SandkingsWritten by George R.R. Martin
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By George R.R. Martin Simon Kress lived alone in a sprawling manor house among dry, rocky hills fifty kilometers from the city. So, when he was called away unexpectedly on business, he had no neighbors he could conveniently impose on to take his pets. The carrion hawk was no problem; it roosted in the unused belfry and customarily fed itself anyway. The shambler Kress simply shooed outside and left to fend for itself; the little monster would gorge on slugs and birds and rock jocks. But the fish tank, stocked with genuine earth piranha, posed a difficulty. Finally Kress just threw a haunch of beef into the huge tank. The piranha could always eat one another if he were detained longer than expected. They'd done it before. It amused him.Unfortunately, he was detained much longer than expected this time. When he finally returned, all the fish were dead. So was the carrion hawk. The shambler had climbed up the belfry and eaten it. Kress was vexed.The next day he flew his skimmer to Asgard, a journey of some two hundred kilometers. Asgard was Baldur's largest city and boasted the oldest and largest starport as well. Kress liked to impress his friends with animals that were unusual, entertaining, and expensive; Asgard was the place to buy them.This time, . though, he had poor luck. Xenopets had closed its doors, t'Etherane the Pet seller tried to foist another carrion hawk off on him, and Strange Waters offered nothing more exotic than piranha, glow sharks, and spider squids. Kress had had all those; he wanted something new, something that would stand out.Near dusk he found himself walking downRainbow Boulevard , looking for places he had not patronized before. So close to the starport, the street was lined by importers' marts. The big corporate emporiums had impressive long windows, in which rare and costly alien artifacts reposed on felt cushions against dark drapes that made the interiors of the stores a mystery. Between them were the junk shops-narrow, nasty little places whose display areas were crammed with all manner of off world bric-a-brac. Kress tried both kinds of shops, with equal dissatisfaction. Then he came across a store that was different. It was very near the port. Kress had never been there before. The shop occupied a small, single-story building of moderate size, set between a euphoria bar and a temple brothel of the Secret Sisterhood.- Down this far,Rainbow Boulevard grew tacky. The shop itself was unusual. Arresting. The windows were full of mist-now a pale red, now the gray of true fog, now sparkling and golden. The mist swirled and eddied and glowed faintly from within. Kress glimpsed objects in the window machines, pieces of art, other things he could not recognize-but he could not get a good look at any of them. The mists flowed sensuously around them, displaying a bit of first one thing and then another, then cloaking all. It was intriguing. As he watched, the mist began to form letters. One word at a time. Kress stood and read. WO.AND. SHADE. IMPORTERS. ARTIFACTS. ART. LIFE FORMS.AND. MISC. The letters stopped. Through the fog Kress saw something moving. That was enough for him, that and the LIFE FORMS in their advertisement. He swept his walking cloak over his shoulder and entered the store.Inside, Kress felt disoriented. The interior seemed vast, much larger than he would have guessed from the relatively modest frontage. It was dimly lit, peaceful. The ceiling was a stars cape, complete with spiral nebulas, very dark and realistic, very nice. All the counters shone faintly, to better display the merchandise within. The aisles were carpeted with ground fog. It came almost to his knees in places and swirled about his feet as he walked. "Can I help you?" She almost seemed to have risen from the fog. Tall and gaunt and pale, she wore a practical gray jumpsuit and a strange little cap that rested well back on her head. "Are you Wo or Shade?" Kress asked. "Or only sales help?" "Jala Wo, ready to serve you," she replied. "Shade does not see customers. We have no sales help." "You have quite a large establishment," Kress said. "Odd that I have never heard of you before." "We have only just opened this shop on Baldur," the woman said. "We have franchises on a number of other worlds, however. What can I sell you? Art, perhaps? You have the look of a collector. We have some fine Nor T'alush crystal carvings." "No," Kress said. "I own all the crystal carvings I desire. I came to see about a pet." "A life form?" "Yes." "Alien?" "Of course." "We have a mimic in stock. From Celia's World. A clever little simian. Not only will it learn to speak, but eventually it will mimic your voice, inflections, gestures, even facial expressions. " "Cute," said Kress. "And common. I have no use for either, Wo. I want something exotic. Unusual. And not cute. I detest cute animals. At the moment I own a shambler. Imported from Cotho, at no mean expense. From time to time I feed him a litter of unwanted kittens. That is what I think of cute. Do I make myself understood?" Wo smiled enigmatically. "Have you ever owned an animal that worshipped you?" she asked. Kress grinned. "Oh, now and again. But I don't require worship, Wo. Just entertainment." "You misunderstand me," Wo said, still wearing her strange smile. "I meant worship literally." "What are you talking about?" "I think I have just the thing for you," Wo said. "Follow me." She led him between the radiant counters and down a long, fog-shrouded aisle beneath false starlight. They passed through a wall of mist into another section of the store, then stopped in front of a large plastic tank. An aquarium, Kress thought.Wo beckoned. He stepped closer and saw that he was wrong. It was a terrarium. Within lay a miniature desert about two meters square. Pale sand tinted scarlet by wan red light. Rocks: basalt and quartz and granite. In each corner of the tank stood a castle.Kress blinked and peered and corrected himself; actually, there were only three castles standing. The fourth leaned, a crumbled, broken ruin. The three others were crude but intact, carved of stone and sand. Over their battlements and through their rounded porticoes tiny creatures climbed and scrambled. Kress pressed his face against the plastic. "Insects?" he asked. "No," Wo replied. "A much more complex life form. More intelligent as well. Smarter than your shambler by a considerable amount. They are called sandkings." "Insects," Kress said, drawing back from the tank. "I don't care how complex they are." He frowned. "And kindly don't try to gull me with this talk of intelligence. These things are far too small to have anything but the most rudimentary brains." "They share hive minds," Wo said. "Castle minds, in this case. There are only three organisms in the tank, actually. The fourth died. You see how her castle has fallen." Kress looked back at the tank. "Hive minds, eh? Interesting." He frowned again. "Still, it is only an oversized ant farm. I'd hoped for something better." "They fight wars." "Wars? Hmmm." Kress looked again. "Note the colors, if you will," Wo said. She pointed to the creatures that swarmed over the nearest castle. One was scrabbling at the tank wall. Kress studied it. To his eyes, it still looked like an insect. Barely as long as his fingernail, six-limbed, with six tiny eyes set all around its body. A wicked set of mandibles clacked visibly, while two long, fine antennae wove patterns in the air. Antennae, mandibles, eyes, and legs were sooty black, but the dominant color was the burnt orange of its armor plating. "It's an insect," Kress repeated. "It is not an insect," Wo insisted calmly. "The armored exoskeleton is shed when the sandkings grows larger. If it grows larger. In a tank this size, it won't." She took Kress by the elbow and led him around the tank to the next castle. "Look at the colors here."He did. They were different. Here the sandkings had bright red armor; antennae, mandibles, eyes, and legs were yellow. Kress glanced across the tank. The denizens of the third live castle were off-white, with red trim. "Hmmm," he said. "They war, as I said," Wo told him. "They even have truces and alliances. It was an alliance that destroyed the fourth castle in this tank. The blacks were becoming too numerous, and so the others joined forces to destroy them." Kress remained unconvinced. "Amusing, no doubt. But insects fight wars, too." "Insects do not worship," Wo said. "Eh?" Wo smiled and pointed at the castle. Kress stared. A face had been carved into the wall of the higher tower. He recognized it. It was Jala Wo's face. "How . . .?" "I projected a hologram of my face into the tank, then kept it there for a few days. The face of god, you see? I feed them. I am always close. The sandkings have a rudimentary psionic sense. Proximity telepathy. They sense me and worship me by using my face to decorate their buildings. All the castles have them, see." They did. On the castle, the face of Jala Wo was serene, peaceful, and very lifelike. Kress marveled at the workmanship. "How do they do it?" "The foremost legs double as arms. They even have fingers of a sort, three small, flexible tendrils. And they cooperate well, both in building and in battle. Remember, all the mobiles of one color share a single mind." "Tell me more," Kress requested. Wo smiled. "The maw lives in the castle. Maw is my name for her-a pun, if you will. The thing is mother and stomach both. Female, large as your fist, immobile. Actually, sandking is a bit of a misnomer. The mobiles are peasants and warriors. The real ruler is a queen. But that analogy is faulty as well. Considered as a whole, each castle is a single hermaphroditic creature." "What do they eat?""The mobiles eat pap, predigested food obtained inside the castle. They get it from the maw after she has worked on it for several days. Their stomachs can't handle anything else. If the maw dies, they soon die as well. The maw. . . the maw eats anything. You'll have no special expense there. Table scraps will do excellently." "Live food?" Kress asked. Wo shrugged. "Each maw eats mobiles from the other castles, yes." "I am intrigued," he admitted. "If only they weren't so small!" "Yours can be larger. These sandkings are small because their tank is small. They seem to limit their growth to fit available space. If I moved these to a larger tank, they'd start growing again." "Hmmm. My piranha tank is twice this size and vacant. It could be cleaned out, filled with sand . . ." "Wo and Shade would take care of the installation. It would be our pleasure." "Of course," Kress said, "I would expect four intact castles." "Certainly," Wo said. They began to haggle about the price. Three days later Jala Wo arrived at Simon Kress's estate, with dormant sandkings and a y work crew to take