The Autumn War

Please note: this story is in progress and will be updated regularly.

PROLOGUE: THE FALL OF KERGUELA

Sickly-green lightning flashed, illuminating the roiling storm clouds that hung over the skyscrapers, blotting out the light from the suns. They were joined by the smoke from the fires that were raging all around the city. Great plumes of it rose into the air, burning embers floating on the wind, the acrid taste stinging Xipa’s tongue with each breath that she took.

The clouds parted as something massive descended, larger than any craft that should have been able to fly under its own power. Like a monster from a half-remembered nightmare, it was a mess of impossibly long, segmented limbs, all of them tucked beneath its bulbous belly like some kind of ocean-going crustacean. Along its flanks were engine nozzles, part mechanical and part organic, spewing jets of emerald flame as they flexed and swiveled on their muscular mounts to keep the craft steady. Still shrouded in the smog, it was hard to make out any more of its features, but its sheer mass was oppressive. It must have been near a kilometer long and half as wide, bearing down on the city like a falling moon.

The backwash from the engines was incredible, tearing at Xipa’s uniform, blowing her feathers like a hurricane as their thunder deafened her. The gale whipped up clouds of dust from the street, stripping some of the nearby trees of their red leaves. Was it trying to land right on top of them?

A series of loud cracks rose over the roar, her eyes tracking a barrage of objects that launched from the near side of the behemoth, sailing over her head. They were teardrop-shaped, their surfaces an amalgam of off-green flesh and chitin that had been overlaid with protective plating that reflected the orange glow of the fires with a metallic sheen. As they arced towards the ground, membranous parachutes deployed from their tapered ends, catching the air to slow their descent. Still, they moved like missiles, Xipa watching one of them slam into the facade of a nearby skyscraper. It cratered into the side of the building, sending fragments of broken glass and twisted metal raining to the streets far below, the nearby onlookers letting out wails of dismay. Another of them came down directly on one of the raised mag-lev lines, glancing off it to land somewhere out of view, severing the magnetic rail. Some of the supports gave out, and it collapsed, keeling over with a sound of tearing metal as it dragged another few hundred meters of track along with it.

“Come on!” Nimi said, taking her by the arm. “We have to get out of here!”

Xipa turned to glance at her, the alarmed yellow hue of her feathery headdress snapping her out of her stupor. The rest of the flock was behind her, Chala and Noyo looking on in confusion. They were all wearing matching uniforms, the white and grey tones of the city guard contrasting with the greens of their scales.

There were civilians running all over the place in a blind panic, some retreating to the nearby buildings for cover, others standing with their jaws agape as they stared up at the unbelievable scene that was unfolding before them. It must be the same all over the city. How were they supposed to maintain order in a situation like this?

“Where are we supposed to go?” Noyo demanded, the trailing feather sheaths on her head and forearms erupting in a display of frustrated red. “The city is under siege!”

“What are these things?” Chala wailed, flinching as another salvo of pods was fired from the alien craft. “Why are they doing this?”

“It doesn’t matter!” Nimi insisted, steeling herself. “We have a job to do, so we’re going to do it. We can’t allow ourselves to be paralyzed by indecision right now.”

“W-we’re supposed to go back to the station when an emergency is declared,” Chala stammered. “Then, we wait for further instructions.”

“Our job is to get these people to safety,” Nimi corrected her, glancing at the gaggle of civilians that packed the street. “There are people who need our help right now. Half of the city is on fire.”

“We should make our way back to the station, but help whoever we can along the way,” Xipa finally said. Nimi released her arm, her feathers rustling in a show of approval. “We need to find out what’s going on. I can’t get a connection to the city’s servers,” she added, giving the touch panel that was built into the sleeve of her suit a frustrated tap with her three-fingered hand. “It’s not a radiation storm this time. The whole network is down.”

“What should we do about all these people?” Noyo added. “Should we tell them to take shelter in their homes?”

“That’s probably for the best,” Nimi replied with a nod. “At least if they’re inside, they won’t be hit by any falling debris.”

The rumble of an explosion made them all duck reflexively, the four women glancing up into the sky to see great bolts of green fire raining down from the spacecraft. A torrent of what looked like crackling energy was pouring through the cloud layer, hammering the city relentlessly, striking a target on the far side of the skyscrapers. All the while, more pods fell to the ground like shed scales, impacting all around them. The great vessel was extending its mass of spindly, insect-like legs now, spreading them out as though it intended to make landfall.

Nimi leapt up onto a nearby information kiosk, rising above the crowd as she fanned her arm-feathers to get their attention.

“You all need to return to your homes!” she yelled, her voice barely rising above the din. “Please stay inside until the city guard gives the all-clear!”

The rest of the flock did their best to help, trying to guide people off the street and into the nearby buildings.

“This way,” Xipa said, helping along a frightened male who had a baby bundled up in his arms. The child was barely old enough to be out of the incubator, its tail tightly wrapped around one of its father’s limbs, its little hands taking fistfuls of his tunic. Every time there was an explosion or a loud noise, it would let out a shrill yelp, its underdeveloped feathers flashing in displeasure. “Where is your flock?”

“They’re…they’re at work,” he replied, looking on in bewilderment as the crowd slowly began to disperse. “They’re hydroponic farmers, down in the industrial district. I tried to call them, but I couldn’t reach them. The networks are all down.”

“Try to get underground if you can,” Xipa advised. “Do you have a basement? It will be safer there.”

They were interrupted by another loud noise, looking up to see an aircraft doing a low pass between the towering buildings. It was a skimmer, its rounded hull painted white, held aloft by a rotor mounted atop the craft. They were short-range vehicles usually used for transport or as air-ambulances. It was a relief to see that emergency services were responding. As Xipa watched, a green bolt lanced forth from the monstrous ship, striking the skimmer. It erupted into a ball of flame, practically disintegrating in the air. The burning hulk immediately began to fall, smoke and droplets of molten metal trailing in its wake, the wreck landing somewhere out of view.

“W-why did they do that!?” the male lamented, holding his child close. “That was an ambulance!”

“Get off the street!” Nimi called out again, Chala and Noyo hurrying people into whatever buildings were nearby. “Get off the street and stay under cover!”

“Come on,” Xipa said, steering the male into the door of a nearby restaurant. The patrons all had their scaly snouts pressed up against the long window that looked out onto the street, craning their necks to watch the spectacle. “All of you, get down into the cellar if you have one!” Xipa barked as she leaned through the doorway. “Take cover!”

Being yelled at by a city guard was enough to get them moving, and the owners of the establishment began to wave people towards the back of the room. Hopefully, they had some kind of underground storage area for their food.

Once everyone was off the street, the four guards turned tail, their clawed feet clicking on the road as they ran past the neat rows of native trees that had been cultivated to provide shade. Whenever they encountered another group of confused civilians, they ordered them back inside, trying to get as many people to safety as they could.

The once pristine, white buildings rose up to either side of them, some of them so high that their peaks skirted the clouds. Each one of them was a work of architectural art in its own right, sporting ornate buttresses or flowing sculptures, ensuring that no two were alike. There were balconies and terraces on every floor, more curious citizens leaning out to get a look at the stormy sky. It was as though they didn’t understand the danger they were in, but Xipa had no way to reach them from the ground. Some of the skyscrapers further towards the city center were scarred by weapons fire now, the material melted like soft plastic where it had been struck, uncontrolled fires raging on the upper floors. The city was arranged into a series of concentric rings – residential, industrial, and cultural – each one separated by a band of parkland. There were no defenses save for the high perimeter wall at the outskirts, no anti-air guns, no landing strips for fighters. Why would there be? There hadn’t been a war on Valbara for generations, so why would their burgeoning colony have needed to be so heavily defended?

The four women tired quickly, ill-suited to traveling such distances on foot. They peeled off the street, taking refuge in an alley between two of the buildings, its far-end blocked by fallen rubble. It was even gloomier here, but a nearby neon sign cast them in its glow, its pink hue hinting at the kind of entertainment it promised. It was hanging above a set of stairs that led down below street level, probably into an abandoned basement some city planner had overlooked, later converted into a lounge. It was the kind of establishment that a city guard might investigate under normal circumstances, but it was probably one of the safest places to be right now.

“We need to find a vehicle. We’ll never make it back to the station on foot,” Noyo sighed as she locked her digitigrade legs to catch a breather.

“Never a scooter rental around when you need one, right?” Chala chuckled bitterly.

“I wouldn’t trust the mag-levs rights now,” Xipa added, fiddling with the panel on her wrist again. “There was a terminal nearby, but one of those pod-things took out the line.” The screen displayed an error message, and she struck it angrily, making it waver for a moment. “Worthless thing!”

“Still nothing?” Nimi asked.

“They might be hitting the comms towers,” she replied, giving her flockmate an exasperated flurry of purple. “Maybe that’s why all the networks are down. What the fuck do they want?”

“I can’t believe something that big just appeared from thin air,” Nimi added. “Nobody heard anything before the network went down? No warnings at all?”

“I don’t have any missed alerts,” Xipa replied. “What is this? Are we at war with somebody? Are they aliens?”

“We’ve been living on this planet for twenty years, you’d think we’d notice if there were any aliens here,” Chala scoffed.

“You got a better explanation?” Nimi snapped. “There’s a giant crustacean the size of a spaceport terminal hovering over the city, if you hadn’t noticed.”

“But, why would they attack us?” Chala demanded. “We don’t even have a military, we don’t have any weapons. Why would a species with the technology and the resources to cross the stars bomb a city and shoot down hospital skimmers? That doesn’t make any sense.”

“Is this it?” Noyo asked in disbelief. “Is this what first contact is like? Some giant ship appears over our population centers and turns them to rubble?”

“It doesn’t matter right now,” Nimi said, the other three turning to her. “We need to focus on getting back to the station and linking up with the rest of the guard. They’ll know more than we do by now.”

When they had caught their breath, they made their way out into the street again, their heads on a swivel as they took in the carnage. Most of the damage seemed to be far-off, but it was impossible to ignore the plumes of smoke on the horizon. They walked for a while longer, advising all of the civilians that they encountered to go back inside their homes. It wasn’t long before they came across a glass awning where two dozen scooters were parked in a rack, two-wheeled transports with a long handle that were favored for traveling longer distances in the city.

“Finally,” Nimi grumbled, tapping at the touch panel that would release the locks. It was mounted on one of the chrome pillars that held up the awning. When that didn’t work, she tried scanning her wrist computer across it, cocking her head in confusion.

“Network’s down,” Xipa explained. “The system can’t check in to authorize a rental.”

“Damn it,” Nimi sighed. “Hang on, maybe I can short it out,” she added as she popped a maintenance panel on the pillar.

As they waited, there was a sound of tearing metal, Xipa turning her head to see one of the misshapen pods glancing off the side of a building behind them. It impacted perhaps twenty floors up, tearing a deep groove in the material, skipping off it like a stone. The membranous parachute tore, and the thing began to arc towards them, Xipa yelling a warning. The four women darted for the safety of another nearby alley, but the pod sailed over their heads, cratering into the road ahead of them. It tore it up like a plow, leaving a deep furrow, finally coming to a rest.

Slowly, Xipa crept out onto the street, her flock following her. The object was larger than it had first appeared, perhaps fifteen or twenty meters long. Its surface was covered in uneven, organic material that looked like mottled flesh, which was overlaid with plates of bone. That, too, was covered over with metal armor that was concentrated towards the rounded front of the thing. The tattered parachute was hanging from the tapered end by sinewy cables, the brown-colored, leathery fabric draped across the road.

Some civilians from the nearby buildings were starting to come out now, craning their necks to get a look, their feathers flashing in shades of curiosity and apprehension. Xipa sprang into action, waving them back, the strangers seeming relieved to see a city guard on the scene.

“Keep away from it!” she warned, putting herself between them and the object. She could feel the heat coming off it, even from a distance.

“What is it?” one of the braver females asked, her flock grouped up behind her.

“We don’t know,” Xipa replied, her companions helping to keep the onlookers at a safe distance.

“Could it be unexploded munitions?” Nimi said, leaning closer to whisper so as not to cause a panic. “A bomb that hasn’t gone off?”

“I haven’t seen any of them explode yet,” she replied, keeping her voice low. “Whatever it is, it’s nothing good. We need to get these people out of here.”

Before Nimi could reply, a great chunk of the pod suddenly popped off, ejected into the air with a hiss of escaping gasses. The thirty or so onlookers darted back as it landed on the street with a metallic clang, bouncing off the road before coming to a stop. It was a large, vaguely ovular piece of shell, its underside covered in what could only be described as wet meat. Xipa’s feathers flashed with fear as her eyes wandered up to the hole it had left in the pod, a jagged wound that revealed a fleshy interior, shrouded in shadow.

She reached for the stun gun on her belt reflexively, her fingers gripping the polymer handle as though it might provide her some comfort. It was a close-range weapon designed to incapacitate with an electric current, nothing more. Raising her other arm, she tried to ward the crowd back, but they were too transfixed by the odd sight to pay her any mind.

A glint of color caught the light, a vibrant, iridescent orange. It was a three-fingered hand, not so different from her own, gripping the lip of the orifice. It was covered in what might be a hard shell, or maybe some kind of armored suit.

The crowd looked on with bated breath as a head rose up. It was rounded, more like a helmet than a skull, a branching horn like that of a beetle sprouting from its forehead. It peered back at them with a pair of lens-like, compound eyes, each one as large as a balled fist. Instead of a mouth, it had what resembled a set of mandibles, little finger-like appendages that flexed and snapped.

“That’s a fucking alien!” Chala hissed, her eyes as wide as Xipa had ever seen them. The thing flinched as her feathers flashed yellow in surprise, Xipa gesturing for her to keep still.

“Don’t make any sudden movements!” she warned.

There was a low murmur from the crowd, some of them slowly retreating, others watching in fascination. The creature was oddly beautiful, its carapace catching the light to make it shine, the hues shifting subtly as it moved. More of them rose up behind it, each one with a different color. There were blues, reds, greens – every color of the rainbow.

“What do you think they’re doing?” Nimi whispered, sidling up beside Xipa.

“They’re probably as curious about us as we are of them,” she replied. Was it too much to hope that this whole attack might be some kind of misunderstanding? Slowly, she moved her hand away from her stun gun, raising her scaly palms to show that she wasn’t armed.

There was a sudden rush of movement, one of the aliens lifting a long, orange tube made from some kind of uneven resin. It pointed the thing into the crowd, a pair of metal rails on the near end crackling with arcs of green energy as the air filled with an electric hum. The creature never gave any warning, never made any attempt to communicate what it wanted, it just started to fire.

Bolts of green energy poured into the crowd, burning whoever they touched like acid, the stench of charred flesh rising to Xipa’s nostrils as she watched people start to drop. It took a moment for panic to set in, as though nobody could process what was happening, then they began to run. The alien’s companions lifted themselves out of the pod, dropping to the shattered street below, Xipa getting a better view of the things. They were bipedal insects, with two digitigrade legs and four segmented arms, their gaunt bodies encased in a shining exoskeleton.

Xipa was frozen to the spot like a statue, even as the aliens raised their two-pronged pistols, shooting them at the fleeing citizens. Those crackling bolts burned through clothing and flesh like paper, sending their wailing victims skidding to the ground, writhing as their bodies cooked.

The insects still inside the pod were laying down covering fire as though it was necessary, as if their unarmed victims were firing back at them, but they weren’t. It didn’t make any sense…

She finally snapped out of her stupor as Nimi grabbed her by the arm, her feather sheath coiling around her limb like a tentacle as she dragged her away.

“Run!” she yelled, the flock joining the fleeing citizens. They darted back into the nearby alley, Xipa leaning out to get another glimpse of the aliens. They were pouring out of the pod now, two or three dozen of them, popping shields made of wavering energy that were mounted on their forearms. They stalked between the bodies, their mandibles clicking as they examined the dead, fanning out into a wide formation as they began to advance down the street. They were still loosing off shots, the occasional screams of their victims making Chala cover her ears.

“T-they’re killing everyone!” she hissed, choking back her panic. “W-why?”

“They’re between us and the station,” Nimi replied, checking the map that was stored on her wrist computer’s memory. “We’ll have to find another way around.”

Xipa was glad of her strong nerves. Nimi always managed to keep the flock together when there was an emergency. She was their rock.

“Shouldn’t we try to do something?” Noyo protested. “All those people are-”

“Do what?” Nimi snapped. “We’re being invaded. That much is obvious now. We need to meet up with the rest of the city guard and pray that they have something better than fucking stun guns.”

“Oh, no, no!” Xipa squealed, covering her mouth to stifle her voice. Across the street, half a dozen of the aliens had separated from the group and were headed for a residential building. They lined up in a row as they prepared to breach it, one of them raising a pronged pistol to fire at the door. The metal slagged under the bolts of energy, melting inward, glowing red like it had been subjected to the heat of a cutting torch. The insects raced inside, the sound of screaming carrying across the street, flashes of green lighting up the dark interior.

“They’re going door to door!” Xipa gasped. “We told people to stay inside their homes, but they’re-”

“There’s nothing we can do!” Nimi insisted. “Back down the alley,” she added, waving them along hurriedly as she turned around. “Quickly! Those things are coming this way!”

Xipa couldn’t stand the thought of leaving all of those people to their fates, but Nimi was right. They were powerless to help. She turned to follow her flock as they made their way down the alley, exiting on the adjacent street just as one of the creatures appeared at the far end. Its green eyes glowed in the shadows as it looked around, then continued on its way, a procession of them following behind it.

They had no choice but to press on, watching the skies for any sign of more pods. Those things had come down all over the city. Xipa had seen that giant ship fire dozens of them, hundreds. Nowhere was safe anymore.

They located another scooter rack, and Nimi was able to get this one open after some fiddling with the wires, the flock riding the two-wheeled vehicles down the street. More than once, they came across a road that had been blocked by fallen debris, and even an empty pod that had already disgorged its troops, having to check the map to find a way around the obstacle. Whenever they came across survivors, they warned them to hide as best they could and to refrain from going outside. Xipa knew that it wouldn’t protect them if the alien soldiers came to their door, but there was nothing else they could do. Kerguela was a relatively peaceful moon, with no weather so severe that shelters were required. There was the occasional radiation storm from the gas giant, but those just made comms a little fuzzy for a few days. There was no dedicated place where the citizens could take refuge. There had never been any need of one.

The guard station finally came into view, a squat, wide building that contrasted with the tall spires that surrounded it. More red and orange bushes were cultivated in planters along the paved path that led up to the door, an information kiosk sitting on the street just outside. Fortunately, there was no sign of any damage.

The flock pulled up nearby, leaving their scooters behind as they approached the building. Xipa could see movement beyond the two windows that looked out onto the road, the door sliding open as they approached, one of their fellow guards poking her head out with a flash of relieved green.

“Get inside,” she hissed, waving them in. The four women piled into the small lobby and were greeted by maybe fifteen of their colleagues, all of them wearing the same uniforms. Some of them were fully suited up, wearing gloves and boots, along with full-faced helmets. Their feather sheaths were slotted into long tubes that hung down from the backs of their heads, sensors translating the movements of their feathers into patterns on light panels that ran down their length. There was a single male, a receptionist who was standing behind a desk, his vibrant feathers puffed up in a display of perpetual unease as he repeatedly tapped at a touch panel on his desk.

“Some more stragglers,” the woman who had opened the door announced. “We’ve been hoping that more guards would make their way here,” she added, turning back to Xipa and her flock. “With all of the communication networks down, there’s no way to put out an alert.”

“We have to start evacuating people right now,” Nimi said, stepping forward. “There are…things out there, riding down in the pods. They’re killing everyone.”

“We know,” the woman replied solemnly. “Not all of us made it back to the station…”

“There should be enough of us now,” another of the guards said, her voice coming through tinny on her helmet speakers. The mirrored visor was closed, and she was pulling on her gloves. The suits could be sealed in an emergency, such as a fire or a gas leak, and they were equipped with air filters.

“Enough of us for what?” Xipa asked.

“The plan is to start evacuating the district,” the first guard began. “Tlazo rode the mag-lev down from the spaceport when that alien ship started firing,” she said, gesturing to a colleague with tan scales. “She says the Ensis and a lot of guards are already there, and they’re setting up a temporary HQ. There are shuttles in the hangars that can make orbit under their own power, enough to get us off this rock and up to a jump-capable ship. We figure the rest of the districts will probably come to the same conclusion, even if nobody can get word to them. We’d hoped to have more guards, there are a lot of people to move, but we can’t wait any longer. If we don’t act soon, there won’t be anyone left to evacuate, and all the ships will be gone.”

“We’re evacuating the city?” Xipa asked in disbelief.

“No, we’re evacuating the colony,” the guard replied solemnly. “The last report that the Ensis got from Kerguela control before the comms went down was that there were ships over several other cities. It’s not just happening here.”

“There’s no way there are enough shuttles to evacuate the entire city,” Chala said, but the stony face of the guard told her that she knew that fact all too well.

“Here,” one of the guards said, tossing a helmet to Xipa. “Suit up. We saw them using chemicals, flooding the street with some kind of green gas.”

Xipa turned it over in her hands, then slotted her muscular sheaths into the two tubes, securing it over her head. She popped open the visor, opening it up like a pair of jaws, balling her fists to stop the trembling in her hands. She was a peacekeeper, not a soldier.

“Do you have a plan?” Nimi asked, taking another of the helmets from a nearby rack. There was a hermetic hiss as she sealed it to the collar of her suit. “What’s the consensus?”

“We’re responsible for our district,” one of the guards replied. “We have to get as many people out as we can, in as short a time as possible. No small feat, I know, but we have a narrow window here. We’re going to cover as much ground as we can, and have one of the flocks escort each group we find back to the station where it’s safe. We’re going to gather as many people as we can find, then try to lead them to the spaceport.”

“How are we supposed to fight those things?” Chala asked, brandishing her stun gun. “All we have are weapons designed to incapacitate. Who knows if they’ll even work on an alien? Those creatures were wearing some kind of…armor or shell, I don’t know.”

“Might as well gear up now,” another the guards replied. She was an older woman with weathered scales in dull green, Xipa recognizing her as Commander Tepa, a member of the senior flock of their guard station. Her companions were also present, identifiable by the rank insignia on their green armbands. “Come on, we can’t wait around for any more guards to turn up.”

She led the group deeper into the building, turning to a set of stairs that led down to the basement level of the station. This was where the holding cells were, along with the contraband lockers. They were all empty right now, as crime was uncommon in the city. A guard’s duties were usually limited to responding to accidents and ensuring that city by-laws were followed. The only confrontation that Xipa could remember was an instance where a flock who had hit the hookah too hard had crashed their scooters and had resisted arrest in their inebriated state.

At the end of the white-painted corridor was a locked door with a keypad, the commander quickly tapping in a combination of some thirty numbers from memory. There was a click as what sounded like a heavy bolt slid back, the door swinging open on a set of hinges. The lights inside came on automatically as the group funneled in, Xipa’s eyes widening. The four walls were covered in racks, each one laden with weaponry. These weren’t stun-guns. They had bulky, polymer housings colored black, each one sporting a long barrel with a domed lens on the end. They were connected to battery packs via thick, insulated cables that were hanging from straps beside them.

“I never knew the station had an armory,” Nimi marveled, pausing to examine one of the guns that was sitting on a table, partially disassembled. The housing was open, revealing a mess of wires and capacitors. “These are…laser rifles. Military surplus from Valabara. Why do we have these?”

“Nobody knew whether Kerguela would have predatory megafauna like Valbara,” the commander explained. “The colonists brought these here just in case any native wildlife tried to eat them. They’ve just been gathering dust ever since.”

“Do they still work?” another of the guards asked.

“They haven’t been fired in probably ten rotations,” the commander replied. “We just come down here every few seasons to make sure none of the batteries are swelling.”

“I’ll take whatever I can get,” Nimi said, reaching for one of the weapons. She pulled it from the rack, sliding her arms through the straps on the backpack, hefting the weapon in her hands.

“You know how to fire one of those?” the commander asked.

“I’ve seen movies,” she replied, raising the weapon to look down the telescopic sight that was mounted on top of it. “Just pull the trigger and keep the beam on target, right?”

“You won’t be firing at anything with no charge,” the commander added, pulling an extensible cable from the pack. She plugged it into a socket on the wall, a worrying electrical hum filling the room. “And don’t point these at anyone’s face, even when they’re turned off. These are neodymium lasers. You could burn out their retinas.”

“This thing isn’t going to explode, is it?” Nimi muttered.

The commander waved her feathers in a shrug, hauling another pack off the rack and handing it to the nearest guard, who sagged under its weight.

“Start charging them up,” she said, the rest of the group fanning out into the armory. “There’s no time to waste.”

***

The group of guards left the station, stepping out onto the street. Along with Xipa’s flock of four, their group was nineteen strong, each one equipped with one of the dusty laser rifles. Their weight was oppressive, the straps on the battery pack digging into Xipa’s shoulders through her suit, but it was a relief not to feel so powerless. She had never fired such a weapon before, but she had studied her people’s history in school, and war was not an entirely foreign concept to her. It had been assumed by philosophers and historians that any species advanced enough to develop jump technology would have no need to appropriate the resources of other species, and would have evolved beyond armed conflict as the Valbarans had. In a Galaxy of limitless resources and innumerable planets, why wage war? Clearly, their logic was flawed.

Noyo stopped beside her, following her gaze to the hulking spacecraft above. It was still hovering there, the occasional burst of green fire from its guns raining down on the city. There were no more pods, it might have fired them all off by now. There could be thousands of troops on the ground already. As she watched, something else separated from the belly of the craft, dropping down from beneath its jointed legs. It looked like a bulbous insect, its six legs tucked beneath it. It had no wings, metallic thrusters that belched green jets of flame flaring as it righted itself, starting to fly away from where Xipa was standing. Two more followed after it, remarkably agile despite their lack of aerodynamics, taking up formation as they soared over the rising plumes of smoke.

“What do you think they want?” Noyo whispered.

“I can’t guess,” she replied, gripping the padded handguard beneath the barrel of her rifle more tightly. “The way they attacked everyone when they came out of their pod…it was like they expected to face resistance, like they didn’t even know the difference between someone who was firing back and someone who wasn’t. Whatever they want, I don’t think us being here is part of their plan.”

