part of his anatomy where the pain might be less intense, but managed to resist temptation. The truth--that was his only hope. ``My genitals, eminence. I would least like to have the rod touch me there.''

It was this simple statement more than anything else that convinced the painmaster of the slave's veracity and thereby brought the session to an end. Still, it was always best to leave subjects with something to remember, so the Zin brought the rod upward. Has heard his genitals start to sizzle, screamed the Great One's secret name, and fell into darkness.

ABOARD THE SAURON FACTORY SHIP /LA MA GOR, (/SOURCE OF PLENTY/)

The La Ma Gor's interior, once the very definition of well-

defined order, had been literally transformed into a nightmarish maze of vats, tanks, and pipes, all dedicated to the manufacture of pink glop.

That's what the humans called it anyway, although their Ra `Na counterparts, slaves like Toth, had another name for the substance. Loosely translated, the word meant ``shit.'' However, regardless of what the viscous material was called, it refused to be constrained by the plumbing designed to contain it and continued to weep, ooze, and dribble from the countless joints that the archaic plans called for. Plans, which if rumor could be believed, came straight from the Book of Cycles.

What wasn't known, however, and was the subject of much speculation by Toth and his pals, was the glop's purpose. It wasn't food, they were sure of that, since not even Saurons could stomach something that looked like the glop did, nor was the substance medicinal, since no one had seen a member of the so-called master race rub, slather, or dab the stuff on.

All of which explained why Toth, having little else with which to occupy his rather active mind, had decided to solve the apparent mystery. An impulse completely in line with his history as a petty thief, slacker, and all-around miscreant.

The answer, if one was to be found, almost certainly resided in Kol-Hee's office, a space definitely off-limits to the likes of Toth. A fact which made the task of digging it out that much more interesting. But the Fon was no fool and literally wielded the power of life and death over his subjects, which suggested that a good deal of caution was in order.

That being the case, Toth made no attempt to tackle his objective directly, but chose a more roundabout method. A strategy that involved actually doing some work--an aberration that should have resulted in some healthy skepticism.

But, like the vast majority of his peers, Kol-Hee knew next to nothing about the slaves who worked for him, finding it far more convenient to assign them a single overall personality. One which characterized them as sub-Sauron, and in this case sub-Fon, which meant lazy, incompetent, and stupid. All of which was absurd, since the very fleet from which the Saurons took their power had been constructed by ancestors of those very same slaves. But Kol-Hee was blind to that, hadn't bothered to study Toth's rather extensive rap sheet, and was therefore vulnerable.

So, determined to solve the mystery of the glop, and discover why an entire ship had been converted to the production thereof, Toth went about his work. His title, like that of more than two dozen others, was ``wiper.'' And, unlike the honorifics that some Ra `Na had granted themselves, the name actually described what Toth did.

His job was to work his way through the maze of pipes that carried the glop from one containment to the next, find the places where joints leaked, and wipe them clean. A rather time-consuming chore that could have been eliminated via design changes and preventive maintenance. Something that any number of wipers had suggested.

But the Saurons, who normally listened to such input, especially where technical matters were concerned, had turned a deaf ear. Some saw this as one more example of their overweening arrogance, but Toth had a different theory. He believed only a finite amount of the glop was required and, once available, production would cease. A possibility that would account for the Saurons' otherwise inexplicable lack of interest in refining the process.

Most of Toth's fellow wipers had developed routines--

patterns that carried them along and helped make the job easier. Toth had resisted that temptation as it would serve to limit his movements and thereby hinder his self-assigned mission. An apparent quirk that annoyed his turf-conscious contemporaries. ``Go along and get along,'' that was their motto, and one which had served the slaves well. That's why the human named Gretchen growled at the Ra `Na as he worked his way through her territory on a roundabout course calculated to terminate within Kol-Hee's office.

The Fon, who was a creature of habit, had exited his cagelike command post at roughly the same time during the last three shifts, and, assuming that the Sauron did so again, Toth planned to take full advantage of Kol-Hee's absence.

Meanwhile, as the wipers wiped and worried about their various prerogatives, Kol-Hee monitored a rack of jury-

rigged readouts, compared the readings to the list he had been given, and noticed that all of them were higher than they should be. Much higher. As they had been for the last three shifts.

It seemed as if the Zin who was in charge of the factory, an overzealous type named Gon-Dra, was determined not only to meet the daily quota, but exceed it. Regardless of the potential consequences. Would the idiot finally listen to reason? No, probably not, but Kol-Hee felt it was his duty to try.

That being the case, the Fon backed out of the sling chair, shuffled out onto the catwalk, and headed for the bank of lift tubes.

No sooner had lift tube's door whispered closed than Toth dropped his glop-soaked rag, climbed up onto the catwalk, and hurried toward the office. Gretchen hollered, ``Hey, fur ball, what are you doing? Trying to get us killed?''

But the Ra `Na ignored the question, knowing as he did that while his peers were rule-following wimps, they weren't likely to tell on him, and that's all that mattered.

Toth entered the cage, ignored the mysterious readouts, and went for the computer terminal. A pincer-friendly joystick and clicker had been installed for use by Saurons--but when the wiper touched a small out-of-the-way button, a tiny keyboard extruded itself from the machine's casing. Like most of his kind, the Ra `Na had a natural affinity for machinery, and more than that, knew that back doors had been established for every computer system aboard every ship his people had designed. Which was to say the entire fleet! Knowledge he had used to get himself into trouble on more than one occasion.

So, having brought up a menu that Kol-Hee didn't even know existed, it wasn't long before Toth found what he was looking for. A heavily encrypted file which the not-too-tech-

savvy Zin believed to be completely inaccessible but which the petty criminal hacked into within a matter of minutes. And that's where he was, reading about something called birth-death day, and a substance called the birth catalyst, when a Klaxon went off, vat number 12 exploded, and four of his fellow wipers were killed by flying shrapnel.

The force of the blast hurled Toth into a bulkhead, bounced his head off the metal hull, and left him unconscious.

Ironically enough it was the big rawboned woman named Gretchen who scooped the Ra `Na into her arms, ran the length of the catwalk, and made it through the opening before hatch 17 slammed shut. No fewer than three surveillance cameras captured the human's escape.

That's when vats 10 and 11 blew, the rest of the slaves in that part of the ship were killed, and Kol-Hee won his ongoing dispute with Gon-Dra. The pressures were too high...

and someone would have to pay.

HELL HILL

Ironically enough mornings were typically cold on Hell Hill, even spring mornings, and Manning held his hands out toward the wood-burning stove. The first step in preparing his frigid fingers to work on the week's duty roster. A much-dreaded chore.

That being the case, Manning felt a distinct sense of relief when Kell entered the duty room and flashed a characteristic grin. ``Got a minute?''

``Absolutely...especially if it's something that would prevent me from working on the duty roster.''

``Your wish is my command,'' the ex-Ranger said solemnly. ``Remember the woman who saved Hak-Bin's pointy butt?''

``Yeah,'' Manning replied. ``Who could forget?''

``Well, you sent for her, and she's waiting outside.''

``Name?''

``Jill Ji-Hoon. Ex-FBI agent.''

``Really? Sounds promising. Lord knows we're under strength. Send her in. And Vilo...''

``Yeah?''

``Tell Amocar to write up the duty roster. Maybe he can get that right.''

Kell grinned. ``Roger that.''

Based on a recommendation from Hak-Bin, and over Manning's objections, Franklin had appointed the somewhat mysterious candidate to the number two slot. Manning had been forced to keep him. That in spite of the fact that Amocar had a tendency to fade when bullets started to fly, liked to linger outside closed doors, and couldn't follow procedure much less teach it. A problem the security chief would solve one day.

Kell turned, pulled the olive drab USMC blanket to one side, and motioned the woman in. ``The boss will see you now...step on in.''

Ji-Hoon nodded, passed through the door, and found herself in a sparsely furnished steel cargo container. Some of the cubes were smooth on the inside, even shiny, but not this one. Judging from all the scrapes, scratches, and dents something heavy had broken loose in transit and played merry hell with the interior prior to being unloaded.

Beyond the heavily blackened stove, and the tall rangy man who stood in front of it, the compartment contained some mismatched chairs, a beat-up black leather couch, a scattering of boots, jackets, and one pair of plaid boxers, a hand-lettered sign that said ``SAFE YOUR WEAPONS.'' A none-too-clean deck and a rack of assault weapons completed the decor. Not a very imposing room.

The man turned to offer his hand. ``Agent Ji

welcome to the Hilton. I'm Jack Manning.''

Ji-Hoon had long been a believer in first impressions, and there was something about this man that she liked. The hand was big and warm. ``Thanks, I think.''

Ji-Hoon was tall, so tall that Manning could look straight into her eyes, and he liked what he saw there. A wary sort of centeredness, as if the ex-agent knew exactly who she was, including both the good and the bad. Small feathers had been added to the red ear tag, thereby transforming it into something similar to jewelry. The security chief pointed with his chin. ``The tag...a present from Hak-Bin?''

Ji-Hoon nodded. ``I was surprised to say the least.''

``He's unpredictable that way,'' Manning responded, ``a fact that makes him all the more dangerous. Take a load off ... You know why I sent for you?''

Ji-Hoon took a chair. ``No one said...but I have a theory. You're looking for foot soldiers.''

Manning hooked a chair with a boot, dragged it into position, and sat facing the back. ``In a word, yes, although I need something a cut above foot soldiers. I need people who believe in what they're doing, who think before they shoot, and who can play both offense and defense.''