charge of the installation. Wo's assistants were aliens unlike any Kress was familiar with-squat, broad bipeds with four arms and bulging, multifaceted eyes. Their skin. ewas thick and leathery and twisted into horns and spines and protrusions at odd places upon their bodies. But they were very strong, and e good workers. Wo ordered them about in a musical tongue that Kress has never heard before.In a day it was done. They moved his piranha tank to the center of his spacious living room, arranged couches on either side of it for better viewing, scrubbed it clean, and filled it two thirds of the way up with sand and rock. Then they installed a special lighting system, both to provide the dim red illumination the sandkings preferred and to project holographic images s into the tank. On top they mounted a sturdy plastic cover, with a feeder mechanism built in. w "This way you can feed your sandkings without removing the top of the tank," Wo explained. "You would not want to take any chances on the mobiles escaping." The cover also included climate-control devices, to condense just the right amount of moisture from the air. "You want it dry, but not too dry," Wo said. Finally one of the four-armed workers climbed into the tank and dug deep pits in the four corners. One of his companions handed the dormant maws over to him, removing them, one by one, from their frosted cryonic traveling cases. They were nothing to look at. Kress decided they resembled nothing so much as mottled, half-spoiled chunks of raw meat. Each with a mouth. The alien buried them, one in each corner of the tank. Then the work party sealed it all up and took their leave. "The heat will bring the maws out of dormancy," Wo said. "In less than a week mobiles will begin to hatch and burrow up to the surface. Be certain to give them plenty of food. They will need all their strength until they are well established. I would estimate that you will have castles rising in about three weeks." "And my face? When will they carve my face?" "Turn on the hologram after about a month," she advised him, "and be patient. If you have any questions, please call. Wo and Shade are at your service." She bowed and left. Kress wandered back to the tank and lit a joy stick. The desert was still and empty. He drummed his fingers impatiently against the plastic and frowned. t On the fourth day Kress thought he glimpsed motion beneath the sand-subtle subterranean stirrings. s On the fifth day he saw his first mobile, a lone white. On the sixth day he counted a dozen of them, whites and reds and blacks. The oranges were -K tardy. He cycled through a bowl of half decayed table scraps. The mobiles sensed it at once, rushed to it, and began to drag pieces .? back to their respective corners. Each color group was highly organized. They did not fight. Kress was a bit disappointed, but he decided to give them time. The oranges made their appearance on the eighth day. By then the other sandkings had` begun carrying small stones and erecting crude fortifications. They still did not war. At the G moment they were only half the size of those he had seen at Wo and Shade's, but Kress thought they were growing rapidly.The castles began to rise midway through the second week. Organized battalions of mobiles dragged heavy chunks of sandstone and granite back to their corners, where other mobiles were pushing sand into place with mandibles and tendrils. Kress had purchased a pair of magnifying goggles so that he could watch them work wherever they might go in the tank. He wandered around and around the tall plastic walls, observing. It was fascinating. 3 The castles were a bit plainer than Kress would have liked, but he had an idea about that. The next day he cycled through some obsidian and flakes of colored glass along with the food. Within hours they had been incorporated into the castle walls.The black castle was the first completed, followed by the white and red fortresses. The oranges were last, as usual. Kress took his meals into the living room and ate, seated on the couch so he could watch. He expected the first war to break out any hour now.He was disappointed. Days passed, the castles grew taller and more grand, and Kress seldom left the tank except to attend to his sanitary needs and to answer critical business calls. But the sandkings did not war. He was getting upset. Finally he stopped feeding them. Two days after the table scraps had ceased to fall from their desert sky, four black mobiles surrounded an orange and dragged it back to their maw. They maimed it first, ripping off its mandibles and antennae and limbs, and carried it through the shadowed main gate of their miniature castle. It never emerged. Within an hour more than forty orange mobile marched across the sand and attacked the blacks' corner. They were outnumbered by the blacks that came rushing up from the depths. When the fighting was over, the attackers had been slaughtered. The dead and dying were taken down to feed the black maw. Kress, delighted, congratulated himself on his genius. When he put food into the tank the following day, a three-cornered battle broke out over its possession. The whites were the big winners. After that, war followed war. Almost a month to the day after Jala Wo had delivered the sandkings, Kress turned on the holographic projector, and his face materialized in the tank. It turned, slowly, around and around, so that his gaze fell on all four castles equally. Kress thought it rather a good likeness; it had his impish grin, wide mouth, full cheeks. His blue eyes sparkled, his gray hair was carefully arrayed in a fashionable sidesweep, his eyebrows were thin and sophisticated. Soon enough the sandkings set to work. Kress fed them lavishly while his image beamed down at them from the sky. Temporarily the wars stopped. All activity was directed toward worship. His face merged on the castle walls. At first all four carvings looked alike to him, but as the work continued and Kress studied the reproductions, he began to detect subtle differences in technique and execution. The reds were the most creative, using tiny flakes of slate to put the gray in his hair. The white idol seemed young and mischievous to him, while the face shaped by the blacks-although virtually the same, line for line-struck him as wise and benevolent. The orange sandkings, as usual, were last and least. The wars had not gone well for them, and their castle was sad compared to those of the others. The image they carved was crude and cartoonish, and they seemed to intend to leave it this way. When they stopped work on the face, Kress grew quite piqued with them, but there really was nothing he could do. When all of the sandkings had finished their Kress faces, he turned off the projector and decided that it was time to have a party. His friends would be impressed. He could even stage a war for them, he thought. Humming happily to himself, he began drawing up a guest list. The party was a wild success. Kress invited thirty people: a handful of close friends who shared his amusements, a few former lovers, and a collection of business and social rivals who could not afford to ignore his summons. He knew some of them would be discomfited and even offended by his sandkings. He counted on it. He customarily considered his parties a failure unless at least one guest walked out in high dudgeon. On impulse he added Jala Wo's name to his list. "Bring Shade if you like," he added when he dictated the invitations to her. Her acceptance surprised him just a bit: "Shade, alas, will be unable to attend. He does not go to social functions. As for myself, I look forward to the chance to see how your sandkings are doing." Kress ordered a sumptuous meal. And when at last the conversation had died down and most of his guests had gotten silly on wine and joy sticks, he shocked them by personally scraping their table leavings into a large bowl. "Come, all of you," he commanded. "I want to introduce you to my newest pets." Carrying the bowl, he conducted them into his living room. The sandkings lived up to his fondest expectations. He had starved them for two days in preparation, and they were in a fighting mood. While the guests ringed the tank, looking through the magnifying glasses that Kress had thoughtfully provided, the sandkings waged a glorious battle over the scraps. He counted almost sixty dead mobiles when the struggle was over. The reds and whites, which had recently formed an alliance, came off with most of the food."Kress, you're disgusting," Cath m'Lane told him. She had lived with him for a short time two years before, until her soppy sentimentality almost drove him mad. "I was a fool to come back here. I thought perhaps you'd changed and wanted to apologize." She had never forgiven him for the time his shambler had eaten an excessively cute puppy of which she had been fond. "Don't ever invite me here again, Simon." She strode out, accompanied by her current lover, to a chorus of laughter. Kress's other guests were full of questions. Where did the sandkings come from? they wanted to know. "From Wo and Shade, Importers," he replied, with a polite gesture toward Jala Wo, who had remained quiet and apart throughout most of the evening.Why did they decorate their castles with his likeness? "Because I am the source of all good things. Surely you know that?" This retort brought a round of chuckles. Will they fight again? "Of course, but not tonight. Don't worry. There will be other parties." Jad Rakkis, who was an amateur xenologist, began talking about other social insects and the wars they fought. "These sandkings are amusing, but nothing really. You ought to read about Terran soldier ants, for instance." "Sandkings are not insects," Jala Wo said sharply, but Jad was off and running, and no one paid her the slightest attention. Kress smiled at her and shrugged. Malada Blane suggested they-have a betting pool the next time they got together to watch a war, and everyone was taken with the idea. An animated discussion about rules and odds ensued. It lasted for almost an hour. Finally the guests began to take their leave. Jala Wo was the last to depart. "So," Kress said to her when they were alone, "it appears my sandkings are a hit." "They are doing well," Wo said. "Already they are larger than my own." "Yes," Kress said, "except for the oranges." "I had noticed that," Wo replied. "They seem few in number, and their castle is shabby." "Well, someone must lose," Kress said. "The oranges were late to emerge and get established. They have suffered for it." "Pardon," said Wo, "but might I ask if you are feeding your sandking sufficiently?" Kress shrugged. "They diet from time to time. It makes them fiercer." She frowned. "There is no need to starve them. Let them war in their own time, for their own reasons. It is their nature, and you will witness conflicts