“Set your comms to local mode,” the commander said, gesturing to her helmet. “We’ll be able to keep in touch at a reasonable distance, even if the city’s network is shot.”

Commander Tepa and her flock of two took the lead, the rest of the guards following behind them in a loose line. Xipa just wanted to run as far away as she could, maybe hide in the jungle in the hopes that the aliens would just leave when they were done with whatever they were doing, but she had a duty to the people of the city. They were the only ones who could do anything to help right now, and if they didn’t, then nobody would. Her mind kept wandering back to the male who had been clutching his baby in his arms. Could they make it all the way back to that restaurant, or was it already too late? There was no reason that her thoughts should linger on a single person when so many lives were at stake, but still…

The streets near the station had remained relatively untouched by the aliens, and they were mostly clear of debris. No pods had come down here, so it was safe to have the nearby inhabitants proceed to the station on their own. They split into two groups, buzzing the doors on either side of the street and having those who answered head to the station. Xipa found it hard to explain that they had to leave all of their belongings behind, as nobody who hadn’t seen the aliens slaughtering people really grasped the gravity of the situation. Those who had were probably dead already.

As they proceeded deeper into the city, the damage became more apparent, the raging fires consuming many buildings with no emergency services available to manage them. Xipa paused to gape at a skyscraper, a dozen of its upper floors billowing black smoke into the air, its facade covered in black marks where the ship had harried it with gunfire. Whatever their weapons were, they seemed to burn, like some kind of plasma. There was rubble everywhere, meaning that the guards had to take a winding path between the structures, turning to alleys where the street was cut off. There were bodies, some blackened by weapons fire, others crushed beneath rubble. Xipa tried to keep her eyes off them.

Many of the citizens had already fled the area, and what few they could still find cowering in their homes were escorted back to the station. There were so few guards that they had no choice but to split up, the constant back-and-forth slowing their progress, but it was the only way to ensure the safety of their charges.

They found another group of survivors who were trapped in a residential building. The upper floors were burning, and fallen debris had blocked access to the main door from the street. Together, the guards were able to clear enough of the rubble to free them, another twenty people pouring out onto the street. Some of them were coughing, suffering from smoke inhalation, being supported by their flockmates. Another four of the guards peeled off to help guide them back to the station, coordinating over the short-range radios, the remaining fifteen continuing on their way.

As they exited another alleyway, turning onto one of the straight roads that radiated out from the city center, they came across a pod. Xipa bristled, shouldering her weapon, aiming the lens at the mass of metal and chitin. It had cratered into the street, knocking down a row of decorative trees like twigs, partially embedding itself into the wall of a building.

“It’s alright,” Nimi announced, gesturing to the piece of plating that was lying in the street. “The cap has been popped already.”

“They could still be close by,” Tepa added, waving them forward with a flash of red from a light panel on her sleeve. “Keep moving.”

“I don’t think I’ve ever walked this far in one day,” Chala sighed, struggling to keep pace with the rest of the flock. “I can’t believe soldiers really used to march around with these things on their backs.”

“Can’t ride a scooter and hold a gun at the same time,” Nimi replied.

There was a cry from somewhere ahead, the guards bristling as a pair of women came racing out of an alley. A green bolt of energy shot out from behind them, catching one of them in the back, sending her skidding to the ground. The second paused to turn back, trying to help her companion, but a trio of shots followed up the first. They melted the road around her, splashing against the ground like a liquid, one of them finding its mark. The survivor wheeled around again, her claws skidding as she made for the guards, a brief glimmer of hope in her violet eyes.

From the alley behind her emerged a procession of insects, their shells reflecting the glow of a pile of burning debris nearby, sparkling in its light. They were so colorful, their waxy carapaces gleaming as they turned their green, compound eyes in Xipa’s direction. She felt a swell of fear as they began to raise their strange, alien weapons, realizing that she was about to take part in a real firefight. This wasn’t a VR game, it wasn’t a movie, it was really happening.

Time seemed to slow down as she watched the woman stumble towards her, her arms outstretched, Xipa’s fear turning to resolve. How dare they. How dare these creatures slaughter innocent people. Before she knew it, she was bracing the stock of her rifle against her shoulder, feeling the resistance of the trigger on her finger as she squeezed it.

From the lens on the barrel of her gun projected a bright beam of light, seeming to sparkle as the emerald laser refracted off motes of dust and droplets of moisture in the air, painting a burning line as it lanced out towards an alien that was raising its resin rifle.

The beam burned into its chest, melting its blue-green carapace like plastic exposed to a magnifying glass. The creature lurched back, its four arms flailing, smoke starting to rise from its charred innards as Xipa held the laser on it. The longer she kept the beam on target, the more it burned through the creature, whatever material its armor was made from starting to glow red-hot. Boiling alive in its shell, the thing fell twitching to the ground, smoke rising from its mandibles.

“Ha! They’re not invincible!” Commander Tepa shouted triumphantly.

What happened next was chaos, the guards scattering, moving to cover as they fired their laser rifles at the insects. The glittering beams danced through the air, burning their targets wherever they found their mark, painted scorched trails on the facades of the nearby buildings. One hit a tree behind the creatures, its leaves bursting into flames. The aliens returned fire, bolts of burning energy flying from the metal prongs of their weapons, sizzling as they flew inches from Xipa’s head. She could feel their heat, even through her helmet, giving the aliens another few pulses from her rifle as she dove into the cover of a pile of rubble.

More of the creatures were pouring out of the alley, maybe twenty in total, all of them armed with the same orange handguns and rifles made from uneven resin. As another of their number was sent writhing to the ground by a burst of laser fire, they formed a phalanx, the projectors that they wore on their forearms erupting into wavering shields. Those at the front protected those at the rear, starting to advance down the street, already only thirty meters away.

The distraction had been enough to get the civilian to safety, at least, Noyo pulling her into the cover of a nearby alley. She then leaned out, bracing her rifle before firing a long burst at one of the shielded aliens. The weapons were so easy to handle in spite of their weight. They had no recoil, no mechanical components. One simply had to keep them trained on the desired target.

As the laser hit one of the shields, it refracted, fraying like the end of a feather. The beams of splitting light danced across the chest piece of the insect, but they didn’t seem to have enough power to do any serious damage. Even if the shield wasn’t a physical barrier, its roiling surface was doing enough to interrupt the beam.

The fifteen guards were all firing now, peeking out of cover from behind the debris that littered the street. They were hiding behind collapsed walls, inside alleys, a couple taking refuge behind the very landing pod that their enemy had used to get here. It was like a light show, the bright beams waving back and forth, strobing the advancing aliens. Even with their shields, a few of them managed to sneak through, burning legs and shoulders. As soon as one of the aliens stumbled, half a dozen beams would focus on it, its own boiling viscera leaking from the joints in its armor as it was burned alive. Xipa had no sympathy for these things, not after all that she had seen.

Even as three more of them dropped, the aliens kept advancing, not even sparing a glance at their dying comrades. They showed them just as much disregard as they had the civilians, stepping over their bodies. Some of the guards were moving back now, trying to keep their guns on the aliens, but they were closing in. Another ten seconds, and they’d be fighting hand-to-hand.

“I got an idea!” Nimi shouted, Xipa hearing her voice crackle through in her helmet’s earpiece. She turned to see her flockmate disconnecting the thick cable that linked her weapon to its battery pack, tearing it from its socket on the rifle’s housing. She stepped out of cover from behind the landing pod, holding the pack by the straps, spinning around. It sailed through the air as she tossed it, landing harmlessly near the feet of the aliens, who paid it little mind as they kept advancing.

Xipa understood what she was trying to do, taking careful aim through the tube-like, holographic scope of her rifle. She fired between the legs of the lead aliens, holding the beam on the pack for a moment. Its housing immediately began to swell, the old battery bulging outwards, forming an ominous bubble the size of her head. Only when obscuring, grey smoke began to billow from it did the aliens react, their formation breaking apart as jets of flame shot from it. It didn’t explode in a spectacular fashion as Xipa had hoped, but it was enough to break the shield wall, stopping their advance.

The guards took the opportunity to press the attack, leaning out of their hiding places as their burning lasers felled two or three more of the aliens. One of them returned fire with its handgun, the metal rails that served as its barrel crackling with arcs of green electricity, a bolt of energy punching a hole in the swirling smoke. It hit one of the guards in the helmet, Xipa averting her eyes as the visor melted inward, the woman’s scream cut short as she fell to the ground.

As the haze began to clear, more fire was exchanged, Xipa’s heart pounding in her ears as a bolt of energy splashed against the rubble she was hiding behind. The carbon concrete melted as she watched, stone and steel turned to a molten slurry, the heat making her recoil even through her suit.

She steeled herself, rising to return fire, her laser melting through the face of one of the aliens. Whether it was a helmet or a skull, she wasn’t sure, but it went down all the same. They were actually winning, against all odds, yet the aliens were still pressing the attack. They could have covered one another with their shields, retreating back to the safety of the alley – any sane person would have. Instead, they marched into the laser fire, seemingly more interested in killing than surviving the shootout.

Another of her fellow guards took a shot to the chest, then a second as she stumbled out of cover, suit and scale melting away until there was almost nothing left. The aliens were close enough now that Xipa could see the individual lenses that made up their compound eyes, the creatures breaking into a run. They dropped their shields and drew daggers from molded sheaths on their thighs with their lower pair of arms, the blades glinting, decorated with flowing patterns. Leaping over the rubble, they fell upon the nearest guard in a flurry of blades, dragging her to the ground as she kicked and fought.

There were only a handful of the insects left now, the remaining guards focusing their fire on them, retreating as they discharged their lasers. One by one, they fell. The last one left standing raised its handgun as three beams lanced it, the creature firing off a bolt even as its ruby-red exoskeleton melted like wax. The shot hit Chala in the shoulder, the impact enough to knock her off her feet, her wail of pain carrying through the street.

Xipa didn’t even check if all of the aliens were indeed dead, rushing to her flockmate’s side, Nimi and Noyo joining her. She cradled Chala in her arms, lifting her upper body off the ground, popping open the visor on her helmet. Immediately, the scent of charred flesh rose to her nostrils, the wound on Chala’s shoulder scorched black. It looked like overcooked meat, the suit melted to her body near the impact site. Painful didn’t even begin to describe it. Xipa averted her eyes, the sight of what might be exposed bone turning her stomach. The city guards underwent VR disaster training to simulate mass casualty incidents like earthquakes and spacecraft crashes, but it hadn’t prepared her for seeing real injuries.

Tears of frustration welled in her eyes as she helped Chala open her helmet up, letting her get a breath of fresh air. This wasn’t just a friend, Chala was her flockmate, she was family. Xipa was relieved to see that she was still alert and aware, her needle-like teeth exposed in a grimace as her scaly lips pulled back.

“Fuck, fuck!” she wailed. She moved to cover the wound with her hand, then hesitated, too afraid to even touch it.

“Are you alright?” Xipa demanded, quickly realizing what a stupid question it was.

“Do I look alright to you?” she groaned through gritted teeth. “It feels like someone is stabbing a white-hot poker into my shoulder!”

“This isn’t a chemical burn,” Noyo said, crouching to examine the wound more closely. “This is…plasma, like what you’d find inside the reaction chamber of a fusion generator. How…how could they possibly scale that technology down to a handheld weapon?”

“That’s impossible, it’s not plasma,” Xipa scoffed. “Plasma is tens of thousands of degrees. You couldn’t fire that from a gun. You couldn’t get anywhere near it.”

“We need to move,” Commander Tepa said, rising from beside one of the bodies of the guards. Xipa couldn’t see her expression beneath her helmet, but she could hear the solemn tone in her voice. “We were lucky this time, but we won’t survive another firefight like that.”

“Wait,” one of the guards said, turning her helmeted head towards the heap of bodies nearby. “Where is…”

She darted over to a pile of dead insects, pulling them aside frantically. Two more guards broke off from the group to join her, presumably her flockmates. They dragged the limp aliens out of the way to reveal the guard who had fallen under the alien knives, another two of their number rushing to help. They dragged her out, her suit perforated by stab wounds, stained with alien ichor that was a shade of sickly green. She was obviously dead, her companions dropping to their knees over her prone form, one of them shaking her in a futile attempt to wake her up. Their visors were closed, so Xipa couldn’t hear them, but she could tell from the way that their shoulders shook that they were weeping.

More of the dozen remaining guards grieved over their fallen flockmates, one leaning against another’s shoulder as she sobbed. The sole civilian they had rescued tried to climb over the rubble to get to the body that was lying by the alley the insects had poured out of, but someone grabbed her arm to stop her.

Xipa was wracked by a sudden wave of guilt. Their flock of four was still intact, they hadn’t yet lost a member. So many were stricken with grief, yet she had been relieved to see that Chala was merely injured. She could do little more than cradle her friend as she watched in silence, waves of dismayed blue and angry red flashing along the color panels on their suits.

Flocks were not just friends, not just family units – they were parts of a whole. A flock of Valbarans assembled early in life and remained together until death, sharing everything, from dwellings to mates.

“They’re gone,” Tepa announced, turning back the way they had come. “This is over. We need to get back to the station and save what civilians we still can.”

“But…what about the rest of the district?” Nimi protested. “We can’t just leave them to their fates!”

Her statement was punctuated by another barrage of fire from the alien ship that hovered above them, the ground shaking as it pounded a target just out of sight behind the nearby skyscrapers.

“If we die, nobody is making it to those shuttles,” Tepa replied.

“We have seniority,” one of Tepa’s flockmates added, stepping forward to support her.

“We can’t just leave Patlo here,” one of the guards sobbed, gesturing to a badly burned body that was lying in the rubble.

“We can’t carry them,” Tepa replied, her voice unwavering. Seeing that she was facing resistance from the group, she sighed, turning to whisper to her two flockmates for a moment. “We shall reach consensus,” she finally said. “Those who want to press on, make yourselves known.”

A handful of the guards raised their hands, their panels flashing red, Nimi included. Xipa considered, but thought better of it. All she wanted to do right now was get Chala to a doctor.

“Those who wish to turn back?” Tepa asked, counting the number of blue panels. “Very well, the majority has decided to return to the station.”

Xipa heard Nimi curse under her breath, but knew that she would respect the ruling. After all, was it not the Valbaran mantra that decisions were made wiser with more heads?
Still, Nimi left Chala’s side, walking over to one of the dead aliens. She turned it over with her clawed foot, then leaned down to inspect it more closely. It was the first time any of them had gotten a good look at the things.

“They’re insects,” she announced. “Maybe crustaceans? Hard exoskeleton, waxy,” she added as she reached down to brush her scaly fingertips against its torso. “Not as hard as it looks. Feels kind of like…firm plastic.”

Her eyes turned to one of the resin pistols, and she picked it up gingerly, weighing it in her hand as she examined it. The grip was surprisingly suitable for her three-fingered hands, the resin casing shaped with two holes through which the user would slot their digits.

“Careful!” Noyo warned. “It could be dangerous!”

Nimi ignored her, extending her arm, aiming the weapon at an alien body that was further down the street. After a moment of fiddling, it shot off a bright green bolt of plasma, the projectile straying wide of its target. The follow-up shot hit it dead center, the creature’s carapace sizzling as it melted.

“The trigger mechanism is weird,” Nimi announced, firing a third shot. “You squeeze the handle to make it shoot. Looks like the plasma is contained in this canister behind these metal prongs.”

“Are their weapons magnetic, maybe?” Noyo wondered. “How would they power something like that? It shouldn’t be possible. That entire weapon is smaller than our battery packs.”

“We should rearm while we have the opportunity,” Nimi said, stooping to pick up one of the alien knives before slotting it into her belt. “These things are probably going to work better than the laser rifles.”

A few of the guards muttered agreements, shedding their cumbersome packs to pick up alien substitutes. Xipa watched one of them heft a large, orange rifle in her hands, looking down a sight that was molded into its uneven housing. It looked far more fearsome than the handguns, the metal rails that ran down its barrel more than twice as long. While the technology that powered them was clearly hundreds or even thousands of rotations more advanced than anything the Valbarans had, there was something crude about their construction, almost organic. Xipa preferred to keep her rifle. It had served her well enough so far.

Nimi strode over to the civilian who was standing off to one side. She looked like she was in shock, her eyes wide, her feathers displaying hues of fear and loss. Nimi thrust one of the alien sidearms into her trembling hands, the woman glancing down at it in confusion.

“What’s your name?” she asked, the woman blinking at her.

“It’s…it’s Chotza’tal’zohtla,” she replied. “W-why are you giving this to me? I work in s-shipping. I import consumer products from Valbara. I don’t know how to use a gun!”

“Consider yourself deputized, Chotza,” Nimi replied. “Just aim it and squeeze the handle.”

“But I-”

“We need all the help we can get right now,” Nimi insisted, leaving the bewildered woman holding the weapon. She returned to Xipa’s side, helping her lift Chala off the ground. Xipa slung Chala’s good arm over her shoulder, helping to support her.

“You good to walk?” Xipa asked.

“It’s my shoulder that’s melting, not my legs,” Chala grunted. “It actually…feels like it should hurt a lot more than it does. Why doesn’t that make me feel any better?”

***

The group headed back the way they had come, surmising that it was probably their safest option. The going was tough, as none of them were accustomed to so much walking, and helping Chala along was making Xipa even more exhausted. They had emergency medical supplies back at the station, so perhaps they could lessen her pain, if nothing else. She kept complaining that she couldn’t feel her arm, which hung limply at her side.

When they returned, they found that the flock that had left to escort the civilians had arrived safely. The twenty or so people had been brought down into the mostly empty armory, which was being used as a stand-in bomb shelter.

The civilians were in varying stages of distress. Some were clinging to one another and crying, probably mourning lost loved ones, while others were staring blankly at the wall as though they couldn’t process what was happening. A few were coughing, still suffering from the effects of their smoke inhalation. A male wearing a green tunic and a pair of shorts rose to his feet when he saw Xipa helping Chala along, rushing to her side.

“Lie her down on one of the tables,” he said, Xipa giving him a skeptical look. “I’m a nurse,” he explained, his feathers flushing an indignant red. She did as he asked, helping Chala up onto one of the work surfaces that had once held weapon parts, stepping back as the nurse produced one of the guard station’s emergency medical kits. He examined the wound, trying to peel away a piece of her melted suit with a pair of tweezers, quickly relenting when she let out a cry of pain.

“How bad is it?” Noyo asked, leaning over his shoulder. “Is she going to be alright?”

“I can’t do much with the tools I have here,” he grumbled, tearing open the packaging on a needle. He inserted it into her arm, injecting a clear substance, Chala’s breathing gradually slowing. Once that was done, he waved the rest of the flock over to the other side of the room, lowering his voice so that Chala couldn’t overhear them.

“I feel like you’re not about to give us good news,” Nimi muttered.

“She has fourth-degree burns,” the nurse replied, the flurry of purple in his headdress betraying his concern. “Whatever she was hit with has eaten down to the muscle and bone. The only reason she’s not in excruciating pain right now is because the nerves that would have transmitted those signals have been destroyed. She needs surgery to excise the dead tissue, and I’ll be honest, she’s probably going to lose the arm.”

“Fuck,” Xipa hissed under her breath, sparing a glance at her friend.

“I gave her a sedative, but that’s all I can do right now,” the nurse added. “Whatever weapons those things are using…they’re monstrous.”

“What should we do?” Nimi asked.

“Get her to a hospital as soon as you can,” the nurse replied with a shrug.

“Easier said than done,” Xipa sighed.

Commander Tepa called for their attention, all eyes in the room turning to her and her flock.

“We have a plan to get everyone to safety,” she began, the civilians daring to exchange a few hopeful glances. “Our destination is the spaceport, where there are shuttles waiting to evacuate us to orbit. It’s too dangerous to take the roads with so many of those creatures stalking around, so we’re going to follow the mag-lev track. The route is shorter, even if we can’t ride the actual train, and it cuts across a large patch of open parkland. It’ll leave us more exposed, but we figure it’s safer than the streets. The aliens don’t have any reason to be searching for people out there.”

The armory filled with murmurs of approval, Xipa nodding to Nimi. It seemed like a solid plan.

“Why can’t we ride the mag-lev?” one of the civilians asked, raising her hand. “We could get there in a matter of minutes, even if it might attract more attention.”

“Because the aliens have brought down most of the lines,” Tepa explained. “The one that my flock rode in from the spaceport was destroyed, and I’ve seen a couple more collapsed rails. They seem to be attacking our infrastructure, destroying our means of transport and communication.”

“Doesn’t the city guard have any vehicles?” the same woman asked.

“Emergency services mostly use skimmers, and there aren’t enough scooters for everyone. It’s safer to remain as a group rather than split up.”

***

They moved out onto the street, the fifteen remaining guards flanking the group of around twenty civilians, Chala being helped along by one of their number. The woman they had rescued from the shootout with the insects took her place, wielding the alien pistol that Nimi had given her, looking no more sure of herself now.

Xipa glanced up at the sky, seeing the shadow of the alien spaceship looming over the city. The air was filled with those strange, insect-like aircraft now, flitting to and fro in loose groups that more resembled swarms than formations. Every now and then, they would swoop down out of view below the buildings, perhaps attacking targets on the ground. The skyline was even more jagged than before, partially collapsed buildings jutting into the air like broken teeth.

Tepa led them down the street until they arrived at a mag-lev terminal. It was little more than a glass awning that shielded a raised platform from the elements, a flight of steps leading up to it. No trains would be pulling into this station any time soon, not with the magnetic rail twisted and broken perhaps half a kilometer down the rail. It looked like a child’s drinking straw that had been discarded in the grass.

Before them stretched an open band of parkland, one of the rings of grass and trees that broke up the concentric circles of the city’s layout. There were no footpaths here, just a few kilometers of rust-colored grass, adapted to Xi Pegasi’s blue light. The clumps of carefully cultivated trees, too, were redder than the greens and purples of Valbara. Xipa usually found the autumn colors appealing, but shrouded in the dark clouds of smog above, they reminded her more of blood now.

There were no footpaths here, so they followed the damaged rail, which would take them directly to the spaceport. It was located on one of the inner bands, out of view despite its proximity due to the clever way the architects of the city had used the gentle rolling of the hills and the careful placement of the trees to obscure the buildings. One could almost pretend they were in the wilderness here.

Tepa was right. They were very exposed here, but there was no reason for the insects to come looking for victims in the park.

“So far, so good,” Nimi said, walking along beside Xipa with her alien sidearm clasped in her hand. “This might have been a pleasant evening walk if it wasn’t for the smell of smoke, and all the murder.”

“How do you do it, Nimi?” Xipa asked. Her friend turned her head, cocking it quizzically beneath her helmet.

“Do what?”

“How do you keep it together when the world is falling apart all around you? Whenever something goes wrong, you always know what to do. You’ve always been the glue that keeps the flock together.”

“One of us has to be the hardheaded one,” she chuckled, skirting around a bush. The vibrant reds and oranges of its leaves made it look like an explosion, its yellow, star-shaped flowers like sparks. “Chala’s the heart of our flock, the sentimental one. Noyo’s the nerd. And you?” she added, reaching out to give Xipa a pat on the shoulder. “You’re the one who keeps us organized.”

“Me?” she chuckled.

“Maybe you don’t see it, but if it wasn’t for you, I’d have nobody to keep me in check. I’m impulsive, I make hasty decisions without consensus, just like I did back there. Can’t believe I voted to keep going,” she said, a flicker of worried purple traveling down the panels on her suit. “We might all be dead by now if I’d had my way.”

“You have the heart of a Teth’rak, Nimi,” Xipa insisted. “That’s not something to be ashamed of. That’s what flocks are for, right? We all complement each other, we’re all stronger together.”

“We’ll get through this,” her companion replied, encouraged by her words. “We’ll get these people out of here in one piece.”

Xipa nodded, feeling the comforting weight of her laser rifle in her hands.

“Do you think Chala will be alright?” she asked, glancing over at their flockmate. Chala was being supported by one of the civilians, walking a little better after her sedative, her injured arm hanging limp at her side.

“If she isn’t, we’ll take care of her,” Nimi replied with a confident flash of red. “Besides, I’ve been thinking of retiring from the force,” she added with a chuckle that made her helmet’s speakers fizz. “I think they owe us a hefty pension after this, maybe a beach house on the shore of a nice, warm ocean.”

Ahead of them, Tepa crouched at the top of a hill, scanning the area with her rifle for a moment before waving the group forward. The civilians were still a miserable bunch, but being able to work towards a goal had them looking a little perkier. Even Chotza, the woman who Nimi had deputized, was falling into her role as she kept an eye on her charges.

There was a sudden barrage of fire from the massive ship above, everyone ducking reflexively as a trio of glowing projectiles shot over their heads. If a single bolt from a handheld weapon could incinerate a person, what could those ship-mounted weapons do?

Cries of alarm came from the civilians as the ground beneath their feet shook, the leaves of the nearby trees rustling. A moment later, a roar like thunder carried over from the city center to their right, a shockwave tearing at their clothes. Xipa slowly rose to her feet again, looking on in awe as a glowing arc of energy rose up into the sky behind the buildings. It looked like a solar flare erupting from the roiling surface of a star, a bright trail of fiery plasma bending along a magnetic field, moving with an unnaturally jerky motion. More of them erupted beside it, forming a shifting arch of flame, slowly sinking back down out of view.

“What the fuck was that?” Nimi gasped.

Noyo pushed through the crowd to join them, popping open the visor on her helmet, her eyes wide.

“That…I think that was the city’s fusion plant going up,” she explained breathlessly. “That was plasma breaching its containment chamber. They’re destroying all of our infrastructure.”

“They hit the fucking power plant?” Nimi asked in disbelief.

“My guess is they’ll probably hit anything that sends out a large enough energy signature,” Noyo continued. “They’re aliens, they probably don’t even know what any of it does. They see a strong radio signal, they attack it. They see a strong energy or heat signature, same deal.”
“Do you think they’ll work out what the spaceport is?” Xipa asked.

