Thomas was conducting a routine perimeter check of his home territory when the glint of forged metal rolling into Francisco’s enclave caught his eye. Francisco had little useful metal of his own, nor the wherewithal to forge it, but the mystery was solved when the enormous twenty-five-meter frame of Ivan emerged. Thomas wrinkled his forehead. Ivan had sidled up to Francisco to gain a foothold closer to Thomas’s lair; he just knew it. Ivan’s prickly head and uneven shoulders rose up as he hoisted a shiny barrel onto the bluff that sheltered Francisco’s lair. By Thomas’s quick assessment, the four-meter duct with a ten-centimeter diameter could easily propel a two-stone carbon charge deep into his section. The detonation would likely damage his lair, or even obliterate it if the carbon was formulated.
Thomas was all too familiar with these weapons. In fact, he had forged the best of the cylindrical carbon throwers. Although he occasionally launched conventional charges to scare off intruders, settle scores, or assist an Alliance Aent, he had only used formulated carbon once. That instance remained the singular example any Aent required to appreciate the sheer destructive potential of these weapons.
Ivan, too, had mastered the extraction of carbon from the flat rock, combining it with nitrates to produce the powerful explosives. He had artfully leveraged the advanced weapons to consolidate his authority. Over a few decades, he had corralled an assemblage of Aents, ultimately incorporating their biological matter into his own frame to further his control of Terrangea. Centuries of fierce competition for resources had shaped and reshaped the territorial borders within the 24,000 square kilometers that defined the Aent world. Usable land was limited and precious. With the usurpation of all this Aent matter, along with their territories, Ivan had much to lose and was letting Thomas know that meddling would not be tolerated. Thomas felt certain that some of the Aents incorporated by Ivan resented losing their own identities, and he couldn’t help but fuel their dudgeon. It would be a welcome sight to see any reduction in Ivan’s size resulting from the exodus of mutinous Aents from his frame.
Ivan was not going to have his way this time, thought Thomas. He trotted back to his lair to retrieve his three-meter carbon thrower. After suspending four stones of carbon in a leather sheath, he set out for Francisco’s section. At the perimeter again, Thomas planted the butt end of his thrower against a boulder, attached the legs, and dropped a plum from the barrelhead. He knew the exact distance to Francisco’s bluff, allowing him the angle between the plum line and the barrel shaft required to park a stone on Francisco’s front hatch. Although Francisco was too small to see Thomas in the distance, Thomas’s activities had not escaped the attention of the much larger Ivan.
By this time, Ivan had already attached the top half of the cylinder to form the full conduit. His deliberate maneuvering of a satchel could only mean he was preparing to load a stone. Thomas responded by loading his.
He waited. Although Francisco was allied with Ivan, he cherished his sovereignty above all and the decision was his to make. Would Francisco really risk his own annihilation for this allegiance? Would Ivan? Thomas couldn’t take that chance. Ivan would have to take his thrower and go home. There was nothing to negotiate. Maybe Francisco would listen, since his demise was as certain as Ivan’s should a salvo of stones be exchanged. Thomas hoisted his communication flag up high and waited a tense few minutes before spotting Francisco’s flag teetering on the bluff. Encouraged, Thomas struck a deliberate gait in the direction of Francisco’s flag but quickly noted that only Francisco was approaching the halfway mark, leaving Ivan and his armament at the bluff.
Thomas slowed to a standstill. He raised his flag again, waving it with an agitation that Francisco must have understood and had likely anticipated. Suddenly his neighbor’s flag dropped from sight as the sun reflected off Ivan’s shifting barrel. Thomas could barely make out Francisco, now flailing in a cloud of red-brown dust that seemed to roll back to the bluff of its own volition. Thomas quickly returned to his thrower post and adjusted the barrel angle up twenty-two degrees. He removed a small carbon stone from his sheath, coupled it to a small wad of guncotton propellant, and slipped the amalgam into the thrower. After screwing the oiled leaf plug into the fuse port, he ignited it with his flint starter and took cover behind a deposit of flat rock.
