Science Fiction & Fantasy

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Fiction

Warhosts

The Warhosts sit in the lees of the starships while the sky grows less flushed with dawn, playing cards. At the same time, the regulators within the Red emissary and our own play their own game across a moist medium of flesh, chemical brew, and stench to determine where the next battle will be fought. We—the Purples—have been fighting the Reds for possession of this moon, jigsaw piece by slow jigsaw piece, as deliberately as a pavane or carved ice. The Reds have grown increasingly desperate. The moon has a certain strategic importance, and the Reds are very close to having to cede it entirely.

The lone Red negotiator is a two, like all of our own: bipedal, bilaterally symmetric, upright-standing except when it isn’t, with a round head and forward-facing eyes. It sits half in the puddle-brew with its arms awkwardly folded to keep its defensive weapon inserts out of the damp. Slime creeps through the slats in its armor plates, a plaque of particulate silver tendrils forming and unforming against the sores in its skin. Its mouth hangs open and it pants lowly, rapidly. It has no escort, but that’s normal. Across from it, our representative is in similar state—although we design our diplomats with no weapons modifications, only soft open hands and hardened hides and sad, downward-slanting eyes from which pink-tinged water seeps.

Crouching inside the nervous system of one of the watching Warhosts, a scout unit, I recognize the vocalizations that the Red negotiator is making, our diplomat’s rigid posture. Both are expressing pain. It is my task to understand the twos’ cultural peculiarities, a largely ceremonial function nowadays. In the early times, when we were still learning to modify the twos so we could ride them into battle, we understood how to install the puppet strings but not the elegance of the violent ballets that could then arise. The protocols have since been laid out in treaties, in mutual accords of honorable behavior, after we overtook the twos’ civilizations and used their starships to travel outward. It has been a long time since they last changed in response to some rupture of fashion or necessity.

The Warhosts’ game is less subtle than what passes between the negotiator’s and diplomat’s regulators, but I find it quaintly beautiful. Aesthetics is a disease of the obsolete, but it does no harm.

Not all of our Warhosts have hands suitable for gripping. Those that do sit in a circle on the pebbled ground, four of them. The tallest one shuffles cards made of thin plastic.

There are pictures on the cards, because twos like pictures. The pictures have names. Ace of Havoc, with its hooks and hells and disintegrating towers. The Five of Quills, which shows birds chasing each other in an elemental pentagram. The Red Mask and the Purple Mask. The rules do not distinguish between the two, although some Warhosts make one superstitious warding gesture toward one and another toward the other.

The Warhosts play for chips, sometimes pried loose from silicon palaces, sometimes scorched from metal with the corners wrenched up. Blood is occasionally involved, small rituals of scarification, atrocities of tenderness. My scout has a meandering narrative of such scars along its arm and down its back, making shackle shapes to either side of its knobbled spine. It isn’t playing today, because it has too few chips, or perhaps because it is preoccupied by negotiations taking place in a language it can’t access.

(Well. It could have put its hand in the sludge, but all it would have gotten for its trouble was a lingering ugly chemical burn, and maybe some stings from the silver filaments.)

I don’t watch the winners in these games. Rather, I watch the losers. By this I mean that I am a circuit of poison impulses and insectine metal particles interpreting the story funneling through the Warhost’s eye and nerve and brain. The regulators watch, too, but they are less concerned with the twos’ harmless quirks during downtime and more concerned with making sure they are fully battle operational.

The dealer is done shuffling. It deals the cards facedown. Small vortices whirl away from each card as it lands, drawn inexorably to the pool where the diplomat and negotiator are still connected by an integument of ooze. Even the game knows its true masters.

The Warhosts converse among themselves in their language of vibrations. My scout hums to itself. Music is another pastime we don’t regulate.

The cards go around and are revealed to the clink of chips. The Rocketeer, a Warhost with an asymmetrical protective tusk-growth of bone and metal where it had once had half its jaw, wins with a hand of two pair, knights high. Knight of Havoc and Knight of Wheels. The Rocketeer’s mouth pulls down grotesquely as it sweeps the chips toward itself.