“Let’s hope not,” Noyo muttered. “All they have to do is destroy the runway, and none of the shuttles will be able to get off the ground.”

“Keep moving,” Tepa called out, waving them forward. “The sooner we get to the spaceport, the better.”

They pressed on, Xipa’s thighs burning as they trekked through the parkland. Stopping to rest wasn’t an option, not when a matter of minutes could be the difference between missing the last ride off-planet. As they emerged from a shady patch of trees, the sound of an engine screamed overhead, Xipa lifting her helmet to see a trio of those strange aircraft flying past. There were three of them in loose formation, jets of green flame shooting from vectoring nozzles arranged along their flanks. As she watched, one of them broke off, banking as it began to circle back around. It looked like a fly crossed with a freshwater crustacean, its rounded body covered in chitinous plating that was colored a vibrant orange, patterned with dark stripes. It didn’t have any real wings, just a pair of stubby fins on its back that seemed to angle themselves to help keep it stable in the air. As it turned towards them, the dozens of black eyes that covered its head glittering as they caught the light, a knot formed in Xipa’s stomach.

“G-get to cover!” she shouted, the civilians looking back at her in confusion. Some had already seen the craft coming, and began to scatter, the guards gesturing to the sky as they readied their weapons.

The thing ballooned as it approached, growing until it was maybe fifteen meters long, a pair of plasma weapons that were underslung beneath its bulbous head starting to crackle with arcs of green energy. Xipa was already diving to the grass as it let off a salvo, strafing their group with a rapid burst of gunfire. The foliage burst into flames where they landed, the impacts throwing up clods of earth, a nearby civilian tossed into the air by the blasts. Xipa felt the backwash from its engines as it roared over her, and she looked up to see it starting to bank again, coming around for a second pass.

“Into the trees!” she heard Tepa shout, Xipa scrambling to her feet.

The craft was remarkably agile for something so grotesque, those mechanical thrusters pivoting to slow it, bringing it to a hover. It loosed another burst of gunfire, its twin-linked weapons tracking a handful of people who had retreated to the safety of a patch of forest. Flames erupted as it poured fire into them, the trees lighting up like torches, sending the civilian running. Xipa turned her eyes back to the craft, shouldering her laser rifle. A bright beam lanced out, dancing across the carapace on the thing’s nose. Unlike with the foot soldiers, this material was more heavily armored, and its distance reduced the effectiveness of the weapon. It did little more than leave a black smear.

More of her companions joined her, a dozen beams painting it as it hovered maybe fifty feet off the ground, just hanging there in the air. Bolts of plasma accompanied the lasers, the guards who had picked up alien weapons joining the fray. The smaller projectiles splashed off its hull harmlessly, its antennae twitching, its stubby little fins flapping. What the hell was it? An animal? A machine? Some blend of both?

One of the limbs situated beneath the body of the thing descended, what was clearly a missile of some kind clutched in its grasp. A jet of flame erupted from behind the long tube, the projectile sliding free as the insect let it go, arching towards the defenders on a plume of smoke. It seemed to be self-guided, moving erratically, beady eyes and antennae selecting targets. It aimed itself at the ground in the midst of the guards, planting itself in the dirt with a thud. Xipa was sure that they were dead, that the missile was about to explode into a cloud of eviscerating shrapnel, but the motor slowly fizzled out.

Instead, compartments on its off-green, mottled casing split open, a hiss filling the air as a cloud of yellow gas began to pour from it.

“Chemicals!” Noyo yelled, slapping her visor shut. “Close your helmets!”

Xipa wasn’t even sure if a rebreather designed for firefighting and chemical spills was going to do the job against an alien bioweapon, but she kept her focus on the craft, loosing another burst of laser fire. This time, she aimed for its black eyes, strobing the beam across them. She finally got a reaction, the craft’s nozzles shifting as it evaded her.

“Go for the eyes!” she said, her helmet’s radio relaying her message to the other guards. More of them focused on it, the alien machine lurching as they burned its retinas. Xipa had no idea whether she was destroying cameras or blinding organic eyes, whether she was damaging a machine or hurting an animal, but it was working.

One of their plasma bolts scored a lucky hit, slagging a thruster, which let out a brief spurt of molten slag as the craft started to lose its balance. The thing shot off another missile, then extended its six insectoid legs, dropping out of view behind a nearby hill.

“We’ve forced it to the ground!” Tepa shouted, waving to her companions. “See to the civilians!”

In an uncommon stroke of luck, the wind was carrying the clouds of yellow mist away from the patch of woodland where most of them had taken refuge. Xipa looked around at the chaos, spotting a handful of casualties lying in the grass. A guard and a couple of civilians had been turned to charred husks by the plasma fire, rendered unrecognizable, and someone was lying motionless beneath the burning debris in the patch of forest. There was no time to attempt a rescue, they had to get out of here right now. That craft might be down, but it could have called for aid.

Corralling the frightened civilians, the guards shepherded them around the poison gas, giving it a wide berth as they continued on towards the spaceport. It wasn’t long before missing loved ones were noticed, but fear kept everyone moving at a brisk pace.

Xipa heard a thudding sound behind their group, turning her head to see something rising over the crest of the hill to their rear. It was the alien craft, now walking along the ground on its six spindly limbs, three-fingered claws covered in hooks tearing up the soil as it marched. It leveled its twin plasma cannons at them, firing before anyone had a chance to call out a warning. The burning projectiles cut a swathe through the group of refugees, Xipa’s stomach turning as she was sent tumbling down an incline.

When she found her bearings again, she was lying at the bottom of a hill, Xipa struggling to her feet as she clutched her rifle. The insulated cable that connected the pack to the weapon had come loose from its socket, and she spent a few frustrating moments fumbling with it before making her way back up the grassy slope.

Like a beast from beyond Valbara’s walls, the aircraft was rampaging through the park on its long legs, towering above the guards who were trying to bring it down. It shrugged off their weapons fire, harrying them with more salvos from its cannons, Xipa watching in silent horror as one of the women was turned to ash where she stood. The civilians had scattered, some of them trying to drag the injured clear of the thing’s stamping feet, others making for the nearby trees. It was like some giant insect straight out of a nightmare.

Noyo was behind the craft, holding her laser rifle steady, keeping the beam trained on something beneath its carapace. Xipa soon realized that it was one of the missiles that were clutched below its stubby arms, the back end of the green tube starting to glow red-hot. There was a sudden explosion that tore through the craft’s flank as the propellant ignited, ripping open a hole in its carapace. Pieces of shattered shell and green, mucous-like viscera rained to the grass as the thing lurched under the impact. It stumbled a few steps forwards, then the legs on the damaged side of its body gave out, sending it crashing to the ground.

A few of the surviving guards trained their weapons on it, even as it lay motionless, still wary of the thing. Everyone else began to check the bodies that were strewn about the field, each of them moving with a kind of desperate hope, praying that they weren’t about to find a flockmate among them.

“Where’s Chala?” Xipa asked, stumbling her way over to Nimi and Noyo. “I don’t see her.”

A lead weight settled in her stomach when they didn’t reply, and the three of them fanned out to search for their companion. Removing the helmets of the fallen guards was the worst part, never knowing who they might find beneath. Xipa located one of Tepa’s flockmates, waving her over, but she was remarkably stoic. Perhaps she was emotionally exhausted by now, far too tired to cry, too weary to grieve.

They eventually found Chala among the bodies, having been caught in one of the alien craft’s barrages. She was remarkably intact, the expression on her face oddly peaceful, perhaps eased along by the sedative that she had been given back at the station. Xipa, Nimi, and Noyo gathered around her to share a private moment together.

“We should bury her,” Nimi muttered, choking back her tears.

“There’s no time,” Noyo whispered, squeezing Xipa’s hand so hard that her fingers were going numb. “We have to move.”

Xipa turned to look at the group of guards and civilians who were reassembling nearby. They had lost maybe ten people, thinning their numbers from the twenty civilians and fifteen guards who had set out from the station. All of this just because one craft happened to notice them while flying overhead? It was like some cosmic joke. If they had set out five minutes earlier or later, Chala might still be alive right now.

Her dark thoughts were disturbed as the downed craft began to shift. The guards immediately formed a firing line, Xipa and Noyo retreating to join them. Nimi stood beside Chala’s body with her pistol in hand, staring down the hulking mass of smoking flesh and metal, ignoring the pleas of her flockmates to get clear of it.

Between the spindly legs of the craft, a split appeared, running along what could probably be considered its thorax. When it was a few feet long, it opened up, a glistening mass birthing from it like a newborn. It was large, maybe seven or eight feet tall, its two pairs of arms quickly identifying it as one of the insects. It was wearing the same iridescent armor or carapace as the soldiers they had encountered in the streets, its compound eyes glittering, the same ornate beetle horn rising from its head. It seemed stretched compared to its shorter counterparts, its limbs long and spindly. Its body was coated in some kind of slime, and it remained joined to the craft via a trio of thick, fleshy cables that resembled umbilical cords. As it rolled over on the grass, Xipa saw that they were connected directly to its spine, hooked into pink flesh that was visible between the breaks in its plates.

The thing struggled to its knees, dripping with clear mucous, then collapsed onto its side. It was weak, maybe injured. Could this be the pilot of the craft?

Nimi strode forward, popping open the visor of her helmet, ignoring the protests of the other guards. She approached the dying alien, the color panels on her suit flushing a deep crimson, the color of rage. Rather than finish it off with a shot from the plasma pistol, she reached for her belt, drawing the ceramic blade that she had taken from one of the dead soldiers. As Xipa watched in silence, she weighed it in her hand, the strange, swirling patterns that covered the blade catching the light.

Nimi planted a clawed foot on the thing’s chest, rolling it onto its back, the creature peering back at her through its compound eyes. It raised its lower pair of arms as if to protect itself, chittering as she lifted the dagger above her head, then plunged it into the alien’s chest. Its waxy carapace provided little resistance, orange ichor welling from the wound as Nimi buried her knife to the hilt. She withdrew it, then planted it again, peppering the thing with vicious stabs. Finally, her knife wet with alien fluids, Nimi stepped away. The deep red of her color panels slowly faded to a sad blue, and she wiped the knife on the leg of her suit before returning it to her belt.

Nobody made any comments as she returned to the group, Tepa and her one remaining flockmate leading them on. Xipa didn’t know what to say, how to comfort her. This was a side of Nimi that she had never seen before. She could be hot-tempered and impulsive, sure, but this was new. She was like a Commando from Valbara’s past, red in blade and claw.

Maybe the Valbarans weren’t as far removed from their warlike roots as they liked to tell themselves. There were still Commandos on the homeworld, military orders maintained more out of tradition than necessity. Would things have been different if they had garrisoned soldiers here, too?

As they crested another hill, the spaceport finally came into view. It was surrounded by a high wall, rows of carefully tended trees keeping it out of sight of the surrounding parkland. Several of the damaged mag-lev lines trailed inside, where they joined to more terminals. From here, they could see the control tower rising into the air, along with the sloping roofs of some of the spaceplane hangars. On the near side was a road that led up to a gate, where Xipa could spot a group of guards. There were bodies strewn about nearby, the colorful carapaces of the insects glinting, and the wall’s white material had been scarred by gunfire. It looked as though at least a couple of alien patrols had tried to fight their way through and had been repelled. There were no plumes of smoke coming from inside, which was encouraging.

The group made their way down to the gate, the city guards who were keeping it secure waving to them as they approached, one of them rushing inside presumably to alert whoever was in charge that they had more survivors on the way.

They were hurried through the checkpoint by the guards, Xipa having to step around a pile of dead aliens that had been haphazardly pushed to the side of the road to clear the way. The fighting had clearly been intense, but it seemed as though none had made it through the gate. It was unlikely that the guards had seen no casualties, but they would have treated them with far more respect.

Inside the walls were a pair of long runways for the spaceplanes that carried cargo and passengers to and from orbit, along with rows of hangars where the vehicles were stored. Many of them were empty already, and they were being used by the survivors as temporary shelters. There were maybe two hundred civilians between five empty hangars, and perhaps half that number of guards standing watch. As Xipa had suspected, up against one wall of the nearest hangar were rows of bodies that had been covered over with the silver tarps that usually protected the shuttles. It seemed that the battles to defend the port had indeed been costly…

One of the guards came running up to Tepa, an alien rifle clutched in her hands.

“How many?” she asked breathlessly, obviously referring to the number of refugees. Tepa paused for a moment as she counted.

“Thirteen,” she replied, the guard nodding.

“Civilians, come with me,” the guard announced. “Guards, proceed to the hangar at the end of the runway. The Ensis will want to speak with you.”

Xipa and Noyo shared a glance. The Ensis were the leaders of the city, the flock that presided over the colony as part of the Council of Ensis.

The civilians broke off, following the guard, Xipa watching them leave. She was at once relieved that they had made it to relative safety and dismayed by how few of their original number had survived. Not ten minutes ago, there had been near twice as many. Chala, too, was lying dead in that field. She was distracted from her thoughts by Chotza, the straggler who they had rescued from the insects during the shootout in the street. She placed a hand on Xipa’s shoulder as she passed, the two sharing a brief moment.

“Thank you,” she said, the sincerity in her voice giving the words a weight that surprised Xipa. She didn’t know what to say, so she just watched her walk away, standing there with her rifle clutched in her hands.

“This way,” Tepa said, setting off towards the furthest hangar. When they arrived, they saw that it had been converted into a kind of forward operating base. There were guards running to and fro, sharing weapons and ammunition, swiping at portable computers that had been set up on the benches usually used for servicing spacecraft parts. Like Xipa’s own team, they were using a blend of surplus laser rifles and captured alien technology.

Standing among them were the Ensis, easily identifiable by their civilian clothing. They were a flock of older women, their scales weathered by their years. One of them sported a covering of protofeathers like Xipa’s own, indicating that she hailed from the same region of their home planet in the cold North. Hers were greyed in places in contrast to Xipa’s rich brown.

Tepa flushed a salute of red as she announced herself, one of the Ensis looking up from her tablet computer to return the greeting with a flurry of crimson feathers.

“I’m told that you saved another dozen of our people,” she began, glancing at each of the remaining guards in turn as she spoke. “You are to be commended for your bravery, but that will have to come later. There is much to be done.”

“How can we help?” Nimi asked, the Ensi acknowledging her eagerness by tipping her snout in her direction.

“We still have around two hundred people waiting to be loaded onto the remaining shuttles,” she began, pacing back and forth with her eyes on her tablet. “We’ve managed to make contact with a jump-capable freighter up in orbit. There are still a few ships hanging back in the hopes of picking up survivors, and they’re putting themselves at enormous risk to do so. The plan is for them to remain in a low-power, zero-emissions state for as long as possible before powering back up and jumping out of the system once they’ve taken aboard as many people as they can carry. The aliens have destroyed several ships already, but they seem most attracted to large, conspicuous sources of energy and radio emissions. As long as they’re kept occupied on the ground, we believe there is still time to evacuate the rest of the refugees.”

“What’s the situation on the rest of the colony?” Noyo asked. “Have you heard from any of the other settlements?”

“As far as we can tell, it seems to be a coordinated attack,” the Ensi replied. “Several cities have been hit, and we’ve lost a dozen ships in orbit. There have been no demands from the aggressors, no attempts to communicate. We have no reason to believe that they want anything other than our complete extermination.”

“Where do you need us?” Nimi asked.

“We could use some reinforcements at the gate,” the Ensi said, gesturing back the way they had come. “The last attack was costly. I fear that they’re eventually going to figure out where the most resistance is and send a larger force to root us out. Just do what you can to keep the things out while we prep the next shuttle for launch.”

“Can they even get off the ground with those attack ships flying around up there?” Noyo asked.

“We don’t have any choice other than to try,” the Ensi replied with a hint of irritation. “These shuttles are designed for carrying passengers and cargo. They’re not armed, and they’re not especially agile. They’re fast, though. They have to be to make orbit under their own power.”

“If the aliens really are attracted to powerful radio emissions, maybe we can rig up some kind of decoy,” Noyo suggested. “Something that would make a hell of a racket on the EM bands, maybe lead them away, or trick them into searching for a juicy target that isn’t there.”

“Do you have a suggestion?” the Ensi asked.

“I couldn’t help but notice that there’s a mag-lev train in that station over there,” she continued, turning to gesture across the compound. Docked to one of the raised platforms that were built into the wall was a row of three rounded, streamlined passenger cars, their white hulls lined with windows.

“The lines are all down,” the Ensi replied. “The aliens have been destroying them.”

“As long as it has a couple of miles of track left before it derails, it could lead the aliens away from the spaceport,” Noyo explained. “We could take one of those emergency comms terminals you’re using and put it in one of the cars, crank it up so it’s saturating every frequency with radio chatter. It might draw them away.”

“That…could work,” the Ensi admitted with a flurry of surprised yellow. “We would have to maximize its utility, maybe launch all of the shuttles in quick succession to make the most of the distraction. We have three left – two passenger shuttles and one cargo hauler.”

“It won’t require any special engineering,” Noyo continued. “Someone would just have to stand by and be ready to activate the train when the signal is given.”

“Very well. Do it,” the Ensi said with a nod. “The comms gear has outlived its usefulness anyway. The rest of you, keep those aliens from getting through the gate while we load the passengers.”

Noyo stayed behind to help the Ensi’s team with their equipment while Nimi and Xipa returned to the gate. Another fifteen of the guards joined them, and Xipa felt a little safer in the company of so many of her colleagues. They took up position outside the wall, using the colorful bodies of the dead aliens for cover, like macabre sandbags. The terrain here wasn’t completely open, fortunately. Thanks to the city’s landscapers, rolling hills and patches of trees broke up the sightlines, ensuring that nobody had a clear view of the gate from any real distance. The design philosophy had been intended purely for beautification purposes, but it made the city a lot easier to defend.

What Xipa feared most wasn’t the insects, however. It was the silence. Now that she had a quiet moment to dwell on what had happened, thoughts of Chala began to flood her mind. It still hadn’t really hit her, not yet. If she didn’t keep herself occupied, she might break down.

“Nimi,” she whispered, glancing at her flockmate. She was crouched down beside her, her visor obscuring her face from view. “You okay?”

“I keep thinking that this is some kind of nightmare,” she replied, her voice crackling through the speakers on her helmet. “That I’m going to wake up soon to find Chala lying on the cushions beside me, and she’ll laugh when I tell her about my dream. None of this feels real.”

“We were supposed to be going to the lounge after work today,” Xipa muttered, feeling a tear sting her eye. “That boy we like works there, the one who always wears that top, the one that shows off his shoulders. I wonder if he…”

“Can’t think about that right now,” Nimi replied sternly, Xipa backing off. Nimi wasn’t being cruel, it was just too much for her to handle. Like usual, she would probably bottle up all of her emotions until she had some privacy, then she’d let them all out in one burst. The kindest thing Xipa could do for her right now was just to leave her alone and let her process things in her own way.

She was distracted as another formation of alien craft flew overhead, her hands gripping her rifle tightly, the roar of their engines bringing her right back to the field where Chala had died. To her relief, she looked up to see that they were traveling away from the port, heading deeper into the burning city. They had to get those shuttles off the ground. Every second they weren’t in the air was a gamble, and the odds were getting worse by the minute.

***

They waited maybe another half-hour, the guards making small talk that did little to alleviate any of the tension. The shuttles had been brought out of the hangars now, taxiing into position on the two runways. Two of them would be able to take off at the same time, while the third would have to wait a minute or two before it could follow behind them. Their streamlined hulls were twenty meters long, equipped with a pair of stubby, upturned wings that were used for gliding back to the ground during reentry. The heat tiles that lined their bellies and rounded noses were charred black, and their cockpits were raised high for visibility, their huge engine cones positioned at the rear. The surviving spaceport personnel were running the pre-flight checks now, testing the navigation systems, dragging snaking fuel lines across the tarmac.

The civilians were lining up in orderly rows, waiting for their turn to board as the injured, the children, and the males were helped up the steps by the attending guards. It wouldn’t be long now before they’d be ready to take off, and Xipa began to wonder when the rest of the defenders would be called to join them.

“Oh fuck,” Nimi hissed. “Here they come!”

Over the hill a hundred meters ahead of them marched an insect, its shining carapace reflecting the fires from the city beyond. More followed behind it, at least as many as Xipa and her flock had faced in their street battle, maybe more. The guards didn’t wait for them to take the first shot, a barrage of laser fire and plasma bolts greeting the aliens, sending half a dozen of them collapsing to the rust-colored grass before they’d even realized what was happening. Their shells slagged under the heat like melting plastic, the six-limbed creatures writhing as they rolled down the near side of the hill. Their companions activated their shields, refracting the laser beams, absorbing the plasma fire as they formed a protective phalanx.

Employing the same tactics that they had during the first encounter, the aliens began to march in lockstep, creating an impenetrable wall of glowing energy with their shields. Those behind them raised them above their heads to account for the incline, making it difficult to slip any shots through the cracks.

Suddenly, one of the shields faltered. The energy began to glow brighter as several of the defenders focused their fire on it, pouring green bolts of plasma into the barrier. They were using captured alien weapons – the unwieldy rifles with the long metal prongs on the barrels. The shield collapsed under the sustained assault, the alien that was holding it succumbing to their fire, a dozen bolts turning it to a charred husk.

“The plasma!” Xipa yelled into her helmet mic. “The plasma overloads their shields! Focus your fire!”

The guards coordinated, more of the wavering barriers collapsing to expose the aliens behind them, lasers and plasma cutting a swathe through their tightly-packed ranks. The invaders returned fire as best they could, shooting back with their two-pronged pistols, but they were in no position to be accurate. Most of the bolts flew wide, either leaving scorch marks on the wall behind the guards or impacting the piles of bodies in front of them. A few nearby trees had already caught fire, their leaves igniting, bathing the scene in their orange glow.

From their entrenched position, and with their newfound ability to negate the shields, the guards were quickly turning the tide. The aliens could do little other than march straight at them, almost suicidal in their single-mindedness, perhaps hoping that numbers alone would win them the day. More kept coming, a seemingly endless procession of them pouring over the hills, three or four dozen at least. Maybe the Ensi had been right, and the aliens had sent a larger force to take the port.

The first squad of aliens finally broke under their relentless fire, the creatures scattering for the cover of nearby trees, cut down before they could reach them. As the guards focused their attention on the next group that was advancing down the footpath further to the left, something whizzed past Xipa’s visor. She turned her head to see the guard beside her thrown off her feet, her helmet sagging inward as it melted, dead before she had hit the ground. On the crest of the hill to their right, several of the colorful insects were lying prone, looking through the scopes of their resin rifles as they sighted the defenders. Another bright projectile came hissing towards them, a guard catching it in the shoulder, her helmet muffling her scream as she was thrown back. She clutched the wound as the superheated substance melted through her suit, the black material taking on the consistency of tar, her flesh visibly smoking.

One of her fellow guards hooked her muscular tail around her arm, dragging her back through the gate into the compound as she lay down covering fire with her laser rifle. The shooters on the hill were already being forced to retreat as the grass around them was set alight by a hail of projectiles, one of them catching a laser to the face, punching a molten hole through its head.

“These things aren’t so tough,” Nimi growled, taking careful aim with her handgun before loosing off another shot. “Not so fucking easy when your victims are shooting back, is it?”

“Watch the right!” Tepa yelled, wheeling around to aim her rifle down the wall. “They’re trying to climb over!”

Xipa turned her head to see a handful of the aliens scaling a tree maybe two hundred meters down the wall, trying to use it to get over the barrier. They were met by another barrage of gunfire, the leaves igniting, the creatures toppling back to the grass as they were torn apart. There was no end in sight. They just kept coming. At this rate, the guards would be overwhelmed no matter how bravely they fought.

“The Ensi says the shuttles are fueled!” Tepa shouted over the din of gunfire, ducking as a bolt splashed against the wall behind her. “Keep them back!”

Xipa could hear the rumble of the engines powering up beyond the wall, the shuttles prepping for takeoff. She rose above the pile of bodies again, sweeping her laser across an approaching alien’s thorax, sending it twitching to the ground. There were so many dead insects now that they had to climb over their fallen comrades to get closer, but they weren’t relenting. It was like they didn’t feel fear at all.

There was a dull thunk as something sailed over the defenses, implanting itself in the soil nearby. It was some kind of shell, maybe a mortar, panels on its sides splitting open to disgorge yellow gas just like the missile that the alien craft had fired.

“Chemicals!” Nimi yelled, darting clear of the smoking canister. “Make sure your helmets are sealed!”

The wind carried the obscuring cloud through the group of guards, hanging low to the grass like a mist. Everyone had sealed their helmets, all save for one guard, who must have lost hers at some point. She tried to run, but there was no way she could outpace the smoke. She scratched at her throat with her clawed fingers as she began to choke, falling to the ground with alarming speed, where she lay twitching.

“Get her clear!” Tepa ordered, moving to cover a pair of rescuers as they hauled her limp body back towards the gate.

The creatures were closing in now, nearing the defensive line, drawing their blades with their lower pairs of arms. There was a sea of the things, at least four or five dozen now, rolling over the hills like a tide of multicolored chitin. One of them darted at Xipa, but she was too fast for it, melting a hole in its face as it tried to scale the heap of its dead comrades. There was a cry as someone was pulled over the barrier to her right, Xipa watching as the aliens fell upon her with their knives, even as the other guards rushed to her aid. The insects were so single-minded, prioritizing killing the poor woman even over saving themselves as the defenders poured fire into them, continuing to harry her with their daggers even as their very flesh cooked in their shells.

“We have to pull back into the compound!” Nimi shouted, shooting an alien point-blank in the head with her pistol as it reached for her. It was knocked back by the green flash, a smoking crater where its face had once been. “We’ll get overrun if we try to stay out here!”

“Pull back!” Tepa confirmed, the guards starting to cede ground as they withdrew. The aliens pressed the attack, the yellow gas swirling about their feet as they marched through it, more of the poison canisters landing nearby.

