Birds of Prey: Chapter 16

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The chemical vats in the bowels of the ship had finally generated enough electricity to charge the superlight drive, the Queen could feel the stores of energy growing through her neural link to the living ship. She only needed enough to carry her from the outer solar system to the planet’s gravity well, there was no retreat. If she should fail here, then her hive would perish either in combat or from starvation.

The great vessel turned slowly towards its target as it prepared for the jump, green flame spewing from the dozens of thrusters spaced out along its armored hull. She shared the behemoth’s pain through that same link, the wounds on its plasma cannons were still healing where the probes had burrowed into its flesh to access the barrels, but they had accomplished their task admirably. They had revealed that the walled hives that had been erected by the planet’s fauna were indeed as poorly defended as she had hoped. They were ripe for invasion, her children would soon swarm through their strange, glass structures and clean them of resistance. All she had to do was create an opening in their defenses to get her troops down to the surface. The enemy were strong in space, but they could not prevail on the ground, she was certain of that. She had to punch through.

Legions of hungry, restless Drones and Warriors were waking from their low metabolic state, emerging from the recesses in the brood chambers where they had been hibernating during their long voyage. They floated through the winding, intestine-like corridors of the ship in zero gravity, making their way towards the landing craft and drop pods that would carry them down to the planet and transport them to its defensive installations. Those strange, ring-shaped constructs were the key to the planet’s defense, the infrared radiation that they emitted betrayed their onboard generators and their powerful weapons systems. She would swarm those too, and knock them out of the sky.

There was something else there too, a large vessel that hovered above the planet’s Northern pole. It was different from the others, bigger and sturdier, more heavily armed. Judging by the radio and laser traffic that it was sending out, it must be their leader, their Queen. It was risky, but if she could kill it, then the enemy’s forces would surely be sent into disarray.

Her army was rousing, her fleet was at the ready, she could sense their proximity through the many eyes and antennae of the hive ship. Swarms of fighters were docking with their carriers, assault ships were flexing their mandibles as they prepared to bite into metal, plasma weapons were charging and loading.

They would soon be in orbit around her prize, then her children would seize it, and its biomass would feed her offspring for the next thousand generations…


“I could get used to this,” Jaeger said, leaning back against the shore of the little lake as he sat in the pristine water. The blue-green grass was soft and carefully tended, there were colorful flowers all around, and the trees gave them complete privacy despite being so close to the footpaths and the other domed dwellings.

Maza filled a wooden bowl and poured it over his shoulders. The water was cool, but it was a pleasant reprieve from the heat and humidity. The rest of the flock were lounging nearby, washing themselves and relaxing in the shimmering pool. The golden rays of the rising sun were just peeking over the horizon, and Jaeger still felt a sense of satisfaction from the night before, not to mention a certain soreness from his overindulgence. Baker was still sleeping off his hangover it seemed, he hadn’t moved from the living room carpet yet.

Jaeger felt as if they had all awoken in a new state, as if their relationship had morphed into something new overnight. Now, he felt completely comfortable around the aliens, and he no longer felt that disconnect between Maza and her flock. They were one and the same, inseparable. He finally understood their relationship, and what it meant to belong. In a way, he too had become part of their family. It was a good feeling, romance and friendship blending in a way that they seldom did in human culture.

He watched as Xico and Tacka helped Ayau wash her feathers, combing them with their fingers and rubbing in some kind of shampoo or soap, the foam quickly dispersing and vanishing into the water. It was probably some kind of eco-friendly, non-toxic substance, knowing the Valbarans. This bathing ritual reminded him of a troop of monkeys grooming one another, it was as much for social bonding as it was for actual bathing.

Maza’s fingers found their way into his hair, and she massaged some kind of creamy soap into his scalp as he sighed contentedly and slid lower into the water.

“That feels good,” he mumbled.

“This stuff is good for feathers, so it’s probably good for fur too,” she said as she rubbed it in.

“Hair,” he corrected.

“If you say so, but it feels like fur to me,” she chuckled. “It feels good to get clean, we got a little…messy last night.”

“How do you feel about all that?” he asked, hoping that she still felt the same way about him after waking up. They had drunk and smoked a lot prior to their encounter, and he was a little worried that one or more of them might have regretted it after they had sobered up. Coza especially seemed to have completely switched personalities while under the influence.