The powerful thump of the propellant charge, followed by the whoosh of the departing stone, drove Thomas slightly backward. He watched the ordnance rising against the reddened sky, growing smaller as it traced an arc halfway to Francisco’s lair. A deafening, volcanic eruption belched out of the already scorched terrain, sending up a hail of rock and sand around the blast site. Even Thomas was surprised by the size of the gaping cavity when the rosy haze of fine debris lifted.
As the air cleared, Thomas tried his flag again. There was no hesitation this time. Francisco waved his flag wildly as he emerged from behind the bluff. This was certainly progress, thought Thomas, but he knew that only one of two possible outcomes could follow his provocation. Either Ivan would accompany Francisco to the halfway mark or he would escalate the insanity with a shot of his own.
Francisco’s flag retreated from sight, then reappeared at an awkward angle before wobbling to a fully erect position once again. Thomas was lowering the angle of his thrower when Ivan’s craggy frame emerged above the bluff. Much to Thomas’s relief, both figures were proceeding to the halfway mark this time. Barely a meter tall, Francisco had to run to keep pace with Ivan, whose stride exuded an irritation that Thomas would soon be privy to. Thomas grabbed a stone shank from his satchel and proceeded to the negotiating zone. As he drew within fifty meters of the nefarious duo, he marveled at the shadow Ivan cast over his mate. Thomas had a bone to pick with Francisco for allowing Ivan’s import of the weapon, but that could wait. Right now he had to convince Ivan that their mutual destruction was assured should he not pick up his thrower and return to his own territory.
As the parties descended into the ragged bowl created by Thomas’s salvo, he felt a familiar twinge in his core. What would he say to Ivan? He had no idea. He only knew that some unmistakable force inside him would conjure up the sounds required to project the determination and force necessary for his survival. If that failed, he still had the rock shank. He was a few meters shorter than Ivan, but Ivan had witnessed firsthand Thomas’s agility and strength while dispatching an adversary. He wouldn’t dare, hoped Thomas.
They stood within a few meters of each other. Thomas could feel the hostility emanating from the flat, chiseled brow of Ivan’s enormous head. Ivan curled his lips into an oval, revealing a deep cavern from which an unholy howl escaped.
Was that a word? wondered Thomas. He knew some Alt but couldn’t make it out. He looked at the trembling Francisco for a translation. Francisco was in the unique position of understanding both the Alt and Lay languages of the Aents. He shrugged, his pointed nose and narrow eyes directed downward to acknowledge his subservience to the two towering figures.
“Tell him the thrower must be taken back to his own lair,” Thomas pronounced.
Francisco studied Ivan’s gnarled foot, which could send him back to his lair with a single strike, and repeated Thomas’s statement in Alt. Unhappy with the command, Ivan stomped straight down, generating a vertical force that sent his compatriot up a quarter meter before landing him in a cloud of dust. Ivan howled again, with intonation resembling the rumbling and whining heard during severe storms. Thomas’s foot did not look quite as menacing as Ivan’s, but Francisco maintained an equal if not greater respect for it as he relayed the message.
“He says you, too, have exported throwers and stones. Some to Alliance Aents bordering his section. He is entitled to do likewise in return.”
“The exportation of those throwers came at the behest of Aents directly threatened by him,” Thomas retorted, pointing at Ivan. “They value their independence and have no desire to be incorporated by him. Those throwers serve a defensive role only.” He turned on his heel and pointedly addressed Francisco. “Have I directly threatened you? Did you ask Ivan to install the weapon in your section?”
Francisco shuffled, uncertain about Ivan’s ability to interpret his reply. “Not entirely. It was discussed as part of an agreement in which I would receive food allotments and fuel, but—”
Another thundering stomp from Ivan silenced Francisco, propelling him slightly forward and dropping him to his knees. More rumbling and hissing came from Ivan’s serrated jaws, accompanied by a menacing downward glare at Francisco.
“He says you, too, have a history of incorporation, not always compliant. He wishes to remind you of our former relationship in which you abused my hospitality for your own benefit.”