Two more of the defenders fell to their plasma weapons as they moved out of cover, but the guards kept up the suppressing fire, keeping the aliens at bay until they made it through the gate. Xipa felt a momentary wave of relief wash over her as the high wall was put between them and the horde of insects. She chanced a glance behind her, seeing that the three shuttles were lined up on the dual runways. The guards who had remained behind were loading the last of the civilians, helping them up the narrow stairs and into the open hatches about halfway down their hulls. The cargo shuttle was at the rear, the large ramp that led to its bay open on the tarmac.

The defenders formed a firing line behind a row of crates that had been dragged out to serve as makeshift cover, taking advantage of the bottleneck created by the gate’s relatively narrow aperture to kill scores of the aliens as they tried to pile in. There were so many dead that it was creating a blockage, but they merely climbed over and pushed through, almost desperate in their attempts to reach their enemy. More of the gas canisters sailed over the wall, bouncing off the runway, rolling along as they spewed their lethal payload into the air. By this point, the hatches on the passenger shuttles were closing, protecting their occupants from the chemicals. The cargo shuttle was the exception, but it was far enough away to be clear.

Further down the wall, Xipa spotted some of the colorful insects climbing over, leaping down the near side. She redirected her laser in their direction, some of the other guards following suit, quickly cutting them down. As the aliens returned fire, some of their plasma bolts went wide, splashing against the hull of the nearest shuttle. The heat tiles seemed to do a decent job of dissipating the energy, but they weren’t combat vessels, and they couldn’t stand too much sustained fire. It was down to the wire now. They had to get those shuttles off the ground before it was too late.

A familiar sound made Xipa’s blood run cold, and she looked up to see a formation of alien fighters soaring overhead. There were three of them, one of them breaking off, swooping down towards the spaceport. The guards heard it coming, scattering as it lined up for a strafing run. There was no cover on the open runway save for the shuttles, and guiding its fire towards them was the last thing they wanted to do, so they darted in every which direction in an attempt to throw off the craft’s aim.

Green flame pouring from its thrusters, the alien vessel fired off a long burst of gunfire, a stream of crackling bolts melting the tarmac wherever they landed. It left a river of molten tar in its wake, pulling up and banking away as it circled around for another pass.

Xipa picked herself up, looking back to see that three of the guards had been turned to blackened husks by the deadly projectiles. She turned her eyes to the sky, watching the craft’s vibrant shell glint as it lined up for a second run, framed by the burning skyscrapers in the distance.

Suddenly, it jerked off-course, abruptly switching targets. A mag-lev train was leaving the station near the wall at high speed, racing away along its magnetic line with an electrical hum. The other two craft that were circling overhead gave chase, the train traveling fast enough that they had to burn hard in an attempt to catch it, completely abandoning their attack on the port. It was Noyo – her plan had worked! The radio chatter was drawing them away.

“This is our chance!” the voice of one of the Ensis crackled over their helmet radios. “Go, go! Launch the shuttles now!”

The two passenger shuttles ignited their engines, jets of bright flame shooting from their conical exhausts as they slowly began to pick up speed. They weren’t out of the woods yet, though. The aliens were starting to push through the gate now, more of them finding ways over the wall, breaching the compound. There was only a few hundred meters between them and the shuttles, the line of guards the only thing standing between them.

“We have to keep them away from the ships,” Nimi hissed, her panels flashing a vibrant red. “They’ll tear them apart if they reach them.”

“Is this it?” Xipa panted, checking the readout on her laser rifle to see that it was flashing a low battery warning. “Is this how we die?”

“Fighting to save hundreds of lives?” Nimi asked, reaching over to give her an encouraging pat on the shoulder. “That’s a hell of a way to go out.”

Xipa’s own color panels flushed red now, the involuntary movements of her feather sheaths translated by the suit’s computers.

“Not one of those bastards is getting past us.”

“That’s the spirit,” Nimi growled, gripping her alien pistol with both hands. “We do this together.”

“Nobody boards that last transport until the two passenger shuttles are in the air!” Tepa ordered over their helmet radios. “Hold your ground! When you became guards, you swore an oath to protect the people of this city, and the time has come to make good on that promise!”

The line of defenders lit up in vibrant red, her words spurring them on. The shuttles were accelerating down the runway now, the handheld weapons of the aliens peppering their hulls. The creatures were pouring into the perimeter by the dozen now, each one that was felled by the withering gunfire replaced by another, bolts of energy melting the metal crates where they impacted the makeshift defenses. More gas canisters rained from the sky, bouncing off the runway, shrouding the port in a haze of yellow fog.

Like ghosts emerging from the mist, the aliens came marching through, the bursts of green plasma from their weapons illuminating their shining carapaces in brief flashes. From their entrenched position, the guards cut them down, littering the ground with their bodies. They took casualties of their own, one of the guards lifted off her feet as a bolt from one of the long rifles caught her in the chest, melting through her suit like acid. Another took a hit to her battery pack, a jet of flame engulfing her as it cooked off, the nearby defenders leaping clear.

They had lost maybe a third of their number by now, but still they held, refusing to give an inch to the aliens. The wind was carrying away the gas now, revealing the seething mass of aliens. They couldn’t hold out any longer, not against so many. They would be overwhelmed by their sheer numbers.

Xipa turned her head to see the first shuttle’s wheels leave the runway, followed by the second, their engines blazing as they began their steep climb. The giant alien mothership still dominated the sky, and with a pang of apprehension, she remembered how it had fired on the hospital skimmer. If it shot at them with that giant plasma weapon, they wouldn’t stand a chance. Fortunately, it seemed to be focusing its attention elsewhere, pouring its fire deeper into the city. Perhaps it, too, was chasing Noyo’s train.

“Get back to the cargo shuttle!” Tepa shouted over their helmet radios. “Everyone, fall back!”

Her heart pounding in her ears, Xipa began to back up, the guards abandoning their fortifications as the insects swarmed over them. The shuttle was close, but turning tail now would ensure their deaths. The guards had to make a strategic retreat, keeping the enemy suppressed, covering each other as they went. In the open, they made even easier targets, however. Xipa saw another of her companions fall, a guard trying to drag her along with her tail while she kept her rifle shouldered.

“Noyo!” Xipa shouted, hoping against hope that she was listening. “Come on, Noyo! We’re leaving!”

“Move your tail, Noyo!” Nimi added as she knocked back an alien with a vicious kick.

Xipa glanced over at the mag-lev platform, seeing her flockmate standing there alone, the open ground between them packed with aliens. There were dozens, far too many to fight through. Xipa’s heart sank into her stomach as she watched her flockmate raise a hand to wave to her.

“It’s alright,” she replied, her tone reassuring as it crackled through the radio. “We got those people out. That’s what matters.”

“No!” Xipa protested, distracted as another alien came at her with a pair of knives. It melted under her sustained beam, skidding to the tarmac. “There’s still time, Noyo! Don’t give up!”

“One life for two hundred. It was worth it.”

“Damn it, Noyo!” Nimi snarled as she choked back tears. “I’ll come get you myself if I have to!”

“All I want now is to see you two on that shuttle,” she said, her voice paradoxically steady. “Do me that one last favor.”

The wall over by the hangars to their left suddenly exploded inward, a huge mass shouldering its way through the debris. As the dust cleared, Xipa saw that it was a monstrous creature, a hulking beast of chitin that stood at least twelve feet tall. It had a similar body plan to the smaller insects, but its upper arms were thicker around than a Valbaran’s torso, a pair of scissor-like claws tipping each one. Its spiny carapace was heavily armored, colored a dull blue, its eyes more resembling slatted visors than anything organic. There were mechanical components nestled among the layered plates of its carapace, thick cables and glowing lights, the thing a grotesque chimera of metal and flesh. Its vicious mandibles flexed in what might be anticipation as it turned its head in their direction, its clawed feet digging furrows in the earth with each step. Even more soldiers poured through the breach behind it, their weapons in hand as they raced to reinforce their brethren.

The surviving guards were nearing the shuttle’s cargo ramp now, the craft already starting to move, the metal sparking as it dragged along the runway. Those nearest piled inside, helping their companions up onto the ramp, laying down covering fire as the aliens peppered the area with plasma. The burning projectiles weren’t doing much to the hull, but if one of those bolts hit the landing gear or an engine cone, it could spell disaster.

Nimi and another straggler were locked in hand-to-hand combat with a handful of the insects that had run ahead of the group, the aliens coming at them with their knives as they finally closed the gap. Nimi tried to fight them off, firing her pistol into the melee as the other woman was dragged to the ground.

Xipa glanced between the shuttle and her flockmate, then growled into her helmet, rushing to Nimi’s aid.

“Get out of here!” Nimi demanded, but Xipa ignored her. With a couple of well-placed shots from her laser rifle, she took down two of the nearest aliens, giving Nimi the room she needed to finish off the third.

“I’m not losing anyone else,” she insisted, Nimi giving her an appreciative nod. The shuttle was pulling away now, gradually accelerating, the guards in the cargo bay shouting for them to run over the roar of the engines.

“Come on!” Xipa continued, firing as she retreated. “We have to-”

Another of the aliens stepped through the yellow fog, raising a two-pronged pistol in its upper hand, only a few paces away. There was a blinding flash of green, then a searing pain like nothing Xipa had ever felt before, the smell of her own burning flesh filling her nostrils. She felt her battery pack dig into her back as she fell to the ground, fighting to get her helmet off as it turned to slag, burning her hands in the process. The chaos around her ceased to exist, the immediate agony of molten metal bonding to her face all that she could focus on. Finally, she managed to tear it off, sending it clattering across the runway. Only able to open one eye, she looked up at her assailant as it raised the pistol again, the rails crackling with energy.

From the right, Nimi tackled the thing, knocking it off its feet. Through the haze of pain and confusion, Xipa saw them scuffle, their movements a blur as their blades flashed. When it was over, they both lay still.

She struggled to her feet, stumbling over to where Nimi lay. Through her bleary vision, she could see that she was clutching her belly, red blood staining the front of her suit. One of the alien knives was embedded deep in her stomach, its handle jutting into the air.

“Go,” she sputtered, popping open her visor. “There’s no time.”

Xipa looked back at the taxiing shuttle, then at the horde of advancing aliens, what remained of her feathery headdress flashing purple with dismay. She knelt, gripping the hilt of the blade, then tugging it loose. Nimi groaned in pain, coughing up blood.

“I’ll carry you,” Xipa grunted, ignoring the white-hot pain in her hands as she tried to drag her. She stumbled, falling to the ground, her strength leaving her.

“Don’t be an idiot,” Nimi chuckled, wincing as the motion hurt her. “You’ll miss your ride. One of us has to survive this, or it’ll all be for nothing.”

“But-”

“Promise me that you’ll warn them,” she said urgently, Xipa starting to back away as the alien reinforcements drew nearer. “Don’t let this happen on Valbara, too.”

“I-I’ll warn them,” she stammered. “I’ll make sure they’re ready.”

Nimi nodded, Xipa tearing herself away from her, shrugging off her pack. Mustering the last of her willpower, she sprinted for the shuttle, ignoring the searing pain in her face and the burning in her muscles. Bolts of plasma whistled over her head, some flying close enough that she could feel them singe her feathery coat, the aliens hot on her heels. As she neared the ramp, one of the guards wrapped her tail around one of the pneumatic pistons, leaning out to grab her. Xipa gritted her teeth as she took her by the hand, hauling her up into the cargo bay.

The ramp began to close, Xipa hooking her arm through some nearby cargo netting as acceleration tugged at her, the craft rising into the sky. There were few seats in the bay, and most of the remaining guards were hanging onto whatever was in reach, clutching their injured comrades to prevent them from sliding away. The deck shook, turbulence buffeting its occupants, a loose crate tumbling away to smash against the ramp. Xipa could feel the G-forces tugging at her, the blend of pain and exhaustion threatening to make her pass out. It seemed to drag on forever, until finally, weightlessness gripped her. Everything that wasn’t nailed down began to float, Xipa coiling her tail through the netting to anchor herself.

She felt something in her hand, looking down to see that she still had a death grip on the knife that she had pulled from Nimi’s belly. The ceramic blade was decorated with ornate patterns, the crimson blood seeming to follow the swirling channels, droplets of it floating into the air.

“Are you alright?” someone asked, snapping her out of her stupor. With her one good eye, she saw Tepa floating over to her, pushing herself off the deck. “Your face…”

“I think…I’m alright,” she mumbled, finding that the stiffness in her burned cheek made it a chore to speak. “Can’t really…see out of my right eye.”

“Just stay here, we’ll get you some help,” she insisted. “Someone get a medkit over here!”

Xipa didn’t really care about her injuries. All she could think about was Nimi, Noyo, Chala. They were gone, and she was still here. Why? She wasn’t smarter than Noyo, she wasn’t braver than Nimi, she wasn’t more compassionate than Chala. Why had she alone been chosen to go on?

She floated there in silence as one of the guards applied a dressing to her face, the cooling burn gel soothing her injuries. It didn’t hurt much anymore. Like Chala, had all of her nerves been seared away?

For what must have been an hour, the shuttle coasted along, making small course corrections with its thrusters. There were no windows, no way to see outside, only the microgravity serving as proof that they had made it to orbit.

“The other two shuttles are safe,” Tepa finally said, floating in through the dividing door that led to the cockpit. There were some muted sighs of relief from the other guards, a few of them daring to congratulate each other. Even so, the mood remained dour. It was unlikely that even a single flock was still intact. “There’s a cargo hauler getting ready to jump out of the system as soon as we get close enough,” she continued. “We’re not docking – they don’t have the room, and we don’t have the time – so brace yourselves for a superlight jump. If you can find something to bite down on, do it.”

When they neared the hauler, Tepa began to call out a countdown, Xipa cutting off a piece of the netting with the alien knife. She placed the strip of fabric between her teeth, preparing her beleaguered body for one last ordeal. As the arcane energies of the jump drive enveloped their little shuttle, she welcomed the loss of consciousness that followed.

***

30 Years Later – In Valbaran Orbit

The Admiral’s shoes echoed off the deck as he made his way through the jump carrier’s cavernous hangar bay. It was a bustle of activity, Marines clad in their black pressure armor pausing to salute him as they passed, engineers wearing yellow coveralls servicing the rows of Beewolf fighters that were lined up in their berths. The sleek craft were being fueled and loaded for the campaign to come, the jet-black, angular contours of their stealth hulls seeming to absorb the light that touched them. They had swept wings and a pair of tall tail fins, their pointed noses betraying their atmospheric flight capabilities. They were just as agile in space, their hulls peppered with small maneuvering thrusters.

His shuttle was idling closer to the two-hundred-foot barrier of wavering energy that kept in the bay’s atmosphere. It was otherwise open to space, the stars visible beyond the field’s faint, blue glow. He adjusted his white gloves, then straightened his cap as he approached the troop ramp beneath the craft’s H-shaped tail, making his way inside. The dividing door that separated the cockpit from the troop compartment was open, the pilot turning in his chair to salute him, his face obscured beneath the opaque visor of his flight helmet.

“Welcome, Admiral,” he said. “Anabar flight control has greenlit an approach for us. Are you ready to head down to the surface?”

“Let’s not waste any time,” the Admiral replied, easing himself down into one of the padded bucket seats that lined the troop compartment. He fastened his harness, taking a moment to glance at his surroundings. It was mostly exposed bulkheads, the deck beneath his feet made up of metal grates, the cargo racks above his head mostly empty.

The ramp began to close, the sounds of machinery and power tools fading as it sealed with a hermetic hiss. The deck beneath his feet began to vibrate as the main engines powered up, their hum filling his ears. Through one of the small portholes adjacent to him, he watched the hangar beyond slide away, a fleeting moment of weightlessness making his stomach lurch as they transitioned from the carrier’s AG field to the shuttle’s onboard gravity. As the shuttle turned towards its new heading, he was given an admirable view of the Rorke, its ocean-grey hull seeming to extend from horizon to horizon.

Jump carriers were the backbone of the UNN fleets, transporting thousands of troops and hundreds of aircraft across the stars. At thirteen hundred feet long, and with a mass in excess of a hundred thousand tons, they were the largest ships that the Navy could field. The craft was bristling with arrays of railguns and rows of launch tubes, its defensive CIWS guns swiveling independently, tracking nearby objects that might pose a threat. The hull was vaguely bullet-shaped, tapering into a rounded nose, the massive engine cones at the rear of the ship not visible from this angle. What the Admiral could see as the shuttle slowly fell away was the secondary bridge situated beneath the behemoth, used to direct orbital bombardments using the veritable forest of railguns that were mounted on its belly.

A few of its escort frigates were nearby, coasting along beside it in formation. Their arrowhead-shaped hulls were designed for the lowest possible radar cross-section, all harsh, geometric angles painted as black as the vacuum around them. Their weapons were stowed right now, and the only light came from their bridge windows, mounted high towards the rear of the vessels.

The curvature of the planet rose up beneath them, its bright, azure glow soon occupying the Admiral’s entire field of view. Valbara wasn’t too unlike Earth if one ignored the patches of purple vegetation that mingled with the usual green. They were heading to the equator, where it would be hot and humid. Many of the planet’s cities were situated close to the shallow, warm seas, where the climate was tropical. He’d probably be sweating up a storm before long. If only they’d let him wear shorts as part of his uniform…

Turbulence made the Admiral grip the handhold above his head as the craft started to enter the atmosphere, the straps on his harness digging into his chest, the orange glow of flames bleeding in through the portholes as they licked at the hull outside. Gradually, the shuttle began to shed its velocity, and the Admiral was able to catch brief glimpses of the ground as it banked.

The Valbarans treated their planet like one giant game preserve, staying within the high walls of their cities while letting nature run its course beyond them. Rolling grassland and patches of forest stretched as far as the eye could see, completely undeveloped, the strange patches of blue and purple foliage standing out to him in the sea of green. Snaking rivers and lakes reflected the sunlight, the snow-capped peaks of a mountain range rising up in the distance.

Finally, their destination came into view, the unmistakable glint of pearl-white architecture rising up from the grassy plains. Valbaran cities were arranged in concentric circles, bands of parkland breaking up the more populated areas, which made them look like a giant bullseye from the sky. They were certainly more aesthetically appealing than Earth’s sprawling urban centers, and more ecologically sound, but something about the way that they were so meticulously planned out put a bad taste in the Admiral’s mouth. They were a little too utopian for his sensibilities. Surely there had to be some filth and disorder under that shining veneer?

Strange, alien buildings raced past below as the shuttle soared over the city, heading for the needle-like spires that rose up at its center. Jutting out from the facade of a building that would make any pompous architecture student cream their pants was a landing platform, the shuttle slowing to a hover. It bounced as it came to a stop, the landing gear absorbing the shock, the hum of the engines winding down. The Admiral let out a sigh of relief as he fumbled with the clasp on his harness, the troop bay beginning to open again, sunlight flooding through the widening gap. Hot, humid air rushed into the bay, and he grumbled under his breath as he rose from his seat, straightening out the creases in his uniform.

“I’ll be waiting here, sir,” the pilot said as the Admiral descended the ramp.

The high winds buffeted him, and he reached up to grip his cap for fear that it would be blown off. There were no guardrails up here, as the damnable aliens had no fear of heights. Even in Valbara’s 0.9Gs, falling from this kind of height would turn even the hollow-boned creatures into pancakes, but that didn’t seem to bother them. Trying not to look too flustered, he made his way towards the building, ducking in through an entrance that was slightly too low for his six-foot stature.

One of the aliens was waiting for him in the corridor inside, the little creature dressed in a pair of what looked like tight-fitting bike shorts and a billowy, colorful tunic that exposed its shoulders. The Valbarans were somewhere between birds and reptiles, resembling bipedal lizards with a dull snout and a long, thick tail. This one was only four feet tall and maybe fifty pounds, its spinach-green scales shining under the ceiling lights like a waxed car, its violet eyes adorned with some kind of decorative paint in the style of makeup. From the back of its head, a pair of fleshy tendrils hung like braids, and there were two more coiled around its forearms. As the Admiral approached, they stood erect, opening up to reveal vibrant feathers. The headdress that framed the creature’s skull was large enough to be unwieldy, the colorful plumes tipped with eyespots like a peacock, the feathers on its forearms fanning out in a red hue. This was how the aliens displayed emotion, amongst other social cues, and he recognized the crimson color as a show of respect in this context. This one was male, if he remembered correctly, as they had more impressive plumage than their female counterparts. It was difficult to tell them apart otherwise.

“Welcome to Anabar, Admiral,” the alien said with a bow. His English was perfect, his voice accompanied by an odd flanging effect that made him sound like a songbird. The Valbarans learned languages through mimicry, and it showed in their accents, which never remained consistent during their conversations. “The Ensi is ready to meet with you, if you will please follow me to her office.”

The alien set off down the hallway with an odd, bobbing gait reminiscent of a pigeon, the Admiral trailing behind him. He noted that the carpet was a blend of green and purple hues, much like the grasslands outside, an abundance of potted plants decorating the otherwise spartan interior. After turning a few winding corners, they arrived at a large double door, the Valbaran standing aside as he gestured for the Admiral to go on.

The doors slid open automatically, and he stepped into an expansive room that resembled an executive’s office. One wall was taken up by a huge window pane that ran from the floor to the ceiling, the orderly bands of the city visible beyond, extending to the base of the six-hundred-foot wall in the distance. The floor beneath his feet was imitation wood that had been polished to a shine, and the light fixtures that were recessed into the ceiling created a soft, natural glow. The furnishings were all very upscale, yet somehow devoid of personality, like the placeholders one might find on a show floor. There were no personal touches that he could see, no belongings, no framed pictures or accolades. Whether that was just the Valbaran style, he couldn’t be certain. Occupying the center of the room was a large table that was cut from a single piece of metal, a holographic computer display projecting from a small terminal that sat upon it. It was long enough that half a dozen people could have sat behind it in a row, but there was only one occupant.

The Ensi rose from her seat as she saw him enter, gesturing to a human-sized chair that had been placed opposite hers in preparation for his arrival. She was wearing a similar tunic to her male counterpart, albeit with more muted colors and longer sleeves. As he approached, he noted her unusual features. Unlike her scaly secretary, her body was covered with a coat of downy feathers, like a baby bird. They were brown in hue, the color of tree bark. Stranger still was her disfigurement. A brutal scar ran down the right side of her face, trailing all the way along her snout and up over her skull. It had killed the feathers there, exposing the scales beneath, which had grown back devoid of their brown pigment to leave a white streak. Her right eye was gone, too, completely healed over such that not even the empty socket was visible. It was a catastrophic injury, albeit an old one, the Admiral immediately recognizing it as a plasma burn. He had seen plenty of those in his time.

“Admiral Vos,” she began, waiting politely for him to sit down before returning to her seat. “You’re right on time. It’s nice to meet an Earth’nay who values punctuality. I trust that your flight down from orbit wasn’t too bumpy?”

“No more than usual, thank you,” he replied as he shifted his weight in the padded chair. The room was so huge and so empty, which only served to make his counterpart look even more diminutive. “You’ll have to forgive me, Ensi. Valbaran names are rather difficult to remember.”

“No apology is necessary,” she said, tilting her head in a way that seemed more mocking than sympathetic. “I’m aware that Earth’nay possess a…more limited memory than my kind. It’s

Xipa’tla’nemi, or just Xipa, if that’s easier for you.”

“I think that Ensi will suffice,” he continued, Xipa nodding.

“The last time the sky above my planet was clouded with so many alien ships, the circumstances were rather different,” she said. “Tell me, Admiral, have you finished assembling your forces?”

“The last of the carrier strike groups arrived today,” he replied, reaching into his pocket. He slid a small electronic device onto the table, which flared to life with a hand gesture. It projected a glowing, holographic image into the air, which began to cycle through depictions of different ship classes. “This is the largest UNN fleet ever assembled in one place, and every ship that I could guilt or blackmail my colleagues into relinquishing is now on station.”

The Ensi followed the scrolling images with her one eye, watching curiously.

“How many ships?”

“We have 42 CSGs, each of which consists of one jump carrier and at least eight support craft. Each of those carriers can field up to 90 aircraft, as well as 10,000 Marines and auxiliaries. We also have 64 assault carriers with a full armored battalion and another 3000 Marines apiece. In all, we expect to be able to field 612,000 troops, 3,780 aircraft, and 9,600 tanks. Along with the 336 frigates and support craft, naturally.”

“Naturally,” she muttered, clearly impressed by the scale of the operation.

“We’ll have three battleships, too,” he added. “They’re there to make sure the hive gets wiped out, one way or another. There will also be several Coursers outfitted for special operations that will be standing by to deploy their teams as necessary.”

“I’m told that you will be leading the UNN fleet,” the Ensi continued, leaning back in her chair as she appraised him.

“That’s correct,” he replied. “The Rorke will be serving as the command carrier, and I’ll be directing the UNN forces from there.”

“The Rorke,” she muttered, considering for a moment. “The same vessel that spearheaded the defense of Valbara, if I’m not mistaken.”

“The very same,” he replied proudly.

“We all owe the Earth’nay a great debt,” she said, Vos watching as she rose from her chair. She put her back to him, making her way over to the window, where she gazed down at the city far below with her gloved hands clasped neatly behind her back. “I lived through the fall of Kerguela. I know what it’s like to watch a planet die at the hands of a hive fleet.”

“My condolences,” he replied. It wasn’t news to him – he had received memos and briefings concerning the Ensi before even arriving in the system – but he had been advised to be tactful in his dealings with her.

“I was only nineteen when my colony was invaded,” she continued, Vos watching her reflection in the window. “When I made it back to Valbara along with the other refugees, I expected the hive to follow, but they never did. Can you imagine what it’s like to know that the executioner’s blade is hovering over your neck, but to have no idea of when it will fall? I treated every year as a gift, more time to prepare, more time to fortify. We rearmed, we developed new weapons systems, new ships. I personally pushed for the creation of the orbital defense station network, even as the younger Ensi squabbled over budgets and resource allocation. Thirty years of preparation,” she muttered, trailing off. “Yet, when they finally arrived, it was like being back on Kerguela all over again. It was only thanks to a roving alien fleet that happened to be in the right place at the right time that my people are not extinct,” she added with a hint of bitterness.

“That’s why the Coalition exists,” Vos said. “You don’t have to thank us. It’s our job.”

