In the aftermath of the War With No Name, the Colony has been defeated, its queen lies dead, and the world left behind will never be the same. In her madness, the queen used a strange technology to uplift the surface animals, turning dogs and cats, bats and bears, pigs and wolves into intelligent, highly evolved creatures who rise up and kill their oppressors. And now, after years of bloodshed, these sentient beasts must learn to live alongside their sworn enemies—humans.
Far removed from this newly emerging civilization, a housecat turned war hero named Mort(e) lives a quiet life with the love he thought he had lost, a dog named Sheba. But before long, the chaos that they escaped comes crashing in around them. An unstoppable monster terrorizes a nearby settlement of beavers. A serial killer runs amok in the holy city of Hosanna. An apocalyptic cult threatens the fragile peace. And a mysterious race of amphibious creatures rises from the seas, intent on fulfilling the Colony’s destiny and ridding the world of all humans. No longer able to run away, Sheba and Mort(e) rush headlong into the conflict, ready to fight but unprepared for a world that seems hell-bent on tearing them apart. In the twilight of all life on Earth, love survives, but at a cost that only the desperate and the reckless are willing to pay.
Robert Repino’s D’Arc is book three in the War With No Name series, available May 9th from Soho Press.
FOR CENTURIES, THE Queen of the ants plotted the downfall of humanity from her lair, deep within the Colony. She had witnessed the humans’ capacity for evil. To defeat them, she would have to match their cruelty. There could be no armistice in the war with no name. No negotiations. No peace until every last human was dead.
With her enemy distracted, the Queen ordered her Alpha soldiers to attack. Giant insects, answering only to the Colony, the Alphas overran entire countries, dismantling the human age in a matter of weeks. But this would not be enough. The Queen needed allies. And rather than recruit them, she would create them.
Using a strange technology, the Colony lifted the surface animals from bondage. Overnight, the animals’ bodies grew, their paws became hands, their legs allowed them to walk upright—a terrifying mirror image of humans. The animals could think, and speak, and learn. And love. And hate. Owing their allegiance to the Queen, they formed into armies that would bring about the final extinction of humanity.
On the brink of annihilation, the humans launched a desperate countermeasure: the bioweapon known as EMSAH, a virus that threatened to undo the Queen’s grand experiment. Long after the last humans were driven into hiding, the EMSAH syndrome loomed over the new society that the animals hoped to create. In the fragile peacetime that followed, the Colony watched over the fledgling animal settlements, rebuilt over the remains of human civilization. Those towns that remained loyal to the Queen were rewarded. Those that rebelled, or fell to the EMSAH virus, disappeared from the map, without a trace left behind. There was no other way to maintain order, not with the humans still lurking, waiting for a chance to strike.
Those who survived the war were nevertheless haunted by their previous lives, and by the things they had to do to stay alive. The unit known as the Red Sphinx found it the most difficult to adjust to the new order, having spent the war as ruthless assassins operating behind enemy lines. Their leader, a bobcat named Culdesac, recalled his days in the wild, hunting prey as his people went extinct. A pit bull named Wawa remembered her training as a warrior in an underground dogfighting ring. And a simple house cat named Mort(e) longed to find his friend, a dog named Sheba. Unbeknownst to him, the humans came to believe that he held the key to defeating the Queen.
Retired from the Red Sphinx, and plagued with memories of his friend, Mort(e) one day received a simple but mysterious message: “Sheba is alive.” And so began his journey to the last human stronghold, where he discovered his role in a prophecy foretold by a child from his past, a boy who escaped from the Queen’s lair with a message of salvation. Everything was linked—Mort(e), Sheba, EMSAH, the Colony, all of it. And the future of all life on Earth depended on whether he found Sheba, and destroyed the Queen.