The agent raised an eyebrow. ``Let's start with the first item you mentioned. What exactly would you expect me to believe in? The need to protect collaborators?''

Manning nodded. ``Fair question. I could sign up fifty self-styled gunslingers by noon tomorrow. People who understandably want to escape their present job assignment, hope to obtain more food, or simply like to shoot things.

``Believers believe that in spite of the shitty situation we find ourselves in, and the role Franklin has been forced to play, he's the best leader available.''

Ji-Hoon started to say something, but Manning held his hand up. ``Hear me out...Yes, I know he was a bit slow coming around to the role of patriot, and yes, he made some mistakes. But that's in the past. Maybe you've heard rumors about how various resistance groups are coming together...

Well trust me, that's because of Franklin, not in spite of him. He's the best hope we have to destroy the Saurons, set our people free, and reclaim Earth.''

Ji-Hoon searched Manning's face for any indication of insincerity, cynicism, or guile. She found none. ``That last part--about destroying the Saurons. Are you serious? Or just trying to suck me in?''

``I'm serious,'' Manning replied. ``Very serious. The opportunity will come less than eighty days from now.''

``How?''

``Join and I'll tell you.''

``And if I don't?''

Manning shrugged. ``I'm only authorized to have fifteen people. You walk, and I keep looking.''

The opportunity felt right and beat the hell out of wandering aimlessly around Hell Hill watching everyone else work. ``All right then--count me in.''

``Good,'' the security chief replied enthusiastically, ``we're lucky to have you. Just one thing though...''

``What's that?''

``Next time someone tries to kill Hakget the hell out of the way.''

HELL HILL

It was a crisp spring morning, the kind that offers a promise of the summer to come, and puts winter firmly in the past. Most of the denizens of Hell Hill society were well into the first shift's routines by the time the small group of Kan and humans came together near the bottom of ``blood run,'' the very foot of the path over which so many blocks had been carried.

The limestone slab weighed upwards of five hundred pounds, and except for the fact that one edge had been rounded over, making it appropriate for use as a capstone, this particular chunk of rock was no different from thousands of others already carried to the summit of Hell Hill. No, what made the tableau different was not the nature of the burden itself, but the group assigned to carry it.

Dressed as they were in crisp, white, ankle-length robes, and absent the filth that typified most mule teams, this group looked like angels somehow fallen to Earth. Sister Andromeda, the Star Com's founder, stood in what she hoped would be interpreted as a position of dignified outrage.

Early on, during the first stage of the Sauron invasion, she had mistakenly believed that the aliens were a gift from God, and their depredations were a necessary evil, a cleansing meant to clear the way so the human race could take the next step on the ladder of spiritual evolution. A belief which explained why Andromeda had been willing to help the Saurons, and why they, desirous of a biddable workforce, had allowed, no encouraged her group to grow so long as the cult continued to be what Hak-Bin referred to as ``a positive influence.''

But now, as she, along with five of her most senior acolytes waited for the order to proceed, the cult leader understood the nature of her error. Rather than the paragons of wisdom she had supposed them to be, the Saurons were by way of a test. Before humans could ascend to a higher level of consciousness a sifting process must necessarily take place. A process during which the wheat would be sorted from the chaff. Then, once the Saurons left, she and her followers would found a new society based on precepts provided by her. In the meantime she had been forced to provide the Fon Brotherhood with a limited amount of support.

Did Hak-Bin know that? Or believe that he knew? If so, that might explain why the Kan had been ordered to provide Andromeda and her followers with an object lesson. There was no way to tell...Although if the Sauron was certain, really certain, it seemed logical to believe that she'd be hanging upside down from one of the crosses up on the hill. All she and her followers could do was acquiesce, haul the limestone block to the top of Hell Hill, and hope for the best.

Like some of the other Kan who had spent a significant amount of time on and around Hell Hill, Lik-Maa had developed a sort of grudging respect for the humans and their overall resiliency.

Not this group, however, who, like the upper echelons of the Ra `Na hierarchy, had discovered means by which to avoid the really hard work by supporting rather than opposing the system imposed by his race. Understandable? Yes, but far from admirable.

So, feeling as he did, Lik-Maa was determined to make sure that the human who called herself Sister Andromeda and her acolytes came away from the experience with a very real appreciation of what their less fortunate peers experienced on a daily basis. The Kan clacked his pincers. His voice boomed through the translator strapped to his chest armor. ``Pay attention. Rather than the four people normally assigned to move a block of stone up the hill--you have been allowed six. A decision that takes into account the fact that you lead sedentary lives while the rest of your kind perform hard physical work every day.''

Andromeda took note of the criticism, was surprised to learn that individuals like Lik-Maa even considered such matters, and made room for the new data in her overall view of what Saurons were like. The Kan seemed to shimmer as his chitin tried to imitate the water off to the west. ``Now,'' the Sauron continued, ``bend over, grasp the wooden crosspieces, and lift.''

The humans obeyed. The block wobbled as the weaker members of the team struggled to support it. The stone tipped dangerously, but came right as a couple of fairly well built men managed to get their shoulders under it, then steadied as the entire group shared the weight.

Andromeda, one of two women in the center position, was surprised by how light the burden was until she realized that the men, all of whom were taller than she was, bore most of the load. Something she was secretly glad of.

``So,'' Lik-Maa said sarcastically, ``the hard part is over. Now all you have to do is reach the top of the hill.''

Andromeda had been through many hardships during her life. She had been two years old when her father abandoned his family, twenty-seven when her husband did much the same thing, and thirty-one when her only child was killed in an automobile accident.

Nevertheless, the next hour and a half were the most difficult of her life. The block of limestone not only grew heavier with each passing minute, but became more and more central to her existence. Though little more than an abstraction at first, the block took on additional weight as the men started to tire--and the cultist fought to keep her footing. More than that she could smell the raw earth that still clung to the bottom of the object she carried, she could feel the cold texture of it, and she could taste a layering of sea salt. Or was it her own sweat?

Then, as if passing through some sort of permeable barrier, the limestone block was suddenly within her, redefining who she was, restating Andromeda's purpose. Not long after that, about a third of the way up the hill, Sister Andromeda started to think of the burden as a living being, and of herself as little more than two of its many legs.

The acolyte named Mandy fell at roughly the halfway point, was whipped back into position, and started to cry. Not a wailing sound, there was too little oxygen for that, but sobs that sounded like gulps. Tears tracked down across her grime-covered cheeks, and Andromeda wanted to offer the other woman some sympathy, but couldn't muster the energy. The rock was in charge and refused to share her with anyone else.

What happened next was well under way before Andromeda knew it was taking place. A man, one of the hundreds who occasionally sought solace within one of the Star Com's steel ``temples,'' saw the white robes, knew who these particular humans were, and shouted to a friend. Together they pushed their way in, brought fresh muscle to the task, and the rock surged forward.

It wasn't long before onlookers started to pace the rock, more volunteers joined the group, and still more, until Lik-

Maa watched in astonishment as the lesson was transformed into a processional, and the limestone rock seemed to float over the crowd. Even more amazing, to the Kan at least, was the fact that white humans, brown humans, and even elite black humans took part. The caste mixing, though distasteful, was also inspiring, though he couldn't say why.

And so it was that Saurons, humans, and Ra `Na alike turned to look as the momentarily ebullient slaves swept onto the top of Hell Hill, dropped the block into its assigned slot, and cheered like victorious football fans.

That was the moment when Lik-Maa realized that the humans were crazy--and felt the first tendrils of fear enter his belly.

SOUTH OF HELL HILL NEAR SAMISH BAY

The room was small and grimy, in keeping with the carefully blacked-out building to which it belonged. Some ancient file cabinets occupied a grungy corner, where they continued to guard files that belonged to Ed's Plumbing, and a man sat on the edge of the metal-framed military-

style bed where Ed himself had occasionally snatched a nap. His face was too strong to be classically handsome, his hair was peppered with gray, and his eyes were unremittingly serious.

Deac Smith was tired, extremely tired, which made sense given not only the extent of his responsibilities, but the energy with which he tried to fulfill them. Just back from a long and somewhat painful midnight horseback ride, the resistance fighter was about to turn in when he heard a knock on the door. Smith made a face. ``Who is it?''

``It's me,'' a gruff-sounding male voice responded. ``Who were you expecting? The tooth fairy? Come to tuck you in?''

There was only one man who dared speak to Smith like that, the same man who had served at his side in the Rangers and spent the same amount of time in the saddle that he had. None other than George Farley, U.S. Army staff sergeant, retired, and Smith's second-in-command. The resistance leader grinned in spite of himself. ``The tooth fairy couldn't possibly be that ugly...So come in then get the hell out. I need some shut-eye.''

The door squeaked as it opened. Farley, also known as Popcorn to his friends, stuck his head in. He had chocolate-

colored skin, quick, intelligent eyes, and needed a shave. Hair, which had been almost entirely black just months before, was shot with gray. ``You have visitors.''

Smith pulled a combat boot off, noticed the hole in his wool sock, and sighed. ``I don't want any visitors--especially at this time of night. Tell them to come back in the morning.''

``One of them is a young petty officer named Darby,'' Farley said dispassionately. ``The same Darby who took part in the attack on five Sauron spaceships and destroyed every damned one of them.''

``Darby?'' Smith demanded incredulously. ``Darby? I figured she was dead. Why didn't you say so? That woman deserves the frigging Medal of Honor!''