“Do not misunderstand,” she continued, turning her head to glance back at him. “I appreciate all that the Coalition has done for my people, but have you ever considered what it’s like to owe the very existence of your species to strangers who happened to drop by at exactly the right moment? It’s harrowing. The Valbarans are done playing a defensive game, we are done leaving our fate to the whims of aliens,” she added with a flash of red feathers. Vos noted that the ones on the right side of her head were damaged, tattered and burned away in places. “With the new technologies that we have acquired and the new fleet that we have built, we will play an equal part in the coming campaign. I spent most of my life building a shield around Valbara, but now, we have a sword.”

“I was told that you intend to lead the Valbaran fleet yourself,” Vos replied. “Forgive me, but don’t Valbarans usually work in flocks? Your people seem to place a great deal of value in the concept of consensus, of subjecting every decision to a democratic process.”

“I did not become the Ensi of Anabar by relying on others,” she replied tersely. “My flock perished on the colony, and I have learned to get by on my own ever since. I believe it has given me a…unique outlook when compared to my peers.”

“I don’t doubt your competence, Ensi,” the Admiral added. “I merely-”

“Curiosity is not something to be admonished,” she interrupted. “I will be commanding the fleet from the battle carrier Vengeance.”

“Vengeance,” Vos repeated, raising a skeptical eyebrow. “I suppose it’s fitting, if a little on the nose.”

“Have you been briefed on the capabilities of our new ships?” she asked, returning to stand beside the table.

“Not extensively,” he replied, watching as she leaned over to tap a touch panel on her computer terminal.
“Since we lack orbital shipyards, our construction methods differ from yours,” she began. “We employ a modular design, manufacturing said modules on the ground, then launching them into orbit with heavy lifters where they’re then assembled. This process actually allows us a great deal of flexibility. Granted, our vessels are smaller and less technologically advanced than yours, but we’ve taken advantage of that to mass-produce them. I think you will be impressed by our progress.”

The holographic display showed a series of cylindrical segments, each one slightly different from the last. One of them was clearly a bridge module with a row of windows and a comms array. Others sported large engine cones, bulbous generators, and large habitats that rotated around a central hub. He recognized equipment of UNN design that was mounted on the weapon modules, attached to extensible platforms that would rise up from the rounded hulls of the segments when deployed. Vos could see at a glance that the vessels weren’t designed for stealth, so this was presumably to protect them when not in use, and to give them better firing arcs in combat. There were railgun turrets of the same kind used on gunboats, missile launchers that looked like they had been ripped straight off a Doloto-class frigate, and defensive CIWS guns. There were even torpedo launchers that were configured as external turrets, likely due to a lack of internal space for mounting conventional launch tubes.

“As you can see, we have incorporated UNN weapons systems into our designs,” the Ensi continued as she blew up one of the models to demonstrate the opening and closing of the missile hatches. “We have some weapons of our own making, too, of course. Our laser point defense weapons are still favored in many scenarios, and we’ve developed a new prow-mounted particle beam weapon.”

She hit a few more commands, demonstrating how the different segments could be linked together.

“We can fit up to nine modules in a stack,” she explained. “The bridge, fusion plant, and engine modules are all necessary to the vessel’s function, but the remaining six can be any combination of parts. Smaller vessels are faster and more maneuverable, obviously, so we have separated our fleet into various classes based on their size and configuration. We made them UNN-adjacent for convenience during joint operations.”

“Naturally,” Vos replied. For all her talk of self-sufficiency, it sounded like her vaunted fleet relied heavily on human technology and was modeled closely on UNN naval doctrine. “You mentioned carriers? How many troops will you be contributing?”

“Each of these cylinders can house up to 2000 troops,” she continued, showing him an expanded view of the module. “We’ve separated our carriers into two distinct classes. There’s the fleet carrier, which acts as a mothership for our fighter squadrons, and the troop carrier that prioritizes carrying capacity and has docking modules for dropships. Our troop carriers can house 6000 personnel, and each of our dropships can deliver 24 Commandos and four light vehicles to the surface of a planet. We’ve been able to mass-produce 18 troop carriers, which means that we expect to deploy 108,000 Commandos and 1,296 light vehicles.”

She showed him a view of one of the carriers, its hull painted in ocean camouflage. It had nine segments, with three hangar modules for the fleet of dropships, and three gigantic cylinders for the crew. They didn’t actually look like they rotated, as the Valbarans had certainly installed AG fields provided by the UNN on their new ships, but it was a good way to maximize the available surface area. Behind those were the ball-shaped fusion generator and the engine stack. There were small CIWS turrets fitted to hardpoints wherever there was space, along with a pair of offensive railguns and some missile hatches mounted on the bridge section. Although longer than a jump carrier at around 1600 feet, it was far less massive, and it didn’t have a fraction of the armor and weaponry that UNN carriers could field. It would probably be heavily dependent on its support fleet for protection, but that was in line with the flock mentality of its designers.

“That’s more than we were anticipating,” Vos said with an approving nod. “What are these light vehicles you mentioned?”

“Tankettes and scout craft,” she replied, pulling up a picture of one. It was a tracked vehicle that resembled a compact tank, but it was hard to tell exactly how large it was without a person beside it for reference. If the railgun mounted atop the hull was a standard size, then it couldn’t have been more than about ten feet long. It didn’t hold a candle to a UNN Kodiak, but it was better than nothing.

“What about fighter craft?” he asked.

“We have eleven new fleet carriers that can field 48 aircraft, for a total of 528. These include next-generation fighters and close air support craft.”

“And, the rest of your fleet?”

“We have 116 smaller craft of varying configurations. Our frigates have five modules, and they’re outfitted for varying roles such as point defense, carrier support, and frontline combat. We have a few larger seven-module craft that we’ve classified as cruisers, too.”
“You’ve been busy since you joined the Coalition,” Vos mused, examining the ship configurations that were scrolling past.

“We had an influx of new technology, along with a battle-tested model to base our fleet composition on,” she replied.

“They say that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.”

“Funny,” she grumbled, switching off the holographic display. “As you can see, Admiral, we are ready for the coming campaign.”

“It must feel good, going back there,” he said. “Taking the fight to the Bugs.”
“Indeed,” she replied, a small flicker of red coming from her feather sheaths. “We will wipe Kerguela clean of insects once and for all. We have the means and the drive to get it done. Times have changed.”

“And the Coalition has your back,” Vos added, choosing not to mention that the UNN would be doing most of the legwork. Still, he was genuinely impressed by what the Valbarans had been able to achieve in such a short amount of time. How they performed in combat remained to be seen, but they would be pulling their own weight.

“What’s your plan?” she asked, making her way over to the window again. “It’s estimated that there are upwards of fifteen million Betelgeusians on Kergeula, based on what we know about the fertility of their Queens. They’ve had thirty years to entrench their position, to adapt to their environment. Together, we have almost a million troops, but we’re still outnumbered fifteen to one.”

“Mobility is our greatest weapon,” Vos replied, glad to finally be talking tactics. “Trying to occupy territory on the ground would be pointless, there are just too many Bugs. Besides for some temporary forward operating bases, there won’t be much of a reason to remain on the surface. We’ll be landing troops from orbit, accomplishing our strategic objectives with speed and precision, then extracting before the enemy has time to react. With our aircraft, we can pick up entire tank battalions and Marine divisions, leapfrogging them around the planet with the ease of moving pieces around on a chessboard.”

“That requires us to exert complete control over the gravity well first,” the Ensi added.

“It’s going to be messy, yes, but we’ll have to completely clear out the Bugs before we can get boots on the ground. With overwhelming force, it shouldn’t be too difficult. Our Black-Ops Coursers have been gathering data that shows an extensive network of orbital fortifications,” he continued as he switched his device back on with a gesture. It showed a blurry picture of a moon in the shadow of a gas giant, the details of its surface too low-resolution to make out. The Ensi turned again to examine it.

“Kerguela,” she muttered, her feathers fluttering again as though she was struggling to suppress an emotional reaction. “I haven’t seen an up-to-date image of it in thirty years…”

“We couldn’t get too close for fear of blowing our cover, but we’ve picked up the signatures of artificial structures in orbit,” Vos continued. “This was something we anticipated, as Betelgeusians often deploy orbital defense platforms when they claim a planet, but this is thirty years of buildup. Needless to say, we don’t know what any of these objects are. What we can see are tethers around the equator, which are linked to large structures that are outputting a lot of heat.”

“How do you intend to breach those defenses?”

“The fleet will jump in at extreme range, launch a salvo of torpedoes, then time the next jump to coincide with their impact. The Bugs won’t have much warning, and they’ll have no time to react. They’ll get hit with enough ordnance to level a continent, then we’ll drop right on top of their heads and mop up whatever’s left. Most of their defenses are around the equator, so we’ll need to hit them all at once in a 360-degree assault. Once we have control, we’ll be able to open up a supply line to Valbara, which is only a jump away.”

“Ambitious,” she mumbled. “Has anything like this been done before?”

“There’s a first time for everything,” he replied with a smirk. “Once the gravity well is a graveyard, we’ll have free reign to land troops and vehicles wherever we please, and there’s nothing the roaches can do about it. We’ve never encountered a hive this established before, so we’re not really sure what they’ll be doing on the surface, and we can’t get close enough to take a look. Whatever it is, we’ll disrupt it. If they have any infrastructure, we’ll bomb it to kingdom come, and we’ll root out any strongholds they’ve established. The goal isn’t to wipe out their entire population, of course,” he added with a dismissive wave of his hand. “Not if we want the moon to be habitable by the time we’re done with it.”

“The Queen,” the Ensi said, Vos nodding.

“The greatest weakness of the Bugs is their rigid, inflexible command structure. We estimate that a Queen with a hive this large will have problems coordinating her forces in real-time. They’ve never been observed to use anything other than pheromone-based communications, and the Drones aren’t very reactive without a direct line to their Queen. If we cut off their lines of communication, isolating the populations from one another, they’ll be left in disarray. The main goal will be to locate the Queen’s chamber and kill her. With the Queen dead, the hive is doomed. Experience tells us the best way to go about that is through the ground-penetrating radar mounted on our Timberwolf scout vehicles and surveillance craft. We deploy teams to search for the important nexuses in their tunnel networks, which could be quite extensive, and we collapse them. We keep that up, following them to their source until we strike gold and find the main chamber.”

“The insects dig deep,” the Ensi mused, scrutinizing him with her one eye. “How will you destroy the chamber without doing irreparable damage to the biosphere?”

“We can’t use railguns or conventional explosives,” he confirmed. “Anything that can reach that deep would do catastrophic damage to the planet. We have teams who can go inside and get the job done.”

“You say that so casually,” she scoffed, cocking her head at him. “What kind of person would willingly walk into the heart of a Betelgeusian nest?”

“Technically, they’re classed as combat engineers,” Vos replied as he leaned back in his chair. “But they like to call themselves Trogs.”

“How colorful,” she grumbled. “What of the millions of insects that will remain?’
“They’ll be leaderless, unable to mount any kind of organized resistance. We can hunt them down at our leisure.”

“You seem confident, considering how little we know about the Kerguelan hive. What if they have evolved and adapted in unexpected ways?”

“Nobody can plan for the unknown,” Vos replied, shrugging his shoulders. “Besides, there’s an old human adage that applies here. No plan survives contact with the enemy.”

“The Valbara’nay do not share that sentiment,” the Ensi said.

Vos considered a cutting remark about their performance so far, but thought better of it.

“There is one more thing,” he continued, watching her as he carefully considered his next words. “There will be a Jarilan contingent joining the fleet. They’ll be serving mostly in an advisory capacity. They’re our experts, our bloodhounds, our code-talkers. They know more about how Bugs think than anyone.”

The Ensi’s feathers flushed red again, her scarred lips curling into a snarl.

“That would be because they are Bugs, Admiral.”

“Allied Bugs,” he added. “Bugs with as much human DNA as insect.”

“I don’t even want to ask how that situation came about,” the Ensi grumbled.

“Back when the Jarilans joined the Coalition, they made a pledge to help your people retake Kerguela,” Vos continued. “The Council of Ensi voted to admit them. I should know, I was in the room when it happened.”

“The Council made their consensus, even if I strongly disagree with their decision,” she continued. “I am bound to respect it, but nothing requires me to be happy about it.”

“They’ll be fielding a handful of ships of their own design,” he continued, his tiny projector flaring to life again with a flick of his wrist. The hologram displayed a ship, a blend of what looked like flesh and metal. Like the carapace of a pillbug, interlocking plates with the same jet-black veneer and angular design as those of the UNN frigates ran down its spine, crab-like legs protruding from beneath it. On its prow was a cluster of long antennae and more conventional sensor arrays, and there were hardpoints along its back where railguns and missile silos were stowed. As if to better display their allegiance, the black hull was decorated with the blue stripes of the UNN, along with a prominent United Nations wreath.

The Ensi’s distaste was obvious as she examined it, the grimacing Valbaran turning up her snout as though the image was emitting a foul odor.

“Just have your people watch their IFF tags,” he added, shutting down the device. “We don’t want any blue on blue.”
“It does seem to be your favorite color,” the Ensi muttered.

“Will it be a problem?” he asked, his tone more serious.

“No,” she sighed, turning back to the window again. “The Coalition Security Council voted to include them, and I will not go against the consensus.”

“Good to know,” Vos said, rising from his seat. “I believe that’s everything we needed to go over. You know where to reach me if you have any more questions or concerns.”

“You should stay a while, Admiral,” she added as he made for the door. “My people show great hospitality, even if I do not share their optimistic outlook. The troops that have been on shore leave while waiting for the fleet to assemble seem to have been enjoying themselves.”

“Alas, there is much work to be done, but I appreciate the invitation all the same.”

He exited through the automatic doors, leaving the surly Ensi to stare out of her window.

***

“Dude, what do they put in those fuckin’ hookahs?” Hernandez chuckled as he made his way out of the lounge. He hit his head on the low door frame, cursing to himself as he stumbled out onto the street, a gaggle of passing aliens snickering at him as their feathers flashed.

“You good?” Evan asked, steadying his friend by the arm.

“I’m more than good,” he said, rubbing the red mark on his forehead. “I thought this deployment was gonna suck, but this place is like a five-star resort. Good weather, the natives know how to party, and the women!” He did an exaggerated chef’s kiss, Evan rolling his eyes. “Never thought I’d end up on a planet where gettin’ with five chicks in one night is considered par for the course. I’m tellin’ you, man, these Valbaran girls are easy.”

“They probably said the same thing about you,” Evan replied. “I don’t think you’re as much of a playboy as you think you are, buddy. They were pretty eager to get you drunk, and they were the ones buying.”

“Whatever, man. Still got laid.”

They made their way out of the alley and onto a larger street that was separated into two lanes, the middle lined with rows of trees that resembled palms, their leaves colored in hues of blue and purple rather than green. They swayed in the gentle breeze, the air warm, but not oppressively so. To either side of the street, skyscrapers rose up towards the clouds, their innumerable windows glittering in the sunlight. The gravity here was lower than Earth’s at 0.9G, making Evan feel like he had just shrugged off a heavy pack every time he stepped off the dropship. It was a bit humid, but he liked that. It felt like being on a Caribbean island.

The street was crowded with Valbarans, the short reptiles walking along in groups of between four and six. Everywhere he looked, there were flashes of colorful feathers to indicate emotion, their vibrant headdresses erupting in shades of yellow, pink, and green. He was slowly learning to recognize the different hues, how to interpret their alien body language. It was strangely enjoyable to see someone express happiness or surprise so vividly and from such a great distance. It had an infectious quality, like a smile. Their scales came in varying tones, usually dull greens and tans, with a few of their number sporting downy coverings of protofeathers that made them look more bird-like. Most were female, but the males were easy to spot, their headdresses sporting peacock-like eyespots that picked them out in the crowd.

They wore billowy shirts and tunics that were decorated with colorful patterns, along with form-fitting shorts with a cutout for their long tails. The males tended to dress more elaborately than the females. They donned makeup that accented their eyes, and wore jewelry that usually took the form of a pendant that hung around the forehead, usually encrusted with a gemstone. Gender roles in their culture were flipped, with the males being the ones who were expected to preen themselves. They were like tropical birds in that way. The females outnumbered them by a factor of six to one, according to what Evan had read about their planet before his arrival. He wasn’t sure if he envied them or pitied them, considering how willful the females could be. Hernandez certainly wasn’t complaining.

Some of the aliens were riding curious, two-wheeled scooters, weaving between the pedestrians. Although they were fast and strong for their size, the Valbarans lacked stamina, and they often turned to their scooters and mag-lev trains when they had to cover any serious distance.

Towering above the smaller natives were more Marines on shore leave, clad in their Navy-blue coveralls. Most of them were accompanied by trailing flocks of Valbarans, the little reptiles peering up at them as they chatted in their odd, parrot-like voices. They seemed to have a fondness for humans, not only because of their inherent curiosity of alien species, but because a UNN fleet had saved the planet from certain annihilation at the hands of a hive fleet only a few years prior. Marines were practically celebrities as a result. It wasn’t uncommon to enter a store and have some kind of freebie or gift thrust into your hands, or to visit a lounge and have multiple strangers offer to buy you drinks. Random people would frequently approach him to ask him for pictures, and the more confident females wouldn’t hesitate to hit on him if they saw an opportunity. Being accosted by one female would be bad enough, never mind five or six all trying to woo him at once in their usual rapid-fire way. Not that he minded the attention.

“When do you think we’re shipping out?” Evan asked, stepping out of the way of a procession of passing scooters.

“Can’t be long now,” his friend replied, still swaying a little under the influence of whatever he had been smoking. “We’ve been here for…how long now, nearly a month? At this rate, the Admiralty is gonna kick off the war on principle alone so they don’t have to keep payin’ us to get shitfaced.”

They made their way towards a nearby park, one of the bands of greenery that separated the more developed sections of the city. Rolling hills rose up to either side of the winding footpath, the landscapers having carefully crafted them to obscure the nearby buildings from view, patches of cultivated trees adding to the effect. It was possible to step right off a busy street and still feel like you were in the middle of a nature preserve.

The branches rustled in the breeze, strange, alien birds flitting between them in sudden spurts of frenzied movement. Like the Valbarans themselves, they were more reptile than avian, like little lizards that were covered in colorful feathers. They watched the strangers pass below with their large, shiny eyes, the vibrant crests that ran down their necks rising to show off their patterns.

The grass here was green, but there were patches of purple bushes and blue ferns that added a splash of color. Evan followed the sound of running water, turning a corner into a more open area of grassland that was surrounded by trees. At its center was a flowing stream that fed into a small lake, its surface covered over with flowering plants that resembled water lilies.

Hernandez flopped onto the grass, letting out a long sigh as he stretched out on his back.

“How much of that crap did you smoke?” Evan chuckled, sitting down beside him.

“I dunno, all of it?” he mumbled. “Valbarans are fuckin’ tiny, I didn’t think they’d be able to handle that much. Fuckers smoked me under the table.”

A sudden splash disturbed the peace, Evan looking over at the pool, where a large mass was rising up from its surface. Water cascaded over its scaly shoulders, sloughing between the armored scutes that ran down its spine, one of the yellow flowers sitting atop its head like a tiny hat. It flopped down onto the grassy shore, the impact making the ample fat deposits on its sixteen-foot body wobble, the creature letting out a rumbling bellow. Evan relaxed when he saw that it was just a Krell, not some native lake monster. Even the alligator-like aliens were enjoying their shore leave. The beast rolled onto its back to bask in the sun, idly scratching the scales on its underside with a hand that had far too many fingers. For creatures that served as living bulldozers and pillboxes in combat, they behaved like giant, lazy dogs when off-duty.

More noise drew Evan’s attention, and he looked back at the footpath to see a Valbaran family walking along the dirt track. There were four females in their flock, along with a male, all of them trying to wrangle a group of half a dozen squawking children. The juveniles were barely larger than iguanas, racing around with a level of hyperactivity that would put a human toddler to shame. One of them was dangling from one of its father’s feather sheaths, swinging back and forth, the exhausted parent seeming to have accepted this as his lot in life.

When they saw the Krell, the children hurried over to it, the giant creature like a living mountain in comparison to their tiny frames. It was so large that they could have comfortably sat in the palm of its hand. A couple of them clambered up onto its belly, jumping up and down, another sitting in the grass beside its enormous head to show off a small toy of what looked like an orange dinosaur. Fortunately, the Krell were known for their gentleness, and this one didn’t even seem to notice that it was being used as an impromptu bounce house.

The parents quickly came to snatch them up, but Evan noted that it wasn’t for fear of the Krell. They were apologizing to the alien as they captured their squirming offspring, the Krell letting out a low huffing sound that might have been laughter.

It said something about how the average Valbaran viewed the Coalition if they were comfortable letting their kids play around aliens that could have crushed them just by rolling over in their sleep.

There was a buzzing from Evan’s pocket, and he reached for his phone, the display flaring to life at his touch. When he heard Hernandez’s wrist-mounted computer chiming a moment later, he knew what was happening without even needing to look at the alert.

“Fuck, you jinxed us,” he grumbled. “Fleetcom wants us back on the carriers ASAP. Looks like it’s time.”

The Krell, too, had a strap around its wrist with a holographic projector. It opened one eye as it raised the device, then rumbled to itself, ponderously rolling onto its belly. It struggled to its feet, shaking itself off like a wet dog, then started to lumber back in the direction of the spaceport.

“Fuck, I gotta sober up,” Hernandez muttered as he lifted himself off the grass. “I’m too fuckin’ high to handle gettin’ yelled at for bein’ high right now.”

***

The mag-lev train sped along its elevated track silently, the only sensation of motion coming from the landscape that was racing past beyond the windows. Evan was sat beside Hernandez in seats that were a little too small for a human, watching the trees and matte-white buildings zip by below them. The rest of the seats were occupied by natives, but there were a few more humans along for the ride who had been called back to the carrier too. They’d be making their way in from all over the city.

The tall control tower of the spaceport rose up ahead of them, and the train passed over a wall that separated the port from the woodland outside, slowly sliding to a stop inside a raised platform that was little more than a glass awning on stilts.

Spaceports on Valbara were a little different from those he was used to. On Earth, spaceports were sprawling complexes built around orbital tethers. They handled both conventional spaceplanes and shuttles, and they also sent passenger cars up and down the elevators. The tethers were attached to orbital stations where vessels too large to make landfall would dock to transfer people and cargo.

The Valbarans hadn’t developed orbital tethers by the time they had made contact with the Coalition, and they primarily relied on spaceplanes and heavy lifters to make orbit. There were several long runways, as well as a few dozen hangars where the craft were stored when not in use, a relatively small control complex occupying the right side of the compound. Commercial space flight wasn’t a common occurrence on this planet yet, and these ports were mostly reserved for military use.

As the train came to a stop, Evan saw that there were a couple of dozen Valbaran dropships lined up, ready to taxi onto the runway. They were about twenty meters long, their streamlined hulls and layers of protective heat tiles reminiscent of the craft used in the early days of humanity’s expansion into the solar system. He gave Hernandez a nudge, gesturing to the Valbaran troops that were loading into them.

“Check it out,” he said, Hernandez turning his head groggily. “Looks like the Valbarans got the call too. There’s gotta be five hundred of them out there.”

“Don’t the Commandos usually wear green and purple camo?” Hernandez mused, watching a group of the aliens jog up a troop ramp. “Their uniforms are red and orange.”

“You think it matches Kerguela’s terrain?” Evan asked. “Red deserts, maybe. Fuck, I hope it’s not deserts. I had enough of that when I was on Borealis.”

“They’ll give us a proper briefing eventually. Come on, let’s get moving.”

They got off the train car and made their way off the platform, following a crowd of Marines over to a row of UNN dropships. The craft were idling on landing pads that had been painted on the asphalt on the other side of the runways. The Valbaran ships had limited VTOL capabilities, so these had likely been made specifically for their Coalition guests. There was already a sizable crowd of personnel waiting to board them, Evan spotting a pack of feline Borealans towering head and shoulders above their human counterparts, along with a couple of Krell.

There was a rumble as one of the dropships lifted off the ground, the thrusters along its hull shooting jets of blue hydrogen flame as it slowly rose into the air, the three-wheeled landing gear retracting into hatches beneath its flush belly. When it was high enough, its main engines began to burn, the craft curving up towards the sky on its stubby wings.

A nearby Sergeant was directing the Marines, sending them to the various dropships. There were about forty jump carriers and sixty assault carriers in orbit now, but pretty much all of the personnel on shore leave in Anabar were from the assault carrier UNN Spratley, which meant that there wasn’t much chance of ending up on the wrong one by accident. The crew from the other ships had been spread out between various Valbaran cities to prevent the natives from getting swamped.

The Sergeant took down their names on a tablet computer as Evan and Hernandez jogged up one of the troop ramps, strapping into the bucket seats that lined the walls of the bay. With Naval efficiency, the craft was soon full, the ramp starting to close as the engines made the deck shake beneath their boots.

“Look on the bright side,” Hernandez said, nudging Evan as they lifted off. “We’ll probably get to come back again when we’re done.”

***

Admiral Vos marched onto the carrier’s expansive forward bridge, his gloved hands clasped tightly behind his back, the medals and ribbons that adorned his white uniform shining under the harsh lighting. The bridge officers rose from their stations to salute him, each one sitting behind a control console with banks of monitors and holographic displays, data scrolling past on their many readouts. He waved for them to be at ease, making his way over to a pair of padded seats in the center of the space. The centermost of the two was already occupied, the man swiveling in his chair to face him, then rising when he realized who it was. He was clad in white, in contrast to the blue of the rest of the personnel, though his regalia was a little less impressive than the Admiral’s.

“Admiral,” he began, snapping his polished shoes together as he gave him a prim salute. He had a pronounced British accent, his weathered features suggesting that he was only a decade or so younger than Vos. “Welcome to the bridge. Preparations for the jump are already underway.”

“At ease,” he replied, taking a seat in the chair beside him. Vos would be commanding the fleet during this operation, but Captain Fielding was still responsible for his carrier. He reached out to tap at one of the touch panels that was integrated into the armrest, a holographic display flaring to life in easy reach. After a few swipes and gestures, he was looking at a map of all the ships in the immediate area, their IFF tags lighting up like a switchboard. He had never seen so many ships in one place before, not in all his years serving in the Navy. He couldn’t help but allow himself a brief swell of pride.