I watch as the game winds on. The Rocketeer doesn’t end with the most chips, although everyone counts to be sure, because it’s nearly a tie. In a way, it doesn’t matter. The chips are just a way of passing numbers back and forth, an exchange of pleasantries.

The pool makes a horrible slurping noise, and silver tendrils spider out of it, dividing neatly down the middle like a parade maneuver. Half of them clamber up the frowning Red representative, some dissolving upon contact with the sores so they can be absorbed. Half of them withdraw into our diplomat. They have come to an agreement as to what battle would be fought, although the Red does not appear pleased with the outcome.

Warhosts use their game for augury, to find out who will and won’t be obliged to fight in these contests. Nobody keeps any scientific record of the auguries’ effectiveness, but that isn’t the point. The point is to provide a focus for their anxieties. The Knight of Havoc and Knight of Wheels, for instance: They interpret the cards to mean that there will be a reversal on the battlefield, an upsetting of the usual order; if not this fight, then the next. With such untidy interpretations, it’s difficult ever to be wrong.

The regulators drive my scout (more their scout than mine, naturally) to the pool, where orders linger as a scummy green-silver residue. We step in to the knee, and the knowledge of the orders needles all the way through our pores and up through the body’s strata to the brain: We are among those to fight, cards or no cards.

• • • •

This is a story the twos tell among themselves, furtively, when the shadows grow long and the wind is a low moan.

Once upon a time, there was a fortress made of polished hegemonies and hierarchical crenellations. In the fortress lived a young woman who dreamt bullet dreams. The fortress came to be under siege; there is not much point in building a fortress if it guards a place that no one cares about attacking, after all. Holes opened in the sky and fire the color of blasphemy rained down. Shells of black dysfunction battered the sloping walls. Thunder, threnody, roses of new blood and newly charred bones.

This is the game the invaders played; this is the maze their weapons made. Each time their weapons hit the fortress, the walls and cracks and crevices shifted and crumpled. People perished inside without ever knowing the names of their killers. None of the far-eyes orbiting overhead and none of the distance-listeners warned the fortress’s commanders. None of them gave any glimpse of what was going on.

But a woman, whose name no one can pronounce anymore, heard the drumming and the damage and the whole unsteady structure of massacre. She had no gun or knife or ammunition. She did, however, know where to run: toward a weapon and not toward safety. Safety didn’t exist except as the jaws to something worse, anyway.

Deep in the bowels of the fortress were weapons its masters had considered to be fossilized past any usefulness, ancient of years. Among those weapons was a Warhost, armor of sullen metal, itself welded with weapons meant for the ugly business of cutting and shooting and lancing. A two itself in form—bilaterally symmetric except for its own weapons, upright-walking—it was designed to be piloted by a two. And the woman was a two.

The Warhost opened to her not like a flower, or a shell, but like a clangor of silence, layer by layer, swallowing her into anachronistic magnificence. In most of the variants of the story, she promised vengeance for her family. In most of those variants, her family died not years beforehand, of carbon monoxide plague or paranoia tumors or simply falling down the stairs, but during the attack. It’s unlikely that she managed anything more than a scream when she first entered the cockpit, or a shredded exhalation. The Warhost’s designers had no care for forms of expression other than violence.

Although the woman had grown up in a fortress and watched the soldiers at their drill every day since she was a child, this experience had little to do with her mode of fighting. She knew the library of the Warhost’s maneuvers the way she knew how to blink or breathe. It spoke to her at the level of dreams. She arrowed her way out of the fortress’s debris and its shredded histories, and flew (the accounts are clear that she flew, improbable as it sounds) a trajectory toward the invaders’ cloudship. Like a hammer, she yearned for the hearts of her enemies.

The cloud soldiers had no intention of letting this interloper get close enough to spoil their victory. It wasn’t that they mistook her sensor signature for that of one of their laggard units, or that their general was unconscionably slow in ending her dinner of confits and candied fruits with one of her lovers, or that there was a critical failure in the missile launch system at the wrong time. No: All their defenses evaporated like soft mist before the woman’s onslaught.