Farley smiled and stood to one side as the single-booted ex-Ranger limped out through the door. A battery-powered lantern hung from a hook in the ceiling. Darby stood in the cone of light thrown down onto the dirty linoleum floor. She saw Smith appear and the way his face lit up. He hobbled across the room to give the ex-petty officer a very unsoldierlike hug. ``You're alive! That's the best news I've had all week. Where the hell have you been?''

Darby, who was both surprised and pleased by the warmth of the greeting, smiled to the extent that the scar tissue would allow her to do so. ``I went fishing...and here's what I caught.''

Darby stepped to one side and turned to discover that Pol had climbed up onto a human-sized stool, turned his back to the room, and was busy sorting through the parts that littered Ed's plywood workbench. She sighed. ``Pol...this is the man I brought you here to meet.''

Pol snapped one last component into place, heard a ``click'' as a connection was made, and touched a tiny button. The image of a fierce-looking Kan blossomed in front of the Harley poster tacked over the grease-stained bench. The Sauron started to speak. The dialogue sounded like a long series of clicks and squeaks.

Smith stepped in to get a closer look. ``Who the hell is that?''

``Sector Commander Muu-Dak,'' Pol said calmly. ``Briefing his troops.''

``About what?'' Farley asked, equally fascinated.

``Boring stuff,'' Pol said offhandedly. ``You know, troop movements, logistics, that sort of thing.''

The ex-Rangers looked at each other in amazement. What the ratty-looking Ra `Na had been able to do in a matter of a few minutes was more than their best tech heads had been able to accomplish during the last month.

Darby, who had a pretty good idea what the two men were thinking, gestured in Pol's direction. ``Deac Smith, George Farley, meet Fra Pol. He would like to join the resistance movement.''

Smith, one boot still held in his hand, limped to the workbench. ``It's a pleasure to meet you, Fra Pol. We have more equipment like that...stuff we captured. A lot of it needs work. Would you be willing to look at it?''

``Certainly,'' Pol said, watching his hand disappear inside Smith's sizable paw. ``I will assist in any way that I can.''

``Then welcome to the resistance, son,'' Farley said. ``The pay sucks, you'll probably get killed, but it beats a hitch in the United States Navy.''

Darby gave the ex-Ranger a one-fingered salute, and the humans laughed.

The joke was lost on Pol, who, for reasons he wasn't quite sure of, and contrary to all common sense, felt like this was home.

SOUTHEAST OF HELL HILL

The main problem with Jonathan Ivory's plan, beyond the fact that it was crazy, had to do with the amount of patience required. However, assuming he wanted to hitch a ride on a Sauron road train, which he did, and assuming he wanted to trim weeks off the journey to Racehome, the racialist had very little choice. All he could do was camp out on the concrete overpass, wait for enough time to pass, and hope he wasn't fast asleep at the critical moment.

Ivory had dreams about that, nightmares so vivid that on one occasion he awoke to find himself standing at the guardrail, screaming as the phantom convoy pulled away.

Not that wakefulness was much better. More than once he thought he heard the growl of engines, and gathered his meager belongings, only to discover that his mind was playing tricks on him. The freeway was empty, there was no line of vehicles approaching from the north, and the wait continued.

Worst of all, however, was the time when the growl of engines brought the racialist out of the woods to the west, and the Sauron road train was real, but headed in the wrong direction. Did that mean that another convoy, one headed toward the south, would be along soon? Or did it mean just the opposite? There was no way to know.

Strangely, when the moment finally came, it was the vibration rather than the noise that awoke Ivory from a fitful sleep and sent him scurrying toward the walls that ran along both sides of the overpass. The entire structure started to shake, as if in the grip of a low-intensity earthquake, and left little doubt that something heavy was on the way.

The racialist peeked over the edge, saw the tractorlike vehicle at the head of the Sauron convoy, checked to see if roof guards had been posted, was relieved to see that none were visible. That being the case, he ducked down again.

There would be Kan within the armor-clad vehicles, plenty of them, all heavily armed. All it would require was one curious warrior, a single fifty-foot jump, and Ivory would be history.

The bridge vibrated even more as the Sauron road train approached and the human scrambled to gather what few belongings he had.

Then, as the tractorlike lead vehicle passed under the concrete span, Ivory climbed to the top of the rail, where he stood like a windblown scarecrow and watched as dull, bird-

splattered metal passed beneath his feet. Some sort of hieroglyph appeared, an ID number that would allow Sauron aircraft to identify the convoy from the air, then it disappeared as well. Ivory wanted to land on the last of the cars, theorizing that it was less likely to have any Kan lurking within, and wondered if the impact would be heard. ``No'' meant he would survive for a little bit longer, ``yes'' was equivalent to a death sentence.

``No, yes, no, yes.'' Who could tell? The last car in the train drew near, Ivory took a long deep breath, put his faith in Yahweh, and jumped. There was a solid thump as his boots hit, less than two seconds in which to fall flat, and ``feel'' the bridge deck pass not more than a foot overhead. Then, lying prostrate on his stomach, the racialist began to count. ``One, and two, and three, and four, and five, and six...''

When the total hit 120, or the equivalent of two minutes, Ivory stopped. There had been no sounds of alarm, no change in the car's back and forth sway, no reason for alarm.

Relieved, and suddenly very tired, the racialist rolled over onto his back. The sun inched higher in the sky, warmed the metal roof, and made him drowsy. Ivory threw a forearm across his eyes, wondered if there was something more he should do, and fell asleep.

ABOARD THE SAURON DREADNOUGHT /HOK NOR AH

Unlike most of the Ra `Na-sized passageways aboard the Hok Nor Ah, corridor * had been constructed to allow various kinds of utility vehicles to transport equipment from one end of the ship to the other. That meant there was sufficient headroom to allow low-level jumps. Something that made the passageway a favorite with the Saurons. A fact which Dro Tog was coming to regret.

His escort, which consisted of two bored Kan, stood at the intersection and peered back over their shoulders. They shimmered like spirits only half-seen. The prelate, whose short, stumpy legs were already pumping at what he considered to be an excessive rate of speed, sensed their impatience and did his best to waddle even faster.

That was sufficient to make his heart quicken, but what really caused his pulse to pound was the nature of the summons itself. The great Hak-Bin had sent for him! A signal honor--but one which the cleric would rather have done without.

Or was it an honor? What if he had done something wrong? And the Saurons were about to crucify him? No, the condemned were treated in a much different manner. So what in the six blue devils was going on? All he could do was wait and see.

Tog caught up with the Kan who jumped and landed fifty standard units up corridor. The prelate had little choice but to hoist his robe, scurry forward, and hope that the torture would soon end.

And, as if the Great One had decided to answer Tog's prayers, it wasn't long before the Kan turned down one of the many side passageways that intersected the ship's axis and were forced to resume their usual shipboard slip-slide shuffle. That allowed the prelate to settle his robes and resume something akin to a dignified pace.

Now, as passersby stared, Tog felt a moment of pride. And why not? He not only occupied one of the highest ranks his race was permitted to have, but had been summoned by no less a personage than Hak-Bin himself. And whatever the matter was it must be important. Otherwise why the summons? How many of those passing to the right and left could say the same? None, not a single one.

And so it was that Tog, oblivious to the subtle looks of disgust directed at him from every side, followed the Kan under an arch and was ushered into what looked like an airlock. Fear stabbed the cleric's belly. Were they going to blow him out into space? No, while his knowledge of the ship was far from perfect, the prelate knew he was nowhere near the outside surface of the hull. Where then? And why?

Conscious of the fact that the Kan were watching him, Tog drew himself up, stepped through the hatch, and did his best to remain as expressionless as possible while the chamber was sealed. Nothing happened at first--which made him nervous. Then the inner hatch cycled open, Tog moved toward it, and something strange started to take place. The prelate felt lighter, much lighter, and was just starting to absorb the implications of that when his sandals left the deck. He had entered one of the ship's null-gee zones--areas where certain kinds of work and medical therapies could take place free of gravity. Like all of the fleet's Ra `Na slaves, Tog had been raised in space, and once freed from the weight of his obese body became suddenly graceful.

Tog flipped upside down, used his feet to push off the overhead, and dove through the hatch. His trajectory was perfect. His hands touched the deck beyond with just the right amount of force, he performed a somersault, and emerged in perfect position. Head ``up,'' to the extent that there was such a thing in zero gee, and feet ``down.''

There was a clacking noise, and Tog turned in the direction of the sound. What he saw surprised him. Hak-Bin, his body swathed in multiple layers of what looked like flimsy black gauze, floated not twenty units away. Globe-shaped lights, both equipped with air jets, floated above and to either side. Another globe, this one positioned to provide the Sauron with a back light, hung above and behind. The rest of the chamber was dark and therefore mysterious. Beyond what Tog could see, there was what he could smell, and the Ra `Na's supersensitive nostrils detected a not altogether pleasant odor. An amalgamation of smells, as if one scent had been used to hide another, and none too successfully.

The clacking stopped. ``Nicely done,'' Hak-Bin said in a patronizing manner. ``I have long admired the grace with which your kind can move in zero gee. Even my most athletic warriors are clumsy by comparison.''

Here was the great Hak-Bin, addressing him personally, and saying something nice! How could this be? Fear rose to block Tog's airway. It was difficult to speak. ``Thank you, eminence, but you are too kind. Even the least of your warriors is much more graceful than I.''