Beyond the bridge windows that were arranged in an arc in front of him, he could see the ocean-grey hull of the carrier extending far into the distance, lit by the glow from within. The rows of railgun turrets and missile bays were currently in their retracted positions, the gentle slope rendered almost flush, tapering into a rounded nose some 650 feet away. He could even pick out a few nearby frigates by the blue glow from their engine cones.

“All ships reporting in,” the comms officer said. He was sitting at a station over to the Admiral’s right, his finger held to one ear. “Admiral, the Ensi of the Valbaran fleet wishes to speak with you.”

“Patch her through,” he said, straightening up in his seat. A hologram flickered to life, hovering in front of his chair, slightly smaller than life. The Ensi’s grizzled visage peered back at him, her prominent scars reproduced perfectly by the device, her clothing now a tight jumpsuit colored in ocean camouflage.

“Admiral,” she said, giving him a curt nod. “My fleet is ready to proceed. All carriers are reporting full readiness, and their jump drives are charged.”

“Excellent. The UNN CSGs are prepped for the jump. As per the plan, we’re going to be landing a few light-days short of the target to give the personnel time to prepare. We’ll wait for the stealth Coursers to report in with updated information before we launch the assault.”

“Very good,” she replied. “We will follow you in, Admiral. Vengeance, out.”

“Vengeance,” Fielding muttered, glancing at Vos. “A little on the nose.”

“That’s what I said,” he replied. “Actually, let’s take a look at our Ensi’s flagship.”

With a few gestures, a video feed from the carrier’s telescopes appeared on the main window, which doubled as a display. He manipulated the controls, zooming in on the location of the Vengeance’s IFF beacon.

“Nine modules,” he began with an impressed nod. “That puts her at about 1600 feet. She’s built like a pencil, though. Let’s see…eleven railgun turrets, six missile silos, four torpedo launchers, sixteen CIWS guns, and a hangar module with a fighter squadron to boot. Not too shabby.”

The vessel was as large as the Valbaran carriers, its rounded hull bristling with weaponry, a large radar dish that was mounted above the bridge module spinning slowly. He noted that there were color panels on the nose of the craft, too, mimicking the feather displays of the aliens in animated patterns. The blocky hangar module was situated roughly in the middle of the stack, the small, sleek fighters docked to ports on the exterior of the hull. It seemed that their ships didn’t have the internal space for a traditional hangar. Towards the rear was a habitat cylinder, along with the ball-shaped fusion reactor, and finally the engine module.

“Their new designs aren’t that bad, honestly,” Fielding commented. “They present a pretty small target profile from the front, but it looks like they’ll have a tough time bringing all of those guns to bear in that orientation. They’ll need to go broadside for slug matches.”

Floating in formation with the vessel, Vos could make out a few of their smaller, five-module frigates. They were made from the same mass-produced parts, they were just shorter, which would make them both faster and more maneuverable. Those larger vessels looked like they might shear themselves in half if they attempted any strenuous maneuvers.

“It will be interesting to see how they fare,” Vos added with a nod.

“I’m just happy to be working with an allied fleet, Sir,” Fielding continued, tapping at one of his touch panels. “All…590 ships accounted for,” he said with a whistle. “That’s one hell of a fleet.”

Vos switched his view to another external camera, examining the escort fleet that had assembled around the Rorke. There were the sleek, stealth-coated hulls of the CIWS frigates, the gunboats, and the torpedo frigates. He spotted something out of place, a Valbaran vessel that was taking up formation along with the carrier’s support fleet. It was frigate-sized, with five modules, its many weapons stowed.

“Mind telling me why there’s a Valbaran ship in our formation, Captain?” Vos asked.

“Apologies, Admiral, I neglected to mention it. We’re trying somewhat of an officer exchange program with the Valbarans to learn how effective a human captain and a Valbaran bridge crew can be when working together. Valbarans have superior reaction times and memories, but humans beat them out when it comes to improvisation and making split-second decisions. That ship is the Shield of Yilgarn, commissioned for Lieutenant Jaeger.”

“Ah, one of the Beewolf pilots who took down the hive ship during the battle of Valbara,” Vos mused. “Those reports made some waves back home, had a lot of people reconsidering what you can and can’t do with a superiority fighter.”

“The Valbarans consider him somewhat of a war hero, and they offered him his own ship if he wanted it. They built it to spec.”

“And the other pilot? Baker, wasn’t it?”

“Lieutenant Baker turned down the offer and became wing commander for the Rorke’s fighter squadrons instead.”

“I should like to meet the man when we have some downtime,” Vos said, settling back into his padded bridge chair.

“That will be easy to arrange, Admiral.”

“Very well, begin jump prep, Captain.”

“Aye aye, Admiral.” Fielding hit another touch panel on his armrest, the crackle of an intercom filling the bridge. “This is your Captain speaking. All hands, prepare for jump. Repeat – all hands, prepare for jump. This is your five-minute warning.”

A klaxon began to blare, the bridge bathed in dull, red light. The officers strapped themselves into their seats, tightening their harnesses, some of them slipping plastic bits into their mouths to prevent them from biting off their own tongues. Superlight jumps involved punching into an alternate dimension where the laws of physics allowed faster-than-light travel, but it was hard on living nervous systems. Temporary loss of consciousness always followed, and it was often accompanied by involuntary muscle spasms and mild seizures.

Fielding and Vos strapped themselves in, but they didn’t take any further precautions, merely lounging in their chairs as they waited for the countdown to finish. With enough exposure, the side effects became more manageable. Not needing to be restrained during a jump – or even being able to remain standing – were the hallmarks of a seasoned Captain.

“Ten-second countdown,” the helmsman announced, everyone bracing themselves. “Three, two, one…”

The hairs on the Admiral’s arms stood on end as the arcane energies of the drive washed over the carrier, dragging all of the ships in its vicinity along with it as it exited reality.

***

The first thing that Evan heard when he came to was the sound of Hernandez losing his lunch on the deck. He glanced down to see his friend leaning over the edge of his bed, one hand on his stomach. Fortunately, he was on the bottom bunk.

“Ugh, fuck, dude,” he grumbled as he spat out the last of it. “I feel like the herb made it worse.”

Evan slipped out of his now open cuffs and reached up to run his fingers through his dark hair, finding it damp with sweat, stabs of pain like a migraine shooting into his temples. He tried to breathe, reminding himself that it would pass very soon, but the seconds seemed to drag by. In the adjacent bunk that was packed into their cramped crew quarters, the other two Marines were coming around, Johnson letting out a groan as he struggled against his restraints.

During a jump, the crew returned to their quarters, where they strapped themselves into their beds. It was more efficient than installing crash couches in every room. They were equipped with padded cuffs for the wrists and ankles that would close automatically to prevent the occupant from hurting themselves. It was a widely-known secret that the software could be spoofed to activate and deactivate the cuffs at will for use in unsanctioned recreational activities, too.

After a couple of minutes, the pain faded, and Evan was left with only a mild headache. He climbed down from the top bunk, careful to avoid the pool of vomit, steadying himself against the bed frame as a wave of vertigo rocked him.

“You good?” he asked, Hernandez giving him a shaky thumbs-up.

There was a sudden klaxon sound, the kind that preceded announcements, everyone covering their ears as the irritating noise exacerbated their headaches.

“Duty shift one, report to the mess hall for briefing. Repeat – duty shift one, report to the mess for briefing.”

“Fuck, can’t they give us ten minutes?” Johnson grumbled as he struggled to his feet. He turned to take his companion by the hand, hauling him out of his bunk.

The four men stepped out of their quarters, emerging into a narrow corridor where many of their colleagues were already packed shoulder to shoulder, making their way deeper into the ship. They waited for an opening, then joined the crowd, pulled along by the steady current of groggy Marines in blue coveralls. The interior of the vessel was spartan, functional, all exposed bulkheads and hanging cables. It was like being inside a giant, metal sardine can, the distinct scent of recycled oxygen on the air.

The Spratley was an assault carrier, the younger cousins of the far larger jump carriers that led each strike group. While a jump carrier’s primary function was hauling Marine divisions and air wings around, the assault carrier was focused exclusively on ground operations. It had a crew complement of 3,000 Marines and other assorted personnel, most of whom were assigned to one of the 150 vehicles that the ship carried in its immense garage. Many of them were drivers, engineers, gunners, but many were also mounted infantry like Evan. Their job was to ride around in the armored personnel carriers and jump out when things got hairy.

They followed the winding hallways, making their way through the metal guts of the ship until they arrived at the mess hall. It was the largest room on the carrier save for the garage and the hangar, enough that an entire duty shift of around a thousand crew could fit inside it at once. The metal tables had folded into their recesses in the floor to clear space for hundreds of chairs, the Marines taking seats as they filed in from several different entry points. It was decorated much like the rest of the ship, the floor polished to a shine, the ceiling above made up of exposed pipes and wiring that crisscrossed back and forth between the thick support beams.

At the far end of the room, one of the Lieutenants was standing with his arms folded, a bulky portable projector sitting on the deck beside him. It took several more minutes for all in attendance to be seated, Evan feeling like he was attending a concert.

“Alright, listen up!” the Lieutenant shouted. The Marines slowly quietened down as he swiped at a tablet, the projector humming to life, a three-dimensional model of a planet appearing in the air. It was semi-transparent, a little hazy, but the colors were reproduced well enough. It was shrouded in white clouds, and there were no oceans that Evan could see, only a network of shallow seas and waterways that seemed to span the entire globe. At first, he thought that his fears had been realized and that this was a desert planet. Upon closer inspection, the shades of red, yellow, and orange that he was looking at were actually foliage. It was a jungle that covered practically the entire surface, about as far from a desert as it was possible to get.

“This is Kerguela,” the Lieutenant continued, gesturing to the floating orb. “It’s a tidally-locked moon that orbits a gas giant in the Xi Pegasi system, approximately 53LY from Sol. It’s small, but dense, giving it a surface gravity of 0.8Gs. It still has six times the land area of Russia, and we estimate that it’s currently home to at least fifteen million Bugs.”

A murmur spread through the mess hall, quickly fading as the Lieutenant zoomed in. The view showed a structure in orbit, not distinct enough to make out clearly. There was some kind of mass floating above the planet, connected to the ground via a cable that ran all the way to the surface. It was a tether, just like the ones on Earth that connected to the terminal stations, used for moving cargo.

“The most up-to-date information from our stealth Coursers shows eleven of these objects placed around the equator at intervals,” the Lieutenant continued. “The Bugs are known to build defensive stations, usually torpedo platforms, but this is something different. These are tethered, linked to the surface via some kind of elevator system that allows the Bugs to transport cargo to and from orbit efficiently. The masses at the ends of these tethers are over a mile wide. Thermals show that they’re putting out a lot of heat, too. Whatever they’re doing, it’s consuming a lot of energy.”

The images had clearly been taken from a great distance, probably using relatively low-tech means so as not to emit any signals that might give the observers away, which explained why the quality was so poor. As the view zoomed in again, Evan saw something that looked like a giant wasp nest. It was gummy, organic, almost like it had been molded from putty. Its vaguely round surface was uneven, asymmetrical, kind of like the shape of a small asteroid. There were odd offshoots and bulbous growths jutting from it seemingly at random. Some of these were skeletal platforms like the jibs of cranes, while others had dark spots that might be orifices, lined up in orderly rows in a band that ran around its midsection. Arranged in clusters were antennae, long, spindly sensors that extended out into space like the whiskers of a cat. He could see the glint of metal, too, the reflection of the sunlight picking it out against the organic material. He couldn’t make them out clearly, but those were doubtless more conventional weapons like plasma turrets and torpedo launchers. The tether wasn’t much more than a thin, featureless line at this resolution, but there was a support frame built around the point where it connected to the station that looked remarkably conventional for something so otherworldly.

The Bugs didn’t roam far from their hives, and they tended to only concern themselves with the immediate gravity well. Whatever objects they put into orbit almost certainly had defensive purposes.

Another zoom level produced a lot of blocky pixelation and artifacts, but revealed what looked like insectoid craft crawling on the hull of the station. Some of them were small enough to wriggle their way inside the holes, giving Evan a sudden wave of trypophobia. Others were larger, clinging to the skeletal platforms with their spider-like legs, their organic carapaces layered over with overlapping plates of synthetic armor.

“We believe these stations may double as hangars for attack craft,” the Lieutenant continued. “Whatever their capabilities are, they’re going to have to be disabled before we can do our job on the ground. The plan is to divide the fleet into eleven battlegroups, each of which will be responsible for handling one of these tethers. Our battlegroup will consist of the carriers Rorke, Samar, Darwin, and Taipei, along with their support fleets. We’ll also be joined by three Valbaran carriers, and the battleship Mars. Six of the assault carriers, ours included, will be hanging back behind the main formation. Our job will be to move in and secure the base of our tether as soon as the all-clear is declared in orbit. There seems to be a lot of important infrastructure built around the anchors of these things. The carriers will rain tungsten first, make sure there’s nothing alive down there, then we’ll sweep in and clear out whatever’s left. There’s a possibility that we may need to board the Bug station, too, but that’s plan B.”

He zoomed out again, showing a full view of the planet.

“This will be a war fought on the go. We’ll be landing at a target site where we’ll scan for tunnels, destroy enemy infrastructure and fortifications, then book it back into space. This is what the assault carrier was designed for, rapid insertions, rapid extractions. We’ll have a hundred other vessels doing the same in tandem at target sites all over the planet. This operation is going to stress your vehicles and your capabilities to their theoretical limits, but I know you can do it.”

“This is serious shit,” Hernandez whispered, nudging Evan with his elbow. “We’re gonna be invading an entire planet, not just rooting out one little hive.”

“I’ve never seen so many ships in one operation,” he replied, shaking his head in disbelief. “It’s kind of overwhelming. Do you think it’s going to be enough?”

“Guess we’ll be the first ones to find out.”

“One more thing,” the Lieutenant added. “Some of you will be working with Jarilan auxiliaries during certain ground operations.” He waved his hands, preempting the murmur that passed through the room. “I know, I know. That’s what fleetcom wants, so that’s what fleetcom gets. Working with aliens is part of your job description, so suck it up. You’ll be glad the Jarries are there when they’re sniffing out Bug holes that you can’t even see.”

“Thought we came here to kill Bugs, not get buddy-buddy with them,” Johnson added from the seat to Evan’s left. “It’s gonna be a pain in the ass to tell them apart from the roaches when the tungsten starts flying.”

“I don’t think I’ve ever seen one,” Evan replied. “What do they look like?”

“Oh, you’ll find out,” Hernandez chuckled.

***

“Receiving updated targeting data from the Courser now, Captain,” the comms officer announced as his fingers tapped frantically at his touch displays. “We have precise jump coordinates, along with targeting data for the torpedoes.”

“Good,” Fielding replied, staring out at the interstellar void beyond the bridge windows. “Ensure that every ship in the fleet has their respective coordinates, and give the order for them to start prepping their drives.”

“I don’t know if this much ordnance has ever been fired at once in all of human history,” Vos mused, watching the IFF tags on the holographic readout that was projected from his armrest. All 600 ships were lined up in a row, slowly separating into eleven groups now, the names that hovered over the radar blips blending together until they became almost illegible. They would all jump in at the same time, but not together. Each of the battlegroups would emerge at a designated point some distance from the stations, where they could fire a salvo of torpedoes, coinciding a second short-range jump with their impact. This would deny the enemy the ability to respond in kind, as the ships would have moved by the time any potential missiles reached their original position. Every station would be hit at once, decimated by the torpedoes, then the fleets would drop in on top of their unsuspecting prey to mop up whatever remained.

“Ready for the first jump, Admiral,” the helmsman announced as he keyed the commands into his console.

“All battlegroups reporting readiness,” the comms officer added.

“Hold for the moment,” the Admiral replied. “I’d better check in on our friends and make sure they’re ready.”

The comms officer patched him through to the Vengeance, a hologram of the Ensi’s scarred face floating at eye-level in front of his chair.

“Admiral,” she began with a curt nod.

“Ensi. Are your ships ready to proceed? We’ve forwarded all of the necessary data to you.”

“And I relayed it to my fleet,” she replied. “We are ready to jump on your signal.”

“Very good, stand by,” he said, closing the channel.

Next, he directed the officer to patch him through to the lead Jarilan ship, another wavering hologram appearing in front of him. It was a challenge not to recoil reflexively as the alien’s features came into focus. Before him was a giant insect shown from the chest-up, its face formed from mandibles and plates that could mimic human expressions, but not flawlessly. Gone were the compound lenses of the Betelgeusian helmets, a pair of expressive eyes peering back at him, oddly mammalian in their appearance. They had black sclera and large, golden retinas. Its shell was emerald green, shimmering in the light, iridescent. Around its neck was a fluffy ruff, reminding him of a moth, or maybe something an Elizabethan noblewoman might wear. From its forehead protruded a branching horn that resembled that of a beetle or a stag, and a set of feathery antennae fell down its back like braids. This was a pilot, judging by its somewhat stretched features. The scenery behind it was hard to make out, but disconcertingly fleshy.

“Admiral,” the thing began, its mandibles shifting to approximate a human mouth in a way that wasn’t wholly convincing. Its English was otherwise flawless, oddly womanly, its tone and inflection so natural that he might have mistaken it for a normal person without the video feed. “To what do we owe this pleasure?”

Fielding shared a glance with him but chose not to comment on the thing’s uncanny appearance.

“We’re about to begin the jump countdown,” he replied, shifting his weight in his chair. “I wanted to make sure your ships were prepared.”

“The Constancy stands ready to serve,” she replied. “The Oathkeeper, Loyalty, and Fidelity are moving to their battlegroups as we speak. Coordinates locked in.”

“Excellent,” Vos said with a nod. “Prepare to jump on our mark.”

“Interesting naming conventions,” Fielding muttered as soon as the feed was cut. “Overcompensating a little, wouldn’t you say?”

“They are eager to prove themselves,” Vos replied, sinking back into his chair. “Perhaps a little overly so.”

“Would you like to do the honors?” Fielding asked as he glanced over at his superior with a barely-contained smile.

“Thank you, Captain,” Vos replied. He straightened his cap, then extended a gloved hand to the void beyond. “Commence the attack!”

Red light bathed the bridge as the jump countdown began, and after a few minutes, he watched those clusters of radar contacts disappear one by one on his display. He keyed in one of the telescopes to show a nearby battlegroup in what precious little time remained, watching four of the giant jump carriers floating along in formation, their 32 escort ships and 6 assault carriers pulling in close to ride their superlight wakes. Their Valbaran counterparts were nearby, long, thin stacks of cylinders that were barely visible at this resolution. As if a giant hand had come down to sweep them away, they vanished, leaving only colorful trace gasses in their wake.

A familiar sensation of static electricity washed over Vos, and he readied himself to follow them.

***

Vos came to in his seat, shaking off a headache. He opened his eyes to see a bright cloud of colorful gas spreading around the ship, creating a miniature nebula in front of the bridge windows. It was the residue of the interstellar medium that had been captured inside the superlight manifold prior to the jump, having had its properties altered by its interactions with extra-dimensional space. It was as beautiful as it was mysterious.

He brought up a few external camera views as the rest of the bridge crew were coming around, checking in on the battlegroup. The other three carriers were righting themselves, their flight computers bringing them back into formation, jets of blue flame erupting from the thrusters along their grey hulls. He never got used to their size. They looked like a pod of mechanical whales, the light of an alien star reflecting off their armor plating. Scratch that – two stars. Xi Pegasi was a binary system.

Support ships swarmed them, similarly drifting back into a tight formation. The Doloto-class torpedo frigates were already preparing to unleash their payloads, the square hatches that ran along their hulls between their chisel-shaped prows and their elevated bridge windows starting to flip open.

Slightly behind and above the Rorke was the UNN Mars, a veritable behemoth of a vessel. Battleships were 1200 feet long, heavily armored, and equipped with the most powerful ship-mounted weapons humanity had ever created. The craft was shaped like a long spear tip, its massive engine cones situated at the rear, its raised bridge placed just ahead of them for optimal visibility. Its hull was sleek, streamlined, its black coating and harsh angles designed to make it as stealthy as a ship of that size could reasonably be. As well as a staggering 24 torpedo tubes, 24 missile bays, and 20 railguns, it was the only class of ship that could house a super-railgun. These were magnetic accelerators of immense proportions, as large as some of the smaller vessels in the fleet at 180 feet long. There were two such turrets mounted on the port and starboard sides of the flat hull, their design hearkening back to the warship turrets of old.

Even those weren’t the most destructive weapons in its arsenal, however. The battleship was split down the middle, creating an opening that ran down more than half its length. It was lined with magnetic rails, and at its mouth was a rotating cylinder, a mechanism that worked like a giant revolver to load tungsten slugs the length of a semi-trailer into the near 700-foot barrel. That weapon could eradicate a hive ship in a single shot, even render a planet uninhabitable with sustained fire. That might be Kerguela’s fate if they failed in their mission.

The three Valbaran carriers were off to the starboard, their long, thin profiles bristling with weaponry. There were two fleet carriers, most of their segments made up of blocky hangar modules, their fighters clinging to them like limpets. The solitary troop transport would be hanging back with the UNN assault carriers, where it would be protected by a screen of CIWS boats during the battle.

Five and seven-module support ships surrounded them, their camouflaged hulls bathed in pale light. Their torpedo frigates filled a similar role to their UNN counterparts, two of their five segments equipped with torpedo turrets that were presently rising up from their protective compartments. The weapons were more primitive than their Navy equivalents, little more than long tubes mounted atop a flexible arm, but they would get the job done. Inside those launchers were torpedoes supplied by the UNN, after all. The Vengeance was at the center of their flotilla, its own torpedo turrets slowly rotating towards their targets.

There was one more ship in their ragtag fleet, a blend of organic and mechanical parts, like an armor-plated shrimp with its legs tucked beneath its belly. It was floating off the port side, keeping its distance conspicuously, almost as though afraid to approach. The prominent UNN coloration and markings did little to disguise the Constancy’s origins.

Kerguela was hard to make out at this range, its parent gas giant occupying the entire field of view, streaks of vibrant blue and purple clouds swirling around its equator. How breathtaking it must have been to see it from the ground.

Millions of kilometers away, forming a ring around the planet, the rest of the fleet was making the same preparations. There was no way to contact them directly anymore, as even a tight-beam laser would take too long to bridge the vast distances between them, so he would have to trust that they were all following the plan to the letter.

The crew were all awake and alert now, the other ships reporting their status.

“C-charging the superlight drive for a second jump,” the helmsman announced, still a little groggy from the first one. The process could take weeks when a full charge was expended, but at such short range, only a few minutes would be necessary.

“Launch the torpedoes,” Vos said, the comms officer relaying his order to the rest of the battlegroup.

From hundreds of hatches and launch tubes, swarms of projectiles rose on chemical plumes, brief spurts of hydrogen flame propelling them from their bays. Some were the size of missiles, others more akin to ICBMs. The Doloto-class frigates and the battleship were able to field 30-ton, 100-foot torpedoes. When they cleared their ships, they pivoted, shooting out quick bursts of gas as they angled themselves towards their target. Their rocket boosters flared as they shot off into the darkness, a field of new stars glowing beyond the viewport before slowly fading from sight.

The seconds dragged by, turning to minutes, Vos feeling the tension buzzing in the air as he waited for confirmation that they were nearing their targets.

“Estimate impact in three minutes,” the weapons officer announced.

“Start the countdown,” Fielding ordered, the familiar red warning lights bathing the bridge as a klaxon rang out. The crew had been ordered to remain ready, so they could afford to shave off a couple of minutes. As the jump neared, the helmsman counted down the seconds, blackness enveloping the crew as they were once again plucked from reality.

***

Vos opened his eyes, his bleary vision slowly clearing. In front of the bridge windows, though the spreading cloud of technicolor gas, was a sight to behold. They had jumped in close enough to Kerguela that the brilliant orb occupied his entire field of view, the curve of its horizon rising up before him. Sheets of white cloud drifted through its atmosphere, sweeping over the vast jungles that blanketed its surface, their foliage the color of autumn. The suns were at their backs, the seas and waterways shimmering under their pale light. At the poles were shining auroras, charged particles from the moon’s parent that had been trapped in its powerful magnetosphere, making the Northern Lights look downright dull in comparison. The ice caps were afire with shifting bands of green and blue, and behind those, the gas giant loomed. Its atmosphere was primarily purple, streaks of lighter blue creating swirling bands, pooling into planet-sized storms.

Hanging above the moon’s atmosphere, directly ahead of the ship, was the Bug station. It was a blend of brown and green hues, silver metal jutting from the organic material haphazardly. It almost looked like a fleshy balloon rising from the forests below on a long string.

The bridge windows dimmed automatically to protect the crew from a series of bright flashes, Vos shielding his eyes reflexively. The torpedoes were impacting the station and the surrounding ships, right on target, blossoms of flame erupting. He keyed in a command on his console, the centermost window switching to a telescopic view, showing the carnage in greater detail. There were more ships than he had anticipated, hundreds of them, a whole fleet of Bug craft hovering around the station. Some of them were the housefly-like fighters he was familiar with, while some were torpedo carriers that resembled armored shrimp, their ordnance clutched in their arms. Others were brand new forms that he had never seen before, their purposes indeterminable.

The missiles with explosive warheads were erupting in proximity to their targets, sending out expanding clouds of lethal shrapnel. With no atmosphere to slow their velocity, they tore through everything in their path like giant nail bombs. Vos watched as a formation of three fighters was caught in a blast, their bulbous, insectoid bodies torn apart as the shards of flying metal penetrated them. They were cast adrift by the force of the impacts, their organic hulls ripped open, their bodily fluids freezing into sparkling clouds of crystals in the vacuum. Armor plating was pocked and shredded, their thrusters petering out, one of them erupting into an explosion of green flame as its fuel tanks were breached.