The remarkable thing about this story is not the fortress, or the Warhost, or the woman’s luck, for all that it’s rare that amateurs show that kind of spontaneous ability. The remarkable thing is that the twos, with their primitive, self-defeating societies, their tendency to gnaw each other red given the smallest opportunity for mutual backstabbing, conceived of themselves as the riders and not the ridden.

• • • •

It’s not about diagnosis. We know the syndrome.

Twos are architectural creatures. They build compulsively, even in childhood. Teetering cabins of twigs, mounds of wet sand with fingermarks pressed into their sides, piles of dice and houses of cards. From there they progress to sky-kissing arcologies and ships that knife the sea and bridges lanterned day and night by falcon trains. Even from the placid black sky, beyond the atmosphere’s scarf, you can see the glowing spider-tracks of their cities.

This is missing half the story. Twos also build in the opposite direction. Instead of building ever larger, they also build ever smaller. We don’t think they realized early enough what this would lead to.

We didn’t learn to build ever smaller from them, although certainly there are scales ever smaller to explore. Fault the twos for other things. From them we learned to build ever larger.

We alter their inner cavities and install dart launchers, change their tolerances for heat, weave into their flesh circulatory systems that carry pale coolant. With access to certain minerals and metals, we can cause them to grow weapon excrescences from their hands and out of their bones, knife spurs and gun fists; fill the aching magazines with copious ammunition. If they cannot see far enough, or near enough, or into the correct part of the electromagnetic spectrum, we alter their eyes cell by cell until they match our specifications.

Not that this comes without price. The resulting chemical brews have to be managed by the regulators. The twos thus modified walk around with stinking open sores for easy access; we have to concoct medications to manage the risk of infection. Sometimes their arms or legs split from the strain, bone giving way to pulped marrow; or metal shreds its way out of muscle and ligament; or their eyes bleed black from the corners.

Nevertheless, the modified twos are our Warhosts and our weapons of choice. In this time and place, this is the honorable way to face our opponents.

The twos, who inadvertently taught us their folktales of knights and heroic Warhost pilots, would understand that much if we ever asked them, but the regulators have limited interest in old stories. Even if there were some way of spanning the difference in scale and outlook, I would know better than to bring the topic up anyway.

• • • •

The Reds and Purples are to fight in teams this time. Theirs has five Warhosts, ours eight, in concession to the fact that we have chosen to field more lightly armed units.

I am no strategist, no interpreter of maps or maker of plans. Other intelligences in the network of regulators are responsible for determining where we are to deploy, or why this ridge offers better protection than the other one, or how we are to equip ourselves for a land of black-green swamp. For instance, there is a great deal of concern about footwear. The twos have delicate feet, prone to rotting, and the water here is not just water, but exhales corrosive vapors that degrade the protective hide we have them grow. We could improve their feet, but the twos can only endure so many modifications, and the weapons modifications usually take priority. However, we have a reasonable supply of twos for future battles.

Today, I observe as our eight drill together. My host is a veteran unit that will keep fighting until its internals rupture or its lungs are scorched gray-white. It has been the team leader’s second for the last six matches, and it could have been the leader itself if not for the fact that a cancerous growth, an unintended side effect of the bone plates meant to shield its throat, destroyed its voice.

The first engagements between teams of Warhosts were, according to our historians, ugly and botched. The twos have a certain understanding of coordination, but they require a great deal of explicit drill for this to manifest. In all fairness, our networks, too, require training to react as we desire them to. It’s ironic that the twos programmed these methods into us so we could tunnel into them and make better use of their bodies.

For a long time, the Reds and Purples fought in one-on-one duels. During those matches, we tested combinations of weapons as scientifically as we could. We shifted to team fights not because the one-on-one duels were inadequate for the purpose, but because of a change in fashion. We had tired of the duels and desired a new challenge. The change took place practically overnight, the consensus propagated from world to world.

The eight Warhosts are now marching in drummers’ unison. The leader must already be in pain, because some of the torso armor growths are bleeding around the edges, but it makes no noise. The regulators will be compensating by inducing a flood of painkillers. In times past, I have been involved in similar control measures and repair work. It’s a welcome art, the regrowth of plated cells and vessels, the rerouting of functions from one damaged implant to a backup system. I miss it sometimes.

