Guanamarioch, a low ranking member of a clan not even powerful enough to defend its newly won lands from other Posleen clans larger, wealthier or more aggressive, found himself stuck with the most miserable job he could ever have imagined. Not for him the soaring in his tenar, high and free, above the ugly, miserable, stinking, green fester pit the locals called "the Darien." Oh, no. That was the province of the higher caste Kessentai. His tenar floated on automatic above the jungle overhead while he, instead, found himself on the ground, leading several hundred poorly armed, genetically marginal normals struggling through knee-deep, slimy, clinging muck.
Oh, well. At least Zira is here to keep me company.
Not that the muck was so bad. At least where the muck covered Guano's body the local flying insect life—they were called "mosquitoes"—couldn't get at him.
The problem was that the rain, incessantly pounding on the thick jungle roof overhead, then dripping down from the leaves and vines, washed the coating away. And where there was no muck, there were the mosquitoes.
There were little ones, big ones, medium ones. One and all, little or big, they were voracious. The little ones, especially, hurt when their sharp probosci jabbed Guano's open flesh. Surprisingly, the larger varieties' bites didn't hurt as much as the smaller but they, like their tiny cousins, left behind an insatiable itch. They left behind, too, a swelling that built up as more and more of the damned insects sank their probes into already swollen flesh.
Guano looked left to where one of his band was being led through the steaming jungle by a superior normal. The poor creature's eyes had been swollen shut by repeated attacks from kamikaze anopheles.
Though the rain stripped the Posleen of their protecting mud, it also drove the mosquitoes to cover. Unfortunately, whenever the rain stopped the bugs came out again with a vengeance to rape and pillage the Posleen horde before more mud could be applied. And even once re-covered with muck, the mosquitoes' bites itched horribly underneath.
"This can't go on, you know, Guano," announced Ziramoth. "These little flying devils are sucking better than three measures of nutrient transportation fluid out of each member of the host every cycle."
The God King half expanded his crest then relaxed it, the Posleen equivalent of a shrug.
"It grows back," he said.
"It grows back indeed," agreed the Kenstain, "if you and your band get enough food and water. Water is, of course, no problem. Here is all the water the host might desire . . . and more. Food, on the other hand . . ."
"Food," Guano agreed. Yes, water we have in remarkable abundance.
The clan had started their unwilling trek packing light, fleeing in near panic from an overwhelming surprise assault by three neighboring clans. They'd expected to find food en route. Unfortunately, the local animals for the most part fled the host en masse. The animals that did not tended to be small; so small, in fact, that a single hit from a railgun or blast from a shotgun was usually enough to leave little more than some scrawny and unnourishing feet, and a thin mist of blood, flesh, skin and fur floating on the breeze.
"The foraging is poor," the God King added.
"I doubt it's going to get much better, either," Zira replied. "I sense no teeming of any life within any useful distance that would worth eating. Not since that village of primitive brown threshkreen your band hit three cycles ago."
"That was good eating," Guano agreed. "But it didn't last long."
Guanamarioch could still almost smell the blood, fresh and hot, from the abattoir he and his band had made of that brown threshkreen village.
It had been a normal enough foraging expedition. A pair of scouts had returned to the main body of the Posleen band and signaled the presence of food in fair abundance. The normals, of course, could not count. Even had they been able to count, they were, frankly, too stupid to relate that count in intelligible speech. Instead they had used hand signals and body language—the motion of hands to muzzles, the shaking of heads as if tearing meat from bones, the lifting of muzzles skyward as if bolting down raw chunks of thresh, then the patting of flanks in simulated satiety—to indicate their find. Lastly, the senior of the two normals held palms apart at a certain distance to indicate the size of the find.
Guanamarioch measured the distance from palm to palm with his eyes, coming up with the answer, about four hundred thresh, give or take.
The thresh of this area, the God King knew, ran small. Still, the quantity indicated would be enough to feed his pack for several days, at the very least. He signaled his party to move to the feast, the two original scouts leading.
The trek to the village of thresh had not been especially long, but the water and the muck had made it more than ordinarily difficult. This was made even worse, once the scouts signaled that the village was near, by the need to keep silent lest any of the thresh escape.
At a point several hundred yards shy of the outskirts Guanamarioch stationed himself. From there two encircling arms of Posleen, led by superior normals of Guano's pack, reached out in a loving embrace.
Both Posleen tendrils reached the river on the far side of the thresh village at about the same time. The God King knew this from a sort of joy-filled shuddering that swept back to him from the leading superior normals. He withdrew his boma blade from its scabbard and was about to signal the attack when a strange thing happened. The normal next to him gave a soft, inarticulate cry and looked stupidly at Guano before dropping to his knees. From the creatures breast sprouted a length of what appeared to Guano to be wood.
"AS," the God King asked, "what was that?"
"What was what?" the Artificial Sentience responded. "I sense nothing."
Faintly, out of one eye, Guano spotted an indefinable streak moving fast through the jungle. He ducked just in time for the streak to miss him, hitting instead a tree just behind.
"That, you electronic dunce. What was that?" Guano indicated the thin sliver of wood quivering in the tree.
"Primitive weapon, of a kind not used by the People in uncounted millennia," the AS announced. "It is not ballistic and so I cannot sense it in flight. It contains little refined metal and so I cannot sense it at rest. I believe the locals call it an arrow. It is fired from a bow."
"Fat lot of help you are," the Posleen snarled, raising his railgun to the firing position.
"I work very well within design parameters," the AS countered snippily. "It is not my fault that some thresh exist below the level I was designed to sense."
Instead of answering, the God King let loose a long sweeping burst from his railgun. Vegetation exploded downrange and one forlorn cry told him that the bowman would not trouble his People in the future.
At the first firing, the rest of Guanamarioch's pack drew blades and charged. More arrows flew out, dropping a few of the host. And then the Posleen were on them.
Tiny thresh and larger ones with odd bumps on their bare chests screamed and ran in all directions. That is, they ran until reaching sight of one of the twin walls of Posleen harvesters closing on the village from both sides. At that some turned and ran back towards the center, while a few simply froze in place in open-mouthed terror until the reaping machine reached them.
Near the center, in an open-sided hut, the tiny and the oddly bumped thresh, some of them holding tiny ones in their arms, took shelter behind a lone threshkreen kneeling by a low fire and firing a rifle to the east. Guanamarioch could not tell if the threshkreen was actually hitting anything, but threats were not to be tolerated. Accompanied by a half dozen flankers the God King galloped toward the rifleman, boma blade raised high.