Tessi “One Clan” Thundercloud fights for her life against three robots programmed to kill. Success means rescuing her family from poverty. Failure means death.
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Excerpt from History of the Felis Somni, by Tarek Othman:
One hundred years after their first visit to Felicidad – that disastrous first contact in which the entire exploratory party was killed – the Tellians returned with a war party of a hundred ships. They came armed to the teeth with energy weapons, and took specially formulated drugs to counteract the felis’s dreamcasting ability.
They engaged the felis somni (who were primarily sword and spear fighters, though they also had crude projectile weapons), and slaughtered an immense number of them, which may have been a million, before the dreamcats were pacified. So many died that the rivers ran red. Upon the bodies of the dead, forests grew.
This was not simple revenge on the part of the Tellians. Like everything the Tellians did, their viciousness was coldly calculated. That first doomed crew had broadcast back to Tellium a live feed of their own destruction. The command center on the homeworld saw the reality of Felicidad: a frigid, stony world, massive and unforgiving, with a teeming population of highly skilled killers, who possessed the ability to meddle with their enemies’ minds. At the time, the Tellians were being relentlessly attacked by a race of slender, silver-skinned beings called the Journeyborn, who possessed an inexplicable immunity to energy weapons.
So the Tellians recruited ten thousand felis somni. They paid the families handsomely, and took the ten thousand with them to fight the Journeyborn.
The ten thousand were never seen again. They disappeared, along with the entire Tellian race. To where, no one knows. The Journeyborn too vanished, for they were said to be a space-traveling race with no homeworld, on a pilgrimage to the far edge of the galaxy. Generations were born on the journey, and died on it – hence their name.
Much of this was pieced together by forensic historians. When early human spacefarers encountered the world of Tellium, in the year 2520 Hijri, the natives were already gone. It was a world of great cities, broad avenues, and technological wonders. No bodies, no skeletons, no trace of the Tellians themselves. Ever since then we have studied their work and labored to understand their technology. From them we devised faster-than-light travel, which changed everything, allowing humans to colonize hundreds of worlds. We grow hardy Tellian crops, and even listen to Tellian music.
Some predict that the Tellians will one day return to their world, and will not be happy with how we have exploited it.
As for the felis somni, the hiring of the ten thousand marked the beginning of an era. For nine hundred years the dreamcats have hired themselves as mercenaries and assassins to any race, for any war, as long as they were paid in gold. The great felis thinker, Orasi One Clan, wrote:
“Our transformation into a mercenary culture has struck our race like a psychic bomb. We were always bellicose, but we could have evolved. We could have become philosophers, artists, explorers, scientists, conservationists. Instead we are a race single mindedly fixated on killing. Every child dreams of becoming an assassin. Mercenary gold feeds cities.
I want to believe that if One Clan had still ruled Felicidad, we would have chosen better than the blasted gods-servers, who by nature possess narrow vision. One Light knows. Yet here we are. The veins of our potential have been sucked dry, our future devoured. Who shall we blame? The Tellians? The Journeyborn, humans, Andach’, Elven? No. We are soul-bearing beings. One Light gave us the power to choose, and we chose badly… so badly. What will become of us?”
* * *
None but One Light!
When the three combat robots lifted their laser pistols and fired, Tessi Thundercloud shouted, “For the thunder!” and leaped into the air. The war cry was purely for the benefit of the three watchers on the observation deck above, particularly Roland, the tall, gray-furred tom who owned this facility, and the chubby, scarred-up ginger molly from Galactic Security. (She didn’t think the Andach’ general would care one way or another). She knew that Roland was already suspicious that Tessi might be One Clan. Blasted gods-servers. Best to lay their suspicion to rest by pretending to be a thunder-worshiper, as her name implied.
In her heart, however, she cried, “None but One Light!” Just as all One Clanners did at moments of extreme danger or impending death.
Her leap carried her almost straight up, angling only slightly forward and right. These three gleaming plasteel bots were three times faster than her, and at danger level nine they would kill her, to put it bluntly. That was their programmed mission and purpose. There was no safety word, no time out, no canceling the duel. Each robot had two shutoff buttons, one on each side of the neck. Striking that button was the only way to shut down these machines.
Part of the reason she’d leaped so high was to see how well the robots’ heads articulated. Could they tilt their heads to look straight up? If not, this maneuver gave her a significant advantage.
They could. They tracked her with ease, their featureless oval heads angling and turning to follow her movement as they fired bursts of narrow, intensely hot laser energy. The guns hummed loudly, and the air in the closed room filled with the acrid scent of ozone. Any one of those ruby beams would burn right through her. She survived the assault only by twisting and somersaulting in the air. Even as she made these gymnastic maneuvers, she aimed carefully at the nearest robot, the one who had entered through the side door on her right, and threw her baton.