Hak-Bin, who was used to such lies, and expected nothing less, waved a pincer. ``Thank you for agreeing to come.''

Had the Kan warriors extended some sort of invitation? No, Tog couldn't remember anyBut maybe they were supposed to and forgot. ``Thank you for the invitation, eminence. It was my pleasure.''

Hak-Bin nodded as if the answer was completely believable. ``I'm sorry we won't be able to spend much time on the ceremonial aspect of your investiture--but these are pressing times. Construction has slowed, the temples have fallen behind schedule, and every unit counts.''

Tog was mystified and mustered the courage to probe. ``Investiture? Would your eminence be so kind as to explain?''

``Sorry about that,'' Hak-Bin replied with wave of a pincer, ``I assumed my staff had briefed you...It seems rumors have started to fly, nonsense for the most part, but fire sufficient darts and one will hit something eventually. According to one such story the entire Sauron race will die and give birth at the same time. Have you heard anything of that nature?''

The fact was that Tog had heard of something like that, from the scalawag Fra Pol no less, and refused to believe it. Until now that is...and his audience with Hak-Bin. Tog was a lot of things, many of which were less than admirable, but he wasn't stupid. Suddenly, armed as he was with the information that Pol had overheard, plus the evidence in front of his eyes, the cleric knew the undeniable truth: The Saurons were not only going to die, just as Pol claimed they would, but Hak-Bin had already started to change. That's why the Zin was living in zero gee, that's why his body was swathed in fabric, and that's why he smelled. The thoughts raced through his mind at incredible speed, and the prelate would have sworn that his face was expressionless, but he must have been wrong. Hak-Bin clacked a pincer. ``Ah, so you have heard the rumors?''

Tog considered his options. A ``yes,'' would indicate that he had heard things which should have been reported. A ``no,'' would come across as a challenge. The cleric decided to gamble. ``Yes, eminence. I heard the rumors and did everything in my power to quash them.''

``Yes,'' Hak-Bin said easily, ``you did. Which has everything to do with your presence in my chamber. Even after hours of what the painmaster describes as a most rigorous regimen of torture, your subordinate, one P'ere Has, continued to speak of your devotion. A most remarkable session indeed. Perhaps you would care to thank him.''

There was a sudden gust of colder air, the sound of sequenced air jets, and a small stretcher floated out of the darkness. Retros fired, and it coasted to a stop. Has, his features slack, lay as if dead. One ear had been burned almost beyond recognition, the other was badly singed, and who knew what lay beneath the crudely applied bandages.

The prelate shivered. To suffer yet remain loyal to a Not only was Has stupid--he was crazy as well...Something for which Tog was extremely grateful. But what to say? That it was kind of the Saurons to let the cleric live? That they never should have tortured him in the first place? That they were scum? No, none of those alternatives would go over very well, and that being the case, Tog attempted something neutral. ``Yes, well I am most grateful for the manner in which Has sustained the truth.''

Hak-Bin stomped a foot in approval, remembered where he was, and clacked a pincer instead. ``Yes, it's important to show loyalty to those who are loyal in return. Especially when one occupies an extremely important position.''

The words brought Tog's ears up and forward. ``Position? What position?''

Hak-Bin savored the slave's eagerness and raw lust for power. The whole thing was so easy--almost too easy. ``Why the position of Grand Vizier, what else?''

Tog had no idea what the title meant, but knew no one else had it, not even Dro Rul. ``Why thank you, eminence. May I inquire as to the exact nature of my responsibilities?''

``Of course,'' Hak-Bin replied affably. ``As I indicated earlier there is at least some truth in the rumors that are floating around. My brethren and I will die on or around what the humans call July 31. Some seventy-three days from now.''

Tog, who wasn't exactly sure of how to react, bowed his head. ``Eminence, I am truly sorry to hear that.''

Hak-Bin waved a pincer. ``Thank you, but there is no need for regret. Each of us will live on in the memories of successors. Just one of the many ways in which our race is superior to yours. Once born, our descendants will require the services of loyal servants such as yourself. Not the entire Ra `Na race, mind you, since there are those who might try to take unfair advantage of our momentary weakness, but a strong nucleus from which the subclass can soon be bred.

``In fact, plans have already been laid to ensure that three out of four of the surviving Ra `Na will be female, so that individuals such as yourself will have ample opportunity to pass their genetic materials along to the future.''

Tog felt his emotions lurch from horror to lust. Thousands upon thousands would be put to death...but what could he do? Nothing...nothing at all. To align himself with the resistance would be madness. The survivors would require experienced leadership, a sort of benign dictator capable of managing their affairs, literally planting the seeds required to grow the race. Tog felt himself start to harden and pushed the sensation away. The time for fantasies would come later--after he escaped from the chamber. ``And in the meantime, eminence?''

``And in the meantime you will do all in your power to ensure that the citadels are completed, that members of the Ra `Na resistance movement are identified and eliminated, and the fleet is fully provisioned and ready for departure when the next generation of Saurons has need of it.''

``So, the journey will continue?''

Hak-Bin looked as surprised as a member of his race was capable of looking. ``Of course...Our people shall be bound together until we find the planet called Paradise.''

``And then?'' Tog asked, astounded by his own audacity.

``And then we will all live in harmony,'' Hak-Bin lied smoothly, ``equals in the eyes of the great creator.''

Tog recognized the line for it was, an excellent way to give the surviving Ra `Na something to pin their hopes on, and stored the nugget away. ``Thank you, lord, I will do my very best.''

Hak-Bin fought a sudden cramp and sought to bring the conversation to a close. ``I'm sure you will. Members of my staff will contact you. You may leave now.''

Tog looked at P'ere Has and felt a sudden surge of unexpected tenderness. ``May I take P'ere Has with me?''

``Of course,'' the Zin said dismissively. ``You are the Grand Vizier...the entire Ra `Na race is yours to command.''

And so it was that Has survived, the Saurons forged a new weapon, and another day came off the clock.

ABOARD THE SAURON DREADNOUGHT /HOK NOR AH

The compartment was darkened--lit only by the glow of a red light. It began to flash on and off. Shu awoke as she often did to the persistent buzz of the alarm and the knowledge that something horrible had occurred. The injured Ra `Na came in all shapes and sizes with medical emergencies as varied as they were. Lacerations, burns, fractures, infections, and more. She saw them all.

Of course that was what she had been trained to do, and was happy to do, except that as the Saurons pushed the slaves harder there were more casualties.

Shu rolled out of bed, slipped her feet into a pair of sandals, and joined other medical personnel who were rushing to their stations.

Shu entered the emergency receiving station, nodded to a bleary-eyed assistant, and waited while the attendants wheeled the patient into the compartment. He was conscious and clearly agitated. Attendants transferred the male to the examining table, strapped him down, and left.

Shu removed a stylus from a tray, placed the tip on a black dot that had been inked into the fur-free inner surface of her patient's left arm, and looked up at the wall screen. Though spared the indignity of ear tags such as the humans were forced to wear, the Ra `Na were subjected to something that Shu considered to be even worse: an implant that contained information regarding who they were, the kind of training they had, and a complete record of disciplinary problems if any.

Still, the medical information stored in the wrist chip was valuable, and the medic soon knew everything there was to know about the wiper named Toth. He had suffered a broken leg three years before, was allergic to a commonly used antibiotic, and had been labeled as a borderline sociopath. In fact, as Shu skimmed Toth's voluminous disciplinary record, she was reminded of a friend, a certain somewhat disreputable cleric named Pas Pol. Some claimed he'd been killed--while others insisted that the initiate was alive and well.

Either way Shu's patient was a handful and clearly wanted to tell her something. Toth reached out to grab the medic's arm. ``Listen to me...I got a look at their files, and the Saurons know that by now. When they come for me you must tell them I never spoke anything other than gibberish.''

Shu assumed her patient was delusional and nodded agreeably. ``Just lie back and relax. You'll be up and around in no time. Please release my arm so I can go to work.''

``No!'' Toth said emphatically, his grip tightening even more. ``Everything that I'm telling you is true. Later, when it's safe, find those with the courage to fight back. Tell them that the entire Sauron race will die in approximately seventy-three days--and that a new generation will be born. The few days in between represent the only chance our people have to achieve their freedom. They must seize the opportunity or all is lost.''

Shu was about to reply, about to say something soothing, when a lab tech stepped into the compartment. ``Sorry to interrupt, but a pair of Kan are headed this way. They want a patient named Toth.''

``You see?'' Toth demanded fiercely, ``it's just as I told you...Now listen carefully--The material manufactured aboard the La Ma Gor is some sort of birth catalyst, a substance the Saurons require in order to quicken their young. Destroy it and you destroy them. Do you understand?''

Shu wanted to say ``yes,'' that she did, but the Kan chose that particular moment to enter the compartment, and the wiper appeared to convulse. Toth arched his back, made choking sounds, and thrashed from side to side. The effect was quite convincing, but the senior Sauron, a noncom named Dru-Laa, appeared unmoved. ``Is this the slave named Toth?''

``Yes,'' Shu replied quickly, ``but it won't be possible to speak with him.''

``We don't want to speak with him,'' Dru-Laa said emotionlessly, and shot Toth in the head. The dart blew the top half of Toth's skull off, and sprayed blood, bone, and brain tissue across a bank of metal cabinets.

The t-gun swiveled in Shu's direction. ``What did he say to you?'' the warrior demanded, his voice devoid of intonation.

``Nothing,'' Shu replied, as she backed away, ``you saw him. He was completely incoherent.''