“Look around you,” she said, gesturing to her flock. “What do you see?”

Ayau was warbling happily, her feathers flashing in relaxed green as Tacka rubbed soap into the down on her back, while Xico had opened one of the sheaths on her head and was carefully washing the layers of colorful plumes. Coza was floating peacefully on her back in the water nearby, the system of air sacks that the aliens used to breathe seemed to make them extremely buoyant.

“Everyone looks…happy,” he replied, and Maza nodded with a smile on her face.

“Let’s just say that we reached a consensus.”

Reassured, he lay back and closed his eyes, taking in the ever-present birdsong from the treetops. Before long, however, the peace was shattered by the sound of Baker’s voice.

“Jaeger! Jaeger!” he shouted as he stumbled through the undergrowth. “Where the hell are you guys?”

“Over here!” Jaeger called back to him. After a moment, he appeared at the edge of the water

“Fucking trees,” he complained as he struggled between two of the fat trunks. The aliens scowled at him as they covered themselves up with the feathers on their forearms, like burlesque performers about to do a fan dance. Jaeger hadn’t even considered that Baker might be intruding on their privacy, he was so used to the casual nudity that was a fact of life on the Rorke. Baker wasn’t interested in ogling the flock, however. Nor did he seem at all surprised or concerned by the sight of Jaeger lounging naked in a lake with the aliens. He had his phone in his hand, and he looked shaken.

“Two fucking hive ships just jumped into orbit,” he said, “we’ve been called back to the Rorke. We have to get to the spaceport, right now.”

“What?” Jaeger asked, rising out of the water.

“Right now Jaeger, get your gear!”

“Alright, I’m coming, I’m coming.”

“It’s finally happening,” Coza whispered, her feathers flashing in fear. Maza called everyone over, and they huddled in the lake, Jaeger already making his way back across the grass towards the dwelling. He rubbed himself down with a towel and pulled on his uniform, throwing a few items into his rucksack as he prepared to leave. The flock seemed to have made up their minds, piling into the living room shortly after him and donning their camouflaged space suits. Maza pulled her communicator out of her pocket as it began to sound an alarm, tapping at the screen for a moment.

“We’re coming too,” she said, “we’ll take one of the landers and follow you up into orbit.”

“Got it,” Jaeger replied as he slung his pack over his shoulder. “Are you guys ready for this? It’s going to be a fucking madhouse up there.”

“We’ve been training for this our whole lives,” Coza replied sternly. “Let them come.”

“Quiet,” Baker said, hushing them as he moved to one of the round windows and crouched to look out at the sky. After a second, Jaeger heard it too, the sound of sonic booms. “Something just entered the atmosphere.”

There were a series of tremors, the ground shaking beneath their feet, soon chased by what sounded like far-off explosions.

“Are they shelling?” Jaeger asked, alarmed.

Baker made for the door, opening it and peering up into the air, Jaeger following behind him. He looked up at the blue sky, cloudless save for a few white wisps.

“Look, another salvo,” Baker said as he pointed upwards. Jaeger saw them too, a swarm of objects trailing smoke as the flames of reentry licked at them. They were far off, but he could make out their shape, vaguely like a teardrop. They almost looked like giant seeds. As they reached the appropriate altitude, they popped membranous chutes, slowing them enough that the impact wouldn’t kill the occupants. They came down hard, shaking the earth and kicking up clouds of debris as they landed in the city.

“No, that’s not artillery. Those are fucking drop pods,” Baker continued, “they must have gotten them past the orbital defenses.”

“Fuck,” Jaeger hissed. The stakes had just been raised, those drop pods would soon disgorge an army of Betelgeusian Drones, and maybe some Warriors too. Good job the mag-lev line could get them to the spaceport in a matter of minutes. “Come on, there’s no time to waste, they just brought the fight to us.”

“Wait,” Coza said, the two humans looking back at her as she walked over to the curved wall. She hit some kind of pressure plate with her fist, and then a hidden panel slid back, exposing what looked like a gun rack. It was stocked with blocky Valbaran laser weapons. Coza looked as determined as Jaeger had ever seen her, selecting a rifle from the rack and tossing it to Tacka, who checked the battery on it with practiced speed and precision.

