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Hard Lesson

by Steven Saus

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Narrated by the author


Sarai rubbed the smooth skin of the horse’s neck while the alien ship spiraled across the vast desert night sky. “Hush,” she whispered, more to herself than the summoned animal, as the trail of fire and smoke arced above the scrub and cacti. Sarai brushed the back of her hand across the rough skin of her chapped lips. The sonic boom thrashed in the ship’s wake, a deep single drumbeat in her stomach. She whispered to the horse again, soft cooing sounds she wished Isaac could hear instead.

Her hand passed in front of her eyes, focusing the thin power suffusing this place. The image of the ship zoomed large before her. Remembering her lessons with Braikim, she recognized the small ship as a scout. There would only be a few of the Segarthi on board. But they would be the first new Segarthi on Earth in centuries.

The ship darted out of her magical vision for a moment; Sarai refocused to bring the craft back into view. The trajectory had changed — from a long, low parabola to a sharp descent. “Crap,” Sarai said. She scanned the ground, the spell helpfully drawing lines to predicted landing points. The highest probability centered on a field outside a nearby town she’d hoped to avoid. “Crap,” Sarai said again, and rode the horse back to camp.

She’d chosen the campsite for concealment, but it still startled her. One moment she was alone above an arroyo, the next she was next to the tent. Wetnurse sat outside the tent, antennae and posture in the typically blank expression of Segarthi drones, both sets of tan arms folded over its thorax. Isaac played under Wetnurse’s supervision, drawing small lines in the dust with his pincers. Sarai smiled down at her son, and he looked back at her with his large, human eyes, and then went back to playing.

“We can build a fire,” Sarai said as she gathered dry sticks. She looked back at her companions. Wetnurse still had its blank drone expression, and Isaac was making a small ditch in the dirt. She smiled and kept narrating to herself, remembering the philosophical debates she and Braikim had over the potential of the drone classes. “The people in the town will be more interested in the landing ship than a campfire in the desert.” She laid the sticks in a small circle of stones. “No way for them to know who you are, Isaac.”

Isaac looked up again at his name, and then reached for her. Wetnurse quickly lifted the boy. Sarai held up a finger for them to wait. While Isaac squirmed, Sarai concentrated the energy in one branch until it smoldered, then started to burn. The flame flickered soft oranges across the alien, Sarai, and her son.

Sarai took Isaac into her arms, the soft downy cilia on his exoskeleton tickling her arms. Sarai kissed her son’s hard forehead. He always smelled of cinnamon after a feeding. She glanced up as Wetnurse scuttled — dark, low, and close to the ground — up over the overhang in search of food. It would hunt animals, plants, anything living that concentrated magic and draw the energy out to feed itself and the Segarthi part of Isaac. Her son clambered onto her back, his upper pincers playing with the graying strands of her hair. As the fire grew hotter, Sarai spitted a jackrabbit Wetnurse had brought back yesterday. It still fed and nourished a human after the power was drained from it, after all.

“Mama,” Isaac said, his mandibles approximating the English words, “Ship?”

Sarai did not stop turning the rabbit on its spit. “Yes, Isaac. A Segarthi ship.” Isaac slid off her back and moved to stand in front of her. Maybe a human would mistake him for Segarthi — despite the eyes — but no Segarthi would be fooled. They would know that he was a hybrid from scent alone. She remembered her husband, his blind damnfool innocence, his shock that the other Segarthi rulers would turn on him. That they would turn on Isaac.

And her own surprise that the humans would turn on all of them.

Sarai pulled the rabbit from the fire as Wetnurse returned with several dead snakes. Sarai and Isaac ate the rabbit meat while Sarai spoke to Wetnurse. The drone kept its same blank expression.

“I have to go to the landing site.” Sarai wiped a bit of rabbit grease on her pants leg. “To see if they need help. Aid. I don’t know.” She glanced in the direction of the small town. “To make sure there’s no troubles. It’s what Braikim would have wanted.”

