"Something strange is happening," said Altrad.
Her voice cut through the gentle lapping of the tide, waking Shalstag from his doze. He'd been enjoying the heavy sun, the pulse of energy from his skin symbiotes converting light into food and adding a steady pulse of glucose into his blood.
"I can almost hear it." Altrad's eyes bulged from the skin of her triangular forehead as she adjusted her sight to long-range focus. She looked beyond the herds of shell-less chinds crawling in the intertidal pens. She scanned the far horizon where countless small islands rose out of the sea, some with volcanic peaks, most sunk subsided into the water, lagoons fringed with coral. "I don't see anything," she said.
"But what can you hear?" asked Shalstag. He concentrated, trying to hear the mind thoughts of the adults in the underwater villages. Both he and Altrad were nearly of age. Their organs were in the process of rotating, and forming new connections. Soon they'd be able to hear the thoughts of the villagers. He felt his abdomen quivering, as he strained to hear.
"Just ghost thoughts, perhaps" said Altrad. "Let's get home." She crawled to the chind pens where the plump creatures nosed in the sands. "We'll take these back for Mother." Altrad selected a dozen of the fattest chinds, and quickly smothered them with her throat tentacles.
Shalstag collected his bottles of chind ink and placed them in his weed-string bag. The chinds on this island fed on bright red sea grass. Their ink would add vibrant colour to Shalstag's glass sculptures.
Shalstag and Altrad slipped into the water. The rosette of naked gills blossomed on their backs as they switched from air to water breathing. They crawled past the reef crest and descended to the meadows of tall sea grass which were home to shoals of bright fish.
"There's no one tending the paths," said Shalstag. Usually one of their siblings would be cutting the quick growing grass. They crawled faster along the sand, avoiding the chunks of coral and rock, until they reached the tangle of deep water coral that Mother had seeded many years ago. This marked the entrance to Mother's territory. The coral branched in long delicate filaments from a central stem. Grey sponge tubes interspersed the coral. Anemones littering the ocean bed withdrew into their shells with the passing of Shalstag and Altrad. Outside the home cave lay hundreds of eggs in gelatinous ribbons. Many were already squirming with life, fertilized by the sperm shed into the waters during the recent Blessing Ceremony.
"There's no one tending the eggs," said Shalstag.
Quickly they crawled into the cave, along the twisting entrance tunnels and into Mother's room. Mother was in a trance. Her throat tentacles quivered. The room was crowded. It seemed as if all the hundreds of Mother's children surrounded her. Mother shivered so violently that half-a-dozen children fell off her back. She startled out of the trance. "Oh, my lovelies. Oh. I have seen." Her voice echoed through the waters and bounced off the smooth home cave walls.
"What is it, Mother?" They asked, crowding even closer round her. When Mother emerged, she often had to be coaxed. Some of her favourites crawled back onto her back. Mother was so large that she could bear dozens of children.
"Is it Festrelle?" asked Altrad. Mother had invested in Festrelle's kelp fields. She'd been complaining that he hadn't given her a fair share of the harvest and she'd been threatening to take the dispute to the Starved Council.
"No, not Festrelle." Mother scowled at Altrad. "Something more intriguing than him. The Starved Ones have spoken."
The children felt silent.
"Strangers," said Mother, "have landed on the world. They have crawled from beyond the sun. And they are intelligent." She paused dramatically. "Like the hunters of tides gone by." The youngsters gasped. Mother was pleased. She often told the children tales of the years when predators swam the Kanzai waters. Although she did not remember them herself; she knew them from the tales the Starved Ones kept in their minds.
"Strangers from beyond the sun? Is that possible?" asked Altrad in wonder. Of all the children, Altrad was the most questioning.
"Strangers are known to the Starved Ones," said Mother. "Many years ago, before the hunger, strangers came to the surface. They were made of gas."
"Why didn't you tell us about them?" asked Altrad.
"I didn't know about them," said Mother. "Only the Starved Ones know all."
"The Starved Ones know all," murmured the children. The Starved One's memories went back thousands of years.
"What do the strangers want?" asked Shalstag.
"We don't know," said Mother. "They are like children. Even the Starved Ones can't read their minds, although they sense an innate intelligence. Someone should go and greet them. Find out if they are hunters."
"I'll go," said Altrad.
"And me," said Shalstag.
"Yes," said Mother. "Be careful." She sighed, immediately some of her favourites, began to massage her, comforting her. "I'll miss you, if you get eaten."
Shalstag and Altrad crawled through the egg fields. "Did you hear what Mother said?" complained Altrad. "She'll miss us. Her mind is already on this next generation. I've seen her crawling here, hour on hour."