The other aliens geared up, holstering pistols on the belts of their jumpsuits and shouldering rifles. Maza tossed a pistol to Jaeger, and then one to Baker, there were only enough rifles for the five flockmates. Jaeger examined the weapon, it looked like a flashlight with a pistol grip. It was tiny, but fortunately, Valbaran fingers were proportionally thicker than those of humans. He could just about get his index finger through the trigger without accidentally pulling it.

“Squeeze the trigger for a quick pulse,” Maza explained, “hold it for a concentrated beam. These aren’t like your railguns, you have to hold the beam on the target for maximum damage. There’s a safety on the left side, there, you got it.”

The aliens closed their opaque helmets, taking on the appearance that they had when Jaeger had first seen them descend from their lander back on the Rorke. It seemed like a lifetime ago now. He watched as Coza slipped what appeared to be brass knuckles over her hands, the two rings that went over her fingers adorned with dull points that almost looked like the window spikes that you’d use to break a car windshield.

“What are those for?” Baker asked.

“Traditionally, Valbarans fight with bladed weapons,” she explained. “But they can’t cut through a Bug’s shell. These babies will crack a Drone’s carapace like a Gue’tra egg. I’ve been ready for this.”

“I can see that,” Baker added. “Alright, let’s get to the mag-lev train.”


They arrived at the escalator that led up to the track, the party rushing up the steps and onto the platform, Tacka tapping at the touch panel that would call the train. Jaeger watched the skies warily, shielding his eyes against the sunrise. The drop pods were coming down all over the city, plumes of smoke rising from the impact sites. The large defense towers that were spaced around the circumference of the city were firing their massive laser batteries at the incoming objects. It made the sky look like a rave, lines of glittering, green light impaling some of the pods and making them burst into flames or sending them wildly off-course. It wasn’t enough, however. They couldn’t shoot them all down.

He couldn’t make out anything in space, the battle must not have reached low orbit yet. He was used to hearing the crack of XMRs, but if there was a firefight happening deeper inside Yilgarn, the noise from the lasers and plasma weapons wasn’t reaching them out in the suburbs.

“Damn it, the track is damaged,” Tacka announced with a flash of angry red colors from the LCD panels on her suit. “We’ll have to proceed on foot, at least until we can find another station that lies beyond the broken rail.”

“A pod must have come down somewhere along the track,” Baker said, cursing under his breath. “We can’t do any good down here, we have to get to our Beewolfs, the real fight is happening in orbit.”

“Then we’ll have to hoof it,” Jaeger confirmed. “It’s only a few miles, we’ve run further than that in P.T, but how will the Valbarans keep up?”

The flock exchanged glances, then huddled again, the humans waiting as they formulated a new plan.

“We’ll take the scooters,” Maza added as she gestured to the rack beside the station, slinging her rifle across her back. “It looks like the pods are mostly coming down in the city, if we go around, then we can probably avoid the worst of the fighting.”

Coza looked surly, she obviously wanted a piece of the Bugs, but she had likely been overruled.

“Alright,” Jaeger conceded. “You know the terrain better than we do, so lead on.”


They raced down the winding footpaths, weaving between the hills and patches of woodland on their scooters. Jaeger felt ridiculous, but it was indeed a faster option than walking, and he was gradually getting the hang of the two-wheeled vehicle as he steered it along.

There were no pedestrians in sight, no Valbarans were coming out of their domed houses to gawk at the sky in fear and disbelief. It was deserted, a ghost town.

“Where is everybody?” Jaeger asked, raising his voice over the rushing wind. The scooters didn’t go very fast, no more than fifteen miles per hour, but was enough to make it harder to hear one another.

“They’re hiding in their shelters,” Xico explained.


“We’ve been preparing for this day for twenty rotations,” she continued, “every building in Yilgarn has an underground shelter to protect the occupants.”

“You realize that Bugs burrow,” Baker added, “those shelters won’t keep them safe forever.”

“No, but it will protect them from being killed by bombardment during the initial invasion. It’s our job to make sure that the invasion never progresses beyond that stage.”

The rolling hills and the carefully placed trees might have been aesthetically pleasing, but they were breaking up Jaeger’s line of sight now, he couldn’t see more than a couple of hundred feet in any direction. There could be a whole platoon of Drones right around the corner, and they wouldn’t know it until they ran straight into them.