Isaac’s pincer tugged at her sleeve. “Momma?”

“Yes, Isaac?”


Sarai started to reply, to tell her son that he had heard his father’s name. But the half-Segarthi boy pointed toward where the ship had landed. “Daddy?”

She gritted her teeth. “No, Isaac. Not your father.” Her hands undid the sack without thought, pulling out the ornamentals she needed. She strapped on the armbands and ribbons of the Segarthi Mages, the ones that declared her the chosen mate of Braikim. Over them all, she wound a wide black thread. It gave her rights no human had possessed before, but she would have given it all back for another day with Braikim. “He cannot come back to us.”

She mounted the steed and rode out of the arroyo and into the night.

• • •

The landing site was not what the paintings had led her to expect. When Braikim had taken her to Brazil, the images showed egg-shaped craft resting on narrow legs. The people had gathered around the ships as they landed on cushions of soft blue light.

The ship, a canister easily fifty feet tall, lay at the end of a half-mile long furrow. Small fires still burned along its path, eerie in the desert’s dark. Even though it had been hours since the craft came to earth, its front still glowed with a red dim heat that she could feel from yards away, especially in the cool of the desert night air. The ship had a crease along the top edge, marring the otherwise smooth lines.

Her mount snickered and Sarai looked away from the craft. “’Bout time,” she muttered. The four men and their horses were nearly a quarter mile away. Sarai squandered a little of her energy for a telescopic spell. She pursed her lips at the extravagance. This desert had little raw power, but few places did anymore.

One man stood slightly apart from the others — thin, his skin shining olive under the moonlight. A glint of silver on his chest marked him as the sheriff. The other three stayed watching the ship, rifles ready for action. Their coats marked them as ex-military. Probably Confederacy, though she couldn’t be sure in the dark. “At least they didn’t bring the women and children out to see,” she whispered to the horse.

She dropped the spell and rode across the rolling hard-packed clay toward them. Sarai noticed the rearmost ex-soldier start to raise his rifle, only to be stopped by a quick word from the sheriff. The natural horses of the townsfolk started to whinny, skittish at her summoned mount’s approach. The sheriff walked toward her, rifle over his shoulder and hat pulled down over dark curls.

“Hello, ma’am. Your, um, horse is upsetting our animals.”

Sarai revised her estimate of the sheriff’s age downward. She slid down, tapping the sleep command into its neck as she dismounted. The horse folded in on itself until it lay at her feet, the size of a courier’s satchel. Sarai watched the eyes of the townsfolk, saw the sheriff’s widen and the other men’s tighten. “That better, sheriff?”

“Yes.” He glanced back toward the glowing ship. “You responsible for that, ma’am?”

Sarai let the laugh bubble out from somewhere dark and deep inside her. “I’m just traveling through, sheriff. I wasn’t even going to darken the doorstep of your town. Sarai a-Braikim, and I never rightly heard of no human claiming to be responsible for the Segarthi.”

“We used to control the Seggies.” The foremost of the three ex-Confederate soldiers stroked his beard. “Thought we just won a war ’bout that, innit that right, ’Zeke?”

The sheriff bit his lower lip. “Nick.”

“Sorry, Ezekiel.” Nick smirked through his beard.

The black man behind Nick laughed. “But them’s bugs, not real people. And that old cannon of Nick’s whacked it up right good.”

Nick nodded. “Yeah, Sheriff Goldstein, we might have to treat an Indian or any old shylocks like a man, but we can just shoot at Bugs—”

The sheriff spun, ducking to bring the butt of his rifle up into Nick’s abdomen with a sick smack. The man crumpled onto the cracked dirt. The other two were fast — the black man’s rifle already raised, the other man pulling at a half-cleared pistol as the magical fire leapt from Sarai’s hands. The stink of ozone and burnt hair flooded her nose as the green energies passed through the two men.