Which is exactly what he did—though not without terrible sacrifice and bloodshed. And not without discovering the truth: that the prophecies were false, the animals were doomed to make the same mistakes the humans did, and the war with no name would never really end, not even with the Queen dead and the Colony scattered. So rather than join the new alliance with the humans, Mort(e) ran away, with Sheba at his side. To him, the only new order worth dying for consisted of two people, no more.
But the echo of the Queen remained, drifting in the wind, carried in the ocean currents, waiting for someone to listen once more. Waiting for someone to shout back so that everyone would hear, no matter where they were hiding.
The Story of Taalik
WHEN THE DARKNESS passed over the water. Taalik dreamt of the temple again. A temple far beyond the seas, ruled by an ancient queen who went to war with a race of monsters. In the dream, Taalik washed ashore on a beach at nighttime. A mere fish, unable to breathe, he slapped his tail on the sharp rocks until he felt the scales cracking. His fins strained as he tried to return to the water. His lidless eye froze stiff in its socket. And then, he rose from the sand on newly formed limbs, like a crab. The claws sprouted underneath him. He opened his mouth and splayed out his gills, and the air passed through. He did not fear the light and the wind. He did not scramble back to the lapping waves, to the muted blue haze where he was born. Instead, he stood upright, no longer weightless but still strong, defying the gravity that pulled his body to the earth. He marched toward the temple—a giant mound of dirt crawling with strange creatures, each with six legs, heavily armored bodies, mouths like the claws of a lobster. Soldiers bred for killing. They worked in unison, moving as Taalik’s people did, many individuals forming a whole. The creatures stood in rows on each side of him. Their antennae grazed him as he walked by, inspecting his scales, his fi His body continued to change with each step he took. The soldiers admired his new shape, with his segmented legs, and a flexible shell that protected his spine, and tentacles that reached out from underneath, four new arms that could grasp or crush. Here, he was no mere animal, but something more, something his people would worship, something his enemies would learn to fear.
Inside the temple, he found the Queen surrounded by her children. He waited for her to speak, and soon realized that she did not have to. He had understood the message ever since that first dream, and for every dream that followed. Taalik would rule, as the Queen did. There would be a new era of peace to wash away the millennia of bloodshed. No longer would his people slip into the depths of Cold Trench while watching out for predators. No longer would they see their children snatched away. They would learn, and adapt. And one day, his people would rise from the water and find new worlds to conquer.
Or, they would die. The Queen made him understand the starkness of it. There would be no circles of life anymore. Instead, there would be one current through the dark water, leading to conquest or extinction. Life or death. And to secure life, they would not run. They would have to kill.
TAALIK KEPT HIS eyes closed as he listened for the Queen’s voice rumbling through the water. Orak, his Prime, floated next to him. Ever since the first revelation, she knew to leave him alone at times like this. The Queen spoke to him only when she wanted to. Even after he opened his eyes and drifted there, Orak waited. The others hovered behind her. They followed her lead. She was the first to convert, the first to mate with Taalik, the first to follow the current with him. Orak kept the others in line, reminding them of their place, but attending to their needs as well, helping to protect the eggs and rear the hatchlings. As Prime, she enforced Taalik’s orders, even when they went against her counsel. She owed her life to Taalik. All the Sarcops did. But he owed his life to her.
Taalik and his people waited under the Lip, the vein of rock that jutted out into Cold Trench, offering shelter from the predators who swam above. This refuge would not hold forever. Their enemies searched for them, driven mad with fear of this new species. Taalik tried to make peace, even ceding territory to those who claimed it as their own. But some creatures, the sharks and other carnivores, would not relent. They would never hear the Queen’s song. They would never accept that the world began, rather than ended, at the surface.
Does she speak to you today, my Egg? Orak asked.
He left her waiting too long. Even Orak’s enormous patience had limits, especially with the family huddled under the Lip, the food running out. A fight had broken out the day before. Orak punished the unruly ones by ordering the soldiers to feed on their eggs. They had already uprooted the nurseries and hauled them to this desolate place. Feeding on the unborn would lighten the load, and strengthen the ones bred for war.