The twos tell their own stories of these engagements, necessarily imperfect without the precise recording of internal states. But there is poetry to their war-chants, their riddles, their sardonic ballads. Some of their accounts exaggerate the achievements of one or two flamboyant leaders or, just as likely, a disregarded fighter whose ingenuity turns the situation around. My favorite is the one about the Warhost whose close attention to birds and their songs enabled it to realize that the birdcalls they were hearing were in fact enemy signals. A small part of me was embedded in a bird-scout once, in the very early days before they were banned as being unsporting. The nostalgia is ridiculous, but I cannot help it.

There are other stories. The nations of twos that we recruit from recount tales of bands fighting mythical creatures called dragonmotes. The dragonmotes are exactly what their name implies: serpentines composed of tiny, interlocking component dragonlings, with no internal skeleton and no blood. They are ferocious, and kill with the natural talents of fire and metal conjoined. Naturally, the twos outwit them readily. The symbolism doesn’t need further elucidation.

The Warhosts are too disciplined during training to mutter among themselves, although this is also a matter of the regulators inhibiting unnecessary loquacity. My unit is attentive to the beauty of the swamp: the way the light glistens on the murky water, the brightly spotted amphibians that leap from leaf to leaf, the scaly fliers that spear the amphibians with their long beaks and make harsh cries like scraping rock. The splashing of the water that will slowly destroy their feet, and the footprints invisible beneath.

The hardest part for the Warhosts, because of the twos’ inherent frailty, is when they disperse. They would rather huddle together, even though this makes them more vulnerable to attack. We struggled with this tendency until some regulator hit upon the solution of giving them equipment to communicate with each other (as opposed to the existing communication between regulators in different Warhosts).

The Warhosts’ reverie goes by different names in their various languages. We monitor the connection, although it is not so much a channel for seditious longings as a tangle of symbols given force by unsinewed dreams. In effect, we walk through three spaces simultaneously: the swamp itself; the regulators’ diagrammed plans and topologies of their tactics; and the reverie’s ever-shifting mire.

We lost and won and lost a great many fights, both us and the Reds, before we understood that we had to join combat on all three levels simultaneously, and that leaving one battleground undefended could jeopardize progress in the other two. This is the reason my profession, recording the twos’ whispers and warbles, returned to respectability after years of neglect.

• • • •

Here is another of the twos’ stories.

Once upon a time, a puppet hatched in the deep fissures of the twos’ castle-womb. The puppet had been shaped in imitation of the fours that roamed the world. This offended the upright general who ruled the castle-womb. He said: We are meant to live for the twos in the world, and die for the twos, the duality of day and night, the binary of the full chalice and the empty hand. Twos were warriors; fours had fallen out of fashion. And he ordered that the puppet be burned.

However, a surgeon of the twos saw in the puppet’s bleak eyes the seedling desire to survive, and she was moved. She bribed the keepers of the castle-womb with drugs terrible and intoxicating, leaving them wrapped in dreams of black, wild skies and flight and planets plunging past, of empires and expiry and armies holding fast, of victories against enemies reduced to ciphers of bodiless eyes. And she gathered up the puppet and took it to her operating room.

The room was the color of purged steel, and the walls and ceiling looked with mirror eyes upon the puppet child. The surgeon broke the puppet child’s limbs, unchambered its joints, and strapped it wailing to a table of polished regrets. Then she began the tedious, necessary, loving work of carving up the child’s ligatures and refastening its strings so that it could be a proper two instead of a four.

No one interrupted the surgeon. There was no reason why anyone should. For one thing, she was highly respected and not regarded as one given to whimsy. For another, no one imagined that she would defy the general’s wishes, even in so small a matter as this. They were not friends, but they had the necessary mutual respect proper to their stations. As for the castle-womb’s keepers, theirs was not a well-regarded job. It was sordid, although not unexpected, that they should suffer lapses from time to time.

The puppet child screamed in the only language it knew, in syllables cleanly articulated and made of angled phonemes. The castle’s inhabitants, inured to the unanesthesized sounds of suffering, took no notice. The surgeon sang a lullaby as she worked, although it could scarcely be heard over the screams.