The sheriff fell back, landing on his rear. He scuttled backward from both Nick and Sarai. She shook her head, breathing deep to keep the cloak of dizziness at bay. Her hands had cramped into the splayed three-digit shape that imitated the Segarthi pincer. Her skin itched. It had hardened into a defensive exoskeleton, the ridges stretching her shirt tight. “Crap.” She willed her skin to soften back. She pulled her badge from her pants pocket. “Sheriff, I am a licensed mage acting as an ambassador from the Segarthi Republic. Your co-operation is required in securing this site.”

The sheriff’s eyes tightened. “SegRep? I didn’t think there were any of you this far north after the war.” He stood up and poked Nick with his boot. The man groaned in pain. The sheriff looked at the smoking corpses of the other two men. “This ain’t going to make you any friends.”

Sarai looked back at the smoking ship. This sheriff didn’t seem to know about the other war yet. The Segarthi war. The one that had claimed Braikim. “They weren’t friends of yours either, Sheriff Goldstein.” She could not see a point where she could both hide Isaac and watch the ship. Her legs wobbled slightly. She just wanted to sit down; a blast like that was hard enough in an energy-rich area, but here it had seriously weakened her. “Believe me when I say that I want to be clear of this place as much as you want me gone. I was just looking for somewhere... away.” Sarai gestured to the sky, then to the ship. “That true what they said about shooting the ship?”

“I think so.” Goldstein threw Nick onto a horse. “They fired off their old cannon earlier.”

“Then they are the ones who dropped this trouble in both our laps.” Sarai squatted back on her heels and spat toward the dead men. “Am I going to have more trouble from your townsfolk, Sheriff?”

Goldstein looked toward the buildings. A light burned in several buildings. From the shape alone, Sarai could tell that there were folks gathering at the church.

“Hell, ma’am, Father Jones always preached that man is God’s special creation in the universe. And I can’t rightly hold Nick on charges — he just ran his damnfool mouth.” The sheriff looked at the two dead men. “And then there’s them...”

Sarai pursed her lips. “So you mean to say yes.”


Sarai’s stomach rolled. The more she considered the situation, the worse it got. Had the Segarthi in the ship contacted anyone else? Did they know about Isaac? Did they already know about the Caste? And for these idiots to fire on the ship... she had to play it from a position of strength. She pulled up the last of the energies inside her, then let them play across her clothes. The magic transformed slack and shirt into her formal black robe. A small cloud of spent magic flowed off of her as she rose a foot in the air.

“Go—” Sarai almost started at the amplification of her voice, “and keep the townsfolk away from this land. I claim this place as part of the Segarthi Republic until we no longer have need of it. Go.” She turned and floated to the ship, not looking back to see if Goldstein did as she commanded. Only when she had rounded the far side of the ship and safely out of sight did she let herself feel the lack of energy in the air. She sank to the ground, resting in the furrow of the ship’s landing. Exhaustion pressed down on her consciousness, accompanied by the tings of the spaceship’s cooling metal.

• • •

The lizard climbing across Sarai’s leg did more to wake her than either the heat of the morning sun or the sounds of men walking on the far side of the spaceship. She sucked in her breath with a start, causing the lizard to run past her foot. There were other humans here, nearby. Sarai reached down, ready to extend her awareness down through the earth, to locate the men —

Her concentration shattered, her fingers running through the rough edges of purple-green grass. She glanced to either side, taking in how the plants spread out from the ship in irregular tendrils like a toddler’s drawing of a star. The magic pulsed out from the grass. It flooded through her body.

A vast, deep grinding sound rumbled from the far side of the ship. Sarai heard the men — three, perhaps four voices cry out. A breeze floated softly through the hot air, carrying the grass seeds through the air. Sarai’s awareness spread out, her viewpoint lifting up and rotating around the oblong Segarthi ship. She could see the men on the far side, glyphs she could not read appearing next to their bodies. She could see how the men cowered back from the ship. All the men but one.