Thomas needn’t be reminded of this sordid spot in his history, or of any others. He was often reminded of his former misdeeds when he tried to apply a sanctimonious approach to an argument. Nevertheless, he viewed Ivan as far more brazen in his ambitions. Installing weapons in a deal leveraged by food was far more inflammatory than providing them at the request of Aents in need of defense. Thomas had not antagonized Francisco, nor had he any intention of forcibly acquiring his territory, so he didn’t fully understand what had compelled him to break off their former relationship. Something had caused Francisco to make a hasty proclamation of independence, tinged with animosity toward Thomas. Francisco had quickly expelled all matter previously infused from Thomas and forbade any further exchange of matter in either direction.
Thomas had since chosen to ignore Francisco. At times he almost pitied him and his primitive approach to survival. Some part of Francisco clearly regretted severing their old ties, as evinced by the matter that periodically abandoned him in an attempt to incorporate itself into Thomas. However, Francisco’s new alliance with Ivan precluded any further overtures from Thomas.
He weighed Ivan with the most invective stare he could conjure. “I’m walking back to my thrower and you’re walking back to yours. If you do not pick it up and leave, I will launch two stones of formulated carbon. The two of you will likely perish, and Francisco’s lair will be destroyed.”
Thomas awaited Francisco’s translation, then abruptly turned away and started walking back in the direction of his thrower. Ivan, hysterical and highly animated, bellowed at Thomas’s back as he walked away. Without turning or missing a step, Thomas revealed the stone shank strapped to his backside.
Francisco offered Thomas the best translation he could muster out of Ivan’s vexatious diatribe. “He says you’re only making it worse, and besides, he soon will have throwers that can reach your lair from his own.”
Over his shoulder, Thomas retorted, “Tell him I already have one that will reach his, and I intend to install it as soon as I arrive at my lair.”
With that, the confrontation had ended. Ivan reluctantly complied, and although Francisco remained aligned with him, he forbade any further importation of heavy weaponry onto his section. Thomas remained true to his promise and spent the next several days assembling and installing a massive sixteen-meter thrower with a thirty-centimeter bore. He pitched the barrel at a thirty-seven-degree rise with coordinates north-northeast to accommodate an arc terminating at the apex of Ivan’s section. To date, a stone had not traced that arc. Six decades had passed, and despite recurring proxy battles with Ivan, the likelihood of employing that thrower had dimmed.
Although threats remained, the new enemy was ill-defined and far more difficult to recognize than the Ivan of old. Like an insidious infection, the new enemy was dispersed and fractionalized. It was growing and spreading steadily amongst the Aents, altering their ethos, corrupting their minds, and hijacking their bodies. Those afflicted became openly hostile toward Thomas, as well as to any Aent that embraced the modern world and the progress it had to offer. It was a war of ideology, with Thomas representing everything the enemy rebelled against.
Contemplating the knotty state of his world, Thomas stewed in the summer heat. He sat under the makeshift veranda he had assembled from chiseled chunks of rock and sawn wood. With his back to the front entrance of his domicile, he gazed west, studying the horizon wriggling through the heat. Sometimes he wished that everything between him and that mirage was also an illusion, one that would disappear when the sun went down. He had taken care of most of his morning chores: irrigating his corn, weeding the beans and spinach, feeding his livestock, and clearing the debris that last night’s gale had piled up against his stable gate. Eventually he would have to trek out to the perimeter to check the level of the rising river and inspect his aqueduct for leaks.
He had also stepped up his manufacturing activities, particularly the metalworking needed for weaponry. There was always trouble brewing somewhere, but a new and feverish hysteria was driving requests for armaments. Only rarely had there been periods of complete peace in Terrangea, and the recent shoving matches between the Aents suggested another was not imminent.
In the face of the heat, Thomas balked at the prospect of firing up his smelting furnace to roll out that iron barrel he needed to barter with his neighbor Laura. She sat on a bountiful supply of raw materials ripe for extraction from the northern section of her territory. Although Thomas presided over some of Terrangea’s most valuable and plentiful resources, he still coveted Laura’s rich liquid and solid carbon reserves, as well as her seemingly endless supply of wood. Fortunately, his advanced practices in manufacturing afforded him tremendous leverage when negotiating for raw materials.