There was a long hard silence as death stared at her through huge saucer-shaped eyes. Then, based on who knew what criteria, Dru-Laa holstered his weapon and gestured to his companion. Together they left the compartment.

Shu, overcome by grief, collapsed in tears.

It was evening, the real sun had just started to set, and it was too early for the orbital reflector to cast its ghostly glow over the land. Dozens of cook fires sent smoke spiraling up from makeshift chimneys to be caught by the wind and sent off toward the east. Snatches of conversation could be heard, along with the sound of an improvised string instrument and the distant clang of tools.

Even as Manning's feet carried him through the streets and toward the clinic, he wondered if he should go there. Yes, the cut was real enough, sustained while working on the defenses that protected the Presidential Complex. But did the injury require stitches? Or was the laceration little more than an excuse to see Dr. Sool? And if it was an excuse, why would he need one? Because of Jina's death? Even though his relationship with the president's wife had never extended beyond a single kiss? Did any of his maunderings make sense? No, the security chief concluded, they didn't.

But his feet continued on their journey, and soon, as if drawn there by some invisible force, Manning found himself standing outside Dr. Sool's clinic. There was a line, albeit a relatively short one, and the security chief was debating whether he should join it when Sool, coffee cup in hand, wandered out through the door. The doctor wore light blue scrubs, scrounged by some admirer, and bisected with dots of dried blood.

Sool's face lit up when she saw him, and she made her way over. ``Jack! This is an unexpected pleasure...Is the president okay?''

Manning grinned sheepishly. ``Yeah, he's grumpy, but otherwise fine. I cut my arm...but I'm not sure if it needs stitches.''

``Come on in,'' Sool said, gesturing to the makeshift clinic. ``I'll take a look.''

``I'll get in line,'' Manning replied. ``Those folks were waiting when I arrived.''

``Don't be silly,'' Sool said, loud enough so her patients could hear, ``even I get to take a break once in a while. Dixie has to see them first anyway. We don't charge for our services, but we try to keep some records. It makes the job easier if you know their histories.''

Manning followed the doctor inside, said hello to Dixie, and stepped into the so-called examining room, which was actually no more than an area that could be curtained off from the rest of the cargo container. ``Sit on the stool and let's see what you did to yourself,'' Sool said as she plucked a pair of disposable gloves out of a box and pulled them on.

Manning knew that as with so many of the supplies used by the clinic, the gloves had been brought there by Jina Franklin. Where would such things come from now he wondered? The security chief made a note to speak to his team.

The doctor's hands were gentle as they removed the dressing to reveal a two-inch cut. ``It turns out that you do need stitches,'' Sool said sternly, ``so stay right there while I set things up.''

Given the fact that the clinic lacked an autoclave, as well as the power required to run one, instruments were boiled. That included needles as well. Having dipped a pair of tongs into antibacterial solution, Sool used them to reach into a pan of slowly boiling water and grab a pair of needle holders. The instrument looked like a large hemostat except that it had a blunt nose and short jaws. With the needle holders in hand, the doctor pushed a selection of curved cutting needles around the bottom of the pot until she found one that met her needs.

Then, with the needle firmly clamped in instrument's jaws, it was a simple matter to feed some suture material through the needle's eye and secure it by pulling the nylon back through the slot at the end of the holder's slightly parted tip. Though far from sterile, the procedure was the best she could do.

Knowing how few supplies Sool had to work with, and mindful of the horrendous injuries she dealt with on a daily basis, Manning refused a topical anesthetic and focused on her rather than the pain. As the doctor fought to push the much-dulled needle through the security chief's leathery epidermis he saw the very tip of a tiny pink tongue emerge from the corner of her mouth. The sight was endearing somehow, and Manning found himself transported back in time to a vision of a little girl seated with legs crossed, as she worked on a puzzle. ``So?'' Sool inquired gently. ``Do I get an answer or not?''

Manning realized he had missed something, and apologized. ``Sorry, I was distracted.''

``By the pain?''

``No, by you.''

Sool looked up into his eyes, liked what she saw there, and felt her heart jump. It was silly, not to mention unforgivably juvenile, but real nonetheless. A fact which made her next words all the more perverse. ``What about Jina?''

It was a stupid thing to say, motivated by jealousy more than anything else, and Sool regretted the words the moment that she said them.

Manning flinched, as if reacting to the needle, and pain clouded his eyes. Sool felt him pull back and cursed her own stupidity. He had been there, trying to reach out, only to have her slap him down.

The security chief smiled gamely. ``It was that obvious? Look, I was out of line, it won't happen again.''

A voice inside Sool screamed, ``Please, I want it to happen again!'' But it was too late. There was an uncomfortable silence as Sool placed a dressing over the stitches, Manning thanked her, and pulled the curtain aside. Seconds later he was gone.

There were no interior walls, which meant that Dixie, working only a few feet away, had been a witness to the entire conversation. The clinic was momentarily empty, and she stood, hands on hips. ``You know, for such a smart doctor, you are one stupid lady.''

Sool nodded sadly. ``Yup, that pretty much sums it up. I'll find time to cry about it later tonight...In the meantime, patients are waiting. Okay, who's next?''

SOUTHEAST OF HELL HILL

The horse nickered, and shook its head back and forth, as it continued to pick its way down the trail. The Ra `Na, who had been strapped into a car seat intended for human juveniles, was himself facing backward. Though not especially cold, the night was pitch-black, and without benefit of the light-intensification goggles that the human wore Pol could see very little beyond Hell Hill's distant glow, the occasional glint of a star, and for one brief moment, the steady blink, blink, blink of running lights as a shuttle descended toward the water off to the west.

Could the Saurons ``see'' them? Using the infrared detection equipment the Ra `Na had designed for them? Yes, without a doubt. The combined body heat generated by a human, a Ra `Na, and a horse would show up as a ghostly green blob meandering across the countryside below. Visible, but not worth pursuing given the number of deer, elk, and large farm animals now free to roam the countryside. Or so the humans claimed, although Pol, who knew the Saurons a good deal better than they did, knew that a sufficiently large blob of heat was almost certain to attract a fighter if not a barrage from space.

Still, uncomfortable though the horseback trip was, it certainly beat trying to keep up with the long-legged humans on some sort of cross-country hike. So, having nothing in particular to do, Pol fell asleep and remained that way till the sound of voices and a sudden wash of white light served to wake him up.

The Ra `Na initiate blinked as he straightened up to look around. The room was huge. It had a high ceiling, electric lights, and featured gray concrete walls. Most were lined with shelving, a lot of it, all loaded with carefully arranged equipment. Not human equipment, as Pol might have expected, but Ra `Na, which was to say Sauron equipment, salvaged from who knew where. Judging from the smell, and the sounds that came from nearby, horses were quartered there as well.

A black-skinned human appeared, smiled, and introduced himself. He had short-cropped black hair, even features, and wore rimless glasses. The human had long slender fingers and they made quick work of the fasteners that held Pol in place. ``Hello there, welcome to the skunk works. My name is Jared Kenyata...I hear we have a lot in common.''

``We do?'' Pol asked, allowing himself to be lifted down onto the cement floor. ``Such as what?''

``Well,'' Kenyata said, grinning widely, ``we both have trouble dealing with authority figures, we enjoy electronics, and we hate the fucking Saurons.''

Pol's translator rendered the last part of the human's sentence as ``intercoursing Saurons'' which called for an immediate correction. ``It's a pleasure to meet you Jared...

but it's important to understand that the Saurons don't have intercourse.''

Kenyata's grin grew even wider. ``Yeah, the poor bastards don't know what they're missing, do they?''

Pol decided to ignore the fact that it was impossible for a Sauron to be a ``bastard'' in the technical sense...and went with what he now knew to be the human (male) version of humor. ``Nope, them fuckers ain't got a clue.''

The human laughed and gestured to the room. ``So? What do you think?''

The horse had been led away. Pol saw that there were some additional humans, three in all, one of whom was seated at long workbench. ``Where are we?''

``This is the basement of a church,'' Kenyata replied. ``It looks like the building caught fire at some point, and collapsed, but the heavy-duty concrete floor held everything up. The wreckage provides the place with camouflage and helps to block radiated heat.''

Pol eyed the steel crossbeams and the concrete floor above. ``No offense, friend Jared, but the layers of concrete and wreckage won't be sufficient to protect us.''

The human nodded agreeably. ``You're absolutely correct. Listen, can you hear that humming sound?''

Pol's ears rotated to either side, and he agreed that he could.

``We have a generator,'' Kenyata explained, ``which not only powers the lights, and the wall outlets, but a water pump as well. We use a portion of the well water for drinking...but the vast majority passes through half a mile of tubing woven into the wreckage. The constant drip, drip, drip of water helps keep the site nice and cool.''

``Very clever,'' Pol said, happy to learn that his new friends were appropriately cautious. ``So, where do the skunks come in? Do you ride them like horses? And what do they look like?''

Kenyata remembered the comment made earlier and laughed. ``No, there aren't any skunks. Not real ones. The term `skunk works' refers to a place where people work on some sort of project...often outside of the way that things are normally done.''

``Ah,'' Pol replied, ``now I understand. This is where we will work to how do you say it? Throw a monkey into the works?''

``A monkey wrench,'' Kenyata replied, ``but yes, with your help we hope to do a much better job of tapping into Sauron communications, and then, if all goes well, we'll use their system against them.''

Pol eyed the heavily loaded shelves. ``Good. I like the way humans think. What's the fur dryer for?''