that are delightfully subtle and complex. The constant war brought on by hunger is artless and degrading." Kress repaid Wo's frown with interest. "You are in my house, Wo, and here I am the judge of what is degrading. I fed the sandkings as you advised, and they did not fight." "You must have patience." "No," Kress said. "I am their master and their god, after all. Why should I wait on their impulses? They did not war often enough to suit me. I have corrected the situation." "I see," said Wo. "I will discuss the matter with Shade." "It is none of your concern, or his," Kress snapped. "I must bid you good-night, then." Wo said with resignation. But as she slipped into her coat to leave, she fixed him with a final, disapproving stare. "Look to your faces, Simon Kress," she warned him. "Look to your faces." And she departed.Puzzled, he wandered back to-the tank and stared at the castles. His faces were still there, as ever. Except-he snatched up his magnifying goggles and slipped them on. He studied the faces for long moments. Even then exactly what it was, was hard to make out. But it seemed tohim that the expression on the faces had changed slightly, that his smile was somehow twisted so that it seemed a touch malicious. But it was a very subtle change-if it was a change at all. Kress finally put it down to his suggestibility, and he resolved not to invite Jala Wo to any more of his gatherings. Over the next few months Kress and about a dozen of his favorites got together weekly for what he liked to call his "war games." Now that his initial fascination with the sandkings was past, Kress spent less time around his tank and more on his business affairs and his social life, but he still enjoyed having a few friends over for a war or two. He kept the combinations sharp on a constant edge of hunger. It had severe effects on the orange sandkings, which dwindled visibly until Kress began to wonder whether their maw was dead. But the others did well enough.Sometimes at night when he could not sleep, Kress would take a bottle of wine into the living room, where the red gloom of his miniature desert provided the only light. He would drink and watch for hours, alone. There was usually a fight going on somewhere; when there was not, he could easily start one by dropping some small morsel of food into the tank.Kress's companions began betting on the weekly battles, as Malada Blane had suggested. Kress won a goodly amount by betting on the whites, which had become the most powerful and most numerous colony in the tank andwhich had the grandest castle. One week he slid the corner of the tank top aside, and he dropped the food close to the white castle instead of on the central battleground, where he usually let food fall. So the others had to attack the whites in their stronghold to get any food at all. They tried. The whites were brilliant in defense. Kress won a hundred standards from Jad Rakkis.Rakkis, in fact, lost heavily on the sandkings almost every week. He pretended to a vast knowledge of them and their ways, claiming that he had studied them after the first party, but he had no luck when it came to placing his bets. Kress suspected that Jad's claims were empty boasting. He had tried to study the sandkings a bit himself, in a moment of idle curiosity, tying in to the library to find out what world his pets originally came from. But the library had no listing for sandkings. He wanted to get in touch with Wo and ask her about it, but he had other concerns, and the matter kept slipping his mind.Finally, after a month in which his losses totaled more than a thousand standards, Rakkis arrived at the war games. He was carrying a small pastic case under his arm. Inside was a spider like thing covered with fine golden hair."A sand spider," Rakkis announced. "From Cathaday. I got it this afternoon from t'Etherane the Petseller. Usually they remove the poison sacs, but this one is intact. Are you game, Simon? I want my money back. I'll bet a thousand standards, sand spider against sandkings. "Kress studied the spider in its plastic prison. His sandkings had grown-they were twice as large as Wo's, as she'd predicted-but they were still dwarfed by this thing. It was venomed, and they were not. Still, there were an awful lot of them. Besides, the endless sandking wars lately had begun to grow tiresome. The novelty of the match intrigued him. "Done," Kress said. "Jad, you are a fool. The sandkings will just keep coming until this ugly creature of yours is dead." "You are the fool, Simon," Rakkis replied, smiling. "The Cathadayan sand spider customarily feeds on burrowers that hide in nooks and crevices, and-well, watch-it will go straight into those castles and eat the maws." Kress scowled amid general laughter. He hadn't counted on that. "Get on with it," he said irritably. Then he went to freshen his drink. The spider was too large to be cycled conveniently through the food chamber. Two other guests helped Rakkis slide the tank top slightly to one side, and Malada Blane handed his case up to him. He shook the spider out. It landed lightly on a miniature dune in front of the red castle and stood confused for a moment, mouth working, legs twitching menacingly. "Come on," Rakkis urged. They all gathered around the tank. Kress found his magnifies and slipped them on. If he was going to lose a thousand standards, at least he wanted a good view of the action. The sandkings had seen the invader. All over the red castle activity had ceased. The small scarlet mobiles were frozen, watching. The spider began to move toward the dark promise of the gate. From the tower above, Simon Kress's countenance stared down impassively. At once there was a flurry of activity. The nearest red mobiles formed themselves into two wedges and streamed over the sand toward the spider. More warriors erupted from inside the castle and assembled in a triple line to guard where approach to the underground chamber where the maw lived. Scouts came scuttling over the dunes, recalled to fight. Battle was joined.The attacking sandkings washed over the spider. Mandibles snapped shut on legs and abdomen, and clung. Reds raced up the golden legs to the invader's back. They bit and tore. One of them found an eye and ripped it loose with tiny yellow tendrils. Kress smiled and pointed.But they were small, and they had no venom, and the spider did not stop. Its legs flicked sandkings off to either side. Its dripping jaws found others and left them broken and stiffening. Already a dozen of the reds lay dying. The sand spider came on and on. It strode straight through the triple line of guardians before the castle. The lines closed around it, covered it, waging desperate battle. A team of sandkings had bitten off one of the spider's legs. Defenders leaped from atop the towers to land on the twitching, heavy mass. Lost beneath the sandkings, the spider somehow lurched down into the darkness and vanished. Rakkis let out a long breath. He looked pale. "Wonderful," someone else said. Malada Blane chuckled deep in her throat. "Look," said Idi Noreddian, tugging Kress by the arm. They had been so intent on the struggle in the corner that none of them had noticed the activity elsewhere in the tank. But now the castle was still, and the sands were empty save for dead red mobiles, and now they saw. Three armies were drawn up before the red castle. They stood quite still, in perfect array, rank after rank of sandkings, orange and white and black-waiting to see what emerged from the depths. Kress smiled. "A cordon sanitaire, " he said. "And glance at the other castles, if you will, Jad." Rakkis did, and he swore. Teams of mobiles were sealing up the gates with sand and stone. If the spider somehow survived this encounter, it would find no easy entrance at the other castles. "I should have brought four spiders," Rakkis said. "Still I've won. My spider is down there right now, eating your damned maw." Kress did not reply. He waited. There was motion in the shadows. All at once red mobiles began pouring out of the gate. They took their positions on the castle and began repairing the damage that the spider had wrought. The other armies dissolved and began to retreat to their respective corners. a "Jad," Kress said, "I think you are a bit g confused about who is eating whom." Y The following week Rakkis brought four slim silver snakes. The sandkings dispatched them without much trouble. Next he tried a large black bird. It ate more than thirty white mobiles, and its thrashing and blundering virtually destroyed that castle, but ultimately its wings grew tired, and the sandkings attacked in force wherever it landed. After that it was a case of insects, armored beetles not too unlike the sandkings themselves. But stupid, stupid. An allied force of oranges and blacks broke their formation, divided them, and butchered them. Rakkis began giving Kress promissory notes. It was around that time that Kress met Cath m'Lane again, one evening when he was dining in Asgard at his favorite restaurant. He stopped at her table briefly and told her about the war games, inviting her to join them. She flushed, then regained control of herself and grew icy. "Someone has to put a stop to you, Simon. I guess it's going to be me," she said. Kress shrugged and enjoyed a lovely meal and thought no more about her threat. Until a week later, when a small, stout woman arrived at his door and showed him a police wristband. "We've had complaints," she said. "Do you keep a tank full of dangerous insects, Kress?" "Not insects," he said, furious. "Come, I'll show you." When she had seen the sandkings, she shook her head. "This will never do. What do you know about these creatures anyway? Do you know what world they're from? Have they been cleared by the Ecological Board? Do you have a license for these things? We have a report that they're carnivores and possibly dangerous. We also have a report that they are semi sentient. Where did you get these creatures anyway?" "From Wo and Shade," Kress replied. "Never heard of them," the woman said. "Probably smuggled them in, knowing our ecologists would never approve them. No, Kress, this won't do. I'm going to confiscate this tank and have it destroyed. And you're going to have to expect a few fines as well." Kress offered her a hundred standards to forget all about him and his sandkings. She asked. "Now I'll have to add attempted bribery to the charges against you." Not until he raised the figure to two thousand standards was she willing to be persuaded. "It's not going to be easy, you know," she said. "There are forms to be altered, records to be wiped. And getting a forged license from the ecologists will be time-consuming. Not to mention dealing with the complainant. What if she calls again?" "Leave her to me," Kress said. "Leave her to me." He thought about it for a while. That night he made some calls. First he got t'Etherane the Petseller. "I want to buy a dog," he said. "A puppy." The round-faced merchant gawked at him. "A puppy? That is not like you, Simon. Why don't you come in? I have a lovely choice." "I want a very specific kind of puppy," Kress said. "Take notes. I'll describe to you what it must look like." Afterwards he punched for Idi Noreddian.