“Heads up!” Baker yelled, and Jaeger looked to the sky. There was a pod heading straight for them, trailing black smoke as its armored hull cooled. He couldn’t tell exactly where it was going to land, but it had to be nearby. The teardrop-shaped mass of metal and chitin released its chute, lurching as the membranous flaps caught the wind and began to slow its descent. It vanished behind the trees a short distance away, the ground trembling as it kicked up a cloud of dirt and debris.

“Get down!” Jaeger shouted, leaping from his scooter and lying prone on the grass as he covered his head. Baker and the flock did likewise, and shortly afterwards, a shower of soil and small rocks rained down on them.

“It landed nearby,” Ayau said, “we must formulate a new plan!”

“No time for that,” Jaeger replied, “follow me.”

He led them over the hill, his laser pistol in hand as he peeked over the rise, keeping out of view. The pod was much larger up close, it was about the size of a semi-trailer. Just like all of the Bug biotech, it appeared to be made from a combination of organic and synthetic armor. The ‘flesh‘ that held it all together was uneven and rough, like someone had sculpted it from off-green putty and then had left it to harden. It had cratered deep into the ground, the trees around it were snapped, and there was fresh earth everywhere. The armored hull of the pod was still hot enough that he could feel it on his face, even from a distance.

As he watched, hatches on the sides popped open, as if the pod was ejecting sections of its carapace. The pieces of armor landed heavily nearby, digging furrows in the turf. From the holes poured Betelgeusian Drones, like insects burrowing out of an open wound, their shiny shells catching the light in iridescent hues that Jaeger might have described as beautiful under different circumstances.

They stood about five feet tall if one included the pronged horns that sprouted from their heads, insectoid in appearance, with two legs and four jointed arms that held shields and weapons. They had two large, compound eyes that seemed to glow a subtle green, the mandibles that served as their mouths clacking and chattering as they dropped to the grass. Jaeger knew enough about them to know that those were helmets that they were wearing, and that much of their jewel-like shell was actually synthetic body armor designed to complement and reinforce their natural defenses.

No two were the same. They came in a rainbow of colors, reds and oranges, shades of blue and green. Their ornate horns too were subtly different from one individual to another, perhaps serving as a way to tell them apart. Despite all of their chittering and clicking, the Bugs didn’t speak, they communicated only through pheromones and chemical signatures. They even ‘wrote‘ in smells, by smearing the pheromones on objects and surfaces.

Artwork by Meandraco:

Jaeger watched as a dozen of them emerged from the pod, the insects checking their weapons. They wielded plasma pistols sculpted from some kind of orange resin, as well as handheld energy shields that could be ignited to create a barrier of magnetically-contained plasma. More sinister were the ceremonial daggers sheathed in recesses on their thighs, which they would bring out in close quarters and use to shred the opposition with all the mercy of a praying mantis eating an aphid.

The Bugs popped their shields, flaring brightly as the plasma that the wrist-mounted devices projected took an oval shape, then they began to move inwards towards the city.

“They must have been knocked off course by something,” Baker muttered. “Let them pass us by.”

“There are hundreds of homes between them and the city,” Maza hissed as she grabbed his wrist to get his attention. “We can’t let them go!”

“I count thirteen Bugs,” Baker whispered, “and there are only seven of us.”

“But we have the element of surprise,” Coza added. Baker looked to Jaeger, who nodded in agreement.

“Alright,” Jaeger said, “but I’m making the plan this time. Form a firing line on the hill, we have some elevation on them, let’s just hope that these laser guns do their job.”

“Oh, they’ll do their job,” Xico said. “These things will cook a Bug inside its shell.”

“Steamed lobster,” Baker chuckled. “Shame we didn’t bring any butter with us.”

“More like microwaved lobster,” she replied, “whatever a lobster is.”

“On my count,” Jaeger ordered as he raised his pistol. “Three, two, one…”

They scrambled up the grassy hill in unison, the humans taking aim with their pistols and the Valbarans lying prone with their blocky rifles. Besides for an electrical whir, the weapons were completely silent, and as Jaeger pulled the trigger of his handgun, he noted that there was no recoil either. He was used to firing a projectile of some sort, but these weapons fired a nigh-invisible beam of light that had to be held on the target to inflict maximum damage.