When she was done, the surgeon left the puppet bound to the table and sent a servant for the general. The general came a scant hour later, leaning heavily upon his war scepter. He looked down at the mutilated child. “What have you done?” he asked softly.

“You are so concerned with the principle of duality,” the surgeon said. “Look. I have given it to you.” She cut the straps with her scalpel, which was sharper than whiplash scorn, darker than hope unborn. “Look.” She struck the puppet once, twice, and it cringed away from the blows.

“I’m watching,” the general said in a voice that suggested that he had his doubts.

She repeated the exercise. This time the puppet stumbled on two legs, not four, crouched and trembling.

“I see,” the general said, and this time his voice said that he did.

“So tell me,” the surgeon said, “is this acceptable?”

The general smiled at her, then, and his smile was like the moon slivering black. “So tell me,” he said, only slightly mocking, “can you do this with other anomalies, or is your surgical expertise limited to puppets?”

Within a scant few generations, nothing moved upon this world that was not a two.

• • • •

The march to the battleground is long. I listen to the fliers’ rattling cries, to the wind skittering through the branches of the shroudtrees, to the intermittent splash and patter of the rain. Sometimes there are paths built upon the mire, tottering structures of ropy fibers braided together by hands now rotted nameless.

The Warhosts have designations to us, and names among themselves: a subtle distinction. Mine is telling the team leader about the mountain it sees far in the distance, wrapped in swollen purple clouds. As we approach the mountain in the reverie, its peak grows to resemble a dragon’s head.

One of the units murmurs a story of a six-legged dragon, terrible of mien, and the six corpse-riders it bore into battle against the twos. There is no mountain, dragon-headed or otherwise, in the real-world arena. Perhaps it is simply that we are not imaginative enough to see dragons in dragonless spaces.

I am not sure which Warhost originated this nucleus of dragons. There are competing dragon-myths, including the common ones about hostile dragonmotes and the less common ones, older in origin, about benevolent dragon deities, spirits of rain and storm and ocean unchained. Maybe it has to do with the clouds, with the persistent, seething humidity. An incarnation of discomfort.

Today the Warhosts seem neither to regard the dragon-manifestations as trophies to be slain nor as deities to be propitiated. Instead, the hosts are concerned with going unnoticed. I remember another engagement where they believed that they traveled across a slumbering dragon’s spine, and had to drill holes into it, drive spikes into the holes, to keep it from waking and rousing the earth with rocket thunder and mortar fire. That’s not what they’re doing this time.

One of the regulators within this Warhost queries me directly about the reverie, attention I haven’t received in some time. Presumably whatever I say will be conveyed to the rest of the team, so I had better not waste its time. Unfortunately, I have no magic answers. All I can tell it is what I have told myself, recursive riddles, dragons within dragons. I do, however, offer to walk the reverie myself as a two, and it accepts this as distasteful but necessary.

While I put together my reverie-puppet, the Warhost slaps at a whining sound. Its reflexes, already damaged by its current set of modifications, are not good enough. Whatever it tried to slap has escaped. A red welt rises on the back of its right arm. The welt itches, although at least the Warhost doesn’t scratch.

I am bothered by this, even though the twos have a history of being irritable about pests, harmless or otherwise. But the regulators must think it of no consequence, and for my part, I have other matters to attend to.

• • • •

We have reached the battleground. The Warhosts have been patrolling it in lonely, irregular arcs. It continues to rain in sizzling bursts, never for long, but the clinging moisture makes the host huddle in on itself in wordless misery.

I hear the buzzing of insects. One of the regulators has induced the secretion of a waxy, foul-smelling chemical mixture to ward away the insects and soothe the welts. Some success on the second count, very little on the first. The insects are swift and elusive, night-fliers with a talent for stealth. I’m only surprised there aren’t more of them, given the environment.

The Warhost continues to cringe from the specters of six-dragons. They are everywhere now: cloudshadows stamped waveringly across the dim waters, claw marks across the hunched trees. Dragon silhouettes rearing in the distance, their sibilant voices threading through the breath of evening. Drums to which dragons recite their prophecies in orderly hexameter.