"Un-torted children are disposable," said Shalstag. "Each mother has a hundred children. How can she care for them all?" In the absence of any predators, Kanzai children grew wild and strong and hungry. This was the first life. "The second life will come soon, Altrad." Shalstag felt the itch in his abdomen, as the organs subtly grew into their new positions. They were forming new connections that would make him adult, able to breed and feel the thoughts of the others.
"Only for a few of us," said Altrad.
"Yes." Shalstag knew that it was unlikely that he'd be chosen to continue into adult life. How many artists were needed in the community? His soul would be reborn into the egg. That was fate. "The judgement will come soon," he said. "If it's decreed that we fall to the ocean floor, then that's the way of things."
The strangers had built themselves a cave on one of the islands.
"That's metal," said Shalstag. "I've seen it in the pre-starvation ruins." Metal! It gleamed in the sun. Shalstag wondered what it would be like to sculpt in metal.
A stranger emerged from the metal cave. Fast moving as a snake it ran toward the shore, shouting nonsense words.
"Do you speak Kanzai?" shouted Altrad.
"Obviously they don't," said Shalstag.
"Do you speak Kanzai? Obviously they don't." The words were repeated from a box on the stranger's body.
"Speak some more," said Altrad. "They're learning."
"Speak some more. They're learning," repeated the box.
Altrad and Shalstag spoke, all the time looking at the stranger. It was as large as an adult. It wore black armour like a crab and had two limbs, obviously unsuited for crawling over the sea floor.
"I think they're land creatures," said Shalstag. "But the land is so small compared to the breadth of the sea."
"Not beyond the sun, perhaps," replied Altrad.
As Altrad and Shalstag talked, the box flickered and whined. Until finally the stranger spoke. "My name is Revival," it said. "I am Vilicus and the feeble servant of the great Zyxlars. The Zyxlars send greetings to the people of this water world."
"The Starved Ones were right," said Altrad "They are thinkers."
"But are they hunters?" asked Shalstag.
Ignoring his fears, Altrad retracted her gills plumes and made her way out of the water towards Revival. Shalstag followed, gasping air to activate his lungs and to harden his internal protein shell which made land movement easier. His soft skin quivered with excitement. Even if he were not judged to be worthy of progressing in the second life, his life had been important. He crawled towards the stranger with a feeling of pride.
"On behalf of the Zyxlars, I welcome you," said Revival.
Shalstag saw the massive head of an adult emerged from the waters. It was Smiasous, the village elder.
"Another of your kin?" asked Revival. "He's much larger than you."
"He's an adult," explained Shalstag. He felt nervous in the presence of Smiasous. Smiasous would be one of the adults at the judgment, deciding who would crawl in second life and who would fall back into the dark waters. Would Shalstag's body be reused in the Consumption Ceremony? Would his mind be released to swim the void until it found an egg?
Smiasous crawled quickly to join them. "I am Smiasous of the Kanzai. I have been charged by the Starved Ones to speak on their behalf."
"The Zyxlar bless their name, and bless you three."
"These youngsters are un-torted children of no account," said Smiasous.
"The Zyxlar suffer all to their bosom," said Revival. "Young and old. You will be the hearers of the testimony. For is not three the blessed number?"
"As you wish," said Smiasous.
"They have thoughts, but we can't read them," complained Smiasous. "Their minds are like the sea bed during a sand storm."
"Not even the Starved Ones can read their thoughts." Because two of her children had been designated emissaries, Mother had been invited onto the council to discuss the strangers.
Shalstag was expected to report back every conversation with the strangers. Additionally, everyone in the village sought him out, all curious to know about the strangers.
"It's inconvenient that they have chosen un-torted children to communicate with," complained Smiasous.
"Perhaps that was their intention," said Mother. She glared at Shalstag. "Tell us again what Revival said to you today. Omit no detail."
Revival had been allocated to Shalstag as his teacher. "He talked about the Zyxlars. He doesn't talk about much else," he said. Shalstag was weary. Altrad had been assigned her own stranger. He hadn't seen her for days. He missed her.
"Our masters love little children of all species," said Revival.
"I won't be a child for much longer," said Shalstag.
"No offense was meant. Only that you are interesting, to have distinction in size between adult and children. It is remarkable."
"What are your children like?" asked Shalstag.
"You take a kind interest in this unworthy servant." Revival pulled out a memory cube and showed Shalstag an image of five children lined up in a long line of prayer. "It is hard for me to be away." Revival rubbed mucus from his eyes. "But all should be rendered in the service of the Zyxlars."