- . "Idi," he said, "I want you out here tonight with your holo equipment. I have a notion to record a sandking battle. A present for one of my friends." The night after they made the recording, Kress stayed up late. He absorbed a controversial new drama in his sensorium, fixed himself a small snack, smoked a couple of joy sticks, and broke out a bottle of wine. Feeling very happy with himself, he wandered into the living room, glass in hand.The lights were out. The red glow of the terrarium made the shadows look flushed and feverish. Kress walked over to survey his domain, curious as to how the blacks were doing in the repairs of their castle. The puppy had left it in ruins. The restoration went well. But as Kress inspected the work through his magnifiers, he chanced to glance close at the face on the sandcastle wall. It startled him. He drew back, blinked, took a healthy gulp of wine, and looked again. The face on the wall was still his. But it was all wrong, all twisted. His cheeks were bloated and piggish; his smile was a crooked leer. He looked impossibly malevolent. Uneasy, he moved around the tank to inspect the other castles. They were each a bit different, but ultimately all the same. The oranges had left out most of the fine detail, but the result still seemed monstrous, crude; a brutal mouth and mindless eyes. The reds gave him a satanic, twitching sort of smile. His mouth did odd, unlovely things at its corners. The whites, his favorites, had carved a cruel idiot god. Kress flung his wine across the room in rage. "You dare, " he said under his breath. "Now you won't eat for a week, you damned . . ." His voice was shrill. "I'll teach you." He had an idea. He strode out of the room, then returned a moment later with an antique iron throwing sword in his hand. It was a meter long, and the point was still sharp. Kress smiled, climbed up, and moved the tank cover aside just enough to give him working room, exposing one corner of the desert. He leaned down and jabbed the sword at the white castle below him. He waved it back and forth, smashing towers and ramparts and walls. Sand and stone collapsed, burying the scrambling mobiles. A flick of his wrist obliterated the features of the insolent, insulting caricature that the sandkings had made of his face. Then he poised the point of the sword above the dark mouth that opened down into the maw's chamber; he thrust with all his strength, meeting with resistance. He heard a soft, squishing sound. All the mobiles trembled and collapsed. Satisfied, Kress pulled back. He watched for a moment, wondering whether he had killed the maw. The point of the throwing sword was wet and slimy. But finally the white sandkings began to move again feebly, slowly-but they moved. He was preparing to slide the cover back into place and move on to a second castle when he felt something crawling on his hand. He screamed, dropping the sword, and , brushed the sandking from his flesh. It fell to the carpet, and he ground it beneath his heel, . crushing it thoroughly long after it was dead. It had crunched when he stepped on it. After that, trembling, he hurriedly sealed the tank up again. He rushed off to shower and inspected j himself carefully. He boiled his clothing.Later, after drinking several glasses of wine, he returned to the living room. He was a bit -: ashamed of the way he had been terrified by the sandking. But he was not about to open the tank again. From then on, the cover would stay sealed permanently. Still, he had to punish the others. He decided to lubricate his mental processes F with another glass of wine. As he finished it, an inspiration came to him. He went to the tank and made a few adjustments to the humidity controls. By the time he fell asleep on the couch, his m wine glass still in his hand, the sand castles were melting in the rain. Kress woke to angry pounding on his door. He sat up, groggy, his head throbbing. Wine hangovers were always the worst, he thought. He lurched to the entry chamber. Cath m'Lane was outside. "You monster," she said, her face swollen and puffy and streaked with tears. "I cried all night, damn you. But no more, Simon, no more." "Easy," he said, holding his head. "I've got a hangover." She swore and shoved him aside and pushed her way into his house. The shambler came peering round a corner to see what the noise was. She spat at it and stalked into the living room, Kress trailing ineffectually after her. "Hold on," he said, "where do you . . . you can't . . ." He stopped suddenly horror-struck. She was carrying a heavy sledgehammer in her left hand. "No," he said. She went directly to the sandkings' tank. "You like the little charmers so much, Simon? Then you can live with them." "Cath!" he shrieked. Gripping the hammer with both hands, she swung as hard as she could against the side of the tank. The sound of the impact set Kress's head to screaming, and he made a low, blubbering sound of despair. But the plastic held. She swung again. This time there was a crack, and a network of thin lines appeared in the wall of the tank. Kress threw himself at her as she drew back her hammer to take a third swing. They went down flailing and rolled over. She lost her grip on the hammer and tried to throttle him, but Kress wrenched free and bit her on the arm, drawing blood. They both staggered to their feet, panting."You should see yourself, Simon," she said grimly. "Blood dripping from your mouth. You look like one of your pets. How do you like the taste?" "Get out," he said. He saw the throwing sword where it had fallen the night before, and he snatched it up. "Get out," he repeated, waving the sword for emphasis. "Don't go near that tank again." She laughed at him. "You wouldn't dare," she said. She bent to pick up the hammer. Kress shrieked at her and lunged. Before he quite knew what was happening, the iron blade had gone clear through her abdomen. Cath m'Lane looked at him wonderingly and down at the sword. Kress fell back, whimpering. "I didn't mean . . . I only wanted . . ."She was transfixed, bleeding, nearly dead, but somehow she did not fall. "You monster," she managed to say, though her mouth was full of blood. And she whirled, impossibly, the sword in her, and swung with her last strength, and Cath m'Lane was buried beneath an avalanche of plastic and sand and mud. Kress made small hysterical noises and scrambled up onto the couch. Sandkings were emerging from the muck on his living-room floor. They were crawling across Cath's body. A few of them ventured tentatively out across the carpet. More followed. He watched as a column took shape, a living, writhing square of sandkings, bearing something-something slimy and featureless, a piece of raw meat as big as a man's head. They began to carry it away from the tank. It pulsed. That was when Kress broke and ran. Before he found the courage to return home, he ran to his skimmer and flew to the nearest city, some fifty kilometers away, almost sick with fear. But, once safely away, he found a small restaurant, downed several mugs of coffee and two anti-hangover tabs, ate a full breakfast, and gradually regained his composure. It had been a dreadful morning, but dwelling on that would solve nothing. He ordered more coffee and considered his situation with icy rationality.Cath m'Lane was dead at his hand. Could he report it and plead that it had been an accident? Unlikely. He had run her through, after all, and he had already told that police to leave her to him. He would have to get rid of the evidence and hope that Cath had not told anyone her plans for the day. It was very unlikely she had. She could only have gotten his gift late last night. She said that she had cried all night, and she was alone when she arrived. Very well, he had one body and one skimmer to dispose of. That left the sandkings. They might prove more of a difficulty. No doubt they had all escaped by now. The thought of them around his house, in his bed and his clothes, infesting his food-it made his flesh crawl. He shuddered and overcame his revulsion. It really shouldn't be too hard to kill them, he reminded himself. He didn't have to account for every mobile. Just the four maws, that was all. He could do that. They were large, as he'd seen. He would find them and kill them. He was their god; now he would be their destroyer.He went shopping before he flew back to his home. He bought a set of skin thins that would cover him from head to foot, several bags of poison pellets for rock jock control, and a spray canister containing an illegally strong pesticide. He also bought a magnalock towing device.When he landed late that afternoon, he went about things methodically. First he hooked Cath's skimmer to his own with the magnalock. Searching it, he had his first piece of luck. The crystal chip with Idi Noreddian's holo of the sandking fight was on the front seat. He had worried about that. When the skimmers were ready, he slipped into his skin thins and went inside to get Cath's body. It- wasn't there. He poked through the fast drying sand carefully, and there was no doubt of it, the body was gone. Could she have dragged herself away? Unlikely, but Kress searched. A cursory inspection of his house turned up neither the body nor any sign of the sandkings. He did nothave time for a more thorough investigation, not with the incriminating skimmer outside his front door. He resolved to try later. Some seventy kilometers north of Kress's estate was a range of active volcanoes. He flew there, Cath's skimmer in tow. Above the glowering cone of the largest volcano he released the magnalock and watched the skimmer plummet down and vanish in the lava below. It was dusk when he returned to his house. This gave him pause. Briefly he considered flying back to the city and spending the night there. He put the thought aside. There was work to do. He wasn't safe yet. He scattered the poison pellets around the exterior of his house. No one would think this suspicious. He had always had a rockjock problem. When this task was completed, he primed the canister of pesticide and ventured back inside the house.Kress went through the house, room by room, turning on lights everywhere he went until he was surrounded by a blaze of artificial illumination. He paused to clean up in the living room, shoveling sand and plastic fragments back into the broken tank. The sandkings were all gone, as he'd feared. The castles were shrunken and distorted, slagged by the watery bombardment Kress had visited upon them, and