That one man sprinted for the ship, for the opening that had appeared in the side of the craft. He sprinted forward, carrying an armful of dynamite.

Sarai felt the grass sway underneath her. Her mind reached down, and the blades of grass bent under her, pushing her in a long slide around the ship. She gained speed quickly as the blades pushed against the whole surface of her prone body. Too fast for the retreating men to do anything but cry out in surprise. Too fast for them to draw their weapons. And nearly too fast for the man with the dynamite to stop himself from crashing into her.

Sarai rose up into the air, pulling static charges from the grass to crackle around her arms and hair. She kept herself just far enough away that the charges sparked between the layers of her clothes instead of jumping to the man or the explosives he carried. It was Nick, from the night before.

“Demon-lover.” He spit on her.

Sarai did not move to wipe the spittle away. The morning sunlight warmed the back of her head. Nick squinted rat-like eyes against the glare. The hot spit and the flecks of Nick’s tobacco slid down her cheek.

“Get outta my way,” he said.

A rippling crackle of electricity snaked up Sarai’s arm, turned at her shoulder, and wound across her torso. Sarai smiled. She hadn’t had access to this much power since before the war. She could see the other men in her peripheral vision, running. Running away from the electric woman so close to the dynamite.

Nick held very, very still. The smell of urine filled the air. “You didn’t do much in the war, did you?” she asked, energy sparking between her lips. A wave of electricity sizzled across her back. Sarai felt her hair lifting away from her scalp. “Otherwise, you’d know that the amount of dynamite you have in your hand isn’t enough to do squat to a Segarthi structure.” She bent her right hand in front of her, invoking a translucent shell of blue light between her and Nick. She idly noticed that her skin had transformed into chitin. “You’d also know that a Magus’ shield can handle something as small as dynamite.”

Nick’s eyes widened. A trickle of controlled lightning ran along her left arm, forming a ball in her outstretched left hand.

“Run,” she said.

When he was fifty feet away, she lowered herself to the ground. She let the static electricity dissipate when he was a hundred yards away. When all the humans were riding away, the power left her. She slumped backward. As she blacked out, she realized the arms that caught her were not flesh, but covered in chitin.

• • •

Sarai’s eyes snapped open when the drone dropped her on the starship’s deck. Two drones — presumably the ones that carried her — clitterclacked through an opening in the white wall. She did not call after them; it would probably only confuse and upset them. The doorway silently irised shut behind them, leaving her alone in the large room.

“Dammit.” She clambered to her feet, ran her hands across her body in a quick inventory. Gun, cloak, robes, boots, gloves, canteen, necklace from Braikim. Her mind reached inside, to get a quick feel for the level of magic.

She could not find any.

She tried again, mind and heart racing faster. The magic was always there, always nearby — but now she only found silence where the power and information had always been.

“Hola, bonjour, hello.”

She spun. A Segarthi stood near another doorway. Sarai silently cursed silent doorways. The Segarthi had the four arms and four antennae of the Caste. It had to be in command of this small ship. Two of the Warrior class — with as little will as the Workers or Wetnurse — stood bulkily behind the Castemember. Sarai answered in her approximation of High Segarthan: “Greetings to Castemember-Peer.”

The Castemember tilted its head, answering in the same language “Caste-Peer?”

Sarai did not kneel or bow. She did not look away. “I am Consort-Mate-Castemember, Sarai-Braikim.” She made sure to stress the ai in each name, as Braikim had taught her when she stopped being Sarah. “I am Mother-Castemember.” The clicks of High Segarthan made her teeth ache.

The Castemember stared at her. Two seconds. Four. Six. Finally, it clicked once, and bowed its head. “Karinim pays respect to all Mother-Castemember.”