Immediately, the Bugs that the flock were aiming at lurched as the beams hit them, wisps of smoke pouring from the impact points like they were action figures being melted under the lens of a magnifying glass. Three dropped to the floor before the rest were even aware that they were being attacked, twitching and screeching as the heat cooked them from the inside out. The rest turned, scurrying to take cover behind nearby trees and holding up their shields to protect themselves. The Valbarans shot through the barriers of shifting plasma, and while the shields couldn’t stop the beam outright, they did refract the light enough that it seemed to make the lasers ineffectual.

Two more Bugs dropped with smoking holes in their carapaces, and then the insects began to return fire. Bolts of green plasma flew at the hill, bursting into flames where they impacted the grass and searing the tree trunks, the party scattering.

The Valbarans were remarkably coordinated, they must have trained for this extensively, they had a plan for every scenario. The LCD panels on their suits were flashing signals, coordinating as two of them began to flank while the other three laid down suppressing fire. They pulsed their weapons, igniting bark, and burning exposed body parts.

Jaeger and Baker went left, sliding down the hill and moving towards the wreck of the drop pod. Jaeger managed to get a hit on one of the drones, these laser weapons were pinpoint accurate, the Bug screeching and lowering its shield as it clawed at one of its compound eyes. He must have blinded it. Both he and Baker seized the opportunity to roast it, the creature seizing as they melted its organs through its armor. Aiming might be easy, but holding the weapon on a precise point while the target was moving was actually very difficult.

Now the numbers had been evened out, and the Bugs quickly found themselves surrounded. One popped out of cover to fire at the hill with its plasma pistol, narrowly missing one of the prone Valbarans, and she returned fire with her laser rifle. The Bug’s head slagged and caved in on itself as she kept the beam trained on it, a shimmering green line from Jaeger’s vantage point. It wasn’t killed outright, the aliens were notorious for surviving headshots, as their brains extended into their torsos. The Drone crumpled to the ground as it cooked, its limbs waving, crippled by the laser. She kept the beam focused on it until it lay still, the smell of burning meat reaching Jaeger’s nose.

Wishing that he had a good old XMR, he took refuge behind the pod. Black smoke still billowed from it, and the metal panels on its hull glowed a dull orange from the heat of reentry. He popped in and out of cover, as did Baker, the humans harassing the Bugs as best they could.

Two more went down, then a third, leaving only three of them left by Baker’s count. Coza suddenly broke ranks, slinging her rifle across her back. She closed the distance like a speeding cheetah, skidding to a halt in the midst of the invaders before they had even had time to turn their weapons on her. It was like watching video footage being played back at double speed, Coza tearing into the nearest Bug with practiced precision, harrying it with a flurry of blows to its chest and face. The brass knuckles that she wore worked exactly as described, the drone’s tough, ruby-red shell cracking and fracturing where her punches landed. It was like something out of a martial arts movie, the Bug stumbling backwards as she advanced on it, fragments of shell falling to the ground as the cracking sound took on a distinctly wetter quality.

Her adversary fell to the grass in a shuddering heap, the pale flesh on its head and torso exposed beneath the shattered carapace, thick ichor that had the color and consistency of maple syrup leaking from its wounds.

The next Bug turned to face her, holding twin plasma pistols in its upper pair of hands, and reaching down to its thighs with the lower. It unsheathed its daggers, the two blades glinting in the light, their ornately decorated design reminding Jaeger of Damascus steel.

Coza hissed something in her native tongue, darting towards her challenger, raising one of the pistols as it fired it. The bolt shot through the canopy above, raining burning foliage down on the pair as they wrestled. Coza was having none of it, parrying blows from its knives with her knuckles, sparks flying as metal hit metal. She gripped its wrist in one hand, placing a foot against its chest, and pulled.

Bug bodily fluids sprayed the nearby tree trunk as she ripped its arm from its socket, leaving an oozing wound that looked like torn crab meat, then she cast the arm to the ground nearby and delivered a kick like a kangaroo. Her boots hit its chest, and it was knocked clear off its feet, landing on its back a short distance away.

The second remaining Drone went for her, but it was turned into a smoking husk by concentrated laser fire as soon as it bolted from cover. Coza wasn’t done. She crouched over the Bug, warding off desperate knife strikes, delivering a series of ruthless punches that turned its head to mush. It finally went limp, and she rose to full height, wiping the ichor that coated her fists on the leg of her suit as she panted.