what little of them remained was crumbling as it dried. He frowned and searched further, the canister of pest spray strapped across his shoulders. Down in the wine cellar he could see Cath m'Lane's corpse. It sprawled at the foot of a steep flight of stairs, the limbs twisted as if by a fall. White mobiles were swarming all over it, and as Kress watched, the body moved jerkily across the hard-packed dirt floor. He laughed and twisted the illumination up to maximum. In the far corner a squat little earthen castle and a dark hole were visible between two wine racks. Kress could make out a rough outline of his face on the cellar wall.The body shifted once again, moving a few centimeters toward the castle. Kress had a sudden vision of the white maw waiting hungrily. It might be able to get Cath's foot in its mouth, but no more. It was too absurd. He laughed again and stared down into the cellar, finger poised on the trigger of the hose that snaked down his right arm. The sandkings hundreds of them moving as one-deserted the body and assumed battle formation, a field of white between him and their maw. Suddenly Kress had another inspiration. He smiled and lowered his firing hand. "Cath was always hard to swallow," he said, delighted at his wit. "Especially for one your size. Here, let me give you some help. What are gods for, after all?" He retreated upstairs, returning shortly with a cleaver. The sandkings, patient, waited and watched while Kress chopped Cath m'Lane into small, easily digestible pieces. Kress slept in his skinthins that night, the pesticide close at hand, but he did not need it. The whites, sated, remained in the cellar, and he saw no sign of the others. In the morning he finished the cleanup of the living room. When he was through, no trace of the struggle remained except for the broken tank. He ate a light lunch and resumed his hunt for the missing sandkings. In full daylight it was not too difficult. The blacks had located in his rock garden, where they built a castle heavy with obsidian and quartz. The reds he found at the bottom of his long disused swimming pool, which had partially filled with wind-blown sand over the years. He saw mobiles of both colors ranging about his grounds, many of them carrying poison pellets back to their maws. Kress felt like laughing. He decided his pesticide was unnecessary. No use risking a fight when he could just let the poison do its work. Both maws should be dead by evening.That left only the burnt-orange sandkings unaccounted for. Kress circled his estate several times, in an ever-widening spiral, but he found no trace of them. When he began to sweat in his skinthings-it was a hot, dry day-he decided it was not important. If they were out here, they were probably eating the poison pellets, as the reds and blacks were. He crunched several sandkings underfoot, with a certain degree of satisfaction, as he walked back to the house. Inside, he removed his skinthins, settled down to a delicious meal, and finally began to relax. Everything was under control. Two of the maws would soon be defunct, the third was safely located where he could dispose of it after it had served his purposes, and he had no doubt that he would find the fourth. As for Cath, every trace of her visit had been obliterated. His reverie was interrupted when his view screen began to blink at him. It was Jad Rakkis, calling to brag about some cannibal worms he would bring to the war games tonight. Kress had forgotten about that, but he recovered quickly. "Oh, Jad, my pardons. I neglected to tell you. I grew bored with all that and got rid of the sandkings. Ugly little things. Sorry, but there'll be no party tonight." Rakkis was indignant. "But what will I do with my worms?" "Put them in a basket of fruit and send them to a loved one," Kress said, signing off. Quickly he began calling the others. He did not need anyone arriving at his doorstep now, with the sandkings alive and infesting the estate. As he was calling Idi Noreddian, Kress became aware of an annoying oversight. The screen began to clear, indicating that someone had answered at the other end. Kress flicked off. Idi arrived on schedule an hour later. She was surprised to find the party had been canceled but perfectly happy to share an evening alone with Kress. He delighted her with his story of Cath's reaction to the holo they had madetogether. While telling it, he managed to ascertain that she had not mentioned the prank to anyone. He nodded, satisfied, and refilled their wine glasses. Only a trickle was left. "I'll have to get a fresh bottle," he said. "Come with me to my wine cellar, and help me pick out a good vintage. You've always had a better palate than I.She went along willingly enough but balked at the top of the stairs when Kress opened the door and gestured for her to precede him. "Where are the lights?" she asked. "And that smell-what's that peculiar smell, Simon?"When he shoved her, she looked briefly startled. She screamed as she tumbled down the stairs. Kress closed the door and began to nail it shut with the boards and air hammer he had left for that purpose. As he was finishing, he heard Idi groan. "I'm hurt," she called. "Simon, what is this?" Suddenly she squealed, and shortly after that the screaming started.It did not cease for hours. Kress went to his sensorium and dialed up a saucy comedy to blot it from his mind. When he was sure she was dead, Kress flew her skimmer north to the volcanoes and discarded it. The magnalock was proving a good investment. Odd scrabbling noises were coming from beyond the wine-cellar door the next morning when Kress went down to check things out. He listened for several uneasy moments, wondering whether Idi might possibly have survived and was scratching to get out. This seemed unlikely; it had to be the sandkings. Kress did not like the implications of this. He decided that he would keep the door sealed, at least for a while. He went outside with a shovel to bury the red and black maws in their own castles. He found them very much alive. The black castle was glittering with volcanic glass, and sandkings were all over it, repairing and improving. The higher tower was up to his waist, and on it was a hideous caricature of his face. When he approached, the blacks halted in their labors and formed up into two threatening phalanxes. Kress glanced behind him and saw others closing off his escape. Startled, he dropped his shovel and sprinted out of the trap, crushing several mobiles beneath his boots.The red castle was creeping up the walls of the swimming pool. The maw was safely settled in a pit, surrounded by sand and concrete and battlements. The reds crept all over the bottom of the pool. Kress watched them carry a rockjock and a large lizard into the castle. Horrified, he stepped back from the poolside and felt something crunch. Looking down, he saw three mobiles climbing up his leg. He brushed them off and stamped them to death, but others were approaching rapidly. they were larger than he remembered. Some were almost as big as his thumb. He ran. By the time he reached the safety of the house, his heart was racing and he was short of breath. He closed the door behind him and hurried to lock it. His house was supposed to be pest proof. He'd be safe in here. A stiff drink steadied his nerves. So poison doesn't faze them, he thought. He should have known. Jala Wo had warned him that the maw could eat anything. He would have to use the pesticide. He took another drink for good measure, donned his skinthins, and strapped the canister to his back. He unlocked the door. Outside, the sandkings were waiting. Two armies confronted him, allied against the common threat. More than he could have guessed. The damned maws must be breeding like rock jocks. Mobiles were everywhere, a creeping sea of them. Kress brought up the hose and flicked the trigger. A gray. mist washed over the nearest rank of sandkings. He moved his hand from side to side. . Where the mist fell, the sandkings twitched violently and died in sudden spasms. Kress smiled. They were no match for him. He sprayed in a wide arc before him and stepped forward confidently over a litter of black and red bodies. The armies fell back. Kress advanced, intent on cutting through them to their maws. All at once the retreat stopped. A thousand sandkings surged toward him. Kress had been expecting the counterattack. He stood his ground, sweeping his misty sword before him in great looping strokes. They came at him and died. A few got through; he could not spray everywhere at once. He felt them climbing up his legs, then sensed their mandibles biting futilely at the reinforced plastic of his skinthins. He ignored them and kept spraying. Then he began to feel the soft impacts on his head and shoulders. Kress trembled and spun and looked up above him. The front of his house was alive with sandkings. Blacks and reds, hundreds of them. They were launching themselves into the air, raining down on him. They fell all around him. One landed on his faceplate, its mandibles scraping at his eyes for a terrible second before he plucked it away. He swung up' his hose and sprayed the air, sprayed the house, sprayed until the airborne sandkings were all dead or dying. The mist settled back on him, making him cough. But he kept spraying. Only when the front of the house was clean did Kress turn his attention back to the ground.They were all around him, in him, dozens of them scurrying over his body, hundreds of others hurrying to join them. He turned the . mist on them. The hose went dead. Kress heard a loud hiss, and the deadly fog rose in a great cloud from between his shoulders, cloaking him, choking him, making his eyes burn and blur. He felt for the hose, and his hand came away covered with dying sandkings. The hose was severed; they'd eaten it through. He was surrounded by a shroud of pesticide, blinded. He stumbled and screamed and began to run back to the house, pulling sandkings from his body as he went. Inside, he sealed the door and collapsed on the carpet, rolling back and forth until he was sure he had crushed them all. The canister was empty by then, hissing feebly. Kress stripped off his skinthins and showered. The hot spray scalded him and left his skin reddened and sensitive, but it made his flesh stop crawling.He dressed in his heaviest clothing, thick work plans and leathers, after shaking them out nervously. "Damn," he kept muttering, "damn." His throat was dry. After searching the entry hall thoroughly to make certain it was clean, he allowed himself to sit and pour a drink. "Damn," he repeated. His hand shook as he poured, slopping liquor on the carpet.The alcohol settled him, but it did not wash away the fear. He had a second drink and went to the window furtively. Sandkings were moving across the thick plastic pane. He shuddered and retreated to his communications console. He had to get help, he thought wildly. He would punch through a call to the authorities, and policers would come out with flamethrowers, and . . .Kress stopped in mid-call and groaned. He couldn't call in the police. He would have to tell them about the whites in his cellar, and they'd find the bodies there. Perhaps the maw might have finished Cath m'Lane by now, but certainly not Idi Noreddian. He hadn't even cut her up. Besides, there would be bones. No, the police could be called in only as a last resort.He sat at the console, frowning. His communications equipment filled a whole wall. From here he could reach anyone on Baldur. He had plenty of money and his cunning; he had always prided himself on his cunning. He would handle this somehow. Briefly he considered calling Wo, but he soon dismissed the idea. Wo knew too much, and she would ask questions, and he did not trust her. No, he needed someone who would do as he , asked without questions. His frown slowly turned into a smile. Kress r had contacts. He put through a call to a number he had not used in a long time. j A woman's face took shape on his viewscreen-whitehaired, blank of expression, with a long, hooked nose. Her voice was brisk and efficient. "Simon," she said. "How is . business?" "Business is fine, Lissandra," Kress replied. "I have a job for you." "A removal? My price has gone up since last time. Simon. It has been ten years, after all." "You will be well paid," Kress said. "You know I'm generous. I want you for a bit of pest control." She smiled a thin smile. "No need to use euphemisms, Simon. The call is shielded." 