Kenyata followed the pointed finger to a small device with a flexible hose attachment. ``That's a fur dryer? You could have fooled me...Is any of this stuff any good?''

Pol nodded. ``Have no fear, friend Jared...we can make lots of monkeys. But first we must eat. Do you have any seafood?''

The human frowned. ``Nothing fresh...Is canned tuna okay?''

``Tuna? What is `tuna'?''

``It's a fish.''

Pol nodded. ``First we eat...then we work the dogs.''

``Like dogs.''

``Whatever...'' Pol replied, his nose sampling the air. ``Take me to the tuna.''

SOUTHEAST WASHINGTON STATE

The road train was traveling at a steady thirty-five miles per hour. Not especially fast but consistent with the tractor's gearing, which had been set up with off-road conditions in mind.

There was no need for that, however, not with such a well-developed system of roads already in place, which explained why the Sauron convoy was eastbound on a secondary highway.

Ivory had been clinging to the roof of the trailer for hours by then, cursing the fact that he didn't have enough water, but reluctant to abandon his ride. He was half-conscious much of the time, not truly awake, but not really asleep either.

Perhaps, had Ivory had been less fatigued, and therefore more alert, he would have noticed the fact that the train had started to slow and prepared himself for what occurred next. But he wasn't and didn't.

The convoy jerked to a halt, doors banged open, and ramps touched the ground. Though not especially vigilant up to that point, orders were orders, and the Kan were supposed to check the entire train twice each day. The main purpose of the inspection was to look for maintenance problems, but security was an issue as well. Some of the feral slaves possessed projectile weapons, and liked nothing better than to take potshots at the road train from high in the hills.

One such individual had even managed to bag a Kan who had been riding atop one of the trailers. Subsequent analysis indicated that the warrior had been killed by a single .50-

caliber bullet fired from twelve hundred yards away. That's why none of the warriors were willing to ride topside anymore, not unless an officer was present, which thankfully there wasn't.

The inspection was a routine and therefore boring chore--

one which the Saurons had performed many times before without any results. That being the case, Rol-Baa could hardly believe his eyes when he made the necessary leap, felt his feet thump down on the trailer's metal roof, and saw the human lying prostrate two cars away.

The slave was still in the process of trying to sit up when Rol-Baa landed with one foot on the human's chest. The impact cracked two of Ivory's ribs and knocked the wind out of him. The racialist was still fighting for breath when the Kan aimed the t-gun at his head and uttered a series of incomprehensible noises.

There were no humans aboard the train, or hadn't been, so there was no reason for the warrior to wear a translator. He did need to communicate with the noncom in charge of the convoy, however, and proceeded to do so, using what Ivory thought of as ``click speech'' since that's the way the unmediated language sounded to him.

Rol-Baa listened to the reply via the radio attached to his combat harness, sent an acknowledgment, and jerked Ivory to his feet. Once the human was in motion a quick series of pokes, jabs, and shoves were sufficient to herd the unfortunate slave to the edge of the roof, where he was forced to sit, swing his legs over the side, and drop to the ground. There were no ladders attached to the road train for the simple reason that the Saurons didn't need them.

As the impact hit his ribs, the racialist screamed, clutched his side, and nearly fell.

Guided by another series of jabs, Ivory was forced to make his way to the very front of the tractor, where he was ``encouraged'' to mount the massive front bumper.

That was the moment when the human noticed the dimples that bullets had made in the vehicle's armor, a patch of dried blood, and four strategically placed Velcro-like straps.

The Kan were already in the process of securing him in place when Ivory realized that other slaves had been bound to the front of the vehicle before him, and, judging from the evidence, been killed by their own kind. By accident? Or as an act of mercy? There was no way to know.

Shortly thereafter the engines started, the road train jerked into motion, and Ivory started to pray. He beseeched the great Yahweh to save him, or, barring that, to put him out of his misery so that he could take his place in a heaven alongside all the other whites who had been judged as worthy.

But the minutes passed, the yellow line passed under the human's feet, and Ivory's prayers went unanswered. That's the way it seemed anyway, although sixty miles ahead, completely unaware of her husband's dire circumstances, Ella Howther, along with a force of some thirty skins, worked to put the finishing touches on a well-conceived ambush.

Unlike most of the women who had chosen to associate themselves with racialist doctrine during the years prior to the alien attacks, or, having nowhere else to go had aligned themselves with the White Rose Society since, Ella took a backseat to no man.

In spite of the fact that she was pregnant, or partly because of it, she worked to fill the vacuum left when her husband, along with a party of warriors, had departed for Hell Hill, where they had hoped to foment a revolution in which whites would rise up against both the muds and the Saurons.

Most of those who remained behind believed that Jonathan Ivory was dead, and had been for a long time, but Ella knew better. Her mother, the much-revered Marianne Howther, race wife to Old Man Howther, was given to dreams. Important dreams in which truths were often revealed. In one such dream she had seen Ivory struck down, only to rise out of the flames, and then, like Jesus himself, hang crucified for all to see. But dead? No, her mother had been certain of that, which meant that her baby would not only have a father, but a race father, to whom he could turn for knowledge and guidance.

In the meantime there was work to do, and with no one else to take care of it, Ella would handle the chores herself. The site of the ambush had unknowingly been chosen by the Saurons themselves the moment one of their shuttles touched down on the surface of the small, undistinguished lake, released the sausage-shaped fuel bladder clutched beneath its belly, and lifted again. Such an abomination might be tolerated elsewhere, but not here, within the large, vaguely defined chunk of territory that the Howthers and their followers referred to as Racehome.

No, the racialists feared that the fueling station was an encroachment that, if tolerated, would soon lead to even more territorial violations and must therefore be dealt with in no uncertain terms.

There had been four guards, all of whom had been killed by a single sniper less than twenty-four hours earlier. Since that time two had been butchered and eaten while the rest of the meat had been salted and prepared for the journey home. The flesh was a good if a bit chewy--and welcome during a time when protein was hard to come by.

``Butchered'' was a deceptive term, however, since the Saurons had been cleaned with almost surgical care, stuffed by a skilled taxidermist, and posed in and around the fuel station, where they gave the appearance of normalcy. A deception that wouldn't hold up for very long--but should be sufficient to lure the unsuspecting road train deep within the carefully established kill zone.

And so it was that Ella, along with her band of white warriors, settled in to wait for what might be days. A not-

altogether-unpleasant prospect since it would provide the racialist with an opportunity to read, something for which there was very little time of late. So there she was, curled up with the American Institute of Theology (AIT) study guide, reviewing Seedline doctrine, when the Motorola Talkabout 250 walkie-talkie squawked in her pocket. Ella frowned, removed the device, and pushed the ``send'' button. ``This is One...say again. Over.''

The voice belonged to a promising skin named Hampton, who went by the name Too, after the many racialist tattoos that decorated his body. That being the case, it seemed natural to honor his request for the call sign Two.

``This is Two...The convoy is in sight. I see one tractor, six trailers, and no guards in sight. ETA ten minutes. Over.''

Ella looked up at the evergreen-covered hill where she knew Too to be hiding. ``Any sign of air cover? Over.''

``Nope. Not so much as a crow. Over.''

``Good. Stay where you are and keep a sharp lookout. I don't want any surprises. Over.''

``Understood,'' Too replied, ``and one more thing...''

``Yes?''

``The chits strapped some guy to the front of their tractor. Like a trophy...or a hostage. Over.''

``Is he white? Over.''

``Yes, ma'am.''

``Then don't anybody shoot him. All right, take your places, and remember...Nobody fires until I do. Over.''

There was a chorus of clicks as the rest of the team acknowledged Ella's order, released their safeties, and prepared to fire.

Meanwhile, less than a mile away, a Kan named Doo-Naa engaged in the Sauron equivalent of a frown, and clicked through the a series of radio frequencies. He had heard something, the warrior was certain of that, but what? Feral slaves were a loquacious lot, and even though there weren't all that many of them, it seemed their numbers were larger because of the fact that they babbled day and night. And, making a difficult situation worse, was the fact that the transmissions might be coming from nearly anywhere. Still, better safe than sorry, which was why Doo-Naa reported his observations to the NCO in charge, a relatively competent individual named Cis-Nor.

Cis-Nor took the warning seriously, ordered the driver to reduce speed, and placed his entire squad on the highest level of alert.

It was then, as the noncom scanned the screens racked against the front bulkhead, that he noticed the first sentry. The warrior stood on a slight rise--ready to respond should there be an attack.

Cis-Nor allowed himself to relax a little as the train turned off the main highway and growled into the small state park. The fact that the fuel bladder was where it should be, floating untouched at the center of the lake, made the noncom feel even better.

The shore-based pump station was equipped with a twenty-unit-long heavily armored hose. That forced the driver to swing the tractor out toward the water, over a patch of recently disturbed dirt, and into the same general area where convoys always stopped. Ivory ran his tongue over dry, cracked lips, saw the lake, and tugged at the straps. ``Water...I need water.''

The word was little more than a croak, but the movement caught Ella's eye, and she took a look through a small pair of binoculars. That's when Ivory's face came into focus, when she knew who he was, and when the road train ground to a halt.

It was Jonathan! He was alive! Just as Mother said he would be. She had never seen him without the goatee but recognized her husband nonetheless. A sense of fierce pride welled up to fill the racialist's breast as the tractor burped compressed air, hatches whined up out of the way, and ramps slid down to meet the sandy soil. You must concentrate, Ella instructed herself, and wait for the aliens to leave the protection of the tractor and trailers.