The Queen is silent this day, my Prime, Taalik said.
A shudder in the water. Taalik gazed into the slit above, where the Lip extended across this narrow stretch of Cold Trench. In the sliver of light he saw them, the fleet of sharks, white bellied, tails waving in unison. At the lead, fatter than the others, was the one Taalik called Graydeath. He recognized the freshly healed gash on the shark’s belly, courtesy of Taalik’s claw. Graydeath managed to bite it off in their last encounter. The darkness passed over the water forty times before the limb fully regenerated. The other Sarcops watched the healing in amazement, and declared that no one, not even the ocean’s greatest shark, could kill the Queen’s chosen one.
They smell us, Orak said.
We smell them, Taalik replied.
No enemy had ever penetrated this far into their territory, least of all an army of sharks on patrol. An act of war. It meant that the scouts Taalik dispatched had most likely been killed. He had ordered them to map the shoreline, and to find all of the shallows where his people would have the advantage. But the scouts also served as bait, drawing attention away from the Sarcops as they moved their young ones under the Lip. They die for us, my Egg, Orak told him later. Now we live for them.
Taalik watched the fleet passing overhead. He waited for the procession to end. It did not. It would not. Sharks of every breed crossed his line of sight, as thick as a bed of eels in some places. Mouths began where rear fins ended. In their rage, these solitary creatures banded together to fight a common enemy. The sharks baited him. They wanted the Sarcops to emerge and attack from the rear so that they could swoop around, encircle the strongest ones, and then descend upon the nest to destroy the eggs. Taalik saw it unfold in a vision planted by the Queen herself: Cold Trench clouded with blood. The torn membranes of eggs carried away by the current. Graydeath devouring the younglings while his followers waited for him to finish, not daring to interrupt his victory meal lest they become part of it.
Summon the Juggernauts, Taalik said.
Orak emitted a clicking sound, followed by three chirps—the signal that alerted the soldier caste. The Juggernauts formed their phalanx, with Orak as the tip of the spear.
Every year, when they hibernated, the Sarcops dreamt of the Queen and her empire. And when they awoke, the Queen bestowed upon them new gifts. A language. A philosophy. Until then, their entire existence revolved around fear. Fear of others, of both darkness and light, of the unknown. After the Queen’s revelation, and the miracles that followed, a calm determination set in. The Sarcops would not merely react to the environment. They would reshape it as they pleased. Soon their bodies changed along with their minds, as they had in Taalik’s dream. First, they sprouted limbs. Then their armored plating, making them resemble the Queen’s ferocious daughters. Their mouths and throats changed. Before long, they could make sounds to match all the images and words in their rapidly evolving brains. And then, slithering from their backs, a row of tentacles that allowed them to manipulate the world around them. Only the most loyal Sarcops advanced far enough to earn the distinction of Juggernaut alongside Taalik. The rest changed in other ways. Their senses improved, their teeth sharpened, their fists became weapons. The agile Shoots could swarm their prey. The slender Redmouths could bite into their opponent and twist their bodies, pulling away flesh and bone in a whirlpool of blood. The crablike Spikes could mimic the ocean floor, setting a trap for enemies who strayed too close. Though the Juggernauts formed the vanguard, all the Sarcops knew how to fight. All would have the chance to prove themselves worthy.
Taalik told his troops that they would follow him under the Lip at full speed. They would overtake the fleet at the northern end of the crevasse, near the water’s edge. There, Taalik would kill Graydeath in front of everyone. No more hiding. Today their enemies would learn what the Sarcops could do.
Taalik called for Zirsk and Asha, his third and seventh mates, who carried eggs in their pouches. When he confronted Graydeath, these two would release their eggs. Doing so would distract the sharks, who saw only the food in front of their faces. Orak watched them closely as they listened, ready to pounce on any sign of disapproval. As a consolation for their pending sacrifice, Taalik assured them that they would recover some of the young. We will cut them from the bellies of dead sharks, he said. The young ones will have a story to tell.