3 "No, I'm serious. I have a pest problem. Dangerous pests. Take care of them for me. No questions. Understood?" "Understood." "Good. You'll need . . . oh, three to four operatives. Wear heat-resistant skinthins, and equip them with flamethrowers, or lasers, something on that order. Come out to my place. You'll see the problem. Bugs, lots and lots of them. In my rock garden and the old swimming pool you'll find castles. Destroy them, kill everything inside them. Then knock on the door, and I'll show you what else needs to be done. Can you get out here quickly?" Her face remained impassive. "We'll leave within the hour." Lissandra was true to her word. She arrived in a lean, black skimmer with three operatives. Kress watched them from the safety of a second-story window. They were all faceless in dark plastic skinthins. Two of them wore portable flamethrowers; a third carried laser cannon and explosives. Lissandra carried nothing; Kress recognized her by the way she gave orders.Their skimmer passed low overhead first, checking out the situation. The sandkings went mad. Scarlet and ebon mobiles ran everywhere, frenetic. Kress could see the castle in the rock garden from his vantage point. It stood tall as a man.- Its ramparts were crawling with black defenders, and a steady stream of mobiles flowed down into its depths. Lissandra's skimmer came down next to Kress's, and the operatives vaulted out and unlimbered their weapons. They looked inhuman, deadly. The black army drew up between them and the castle. The reds-Kress suddenly realized that he could not see the reds. He blinked. Where had they gone? Lissandra pointed and shouted, and her two flamethrowers spread out and opened up on the black sandkings. Their weapons coughed dully and began to roar, long tongues of blue-and scarlet fire licking out before them. Sandkings crisped and shriveled and died. The operatives began to play the fire back and forth in an efficient, interlocking pattern. They advanced with careful, measured steps. The black army burned and disintegrated, the mobiles fleeing in a thousand different directions, some back toward the castle, others toward the enemy. None reached the operatives with the flamethrowers. Lissandra's people were very professional. Then one of them stumbled. Or seemed to stumble. Kress looked again and saw that the ground had given way beneath the man. Tunnels, he thought with a tremor of fear; tunnels, pits, traps. The flamer was sunk in sand up to his waist, and suddenly the ground around him seemed to erupt, and he was covered with scarlet sandkings. He dropped the flamethrower and began to claw wildly at his own body. His screams were horrible to hear.His companion hesitated, then swung and fired. A blast of flame swallowed human and sandkings both. The screaming stopped abruptly. Satisfied, the second flamer turned back to the castle, took another step forward, and recoiled as his foot broke through theground and vanished up to the ankle. He tried to pull it back and retreat, and the sand all around him gave way. He lost his balance and stumbled, flailing, and the sandkings were everywhere, a boiling mass of them, covering him as he writhed and rolled. His flamethrower was useless and forgotten. Kress pounded wildly on the window, shouting for attention. "The castle! Get the castle!" Lissandra, standing back by her skimmer, heard and gestured. Her third operative sighted with the laser cannon and fired. The beam throbbed across the grounds and sliced off the top of the castle. He brought the cannon down sharply, hacking at the sand and stone parapets. Towers fell. Kress's face disintegrated. The laser bit into the ground, searching round and about. The castle crumbled. Now it was only a heap of sand. But the black mobiles continued to move. The maw was buried too deeply. The beams hadn't touched it.Lissandra gave another order. Her operative discarded the laser, primed an explosive, and darted forward. He leaped over the smoking corpse of the first flamer, landed on solid ground within Kress's rock garden, and heaved. The explosive ball landed square atop the ruins of the black castle. White-hot light seared Kress's eyes, and there was a tremendous gout of sand and rock and mobiles. For a moment dust obscured everything. It was raining sandkings and pieces of sandkings. Kress saw that the black mobiles were dead and unmoving. "The pool!" he shouted down through the window. "Get the castle in the pool!" Lissandra understood quickly; the ground was littered with motionless blacks, but the reds were pulling back hurriedly and re-forming. Her operative stood uncertain, then reached down and pulled out another explosive ball. He took one step forward, but Lissandra called him, and he sprinted back in her direction.It was all so simple then. He reached the skimmer, and Lissandra took him aloft. Kress rushed to another window in another room to watch. They came swooping in just over the pool, and the operative pitched his bombs down at the red castle from the safety of the skimmer. After the fourth run, the castle was unrecognizable, and the sandkings stopped moving.Lissandra was thorough. She had him bomb each castle several additional times. Then he used the laser cannon, crisscrossing methodically until it was certain that nothing living could remain intact beneath those small patches of ground. Finally they came knocking at his door. Kress was grinning maniacally when he let them in. "Lovely," he said, "lovely." Lissandra pulled off the mask of her skinthins. "This will cost you, Simon. Two operatives gone, not to mention the danger to my own life." "Of course," Kress blurted. "You'll be well paid, Lissandra. Whatever you ask, just so you finish the job." "What remains to be done?" "You have to clean out my wine cellar," Kress said. "There's another castle down there. And you have to do it without explosives. I don't want my house coming down around me." Lissandra motioned to her operative. "Go outside and get Rajk's flamethrower. It should be intact." He returned armed, ready, silent. Kress led them to the wine cellar. The heavy door was still nailed shut, as he had left it. But it bulged outward slightly, as if warped by some tremendous pressure. That made Kress uneasy, as did the silence that reigned about them. He stood well away from the door while Lissandra's operative removed his nails and planks. "Is that safe in here?" he found himself muttering, pointing at the flamethrower. "I don't want a fire, either, you know." "I have the laser," Lissandra said. "We'll use that for the kill. The flamethrower probably won't be needed. But I want it here just in case. There are worse things than fire, Simon." He nodded. The last plank came free of the cellar door. There was still no sound from below. Lissandra snapped an order, and her underling fell back, took up a position behind her, and leveled the flamethrower squarely at the door. She slipped her mask back on, hefted the laser, stepped forward, and pulled the door open. No motion. No sound. It was dark down there. "Is there a light?" Lissandra asked. "Just inside the door," Kress said, "On the right-hand side. Mind the stairs. They're quite steep." She stepped into the doorway, shifted the laser to her left hand, and reached up with her right, fumbling inside for the light panel. Nothing happened. "I feel it," Lissandra said, "but it doesn't seem to . . ." Then she was screaming, and she stumbled backward. A great white sandking had clamped itself around her wrist. Blood welled through her skinthins where its mandibles had sunk in. It was fully as large as her hand.Lissandra did a horrible little jig across the room and began to smash her hand against the nearest wall. Again and again and again. It landed with a heavy, meaty thud. Finally the sandking fell away. She whimpered and fell to her knees. "I think my fingers are broken," she said softly. The blood was still flowing freely. She had dropped the laser near the cellar door. "I'm not going down there," her operative announced in clear, firm tones. Lissandra looked up at him. "No," she said. "Stand in the door and flame it all. Cinder it. Do you understand?" He nodded. Kress moaned. "My house, " he said. His stomach churned. The white sandking had been so large. How many more were down there? "Don't," he continued. "Leave it alone. I've changed my mind." Lissandra misunderstood. She held out her hand. It was covered with blood and greenish black ichor. "Your little friend bit clean through my glove, and you saw what it took to get it off. I don't care about your house, Simon. Whatever is down there is going to die."Kress hardly heard her. He thought he could see movement in the shadows beyond the cellar door. He imagined a white army bursting out, each soldier as big as the sandking that had attacked Lissandra. He saw himself being lifted by a hundred tiny arms and being dragged down into the darkness, where the maw waited hungrily. He was afraid. "Don't," he said. They ignored him. Kress darted forward, and his shoulder slammed into the back of Lissandra's operative just as the man was bracing to fire. The-operative grunted, lost his balance, and pitched forward into the black. Kress listened to him fall down the