Flinging away her only weapon was a calculated risk, and possibly a foolish one. If she missed her target, she would be defenseless against these three killing machines.
The baton was still in its collapsed state, not extended. It flew straight and true and struck the nearest robot on the neck, directly on the shutoff button. The robot collapsed into a heap on the floor. From above, she heard Roland exclaim, “By Longtooth!” while the Andach’ general clacked his teeth in approval.
A laser beam cut through her right flank, just winging her, singing her fur and the upper level of her skin. Another burned her left ear clean off, and she experienced a lightning bolt of pain. She nearly lost control of her fall, but managed to hold it, coming down and immediately cartwheeling along the far wall. Her plan was to bounce off the left wall and use her momentum to attack the robot on the left.
As she moved, she thought, Amaw River Server did it. Roland said so. Amaw fought three bots on level eight and survived. “Though he suffered severe injuries,” Roland had said. Well, so what? She could handle injuries, as she’d proven many times. Even her death did not matter, for this attempt alone would pay her family one thousand gold slivers. No more eating out of the garbage for her mother and nine siblings. Her mother could buy medication for her illness. Education for her sister. And if she succeeded, and earned the hundred thousand gold slivers? It was unthinkable.
Blood was pouring from the wound on her head. It matted her fur and spattered on the floor and walls, but stayed out of her eyes, thank One Light.
Focus! she commanded herself. Serve One Light with all you have and are. Be a creature of light, impossible to grasp. Light in your paws, light in your hands, light in your heart, light in your mind. Now, in this moment, complete your Light-stitched destiny!
Hand To Hand
The two remaining robots were working in concert, herding her with laser fire, attempting to hem her into the corner of the room where she could be slaughtered like a poisonhog at a Spring Faire. She dodged and spun for all she was worth, but it was purely defensive. This was useless. One could not win a fight playing defense. She had to turn it around, go on the offensive. She would have liked to recover her baton, but it was on the other side of the room now, with the bots between her and it, and both of them advancing on her, unafraid of course. They felt no fear, hope or mercy, and would not stop until she was dead.
However… one of the robots seemed to be fractionally slower than the other. Maybe it was defective, or needed repair or a software upgrade. She grinned. Machines were always breaking down in the cold, rainy climate of Felicidad. Someone had been lax with the maintenance on this one.
A split-second gap in the laser fire gave her the opening she needed. She ran on all fours directly up the wall, digging her claws into the concrete, able to penetrate for the fraction of a millimeter that gave her the purchase she needed. Then she somersaulted off the wall and sailed through the air toward Robot 1, the slower one. The maneuver caught it by surprise and she reached it before it could bring its gun to bear. With a single vicious swipe, Tessi knocked the gun out of the robot’s hand… And the robot elbowed her in the face so hard that her cheekbone snapped audibly. The blow stunned her. She hadn’t anticipated that the bots would be trained in hand-to-hand combat.
The bot followed the elbow with a vicious punch to Tessi’s temple that sent her flying. With her head ringing, she hit the ground in a backward roll and came smoothly to her feet, but the robot pursued her, and delivered a kick to her abdomen that knocked all the wind out of her gut. Tessi fell to one knee. The bot lifted one foot to deliver a stomping blow that would crush her skull… and slipped in the blood that still spilled from her wrecked ear. The combat bot fell to the ground in front of her.
Tessi was on it in a flash, striking the shut-off switch. The robot went dead. Two down, one to go.
Shot In The Mouth
Now Robot 2, the fast one, advanced, firing then pausing, firing then pausing, which Tessi knew it had to do, otherwise the laser pistol would overheat. The air around her shimmered with heat. She lay down flat, taking shelter behind the dead bot, breathing hard. Every breath hurt. Robot 1’s own pistol was within reach, but it would be ineffective against plasteel. She might as well spit at the damned robot, for all the good it would do.
She lifted her head for a quick look, breathing heavily – and a laser beam entered her open mouth and burned out through her cheek, melting some of her teeth in the process. The pain was indescribable. She fell back behind Robot 1, suppressing a scream. Her lips were seared, and blood poured out of the facial wound. Some went down her throat, and she choked on the hot, metallic liquid.
She could hear the ginger molly up on the observation deck objecting, pleading, demanding that Roland shut down this massacre. But Tessi knew he would not. It would stain his reputation, and it would be unfair, because it was not over until – until what? What could she possibly do? Physically, she was spent. She was a powerful dreamer, with a handful of dream scenarios that she had trained endlessly, until she could call up the dream fully formed and glittering, in an instant. But a robot would not be affected by that.