Shalstag peered at the memory cube. "They're very like you," he said politely,
"I hope not. I hope they exceed me in devotion. I am a poor servant."
It seemed to Shalstag as if Revival were an extremely good servant. Revival talked of little else except the Zyxlars.
"Will you show me the glass art garden?" asked Revival. "My masters are great patrons of art. Art, as one of the lesser races say, is a window into the soul."
"I'll be pleased to," said Shalstag. "I haven't had much time for my glass sculptures, lately."
Revival wore a skin suit that allowed him to walk along the ocean bed. His speech box translated his thoughts into underwater talk. Shalstag led Revival to the sculpture garden. "Be careful," he said as he saw a row of hydroids. "These are poisonous to you, aren't they?"
"Thank you," said Revival, stepping aside to avoid the wavering fronds. "They're very poisonous."
"I'll ask Mother to destroy them."
In the glass gardens, Shalstag felt a twinge of nervousness before showing Revival his sculpture. "This is my piece," he said.
"It's incredible," said Revival.
Shalstag was pleased. "It shows children as pebbles of glass," he explained. "The pebbles roll into the maw of the chasm with the current. When they hit the gullet, they show iridescence within its depths. It's a very early piece. It shows the fears of the un-torted."
"And you will tort soon, yes?" asked Revival. "And you'll able to read the minds of others?"
"That's right," said Shalstag.
"And then you will be judged. And the ones not selected will be consumed by the adults. Am I correct?"
"Because this world cannot feed all of the children grown to adulthood?"
"That is the way," said Shalstag, "Children are small and can derive a lot of their food from the sun. After torsion, this ability is lost. The pebbles in the maw, see how they glow? This represents the soul's release. These souls will find new life within the egg."
"The culling is interesting, can you tell me more about it?"
"Once before," said Shalstag, "the ocean teemed with many hunters: sea snakes, giant turtles. These creatures still swim the ocean, but in the old tides they were massive. One hunting kelp snake could eat a whole clutch of a mother's egg. A wave spider could enter a cave and lay her eggs in the body of a mother. There were fish that swam forever, their jaws lined with death. Creatures camouflaged, and lurking, sharp bodies, ready to pounce upon my kind. The world was a place where every wave brought the hunters. It was a savage time. The Kanzai perished in their thousands until the adults grew their gestalt minds. Then we were able to turn on the enemies. We made them attack each other. The enemies of the Kanzai perished. And for a time the Kanzai flourished, grew and grew, and built their underground cities. But then came the Starving Times. We grew and multiplied until we filled the ocean. Then was granted to the few Starving Ones, the Ceremony of Judgement. In this way, we flourish. Not all Kanzai can survive the second torsion, not without starvation."
"A very good system," said Revival, "but hard on the pebbles. What if there was more food?"
Shalstag took his meaning immediately. "But who would want to leave the world?"
"What if my masters had world after world of food for you?"
"But it wouldn't be here."
When Revival spoke like this, Shalstag did not report these words back to the council.
"The fact that you have been chosen as an emissary will surely influence the council's decision."
The same thought had been considered by Shalstag. But it seemed an unworthy thought. "Shall I show you how I make the sculptures?" he asked.
"I'd like to see that," said Revival.
Outside the glass factory, a group of larval shrimp-slugs crawled by. They all headed in the same direction, at the same speed. Their optical tentacles pointed forward.
"I need to armour myself, against the heat," Shalstag said. "Do you need any armour?"
"Thank you no, I can adjust my suit," said Revival.
Shalstag clothed himself in the armour and descended the smooth tunnel that led to the dark work-room. Revival followed behind using jets of water to aid his descent.
Shalstag's latest work had been inspired by the coming of the Vilicus. It was his rendering of the Zyxlar. He thought that Revival would be pleased. He lowered the basket into the black smoking vent where he'd been tempering his structure.
"This apparatus is pre-hunger, isn't it?"
"That's right," said Shalstag pulling on the hardened glass chain to retrieve his sculpture from the vent. He opened the mould and looked with dismay at the cracked glass. "It's broken," said Shalstag.
"Ah. A shame," said Revival. "But you'll make new sculptures."
Shalstag felt the ache in his body. "No," he said. "Probably not."
Shalstag woke to a cacophony of noise. Joy surged through him. He was adult. He listened to the sounds, struggling to resolve them. He heard the mind voices of the villagers, and then the slow words of the Starved Ones. As those thoughts entered his mind, Shalstag began to tremble. He looked towards the alcove where Altrad slept. It was empty. Altrad must have torted during the night. She must have gone to the judgement hut. How he wished that he could talk to her. Shalstag's duty was to join her, report to the judgement hut, where he would wait.
