Durand sent a burst of rounds into an escape pod. Chunks of burning metal blew off the pod and it spiraled into a blazing fireball. She did her best to keep her distance from the pods. Other pilots had reported seeing the same screaming things she had, but none had the same close call.
She checked her gauges: low battery power and a few more seconds of sustained gauss fire left. The atmosphere below was afire with descending pods, all out of her reach. If all the pods were full of those monsters, where were they going?
“Squadron, this is Gall, give me an ammo and fuel count,” she said. “This turkey shoot can’t last forever.” Her remaining pilots called in with long pauses for each of those killed in action before the next in sequence reported.
They were halfway through when the Breitenfeld interrupted.
“Gall, this is Valdar. We’re showing clear skies around the Dotok ship, confirm?”
“Only thing I see is debris from enemy ships. Low orbit will be a bitch to deal with until all this junk clears out,” she said. She banked her Eagle to the side and got a better look at the Dotok carrier. The Dotok fighters—she could make out at least eight—hovered around the carrier like a pack of guard dogs. Tiny geysers vented precious atmosphere from a dozen hull breaches. A spray of ice crystals trailed the ship like a comet’s tail.
“Breit, she’s hurt bad, suggest you prep the flight deck for a mass casualty intake,” Durand said.
“We’re trying to reestablish comms with them now. We know they’ve got fighter craft. Did you see them in action? I don’t know if they’re going to be a help or a burden when the next fight comes to us,” Valdar said.
“Negative, they stuck close to their ship the whole time. Wait…” a glint in space caught her attention—another escape pod, this one drifting in orbit. “I’ve got another bogie in sight. Permission to rearm and refuel once this target is destroyed.”
“Granted. We’ll have the pit crews waiting.” Valdar closed the channel.
“Glue, I’m going for a pod. Herd our cats back to the ship for a hot swap. I’ll catch up,” Durand said. Glue keyed her mike twice to acknowledge. Durand changed course and set her sights on the pod, another fat teardrop of beige metal.
With the battle nearly over, Durand felt fatigue creep into her body. Adrenaline was an amazing thing in combat, but its high came with deeper and deeper lows after every contest. The dreams about what she’d seen on the Toth ship—tanks bearing disembodied nervous systems and wire probes that promised to violate her mind before ending her life—had plagued her since the mission to Anthalas. She could ask the medics for pills to help her sleep, but anything that might dull her senses was a hazard to her and the pilots that depended on her leadership.
She shifted against her seat and felt sweat trickle down the back of her flight suit. She pressed her finger against the trigger and readied to destroy the life pod. All too easy.
White-hot bullets streaked past her cockpit. Durand banked hard, her heart pounding as she gunned her thrusters. Sitting around looking for an unseen attacker was a sure way to end up as an expanding field of debris.
A Dotok fighter flew across her bow, close enough to make out stenciled letters on its hull and see the pilot. The stubby fighter executed a picture-perfect Immelmann turn and flew toward the escape pod. It maneuvered parallel to the life pod; tiny adjustments with the Dotok’s maneuver thrusters brought the fighter’s spin to match the life pod’s.
“OK, I can take a hint,” Durand said. Her cheeks burned with embarrassment. How had she been so sloppy to let any fighter sneak up on her? She flew back toward her waiting squadron.
A minute later, the same Dotok fighter came up alongside her. The pilot waved to her, then pointed back at the life pod. The pilot raised a fist, then let it fall onto his palm and raised both hands together. He repeated the gesture several times before realization dawned on her.
“Help, they need help,” Durand said. She nodded and flashed a thumbs-up to the Dotok, who reared back in his seat, seemingly surprised.
Did I just offend him? Probably. We’ll work out the finer points of their body language later, she thought.
Durand opened the search and rescue frequency. “Angels, need you to make a pick up, and it’s not what you’re thinking.”
Captain Valdar looked over Takeni’s surface from the leading edge of his bridge. Long trails of snow blew from impossibly high mountains that peaked above the troposphere, its highest points exposed to near vacuum. The mountain range ran from north to south, connected to a plain of irregular peaks on one side of it and a vast tract of desert and high mesas on the other. A canyon slowly came into view from the east.