stairs. Afterwards there were other noises-scuttlings and snaps and soft, squishing sounds. Kress swung around to face Lissandra. He was drenched in cold sweat, but a sickly kind of excitement possessed him. It was almost sexual. Lissandra's calm, cold eyes regarded him through her mask. "What are you doing?" she demanded as Kress picked up the laser she had dropped. "Simon!" "Making a peace," he said, giggling. "They won't hurt god, no, not so long as god is good and generous. I was cruel. Starved them. I have to make up for it now, you see." "You're insane," Lissandra said. It was the last thing she said. Kress burned a hole in her chest big enough to put his arm through. He draped the body across the floor and rolled it down the cellar stairs. The noises were louder-chitinous clackings and scrapings and echoes that were thick and liquid. Kress nailed up the door once again. As he fled, he was filled with a deep sense of contentment that coated his fear like a layer of syrup. He suspected it was not his own. He planned to leave his home, to fly to the city and take a room for a night, or perhaps for a year. Instead he started drinking. He was not quite sure why. He drank steadily for hours and retched it all up violently on his living-room carpet. At some point he fell asleep. When he woke, it was pitch-dark in the house.He cowered against the couch. He could hear noises. Things were moving in the walls. They were all around him. His hearing was extraordinarily acute. Every little creak wasp the footstep of a sandking. He closed his eyes and waited, expecting to feel their terrible touch, afraid to move lest he brush against one. Kress sobbed and then was very still. Time passed, but nothing happened. He opened his eyes again. He trembled. Slowly the shadows began to soften and dissolve. Moonlight was filtering through the high windows. His eyes adjusted. The living room was empty. Nothing there, nothing, nothing. Only his drunken fears. Kress steeled himself and rose and went to a light. Nothing there. The room was deserted. He listened. Nothing. No sound. Nothing in the walls. It had all been his imagination, his fear. The memories of Lissandra and the thing in the cellar returned to him unbidden. Shame and anger washed over him. Why had he done that? He could have helped her burn it out, kill it. Why . . . he knew why. The maw had done it to him, had put fear in him. Wo had said it was psionic, even when it was small. And now it was large, so large. It had feasted on Cath and Idi, and now it had two more bodies down there. It would keep growing. And it had learned to like the taste of human flesh, he thought. He began to shake, but he took control of himself again and stopped. It wouldn't hurt him; he was god; the whites had always been his favorites. He remembered how he had stabbed it with his throwing sword. That was before Cath came. Damn her, anyway. He couldn't stay here. The maw would grow hungry again. Large as it was, it wouldn't take long. Its appetite would be terrible. What would it do then? He had to get away, back to the safety of the city while the maw was still contained in his wine cellar. It was only plaster and hard-packed earth down there, and the mobiles could dig and tunnel. When they got free . . . Kress didn't want to think about it.He went to his- bedroom and packed. He took three bags. Just a single change of clothing, that was all he needed; the rest of the space he filled with his valuables, with jewelry and art and other things he could not bear to lose. He did not expect to return to this place ever again.His shambler followed him down the stairs, staring at him from its baleful, glowing eyes. It was gaunt. Kress realized that it had been ages since he had fed it. Normally it could take care of itself, but no doubt the pickings had grown lean of late. When it tried to clutch at his leg, he snarled at it and kicked it away, and it scurried off, obviously hurt and offended. Carrying his bags awkwardly, Kress slipped outside and shut the door behind him. For a moment he stood pressed against the house, his heart thudding in his chest. Only a few meters between him and his skimmer. He was afraid to take those few steps. The moonlight was bright, and the grounds in front of his house were a scene of carnage. The bodies of Lissandra's two flamers lay where they hadfallen, one twisted and burned, the other swollen beneath a mass of dead sandkings. And the mobiles, the black and red mobiles, they were all around him. It took an effort to remember that they were dead. It was almost as if they were simply waiting, as they had waited so often before.Nonsense, Kress told himself. More drunken fears. He had seen the castles blown apart. They were dead, and the white maw was trapped in his cellar. He took several deep and deliberate breaths and stepped forward onto the sandkings. They crunched. He ground them into the sand savagely. They did not move. Kress smiled and walked slowly across the battleground, listening to the sounds, the sounds of safety. Crunch, crackle, crunch. He lowered his bags to the ground and opened the door to his skimmer. Something moved from shadow into light. A pale shape on the seat of his skimmer. It was as long as his forearm. Its mandibles clacked together softly, and it looked up at him from six small eyes set all around its body. Kress wet his pants and backed away slowly. There was more motion from inside the skimmer. He had left the door open. The sandking emerged and came toward him, cautiously. Others followed. They had been hiding beneath his seats, burrowed into the unholstery. But now they emerged. They formed a ragged ring around the skimmer. Kress licked his lips, turned, and moved quickly to Lissandra's skimmer. He stopped before he was halfway there. Things were moving inside that one, too. Great maggoty things half-seen by the light of the moon. Kress whimpered and retreated back toward the house. Near the front door, he looked up. He counted a dozen long, white shapes, creeping back and forth across the walls of the building. Four of them were clustered close together near the top of the unused belfry, where the carrion hawk had once roosted. They were carving something. A face. A very recognizable face. Kress shrieked and ran back inside. He headed for his liquor cabinet. A sufficient quantity of drink brought him the easy oblivion he sought. But he woke. Despite everything, he woke. He had a terrific headache, and he stank, and he was hungry. Oh, so very hungry! He had never been so hungry. Kress knew it was not his own stomach hurting. A white sandking watched him from atop the dresser in his bedroom, its antennae moving faintly. It was as big as the one in the skimmer the night before. He tried not to shrink away. "I'll . . . I'll feed you," he said to it. "I'll feed you." His mouth was horribly dry, sandpaper dry. He licked his lips and fled from the room. The house was full of sandkings; he had to be careful where he put his feet. They all seemed busy on errands of their own. They were making modifications in his house, burrowing into or out of his walls, carving things. Twice he saw his own likeness staring out at him from unexpected places. The faces were warped, twisted, livid with fear.He went outside to get the bodies that had been rotting in the yard, hoping to appease the white maw's hunger. They were gone, both of them, Kress remembered how easily the mobiles could carry things many times their own weight.It was terrible to think that the maw was still hungry after all of that. When Kress reentered the house, a column of sandkings was wending its way down the stairs. Each carried a piece of his shambler. The head seemed to look at him reproachfully as it went by.Kress emptied his freezers, his cabinets, everything, piling all the food in the house in the center of his kitchen floor. A dozen whites waited to take it away. They avoided the frozen food, leaving it to thaw in a great puddle, but carried off everything else.When all the food was gone, Kress felt his own hunger pangs abate just a bit, though he had not eaten a thing. But he knew the respite would be short-lived. Soon the maw would be hungry again. He had to feed it. Kress knew what to do. He went to his communicator. "Malada," he began casually when the first of his friends answered. "I'm having a small party tonight. I realize this is terribly short notice, but I hope you can make it. I really do." He called Jad Rakkis next, and then the others. By the time he had finished, five of them had accepted his invitation. Kress hoped that would be enough. Kress met his guests outside-the mobiles had cleaned up remarkably quickly, and the grounds looked almost as they had before the battle-and walked them to his front door. He let them enter first. He did not follow.When four of them had gone through, Kress finally worked up his courage. He closed the door behind his latest guest, ignoring the startled exclamations that soon turned into shrill gibbering, and sprinted for the skimmer the man had arrived in. He slid in safely, thumbed the start plate, and swore. It was programmed to lift only in response to its owner's thumbprint, of course.Rakkis was the next to arrive. Kresser ran to his skimmer as it set down and seized Rakkis by the arm as he was climbing out. "Get back in, quickly," he said, pushing. "Take me to the city. Hurry, Jad. Get out of here!" But Rakkis only stared at him and would not move. "Why, what's wrong, Simon? I don't understand. What about your party?" And then it was too late, because the loose sand all around them was stirring, and the red eyes were staring at them, and the mandibles were clacking. Rakkis made a choking sound and moved to get back in his skimmer, but a pair of mandibles snapped shut about his ankle, and suddenly he was on his knees. The sand seemed to boil with subterranean activity. Rakkis thrashed and cried terribly as they tore him apart. Kress could hardly bear to watch.After that, he did not try to escape again. When it was all over, he cleaned out what remained in his liquor cabinet and got extremely drunk. It would be the last time he would enjoy that luxury, he knew. The only alcohol remaining in the house was stored down in the wine cellar.Kress did not touch a bite of food the entire day, but he fell asleep feeling bloated, sated at last, the awful hunger vanquished. His last thoughts before the nightmares took him were about whom he could ask out tomorrow.Morning was hot and dry. Kress opened his eyes to see the white sandking on his dresser again. He shut his eyes again quickly, hoping the dream would leave him. It did not, and he could not go back to sleep, and soon he found himself staring at the thing. He stared for almost five minutes before the strangeness of it dawned on him; the sandking was not moving. The mobiles could be preternaturally