He turned away from his soldiers and headed north, using the rocky Lip for cover while keeping an eye on the movement above. He felt Orak’s presence, slightly behind him. She could lead if he died. But he would live. The Queen still had so much to show him.
Cold Trench grew shallower. The cover of the Lip gave way to open water, where the sharks blotted out the light piercing the surface. Taalik ascended, faster than the others, homing in on Graydeath. He felt so tiny in the expanse. The ground rising behind him blocked any hope of escape.
The water shivered as the sharks detected movement. Graydeath aimed his snout at the intruder. His mouth split in half, a red pit of jagged teeth. Scars from numerous battles left deep divots in his skin. A severed claw still punctured his dorsal fin, a permanent reminder of some creature that died trying to fight the sharks.
Taalik charged at him, claws unsheathed, tentacles reaching out. They collided, a sound like boulders toppling into the trench. Tumbling and twisting, Graydeath pulled free from Taalik’s grip and clamped his teeth at the root of one of his tentacles. Taalik struggled to keep the mouth open, to stop the shark from shearing off the limb at the base. Blood leaked from the puncture wounds, driving Graydeath into a new realm of delirium. Taalik tried to pluck out the eye, but Graydeath squirmed his face out of reach, using his mouth as a shield. The shark’s momentum dragged Taalik away from the battle, away from Cold Trench, and toward the shallows, where Taalik would not be able to escape.
Taalik let him do it. Sensing victory, Graydeath thrashed again, letting go of the wounded tentacle and twisting his snout toward Taalik’s head. With his claws, Taalik held the jaw open, gripping so tightly that some of the teeth broke off like brittle seashells. He pulled the shark toward land, toward the edge of the known world. They crashed onto a bed of rocks, kicking up dust and debris. A primitive creature, Graydeath nevertheless sensed the violation of the natural order that awaited him at the surface.
Desperate, he tried to buck free of his opponent. A wave caught them, slamming them onto the earth. From here, Taalik could stand. And when he did, he broke free of the water. And even with the monster still trying to tear his head off, Taalik gazed at the new world, the land of the Queen—a golden patch of fine sand stretching from one end to the other, anchoring a blue dome.
Holding his breath, he dragged the shark out of the foamy waves. Taalik’s body grew heavy, as if a giant claw pressed him under the water where he belonged. The shark’s eyes shimmered under the piercing light, stunned at the impossibility of it all. The Queen called everyone to this place, though only a few would prove worthy. Graydeath, a king of the deep, writhed in agony. No water would rush through his gills ever again. His enormous eye caked in sand, the shark trembled as his life bled away at last.
Taalik felt as though he would burst. Unable to resist any longer, he opened his mouth, allowing the gills to flare out. Water sprayed from the two openings. The strange, weightless fluid of this place flowed through him, expanding his chest and rounding his segmented back. He released it with a choking cough. Inhaling again, deeper this time, he felt the power of it. And then he let out a roar that rattled his entire body. His voice sounded so different here, higher pitched and free to skitter away in the wind. There were no waves to muffle him. He screamed his name to announce his arrival, to shake the earth so that even the Queen, in her fortress, would hear.
This shark that lay at his feet did not have a name, save the one Taalik gave to it. Graydeath did not even understand the concept of a word, how it could rumble from the throat, and swim through the water, or float in the air, before finding purchase in someone else’s mind. The Queen showed Taalik how to do this, first in his dreams, and now while he was awake.
Taalik gripped the bulging eyeball of the shark and wrenched it free of its socket. He held it aloft and said his name again and again until the blood dripped down his claw.