“Remind you of Mars?” Ensign Erdahl, the communications officer asked the officer sitting in a work pod to his left.
“I was thinking that,” Lieutenant Neely said. “It just doesn’t seem right. See that line of mountains to the north? They’re running parallel to those monsters above the death line. We don’t see that on Earth. Plate tectonics drove up our mountains. What happened here…it reminds me of Miranda, Uranus’ moon. The surface of Miranda looks like a broken mirror. Ibarra’s rovers sent back a tranche of data a few years back. Everything fit the old theories that Miranda was broken apart billions of years ago then reknit itself.”
“So this is some kind of Franken-planet?” Erdahl asked.
“That’s my guess. Wouldn’t it be incredible to stay and study this place for a few years? Instead we’ll be ducking drones until whatever the skipper has planned.”
“Evacuation,” Valdar said.
The two junior officers jerked like an electrical charge shot through their seats. “We’re getting them all out.”
“Captain,” Erdahl said, “we’ve got the translation protocols worked out and the…Burning Blade is hailing us. Want it on the main screen?”
“Do it.” Valdar double-checked that the bridge was pressurized, then twisted off his helmet. He ran his fingers through his sweaty hair and smoothed out his mustache. “It’ll be nice to talk to another species that isn’t trying to kill us, won’t it?” he asked the two officers who had redoubled their attention on their workstations.
“Chance of a lifetime,” Erdahl said.
“Can I play myself in the movie?” Neely asked.
“That’s the spirit,” Valdar said.
The screen above the windows looking over the planet came to life. The same Dotok from the earlier transmission, now with crude-looking staples pinching the cut on his face together, looked at Valdar. The blunted beak of his lower jaw formed a slight under bite, his eyes looked almost human.
“Captain Valdar, correct?” the Dotok asked.
“That’s right. Are you Admiral Yon’kai?”
“No. She’s dead.” He touched two fingertips to his lips. “So is Captain Then’ol. I am Sub-Commander Ty’ken…ranking officer of all we have left in space.”
“I’m sorry to hear that. When we were on Bastion the Xaros were—”
“Do you have ground troops?” Ty’ken asked. He winced, blood seeping from the cut under his eye. “A force of noorla landed near one of our settlements. I can do nothing for them. Ancient Pa’lon can’t reach them from the capital either, not in time anyway.” A panel behind him erupted in flames. Ty’ken whirled around and hit the flames with a white spray from a chemical extinguisher. He shouted terse commands in his native tongue.
“I have a company of Marines and a few transports. How big is this settlement?” Valdar asked. “Do you need me to send over a damage control party?”
“I’ll send over everything we know,” Ty’ken said. “My engineers assure me the worst is over. Thank you for your offer. My flight deck is still on fire. Can I send my fighters to your ship? They’ve been in the cockpit for a day and a half. They need a rest.”
“So do you, Sub-Commander. Send them over. I’ll make them feel welcome.”
Ty’ken nodded quickly. “Once I’m done putting out fires, I’d like to meet you in person.” The Dotok reached for a button on the side of his screen, then hesitated. “I’m supposed to say something to you. From your ambassador on Bastion, Stacey Ibarra. Cod mittens.” The alien smiled.
Valdar’s brow furrowed.
“Yes. Cod mittens,” Ty’ken said again.
“Sir,” Ensign Geller at the navigation station piped up, “that doesn’t make sense. Cod can’t even wear mittens. They have fins.”
Every head on the bridge slowly swung toward the ensign.
“I will shut up now,” he said.
“Got missives, Captain Valdar?” Ty’ken asked.
“Gott mit uns,” Valdar said.
“Yes, that’s what I said. Do humans normally mix languages in combat situations? Seems overly confusing to me,” Ty’ken said. His screen shook as an explosion rumbled in the distance on his ship. Shouts erupted from an unseen crew and he switched off his screen.
“Bit curt, aren’t they?” Valdar mused.
“I’ve got the information on the settlement, sir,” Ericcson said. “It’ll be a stretch but we can make it.”
“Put it on the board.” Valdar clasped his hands behind his back and walked across his bridge. “Get Durand and Hale up here. This will be their fight.”