You had to go for danger level nine, she thought bitterly. You fool. The great Amaw River Server barely survived level eight, but no, that wasn’t good enough for you, little miss Tessi acorns for brains! Now you’ve killed yourself.
She remembered her initial thought, that the robots were machines with logical programming, and that to defeat them she must do something completely unexpected. Something their programming would not anticipate. What would that be? What could she do but fight? Felis somni were born fighters. A felis would never back down, never ask for mercy, never roll over and die.
Roll over and die… The thought came in a flash. A felis somni would never roll over and die… They would never play dead, like some animals did when cornered. And therefore the robot would not expect it. But it had to be convincing. And it could possibly kill her.
She reached out, found Robot 1’s discarded laser pistol, and seized it. With a cry of fury and rage – all too real, no acting required – she stood and fired at the advancing robot. As she fired, she took a quick step to one side. Two things happened, both expected. The first was that her laser fire bounced harmlessly off the robot’s chest. The second was that the robot shot her. It had aimed for her heart, but because of her quick sidestep the shot went through her right shoulder. Tessi cried out and flung herself backward as if knocked off her feet. She landed in a crumpled heap and lay perfectly still, her eyes open and staring, her chest unmoving as she held her breath. She did not twitch a finger nor blink an eye.
The robot advanced until it stood over her. It looked down at her, studying her, the pistol aimed at her head. Tessi did not think it would shoot her just for the sake of it. That would be mutilation of the dead and would be offensive to all felis. She knew she was covered in blood. Hopefully she looked thoroughly dead. She only hoped that the machine did not have the ability to hear or detect her heartbeat.
Thinking of this, she threw up a prayer to One Light. Lord, let it not be able to hear my heartbeat. One Light, who holds my soul in Your hand, who stitches my destiny day by day, preserve me.
“Well, that’s that,” Roland said from above. “I’m sorry, General. Tessi was spectacularly gifted. I actually thought she might pull it off. She did get two out of three. Ninety nine out of a hundred fighters would not have gotten that far.”
What Was The Point?
“You wasted that poor girl’s life,” the ginger molly complained. “‘What was the point of this?”
“It was her choice.”
Amid all this, the robot remained above Tessi, still studying her, still aiming at her head. For some reason the damned bucket of bolts was not convinced. Tessi’s lungs burned, for she dared not take a breath, not even a shallow one. Her eyes ached from not blinking, and she hoped they would not begin to water. She remembered a joke her youngest brother Limo had told her once:
Why did the robot get angry? Because someone was pushing its buttons.
Well, she would push this robot’s button alright, if it would just believe that she was dead, and stop focusing on her.
In her peripheral vision she saw Roland start to reach toward the panel on the wall, to shut the last robot down.
Tessi did not want that. It must be her victory, her kill! She was about to move, to come off her feet in a final, desperate leap, even with the gun pointing at her head, when the robot finally relaxed. It took its eyes off her and lowered its pistol. But it was still active. The game was still on!
Tessi came up like a whirlwind in the Great Desert. The robot took a step back – the stupid thing was actually startled! – and began to raise the gun, but too late. With a hole burned in her shoulder, Tessi chose to use her powerful legs instead. She did a quick jumping switch kick and smashed her foot into the side of the robot’s neck, slamming the shut-off button. The robot flew off its feet, landing in an inert heap as its pistol skittered to a stop right at Tessi’s feet.
The observers froze, staring at Tessi. “By Longtooth!” Roland exclaimed finally, while the ginger molly pumped a fist and shouted, “Yes!” The Andach’ clacked its teeth loudly.
“I believe,” Tessi said, her words thick and slurred through a mouthful of blood and wrecked teeth, “that I won.”
“You defeated the robots…” Roland acknowledged. “But the manner of your victory was questionable. Playing dead? Since when does a felis do that? It’s the General’s decision, but I will have to recommend -”
As Roland spoke, Tessi had noticed a slight shimmer in the air behind the ginger molly. At first she thought it was a failing in her own eyesight, due to the many blows she’d taken. But it moved, and possessed an indistinct form. In the middle of Roland’s speech, Tessi bent, snatched up Robot 2’s dropped pistol and leaped as high as she could, bringing the gun to bear. The effort filled her with pain, but she ignored it. The shape had begun to move behind the ginger molly, and Tessi needed an angle to get a clear shot.
“Get down!” Roland shouted. “She’s gone mad!”
The ginger molly crouched, giving Tessi the opening she needed. She fired directly into the zone of shimmering air. The form grunted in pain and fell back a step. As Tessi began to fall, she fired again, and was fairly sure that the shot struck the shape dead center.