TAALIK TOWED GRAYDEATH to the site of the battle, where the Juggernauts overwhelmed the few sharks who remained. As Taalik expected, most of them fled when their leader disappeared. Warriors on both sides halted when they saw Graydeath with his jaw gaping, the lifeless fins flapping in the current. Detecting the scent of blood and defeat, the sharks retreated, leaving behind wounded comrades and severed body parts. Taalik immersed himself in the smell of it, the taste of it. The Juggernauts swam in great loops around him as he placed Graydeath’s corpse on the ocean floor.
Orak rushed to Taalik and immediately went about inspecting his wounds. She nudged him, forcing him to rest on the ground while she licked the gashes at the base of his tentacle, keeping them free of pathogens so they could heal. Taalik knew not to argue with her. His fourth mate, Nong-wa, attended to Orak’s injury, a bite mark near her left pectoral fin. The three of them watched as the others killed the stragglers from the fleet. Zirsk and Asha ordered the Juggernauts to slice open their bellies. As Taalik promised, some of them released the eggs they had swallowed. After inspecting them, Zirsk and Asha claimed the eggs they knew to be theirs. The others cheered them on, clicking and chirping each time they ripped open one of their captives. Sometimes, the sharks would try to swallow the eggs again as the Sarcops extracted them, unaware that they died in the process.
Nong-wa, help with the eggs, Orak said.
Nong-wa got in a few more licks before swimming over to the others.
Taalik, the First of Us, Orak said. I was afraid you would not return.
I was afraid I would not find you when I did.
These fish cannot kill me. No, Taalik said.
Another shark split open, but yielded no stolen eggs, only a small, undigested fish. The Shoots devoured both.
I must tell you something, Taalik said. I fear the others are not ready to hear.
What is it, my Egg?
I pulled that shark above the waves. The place we cannot go, from which none return.
Orak stopped licking for a second. And yet you returned. Yes. The shark died. I lived.
Taalik described the enormous weight pinning him down, the thin, tasteless air that he nevertheless could breathe. He talked about the color, the brightness of it. The Queen chose me to break this barrier, he said. The place above the sea holds our destiny.
Lead us there.
We are not ready. Too many would have to be left behind. That has not stopped us before. He knew she meant the gambit with the eggs.
There is something else, he said. He extended his claw and held out a shiny object. She reached for it with her tentacle.
What is it? she asked.
I do not know. I pulled it from the shark’s fin.
She rubbed her tentacle along the curve of the object, and then gently tapped the sharp end. A tooth? A claw, perhaps?
No. It is some kind of weapon, forged from the earth somehow. From the rock.
Who made it?
The monsters from my dream. Enemies of the Queen. They live above the surface. They tortured the shark, and his people. I saw the scars on his hide. I felt his fear. When I pulled him from the water, he thought I was one of them.
The monsters are at war with the sharks, just like us.
They are at war with everyone, Taalik said. They are more dangerous than the sharks. When the darkness passes over, I see millions of us, piled on the dirt, drying out under the sun. These monsters have hunted us for years. Destroyed our homelands. They hate us as much as they hate the Queen. Many of us will die if we proceed.
Orak returned the object to Taalik. Then we die, she said.
She swam around to face him. Behind her, the Juggernauts held another shark while Zirsk ripped him from his gills to his rear fin. You are the First of Us, Orak said. You gave us meaning and hope. But you cannot take it away. You cannot tell us what to do with it now. You gave us a choice, and we have chosen to follow you.
She continued licking his wounds, ignoring her own injury, as was her way. He wrapped a tentacle around hers, twisting several times until the suckers latched onto one another.
They would have to abandon Cold Trench, he told her. They would not survive another hibernation period, when their enemies were sure to strike. The Sarcops would move north, following the magnetic beacon at the pole. With luck, they would find a safe haven in the ice.
Before him, Zirsk and Asha nursed their eggs. Shoots and Redmouths tugged on the corpses of their prisoners until some of the sharks split in two. Taalik observed in silence. Tomorrow, he would point them toward their future.
Excerpted from D’Arc, copyright © 2017 by Robert Repino.