The rest of the group moved in, waving their weapons back and forth as they checked for stragglers. It seemed that they had taken them all out. Jaeger slipped his laser pistol into his pocket and leaned down to pick up one of the Bug plasma pistols, an orange-colored weapon with two prongs that looked like it had been crudely molded from some kind of plastic. The firing mechanism would be confusing to someone who wasn’t already familiar with Bug firearms. Rather than a trigger, the handle was pressure-sensitive, firing off a shot when the grip strength exceeded a certain threshold.

“This is more my style,” he muttered. “You alright, Coza?”

She turned to face him, her visor flipping up. Her violet eyes looked wild, she had just worked through a lot of pent-up anger and resentment based on what she had told him back in the lounge.

“I feel better,” she growled. Jaeger looked past her at the corpse of the Bug, its head looked like a cockroach that had recently been stamped on by a shoe.

“There are plenty more Bugs to kill, Coza. Let’s get moving.”


Jaeger looked over his shoulder at the spires of the city in the distance as they raced towards the airport on their scooters. Plumes of black smoke were still rising from where the pods had impacted, choking the blue sky with ash, what looked like fires from damaged buildings joining them. There were Valbaran landers flying about too, camouflaged in their signature blue and grey, making low passes as they fired at the ground. Every so often, a trail of glowing plasma would rise from between the buildings like AA fire, scattering them. There were yet more pods raining from the sky, some of them exploding in the air as the defensive laser batteries strobed them with glittering beams.

War had found Valbara.

“What is that?” Baker asked. “Listen.”

Jaeger listened, and he heard the unmistakable crack of railgun fire. It was coming from ahead of them, from the spaceport.

“Friendlies at the spaceport?” Jaeger asked.

“Sounds like it,” he replied. “I wish I had a helmet so that I could patch into the local comms.”

“We’ll be coming up on the spaceport in a few minutes,” Maza said, “be ready.”

Jaeger rummaged in his pocket for his phone, struggling to keep his scooter balanced as he switched his attention from the path to the screen. He didn’t have access to encrypted military channels, but he could put a call through to the Rorke and have fleet command relay his message to anyone on the network. If there was indeed a firefight going on at the airport, then they didn’t want to get caught in a crossfire or get mistakenly fired on. A railgun slug would go straight through a Bug, a tree trunk, and then through one or more of them without shedding much velocity at all.

He held the device up to his ear, maneuvering around the winding turns as he waited for a reply.

“This is Fleetcom, report.”

The woman on the other end sounded stressed, there was probably a lot of shit going on up in space, he’d better be concise.

“This is Lieutenant Jaeger, I have two UNN pilots and a squad of Valbarans coming up on the Yilgarn spaceport. Please let any personnel still on the ground know that we’re coming.”

“Roger that Lieutenant, I’ll see what I can do.”

As they rounded one of the obscuring hills, they finally spotted the far end of the mag-lev rail and the station that lay just outside the entrance to the spaceport. It was so hard to get a bearing on where you were in this damned city, your line of sight was always blocked. If he hadn’t been able to see the white glint of the rail vanishing into the trees, Jaeger would have had no idea that he was near the runway.

The sounds of a gun battle were much closer now, there was definitely an intense fight going on. Was it possible that the Bugs were assaulting the port and the locals were defending it? It would make sense, the Bugs would want to stop reinforcements from reaching space, where they were already at a disadvantage.

“They know we’re coming…I hope,” Jaeger said as he and the rest of the group abandoned their scooters to proceed on foot. “Keep your wits about you, watch out for crossfire.”

They made their way into the forest, avoiding the pathway that led towards the gate to the spaceport. Jaeger led them to the base of the white wall that encircled the compound, reasoning that it was safer than approaching from directly behind the attacking Bugs. The wall was too high for even the Valbarans to vault over, and so they followed it towards the entrance, the sounds of gunfire growing louder.

Iridescent shells glinted between the dense trees, and the party immediately took cover behind the thick trunks, beginning to fire on them. Valbaran lasers melted through chitin, and plasma bolts from the pistol that Jaeger had recovered burned ugly holes in their carapaces. It looked like they were trying to get through the gate up ahead, they were tightly packed, dozens of them climbing over one another in their attempt to break through. Some of them were trying to claw their way up the wall, but they didn’t seem to be able to get a grip, just like the probe the day before.

The Bugs at the rear of the pack turned to face them and dove into cover, returning fire. The chatter of automatic XMRs was deafening now, they had to find a way through.