Many of the larger projectiles were MASTs, Multi-stage, Anti-capital Spread Torpedoes. They carried a payload of tungsten penetrators – long, pointed pieces of solid metal that relied solely on kinetic energy to damage their targets. They were unguided, released in a spreading swarm of hundreds that traveled at upwards of eight kilometers per second, like a lethal shotgun blast that was almost impervious to all known means of point defense.

Several of the MASTs had targeted the station itself, bright points of light flashing as they pocked its armored hull. Though they carried no explosive payload, they conferred enough energy that anything they came into contact with was usually vaporized, turned to boiling gas. The ships that were in the path of these hypervelocity clouds stood no chance of getting clear, the projectiles passing through them as though they weren’t even there. The smaller fighters were obliterated, smashed like bugs on a windshield. The larger, 600-foot frigates tried to fight back, the plasma turrets mounted on their carapaces attempting to shoot down the incoming threats in glowing streams, but it was of little use. One of them caught a tungsten rod midship, a flash of light blinding the camera for a moment, clearing to show two ruined halves spinning away from one another. A blend of organic guts and mechanical parts spewed out into space, Vos making out glimpses of a metallic, skeletal frame inside the wounds.

The same was happening all across the mile-wide face of the station, dozens of ships turned to burning, bleeding husks. The projectiles buried themselves deep into the structure’s surface, digging craters in its hull, doing untold damage through a combination of kinetic energy and spalling. Like an anti-tank round, they would be weaponizing the very armor that protected the station, shattering its thick layers of metal and chitin into yet more projectiles that would tear through its innards.

It was hard to gauge what kind of damage had been done to the station. It was at least a mile across and very well-armored. Without knowing the configuration and density of its interior, it was impossible to say what it was going to take to disable it.

The station was still operational, the magnetic rails of what looked like huge plasma turrets turning towards the fleet. They were spaced at seemingly random intervals all over the hull, mounted on flexible gimbals. They flashed bright green, sending bolts of superheated gas shooting towards the incoming ships, but the battlegroup was still far enough away that they could be easily avoided with a little course correction.

The crew were all awake now, the helmsman already burning at Fielding’s command.

“Standard evasive maneuvers,” the Captain ordered. “Start moving us closer so we can engage with railguns. Comms officer, tell Lieutenant Baker to prep his squadrons for launch, but wait until we’re in optimal range before scrambling fighters. I want our CIWS screen protecting the carriers.”

“Aye aye,” he replied.

“The assault carriers need to move into formation behind us,” Vos added. “There are more enemy ships than we anticipated. They might get cut off if they try to hang back. We’ll pool our resources, make sure all of the CIWS guns on all of the ships are protecting the fleet. Tell them to prep their countermeasures and burn to us. Standard combat formation.”

Vos watched the nearby ships on his holographic display, a three-dimensional representation of the vessels in their immediate sphere of space, each one tagged with an IFF beacon. The gunboats were forming a wedge at the front of the fleet with the battleship at their head, while the CIWS frigates were spreading out to create a protective bubble around the other ships, the rest of the craft pulling into the defensive perimeter. The four carriers formed a vertical diamond shape, the assault carriers clustering up behind them, the trailing Jarilan ship joining them. Even though the formation was relatively tight by Naval standards, being close in open space still meant being miles apart.

The torpedo frigates at the rear were firing off another salvo, the missiles leaving chemical trails as they raced up and over the fleet, heading towards the station in the distance.

Vos opened up a line to the Vengeance, the Ensi’s grizzled visage greeting him.

“Ensi,” he began. “Pull your carriers behind our point defense screen and have your CIWS frigates join the formation. We’re going to need to stay under cover as we move in. Once we’re inside the effective range of those plasma turrets, we’ll break. It’ll make us harder to track.”

“Understood,” she replied, leaning away for a moment to relay the orders to her crew. “The ships under my command will break formation at two-thousand kilometers and pursue targets. Our cruisers are eager to wet their claws.”

He watched on the display as the Ensi’s ships pulled into the sphere to their starboard, still firing off periodic torpedo strikes that raced out ahead of them. All of the ships matched velocity, a ball of death hurtling towards the station, flashes of torpedo strikes preceding them.

“Sensors are picking up movement on the hull of the enemy structure,” one of the officers called out, Vos and Fielding turning their attention to the center bridge window. It zoomed in to show the station’s pocked surface, leaking gas and fluid crystallizing as they vented into space from the numerous wounds that had been inflicted upon it. From the rows of orifices that ringed its bulbous midsection, fighters were crawling their way out, using their six legs to walk along its uneven surface. They resembled bulbous flies, their hulls covered in overlapping plates of armored chitin, their colorful carapaces patterned with dark stripes. At the prow, they had an insect-like head, covered in protruding antennae and dozens of black, shiny eyes. Those were, in fact, organic cameras and sensors that fed data to the pilot inside. As much as they looked like animals, they were machines, albeit with organic components that blurred the lines.

“Same armament as what we’re used to,” Fielding commented. “Twin-linked plasma repeaters mounted beneath the, uh…head, and a payload of short-range missiles. I guess there’s no point fixing what isn’t broken.”

The fighters pushed off, then their thrusters kicked in, jets of green flame shooting out behind them as they rose into space. Vos kept waiting for the flow of craft to stop, but they just kept coming. Hundreds of them formed long tendrils as they poured out of their hangars, swarming like angry bees. Their formations were so tight that they blotted out the light from the planet behind them, moving as one organism, reaching out towards the incoming ships.

“Okay, that is a lot of interceptors,” Fielding said, sitting up straighter in his chair.

“They’re going to overwhelm our CIWS screen at this rate,” Vos muttered, swiping at one of his displays to judge the distance between the two formations.

“Radar is showing…near fifteen-hundred contacts,” one of the officers said. He turned to glance back at his Captain, a worried frown on his face. “And those are just the fighters. We have a hundred larger craft moving in.”

“Show me,” Fielding said, the view switching again. Some of the craft that had been clinging to the skeletal frames that protruded from the station were unhooking their crab-like legs from the structures, the flexible thrusters that ran along their hulls emitting bursts of flame as they turned about. They were loosing their own torpedoes now, long, off-green tubes with guidance systems made up on organic eyes and feelers. The vessels released them from the spindly limbs beneath their segmented bodies, the missiles shooting out on plumes of methane flame. Warning signs began to appear on Vos’s display, little red triangles tracking the incoming projectiles. It seemed as though the Bugs could give as good as they got.

As the cloud of torpedoes raced towards the formation, the fleet’s innumerable CIWS guns came to life, their rotary barrels spinning in anticipation as their radar systems picked out targets. Rows of hatches along the hulls of the frigates flipped open, exposing their launch tubes, ejecting interceptor missiles into space. They pivoted on their axis, their thrusters shooting out puffs of propellant gas as they reoriented themselves, hanging there for a few brief moments while their lenses focused on their targets. Almost in tandem, hundreds of flashes of blue flame lit up the night, the projectiles burning ahead of the fleet.

After a delay of a minute or two, the two swarms of missiles met, a sparkling wall of explosions filling the viewport. It was miles across, flashes of orange, green, and blue flame illuminating the scene like a fireworks display. In an instant, the number of red triangles of Vos’s display halved, but there were still plenty of projectiles heading their way. As they neared, the point-defense guns on the frigates at the head of the pack began to track, swiveling to face the incoming threats. Every ship in the fleet was equipped with the close-in weapons systems, but the dedicated CIWS frigates had twenty apiece. They unloaded streams of twenty-millimeter HE rounds, painting glowing trails of tracers that stood out starkly against the inky backdrop of space, weaving them back and forth as they saturated the path of the torpedoes with fire. They looked like bright sparks, arcing through the night, terminating in glittering flashes as the rounds exploded at their apex. As more of the fleet came into range, more streams of tracer fire joined them until the glowing points of light seemed to outnumber the stars.

More emerald-tinted explosions followed as they shot down more of the torpedoes, magnetically-contained plasma warheads and methane fuel igniting into mesmerizing billows of flame. More interceptor missiles joined them, streaking away on chemical plumes, shooting off in every direction. The systems were mostly automated, breaks in the trails indicating where the cannons had stopped firing momentarily to avoid hitting their allies, shooting around the other ships in the formation with computer precision.

The Valbaran frigates were joining the party now, their tracer fire and missile countermeasures indistinguishable from those of the UNN ships, as their weapons were based on the same designs. The aliens had brought a weapon of their own making to the table, however. Vos watched as brilliant beams of green light lanced out from smaller turrets that were mounted on some of the ships, their mirror-like lenses focusing beams of light into deadly weapons. They were solid-state lasers of Valbaran manufacture, a technology that humanity had abandoned in favor of railguns and plasma weapons, but which the reptiles had continued to refine. They held on the Bug torpedoes with unwavering precision, heating their components until they either lost control or exploded.

It was chaotic, and undeniably beautiful.

“The first wave of torpedoes has been neutralized,” one of the officers announced, Vos allowing himself a moment of relief. All that ordnance, and not one projectile had found its mark. “Enemy ships are launching more, and their fighters are inbound.”

“They’ll get through the cordon,” Fielding said, narrowing his eyes at the looming tendrils of swarming craft. “No chance of stopping them all.”

“New bearing,” Vos said, the comms officer preparing to relay his orders to the rest of the fleet. “We’ll bring the formation about to forty degrees, keep our distance from those station guns until the Mars can get to a safe angle of attack. We need to deal with those fighters before we move any closer.”

“They’ll saturate our CIWS with that many craft,” Fielding added. “That’s probably the idea – overwhelm any incoming ships with sheer numbers and damn the losses. They don’t even know what we are yet, but they’re fighting like they’re on the ropes.”

“They are,” Vos chuckled. “Whether they know it or not. A cornered animal doesn’t have to know the extent of the danger it faces to lash out.”

“More ships incoming,” the radar operator called out. A view of them came up on the feed, the lobster-like craft pushing off from the station like a shoal of ugly fish, escorted by smaller ships that were arranged in a more recognizable tactical formation. A dozen or so of the larger ones were burning hard at the center of the group, the flexible thrusters that ran down their flanks flaring. They had a wider profile than most of the other ships, fatter, and their limbs were clutching something beneath their bellies protectively. Their forelimbs were longer and sturdier, sporting large, serrated claws.

“No idea what those are,” Fielding muttered. “They kind of look like the light carriers encountered during the battle of Valbara. They would get close and use their claws to tear open the hulls of enemy ships.”

“They’re transporting something, and they’re on an intercept course,” Vos added. “Could it be that they’ve already calculated our new heading and are moving to cut us off? Fast little critters. Redirect some of the torpedo frigates to fire on them. Whatever they’re doing, it won’t be good for us.”

“And the fighters?” Fielding asked.

“Scramble your air wings, Captain.”

***

Baker sat in the pilot’s seat of his Beewolf, feeling himself sinking into the plush padding through his clinging flight suit. The green glow of instrument panels illuminated the cockpit, the HUD in his full-faced visor displaying information readouts. Above his canopy, he could see the ceiling of the launch tube, which terminated in a pressure door a short distance ahead of his fighter’s pointed nose. It was scarcely wider than his craft’s wingspan.

There were forty such tubes on each carrier, which allowed the craft to launch more than half of their fighter complement in a matter of seconds, depending on what type of aircraft were being used. Right now, there were forty fighters aboard, with a little under half of the hangar space reserved for the dropships and CAS that would be used in the ground assault.

Unfortunately, when you were assigned to a launch tube, all you could do was wait around until your orders came through. He was following the battle as best he could, monitoring the comms channels and watching the ship movements on a window in the top right of his field of view.

“Hey Scorch,” his wingman chattered in his earpiece. He was out of view, stowed away in an adjacent tube. “Are they gonna tell us to launch, or what? Those Bug fighters are getting a little too close for comfort.”

“Can’t be long now, Charlie,” he replied. “Be ready.”

It was customary for fighter pilots to give each other callsigns, usually with some kind of humorous hidden meaning. Baker had originally earned the name Scorch when he had failed to retract his radiators during reentry while training at the academy, causing them to melt and overheat his engines. It had taken on a new meaning recently, referring to how he had braved reentry during the battle of Valbara to take down a hive ship that was descending through the planet’s atmosphere. He and his wingman, Jaeger, had managed to bring it down. His exploits had earned him more than a little acclaim in the fleet, propelling him to the rank of wing commander.

“Those fuckers are gonna overload the CIWS screen if we don’t deal with them soon,” he grumbled.

He tapped at one of his control panels, running a few system checks as he tightened his harness. Jets of propellant gasses spurted from the thrusters that were spaced out along his fighter’s angular hull, the ailerons on his stubby wings and the rudders on his dual tail fins waving up and down. The Beewolf was deadly both in a vacuum, and in atmosphere. The vectoring nozzles on his engines flexed, the hatch that protected his twenty-five-millimeter gatling gun flipping open, the rotary cannon spinning. In compartments beneath the craft’s belly was hidden a payload of missiles, and there was a dorsal railgun mounted on a flexible arm that would rise from the hull behind the cockpit to fire on targets independently, fed by a belt of tungsten slugs the size of beer bottles.

All systems showed green, his heart starting to beat faster as he watched the radar contacts near the fleet. Suddenly, a voice crackled on the priority channel, Captain Fielding coming through in his helmet’s earpiece.

“Lieutenant Baker, your orders are to launch all squadrons and intercept the Betelgeusian fighters. Get out there and show our new friends why the Beewolf has a sixty to one kill ratio.”

“Roger that, Captain,” he replied with a grin. He switched channels, addressing all five squadrons under his command. “Chocks away, boys. Form up on your squadron leaders and engage the enemy at will. Watch out for friendly point-defense. It’s going to be a fucking bar fight out there.”

He flipped switches on his consoles, the engines spooling, his HUD clearing to show targeting information. The cockpit around him faded away, his helmet’s visor patching into the innumerable cameras that were mounted all over his fighter, allowing him to see through its fuselage as though it wasn’t even there. As well as the completely unimpeded view, IFF signals popped up, linked to the wire-frame profiles of nearby ships. With another button press, the rectangular pressure door ahead of him snapped open, exposing the tube to the vacuum beyond. His fighter slid along its launch rail on a sled that hooked up to its landing gear, flames filling the tunnel behind him as his engines ignited.

In a second, he was in open space, peering over his shoulder to watch the Rorke diminish to the size of a minnow behind him. To his left and right, his squadron of eight was forming up on him, more of the jet-black craft getting their bearings as they raced away from the ship.

Baker scanned his immediate surroundings, seeing the wedge of gunboats at the head of the fleet, the massive battleship leading the way. The CIWS frigates had spread out into a sphere to protect the formation, and the rest of the vessels were hanging back. The sole Jarilan ship was near the assault carriers, and the long, thin Valbaran ships were off to the starboard side of the bubble. He was amused to see Jaeger’s ship among them, giving him a quick salute, even if his friend couldn’t see it.

He gripped the stick in his hand and rolled the craft ninety degrees, pulling it back as he began to turn. The thrusters along the fighter’s belly burned to create resistance as he maneuvered, simulating a banking motion that would usually be impossible in space, the safety features ensuring that he couldn’t exceed ten Gs. He felt the legs of his suit tighten, gripping his calves to prevent blood from rushing to his feet.

His squadron mirrored his movements, leveling out again as he aimed his nose at the incoming Bugs. He couldn’t even see them yet, they merely showed up as a dense cloud of red triangles, more than he could count. They were forming strange tendrils, almost like bees from a vintage cartoon.

As he turned his head, he saw that the four other squadrons had matched his velocity, jets of blue flame spewing from their twin engines as they raced towards the enemy. The fighters from the Samar, Darwin, and Taipei were bringing up the rear, swelling their number to 120. He had never seen so many in one place before.

He opened a channel to the other wing commanders, giving them a customary greeting.

Scorch here. You boys ready for a knife fight?”

“Always did prefer the twenty-five-mill over missiles,” one of them replied, their callsign appearing on Baker’s HUD. It was Boomerang, hailing from the Darwin. “Much more personal.”

Next came a female voice, her thick accent letting him know who it was before her tag had even popped up.

“About time. We cannot fight a war from inside a tube.”

Meimei was the wing commander of the Taipei’s fighter squadrons, and while Baker didn’t speak a lick of Mandarin, he had heard rumors that her callsign meant little sister. Knowing how callsigns were usually earned, it probably had a completely opposite meaning.

Last to report in was Sheriff from the Samar, his Midwestern accent flooding the channel. He was all business, as usual.

“We’ll take the starboard flank. Those CIWS frigates are going to be firing when the swarm gets closer, so watch your six.”

To Baker’s surprise, another voice joined them, this one high-pitched and tinny.

“Room for a few more, Earth’nay?”

He turned his eyes to his radar, seeing another clump of IFF tags coming in from the right. He tapped the touch panel on the side of his helmet, zooming in to see a tight formation of fighters approaching at his five o’clock. They were Valbaran craft, smaller than the Beewolf. They had an angular design that seemed inspired by UNN stealth tech, their wedge-shaped hulls more like spaceplanes than fighters, with stubby delta wings and small tail fins. They looked like flying guitar picks to Baker. They were colored in the blue and grey ocean camo of the Valbaran Navy, their bellies lined with dark heat tiles to protect them during reentry, their flat noses adorned with color panels. They were clearly a kind of micro-fighter designed to be able to fit on their carriers.

“This is Motli’chal’noya, squadron leader of the Vengeance. The Ensi sends her regards.”

“The more the merrier,” Boomerang chuckled. “Form up on our right flank.”

Baker checked his readout again. It looked like the two Valbaran fleet carriers had committed all 76 of their fighters to the battle. The Ensi’s flagship had also dispatched its own squadron of 14. That gave them a total of 450 ships. They were still outnumbered three to one, but he’d take those odds…

A few thousand kilometers ahead of them, the tendrils of Bug craft coalesced, recognizing the squadrons as a threat. They moved as one organism, forming a great, shifting mass. Baker had only ever fought against hive ships and light carriers, which couldn’t field a fraction of this force.

“Open your missile bays, and extend your railguns,” Baker said over his air wing’s channel. “This is going to get hairy.”

He hit a switch on his console, feeling a vibration rumble through his fuselage. When he looked back over his shoulder, he saw the hatch behind his canopy flip open, the railgun rising from the compartment on its flexible arm. Its long barrel was lined with copper-colored, magnetic coils, its belt of tungsten slugs trailing down into the body of the plane. Beneath his feet, more hatches opened up, the racks of missiles descending. The HUD on his visor flared to life, targeting symbols picking out individual ships in the swarm, warning icons letting him know that the system was ready to fire. His thumb hovered over the red button on his flight stick.

“Fire!”

The squadrons under his command released their payloads, dozens of missiles racing ahead of the formation, their boosters flaring bright blue. The other air wings followed suit, a wall of ordnance racing towards the enemy. Their new allies didn’t seem to have any missiles, but if he knew Valbarans, they would have devised some clever plan hours ahead of time.

More symbols flashed on his HUD, warning him that he was being locked. The Bugs were launching their own missiles, equipped with plasma warheads. He had lost friends to those damned things before. Each of them was like an animal in its own right, using organic eyes and antennae as its targeting suite, chasing down its victims with a very real hunger.

The two clusters of missiles quickly crossed paths, flashes of explosions lighting up the void as many of them intercepted one another. The alien weapons erupted into spreading balls of crackling plasma, engulfing everything in their vicinity in boiling gas, while the UNN missiles fragmented into clouds of eviscerating shrapnel. A good number survived the maelstrom, speeding on towards their intended targets.

The tendrils of alien craft were peppered with explosions, the missiles arching towards their marks, making quick corrections as they honed in. Without human pilots to worry about, they could make course changes that would have turned a person to mush. The organic fighters were so tightly packed that each missile created visible holes in the formation, blowing multiple targets into sprays of viscera, their ruined carcasses carried on by momentum. Even so, those rifts were filled by more insects just as quickly.

A blinking warning symbol alerted Baker that there were still enough plasma missiles heading for the formation to kill every Beewolf twice over.

“Prep flares,” he warned. “Set your turrets to point-defense mode, and use what interceptor missiles you have left.”

“Let us take point, Earth’nay,” Motli said, her flanging voice chattering in Baker’s ear. “We have a means to help.”

“Roger that,” he replied, switching back to the air wing channel. “Pull back and let the Valbarans take the lead.”

Bursts of gas from the Beewolf’s forward thrusters slowed its velocity enough that the Valbarans could easily overtake them, the other air wings following suit. He glanced up, watching the alien craft soar over his head in a delta formation that put them mere feet apart, their dual engine cones flaring. As they fell into position ahead of him, he saw hatches on their flat hulls open up, objects shaped like upturned bowls rising from them. Just like the Beewolfs, the Valbaran fighters were packing a secret weapon, probably inspired by their design.

“Launch interceptors!” Baker ordered, the missiles detaching from their racks before igniting their boosters. More chemical trails streaked out ahead of the formation, the projectiles winding away into the darkness, further thinning the numbers of the Bug weapons. “Get ready to break!” he added, switching off the safety function that limited his craft’s maneuverability. He was a seasoned pilot, and he knew what his body could take better than any machine did.

As the plasma missiles raced towards them, bright beams of green light began to lance out from the Valbaran ships, holding on the projectiles. They were laser point-defense weapons, lighting up the darkness like a rave as they moved between the missiles with pinpoint precision. They remained on target until the missiles were rendered inoperable, their guidance systems frying, their payloads exploding prematurely. The missiles were down to a tenth of their original strength, but some would still make it through.

“Here we go!” Baker grunted into his mic, feeling his suit constrict around his limbs as he jerked his stick. G-forces tore at him, darkness creeping at the corners of his vision as he pivoted his craft on its axis, burning away from his original heading at a 90-degree angle. The sudden acceleration pinned him to his seat, his fists white beneath his gloves. His squadron did the same, scattering to make themselves harder to hit, bright flares ejecting from behind them in an attempt to divert the missiles.

For all that buildup, what happened next was over in a second, the relative velocities of the fighters and the missiles making them race past each other in the blink of an eye. He felt his railgun fire as it targeted one of them, its computer tracking a target that he couldn’t even see, letting off a quick burst of gunfire as it shot past. He had no idea if he’d hit it or not, a series of green flashes erupting behind him. Some of the missiles had been destroyed by the lasers, others veering off-target to chase flares. He cursed as he spotted a cloud of slagged, flaming wreckage hurting through space, the remnants of a Beewolf carried along by its momentum.

“We lost one!” Boomerang growled over the comms. “Weapons free! Slag those cunts!”

The Betelgeusian fighters spread into an amorphous mass as they came into range, seeking to engulf their prey. Baker could see them now, their colorful carapaces reflecting the sunlight, their twin-linked plasma cannons beginning to fire. He pulled off another hard maneuver, his engines flaring as he climbed, rolling so that his dorsal railgun had an unimpeded field of fire. There was no atmosphere to slow him down in space – he could move in any direction, pivoting his entire fighter like a gyroscope.

The two clearly divided battle lines merged, flashes of striped shell and emerald flame rushing past Baker’s cockpit. His railgun turret swiveled, tracking the nearest targets, the computer calculating their trajectories as it spewed tungsten. Faster than Baker could even process, one of the Bug fighters disintegrated as it rushed past his Beewolf, a burst of railgun fire perforating it. Its carcass tumbled, its bodily fluids freezing as they spewed from the wounds, its engines dying.

His ears were full of radio chatter, his HUD flashing warnings, but it all melted away as he focused on staying alive.

“-incoming at ten o’clock!-”

“-lost one of my goddamned engines, I’m tumbling-”

“-he’s on you, burn, burn-”

“-solid hits on that fucker!-”

Baker sank into his seat as he fired his main engines, shedding velocity as the swarm of enemy craft came about, their pilots able to withstand higher G’s than he could. Even as he raced backwards, his railgun was firing forwards, the molten slugs leaving trails of glowing slag in their wake. The coils were red-hot, the belt feeding into the weapon’s receiver as it jerked from one target to another, calculating the enemy trajectories. He gripped his flight stick, painting targets, the computer following the movements of his pupils as he picked them out. The last of his missiles streaked from his bays, fighting against the same inertia for a moment before racing off into the dark. Each of them found their mark, shrapnel gutting the Bugs, like flies hit by a salt gun. Their iridescent carapaces split open, green flame erupting forth as their methane fuel ignited, fluids and viscera spraying. Another plasma missile raced his way, released from one of the crab-like forelimbs of a fighter, the antennae on its rounded nose following the chemical residue of his engines like a bloodhound.

With another button press, he launched more flares, gritting his teeth against another high-G maneuver. His suit gripped him like a straight-jacket as his HUD screamed warnings at him, alerting him that the safety limits were being exceeded, but he shut them off with a furious gesture.

The missile went for one of the flares, erupting into a ball of plasma, Baker outrunning it by what felt like inches. He pivoted his craft again, lining up his twenty-five-millimeter cannon, the hatch beside his nose popping open. It spun up, spewing shells, the tracers drawing a long line towards his pursuers. They drilled into the one at the front of the pack, a dozen rounds splitting open its head like a melon, the craft careening away as it lost control.

Boiling plasma splashed against the hull of his Beewolf, the heat-resistance plating doing a decent job of spreading it out so that it didn’t burn straight through his wing, but he couldn’t take sustained fire. He rolled, spinning his bird like a top, dodging another incoming stream of superheated bolts. A combination of his rotary cannon and his railgun brought down three more of them, sending their broken carcasses hurtling into space.

Only now could he take a moment to glance at what was happening around him. The four hundred fighters had scattered, their opponents tailing them as they weaved between the tumbling wrecks, chemical residue from missiles and molten slag from railguns crisscrossing the battlefield. The seething mass of aliens was all around them, separating into visible tendrils that reached out in the direction of the Beewolfs like long fingers, as coordinated as a shoal of fish.

The Valbarans had separated into groups of five or six, matching each other’s movements, maintaining their formations with all the skill of an aerobatics team. Their lasers strobed, the glittering beams holding on the Bug fighters, melting holes clean through their armor.

It was hard to tell who had the upper hand, but the swarm was still moving in the direction of the fleet. They had to kill as many as they could before the aliens reached the CIWS frigates. He was out of missiles now. All he had were his wits and his stick.