She tumbled to the ground gracelessly, sprawling on her side. The kick to her abdomen had done more damage than she realized. Something inside her felt broken…
Eat Little Toms for Breakfast
She awoke in a brightly lit and incredibly clean hospital room that smelled of lemon, surrounded by the most improbable gathering. Her bed was softer than any she’d ever slept in. The huge Andach’ general stood in one corner of the room, still wearing his shield and sword. He held a communications device in one hand and was talking to someone in the Andach’ language.
Her entire family was there, her mother and nine siblings, sitting or standing around her bed, bickering, talking, joking, arguing, but mostly staring at the Andach’ in wonder and fear. One of her brothers was snacking on a bag of crispy buffalo skins. His chewing was crunchy and loud.
The only one of her family not gathered around her was her identical sister Melloin, who stood in one corner of the room with Roland, the ginger molly, and a female doctor in a long blue coat.
Her brother Limo poked at the Andach’ general with a stick and said to no one in particular, “Do you think this crab is tasty?”
“Stop that!” her other identical twin, Felloin, snapped. She was perched on the edge of the bed, turning her ears this way and that to follow the various conversations in the room, since she was blind. It always amazed Tessi how Felloin could immediately discern whatever trouble her siblings were up to, without even seeing them. Mother sat next to Tess as well, in a small padded armchair that was far nicer than anything they had in their home.
“He’s probably wondering the same thing about you, Limo,” Tessi said. “I’m sure on his world they eat little toms for breakfast.” Her mouth and tongue were numb, and her words were barely intelligible even to her own ears.
Everyone turned toward her. Felloin embraced her, while her mother reached out and grasped Tessi’s hand. Happiness suffused Mom’s face, and her mouth worked as she tried to speak, but no words came out. She’d lost the ability to speak after the bomb attack that left her brain damaged.
All of her family began talking at once, some of them hugging her or kissing her forehead.
The doctor came to her bedside and asked how she felt. Tessi stared at the molly, who was tall and languid, with black fur and yellow eyes, and who smelled of lavender and disinfectant. Tessi had never seen an actual doctor before. She didn’t think there were more than a hundred on all of Felicidad. The doctor’s blue uniform and coat were spotless, and her demeanor was attentive but dispassionate.
“Are you a real doctor?” Tessi mumbled, trying to get her mouth to work properly.
The doctor nodded. “I trained on a Marachanda world. My entire clan of five thousand pooled their life savings to make it happen. I have since repaid them five times over.”
“I feel like my tongue is dead. And my chest hurts.”
“You had a broken rib and punctured lung. Both have been repaired, but you’ll need to rest for several days. We surgically repaired your tongue, teeth and cheek. We brought in the best surgeon in Clawmark to do it. The numbness is from the anesthetic, which will dissipate soon.”
“I can’t pay for that,” Tessi said sharply. The last thing she needed was to burden her family with more debt.
“The general is paying for it,” Roland said. “And for this room as well.”
“If I may continue?” The doctor flicked her tail in annoyance. “We painted your ear, side and shoulder with a regen stemwash. The shoulder will take two days to heal, and the ear will grow back in a week, as good as new.”
Tessi was stunned. Regen stemwashes cost a fortune. She didn’t know anyone who’d ever gotten one.
After the doctor left, the ginger molly stood beside Tessi and took her hand. “You saved my life. That was an assassin using a light refractor that you shot. He was about to cut my throat. Sent by one of our corporate competitors, no doubt. If you ever need work, you are welcome at Galactic Security. Just call me. My name is Amara BrinDau.”
Roland looked around. “This room is a bit crowded.”
“This room,” Tessi replied dryly, “is bigger than our entire flat.”
“Ah.” Roland shifted from one foot to the other.
Tessi understood. He wanted privacy. She raised her voice. “Could you all give me and Mr. Longtooth the room, please?”
Tessi’s family filed out, all except her mother and Felloin. “I’m staying,” her twin said.
Roland looked at Tessi and shook his head.
“It’s okay, sis,” Tessi said. “It’s business.”
“Fine,” Felloin snapped. “But if you – “ she jabbed Roland in the chest with a finger – “get my sister hurt again, I will disembowel you. Don’t think I can’t.”
Felloin led Mom out of the room and shut the door.
“We have awarded you the contract,” the general said.
Somehow it always surprised Tessi when the great creature spoke in perfect Felisi.
“Ten percent is mine,” said Roland.
No surprise there. That was standard. “I want half in advance.”