In the reverie, a new story emerges. Dragons eat the world’s subterranean foundations, chewing open rock and fire and root. The holes are small to the point of invisibility, yet they make the world porous, a sponge to absorb the poison influences that filter through the void from other worlds. Little by little, the world will become infused with coagulating radiation until it can no longer sustain life.

The twos are good at numeration when they care to be, but they don’t seem to care that I have joined their number. I have built myself out of scraps of sinew, layering them over a perfect armature of unhollow bones, and covering that with rough brown skin. In form, I am more like the Warhosts’ ancestors than they are themselves. This is deliberate: I wish to see as they see, not as we would have them see.

Unfortunately, journeying through the reverie is not so simple as that. I know the movement-patterns of walking, of running, of stumbling through thick mud, but it is another to think as the Warhosts think, no matter how attentively I listen to their legend-weaving.

There’s another problem, which I am faintly aware of as I wrestle with the difficulty of seeing dragons’ whiskered visages in hillsides and dragons’ lantern eyes in foxfire. The Warhosts, for their part, seem entirely unaware of the regulators’ dismay: In all this time, we have seen no trace of the enemy.

• • • •

You expect a third tale of twos. There is no third tale except, perhaps, to the extent that this embedding narrative is it.

Beware the dragons, I tell the regulators. In the reverie, I have acclimated to my two-form. I march with rotting feet, use callused hands to shade my eyes from sunlight glaring from the black waters. I can hear the dragons gnawing punctures into our carefully planned contests.

The regulators seek dragons outside the reverie. Sixes, they say. They have figured it out, but it’s too late for us, although perhaps not for the rest of the Purples.

• • • •

It’s not that we weren’t warned. It’s that we didn’t understand the warning early enough.

Ten days have passed, and another ten. That is almost certainly because the Reds have decided to change the terms of the fight. We’ve encountered the opposing team, but it took a form that we had not expected, because we assumed that tradition would take care of the details. If only we had understood how desperate the Reds are for this moon—but our comrades upon other worlds will have to compensate for our failure.

The welts and their associated discomfort are no longer the issue. My Warhost has stopped walking. Earlier, the regulators forced it to seek higher ground, toward a shelf of rock away from the waters. Then, before its strength gave out entirely, it built itself a shelter of fabric and fallen shroudtree limbs. It lies there now, shivering, feverish, unresponsive even to our attempts to feed it.

Our communications with the other members of the team, too, are slashed through with riddles of static, increasingly unsolvable.

Five Red Warhosts descend, buzzing and droning their own hexameter riddle. They are sixes, with dark chitin, iridescent and veined with silica-pale patterns. They are much smaller than the twos—the largest is the size of a two’s hand, and the rest are not even that big—and they have wings and curling querulous antennae. They settle on my Warhost’s exposed, ulcerated skin. Their weight is almost imperceptible, a caress of tiny shuddering feet.

The Warhost is already dying of the toxins generated by the sixes’ bites. Now the Reds with their new mounts are injecting motes of disease, some of which are able to disrupt our own functioning. Some of them have extended ovipositors heavy with eggs, whose young will no doubt chew the Warhost’s carcass into a blossoming of the sixes’ larvae. The regulators are attempting to build a chemical bridge of surrender so they can renegotiate the battle. But it’s too late for this host.

We have lost this moon, although there will be other moons. I record the defeat as it takes place. As the sixes transfix me in the reverie, I wonder what folktale the history will be maimed into after I am gone.

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Yoon Ha Lee

Yoon Ha Lee

Yoon Ha Lee’s debut novel, Ninefox Gambit, won the Locus Award for best first novel and was a finalist for the Hugo, Nebula, and Clarke awards. Its sequel, Raven Stretegem, was a finalist for the Hugo. His middle grade space opera Dragon Pearl was published in January 2019 from Disney-Hyperion. His short fiction has appeared in Tor.com, The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, Clarkesworld Magazine, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, and other venues. Lee lives in Louisiana with his family and a very lazy cat, and has not yet been eaten by gators.