Lafayette worked a thin screw tip into the base of his cybernetic wrist and made a slight adjustment. His left arm ended with a stump, the hand missing. The machinery whirled around, changing directions several times. He shook his head and picked up a different tool.
His workshop was in the same purpose built container as the omnium reactor. The great machine hummed with energy as thick cables ran from its center to the Shanishol control stations bolted to the floor next to Lafayette. Tiny stickers with English script were stuck atop the original language of the last users of the machine, rough translations to the function of each control and lever.
“I can hear you,” Lafayette said.
“How?” Steuben stepped from around a container. “I could sneak up on a fiilka without being noticed. Your ears are much smaller.”
“Well, old friend, I don’t exactly have ears anymore. Do I?” Lafayette tapped the metal that encased his head from beneath his jaw up to the top of his skull.
“The humans taught me a word, ‘cheat.’ It means to do something beyond the limits of rules,” Steuben said.
“Well, I didn’t choose this augmentation. I’m hardly the one doing this cheat thing you speak of.” Lafayette pointed his stump to an open box. “Give me a hand, would you?”
Steuben rummaged through the box and took out a hand, dissimilar to the four fingered hand with talon tips that he had.
“Five fingers? You’ve been with these humans for too long. I’ll report you to Kosciusko for treason,” Steuben said as he handed the appendage to Lafayette.
“You’re the one wearing their armor and I’m treasonous?”
“I wear the armor for a purpose. Standing out on the battlefield is a sure way to attract attention—and bullets. You understand the etymology of the word ‘uniform’, correct?” Steuben crossed his arms.
Lafayette snapped the new hand against his wrist and flexed the hand against the range of motion. He tapped each forefinger against the thumb, encountering some difficulty making the ring finger move as he desired.
“My nervous system is meant for four fingers. This will take some getting used to,” Lafayette said.
“I don’t understand why you bother. Use your four fingers as your three parents made you.”
“Improvement, Steuben. Self-improvement. After the Xaros left me with…so little to work with, I had to recreate my own body. Fiddling with capabilities has become something of a hobby,” Lafayette tried to pick up a wrench with his new hand and fumbled with it. “You’re heading to the surface, aren’t you? Normally you’d spend this time glaring at people.”
Steuben pulled the broken pieces of his short sword from a sack and put them on a work bench.
“Again?” Lafayette asked.
“Yes, again. Just fix it.”
“Very well, let me show you something amazing at the same time.” Lafayette picked up the broken pieces and brought them to the omnium reactor. He opened a cabinet near the end of the machine and set the pieces inside. The control panel came to life with a flip of the switch. The two pieces of the sword came up on a screen. A grid overlay with Shanishol language slid across the screen.
“The engineers on Bastion promised the schematics for a better interface will be waiting for us on Earth. I’ve had to make do with what I can figure out in the meantime,” Lafayette said. His nine fingers danced across the controls and a puff of air and light flared in the cabinet. The sword vanished from the screen.
Steuben put a heavy hand on Lafayette’s shoulder, claw tips working into the exposed joint. “Lafayette. What have you done? That blade has been in my family for almost a thousand years.”
“Relax. This is the neat part.” The reactor hummed to life. Pale blue light glowed from inside the reactor. “Your blade has been converted into omnium—pure energy in solid form. Something of a contradiction, yes. That’s what this machine does. It transforms energy to matter, matter to energy with no loss. Nuclear weapons do the mass to energy transition, but this reactor does it without any of the radiation…massive fireballs.”
Steuben’s grip on Lafayette’s shoulder tightened.
“Did I mention it does so perfectly? Now it will recreate your weapon, perfectly down to the molecular level,” Lafayette hit a button and a red light came on atop the cabinet.
Steuben opened it and withdrew his blade made whole. He tested the weapon’s weight, balancing it on top of a claw tip. He held the hilt up to his nose and smelled the leather straps running over the cross guard.
“I can’t tell the difference,” Steuben said.
“Perfect, just as I said. Even uses the same energy your blade was made from. Don’t call it a copy,” Lafayette said. “I can recreate most anything that had a template stored within the computer.”
“There are old stories of people who could turn lead into gold,” Steuben said.
“Give me a handful of lead and it would transform it into an equal mass of gold,” Lafayette said.