“Friendlies!” Jaeger shouted at the top of his voice after waiting for a lull in the fighting. “Friendlies!”

Someone shouted back to him, but he couldn’t hear what they said, snapping back behind a tree as a Bug plasma bolt singed the bark where his head had just been. The insects were now diverting some of their forces to deal with the new arrivals, two dozen of them advancing through the foliage as they laid down suppressing fire. The aliens weren’t stupid, they were capable of thinking tactically, and they were well-coordinated.

Maza and her flock fired back, but they would soon be overwhelmed if they stayed in this position for too long. Just when he was considering calling a retreat, Jaeger heard a more distinct, commanding voice rise above the din. He recognized it as Colonel Roberts.

“Go Reesh, bring them in!”

Something powered through the crowd of Bugs like a battering ram, swinging a massive riot shield to send them flying through the air as if they were bowling pins. It was a Krell, sixteen feet of armor and muscle, rumbling like an angry alligator as he scattered the Drones. He was holding a light machine gun variant of the XMR platform in his other hand, firing from the hip, plasma bolts splashing harmlessly against his immense shield and his armored poncho. The slugs chewed through the enemy and tore them in half at the waist, felling Bugs and trees alike, wood splintering as the giant plants toppled to the ground and shook the earth. He swept his tail, slamming a nearby Drone against a trunk and crushing it, using his shield to squash another.

“Krell’nay, over here!” Ayau shouted. She peeked out from cover for a moment, training her laser rifle on a drone that was rushing her. It crumpled and fell, smoke billowing from between its mouthparts as she toasted its organs.

Reesh turned his long snout towards them, digging his clawed toes into the soil as he charged forwards. Krell were usually docile and slow, they were good-natured and friendly creatures under normal circumstances, they wouldn’t hurt a fly. But woe betide anyone who threatened a Krell’s friends, the giant reptiles would move heaven and earth to ensure their safety.

The Krell came towards them like a freight train made of bony scutes and teeth, using his sheer weight to slam the Bugs against trees and to crush them underfoot. He was moving faster than anyone would have imagined possible after seeing one for the first time. The Krell could call upon their energy stores in dire situations, burning fat like a fuel to send them into an anabolic frenzy.

From behind him, a squad of UNN Marines wearing their trademark black body armor emerged from the gate, taking advantage of the chaos to form a firing line and pushing the enemy back. There were Valbarans with them too, clad in forest camo and wielding XMRs, they must be the ones that had been training with the Colonel.

Reesh cleared a path of destruction between Jaeger’s group and the gate, turning to defend them with his shield as they broke from cover. It was as tall and as wide as the average door, and it was two or three inches thick, the glowing bolts of plasma unable to penetrate it.

Ayau leapt up onto his back when she was close enough, clambering up his poncho and gripping the bony scutes around his neck, firing over his shoulder as he began to lumber forwards. The rest of the group stayed close behind, firing at the occasional Bug that had escaped the Krell’s rampage intact, the insectoids rushing at them from between the trees with their knives drawn.

When they reached the gate to the spaceport, Reesh once again turned to face the Bugs, plugging the breach almost entirely with his bulk as the Marines backed up. They kept their weapons trained on the swarms of Drones, gunning more of them down as they retreated to safety, two of them dragging an injured Marine as the Valbarans covered them.

Jaeger and his companions piled inside, making their way over towards the hangars, there wasn’t a second to waste. It looked as if all of the Marines who had been deployed to the surface of Valbara to help train the locals had holed up here, they had built a kind of makeshift forward operating base out of the nearest hangar.

There were people talking into headsets, others were tending to the wounded, and still more were rushing past with armfuls of magazines to resupply the soldiers who were holding the gate. There were two smoldering drop pods that had landed inside the spaceport, but fortunately, they hadn’t destroyed the runway.

Colonel Roberts came jogging out of the hangar as they approached, Jaeger and Baker saluting him.

“You’re the two Beewolf pilots, right? Good, get your birds into the air, they need you up there.”

“Do you need us to escort your dropships into orbit?” Jaeger asked.

“Negative, our orders are to hold this spaceport and keep it open so that reinforcements can land once the skies are clear.”

“Roger that, Sir,” Baker said. “Keep your men off the runway while the Valbarans taxi, they’ll be following us up.”

“Give ’em hell,” Roberts replied.

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