It was an insult, like a minor curtsey to the Queen of England. She fought the heat flooding her cheeks. She clicked twice, deep and hard enough that her jaw hurt even more, and bowed just as little as it had. “Sarai-Braikim pays respect to Karinim Castemember.”

Karinim folded its lower two arms. “Take reclining pose?” Benches extruded from the floor. Sarai sat in one, trying to keep the relief from showing on her face.

Consort-Mother-Castemember/Only,” Karinim said, “Segarthi arrive this planet when?”

Sarai ignored the “Only” — just another insult, just as tiresome as the other Castemember’s jibes before the wars. “Eight hundred revolutions of this planet ago.” The number wasn’t precise, but the knowledge had been lost after Columbus, after the Spaniards.

The Castemember clicked its lower two pincers in an irregular rhythm. Braikim had done that as well, when he was confused by two seemingly irreconcilable facts. “Only,” Karinim said, “Then why attacked? Why, Only?” and Sarai realized that it had shortened her title to inexcusably rude shortness — “No Segarthi-True here?”

Sarai realized that magic did flow through this space; she was just cut off from it. The Warrior’s exoskeletons shimmered flowing into beetle-like shells, their pincers growing large spikes. She felt a rivulet of sweat bead and slide down her back. “There have been wars, Karinim-Castemember.” She shifted so her gun was not trapped underneath her.

War?” Karinim stood. “War between Segarthi and your people?” The Castemember tilted its head again, just a like a dog but somehow horribly wrong.

What to tell it? About the accident that destroyed the first craft and much of its technology? About the Spaniards fighting the Segarthan and Mayan alliance? Of the English and then Americans purging the Castemembers and enslaving the Segarthi drones? Of the civil war between the separatist and integrationalist Segarthi? Of Braikim’s request to Lincoln for aid? Of the American Civil War, where Mages fought drones? Oh, God, what would he think of Isaac?

Wars,” she said. Another drop of sweat ran down her forehead. “Many wars.”

Karinim sat in silence for a moment. Before it could speak, a worker drone scuttled in, low, fast, and frightened. It chittered to Karinim, too fast and quiet for Sarai to understand. The Castemember looked away from the drone and toward Sarai. “Your race, busy outside.”

Sarai twisted her hand without thinking, trying to open a magical window to outside the ship. Karinim clacked its mandibles in harsh laughter, and then made the same motion. “Only Segarthi-Caste access ship, Only.” It pointed to the shimmering window. “Look.”

Sarai looked at the window and felt her chest and arms grow numb. The head of Wetnurse stood impaled on a stake. A crucifix protruded from its mouth. If they had found Wetnurse —

Sarai found herself on her feet, stumbling back from the image. Karinim tilted its head to the other side. “Let me out,” she said, unsure if she spoke Segarthan, Mayan, or English. “Let me out.” Karinim gestured, and she felt the desert heat behind her. A quick glance showed the door to the outside. She walked and then ran for the opening.

As she passed through the doorway, she regained access to the magic. She leapt from the ship, pulling her mount from the air, dark flanks flickering into existence underneath her. It galloped past the edge of the strange purple grass. A part of her brain noticed the plant’s tiny red flowers. She rode past the pole where Wetnurse’s head still stood. A vulture and flies were disturbed by her passage, but she did not stop. Sarai rode for the town, the rapid thumpadump of her heartbeat echoing the gallop. Still the magic stayed with her.

They gathered in the center of town, in front of the church. Ten, perhaps fifteen men stood under the sweltering pale blue of the sky. The priest stood closest to her, his crucifix raised high as she thundered past the first buildings of the town. He smiled, and stepped to the side.

Ezekiel was bound to the pole, arms clearly broken. His badge lay on the ground. Then she saw her half-alien son tied to the sheriff’s legs. Sounds faded away as she saw the scrapes on Isaac’s carapace, as she saw the blood (red blood, a part of her thought, how had I never realized he had red blood?) on his skin. Her skin crackled into hard joints, the power rippling up her spine —

The bullet struck her right collarbone.