“Why aren’t you using this to mass produce quadrium? We’ll need more of it if we fight the Xaros.”
“Yes, there are a few limitations. Quadrium, and other exotic forms of matter, takes a significantly longer time to manufacture. It would take days for this machine to make one of the smaller munitions you use in a gauss rifle. Also, if I put a complex piece of technology into the machine, it will take longer to recreate. Your blade is simple but your rifle would take days,” Lafayette said.
“The Xaros strip any trace of a planet’s intelligent species…then convert it all into this omnium? Why?”
“Maybe they’ll rebuild those worlds by their own template. The omnium is just the building blocks. The Xaros have a much more sophisticated understanding of the technology. We’re playing around with paper airplanes compared to their spacecraft,” Lafayette said.
Steuben grunted and sheathed his blade across his lower back.
“I just described the most advanced discovery in the field of material sciences known to the Alliance and all I get is a humph?”
Steuben clapped his hands with little enthusiasm.
“Barbarian. I don’t know why I bother with you.”
Steuben stepped over an open tool box on his way out.
“Wait, Steuben. I’ve been meaning to ask you something. When you were on the Toth ship, you spoke with the ship masters. Do you think there’s any chance that there could be more of us?” Centuries ago, the Toth, acting under the guise of allies, invaded the Karigole home world and murdered the entire population to fuel the Toth’s neural-stimulus addiction. Only a hundred Karigole were off world during the holocaust, and only four survived since then.
“No, Lafayette. There is no hope for us. Accept it. But, I will not be the last. Ghul’thul’ghul, brother.”
“Ghul’thul’ghul,” Lafayette returned to the reactor. He took a small anti-gravity plate and put it in the cabinet.
Torni pushed a case of rifle batteries into a compartment and tightened a strap over the top. Every spare inch of the cargo bay on the Mule drop ship was full of rations, medical supplies and ammo. There would be barely enough room for her squad, but comfort was never a factor for Marines.
“Sarge,” Standish stuck his head down from the upper turret, “we know where we’re going yet? Or what we’re doing? We’re packing like we’re going to retake Tokyo.”
“If you’re talking to me that means you’ve finished the pre-flight checks on that turret. Correct?” Torni said, not bothering to look up at him.
“Sure thing, Sarge, ready to rock and roll,” Standish said with a smile. “Hey, can we breathe the air down there? I’ve got air tanks loaded, but if we gotta haul more filters and fresh O2, we can’t carry as much boom-boom.”
“The atmosphere is breathable in the deep canyons, which is where all the civilians are. The air thins out on the plateaus and mountain ranges. There, the atmo is a little thicker than what we’ve got on Mars,” Torni said. She marked numbers on a manifest and shook her head. “Standish, how many Q-rounds do you still have for your rifle?”
“Five,” Standish said, a little too quickly.
“I mean twelve. I didn’t count the extras I have on a spare bandolier,” Standish said.
“Give me half. We’ve got to cross level across all the squads and gold team is out.”
Standish unsnapped the bandolier across his chest and dropped it into Torni’s waiting hands.
“Let me guess, there are no more Q-rounds in the armory,” Standish said.
“Correct. Don’t miss.” Torni wrapped the bandolier around her forearm.
“Sarge!” Bailey called as she ran up the Mule’s ramp. “Deck boss needs some muscle. They’re about to crack open that Dotok escape pod that search and rescue brought in. Orozco’s already over there.”
Standish dropped down from the turret and picked up his helmet from a cubbyhole over a bench.
“I wonder what’s in this one,” Standish said. The three Marines trotted across the flight deck toward the escape pod. A team of engineers with cutting torches stood next to it, waving to the pod. The pod looked like it had been tossed down the side of a mountain, dents and gashes marring the surface.
“No screaming this time, Standish,” Torni said.
“I don’t…know…what you’re talking about,” Standish said.
“You going to fill me in, Sarge?” Bailey asked.
Torni slowed down and nodded to Orozco, now clad in his heavy gunner’s armor, the grounding stakes built into his boots and stabilization rig across his back and shoulders adding to his already considerable bulk.
“You talking about the first time you met the Karigole?” Orozco asked.