His mind sang with the whispers of hate from the Starved Ones. Their thoughts were terrible and savage.
Shalstag did not do his duty. Instead, he made his way to the Vilicus camp.
"You must leave this world," said Shalstag, when he found Revival.
"Why would we abandon this holy mission?"
"It is not safe for you. Just take my word for it."
"I can't tell my captain that."
"No. I suppose you can't." Shalstag tried to think, but he was distracted by the buzz of words in his head. Impulsively he said, "The Starved Ones do not want you on our world. They say that you are seditious. That you will tear our life apart."
"They are planning a war against you."
"They are? Oh, this fills me with sorrow." Revival wiped mucus from his eyes. "How are they planning to attack?"
"They have noticed that you are susceptible to poisons. The villagers are eating hydroids right now."
"I'm confused. How will this harm us?"
"The adults store the stinging cells of hydroids in their tentacles." Shalstag looked away. "They plan to come to you as friends, and they will kill you all."
"Will they eat us, I wonder?"
"No, of course they won't. But you need to leave the world."
"I'm sure that we will leave," said Revival.
"And will you take me with you?" Shalstag had betrayed his family. He had cast his stones for the Zyxlars.
"Yes, of course," said Revival. "But go now to the judgement hut. You don't want to arouse any suspicion."
"But I can't . . ."
"We'll come for you, never fear. And thank you, Shalstag. You have proved yourself to be a friend to the Vilicus, and we never forget our friends."
Of course, Shalstag could not go to the judgement hut, the closer he came to adults, the stronger his thoughts would become. They would know that he had betrayed the Starved Ones. He would not be able to hide what he had done. Instead, he crawled to the coral crags, and stood lonely sentinel overlooking the Mother's cave, the muds bed, the kelp fields, and the judgement hut, where Altrad would be. Shalstag had placed himself outside of the family.
From that vantage point, Shalstag saw the Vilicus' weapons.
They streaked through the water, sleek as sand squid, hitting the village and Mother's cave. With horror, Shalstag watched as weapons rushed into the chasm where the Starved Ones dwelt. The ocean shuddered with explosions. Shalstag clung to the crag.
He felt the mind shrieks of his family crying out. He heard the lamentation and the mournings.
Shalstag made his way quickly to the Vilicus camp. He begged them to stop their attack. Revival met his request with polite confusion. "We cannot stop. To stop would be detrimental to our masters. These events are regrettable. But they must be so."
Shalstag made his way to the village, and did what he could to help the injured.
Afterwards, the council convened. There was no need for Shalstag to confess. All knew what he had done.
"Mother is dead," said Altrad "and many of our siblings. Mother's eggs are also destroyed. None of the Starved Ones survive. All of our history is lost."
He could not bear such pain. "Release my soul," Shalstag begged the council. "Let me fall to the ocean floor."
"No. That is not to be," said Smiasous. "The Vilicus have told us that if you are not presented to them they will release more of their weapons. They mean to take a thousand Kanzai beyond the sun. And they want to make you the leader of these prisoners."
"I will not," said Shalstag. "Release me into the ocean, I beg you."
"You must," said Altrad. "Shalstag, you have betrayed your people. You must find a way to make things right."
There could be no righting of this.
The air was harsh and dry in the Vilicus ship. The bathing pool was crowded, and polluted. Already one hundred of the thousand had died. Shalstag would not be one of them.
Revival walked slowly around Shalstag's glass sculpture. Shalstag had created it using the ship's technology, but the results were satisfactory.
"It's a powerful piece," said Revival. "It's very different from your immature work."
"It's an interpretation of the attack upon the Kanzai home world." Shalstag had poured all his hatred into it. Emotion rendered into glass.
"You haven't spoken of our actions," said Revival. "I'm aware that they may have seemed harsh to you."
"Your actions were in the service of the Zyxlars," said Shalstag.
"Exactly. I still want to be your friend, Shalstag. You'll be an important artist in the Zyxlar Empire. And your family will serve the Zyxlars, too. They will make fine information gatherers, when they learn to read and control the thoughts of other species."
"As you say," said Shalstag. "Everything is to be rendered to the Zyxlars."
And each night, Shalstag would shun the company of his family. He sat alone in his room, mind reaching, seeking the metallic thoughts of the Vilicus. Their thoughts were cold and alien, a discordant whisper in his mind, slowly resolving into meaning.
This was the beginning. Shalstag urged the others to do the same. With their minds they could conquer the Vilicus, and when they meet the Zyxlar they would do the same.
And then the Kanzai would be free to take their revenge.