still, to be sure. He had seen them wait and watch a thousand times. But always there was some motion about them: The mandibles clacked, the: legs twitched, the long, fine antennae stirred and swayed. But the sandking on his dresser was completely still. Kress rose, holding his breath, not daring to hope. Could it be dead? Could something have= killed it? He walked across the room. The eyes were glassy and black. The creature; seemed swollen, somehow, as if it were soft and rotting inside, filling up with gas that pushed-: outward at the plates of white armor. Kress reached out trembling hand and touched it. It was warm; hot even, and growing hotter But it did not move. He pulled his hand back, and as he did, a segment of the sandking's white exoskeleton fell away from it. The flesh beneath was the same color, but soft-looking, swollen and feverish. And it almost seemed to throb. Kress backed away and ran to the door. Three more white mobiles lay in his hall. They were all like the one in his bedroom. He ran down the stairs, jumping over sandkings. None of them moved. The house was full of them, all dead, dying, comatose, whatever. , Kress did not care what was wrong with them. Just so they could not move. He found four of them inside his skimmer= He picked them up, one by one, and threw, them as far as he could. Damned monsters. He slid back in, on the ruined half-eaten seats, and thumbed the start plate. Nothing happened. Kress tried again and again. Nothing. It wasn't fair. This was his skimmer. It ought to start. Why wouldn't it lift? He didn't understand. Finally he got out and checked, expecting the worst. He found it. The sandkings had torn apart his gravity grid. He was trapped. He was still trapped. Grimly Kress marched back into the house. He went to his gallery and found the antique ax that had hung next to the throwing sword he had used on Cath m'Lane. He set to work. The sandkings did not stir even as he chopped them to pieces. But they splattered when he made the first cut, the bodies almost bursting. Inside was awful; strange half formed organs, a viscous reddish ooze that looked almost like human blood, and the yellow ichor.Kress destroyed twenty of them before he realized the futility of what he was doing. The mobiles were nothing, really. Besides, there were so many of them. He could work for a day and night and still not kill them all. He had to go down into the wine cellar and use the ax on the maw. Resolute, he started toward the cellar. He got within sight of the door, then stopped. It was not a door anymore. The walls had been eaten away, so that the hole was twice the size it had been, and round. A pit, that was all. There was no sign that there had ever been a door nailed shut over that black abyss. A ghastly, choking, fetid odor seemed to come from below. And the walls were wet and bloody and covered with patches of white fungus. And worst, it was breathing. Kress stood across the room and felt the warm wind wash over him as it exhaled, and he tried not to choke, and when the wind reversed direction, he fled. Back in the living room he destroyed three more mobiles and collapsed. What was happening? He didn't understand. Then he remembered the only person who might understand. Kress went to his communicator again, stepped on a sandking in his haste, and prayed fervently that the device still worked. When Jala Wo answered, he broke down and told her everything. She let him talk without interruption, no expression save for a slight frown on her gaunt, pale face. When Kress had finished, she said only, "I ought to leave you there.'' Kress began to blubber. "You can't. Help me, I'll pay" "I ought to," Wo repeated, "but I won't." "Thank you," Kress said. "Oh, thank-" "Quiet," said Wo. "Listen to me. This is your own doing. Keep your sandkings well, and they are courtly ritual warriors. You turned yours into something else, with starvation and torture. You were their god. You made them what they are. That maw in your cellar is sick, still suffering from the wound you gave it. It is probably insane. Its behavior is . . . unusual. "You have to get out of there quickly. The mobiles are not dead, Kress. They are dormant. I told you the exoskeleton falls off when they grow larger. Normally, in fact, it falls off much earlier. I have never heard of sandkings growing as large as yours while still in the insectoid stage. It is another result of crippling the white maw, I would say. That does not matter."What matters is the metamorphosis your sandkings are now undergoing. As the maw grows, you see, it gets progressively more intelligent. Its psionic powers strengthen, and its mind becomes more sophisticated, more ambitious. The armored mobiles axe useful enough when the maw is tiny and only semisentient, but now it needs better servants, bodies with more capabilities. Do you understand? The mobiles are all going to give birth to a new breed of sandking. I can't say exactly what it will look like. Each maw designs its own, to fit its perceived needs and desires. But it will be biped, with four arms and opposable thumbs. It will be able to construct and operate advanced machinery. The individual sandkings will not be sentient. But the maw will be very sentient indeed." Kress was gaping at Wo's image on the viewscreen. "Your workers," he said, with an effort. "The ones who came out here . . . who installed the tank . . ." Wo managed a faint smile. "Shade," she said. "Shade is a sandking," Kress repeated numbly. "And you sold me a tank of . . . of . . . infants, ah . . ." "Do not be absurd," Wo said. "A first-stage sandking is more like a sperm than like an infant. The wars temper and control them in nature. Only one in a hundred reaches the second stage. Only one in a thousand achieves the third and final plateau and becomes like Shade. Adult sandkings are not sentimental about the small maws. There are too many of them, and their mobiles are pests." She sighed."And all this talk wastes time. That white sandking is going to waken to full sentience soon. It is not going to need you any longer, and it hates you, and it will be very hungry. The transformation is taxing. The maw must eat enormous amounts both before and after. So you have to get out of there. Do you understand?" "I can't, " Kress said. "My skimmer is destroyed, and I can't get any of the others to start. I don't know how to reprogram them. Can you come out for me?" "Yes," said Wo. "Shade and I will leave at once, but it is more than two hundred kilometers from Asgard to you, and there is equipment that we will need to deal with the deranged sandking you've created. You cannotwait there. You have two feet. Walk. Go due east, as near as you can determine, as quickly as you can. The land out there is pretty desolate. We can find you easily with an aerial search, and you'll be safely away from the sandkings. Do you understand?" "Yes," Kress said. "Yes, oh yes." They signed off, and he walked quickly toward the door. He was halfway there when he heard the noise, a sound halfway between a pop and a crack. One of the sandkings had split open. Four tiny hands covered with pinkish-yellow blood came up out of the gap and began to push the dead skin aside. Kress began to run. He had not counted on the heat. The hills were dry and rocky. Kress ran from the house as quickly as he could, ran until his ribs ached and his breath was coming in gasps. Then he walked, but as soon as he had recovered, he began to run again. For almost an hour he ran and walked, ran and walked, beneath the fierce, hot sun. He sweated, freely and wished that he had thought to bring some water, and he watched the sky in hopes of seeing Wo and Shade. He was not made for this. It was too hot and too dry, and he was in no condition. But he kept himself going with the memory of the way the maw had breathed and the thought of the wriggling little things that by now were surely crawling all over his house. He hoped Wo and Shade would know how to deal with them. He had his own plans for Wo and Shade. It was all their fault, Kress had decided, and they would suffer for it. Lissandra was dead, but he knew others in her profession. He would have his revenge. This he promised himself a hundred times as he struggled and sweated his way eastward. At least he hoped it was east. He was not that good at directions, and he wasn't certain which way he had run in his initial panic, but since then he had made an effort to bear due east, as Wo had suggested. When he had been running for several hours, with no sign of rescue, Kress began to grow certain that he had miscalculated his direction. When several more hours passed, he began to grow afraid. What if Wo and Shade could not find him? He would die out here. He hadn't eaten in two days, he was weak and frightened, his throat was raw for want of water. He couldn't keep going. The sun was sinking now, and he'd be completely lost in the dark. What was wrong? Had the sandkings eaten Wo and Shade? The fear was on him again, filling him, and with it a great thirst and a terrible hunger. But Kress kept going. He stumbled now when he tried to run, and twice he fell. The second time he scraped his hand on a rock, and it came away bloody. He sucked at it as he walked, and he worried about infection.The sun was on the horizon behind him. The ground grew a little cooler, for which Kress was grateful. He decided to walk until last light and settle down for the night. Surely he was far enough from the sandkings to be safe, and Wo and Shade would find him come morning.When he topped the next rise, he saw the outline of a house in front of him. It wasn't as big as his own house, but it was big enough. It was habitation, safety. Kress shouted and began to run toward it. Food and drink, he had to have nourishment, he could taste the meal already. He was aching with hunger. He ran down the hill toward the house, waving his arms and shouting to the inhabitants. The light was almost gone now, but he could still make out a half-dozen children playing in the twilight. "Hey there," he shouted. "Help, help." They came running toward him. Kress stopped suddenly. "No," he said, "oh, no. Oh, no." He backpedaled, slipping on the sand, got up, and tried to run again. They caught him easily. They were ghastly little things with bulging eyes and dusky orange skin. He struggled, but it was useless. Small as they were, each of them had four arms, and Kress had only two.They carried him toward the house. It was a sad, shabby house, built of crumbling sand, but the door was quite large, and dark, and it breathed. That was terrible, but it was not the thing that set Simon Kress to screaming. He screamed because of the others, the little orange children who came crawling out of the castle, and watched impassively as he passed. All of them had his face.
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