“Slander! Second- and third hand stories blown completely out of proportion,” Standish said, shifting from foot to foot.
“I was there, Standish,” Torni said. The engineers fired their torches and started cutting into the side of the escape pod.
“Let me preface this story with the fact that I remember things very differently,” Standish said.
“We picked up the Karigole pod when it first came through the Crucible,” Torni said. “Naturally, command didn’t bother to tell us what was in it. Steuben slapped his hand against the side of a viewport and Standish started screaming like a little girl.”
“I-I…maybe,” Standish said.
“We got the cargo hold pressurized and Steuben climbs out of the pod. By this time, Standish is backed into a corner screaming ‘Don’t eat me! Don’t eat me!’ at the top of his lungs,” Torni said, pausing the story until Bailey and Orozco could stop laughing. “The four Karigole are just looking at each other while I’m trying to calm Standish down.”
“OK, in my defense, I’ve never had first contact training and have you seen what Steuben looks like?” Standish asked.
“You really need training to tell you that wetting your pants in front of a new species is a bad idea?” Bailey asked.
“What is the nature of this discussion?” Steuben asked as he walked over, Yarrow at his side.
“Oh great,” Standish shook his head.
“Recounting the time we first met,” Torni said to Steuben. The Karigole, six and a half feet of green-scaled muscle, wiped his four-fingered hand across his squat nose. He’d taken to human armor and weapons since they’d encountered the Toth on Anthalas, a race that considered Steuben’s centuries-old mind a delicacy. Wearing armor which set him apart from the Marines he fought beside made him a tempting target for the Toth.
“Is this the story about why the rest of the Karigole call Standish ‘Squeaky’?” Yarrow asked.
“Who filled new guy’s head full of lies? I bet it was Gunney Cortaro. Tall tales to keep this cherry’s spirits high,” Standish said.
Steuben unslung his rifle from over his shoulder and checked the battery power. “We thought we came to the wrong planet. The high-pitched noise coming from Standish didn’t match the language files we trained with prior to our mission. Lafayette thought ‘Don’t eat me’ was a traditional human greeting.”
“I didn’t say exactly…that.” Standish pointed to the escape pod where the engineers were cutting through a hinge. “Look, almost done. Anyone else concerned one of those banshees might be in there? Focus, Marines. We’ve got a job to do.”
The Marines powered up their rifles and pointed them to the opening the engineers had almost completed.
“‘Don’t eat me!’” Bailey said in a high-pitched voice. Orozco and Yarrow joined in, repeating the phrase and adding their voices to a chorus.
“Shut up! All of you!” Standish’s hands shook with rage as he wagged his rifle from side to side.
A section of the drop pod fell to the deck with a thump. Inside, a Dotok in a body glove shielded a prone figure with its body. The Dotok breathed heavily, brandishing a small knife at the Marines.
Torni lowered her weapon and raised a hand. “Friend, friend,” she said and raised her visor, exposing her face to the Dotok.
“Their word is meln,” Steuben said. He raised his visor and bent over to look into the pod. “Meln!” he thundered.
The Dotok started screaming.
“See, perfectly natural reaction,” Standish said.
“Steuben, back off,” Torni said, guiding the Karigole aside with a gentle push. Torni waved the Dotok toward her and repeated the only Dotok word she knew. The Dotok hesitated, then lowered its knife. It crawled toward Torni and accepted a hand out of the escape pod. The alien was short, barely reaching Torni’s collarbone. By the curves in its body glove, Torni figured it was a she.
The Dotok looked over the smiling faces of the Marines and pulled off her helmet. Her hair was wild and mussed, her deep green skin flushed. Torni thought the alien woman’s features were almost Slavic.
“Torni,” the sergeant said, tapping her chest.
“Shor,” the Dotok said, repeating the gesture.
Steuben extended a four-fingered, clawed hand toward Shor. Shor skipped back and cowered behind Torni.
“Give her some space, Steuben,” Torni said.
“I wonder if she thinks you just might eat her,” Standish said.
“Shut up, Standish,” more than one Marine said.
Torni looked into the pod at the other Dotok, strapped onto a stretcher. Torni raised a knee to crawl inside. A gentle touch on her shoulder pulled her back.