The racialist aimed at the tractor's ramp, applied additional pressure to the submachine gun's trigger, and waited for one of the Kan to appear. Nothing happened.

Meanwhile, still confined within trailer three, and eager to go outside, Rol-Baa made use of his radio. ``What's the delay?'' the warrior wanted to know. ``I'm tired of sitting in this metal box.''

``Really?'' the noncom inquired sarcastically. ``Well, maybe you're tired of living. Take a look at those guards and tell me what's wrong with them.''

Goaded by the other Sauron's tone, Rol-Baa took a second look. He could see two of the guards--neither one of whom had moved since the first time he had looked at them. Then, before the warrior could remark on how strange that was, Cis-Nor used one of the train's turret-mounted auto throwers to put a burst of darts into the ground less than one unit from a sentry's foot. There was no reaction. ``It's a trap!'' Cis-

Nor roared. ``Seal the hatches and get the train out of here!''

But it was too late. Though hopeful that the Saurons would come out where the skins could shoot them, Ella had a backup plan, and was quick to make use of it. The racialist thumbed a button, the explosives buried under the road train went off with a loud whomp! And trailer two was nearly torn in half. Rol-Baa was killed in the explosion, along with a another warrior assigned to the same car.

The driver, a quick-witted sort named Sus-Naa, hit the switch that would uncouple the tractor from the train and twisted the throttle. The vehicle lurched forward.

Outside Ella heard a sharp crack as a smaller charge was detonated, a seventy-foot pine tree swayed, and started to fall.

Ella held her breath as the tractor came up to speed, spewed gravel, and tried to escape even as warriors still trapped within the surviving trailers implored Cis-Nor to save them. Would the tree, falling as if in slow motion, hit the ground in time?

The racialist didn't think so at first, but then the tree seemed to fall more quickly, and smacked the ground directly in front of the tractor's blunt nose. Ivory felt the tip of a branch brush across his chest, wondered what caused the explosions, and felt very exposed.

Sus-Maa slammed the brakes on, managed to stop short of the tree trunk, and put the tractor into reverse. The Kan was backing away, looking for an escape route, when a skin named Boot fired the tripod-mounted launcher he and his companions had captured along with the fuel station. The foot-long missile slammed into the tractor's side, blew a hole in the vehicle's armor, and detonated inside the engine compartment. The subsequent explosion destroyed the main accumulator and put the vehicle out of commission.

That was when Cis-Nor radioed for air support, or tried to, only to discover that both his primary and backup frequencies had been jammed. Furious, the noncom took an assault weapon down from a rack, ordered Sus-Maa to do likewise, and came out shooting.

Ella squeezed her trigger, felt the submachine gun leap in her hands, and heard other weapons join in.

Most of the Kan died quickly, but Cis-Nor made it into the air, and was able to kill two white slaves before the enemy bullets found him. Some of the projectiles flattened themselves against his body armor, but others found his unprotected legs and another struck the side of his head. Killed instantly--the noncom crashed to the ground.

Ella knew that even if the effort to jam the Sauron transmission had been successful, and there was no way to be sure that it had, the activity itself was likely to draw the wrong kind of attention.

That being the case, the racialist knew there was no time to gloat. ``This is One...Blow the fuel bladder and check the trailers for things we can use. I want the dead and wounded on stretchers. Nobody gets left. Quickly now, before all hell breaks loose. Over.''

Each skin knew what he would be held responsible for and went to work. There was a dull thump as the fuel bladder blew, black liquid stained the previously crystal-clear lake, and trout started to die.

Boot, who had been assigned to deal with hostages and/or prisoners, was already in the process of cutting Ivory down when Ella arrived at the front of the tractor. ``Look at what the bugs did to this poor bastard!'' the skin said sympathetically. ``He looks like hell warmed over.''

Ivory heard the male voice and tried to focus. The face appeared as a white blob. The female voice was familiar somehow. ``That `poor bastard' happens to be my husband,'' Ella said coolly, ``so please pay him the respect he deserves.''

``Yes, ma'am,'' Boot said respectfully. ``I'll take good care of him.''

``See that you do,'' Ella said, and kissed her husband's sunburned cheek.

And it was then, as the skin hoisted Ivory up onto his shoulder, that the racialist got a good look at his race wife. She smiled--and Ivory knew he was home.

Meanwhile, up in orbit, a battery of ship-mounted weapons fired. A quick succession of six energy bolts, all targeted to the same patch of ground, ripped through the atmosphere. Ella heard what sounded like a runaway freight train, felt a ground-shaking thump, and saw an entire cluster of trees explode into a million splinters. They whirred as they slashed through the air, rattled across some of the trailers, and plowed furrows in the fuel-polluted lake.

One of them struck a skin between the shoulders, threw him down, and nailed him to the ground. Ella, with Boot at her side, started to run. Another freight train arrived, and another, until the entire world erupted in flame.

ABOARD THE SAURON DREADNOUGHT /HOK NOR AH

A platform complete with a table and chairs had been erected in the otherwise empty compartment. Below the platform, positioned so it could be seen through the transparent tabletop and clear plastic floor, sat a large tank. And there, visible through the grillwork designed to keep him from climbing out, a Fon could be seen. The liquid in which he was immersed was active, like water put on to boil, except that the motion was generated by a chemical reaction rather than heat. The acid, diluted so the process would take longer, ate at the Sauron's chitin. Eventually, after most of his hard exoskeleton had been dissolved, the acid would bite into his internal organs. Then, while still experiencing the agony caused by that, and no longer able to hold his head up, the Fon would collapse in on himself and sink to the bottom of the tank. Knowing that, and hoping for some crumb of mercy, Kol-Hee stared up through the transparent floor in a futile attempt to make eye contact with Gon-Dra, the Zin who had been his supervisor, and was in all truth responsible for the disaster aboard the factory ship, La Ma Gor.

But, having successfully blamed Kol-Hee for the explosions, and the subsequent shortage of birth catalyst, Gon-

Dra was not about to demonstrate what might be interpreted as signs of sympathy for the unfortunate Fon.

Still hopeful of attracting the attention of the beings seated above him, Kol-Hee used his nose to push against the gridwork that held him in place, but with no success. His snout was wrapped with tape, his pincers had been secured with plastic ties, and only his feet remained unbound. The Fon could lift one foot then the other--but that was the extent of his freedom. None of which seemed to be of interest to Hak-Bin, Gon-Dra, Dro Tog, and a Zin named Len-Dar, all of whom were gathered to discuss the shortage of birth catalyst.

Hak-Bin, who had seen fit to restore gravity to the chamber to accommodate the requirements of the acid bath rather than his guests, was swathed in folds of black fabric. The extent to which his body had become swollen, and the odor that emanated from it, were factors the others sought to ignore.

``So,'' the Sauron leader said gratingly, ``I believe all of you understand the nature of the situation. Every drog of birth catalyst lost through Kol-Hee's incompetence must be replaced. The facility on the La Ma Gor will be repaired, a new factory will be constructed on the planet's surface, and the time schedule will be adhered to.''

The Zin turned toward the single Ra `Na. ``It will be the Grand Vizier's responsibility to mobilize the resources necessary to make these things happen and keep the slaves at the highest possible level of productivity. Do I make myself clear, Vizier Tog?''

Tog struggled to control his hard-pressed digestive system as the acrid odor of dissolved chitin found its way into his nostrils and threatened to summon his lunch. ``Yes, eminence, you do.''

Meanwhile, just below their feet, Kol-Hee tried to scream as the acid found its way through thinner sections of chitin and burned his flesh. That was impossible at first, thanks to the tape that secured his snout, but when the stronger sections of his exoskeleton suddenly transformed themselves into white paste, and the acid rushed in, such was the Fon's agony that he broke the tape and emptied his quickly melting lungs. The resulting sound made Tog's fur stand on end, pushed his ears back along his skull, and caused his hands to shake.

Hak-Bin glanced down in time to see the functionary's now-unsupported head vanish beneath the surface of the acid bath even as the sound was cut in half. The Zin looked back up. ``You heard Kol-Hee--need I say more?''

Those in attendance agreed that he didn't--and were quick to leave. There was work to do, a great deal of it, and every reason to hurry.

ABOARD THE SAURON DREADNOUGHT /HOK NOR AH

Lock had been designated for use by slaves and was heavily used. That being the case, the metal bulkheads along either side of the passageway were shiny up to the level of the average Ra Na's head but dark and grimy above that. And, because normal maintenance programs had been suspended in order to put the maximum number of slaves to work on citadel-related projects, many little things had started to slide. Lights had burned out, a layer of trash littered the deck, and Ra `Na graffiti had started to appear on the once-immaculate walls. Some of it was openly rebellious--a sure sign of how thinly the Saurons were stretched.

A line of approximately thirty rather bored Ra `Na technicals shuffled forward as a pair of equally bored Kan waved scanners over their wrist chips, verified that they had the necessary authorizations, and allowed the slaves to the enter the shuttle's lock.

Med tech Shu, her pulse pounding in her ears, tried to look as blase as those around her, but discovered that was difficult to do. Especially since the chip implanted in her wrist rightfully belonged to a recently deceased com tech named Mas. Did the Kan know Mas was dead? Killed when the shuttle she had been riding in smacked into a large chunk of orbital debris? Just one of thousands if not millions of such obstacles the Saurons had allowed to accumulate around the planet below? No, there was no way that they could. No one had been present when Shu switched her chip with the one removed from the other female's body and closed the incision.