There was still no sound. No time for sound, no time for any reaction from Isaac as the lead shoved her back and to the left, sliding from the mount. A second shot smashed into her ribs.

She crashed to the ground, dust and dirt grinding past her lips. Sarai raised her arm, summoning a weak blue shield that disintegrated with the next bullet’s impact. She screamed Isaac’s name as the fourth round stuck her.

There was no sound. Just the blackness.

• • •

Sarai dreamed.

She remembered their honeymoon, when Braikim took her to the Aztec lands where their ancestors had met. He’d brushed aside her objections and her hair with his high, light laugh.

“My love, I am the last fully sentient member of my species on this planet. The last of the Caste here.” He’d hushed her with a brief kiss. “And that also makes me the ruler of all Segarthi on this world. That lets me get away with a few things now and again.”

They had walked upon the original colony ship, so far off course so long ago, the source of all the magic in the Americas. The infant inside her had twisted in joy at the raw power. She’d giggled and held Braikim’s arm as they toured the empty craft alone.

He’d showed her the ancient ship’s weapons, the vast bulk of its armor, the faded but visible images decorating the walls. The images of Segarthi slaughtering things that looked like no animal she knew of.

“We are a violent race,” he’d said. “On your planet, we had to learn to live alongside your species.” He’d kissed the top of her head. “Now I rule here, and if more of my race comes, they will have to learn from me.”

“What about that one?” The image had showed Segarthi fighting Segarthi, but one group — depicted as losing — fought alongside another race.

Braikim had crossed his lower arms. “Purity cleansing. Nothing you will need to worry about.” He had hushed her again, that time carrying her into an unoccupied cabin.

Later, when she had been on the edge of sleep, he whispered to her. “Nothing to worry about while I live.”

But Braikim was dead. Grant had executed him, under Lincoln’s orders. They had ended his life to end the war.

And then she remembered she was dead too.

• • •


Sarai had heard that voice before. Somewhere.

Familiar appendages ran across her body. The ground — harder than any campsite she’d choose — pressed against her shoulderblades.

“Kid, should you be messing with her?” Her heart beat twice; she did not want to open her eyes. “You’re pretty bad off yourself.”

Her eyes flew open. Isaac’s hands rested on her arm, still glowing soft blue. “Mother mine,” he said.

She threw her arms around him, noticing too late the signs of fatigue and hunger in his body. “Mother,” he said while returning the embrace, the single word holding paragraphs of human speech.

She released him, examining him more closely. His color had darkened. “When did you learn to heal?” she asked in English.

He replied in his father’s language. “Mother hurt.”

Ezekiel sat on the cell’s single bunk, arms at strange angles. “Looks like you’ll live to talk to the judge when he comes through.” Cell. Sarai took in the small room before letting herself worry about Isaac’s vast expenditure of energy. “Let my son sit there Sheriff, while you get us out of this cell.”

Ezekiel stood. “I’d love to get us out of here, but I can’t do that. They didn’t give me the keys.”

Sarai assessed Isaac’s strength, frowning. “You spent too much power.” Perhaps if she could get him to the ship, perhaps enough magic flowed there to keep him alive. So many maybes. She looked at the young sheriff. “How do we get out of here?”

His face twisted in puzzlement. “I told you, the judge comes by in a week or so, they’ll...”

“No.” She stood, not meeting her son’s gaze. “I have to get out now. Before Castemember decides that I failed.” Her hands ran across the hard bars. Too little magic still remained in the air.

“Failed at what?”

She glanced at the sheriff again, and then took a long look. He’s even more of a boy than I thought. He really doesn’t know. “Failed at suppressing this town’s rebellion.” Isaac jumped up, clicking in understanding. Ezekiel sat down in the depression Isaac had left in the cot’s mattress.

“What rebellion? It’s just a few men, and they think they’re striking back. It’s wrong, that’s why they threw me in here with you, but after the war, it ain’t strictly illegal.”