“Ehtan,” Shor said.
“Does he need help?” Torni tried to climb in again. Shor pulled her back.
“He’s dead,” Steuben said.
Shor pressed two fingers to her lips.
Torni nodded to the Dotok and stepped back from the pod.
“So, what do we do with her?” Orozco asked.
“Let me ask the lieutenant,” Torni said. “The rest of you get back to loading up our Mule.”
The flight deck vibrated as a Dotok fighter came through the force field at the aft end of the flight deck. Eagles and Dotok followed in a steady procession.
Durand double checked that her ejection seat was disabled, then opened her canopy. The first day of flight school started with a video of an unfortunate pilot who didn’t make the same precaution, and she’d never forgotten the lesson.
“Oye, lassie!” MacDougall hooked a ladder against the side of her cockpit. “Who the hell are they?” The crew chief waved a hand at the Dotok fighters that had landed in a scrum in the middle of the flight deck.
“Guests,” she said. “Try to make them feel welcome.” She removed her helmet and shook out her shoulder length raven-black hair. She climbed down from her fighter and spotted Glue. Durand waved to get her attention.
One of the Dotok pilots struggled down the ladder the deck crew wheeled up to his fighter. The alien’s legs quivered as it came down the steps one at a time. He set foot on the deck and fell to his knees. Durand ran to him and fumbled with the latches fixing his helmet to the rest of his suit.
Durand got the helmet off and became the first human to get a good dose of Dotok body odor. The Dotok’s cheeks were sunken, its lips cracked and dry. He looked at Durand and made a drinking motion. He fell back against the ladder with a groan.
“Water! Get him some water,” Durand said to the nearest crewman. She knelt next to him and put a hand on his shoulder. “How long were you in the saddle, mon ami?”
The Dotok’s mouth smacked like a dry husk being ripped apart. A crewman handed Durand a canteen. She unscrewed the top and pressed it into his hands. The Dotok sniffed at the water, then took a tentative sip. He swallowed hard, then downed the rest of the canteen.
“Glue, the rest of them will be like this,” she said to the Chinese pilot. “Captain needs me on the bridge. Get our birds topped off with bullets and—”
“Gall!” The heavily accented word rang out over the din of the flight deck. A Dotok pilot stood next to Durand’s fighter, pointing at her call sign stenciled against her cockpit. The pilot looked young, almost in his late teens by human standards, his head bald but for a braid of dark hair on the back of his head.
“I think you made a fan,” Glue said.
“When did they learn to read English?” Durand asked. She stood up and waved to the Dotok. “I’m Gall.”
The Dotok’s face darkened and it stomped toward Durand, pointing to her. Angry sounding words came from him as he approached. He got within a dozen feet and hurled his helmet at Durand.
Durand brought her own helmet up and tried to block the projectile. The thrown helmet struck her fingers and sent pain shooting up her arm.
The Dotok broke into a run, a fist raised behind his head.
Durand backpedaled and bumped into a Dotok fighter, one hand up and her head shaking.
The enraged alien got within arm’s reach when Glue clocked him across the jaw. His head lolled over his neck and he fell to the deck like a puppet with its strings cut.
Dotok pilots rushed over and laid the unconscious pilot out against the deck.
“What the hell?” Durand asked.
“You really don’t make a great first impression, ma’am,” Glue said, her hand brushing against the thigh where Durand shot her months ago.
Shor pushed her way through the Dotok pilots. She slapped the prone Dotok across the face until he came to. The two locked eyes and embraced, the man crying like he’d just found a long lost child.
“You almost killed his wife.” The mechanical tinged words came from the pilot sitting against the stairs. He had a square shaped speaker in his hand, which he raised up to his mouth and spoke. “Bar’en is ill-tempered at times. Forgive him.” The translated words came from the speaker.
“You got a name?” Durand asked. Her words came through the speaker in Dotok.
“Martin, welcome to the Breitenfeld,” Durand said. “You tell hothead over there he swings at me again and I’ll shoot him in the dick. I’ve got to get to the bridge and figure out how we’re going to save this planet. Excuse me.”
Durand jogged toward the elevators and caught a dirty look from Bar’en along the way.