“Where the hell are you guys?” he demanded over his squadron’s channel. “Form up on me, we gotta turn this around.”
“On you, Scorch,” his wingman replied. Baker spotted his IFF tag incoming as he avoided another salvo of plasma fire. “You got a roach up your arse. I’m on him.”

Baker dodged and weaved, glancing over his shoulder to see the alien craft tailing him, matching his movements. Its myriad of black eyes were expressionless and dead, like those of a shark, the thrusters on its carapace swiveling and twisted to keep pace. His railgun turned to track it, firing between his tail fins, the slugs going wide as its target displayed its alarming maneuverability. The twin-linked plasma repeaters that hung beneath its head fired back at him, a flash of green briefly illuminating his cockpit as a bolt sailed over his canopy close enough that it could have singed his hair.

From behind it, his wingman matched its course, loosing a burst from his nose cannon that caught it by surprise. The craft’s left flank exploded, spewing burning fuel as it lost control, rolling away into the dark. The Beewolf fell into formation with his own, his wingman giving him a thumbs-up.

“You’re always late to the party, Charlie,” he said with a sigh of relief. Two more members of his squadron fell into formation with them, Baker turning them towards one of the roiling tendrils of fighters. “Follow me in,” he grunted, G-forces tugging at him as he lined up for an attack run. He almost jumped out of his skin as fragments of shell and frozen fluids from a dead Bug splattered his canopy, making a sound like someone had hit it with a hammer. There was so much debris – they couldn’t stay here for much longer.

His wingmen fired the last of their missiles, creating a screen of explosions ahead of them, the Bugs racing towards this new threat like a flock of migrating birds changing direction. The four Beewolfs opened up, tungsten and twenty-five-millimeter shells racing ahead of them, tearing through the alien ships. Only when they were in spitting distance did the squadron break away, Baker cursing as a tumbling Bug zipped past him so close that he could have reached out of his canopy and touched it. The massed firepower cut a swathe through the enemy, the Bugs scattering. One of them scored a lucky hit on Charlie, strafing his Beewolf with glowing plasma, the bolts melting through his hull. The stealth coating peeled away like charred skin, exposing molten metal beneath it, his left wing shearing off.

“Eject! Eject!” Baker yelled into his mic as he watched his friend lose control. There was a puff of gas as the canopy blew off, followed by a burst of flame as Charlie abandoned the doomed craft, the thrusters on his seat propelling him to safety.

“I’m clear,” he panted, breathing heavily into his mic. “Fuck, that was a close one.”

The fleet was in visual range again now, great torrents of tracer fire arcing towards the alien ships from their innumerable CIWS turrets, interceptor missiles streaking out of their bays to hunt down their targets.

“Watch for friendly fire!” Meimei warned over the comms, the strain in her voice suggesting that she was under high Gs. She uttered a string of incomprehensible Mandarin, then switched back to English. “We have done what we can. Pull back to the defensive cordon!”

“Roger that,” Baker replied. “Let’s get behind the frigates. Focus on protecting the fleet!”

“Following you in,” Boomerang added, Sheriff confirming as the squadrons retreated back towards the larger ships.

“The Ensi moves her ships to render aid,” Motli added, Baker turning his head to watch laser beams lance out behind their little fighters as they joined them. He noted the flashing color panels on their noses, mimicking feather displays to communicate at a far faster pace than was possible over the radio. “Their lasers are more accurate than your UNN guns.”

“Anything that’ll stop us getting torn apart along with the Bugs,” Baker replied. “Standard practice is to set up kill boxes, so they’ll let us know what zones to avoid. Make sure you pay attention to your HUDs. Can you receive that data, Motli?”

“We can,” she replied confidently. “Our systems are fully integrated with yours.”
The formation of fighters raced towards the sphere of ships, Baker feeling a lump in his throat. There were three dozen of them aiming right at him, their slim, sloping profiles letting them bring all of their turrets to bear while presenting as small a target as possible. It wasn’t fun to be on the wrong end of those guns.

On his visor, red trails suddenly appeared, warning symbols flashing. They reached out from the frigates, creating three-dimensional wireframes, letting the fighters know where the fire was going to be coming from.

“Here it comes!” Baker hissed, yanking his stick to the right. He rolled, the thrusters along the belly of his craft burning to simulate a bank, the rest of his squadron matching the motion. Their dorsal railguns were still firing behind them, pointing their long barrels at the pursuing Bugs, harrying them with molten tungsten. The squadron narrowly avoided one of the red kill boxes as it was filled with glowing tracers, the insectoid craft behind them exploding into fragments under the hail of shells. The frigates had loaded high-explosive rounds, equipped with a proximity sensor that would detonate them like a flak shell, sending jagged metal tearing into the nearby fighters. More missiles intercepted the swarm, forcing them to evade. They lacked any form of point defense, and as nimble as they were, they couldn’t outrun a rocket.

“Looks like we killed enough of the bastards that the fleet can mop up the rest,” Sheriff said. “Hang around all the same, don’t let any of them get through!”

Baker aimed at one of the CIWS frigates, giving the arrowhead-shaped behemoth a wing tilt as he flew within a dozen meters of its bridge windows. He brought his squadron back around, finally able to take a breather, the surrounding space mercifully clear of enemy craft. Ahead of the fleet, the inky blackness was alight with glowing trails, hundreds of individual streaks of orange sparks reaching out towards the Bugs. They lacked the numbers to saturate the defenses now, and any sane creature would have turned back. Even so, they threw themselves against the CIWS ships with suicidal abandon, dying in scores.

As Baker came about, he locked onto a cluster of Bugs that had weaved their way through the CIWS fire, making a beeline for them.

“If they want to die so badly, let’s give them what they want!”

***

“The enemy fighters are thinning,” Vos said, watching the battle on the viewport. He had never seen a dogfight take place in such close quarters, the carnage that was playing out driving home the comparison. The UNN fighters had reduced the enemy numbers substantially, whittling them down to the point that the CIWS guns should be able to handle what was left. The Bugs were crashing against the defensive line like waves now, their missiles and plasma repeaters not much of a threat against the larger, more heavily armored ships. The fleet had lost a good fifty Beewolfs, their burning husks drifting away from the fleet, but they had brought down a remarkable number of enemy craft in return.

“We have rescue dropships ready to launch as soon as the skies are clear enough,” Fielding added. “I’ll assign Beewolfs to escort them out. I’m seeing a lot of beacons out there. Most of them probably ejected in time.”

The incoming cluster of alien ships was the more immediate threat now. The torpedo frigates had been firing at them at range, but the Bug craft that were escorting their larger counterparts to head off the fleet were doing a remarkable job of shooting them down. Point defense weapons that shot out streams of plasma like firehoses jutted from their segmented hulls, filling the space around them with superheated gas that made it next to impossible for the torpedoes to make it through intact. The fight against them would have to be fought at railgun ranges, the equivalent of punching distance in Naval terms. Vos couldn’t help but think that the aliens wanted that very thing.

“The Beewolf squadrons won’t have time to land and rearm before those ships reach us,” Vos warned. “We should keep them out so they’re ready for the next wave.”

“Agreed,” Fielding replied. “I’m keeping the gunships in reserve. We can’t afford to lose any if we’re going to dominate the ground war. We need that CAS.”

“The railgun frigates will be able to deal with them,” Vos said with a nod. “And I’m sure the Mars is itching for a scrap. Comms Officer – tell the Mars that she can fire when ready.”

“Aye aye, Admiral.”

The CIWS cordon was mopping up the last of the fighters now, the Ensi’s ships moving to help, their laser beams bringing down the stragglers. Vos was glad that he had pushed so hard to secure so many ships for the campaign. He had called in favors, argued, even blackmailed to get every last carrier and frigate that could be diverted to Valbara. Had this battlegroup been made up of a single CSG, it would already have been overwhelmed.

He watched the expanding debris field drift past them as the fleet continued on, many of the fighter squadrons forming up with their carriers now that they were short on targets to shoot at. A handful of them were making for the hangars, probably too damaged to continue or short on ammo. Dropships were leaving through the shimmering barriers, too, heading off to search for survivors.

Vos turned his attention back to the holographic projection of the fleet’s course. The formation of Bug craft was closing rapidly. It would only be a few more minutes until they came into firing range. He zoomed in on the Mars, seeing that her 180-foot railgun turrets were already turning in the direction of their targets, the trio of protective shrouds on their long barrels opening up. They didn’t have the planet-ending capabilities of the gun that ran down the center of the ship’s hull, but they could still do incalculable damage to most targets. The arrays of smaller railguns mounted on the ship’s sleek hull followed suit, tracking the enemy ships.

The torpedo tubes that ran parallel to the main gun flipped open, their payload of 100-ton missiles rising on jets of bright flame, painting an unbroken arc as they raced away. More soon followed, sailing over the fleet from the frigates at the rear of the formation. Vos watched them hone in on the cluster of insectoid vessels, but once again, they were intercepted. Torrents of plasma spewed forth from fleshy point defense weapons on their hulls, more like ants spraying formic acid than anything technological. It created swirling plumes that spread out into space, rapidly losing their thermal energy, but doing enough damage to disable the torpedoes. Most of them slagged, turning into drifting hunks of molten metal, while others exploded prematurely as their warheads overheated.

“The Mars is coming into super-railgun range now, Admiral,” one of the bridge officers announced.

Vos watched intently as the twin turrets turned slowly, noting that the battleship was rising from its formation, the thrusters on the side opposite the direction its guns were pointing starting to ignite. The recoil was so great that it would have to use its engines to help compensate, lest it be pushed off-course by the kinetic force. It fired tungsten projectiles that were 12 feet long and weighed in excess of fourteen tons.

One of the turrets rocked back, accompanied by a brighter flare from the ship’s thrusters, the long barrel telescoping backwards into its enormous housing. It slammed into its dampeners, making the 1200-foot vessel shudder, its engines struggling to keep it from drifting. In an instant, the slug bridged the distance and found its mark, a flash of light like a miniature sun forcing the bridge windows to dim. When Vos was able to look again, one of the craft that had been defending the Bug ships was gone, practically vaporized. What remained looked like an insect that had been crushed beneath a boot, the cloud of fragments and viscera splattering the ships in its vicinity as it spread out in a rapidly diminishing cone.

The ships began to scatter as the second super-railgun fired, another bright flash blinding Vos as it turned its victim to slag. This second round penetrated the first target, then punched straight through it, cleaving the lobster-like craft directly behind it in two. The ruined halves were sent spinning away, belching burning fuel and spurts of ichor.

“Tell the fleet to engage at will,” Vos ordered, watching the wedge-shaped line of frigates at the head of the formation drift apart as they moved to intercept. The Mars fired once more, killing a fourth target, their evasive maneuvers counting for nothing when the travel time of the projectiles was functionally instant. Its array of twenty conventional railguns began to fire now, creating a mesmerizing display as their barrels started to glow red with heat, the rows of missile hatches mounted on the vessel’s prow opening up to release a salvo of rockets. The frigates followed suit, armed with similar, albeit smaller quantities of the same weapons.

The slugs punched through the layers of Bug carapace and armor like a hot knife through butter, carving deep wound channels, bodily fluids freezing into crystals as they oozed forth. No matter how many times Vos saw it, he could never get used to watching a spaceship bleed.

Bolts of green plasma fired back, the Betelgeusian craft coming into effective range now, racing out with near the same velocity as a railgun slug. There wasn’t much that the CIWS guns could do against the onslaught, the frigates evading as best they could, the crackling energy peeling away layers of their armor like an onion where they found their mark. UNN ships were designed to take the punishment, their hulls made to spread the heat over a larger area in an effort to prevent it from melting through. Even so, some of the frigates sported molten, glowing holes now, one of them turning about as it was lanced by one of the alien point-defense weapons. A torrent of plasma scorched its angular hull, panting a burning line right across its length to leave a glowing scar.

“Belly up!” Captain Fielding shouted, Vos feeling inertia start to tug at him as the carrier began to burn. The scene in front of the bridge windows descended out of view as the behemoth went nose-up relative to the action, exposing its belly to the enemy. The AG field kept everyone’s feet safely rooted to the floor, but it was still a disorienting maneuver. The bridge windows flickered, then switched to show camera views from below the craft, Vos checking the holographic display on his chair to see that the other three carriers were performing the same maneuver.

One of the primary roles of a jump carrier was ground support, where they would hang around in orbit, firing down on targets on the planet’s surface. This meant that the majority of their railguns, along with a secondary bridge, were mounted beneath the vessel. In this position, they could bring more of their guns to bear.

The carriers joined the frigates, the forests of railguns beneath their bellies firing on targets in salvos, peppering the enemy craft with slugs. The squadrons of fighters were breaking away now, harrying some of the smaller enemy vessels with strafing runs, their missiles erupting into blooms of flame along their organic hulls. The Mars was in the center of the melee, its railguns firing in all directions, burning trails decorating its thick armor as the surrounding vessels tried in vain to stop its relentless march.

From the starboard came the Valbaran ships, the Vengeance leading the charge as her support fleet flanked her. Missiles and torpedoes raced ahead of them, the railguns mounted on their rounded hulls tracking targets, their CIWS strafing the enemy. Bright flashes from their laser point defense turrets dazzled the onlookers, Vos settling in as he prepared to watch their performance.

***

Xipa stood on the bridge of the Vengeance, her legs locked, watching the battle play out beyond the rows of windows. Her bridge crew were seated in circular booths that were slightly recessed into the matte-white deck, ringed by display panels, their helmeted heads darting back and forth as they processed the incoming data.

She had always commanded ships in microgravity, and the addition of AG fields threw her off-kilter, even if it made the job undeniably easier. She had never been very good at adapting to change.

The Earth’nay and Bug ships were brawling now, the chaos spreading, the battle lines quickly becoming blurred. There was no up or down, each ship rolling and turning in different directions, the void around them filled with tracer fire and missile trails.

“Move in the Gawler-class frigates to cover the cruisers,” Xipa said, tracking the positions of the ships on the holographic display that was hovering beside her. The five-module frigates were bristling with missile launchers, CIWS guns, and lasers, designed to shield the rest of the fleet with their point-defense weapons. They floated alongside the missile cruisers, larger, seven-module craft equipped with torpedo launchers, missiles, and extra radar arrays to ensure the best possible lock on their targets. They were already firing streams of missiles at the enemy ships, moving to cut off the bulk of the alien fleet, which seemed to be heading straight for the UNN jump carriers.

“Have the battle cruisers form up on us,” she added. “I think it’s time to show the Earth’nay what these new ships can do. Gunner, prepare to fire the ion cannon.”

“Charging the weapon,” she replied, tapping frantically at one of her touch panels. The lights in the bridge dimmed noticeably, the ship diverting power from its non-essential systems. The weapon was a kind of linear plasma accelerator, which was fed by the ship’s fusion reactor, sending a beam of electrons shooting down the entire length of the ship. Its function had something to do with oscillating plasma and electrical fields, but Xipa was no particle physicist. All she cared about was that the resulting beam could be directed through the conical nozzle mounted on the prow of the ship, accelerating charged electrons to near light-speed, where they would transfer their kinetic energy to the target. The weapon could rend both armor and DNA at the atomic level.

On her display, she saw the ships in her fleet that were equipped with the weapons taking up formation to either side of the Vengeance, not quite flying straight as they picked out their own targets in the melee.

“Transfer command of the weapon to my personal computer,” Xipa snarled, the weapons officer briefly glancing at one of her colleagues before doing as her Ensi asked. With a few taps, she bypassed the fire controls, Xipa glancing down at the device mounted on the wrist of her suit.

“It awaits your command, Ensi,” the officer said.

“Good. Tell the other ships to fire on my signal. Target that large ship there, right in the middle of their formation. Let’s see their point-defense ships stop this from getting through…”

“All captains awaiting your signal,” the comms officer announced.

The color panels on Xipa’s form-fitting suit flushed bright red, contrasting with its Naval camouflage, the damaged feathers on her head erupting in a display of hate. She didn’t care who saw, she had been waiting decades for an opportunity like this. During the battle of Valbara, she had killed several Bug ships, but this was different.

She brought up her wrist, her gloved fingers hovering over the panel, her heart thumping in her chest. As her digit came down on the screen, she turned her one eye to the bridge windows, watching a blue beam cut through space ahead of them. It was so bright that she could scarcely look at it, as thin as the vane of a feather, like a laser in brilliant violet. It was oddly understated, especially compared to the brutish weapons favored by the UNN. It was traveling at near the speed of light, so there was no delay as it impacted its target, Xipa’s eye widening in awe as a bright red circle appeared on its armored shell. The metal plates vaporized almost instantly, the material exploding in a bright flash, the organic matter beneath it boiling away. The craft’s electronic systems were fried, its technological components slagged, its organic material turned to plasma. It erupted in a mesmerizing explosion, the sheer energy splitting its atoms apart, the ship’s sensors showing X-rays and charged particles streaming in every direction as it disintegrated.

The rest of the ships fired in quick succession, Xipa’s scaly lips pulling back in a blend of a snarl and a smile as she watched the enemy craft erupt, half a dozen of them decimated in an instant.

“I hope you’re recording this,” she said, glancing over at one of the bridge crew. “The techs will want to see the fruits of their labor, and it will do wonders for morale.”

“Of course, Ensi,” she replied quickly. “All telemetry and data from the camera feeds is being stored on the ship’s drives.”

“Good, good. I’d like to watch that again later. Fire at will.”

Another salvo of torpedoes reached them from the Bug frigates that were still clustered around their space station some distance away, every ship in the fleet seeming to target the incoming threat. Lasers, tracers, and missiles shot towards them, creating an impenetrable wall. Bursts of plasma indicated where they had been intercepted, Xipa’s feathers fluttering in approval.

The lights dimmed again as the ion cannon reduced another Bug ship to ruin, then the beam petered out, Xipa glancing to her weapons operator with an unspoken question in her headdress.

“The weapon is out of charge, Ensi,” she explained. “It will need some minutes to build up again before we can continue to fire.”

“No matter. Focus our railguns on those point defense ships. Try to clear them out so that our missile cruisers can do their jobs.”

So far, the aliens had been getting trounced. The Coalition ships had superior ranged weapons and better point defense, which made them almost untouchable. Now that the Bug ships had closed into range, however, the battle was evening out. The UNN ships had seemed invincible during the battle of Valbara, but she could see a frigate burning now, its arrowhead-shaped hull wreathed in green flame. There were molten holes in its vacuum-black armor, the decks beneath it exposed to space, the blue glow from its engines wavering.

More of the Earth’nay ships were moving to support it, but the Bugs were closer, several of them smelling blood in the water. A large one broke away from its formation, the interlocking plates that covered its back reminding her of some bottom-feeding crustacean, its innumerable legs unfurling from beneath its segmented body as it approached. The metallic glint of its thrusters caught her eye as they moved, belching green fire to push the thing closer. They were attached to its very flesh, grafted like cybernetics, muscles rather than servos changing their direction with minute precision. There were tiny, black eyes and glowing lights all over its hull, clusters of thin antennae jutting out from its armored prow. As it neared the damaged ship, a pair of pincers unfolded from beneath it, reaching out with serrated claws. The frigate’s CIWS guns were still firing, but they seemed to have lost power to their railguns, the smaller cannons doing little against the 600-foot behemoth.

“Fire on that ship,” Xipa snapped, gesturing to the insect as it grappled with the damaged frigate. The Vengeance began to pour railgun slugs into it, the nearby Earth’nay and Valbara’nay ships joining them, but the thing was so large that it was just shrugging them off. That giant battleship of theirs couldn’t fire its preposterously large guns in this soup of ships, not without the risk of obliterating its allies. A gun so powerful it couldn’t be used was a foolish concept.

“Do any of our battle cruisers have enough charge for another ion cannon shot?” Xipa demanded, turning to her comms operator.

“The Shield of Yilgarn is incoming,” she replied, Xipa returning her eye to the viewport. She swiped at the holographic display beside her, tracking the ship’s progress through the external camera feeds. The vessel was a five-module frigate, commissioned specially for the Earth’nay war hero known as Jaeger. It came barreling into the melee, its engines burning hard, its CIWS guns firing in all directions. It passed close to an enemy ship, rolling onto its side as it drew near, firing its railguns in a broadside when the two vessels were only meters apart. They tore into its carapace, ripping open exit wounds on the other side, blowing out chunks of meat and chitin.

The insectoid craft lost power to some of its engines, starting to drift. Even so, its arrays of plasma cannons swiveled in the frigate’s direction, the magnetic rails crackling with emerald lightning as they charged up. It loosed a barrage of return fire, but the Spirit was already moving out of its path, the thrusters on its aft section firing to pivot it out of the way. It continued forward, letting its momentum carry it, nose-up relative to its original position now. With another broadside, the Bug was gutted by an explosion, the slugs igniting its fuel tanks. Like a spinning top, the Spirit turned on its vertical axis, then leveled out again. They were flying the damned thing more like a fighter than a ship of the line…

The Spirit roared past the Vengeance, the forward-facing railguns on its prow hammering the clawed craft as it peeled away the damaged frigate’s black armor, gripping it with its spindly legs. A bright beam of violet shot out ahead of it, spearing the craft. The tough carapace that was pocked with railgun holes was vaporized, its biological matter boiling, causing it to erupt in a violent release of gasses. Its shell split along the seams, rupturing to spew its melting guts into space. The thrusters on the underside of the Spirit’s hull flared, sending it sailing over the wreckage, its light panels flashing a crimson salute.

“Show-offs,” Xipa muttered to herself, watching it turn on its next target.

“Ensi, the enemy craft at the core of their fleet are pushing through to the Earth’nay carriers,” one of the bridge crew said. The panels on her suit flashed a worried blue as she turned to her superior, waiting for instructions.

“Ensi, the fleet requests orders,” the comms operator added. “They ask if they should pursue.”

“Yes, yes,” Xipa replied impatiently. “Tell them to pursue those ships. They’re important, or they wouldn’t have been so heavily defended.”

She brought up an external camera feed, watching the strange craft burn towards the formation of four carriers. The Earth’nay ships had pointed their noses up now, coasting along as they fired their ventral guns. What an odd tactic.

The enemy weathered their fire, some of them losing power, veering off course as they sustained mortal wounds. A storm of railgun rounds harried them, but they pressed on, apparently large and resilient enough to push through it. Their escorts were putting themselves in the way, absorbing some of the fire, shielding their charges with suicidal abandon.

As they neared the UNN ships, they reared up, extending the armored legs that had been protecting their underbellies. While Xipa couldn’t see what lay beneath them from this angle, she recognized what was shooting out of them. Boarding pods, the same that had rained from the skies on Kerguela and Valbara.

***

Red light flooded the narrow corridors, a warning klaxon blaring as Evan raced into the nearest armory, his comrades jostling him as they rounded a bend. They had come straight from their barracks, the same warning that had spurred them into action repeating over the intercom.

“All personnel, prepare to repel boarders. Repeat, all personnel, report to your stations. We are being boarded.”

The armories were spaced out around the assault carrier, most of them in easy reach of the crew quarters. Their personal armor was stored there, as well as their XMRs and ammunition. The leader of their group opened the bulkhead with a creak, and they piled into the room. Inside were rows of lockers, closets, and racks that stored all of the equipment. Evan made a beeline for his closet, throwing open the two metal doors to reveal the compartments inside. On the right was his pressure suit, hanging from a rack, and on shelves to its left were the individual pieces of ceramic armor that attached over the top of it. His helmet was sitting in a compartment just above them, its opaque visor open.

He began to tear off his coveralls, stripping down to his underwear, kicking off his shoes. Once that was done, he pulled his pressure suit from the locker, careful to detach the charging cable. It was deceptively light, made of a tough Kevlar weave that did a decent job of protecting the material from shrapnel and ricochets that might puncture it. It also had thermal control elements that ran throughout the suit, letting the wearer adapt to various hostile environmental conditions. At this stage, it looked like he was wearing a giant onesie, his hands and feet exposed.

Next, he pulled his armored boots from their shelf. They were equipped with electromagnets that would allow the wearer to keep operating in a microgravity environment, such as a ship that had lost power to its AG fields. He stepped into them, hearing a hiss as they linked up to his ankle cuffs, creating a seal. The gloves were next, Evan pulling them over his hands, flexing his fingers. The back of the hand and the knuckles were armored, but the fingers were made from a more flexible, tactile material that would allow the wearer to pull a trigger or use a touchpad with ease. There was another hermetic hiss as they were secured to his sleeves.

Starting at his shin pads, he began to attach his leg armor. He fastened the straps tightly, moving up to the knee pads, then to his thigh armor. UNN body armor was designed primarily to dissipate heat from plasma weapons and to protect against explosives. It would stop a conventional bullet, too, but not a railgun slug. There was little that could.

Evan lifted his heavy chest armor, draping it over his shoulders, then securing the belt about his waist. There were heavy ceramic plates on both the front and back, covering up most of his torso, the groin region made up of several smaller plates so as not to limit his range of motion. He shifted its weight for a moment, trying to get it to sit comfortably, then reached for the shoulder pads. The final pieces were the wrist cuffs, the left one sporting a built-in touch panel that handled the suit’s various functions, along with communications and other tools.

After tightening a collar that reached up to his jaw, he reached for the helmet, slotting it over his head. The visor closed as it mated to the rest of his suit, sealing to create a pressurized environment, his HUD flaring to life. He brought up his forearm and checked the system status on his display, seeing that it was reading normal pressure. Good, no leaks, and his battery was fully charged.

“Why the fuck are our suits red now?” Hernandez asked. He paused to look Evan up and down, planting a boot on a nearby bench as he fastened it.

“Huh?” Evan mumbled, glancing down at his armor. “Shit, you’re right. I was in such a hurry, I didn’t even notice.”

The pressure suits were usually a shade of Navy-blue, and the armor was commonly charcoal black. Someone had either painted or totally replaced their gear since they had arrived at Valbara some weeks prior. The pressure suit was a rusty red now, and the armor was painted with what looked like woodland camo. Instead of browns and greens, it was shades of red, orange, and yellow. They were autumn colors.

“Red forests, right?” Evan added.