Sarai’s vision narrowed, her brow hot and furrowed. She slammed Ezekiel’s head down on the cart. He tried to push her off with his feeble ruined arms, but she stayed on top of him, legs straddling his abdomen. Her breath hissed in his ear.

“They kidnapped my son. They killed his nanny and my friend. And worst of all, they attacked the first Segarthi craft to reach this world in generations.”

“But that ship landed in Peterson’s herd of cattle, and the law says—” They both grew silent as a deep bass rumble shook the floor. Isaac rushed to grab his mother’s leg. She looked down at Ezekiel. “Stampede?”

He shook his head. “No.”

Sarai closed her eyes and took a deep breath. “How long was I out?”

“Two days.”

Sarai looked at her son, turned adultling in the crisis but deprived of food during the most critical part of the change. She let herself notice the cracks in his carapace, the damage he’d done trying to save her. She bit back the sob filling her chest as she realized that he’d doomed himself in this magic-starved area.

The rumble grew to a roar. They all looked to the window in time to see the Segarthi ship rise from the ground. Even with its differences, Sarai could still recognize the weapons ports powering up.

“Fine,” she said, getting off of the sheriff. “You two stand back.” Weak ripples of the magic spread out from the ship’s liftoff. The particles of magic obeyed her will, gathering across the hard tan carapace of her transforming skin. She slammed her hands into the wall. The magic, faster than thought, spread through the wall, feeding on raw materials while it dissolved the stucco in fits of static electricity. She knew Ezekiel just saw the wall dissolve into dust and arcs of lightning.

Ezekiel looked at her. “Are you going to stop them?”

The part of her that Braikim had implanted, the Segarthi warrior flesh that allowed her to carry Isaac, sheathed her body in its exoskeleton. Her eyes became compound, and the human’s face flowed across her vision in a hundred fragments.

“Probably not,” she replied, and stepped through the hole in the wall.

A wave of exhaustion flowed across her chest as she heard Isaac moan. She risked a glance back, saw the grey brittle caste to his chitin. The magic was leaving them.

The ship hovered under a gray cloud, hanging in the air. It called the magic to itself.

The magic glittered in the sunlight, a giant inverted tornado. Braikim had taught her this. He had told her that magic was an army of tiny servants, but this... the sight was as terrible as beautiful, each particle too invisible to see, but together a shining army of power.

A finger of glittering magic reached out, brushing against the saloon. The dry wood dissolved in burning heat. Sarai thought she glimpsed corpses being gnawed to atoms. A woman burst from the crumpling building, her flesh eaten away by raw particles of magic.

Sarai held her hand out to her son. The young Segarthan scrambled over the edge of the wall to her side as she muttered the words Braikim had taught her, the words so that the ship would recognize her. No response.

“What about me?” Ezekiel cried, trying to regain his feet without using either of his arms.

Sarai looked back at him. “You should have controlled your townsfolk better.” She muttered the alien words again, and then flinched as the ship demolished the General Store. The ship did not respond to her command. Small ripples of waste magic washed around her. She called the magic to her, fashioning them into a conduit between herself and the ship, growing more desperate in her efforts to get Isaac on board.

The ship fired at them.

Isaac saved them, his thin blue shield deflecting the worst of the blast. A part of Sarai took pride in his cleverness using waste magic from the blast to power his shield. “Mother,” he said, and the grayness of his chitin caused her to gasp.

She looked to the ship. “How dare you!” she screamed. “He is Caste-Leader of this world!

The ship boomed with the alien Caste’s voice, the sound loud enough to stagger her backward. “Halfblood. Blasphemer.” Sarai remembered the crashed colony ship, the casual depictions of genocide. “Purify.”

Sarai looked down at her son, his life sapped by the demands he’d place on his still-developing body. She looked at the young sheriff cowering in the back of the jail cell, the other humans running to their primitive ideas of safety.