“I have it,” the general replied. “Forty five thousand nine hundred gold slivers, counting the extra thousand for your combat audition, minus Roland’s ten percent fee.” He unzipped a pocket in his armor that Tessi had not known was there, and withdrew a bag made of some shiny artificial fabric. He set it on a table and opened it. The gleam of thousands of gold slivers inside filled the room with yellow light. Tessi’s mouth fell open. She’d never imagined so much wealth in one place. It was enough to feed an entire city.
“Give it to my sister Melloin. But not in that bag, or she won’t make it ten steps. Half the city will try to rob her. Put it in an old, worn out cotton sack.”
All She Wanted
She’d done it. Thank One Light. She had changed her family’s lives. The relief and joy she felt was like a sun rising inside her. This was all she’d ever wanted. All her prayers had been answered. And she hadn’t seen any of it coming. Only yesterday she’d been desperate and near despair, questioning herself and her path.
One of the great leaders of One Clan had been a stunted, one-eyed molly who united the tribes two millennia ago. Her name was Orasi One Clan, and every OneClanner knew some of her sayings by heart. One was, “Think with your whole mind. Activate every muscle, and sharpen your claws on the obstacles of life. Most importantly, place your heart in God’s hand, and trust. Do this and you will emerge from darkness into light.”
Tessi had always tried to practice this. She was committed to whatever path God, or One Light as her people said, put her on. She did not question and did not balk. And she saw now that One Light was on her side, guiding her, bringing light out of darkness. In the most dire situations, she was not alone.
“I will leave you to discuss details with the general.” Roland let himself out.
The general stood beside her bed. He was an enormous creature with a gleaming black carapace covered with very tough looking blue armor. His eyes were large, black and unblinking. He had six legs and four arms. The legs ended in large, two-toed feet. The rear set of arms carried vicious looking pincers on the ends, while the forward arms culminated in surprisingly graceful looking hands, with long, chitinous fingers. He carried with him a faint scent of gunpowder, as if he had fired so many projectile weapons in his lifetime that the scent had embedded itself in his flesh. Tessi would not want to fight him.
As the general spoke, Tessi found herself more and more astonished. She would be given a fox fighter in pristine condition. The fighter would be armed with the latest weaponry, and stocked with months worth of quality food. The target had last been seen in the vicinity of Breena 5, but was believed to be heading toward NewMalaysia. If she succeeded, the fox fighter was hers to keep.
Tessi exhaled. Her own ship. It was incredible. “Who’s the target?”
“His name is Yasin Rahman. He has been sentenced to death for crimes against the Andach’ Imperium. He committed a genocide, and murdered a queen in cold blood. We want him dead, and we want proof. Bring a finger, or an eye.”
Tessi’s mouth turned down. “Felis somni do not mutilate the dead. If I tell you I killed him, then it will be true.”
The general was quiet, then clacked his teeth once. “Then a holocam reel of his corpse, and a nose swab. We must have a genetic sample; that is non-negotiable. Rahman seems physically superior to other humans. We want to know why.”
“Tell me about him.”
“He is a UA lieutenant, originally from a planet called NewMalaysia, in the Jabal system. Formerly in charge of a fox fighter called the UA Starburst, now destroyed. Believed to be on board a command highliner. That’s why we’re giving you a UA fox fighter. Rahman will be slow to fire on a fellow UA vessel. Obviously we do not suggest that you attack the highliner. Wait until he is given a new ship of his own. We will furnish further intelligence as we acquire it.”
Scenarios began to appear in Tessi’s mind. Even on a smaller ship, this “Rahman” would possess a substantial crew. She could cast a dream over them all, then dock and board. It would not be difficult.
Finish Them All
She refocused on the General. “Yes. When must I leave?”
“Immediately. Now. Tomorrow at the latest.”
“Glory, I just woke up! I’ve got more holes in me than a poisonhog in a spear factory.”
“You have been treated. The Jabal system is a month away, even in FTL. Plenty of time to recuperate along the way. And the ship is equipped with an autodoc.”
“Is there a bonus for capturing him alive?”
The Andach’ considered. “It would please us to have a live body to test. So yes. But if it jeopardizes the mission in any way, kill him.”
“And the crew?”
“They participated in the genocide. We’ll pay a bounty of a thousand slivers for each crew member you kill. You might as well destroy their ship while you’re at it. Finish them all.”
Next: All That is In the Heavens, Part 11: If A Tree Prays in the Forest And No One Sees
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See the Story Index for Wael Abdelgawad’s other stories on this website.
Wael Abdelgawad’s novels – including Pieces of a Dream, The Repeaters and Zaid Karim Private Investigator – are available in ebook and print form on his author page at Amazon.com.
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