Laura lacked the know-how to mix carbon with zinc sulfides and iron ore. On her own, she couldn’t produce the tools and weapons of the highest tensile strength essential for survival in Terrangea. Not that she needed to protect herself from Thomas. They had been friendly for centuries, maintaining a healthy reliance upon each other that strengthened them both, especially in the eyes of their adversaries.
Thomas was relatively comfortable, at least as comfortable as one could be in the hostile climates of his world. Temperatures could soar to more than fifty degrees centigrade in the summer months. The intense heat sent Aents deep into the underground portions of their habitats, breathing the musty air and residual damp of their lairs. Autumn would bring the ruinous winds, sometimes exceeding two hundred kilometers per hour, that ripped out Thomas’s fencing, threatened his barn, and relieved broad swaths of roof from his home. He didn’t mind winter so much; the heavy snowstorms were more of a nuisance than anything, and he could stay warm in his lair as long as he had enough solid fuel to stoke his furnace. But once the snowpack began melting, followed by spring’s torrential rainstorms, he had to be vigilant against flooding. He would race to stack up sandbags along the border of his habitat to keep the burgeoning river at bay. Memories of the flood that had breached his wall and destroyed the corn stock in his sub-lair still stung decades later.
Thomas found cold comfort in the fact that life was more punishing for most of the other Aents in Terrangea. His hardscrabble existence was luxurious compared to that in some of the eastern Bant territories. Resources were scarce there, and the area’s Aents sorely lacked the modern skills and materials required to defend themselves against the environment. He had been alarmed at the sight of the Bants Habesha and Kikuyu at the last Council meeting. Their rickety frames hunched over the food table as they frantically stuffed their mouths—and their packs—with those awful rice cakes, while still trying to retain as much decorum as possible. He occasionally traded with them, providing food in exchange for limestone or gems that he didn’t really need. Sometimes he took nothing in exchange, but in deference to their pride, he would promise to collect later.
Despite their lack of resources, he tried to stay on good terms with the Bants. As far he could recollect from his Origins study sessions at Council, and from the ancient scripts available to him, all Aents could trace their beginnings to a region in western Bant currently occupied by Kiluange. His own memory took him back only as far as the Northern Lay territory, where he emerged stepwise as splinters from George, his old ally, then nemesis, then ally again. How George could have arisen from anything resembling Kiluange was a mystery to all, given the gross distinctions in their physical nature alone. The passing of time, and lots of it, certainly had a shape-shifting effect on the Aents, at times converging them into ungainly behemoths that collapsed under their own weight, at others splintering them into fractions too small to hold their own.
Thomas harbored a nagging sympathy for the Bants. It wasn’t that long ago that the Aents in the Lay territories had made a sport of terrorizing and enslaving them, staking claim to their territories, and exploiting their resources. Not much more than a century had passed since the ambitious incursions of George, Isabella, Capet, Leopold, and other Lays into various Bant territories. For decades they fed their swelling appetites for resources, while forcefully infusing their own matter into the indigenous, unsuspecting Bants. Worse, some Aents—Thomas amongst the most egregious of them—wantonly extracted matter from the indigenous Aents, incorporating it into themselves to perform the most undesirable and unrewarding of tasks.
So it goes, he thought. Survival was a deeply embedded instinct none could rise above, even though none had any inkling what, if any, the prize was for winning. Just keep going, get better, get stronger, get smarter, stay vigilant, and you’ll be rewarded with a meaningless existence. He had given up long ago asking himself why he did these things. Nor could any of the other Aents give him a plausible explanation for their innate drive to survive and grow. Ashoka, among the most ancient of Aents, once told him that they existed only to devote themselves to what was right.
“All Aents are really just part of a common single entity,” he explained. “We are all a part of the same thing.”
Thomas found this curious since Ashoka and his neighbor Jinnah had been slapping the crap out each other for decades. He wanted to ask, “Then why do you keep hitting yourself?” but instead nodded politely and eventually learned to stop asking.
Thomas knew he was regarded as a feisty, brash upstart by the more established Aents. They attributed his naïve curiosity to his youth, but in reality, they didn’t know any more about why they existed than he did. They only had the advantage of being around longer, thus enabling them to spin more elaborate, self-satisfying fabrications.