The sounds of screaming and creaking wood faded for her. Hot winds, stirred up by the destruction, brushed against her half-Segarthi form. Her dead husband’s voice sounded clearly in her ears. “We are a violent race. If more of my race comes, they will have to learn from me.” For a moment, Braikim’s touch rested on her shoulder, and then it was gone. And she realized she’d never had to ask him about the last picture after all.

Sarai leaned forward, and picked Isaac up in her arms. He was light. Too light. She stroked the full Caste markings on his cheek. “Son,” she said, “call the ship down. Call it down and tell it to listen to your mother.”

“Will I see Daddy?”

“Yes,” she lied. “You will see your father soon. Now call it down.”

Isaac closed his eyes, and his Caste markings flared, and the ship began to descend. The ship did not care if he was part human; it knew her son was Caste-Leader of this planet. She did not need to blink at the dust as the ship landed on the smoking remains of the store. A rectangle of light opened in the clouds of dirt and soot, framing the form of Karinim.

Isaac opened his eyes and saw Karinim. He took a breath as if to speak but closed his eyes for the last time.

Only—” Karinim said, but Sarai stopped him with a raised palm. She laid Isaac’s body on the dry ground of his home planet. At a thought, the magic flowed from the ship to circle around her, a twisting silver whirlwind of force.

Sarai let the chitin flow back into her skin until she stood, dusty human cheeks streaked with tears. Karinim took a step back forward. Sarai’s mouth curled into a snarl. “That’s Caste-Leader to you, you son of a bitch.”

She drove the swirling mass of magic through Karinim into the exposed center of the ship.

• • •

Ezekiel — sheriff no longer — downed the shot of whiskey. There was something about a town out West that required saloons.

Madge slid him another shot down the bar. “Elbow bothering you, ’Zeke?”

He shook his head. “Clear skies for a while yet.” Madge cursed softly to herself, and Ezekiel smiled. “You know I don’t care for them carrots anyhow. Let ’em wither.”

Madge smiled back at him, and Ezekiel found himself wondering if she really did fancy him after all. Then he heard the cowboys talking a little too loud again. He’d written them off as no trouble, just on their way back out after delivering the herd at Kansas City. He looked up to Madge giving him the look that said she’d heard them too. Ezekiel pushed himself back from the bar. Four of them. Great.

“Fellas,” he said, “there isn’t any of that talk in this town.”

The one on the far right — Ezekiel mentally labeled him One-Eye — snorted a donkey’s laugh. “What, I was just saying I’m glad there ain’t no damn Bugs any—”

Ezekiel shot him in the foot.

“You all are moving on now,” he said, loud enough to be heard over the man’s screams. “And by now, I mean now.”

The other three looked a lot younger than One-Eye. Maybe the age he’d been when he’d taken the job as sheriff. Their eyes were all locked on the smoking gun in Ezekiel’s hand. He could smell urine.


One-Eye wanted to pitch a fit, but the other three dragged him out the door. Ezekiel waited until they left the saloon before he sat down. Madge focused on wiping the dirty bar with her rag.

“Didn’t have to do that,” said a tired female voice from the dark back corner of the saloon.

Ezekiel didn’t look up. “I figured it was only polite to give them a warning.” He downed the shot in front of him, and then walked out of the bar. Madge picked up the shot glass, set it behind the bar, and then followed him.

The woman in the corner sat alone in the dark saloon for a long time.



Steven Saus injects people with radioactivity as his day job, but only to serve the forces of good. His work appears in print in the anthologies Westward Weird (forthcoming), Mages & Magic, Timeshares and Hungry For Your Love, and in several magazines both online and off. As Alliteration Ink, he also provides publishing services and publishes books such as The Crimson Pact series of anthologies and Don Bingle’s spy thriller Net Impact. You can find him online at stevensaus.com and alliterationink.com.


September 2011