It was a brilliant plan, or that's what Shu thought at the time, but now she wasn't so sure. Once they saw her arm the Saurons were almost sure to notice the tiny incision on the inside surface of her wrist and the makeup that had been applied in an attempt to conceal it.

Or, failing that, how could the warriors miss the fact that the picture that would show up on their screens didn't match her face? They couldn't, which was why her entire body started to shake, and the med tech worried that she might faint.

Now, as Shu approached the checkpoint, she questioned her own logic. The whole thing was absurd...Rather than perform surgery on herself, and assume another identity, why not share her knowledge with someone in authority. Dro Tog perhaps...or Dro Rul. Surely they would know what to do.

But whom to trust? Many believed that Tog was a collaborator, especially since his controversial decision to accept the title ``Grand Vizier,'' and Rul was something of a mystery. Some claimed he was hip deep in the resistance movement; others said not.

So, to whom could she turn? The answer was Fra Pol, assuming he was alive, and somewhere on the planet below. But first she had to get there, something that now seemed next to impossible as the male directly in front of her was cleared through the checkpoint and allowed to board the waiting shuttle.

Shu extended her hand, watched Kan wave his wand over the chip, and eyed the nearby screen. Though similar in age, and overall body mass, the two females were otherwise quite different. Mas was prettier for one thing, having the small, even features that males preferred, and fine golden fur. Shu on the other hand was a good deal more plain, having a nose that was a tiny bit too long, and mottled brown fur. It seemed to the Ra `Na that no one, not even a Sauron, could mistake one for the other.

The med tech winced as the other female's image appeared, forced herself to remain motionless, and awaited the inevitable confrontation. It never came. Most Saurons, Kan included, saw their slaves as interchangeable work units and believed that the Ra `Na looked alike. Small, furry, and weak. What more did one need to know? That being the case, the warriors glanced at the image, saw what they expected to see, and waved Shu through.

Thirty minutes later the shuttle bucked its way down through Earth's atmosphere, emerged from the cloud cover, and headed west. The broad glittering expanse of the Atlantic Ocean could be seen beyond the armored view port, and Shu felt an unfamiliar lightness of being. The sensation took her by surprise, and it took a moment to realize what it was. Freedom...the feeling was freedom...and the reality of it filled her heart with joy.

HELL HILL

Though originally quartered with other members of the security team, Jose Amocar had snored, farted, and barfed all the others out of the cargo cube, thereby creating what amounted to a private compartment for himself. Having colonized the entire space, his previously untidy habits had mysteriously disappeared.

The clothes that had once littered the floor had been hung on a pole suspended from the ceiling, tops together, all facing the same way, pants in a row, boots arranged below.

The food, which he had been known to leave out until maggots hatched within, was sealed within matching pieces of Tupperware and were stored in a scrupulously clean cooler.

The five-gallon bucket, once full to overflowing with the results of Amocar's infamous bowel movements, was now nearly empty and decorated with no less than three self-

adhesive deodorizer disks, all acquired during trips with President Franklin.

So, while primitive by pre-Sauron standards, Amocar's apartment, plus its location four levels above the stench of the street, amounted to a penthouse within the context of Hell Hill's endless misery.

That's why the security agent actually enjoyed the moment when the windup alarm clock went off, when he swung his feet out onto the carefully placed throw rug, and retrieved the .9mm from its place under his pillow. He had thick black hair, a round moon-shaped face, and a barrel-

shaped torso. Each day was an opportunity, and he paused to consider the one that lay ahead.

Not only was the knowledge that Amocar was better off than the vast majority of those around him well worth getting up for, there was the knowledge that the next twelve to sixteen hours would almost inevitably produce an opportunity for personal profit and the aggregation of personal wealth. Wealth as measured by what Amocar thought of as the three P's: possessions, pleasures, and privileges.

Amocar grinned. Not that the three categories were mutually exclusive. Take Agent Jill Ji-Hoon for example...

Would fucking her in the ass constitute a pleasure or a privilege? And once fucked would she qualify as a possession? A long, tall piece of extremely personal ass? Yes, the security agent decided, she would. Something to be enjoyed, humiliated, and eventually discarded. And there were a number of ways to rid oneself of surplus women...some of which were quite pleasurable in and of themselves.

Amocar stood, produced what he was sure qualified as a world-class fart, and followed his erection toward the red plastic basin. Life, the kind he wanted to live, was as good as it could possibly get.

Jill Ji-Hoon had taken a quarter cube in a stack just down the road from the Presidential Complex. It was a crowded, noisy, but not altogether unpleasant co-op-style complex established by a pair of women, both of whom had been crushed by a runaway stone block a couple of months before.

A crude memorial consisting of small limestone blocks surmounted by a Star of David, a ceramic vase, and two pairs of well-worn work boots sat just outside the front door. A handful of wildflowers had been placed in the vase, and Ji-

Hoon wondered where they had come from as she left what the residents jokingly referred to as the Hell Hill Hilton, and stepped out onto the street.

Improvements had been made, especially where flow was concerned, but there was no way to make the open sewer seem like something that it wasn't. Not given the brown color, sluggish current, and horrible smell.

However, like many of the hill's residents, Ji-Hoon had mastered the ability to step over the ditch, confront the stench, and still keep her breakfast down. The walk to work served as a reminder of just how fortunate she was. At a time of day when most slaves were already on the job, risking their lives to construct the Sauron citadel, she had risen only an hour earlier. Even better was the fact that with the exception of Amocar, the ex-FBI agent liked the people she worked with and rarely took shit from the Saurons.

Not only that, but she was armed, which meant that unlike the dozen or so people who hung themselves each night, Ji-Hoon could always shoot herself, a normally dubious privilege that she now took comfort from.

Yet, in spite of all the misery, signs of hope could be seen in the increasing number of babies, a window box in which colorful primroses had been planted, and the occasional patch of bright black-market paint.

Thus buoyed, the agent passed through the heavily guarded main gate, nodded to the agents posted there, and followed a path that cut left along the stack's rocket-scarred facade and passed into a canyon of shadow, for it was there, in a half cube well removed from the office occupied by Manning, that Amocar maintained his personal lair.

Ji-Hoon paused, checked the Timex Ironman watch that had been issued to her along with the rest of her gear, and saw that she was right on time. Always a good thing, especially when reporting to a new boss. Even if it was Amocar.

The ex-agent rounded the corner, followed the path, and found the crudely cut hatch. A white marker had been used to print the words ``The office of El Segundo, Nock Before Entering,'' across the metal, and, judging from the manner in which ``knock'' had been misspelled, Ji-Hoon had a feeling that Amocar had lettered the sign himself. Ji-Hoon put on what she thought of as her game face, rapped on the door, and heard the low-pitched reply. ``Come.''

Hinges squealed as she pulled the hatch open and stepped inside. The first thing the ex-agent noticed about the interior was how tidy the space was--something that seemed to be in conflict with the stories she'd heard.

The second thing she noticed was that the beat-up metal desk, salvaged from Lord knew where, had been placed on top of a crudely constructed platform. A stratagem that put Amocar above those who sat in front of him, or would have, had Ji-Hoon been shorter.

The third thing the newly recruited female agent noticed was the fact that a heavily veined dildo had been placed on the single guest chair. That meant she could pick the object up, sit on top of it, or continue to stand. She chose the last option.

Amocar grinned. The expression, plus the rounded shape of the man's head, reminded Ji-Hoon of a flesh-colored jack-

o'-lantern. He gestured toward the dildo. ``Hey, no offense. Just a little present...Okay, a big present, but you're a big girl.

``In fact, rather than allow ourselves to get bogged down in all that job assignment stuff, let's see if that hummer fits.''

Ji-Hoon knew it was a no-win situation. If she was shocked, and allowed it to show, Amocar would take pleasure from that. If she wasn't, and complied with his request, that was a win as well. The ex-FBI agent kept her voice flat and level. ``Does Manning know about this?''

The grin grew even wider. ``Why no, sweet buns, I don't think he does. Not that it matters a whole lot, since Franklin himself appointed me to the team and ain't about to let me go. Not if he knows what's good for him...Besides, it would be my word against yours. So, unless you would like every shit-ass detail this organization has to offer, I suggest that you drop those pants, grab the edge of my desk, and get ready to play. Who knows? You might even like it.''

One aspect of Ji-Hoon's mind took note of the fact that Amocar had a hold on Franklin, or believed that he did, and wondered if that was true. Another met force with force. Her grin was as big as his and mocking as well. ``I'll tell you what...You want a piece of this, how 'bout you come and take it? Or you can go for that .9mm and we'll see who's fastest. Whaddya say, pin dick? Let's rock 'n roll.''

Amocar pulled his hand away from the gun butt and forced a smile. ``Okay, shit for brains, have it your way...

You want all the shit details? They're yours. Franklin's heading uphill this morning to give some sort of rah-rah speech. Manning wants a bullet catcher running next to both sides of the car. You're elected.''

Ji-Hoon nodded as she backed toward the door. ``I'd keep that dildo if I were you--just in case something happens to the real thing.''

Amocar struggled for a suitable rejoinder, and thought he had one, but the hatch had closed by then. The words caught in his throat and made it difficult to breathe. Somehow, in ways he didn't fully understand, Amocar had been bested. He didn't like that, not one little bit, and a price would have to be paid. Not just any price, but the highest price, the penalty called death.


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